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On Comparing America with the Rest of the World

June 30, 2009


I pretty regularly hear people suggest how great America is compared to other nations. Look at the fights over Gaza, or the fights over Kashmir (or other communal riots in India), or the tribal fighting going on in Africa, or whatever. There’s almost always some violence in the news that Americans can look at and say to themselves, “I live in a great nation—that doesn’t happen here anymore.”

Now, there’s something to be said for this—we don’t have the same sort of outright racist or communalist violence seen in some other nations. Racial conflicts tend to be small here, and rarely do we see communalist riots of the type seen in India, where hundreds or thousands may die. That’s not to say there isn’t communalism or racism in America, but just that it doesn’t produce violence and deaths on the scale seen around the world.

These Americans who flatter themselves ask, “What is it that’s so great about America that that stuff doesn’t happen here?”

My initial response to hearing this sort of thing is the following: that’s kind of like saying that it seems a lot nicer to live in the plantation’s mansion, rather than in the slave quarters.

America doesn’t exist in isolation from other nations. Of course things are nicer in America, but that’s largely because of things like accumulation by dispossession (which I discussed here). We usually notice only one side of the coin—“America is great”—and ignore the other side—“what relations of exploitation and domination have we entered into that allow us to be so wealthy?”

Consider the following pic of the Titanic’s first-class cabin:


Beautiful, right? But you should ask yourself about the flip side: what social relations made this beautiful cabin possible? For instance, why can’t you find pictures of the crew’s cabins? How much were crew members paid? And how much were the workers who built the damn thing in the first place paid?

People in America aren’t rioting because they have their bellies full and cable TV to watch—all thanks to an exploitative economic system that rapes the world to serve their interests.

So, you see a great plantation mansion, I see slave quarters.

plantationslave quarters

You see $1 flip-flops, I see a sweatshop.


You can’t have one without the other.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. John permalink
    June 30, 2009 12:51 pm

    “My initial response to hearing this sort of thing is the following: that’s kind of like saying that it seems a lot nicer to live in the plantation’s mansion, rather than in the slave quarters.”

    Frederick Douglass: “Many [slaves] think their own masters are better than the masters of other slaves…. Indeed, it is not uncommon for slaves even to fall out and quarrel among themselves about the relative goodness of their masters…Colonel Lloyd’s slaves contending that he was the richest, and Mr. Jepson’s slaves that he was the smartest, and most of a man. Colonel Lloyd’s slaves would boast his ability to buy and sell Jacob Jepson. Mr. Jepson’s slaves would boast his ability to whip Colonel Lloyd. These quarrels would almost always end in a fight between the parties, and those that whipped were supposed to have gained the point at issue. They seemed to think that the greatness of their masters was transferable to themselves.”

    Douglass demonstrates the inability of the enslaved to even imagine freedom if he’s never experienced it. The best the slave can do is say “my master is richer/smarter/stronger than your master!” Ideology works the same way on “free” people: “my country is better than your country!” They might even point out, as you say, those full bellies and cable TV as proof.

    But not only does that belief ignore the circumstances that led to and perpetuate that inequality, it also cuts off any possibility that it could be different. “We” become Americans! and “they” become whatever third-world brown people they are, I can’t be bothered to find out, they’re probably terrorists anyway. Like Douglass’s quarreling slaves, the notion that hey, we’re slaves and we want to be free! doesn’t even enter into the picture, because we identify as slaves of a superior master. We don’t have it as bad as slaves of Mr. so-and-so, who whips his slaves and can’t even feed them, and that serves as a testament to the goodness of our own master.

    A critique of the system of slavery doesn’t even enter the picture, just as a critique of the system of capitalism doesn’t enter the picture in the scenario you describe, because we’re so much inside the ideology of capitalism we can’t see out.

  2. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    June 30, 2009 12:58 pm

    Thanks for the comment; it’s more insightful than the original post!

  3. July 1, 2009 8:11 pm

    In Europe all I ever hear about America is negative.

  4. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    July 1, 2009 8:18 pm

    Sophia, that doesn’t surprise me. But, unfortunately, Americans are typically entirely blind to that or entirely dismissive of it. What positive or negative associations do you hang on your concept of “America”?

  5. July 2, 2009 10:42 am

    Positive things about America that I think of (not so much cultural associations), I have found (Southerners of the USA more than Northerners) to be really warm and freindly people, Americans in general are outspoken and honest, they don’t hide behind layers of politeness like the English (well like the English used to…) or the Chinese.

    Negative things, too much emphasis on material wealth, poor quality high quantity education, in fact a general emphasis on the quantitative over the qualitative, materialism, consumerism, rootlesness, idolisation of change and “development”, militarism, obnoxious jingoism, a sense of superiority – not just “our country is best” which you get in most countries but that individual Americans generally think they as individuals know best or better than other people, individualism, “greed is good” ideology…

    LOL… but I have never been to America, this is what I get from TV, Internet etc


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