The decline and fall of the American Empire
By Alan Woods
On Monday July 15, on the BBC Four channel, political columnist Andrew Marr interviewed Gore Vidal, the famous American writer. The interview was quite remarkable for the insights it gave into the present situation of US capitalism.
Marr began with a most interesting question: "Do you think that the USA will end up like the Roman Empire, a victim of imperial over-expansion?" Gore Vidal's reply was quite astonishing in its frankness. Moreover, Vidal is well qualified to provide the answers (or at least some of them). Apart from being America's best-known living writer, he is a most perspicacious political commentator and an outspoken critic of the present system - although he is certainly no Marxist.
In fact, Gore Vidal is a member of one of America's leading families - a patrician in background, upbringing and culture. His father and grandfather held high political office and he is related to Al Gore, the Democratic candidate who in fact won the last presidential elections and was cheated of victory by the manoeuvres of the Bush camp. As Vidal put it: "Bush tricked the electorate. He just used a relative of his who happened to control the state of Florida to fix the votes. Then, when the outcome was questioned, he used the Supreme Court, which gave the election to the loser. This was in complete violation of the American Constitution, which does not give any such rights to the Supreme Court, but then, they pay no attention to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, or anything else. Everything is decided by the one percent of the population who own America."
As we can see from these statements, Gore Vidal is what is known in the USA as a Liberal. But anyone watching this interview could fairly draw the conclusion that he is considerably to the left of even the most left-wing leader of the Social Democracy on this side of the Atlantic. His close personal acquaintance with America's ruling elite and its political Establishment gives him a unique insight into the workings of the system. Moreover, he is one of those extremely rare animals - a bourgeois political commentator whose vision transcends the immediate and has a broad historical view of things.
In Gore's opinion, "the [American] Republic ended in 1950. Since then we have had an imperial system." What are the chief characteristics of this system? First, the USA intervenes in an aggressive way in every part of the world. According to his researches, since 1950, the USA has waged at least 300 wars in different parts of the globe. Yet, although the Constitution stipulates that any war must be approved by Congress, not one of these conflicts has been so approved. In fact, the last time an American president sought and obtained congressional approval for a war was in 1941, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Vidal points out something that has been long known to us, but has never been admitted, namely that President Roosevelt deliberately provoked the Japanese to attack Pearl Harbor. "Roosevelt wanted the USA to enter the war against Hitler, but he knew that 80 percent of Americans were against this. He knew that the only way to change this was by a major shock, and therefore set out to provoke the Japanese - who were the allies of Germany and Italy - to attack the USA. They deliberately cut off Japan's oil supplies, then refused to sell them scrap metal, and so on. So they attacked. The attack on Pearl Harbor was worth more to Roosevelt than several divisions…"
Vidal then explains how President Truman got the USA involved in the Korean War ("which we lost") by presenting it as a "police operation" that did not require the approval of Congress. Instead he referred it to - the United Nations! The US military aggression in Korea took place under the banner of the UN - like many subsequent adventures, up to Kosovo.
A most effective raconteur, Vidal also possesses the necessary sense of humour. In his hands, wit is a deadly weapon, as sharp as a rapier. George W. Bush ("How I love that man!") provides him with an endless source of anecdotes, one of which was new to me and worth repeating. Bush's opinion of the French: "The trouble with those guys is that they just don't have a word for entrepreneur!"
Vidal speaks with a smile, but in the words of my countryman Dylan Thomas, his smile is as sweet as a razor. The form may be amusing, but the content is deadly serious. He points out that the much-vaunted American freedom is largely fictional: three percent of the population is either in gaol or on parole, connected up by electric devices to the prison administration. There is very little real freedom. Freedom of the press? "The press and the media are owned and controlled by 'our corporate masters'. I've never seen the media so tightly controlled as now. They control all the flow of information, so that the great majority of Americans do not know what is going on."
What about living standards in the USA? "Eighty percent of Americans have been falling behind since 1973. That is the date they usually cite for the oil crisis. Nowadays a husband and wife make less money than the husband alone made at that time. On the other hand, some people have become fabulously rich. One percent owns everything - like the CEOs who now seem to be queuing up to go to gaol! Under them there is a further twenty percent who support the Empire. These are the lawyers, the journalists, politicians and bankers and so on. The one percent hires the twenty percent."
Gore Vidal has had recent personal experience of American "press freedom". When after September 11 he wrote an article pointing out that the USA had brought this on itself, building up bin Laden and the Taliban against Russia. The article was not published by any US paper or magazine, including the supposedly "left wing" The Nation, for which Vidal has contributed articles for half a century. "The media never asks why," he says:
"We still have not been told the reason why Japan attacked Pearl Harbor! Roosevelt provoked the attack, but the national mythology requires him to be a Saint, so nothing is said about it. Now we demonise Osama bin Laden, who is not a very nice man and looks the part. We do not really know what degree of involvement he had in the September 11 attacks. Yet George W. Bush immediately says: 'Dead or alive, we're going to get him.' Well, they have not got him. And he is not the reason America is in Afghanistan. In fact, one journalist got into Afghanistan early on, which he was not supposed to do, and asked a US general there where Osama was. The general did not even remember who Osama was. Only when the astonished journalist reminded him, did he recall what the aim of the mission was supposed to be!"
In Vidal's opinion, the USA's intervention is connected with oil interests and the plan to build a pipeline connecting the Caspian Sea to the Indian Ocean. "They want stability in Afghanistan to build the pipeline. The Taliban did not give them stability, so they decided to overthrow them." This explanation of US motives in Afghanistan is rather too simple, but it is certainly true that plans for a pipeline existed (though whether it will ever be built is another matter), and that a US company was involved. There is also no doubt that the USA wants to seize control of the Caspian and Central Asia, and that oil and other business interests are heavily involved in this.
No matter how imperfect or incomplete Gore Vidal's analysis is, it is not really the point. The point that was underlined by Andrew Marr, a respected British political commentator (and certainly no Marxist) is this: How does it happen that America's greatest living writer [Marr's words] did not find it possible to get his opinions printed in the USA? Eventually, he had a collection of articles published in book form in Italy, where it was a best-seller. It was also published in other European countries.
In the end, his book Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, was published in the USA, but then, as he remarked wryly, it got worse. Not a single paper was prepared to review the book. There was no publicity and no advertisements were accepted. As a well-known public figure and broadcaster, he received seven invitations to appear on different television programmes. Five of these were soon cancelled. CNN had invited him to debate his views, but the programme was cancelled half an hour before it was due to commence. The instructions evidently came from the top level in Washington.
"Citizens' rights have been demolished in our country. The Bill of Rights has been either suspended or cut down. Bill Clinton started the process at the time of the Oklahoma bomber. Then they passed the US Patriotism Act, a document of thirty pages that nobody bothered to read. It permits the government to organize surveillance, arrests and deportations. In fact, if you criticise the government you could be arrested for 'giving comfort to the enemy'. And Congress passed this Act and the President signed it immediately! But in practice it did not work. However, we do have thousands of prisoners held in Guantanamo Bay with no right of appeal and no recourse at all."
And what are Gore Vidal's conclusions? "Our liberation from this system will come about as a result of an economic collapse," he asserts. "This is inevitable, on the basis of the colossal debts we have been building up. This must lead to monetary breakdown at some stage. The writing is on the wall."
Most interesting is the little detail that must have come from his family connections. "During the second world war, there were 13 million of us young boys in the armed forces. In 1945, Roosevelt's son said to him: 'You realise that the only trade these kids know is how to kill. If things are like they were after the Civil War or after World War One, when unemployed veterans marched on Washington, it will mean big trouble. If they come home and find there are no jobs, they're going to tear the place to pieces!'" On that basis Roosevelt introduced the reform of the social security system that Gore Vidal (in a slight exaggeration) claims to have transformed the class structure of America.
Despite his flashes of brilliance and insight, Gore Vidal offers no real solution. His only hope is that, as in the Depression of the 1930s, a reforming President like F. D. Roosevelt will introduce something like the New Deal. "If not, we will end up with a dictatorship."
At the end of the day, Gore Vidal has not abandoned the standpoint of the social class from whence he came. At heart, he remains the American patrician, giving Cassandra-like advice to his class on how to save itself from impending disaster. And just as the Trojans paid no attention to Cassandra, whom they believed to be insane, so the American ruling class regard people like Gore Vidal as troublesome eccentrics, to be ignored or subjected to a conspiracy of silence.
The fact is, as Gore Vidal is the first to point out, America is already ruled by a dictatorship - the dictatorship of Money, of the "corporate masters" who take all the real decisions while giving the masses the illusion of democracy. But democracy in America, as in Britain and elsewhere in the West, is only a sham, a hollow shell. It is, as Gore Vidal with his considerable knowledge of history has realised, like the institutions of the Roman Republic in the early days of the Empire, when the emperors kept up the pretence of defending the old regime, while real power was concentrated in the hands of the emperor and the army.
Gore Vidal has the merit that he has understood the hypocrisy that underlies this pretence, and the vicious, exploitative and aggressive character of US imperialism. He has also grasped the fact that this colossus has feet of clay. He appeals to the American ruling class to withdraw from its foreign interventions. He realises that America is in the process of overreaching itself just as the Roman Empire overreached itself.
In effect, his recipe is to put the clock back about 200 years, to return America to its pristine roots of Republicanism. He thus ends up in a posture that is both conservative and utopian. Being an extremely intelligent man, he must know in his heart that there is no question of going back, and that what he is putting forward as a solution is no solution at all. This is the real reason for the layer of irony that lays heavily on his speech. After all, irony stems from the contradiction between what ought to be and what is.
The America of the big banks and monopolies cannot be replaced by the world of the small farmer. Andrew Jackson and Thomas Jefferson are long dead and cannot be revived by daydreaming - even the kind of eloquent daydreaming of a brilliant writer. The only class that can overthrow the "corporate masters" and abolish the dictatorship of big business is the American working class.
Gore Vidal's book, despite the conspiracy of silence of the media, is now a bestseller in the USA, with 150,000 copies sold in a single week on Amazon. This tells us a lot about the changing mood of the people of America. As Gore Vidal says: "There's no need to worry about the American people. The establishment treats them as if they are fools, but they are not fools." Precisely! The American people are not fools. And the decisive majority of the American people is made up of the working class by hand and brain. They will learn from books like the one written by Gore Vidal. They will learn most from the greatest book of all - the book of life itself. Great upheavals are on the order of the day in the United States of America. Once the sleeping giant of American labour begins to move, the whole world will be shaken to its foundations.
June 16, 2002
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