The Repressed History of the United States

Robert R. Livingston

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La historia reprimida de Estados Unidos (Spanish)


The Repressed History of the United States

Revolution, Egalitarianism and Anti-imperialism

By Jorge Majfud


Taking advantage of another anniversary of the birth of George Washington, president George W. Bush used the occasion to compare the American Revolution of the 18th century with the war in Iraq.  In passing he recalled that the first president, like the latest, had been “George W.”

The technique of associations is proper to advertising.  In accordance with the latter, a fast food chain promotes itself with thin, happy young people or a mouse like Mickey is identified with the police and the legal order, while the only character from this “natural” world that dresses like a worker, the Wolf, is presented as a criminal.  Direct associations are so effective that they even permit the use of the observation of the conical shadow that the Earth projects on the Moon as proof that the Earth is square.  When the defenders of private enterprise mention the great feat of the businessman who managed to complete a space trip in 2004, they exercise the same dialectical acrobatics.  Is this an example in favor of or against private sector efficacy?  Because neither Sputnik nor any of the flights and missions carried out by NASA since 1950 were anything other than achievements of governmental organization.

But let’s get to the main point.

An implicit reading accepts as a fact that the United States is a conservative country, refractory of all popular revolution, an imperial, capitalist monolith, constructed by its successful class – which is to say, by its upper class – from the top down.  Ergo, those engines of material progress must be conserved here and copied over there in other realities, for good or for bad, in order to provoke the same happy effects.  These implicit understandings have been consolidated within the national borders by the omnipresent apparatuses of private diffusion and simultaneously confirmed outside by their very detractors.

Let’s see just how fallacious this is.

If we re-read history, we will find that the American Revolution (financed in part by the other power, France) was an anti-imperialist and egalitarian revolution.  Not only was it a violent revolution against the empire of the other George, the king of England, against this empire’s theft via foreign exchange designed to finance its own wars, but also against the vertical structures of absolutist, aristocratic and estate-based societies of old Europe.  The United States is born on the basis of a radically revolutionary and progressive ideology.  Its first constitution was the political and institutional materialization of an ideology that well into the 20th century was condemned by European conservatives as a popular subversion, responsible for the annihilation of all noble tradition, for the exercise of a social practice that was identified as the “devil’s work”: democracy.  The humanist radicalism of the first drafts of that foundational document (like the proposal to abolish slavery) did not materialize due to the pragmatism that always represents conservatives.  Despite which, nevertheless signified a novel and revolutionary proclamation which many famous Latin Americans, from José Artigas to Simón Bolívar, attempted to copy and adapt, ever frustrated by the feudal culture that surrounded them.

Let’s situate ourselves in the second half of the 18th century: the principles of Enlightenment thought, the new ideas about the rights of the individual and of the nations were as subversive as the most socialist thought could have been under the Military Junta headed by Videla or as the thought of a republican surviving under Franco’s regime.  Paradoxically, while in Latin America anyone with a book by Marx in their home was being kidnapped, tortured and killed, in the universities of the United States Marxism was one of the most commonly used instruments of study and analysis, even by his detractors.  Those colonels and soldiers who justified their crimes by accusing the dead of being Marxist, had never in their lives read a single book by the German philosopher.  We might recall that none other than Octavio Paz, one of the clearest and most conservative Mexican intellectuals, never ceased to recognize the lucidity of that current of thought.  One of my professors, Caudio Williman, a conservative politician from my country was, at the same time, a scholar of Marxism, when this doctrine and its mere mention were prohibited because it represented a threat to Western tradition, never mind that Marxist thought was a large part of that same tradition.  Obviously, all with the consent and complacency of Big Brother.

The Spanish Conquest of the American continent was an undeniably imperialist enterprise, carried out by priests and military men, by the loyal servants of Emperor-King Carlos I.  The first goal of its leaders was the extraction of wealth from the subjugated territories and peoples in order to sustain an aristocratic society and in order to finance its endless imperial wars.  For many of the priests, the goal was the expansion of religion and the ecclesiastical dominance of the Catholic Church.  For the soldiers and adventurers, it was the opportunity to make themselves rich and then return to Europe and buy themselves a title of the nobility that would give them prestige and save them from the curse of labor.  The Spanish conquistadors crossed the territory of what today is the United States and left it behind not only because they did not find mineral wealth there but because the indigenous population was scarce.  It made more sense to occupy Mexico and Perú.

The first Northamerican colonizers were not free of material ambitions nor were they above the despoiling of native peoples, often recurring to the more subtle conquest through land purchase.  Nevertheless, not a minority, they were dispossessed people who fled from the oppressions and absolutisms – religious and of the state – of the societies that resisted change: many migratory movements were motivated by the new dreams of collectivist utopias.  For the majority, to colonize meant to appropriate a small portion of land in order to work it and put down one’s roots there.  From the beginning, this distribution was infinitely more egalitarian than that which was produced in the South.  In Hispanic America, an iron willed economic monopoly was imposed and a stratified and semifeudal society was reproduced, where the boss, the strongman or the landed elite had at their disposal extensions of land as vast as any province in Europe.  Only the southern states of the United States could compare to the social, moral and economic system of Brazil or of the Caribbean, but we know that this system – although not its moral values – was defeated in the War of Secession (1861-1865) by the northern representatives of the century to come.

Within the Latin American fiefdoms the indigenous and African peoples and immigrant workers remained trapped, condemned to exploitation and to working someone else’s land for someone else’s benefit.  Nothing less egalitarian, nothing less revolutionary, nothing less imperialist than this old system which would serve in turn the new empires.  It should not seem strange, therefore, that in Latin American there would persist so many “dangerous subversives” who demanded agrarian reforms (recall the two Mexican revolutions, separated by a century), revolutionary movements of every kind who all called themselves movements of liberation, intellectuals who in their overwhelming majority positioned themselves on the left of the political spectrum because power was rooted in the dominant, conservative classes of a vertical order that favored private interests and defended these with every resource at hand: the Army, the Church, the State, the media of the press, public moral instruction, etc.

One cannot say that the United States emerged as a capitalist country while Latin American suffered the curse of a socialist ideology, or anything of the kind.  No, quite the contrary.  This fact is forgotten due to later history and the interests that dominate economic power in the present.  The rapid development of the United States was not based on economic liberalism nor on capitalist speculation.  It was based on the greater equality of its citizens which was expressed as ideology in the country’s founding and as politics in some of the country’s more democratic institutions, on the law and not on the unpredictable and uncontestable will of the Viceroy, of the Censor, or of the caudillo.  That is to say, democratic egalitarianism made possible and multiplied the development of a nation freed from monopolies and bureaucratic arbitrariness; rebelliously opposed to spoliation by the empire of the moment.  The United States did not become a world power through having been an empire, instead it became an empire through its great initial development.

The result might be paradoxical, but we cannot deny that the initial engine was precisely those values that today are held in contempt or attributed to the failure of other nations: the liberation of the people through an anti-imperialist revolution, the egalitarianism of its ideology, in its practice of workshops, from its foundational economy to the more recent technical revolutions like Microsoft or Hewlett Packard.  All values that are coherent with the humanistic wave initiated centuries before.


Translated by Bruce Campbell


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What Is an Ideolexicon?

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¿Qué es un ideoléxico? (Spanish)

What Is an Ideolexicon?

Jorge Majfud

I have been asked several times to define what I mean by ideolexicon. I have never given the same response, but that is not due to the idea being ambiguous or undefined but quite the contrary.

Although this term is a neologism, I do not believe that at root the idea is original: everything that occurs to us others have already intuited before. It is sufficient to read those ancient Greeks in order to discover there the first indications of Darwin’s theory of evolution (Empedocles), Dalton or Bohr’s atoms (Leucippius or Democritus), Einstein’s mass-energy equivalency (Heraclitus), modern epistemology (idem), Freud’s bicephalic psyche (Plato), Derrida or Lyotard’s poststructuralism (the Sophists), etc.

I suspect that the Italian Antonio Gramsci could have broadened the ideolexicon concept in the 1930s (perhaps he had already done so in his Quaderni del carcere, although I have not been able to find that precise moment among the more than two thousand pages of this disarticulated work). One of Gramsci’s observations with regard to Marxism was the warning of a certain autonomy of the superstructure. That is, if previously it was understood that the infrastructure (the productive, economic order) determined superstructural reality (culture in general), later it was seen that the process could not only be the inverse (Max Weber) but simultaneous or dialectical (Althusser). For me, examples of the first are slavery, modern education, feminism, etc. Humanist ideals that condemned slavery existed centuries before they would be transformed into a social precept. A Marxist explanation is immediate: only when the industry of the developed countries (England and the northern United States) found an economic problem with the slavery system was the new morality (and practice) imposed. The same with universal education: the uniformity of the children’s tunics, the rigorous compliance with schedules do nothing more than to adapt the future worker to the discipline of industry (or the army), the culture of standardization. For which reason today the universities and education in general have begun a reverse process of de-uniformization. Feminist demands are also ancient (and part of humanism), but they do not become a moral exigency until capitalist society and the industrialized communist societies needed new workers and, above all, new female wage workers.

Anyway, we can understand that, although these advances have not been obtained by an ethical conscience but by initial interests of the oppressors (like the universal vote for a people easily manipulable by the caudillo and propaganda), at any rate the road travelled “forward” is not walked backward so easily, even if those interests that made it possible were to change. Power is never absolute; it always must make concessions in order to maintain itself.

In our time, even though the use of brute force like in the times of Attila is not entirely looked down upon, it is no longer possible to lay waste to peoples and oppress other men and women without a legitimation. Much less in a global society that, though still submersed in the traditional networks of information, progressively tends to snatch from sectarian powers the narration of its own history. These legitimations of power may be farcical (they still trust in the fragile memory of obedient nations, or nations terrified by physical and moral violence), but their strength is the power of semantic manipulation to produce a determined reality: when a bomb is dropped from a plane and tens of innocents die, terms are used like “defense,” “liberation,” “collateral effects,” etc. If the same bomb is placed by an individual in a market and it kills the same quantity of innocents, that act is defined as “terrorist,” “barbaric,” “murderous,” etc. From the other side, the ideolexicons will be different: some are imperialists, other rebels or patriots.

In the 19th century, the Argentine D.F. Sarmiento defined José Artigas as “terrorist” (for others he was liberator, rebel), while the general Julio Argentino Roca became a military hero, in multiple bronze statues, because of the ethnic cleansing that his army carried out against the original owners of Patagonia (“There was no battle, it was a parade beneath the Patagonian sun and we achieved 1600 dead and another 10,000 of the rabble. It was the fate of a savage race that was already defeated,” informed the venerated general Roca).

Which is to say, an ideolexicon is a word or a combination of terms (extremist, radical, patriot, normal, democrat, good manners) that has been colonized in its semantics with a politico-ideological purpose. This colonization generally is carried out by a hegemonic culture, but its greatest particularity is rooted in the discursive manipulation of a hegemonic political power that is disputed by resistant ideologies. The qualification of “radical” or “extremist,” by possessing a negative valorization, will be an instrument of struggle: each adversary – the dominant and the marginal – will seek to associate this ideolexicon (whose valorization is not found to be in dispute) with those other ideolexicons whose valorization is unstable, like progressive, feminist, homosexual, liberal, globalization, civilization, etc.

In summary, an ideolexicon is a semantic weapon with a political (or socio-political) usage and at the same time it is the object of dispute of different groups in a society. When one of them is consolidated as a negative or positive value (ex., communism), it comes to be an instrument of colonization of other ideolexicons that are in social and historical dispute.

In its turn, each ideolexicon is composed of a positive semantic field and a negative one whose limits are defined according to the advance and retreat of the social groups in dispute (for example, justice, freedom, equality, etc.). That is, each group will seek to define what is meant and what is not meant by “justice,” “freedom,” at times using classical instruments like deduction and induction, but generally operating a kind of ontological declaration (A is B, B is not C) by way of association or interception of the semantic fields of two or more ideolexicons (racial integration=communism; equality+freedom=justice, etc.). When in the 1950s in the United States racial integration was in dispute, those who opposed this change demonstrated in the streets with placards: “race mixing is communism.” The word “communism” – like “Marxism” in Latin America – had been consolidated in its negative, demonized, values. Its meaning and valorization were not in dispute. When the soldiers of the Latin American oligarchies would murder a priest or a journalist or a unionist, whatever the case they justified themselves by adducing that the victims were Marxists, without having ever read a book by Marx and without having any more idea of what Marxism was than what they had received through strategic daily repetition.

Translated by Bruce Campbell