Endless war . . . endless despair. The USA finally elects a leader who pledges to bring peace, and he morphs before our incredulous eyes into a war president. We’re still killing thousands of people, manipulating other nations, developing new nuclear bombs, forcing our financial will around the world, and jailing dissenters at home.
Fortress America continues to expand globally as prison, sweatshop, and firebase. After all our years as activists trying to change this country, how could it have sunk to this?
To answer this question and avoid self-destructive rage, it might help to review the history of the age we live in. More than revolution or reform, what has shaped our times most strongly is revanchism. Rolling back change and reinstating the old order has been the dominant current.
This began immediately after the Russian Revolution, when the USA, Britain, France, and Japan sent in soldiers to try to reverse it. Although they failed, this marked the beginning of 70 years of military and economic warfare. The capitalist powers were so threatened by communism that they pulled out all the stops to overthrow it, unleashing an offensive of sabotage, espionage, and armed conflict that killed millions in Korea and Vietnam, brought the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation, and eventually brought the Soviet government to its knees. If communism hadn’t been under this relentless attack, it might have developed into a much different system.
The anti-communist campaign helped fuel the second revanchist movement, fascism. In a Germany impoverished by territorial losses and the injustices of the Versailles Treaty, the Nazis portrayed communists and Jews as actively destroying what was left of the country. They used them as scapegoats to mobilize the Germans into a war of reconquest, to restore the Reich.
The cataclysmic results of this for the Jewish people—one out of every three of them in the world murdered—increased Zionist demands for an independent nation. They became determined to retake the territory from which the Romans had expelled their ancestors two thousand years ago. Their historic chronicles and centuries of vowing “Next year in Jerusalem” convinced the Zionists the land actually belonged to them and they had the God-given right to take it back.
Their attempts to do so enraged the current residents, whose ancestors weren’t involved in the expulsion. For centuries Arabs had lived peacefully with Jewish minorities in their midst, but the proclamation of a Jewish state, seizures of land, and the influx of millions of Europeans was to them an invasion. The Arabs saw the creation of Israel as an effort to maintain European-US power in their region after the retreat of colonialism.
Their bitterness over this gave rise to the fourth revanchist movement, Islamic fundamentalism intent on revenging defeats, driving out the infidels, and reestablishing the grandeur of their ancient empire.
The fifth revanchist movement is the right-wing assault on the cultural changes of the 1960s and ’70s. Deeply threatened by the creative chaos that erupted then, conservatives have launched a crusade to stamp it out and restore their version of virtue. From sexuality to religion to politics, liberating trends are being beaten back into conventionality.
It’s become clear that we live in a reactionary era. The conservatives have far more power than the progressives and are determined to use it with as much brutality as necessary to maintain control.
As radicals, we’re defying the zeitgeist. We’re opposing not just the Republicans and the Baptists but the tenor of our times. The tide is against us.
But tides change and zeitgeists change. Taking a further look back in history, we should remember that none of the radicals of the mid-19th century lived to see their ideas put into practice. The reactionaries of their day squashed their efforts, and many of them died thinking they’d failed. But their work caused some cracks in the power structure, and they’re recognized now as revolutionaries. Their writings and actions helped form our efforts, as ours will for the next wave.
So we must persist. Patiently. Perseveringly. After all, Rome wasn’t destroyed in a day.
The truth is that Fortress America has to fall. It’s too destructive of people and the planet and too resistant of reform. It’s willing to change only in ways that shore it up, so before we can build anything truly different, we have to bring it down.
Its rulers portray our alternatives as either them, Arab terrorists, or North Korean commissars, but that’s just a scare tactic. Our choices are far greater, and we can forge a future better than this.
To defend itself, this system wields a revanchist club in its right hand while waving the promise of democracy in its left. Its liberals play on our hopes of seeing a decent society in our lifetime. They claim to be open to substantive change, a mirage always glimmering four years away but never arriving. Their illusion of reform camouflages the fact that working people around the world are under attack and the conditions of their lives will continue to worsen until we all dismantle this colossus.
Given its power and resilience, that’s going to take a long time, a work of generations. We won’t live to see the new era, but historically that’s not important. What matters is widening the cracks, opening up possibilities for change that others can expand. This is our moment, with its own ragged glory. Overthrowing the corporate dominance of the world and its peoples is a task nothing short of heroic. All else is collaboration.
Now onward! Plenty of cracks are already showing on the structural weak spots, and light is gleaming through them from the other side of these dungeon walls. Bring more wedges and hammers, bring levers and pickaxes. We’ll break out!
William T. Hathaway is an adjunct professor of American studies at the University of Oldenburg in Germany. His latest book, RADICAL PEACE: People Refusing War, presents the first-person experiences of war resisters, deserters, and peace activists in the USA, Europe, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Recently released by Trine Day, it’s a journey along diverse paths of nonviolence, the true stories of people working for peace in unconventional ways. Chapters are posted on a page of the publisher’s website.