Americanism: A World Menace

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As part of my research for a book that I hope to publish in late 2020 (its predecessor, All the People, is due for publication on 28 February, 2020), I read Americanism. It was published in England in 1922. I wrote a review on Goodreads and repeat it below. The quotation from the book is shown in italics. One had to remember that this was written a century ago, but, in the age of Trump (and Brexit / Farage) you have to pinch yourself to realise how much pertains to 2019. It is a sombre realisation that, while we may have, the much of the world, benefitted materially in the past century and progress has been made in the areas of human rights, so much of the underlying tensions in society remain as they did when William T Colyer wrote this book:


When William T Colyer wrote Americanism, he was an Englishman in the United States, having emigrated there with his wife, Amy, in 1915. They had fled England a week after they married, wishing to have no place in a land that was willing to go to war to defend the ruling class against similar others (like the Prussians). William and Amy saw England as the old land, ruled by the wealthy few and they saw the United States of America, the land of Independence, of Tom Paine, of the Declaration of Independence, of the Constitution as a free land where they could be free.

William and Amy were, in 1915 when they boarded the Carpathia, socialists. They believed that the land of freedom would welcome them. By the time William wrote Americanism, they had become Communists, joining the newly-formed Communist Party of America in 1919, just two years after the Russian Revolution. They worked with Communists like John Read to expand the following in the country in a era now known as the Progressive Era, when, up to and just beyond WWI, the trend was to human rights over big business and corruption. This all changed when the Soviets took control of Russia and fear took over America. The Red Raids of the Attorney General Charles Palmer in 1919 and 1920, when crowds of American police and federal agents (under the control of the 24 year-old J Edgar Hoover) rounded up alien Communists throughout the USA and sent them into prison, bound for deportation.

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William and Amy were arrested in their home in Wellesley, Massachusetts on the morning of 2nd January, 1920 and detained in Deer Island Prison in that state. They were held separately and amongst the hundreds in over-crowded and infested prison facilities. They were then subject to detailed questioning and sentenced for deportation. A band of human rights lawyers then managers to overturn that ruling but they had always accepted that they were Communists and, in 1922, mere membership of that organisation went against them and they were deported back to England, where William completed the book and had it published.

Americanism is a polemic, aimed at showing how the United States was a profound let-down to William and Amy, where the powerful aims of Paine and those that fashioned the American ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution have been derailed. Perhaps a quote is the best measure of the book’s aims (page 158-59):

“Preceding chapters have given us the picture of a country in which democracy has become a synonym for machine politics; in which liberty, if not dead, is ant any rate hibernating; in which ‘law and order’ walk hand-in-hand with the foulest corruption; in which the working-class is deprived of what are elsewhere regarded as elementary human rights; in which the schools and colleges are definitely given over to the task of preparing the young to accept these conditions without complaint; in which religion avows itself a mere bulwark of invested capital; in which the prevailing ethical standards are dictated by the requirements of salesmanship, and cheap sentimentalism stands cheek by jowl with almost unbelievable grossness; in which the natives supposed themselves a chosen people and reject with contempt whatever of good is brought to their shores by aliens; and in which the capitalist class is now more powerful than anywhere else in the world.”

William proposed that Communism, as he saw the future under Lenin, would conquer such evils. In the same way that he and Amy were naive about the potential in the USA, they shared a naivety about Communism and, when Stalin replaced Lenin after the latter’s death in 1924, they left the Communists Party and rejoined the Labour Party in England. William stood as a candidate in general elections for it and the Independent Labour Party.

The book is well summarised in the quote above, showing a range of examples that enlarge on the proposition: that Americanism is as potentially destructive as Prussianism, the precursor to WWI, had been. It is a powerful proposition and many of the issues that William outlines (shown above) remain to this day. Yet, against those detriments, the America of the 1940’s that, eventually, came to Europe’s aid in WWII against the tyranny of Naziism and the Japanese, the America of human rights that William saw for himself in the 12 lawyers that helped him (for a time) to oppose deportation is not called up in his story. Amy and William had strong beliefs developed over many years that they had hoped to see fulfilled in America. Their dreams were dashed and this book portrays that sense of expectations destroyed.

Yet, its focus on the demons that, one hundred years after the Red Raids of 1919-20, have been rekindled under Donald Trump (the hatred of aliens, corrupt politics, democracy in chains) highlight problems that remain in the wealthiest country on the planet. That this is now amplified by a short-termism and business ethic that refuses to acknowledge the climate destruction that it is engendering, simply amplifies the issues that William T Colyer portrays in Americanism. It is a book that is almost 100 years’ old yet its story is surprisingly current.

Unmasked – Corruption in the West

Unmasked – Corruption in the West

by Laurence Cockcroft and Anne-Christine Wegener

 

Yesterday, 9th December, 2016, was International Anti-Corruption Day and many newspapers and journals used it to publicise the most venally corrupt nations, often those in Africa and the Middle East viz. NY Times.

 

These are developing nations, highlighted by Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, where those affected by corruption are most at risk of its exploitation by their leaders.

 

What Laurence and Anne-Christine have done is to shine a light on the developed West, where corruption remains a standard and where the mechanisms that enable corruption around the world, such as highly proficient banking systems, legal and accounting expertise, sophisticated technologies, exist to maximise the ability of those throughout the world to illegally and immorally syphon billions, possibly trillions, of dollars, pounds and euros away from legitimate ownership.

 

This is an important work that provides the bedrock of understanding for those who are interested in dealing with corruption to dig further into the subject. It highlights the enormous degree of corruption in the Americas and Europe, from political to banking, from sport to business to organised crime in a highly readable way but one that provides important information, not gloss. It also shows the huge challenge where, even in highly developed, wealthy economies, the desire to have more seems undiminished.

 

Laurence was a founder of Transparency International (TI) and Anne-Christine was a deputy director of Transparency International’s worldwide Defence and Security Programme (DSP). I am privileged to be both a Trustee of TI-UK and Chair of DSP, so I know the contribution both have made and also the huge work that still needs to be made.

 

The book is an important balance for the anti-corruption world. Corruption is not just in poor countries and, where grand corruption is concerned, the West is involved with the developed world anyway in financing the corruption and in enabling aspects of it such as money laundering. Together with the corrupt practices that appear to be endemic in the West, such as in lobbying, sport, political favours, business, crime-related, the West has a massive anti-corruption agenda to fulfil and knows it.

 

Three things, amongst many, cry out for action. First, there is the need for politicians and business people at the highest level to be far more active and vocal in this area. This includes their associations, such as Chambers of Commerce in the USA that are actively trying to water down the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act to dumb down the level playing field and make corruption easier. Beyond this, politicians in wealthy countries are too devoted to increasing GDP at any cost and the danger is growing that the ethics of doing business will be adversely affected as a direct consequence of the inequalities caused by the banking crash of 2007/8. Brexit and Trump are such outcomes and, viewed from the anti-corruption side, harrowing in their potential.

 

Second, the resources that are provided to implement and manage the laws that politicians might deliver on are woefully inadequate for the task. If legislatures enact new laws to strengthen anti-corruption norms, it is the execution of the laws that fail so often through inadequate expertise and sheer money provided.

 

Third, it is time for anti-corruption to be seen as a positive economic benefit. Corruption is bad for the wealth of the broad population, assisting only those at the top of the tree. In a world that seeks to reduce inequality and where voters are making their positions clear that they will not tolerate their position for much longer, intelligent politics and business (and development aid) means reducing corruption becomes more important. It is a key method of increasing economic well-being by ensuring that enormous flows of corrupt money stays in countries that require it as well as in the economies where it can be properly used rather than syphoned into a tax haven bank account where it remains as dead money. In an age where the velocity of money is slowing, corruption remains a cause of economic decline.

 

Unmasked comes as at important time, just as the world is turning in on itself. The West should learn the lessons that are described so well in the book and use this difficult period to ensure that the first gear in which it has for so long been engaged is kicked into second and upwards not into reverse.

The Spectre of Americanism

 

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With Donald Trump’s gracious acceptance of the GOP nomination, his speech was centred around the concept of Americanism. This ‘ism’ is nothing new but there is an ideology within the term that is no less concerning than many others of the same nature: a belief that there is one way of life, centred on an extreme form of an American ideal.

 

“Americanism: A World Menace” was the title of a book written in 1922 by a English writer and socialist (at the time, he was a Communist), William Thomas Colyer. He, together with his wife, Amy, had emigrated to the United States in 1915, a month after they were married, sick of the destruction of the First World War fought by elite monarchies and, perhaps naively, optimistic for the future in the new world. This hope was borne on the back of their reading of the American Constitution and the fight for freedom that those like Tom Paine had foreseen. William and Amy believed that the USA was ripe for Communism.

 

Until 1920, they worked for the cause of socialism, witnessing the Russian Revolution, with some equanimity, as a fight for the rights of common people against elite oppression. They saw the same in the capitalism of the USA, punctured by the need to value everything by its price, elitism and the corruption of business and politics. It was not too long before their naivety was shaken as the Palmer (or Red) Raids of 1920 shattered any remaining illusions.

 

In 1920, Charles Palmer, the left-leaning Attorney General, was almost killed by a bomb planted by some Italian anarchists. He secured the services of a young man to lead the fight against these terrorists and to round up all ‘alien communists’ living in the country. The young man, just twenty-four years of age, who we know as J Edgar Hoover, did as required and hundreds of such men and women were deposited in Deer Island Prison within Boston Harbour.

 

After enduring punishing conditions of extreme over-crowding, lack of food and drink, detailed cross-examinations and witnessing the suicides of several prisoners, William and Amy (two of a handful of English-speakers within a predominantly eastern European prisoner intake) were tried and sentenced to deportation. A group of human rights lawyers succeeded in having Judge Anderson reverse their sentence but Hoover was not one for giving up and a retrial succeeded in having them deported back to England in 1922.

 

William was an economist and, by now, a confirmed Communist. His book, Americanism, was published in that year and was a rasping attack on the American way of life as he had experienced it and which he compared to Prussianism, so soon after the First World War. He saw that the world had a decision to make: Americanism or Communism.

 

He saw Americanism as having a range of characteristics but these were simplified as:

 

  1. An overwhelming pride of race, based on the material development of the country achieved largely through the ability and industry of “foreigners”. Known locally as patriotism.
  2. The establishment of dollar-producing or dollar-collecting capacity as the absolute standard of value, covering every form intellectual and spiritual achievement. Known locally as “practical idealism” based on “equality of opportunity”.
  3. Glorification of “democracy” as an abstract idea, divorced from practical control by the rank and file. Known locally as “the union of efficiency and democracy under sane leadership”.
  4. General lawlessness and contempt for orderly procedure. Known locally under a great variety of flowery and meaningless names, of which “upsurging of the great heart of America” may be taken as an example.

 

When “Americanism” was published, Colyer was a Communist and had just suffered deportation. His vituperation should be seen in that light and he was, thankfully, mistaken in that the USA, for the next 94 years, pursued a direction of capitalism that (after the battles for human rights of the 1960’s) skated outside of rank Americanism, with due respect for a type of democracy, for basic human rights. While business and a dollar-focused valuation of everything remains, it is wrapped in a cushion of values that are often qualitatively robust even if the lack of scientific understanding amongst politicians (including a mistrust of climate change theory and evolution) rankles with other western nations.

 

Now, there is an attempt to revoke the balancing act that has been the USA and recoil into Trump’s Americanism. Based on patriotism, it is a businessman’s total and complete devotion to success measured by the dollar, a promise to provide a way out of the insanity of “political correctness”, an underlying refusal to condemn the gun lobby and the variety of vigilante attacks throughout the USA, that is seen as the natural outpouring of pent-up emotion.

 

Colyer’s four axioms, although written by a Communist, just deported, in 1922, are not too far from Trump’s Americanism of 2016.

 

Colyer wrote how, in “1920, the ‘Knights of the Klu Klux Klan’ began to make themselves felt as a power in modern American life. In that year, in pursuance of the purposes of their order “to maintain for ever white supremacy in all things” and “to keep eternally ablaze the sacred fire of a fervent devotion to a pure Americanism”, masked men wearing the dreaded white robe began to hold parades in southern cities, and to kidnap, flog, tar and feather men and women at will.”

 

That was 1920. Almost a century later, amongst the torment of the southern states as black men are arbitrarily killed by police and police are killed in retaliation, as terrorist atrocities are felt from France to America and, by their thousands upon thousands in the Middle East and Africa, as millions feel under-served by remote democratic institutions as shown by Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump, the spectre of Americanism rises again.

 

In 1848, Karl Marx wrote in The Communist Manifesto that the “spectre of communism” was “haunting Europe”. Donald Trump’s speech-writers could just as easily write, that in 2016:

“The spectre of Americanism is haunting the world. All the powers of the free world have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre.”

 

Americanism appears to be a far greater and more immediate danger today than Communism was in 1848 (although Communism’s perseverance and evolution into Stalinism and Maoism led to horrific disasters in the next century). The United States could be entering into a period of Americanism as much of the world reacts to the massive turmoil of banking failures in 2008, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nice, Crimea, Boko Harum, Daesh, and toys with the spirit of Brexit, Le Penn, Haider, and the cry of “everyone for themselves”. Trump’s new doctrines, based on Americanism, calls into question all of society’s safeguards.

 

Colyer’s answer to Americanism was to urge the workers of Great Britain to line up with the workers of the Soviet Union. In 1926, Colyer resigned from Communist Party as Stalin gripped the Soviets ever tighter. The challenge now is to establish a 21st Century response to Americanism (or similar calls to so-called ‘patriotism’) that does not reverse the serious gains made by most in the world since the end of the Second World War, which included the ending of Naziism, Fascism, Stalinism and Maoism (and most other forms of Communism).

An inclusive Democracy needs to be refreshed, not stymied, by a popularism that Americanism extols. It is for all those who have worked for the establishment of human rights and basic qualities of life to double those efforts now before the spectre of Americanism is upon us.