Long before John Edwards spoke about the two Americas, José Enrique Rodó wrote Ariel, drawing on Shakespeare’s Tempest. The character Ariel represents Latin America; Caliban the Anglo North. Those were the two Americas then. In a sense, it is an anti-American polemic. But it reflects the realities of 100 years ago. Today, looking north, Ariel would see more of himself than he might expect.
This is not a piece about immigration. I am not suggesting, implying, or hinting that the United States’ decline is the result of Latin American immigration. It would be easy to read the above paragraph and come to that conclusion. On the contrary, it is the old ruling class’s own failures that are at the root of this change.
Ariel has been criticized equally as an anti-American polemic and as apologetics for the abject failure of nearly every Latin American state. [cite.] But as one author put it, that complaint amounts to “[accusing a woman of being of bad virtue after being raped.]” In other words, how much of the failure of those states is the United States’ fault? In the year Ariel was written, 1900, it would be fair to attribute American interference to be the predominant cause of the problems in México (stemming affirmatively from the Mexican-American War, Wall Street’s backing of Porfirio Díaz, and negatively from the US’s failure to backup the Monroe Doctrine during the Civil War, thus allowing the French interference—just to name a few). It was too soon to see whether the US would help or hurt Cuba and Puerto Rico (though it was not wrong to assume it wouldn’t). Blaming the perennial strife in Colombia on the theft of Panamá for the canal completely misstates the realities of the sad history of that land.
Though the story in the 20th Century would certainly unfold along the lines suggested by Rodó, with the United States military and CIA acting as the personal brute squad for United Fruit, Anaconda Mining, et al., America’s incipient imperialism had only begun to turn ugly in 1900. The worst deeds would come later in Guatemala, Chile, and Nicaragua (though I cannot name a single country in this hemisphere without a legitimate gripe against us in the 20th century, those countries were not only wronged, we sinned against them.) Yet none of these rampages seemed to poison the soul of the United States—enough attention was never paid.
Given that frame, and given its amazing prescience, one marvels at the profundity of Rodó’s metaphor. But I’m not accessing its deep nook’s and crannies. I’m going to leave it at its basics. Ariel is the Greco-Roman ideal of Latin America, and his foil, Caliban, is the utilitarian and imperialist North American. Rodó exhorts Latin Americans to embrace this humanism and live in a culture that, while democratic, does not ignore the cultural achievements of its best.
But if Ariel looked in the mirror, he would see a culture wracked with inequity predating even the Conquistadores in some places, but no younger than the first sighting of a galleon in others. He would see a racially divided society still struggling to come to grips with its independence from Spain almost 100 years later.
If Ariel looked north, across time from 1900 to 2007, he might think for a moment that he was looking in the mirror. If he could look across time even further to, say, 2025, I’m afraid he might be sure of it.
All of the indictments that could be brought by Latin America for the judgment of the United States’ soul have bounced off it, or been eclipsed by the triumphant light of the victory in World War II, and the subsequent domination of the world both economically and culturally that followed. We do not feel shame for those acts.
But slowly, the light is dimming, and behind the glare a state much in the mold of an oligarchical plantation economy, a “banana republic” is emerging: it’s Ariel’s twin.
II. THE DNA
The early intellectual lights of independent Latin America greatly admired the North American revolution. Both Bolívar and San Martín, though, to varying degrees did not think that their America was ready for the libertarian constitution of North America.
I do not know what the libertadores knew about slavery or genocide in North America, but it wasn’t that North America was “ready” for its constitution—it’s that its rules only applied to whites. It’s quite possible that such a framework could have been applied to various places in Latin America equally as well, if only the Spanish and creole classes were included. We simply had fewer Indians, I guess. In any event, Ariel and Caliban were identical twins from birth who only differed in self image and psychology.
But for reasons that have been discussed across thousands of pages, Latin America suffered through decades of chaos after independence. North America simply deferred its problems for 90 years, resolved them in a bloodbath, and then moved on.
But the contrasts are overstated by everyone. North America still has not remedied its own legacy of slavery and genocide. To be sure, the “included” group included a much broader swath of the population than it did in a typical Latin American strongman state. But that is beginning to change.
It’s beginning to change not because of imperial overstretch, or creeping self-loathing, or regional strife. It’s beginning to change because North America’s failure to create a social democratic state that safeguards the economic well-being of its included group is resulting in a precipitous decline in that included group.
The same players are playing the same part in the North and South as well. Instead of the Catholic Church’s grand estates and reactionary lecturing, we have a fusion of all of the “freedom of religion” groups all pushing a reactionary agenda, using cash instead of land to generate wealth.
The military isn’t rolling tanks through the Mall in Washington, D.C., but it doesn’t have to. It is the agent of reaction equally, if not more, in the US as anywhere in Latin America. To feed its ever increasing hunger for size, the US dedicates the world’s greatest amount of treasure to its military. In Naill Ferguson’s early work, The Cash Nexus, he argues that states have faced the choice of warfare state or welfare state. The US chose the former at the expense of the latter. This mutually exclusive choice alone sets the military as agents of reaction, regardless of any further action it takes.
The laboring class, supposedly more well educated in the US, fits itself neatly into the Orwellian framework. It will not rise. It finds its sustenance in NASCAR and its politics in the propaganda streams of the oligarchy (Fox News etc.).
More to come. . . .
III. Bush As Caudillo.
IV. The Mortal Illness of the Middle Class
A. The Death of the Union
B. The Death of Manufacturing
V. The Complicity of the Intelligentsia
VI. The World-Wide Monroe Doctrine And Imperial Exhaustion.