April 29, 2003
What does America stand for? America is everywhere: in supermarkets, on television channels, in universities and in our consciousness. And at a time when we are witnessing yet another war and its aftermath — this time because of America’s “moral urge” to “liberate” Iraq from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein — this question acquires added relevance. Possibly the prospect of a better world depends on the way we make sense of America, and respond to it.
Yes, America, its admirers insist, means freedom; it releases the individual from all sorts of constraints, sharpens human agency and constructs an optimistic/future-oriented civilisation. America symbolises the wonder of technological power. Technology enters every sphere of life, and everyday living becomes smooth, comfortable and efficient. America is also about wealth, prosperity and abundance. It frees the individual from the “guilt” implicit in old-fashioned notions of austerity. No wonder, America leads the “first world”. Compare this “dream land” with the pathos rooted in Kolkata’s over-crowded streets, or the suffering in Mumbai’s slums. America, therefore, attracts, and NRIs settled in America become new brahmins!
The self-perception of America is that it is the embodiment of libertarian humanism. Yet, America, as recent history has repeatedly demonstrated, is terribly violent. Here is a narcissistic nation which — with its techno-military power — cultivates the urge to conquer. No wonder America, for its victims, means invasion. Its terrible desire for material abundance has to be fulfilled. Its supremacy must be established, alternative sources of power crushed, and it must assume the role of the only moral guardian for the rest of the world. The violence it perpetuates to retain its hegemony has to be legitimated in the name of grand ideals: fight against terrorism, or freedom for Iraqi people!
This narcissism of America does cause widespread hatred. Hatred emanates from envy, helplessness, despair and, of course, humiliation. As the phenomenon called 9/11 suggests, America stimulates terrorism. In fact, America is not just a victim of terrorism, it is also its root cause.
This paradoxical character of America is the paradox of capitalism itself. While capitalism began with a grand promise of libertarian democracy and material prosperity, it was also a violent project. Because of its Baconian-Cartesian temper, its profit-motive and expansionist character were invariably against any ideal of harmony, symmetry and reciprocity. Capitalism did not end primitive/medieval/feudal violence; it just altered its character; violence became more impersonal, more calculated and more technologically sophisticated. What we are witnessing in Iraq is not something accidental; it is rooted in the phenomenon called America itself.
But it is difficult to resist the seduction called America. Because it has entered our minds and bodies. America is, after all, a “dream land” filled with the promise of unbounded prosperity, professional excellence and technological efficiency. President Bush knows this; he knows people like us, no matter what we say against America, cannot escape it. Intellectuals are eager to salvage themselves in its universities; liberals/leftists would not mind taking up heavily funded Ford Foundation projects, and ordinary mortals from Patiala and Ludhiana would like to drive taxis on the streets of New York. In other words, it seems that we cannot live without America. Americans know that their ultimate strength lies in our weakness.
Yet, if we dare to look at history we could see that there were alternative civilisational ideals. Great minds were not necessarily happy with what America symbolises today. Marx saw beyond capitalism, and gave us an alternative ideal to strive for. Gandhi sought to decolonise our consciousness, and create a harmonic mode of living as against the Americanised form of consumption and accumulation. But then, in the era of global capitalism all alternative projects are repressed. Can we revive these memories, acquire the politico-ethical courage to say “no” to America, engage in an act of non-cooperation, and remind the superpower that its techno-military might becomes meaningless the moment we get awakened?
Are you and I willing to entertain such an idea while watching prime-time war on CNN?
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