2003 January 06 Monday
The Origin of the Modern Left's Anti-Americanism

Lee Harris, writing an essay entitled "The Intellectual Origins of America-Bashing" in Policy Review, traces the Left's anti-Americanism to Marxist theorist Paul Baran's theory of how the United States caused Third World poverty.

Yet those who still claim to derive their heritage from Marx are mostly unwilling to acknowledge that their political aims are merely utopian, not scientific. How is that possible?

There might be several reasons advanced for this, but certainly one of them is Paul Baran. A Polish born American economist and a Marxist, Baran is the author of The Political Economy of Growth (Monthly Review Press, 1957). In it, for the first time in Marxist literature, Baran propounded a causal connection between the prosperity of the advanced capitalist countries and the impoverishment of the Third World. It was no longer the case, as it was for Marx, that poverty — as well as idiocy — was the natural condition of man living in an agricultural mode of production. Rather, poverty had been introduced into the Third World by the capitalist system. The colonies no longer served the purpose of consuming overstocked inventories, but were now the positive victims of capitalism.

What needs to be stressed here is that, prior to Baran, no Marxist had ever suspected that capitalism was the cause of the poverty of the rest of the world. Not only had Marx and Engels failed to notice this momentous fact, but neither had any of their followers. Yet this omission was certainly not due to Marx’s lack of knowledge about, or interest in, the question of European colonies. In his writing on India, Marx shows himself under no illusions concerning the brutal and mercenary nature of British rule. He is also aware of the “misery and degradation” effected by the impact of British industry’s “devastating effects” on India. Yet all of this is considered by Marx to be a dialectical necessity; that is to say, these effects were the unavoidable precondition of India’s progress and advance — an example of the “creative destruction” that Schumpeter spoke of as the essence of capitalist dynamics. Or, as Marx put it in On Colonialism: “[T]he English bourgeoisie . . . will neither emancipate nor materially mend the social condition of the mass of the [Indian] people . . . but . . . what they will not fail to do is to lay down the material premises for both” the emancipation and the mending of this social condition.

Baran's theory became widely accepted among Marxists in spite of its flimsy construction. There are numerous obvious reasons why it is wrong. The Third World was poor before the United States became a major factor in world trade. Countries which have economically isolated their economies from the world economy (parenthetically, the Arab non-oil producing countries are notable for their high tariffs, low levels of trade, and few are members of the World Trade Organisation) have done very poorly economically. Therefore world trade could not have been a means whereby their wealth was drained from them into the Western countries. Countries that were actively hostile to the US and united in rival blocs did not prosper. When the absence of the proposed mechanism of impoverishment still led to impoverishment was obviously time to look for another cause for economic failure. But even with the real world evidence running against them the true believers in Marxism had such an emotional investment in their ideology that they were not about to give up their faith. Rationalisation became the order of the day.

The Marxist theoretical construction of why companies would need to impoverish their workers is also obviously wrong. If profits were dropping due to excessive amounts of competition then salary decreases would be accompanied by dropping prices. The capitalists and the workers could not simultaneously be economically harmed.

That the argument that America increases third world poverty is used as a justification for Anti-Americanism on the Left can be seen as an accidental result of the Left's desperate need to fix Marxist theory in order to maintain its appeal. As the 20th century progressed so much empirical evidence was building up against Marxism that the Marxists urgently needed to find a way to maintain the viability of their intellectual and political movement. The tragedy is that even though Marxism belongs in the trashbin of history its latter 20th century neo-Marxist formulations are still used to justify anti-Americanism and to explain the failure of many economies and political systems. These formulations are harmful to both the West and to the impoverished of the world. In the era of catastrophic terrorism enabled by the spread of ever more powerful technologies of mass destruction the encouragement of resentments toward more affluent countries helps to put hundreds of millions of people at risk of terrorist attack. At the same time an explanation for political and economic failure that shifts the blame away from local conditions also delays the day when the local causes of economic failure are addressed.

Update: Writing in the Times of London in an essay entitled "The hatred of America is the socialism of fools" Michael Gove examines the harm of leftist anti-Americanism and the use of anti-Americanism as a proxy for anti-capitalism.

The widespread prevalence of anti-Americanism, the cachet accorded to its advocates, the reflexive sniggering triggered by any favourable mention of America’s President, all make opposition to this trend unpopular. But vitally necessary. For Yankee-phobia is, at heart, a dark thing, a prejudice with ugly antecedents which creates unholy alliances. And, like all prejudices, it thrives on myths which will end up only serving evil ends.

It is a myth that America is a trigger-happy cowboy state over-eager to throw its weight around, a myth that America seeks to use its undoubted military power to establish an exploitative empire, and a myth that America thrives by impoverishing and oppressing other nations.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2003 January 06 10:04 AM  Religion Secular Ideologies

vinod said at January 7, 2003 5:02 PM:

a key rhetorical tool I use when talking to these kinds of idiots is to flip the question from "what causes poverty?" into "what causes wealth?". The biases and short sighted thinking come to light when they're forced to not take (Western) wealth for granted.

Bob Hawkins said at January 8, 2003 10:55 AM:

When the Soviet Union existed, the USA was the Main Enemy. For Moscow, and those who followed the Moscow line, anti-Americanism was a given, not a conclusion. To what extent is the theoretical basis (more precisely, the acceptance of such a flimsy basis) for anti-Americanism, a backformation from this given?

Randall Parker said at January 8, 2003 12:30 PM:

Bob, Anti-Americanism has multiple causes. The point is not that this theory created Anti-Americanism. Yes, originally Marxists didn't need this theory in order to shovel out bile toward the US and toward the West in general. However, this theoretical basis has lived on as a mythological belief in leftists long after Marxism has been discredited. It was attractive not only to Marxists but also to those who resent capitalists but who aren't willing to go as far as being Marxists. Don't underestimate the power of a rationalization to outlive the reason it was originally invented. The whole point of the theory was to attract the support of not just Marxists but of anyone who resented capitalism.

The Marxists didn't originally need to use the Third World as an explanation for what is wrong with capitalism. They expected to be able to use the conditions within capitalistic societies to explain that. But as conditions have improved for workers in the capitalist societies the Left have been lucky that there is the poor Third World whose misery can be now blamed on capitalism.

Moon said at March 7, 2003 10:46 AM:

What are the causes of anti americanism?

P. Sanchez said at July 15, 2003 11:22 PM:

Bob Hawkins, there are always two sides of the coin. America's "constructive engagement" for obvious reasons as expansionism and invasion even in contemporary times, likewise capitalizes on the "red threat" or simply put the communist threat when it is no longer existent. but the balance sheet is too dreary with collateral damage, not only for marxists and other groups the call terrorist but even for american citizens too.

Phoebe Zoe Sanchez said at July 15, 2003 11:27 PM:

Bob Hawkins, there are always two sides of the coin. America's "constructive engagement" for obvious reasons as expansionism and invasion even in contemporary times, likewise capitalizes on the "red threat" or simply put the communist threat when it is no longer existent. but the balance sheet is too dreary with collateral damage, not only for marxists and other groups the call terrorist but even for american citizens too.

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