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White Supremacy,
Manifest Destiny,
and Contemporary Militarism
by Steve Martinot

email posted by permission

There are three thematics I would like to outline in the context of the present assault on Iraq, address the cultural foundations of US militarism. First, the structure of this assault has been homologous to the structure of white racialized identity, and repeats the dynamic of white supremacy as a social structure. Second, it forms the latest moment in a sequence of attacks that were designed to transform international relations juridically in a manner that reiterates the structures of racialization. Third, it reveals a peculiar type of impunity that is culturally familiar, not as symptomatic of the arrogation of racialized power, but as a cultural engine that drives that power. In other words, while eocnomic interest may be interwoven in the fabric of power in the US, or in the assault on Iraq, it is not what drives its virulent militarism, nor the everydayness of its hyper-violence.

Three elements have characterized this present assault on Iraq. First, a number of charges were made against Iraq, each of which was proclaimed by attribution to pose a threat to the US, and each of which in sequence was exposed as non-existent (for instance, direct aggressive potential, ties to Al-Qaeda, stockpiling of WMD, violations of Security Council resolutions, the possibility of giving such weapons to terrorists, the need to rescue the Middle East from Hussein's tyranny, etc.). In the final absence of material reasons to aggress, a thesis of pre- emption appeared which essentially rendered Iraq's raw existence an abstract threat requiring national defense by invasion.

Second, national defense implies the necessity for social consensus and solidarity preparatory to meeting that threat, whether real or imaginary. These preparations don't give historical concreteness to the unfounded threat, but they render it socially real, a shift of political focus. And finally, though a broad opposition clamored against the gratuitousness of the proposed aggression, and the emptiness of its rationales, once the assault began, skepticism evaporated, and the national solidarity required for the assault congealed into "support for the troops," demonstrating again that military assault itself succeeds in rendering an imagined threat real.

In effect, the driving force of this war is a paranoia, which paranoia generates the demand for an allegiance to defensive consensus, in turn expressing itself as a support for aggressiveness and violence (actual war) that then rationalizes the demanded consensus and legitimizes the original paranoia as having been real. The violence (war) legitimizes the paranoia, the paranoia legitimizes the demand for allegiance, and the demand for allegiance legitimizes the violence.

This structure is homologous to the structure of white supremacy, and the general structure of racialization in the US. It can be seen as such even in the originary moment of its unfolding, the process of invention of whiteness, race, and white supremacy in the 17th century Virginia colony. In the wake of Bacon's rebellion of 1676, the Colonial Council responded by generating a similar social cycle, since the rebellion had all but put an end to the colony's corporate project. It had brought both African and English bond-laborers together under arms in the same ranks, despite previous elite attempts to separate them. And it should be noted that, at the time, the codification of plantation slavery had not yet occurred, and the number Africans and English bond-laborers in the workforce was fairly even.

The first step was to generate a social paranoia or fear against the African bond-laborers. The colonial council initiated a campaign warning against the threat of "negro rebellion" (as they wrote it in the statutes), recalling the hardships and disruptions that had occurred during Bacon's war, and placing the threat of new disruptions on the Africans shoulders. Rebellion, which the English bond-laborers had so recently embraced, was transformed into a threat faced by all the English together. And augment the point, the council increased the importation of Africans, shifted the workforce toward African labor predominantly, and cranked up the hardships of plantation labor, as if to make rebellion all the more necessary. In other words, it did what it could to give material concreteness to the threat it proclaimed, rather than act to alleviate it in the interests of social stability.

The second step was to codify slavery (1682). When the English had first arrived, they had no juridical concept of slavery, and did not see themselves as white in a racializized sense. It took them a century to evolve both structures. The first codification of slavery concretized a juridical difference between English (whose labor was contractual) and Africans (whose labor was not, having been barred from claims to English law) by legislating permanent bond-labor status. And it generated a statutory basis on which the call for solidarity against the threat of rebellion could be given social reality.

The final step was the organization of the slave patrols. The patrols' job was to guard against runaways, disrupt meetings and gatherings of slaves, and suppress any expressions of autonomy or resistance among them. The patrols were conscripted from English laborers, small farmers, and lower middle class colonist under the direction of the elite; and any derogation of patrol duty was punishable. Their effect was to produce a general aura of violence around this rapidly increasing labor force. The more violent the patrols became, the more the society whose fearful solidarity had spawned them felt at peace, and in social cohesion. What the violence of the patrols produced was a conviction that the threat that they sought to stem had been real and in need of control. And it was out of this sense of social cohesion against a manufactured threat in their own midst that the English began to look at themselves as white, over against this alien force that they had produced as alien through their own violence. Though descriptively black, the Africans became racialized as black (that is, black was shifted from a descriptive to a racializing and categorizing term) as the inverse of the English racializing themselves as white.

This then is the structure of racialization. It is not enough to proclaim a group alien, nor to express a prejudice against it. Whites racialize themselves through a racialization of another group by means of a structure of paranoia, social solidarity, and violence. I am not using the term paranoia in a psychological sense, but rather as a metaphor for a socially self-generated sense of imagined threat under the weight of which a group or culture makes its political decisions and builds its social structures. All efforts, throughout the history of the US, to dismantle this structure of racialization, have been met by the same structure; a renewed paranoia, demands for white solidarity, and violence. After the revolution, when black people petitioned for emancipation and citizenship, they were proclaimed to be a threat to republican institutions who would reduce governance to chaos, and were met with mob attacks, increased plantation terror (all the famous slave rebellions occur after 1800), and disenfranchisement. After the Civil War, emancipation, and Reconstruction, a vast campaign demonizing and criminalizing black men was initiated, behind which a white social compact flourished to keep black people separate and enslaved to debt, whose coalescence as white sociality and cohesion (leaving all the Reconstruction experiments in integrated development behind) was manifest through lynch law, the institution of Jim Crow, and chain gangs. And after the Civil Rights era, reracialization has taken the form of profiling (a form of paranoia), police violence of all forms, and a prison industry that has made the US the world leader in imprisonment, 75% of whom are people of color. In all, the same triad of elements appears: a paranoia, a demand for social solidarity, and a campaign of gratuitous violence (hyper- violence) to express this social solidarity and valorize the original paranoia as real.

The centrality of social paranoia to US society is evident in the manner in which it threads its way through US history, and the ease of its deployment. In the 1830s, a movement arose against an imagined threat of a foreign power that sought to subvert the "American way of life" through an alien ideology, and against which this nation had to defend itself. The foreign power was Austria, and the ideology Catholicism; but the rhetoric and syntax of its expostulations were identical to that of Cold War (against Russia and communism). Where the first led to extensive anti-immigrant riots and pogroms, especially against the Irish, the latter led to wars in Korea and Vietnam, as well as horrendous interventions in Latin America and elsewhere. Jim Crow reflected a paranoia concerning black male depredation and criminality, whose effects were the consolidation of white society through the institutional violence of segregation and the paramilitary violence of public spectacle lynching. The industrial union movement at the turn of the century was met with a Red Scare, and suppressed with a violence unequalled in the history of industrialized nations. The war on drugs has been a paranoid campaign whose secret focus all along was the massive incarceration of people of color. And now, there is a war on terrorism against shadowy organizations reminescent of the Molly Maguires, criminalizing Arab people and Islam (with the proper disclaimers) to wage devastating wars that are indistinguishable from mass murder.

But at the beginning of the 18th century, the social production of whiteness and white supremacy through this triadic structure generated a shift in social identity which served to supplant English identity and allegiance. It laid the basis for a movement toward independence. The stakes were control the vast land mass to be seized from the indigenous, enrichment from the enslavement of kidnapped and displaced African laborers, and the establishment of a new law for itself codifying the ability to do all these things. Coalescing around white racialized identity, this movement for independence produced a state that proclaimed itself the first "white nation" in the world.

And today, it is the project to establish a new law for itself that constitutes a central element in the assault on Iraq. Indeed, the assault on Iraq, because it is in violation of all law (international, treaty and constitutional), and against the system of international multi-lateral regulatory organizations built painstakingly over the last 50 years, expresses nothing but this American desire to constitute a law for itself, and unto itself. And in this, it also reflects the slave codes, which established one law to regulate relations between whites, and another concerning master-slave relations, whose onus was the production of absolute obedience in the slave as a "social principle of moral right" for the tranquillity of white society (we can think of regime change as punishment for recalcitrance under this US law-unto-itself). And we can trace its development in the sequence of assaults in which the US has involved itself over the past 25 years. The list is long, including Grenada (1982), Nicaragua (1984), Panama (1989), Iraq (1991), Somalia (1992), Haiti (1995), Yugoslavia (1999), Afghanistan (2001), and now again Iraq. Each was accompanied by extensive popular nationalist and institutional support, and each was rationalized by a paranoia concerning an aggressiveness on the other's part against which the US had to defend itself (most absurdly in the case of Grenada and Nicaragua).

But let us look at the form these assaults took. In 1989, the US invaded Panama for the ostensive purpose of arresting Panama's sometime president, Manuel Noriega, for drug trafficking in violation of US law. The invasion was in clear violation of the UN and OAS charters, which guarantee the sovereignty of nations. Noriega was returned to the US, tried and jailed. And Panama was left to bury its dead, rebuild the wartorn districts of its capital city, and mourn: 300 killed, 3,000 wounded, men, women, and children, and 18,000 homeless [according to Physicians for Human Rights, Dec. 1990].

The assault not only constituted an international SWAT team operation of mega-proportions, it unilaterally extended the jurisdiction of US law (sovereignty) over another sovereign nation. Panama had its own laws, and no Panamanians had been party to writing US law. What this invasion accomplished was an arbitrary conflation of US law with Panamanian law, a de facto "nationalization" of international and Panamanian law for US purposes, and an allegorical "internationalization" of US law in unilaterally extending US jurisdiction and sovereignty over other sovereign nations. US law and international law were inverted, the former becoming international law in fact if not in legitimacy, and the latter becoming the private domain of the US for governance (regime change) beyond its borders.

This inversion was accentuated two years later in the first assault on Iraq. To drive Iraq out of Kuwait (after having permitted or abetted the reasons Iraq had accounts to settle with Kuwait in the first place), the US transformed an international peacemaking body (the UN) into a war council, and imposed its own autonomous military law upon Iraq in the name of international law (sanctions and no-fly zones). In 1999, it sought to do the same thing in Yugoslavia, but the UN demurred from again becoming a war making body. The US simply substituted NATO for the UN.

Behind the rationalizations, jurisdictions, and juridical argument for these assaults, they took on actual terroristic proportions. Each one amounted to a process of destruction of a civilian social infrastructure. The bomb ordnance dropped on Iraq in 1991 amounted to the conventional equivalent of six Hiroshima- sized bombs; the first targets were electric power stations, desalinization plants, and sewage treatment plants, that is, civilian infrastructure. The assault on Serbia was the last step in a project to pull that federation apart, to rebalkanize it.

The legal arguments use to support these invasions were rearticulations of Reagan's original claim for invading Grenada, namely, that it was properly the US mission to rescue a people held in thrall by thugs. No less a figure than Prof. Anthony D'Amato of Northwestern Univ. Law School argued that "sovereignty," in the case of Panama, was of no legal consequence in the face of the human right of "Panamanian citizens to be free from oppression by a gang of ruling thugs." <<6>> He goes on to say that treaty arguments "are far less important to international law than the actual customary-law-generating behavior of states." Thus, he advocates steps toward a nonstatist conception of international law that dispenses with pretensions to sovereignty. While D'Amato thus certifies an "unwritten" law, a system of "precedents" that were without precedent, he ignores the fact that what would constitute "precedent" outside international agreement can only be the acts of the powerful, of military might pure and simple.

Ironically, the concept of human rights to which D'Amato refers, and whose defense he recommends, invokes a strong sense of democracy. It thus evokes two questions: who judged the Panamanian desire to be relieved of Noriega, the Panamanians by vote, or Washington through distant decision? and why or how are Panamanians held accountable under laws made elsewhere, in the enactment of which they played no role, nor had any democratic input? No treaty exists that extends US law to other sovereign nations. Both D'Amato and US policy ignored the fact that Panama had its own laws which had been written by Panamanians for Panamanian benefit and jurisprudence. For the US government and public, however, the alleged lawfulness of bringing a drug trafficker to justice overshadowed the absence of legality in doing so. Of the essence was the demand by the US of obedience to its dictates at the international level (ironically reflecting the obedience proclaimed a moral good by the earlier slave codes).

And this is important, since it hides an inversion of criminality. Each assault began as a media criminalization of a national leader, a campaign to ostensibly bring him to justice, albeit under a usurped international law. Yet it was an arbitrary criminalization because comparable situations occurring elsewhere were forcefully ignored by US policy. Because it is arbitrary, social justice becomes secondary to official governmental policy, meaning that real "criminality" is not the focus of the intervention; it is only a rhetorical cover. In other words, the need to "stop" a specific "criminal" leader only insulates the assault from appearing, itself, as criminality. In effect, to proclaim a target nation inherently criminal (to criminalize a nation through its leader and its leader through a pseudo- racialization of that nation) has the effect of decriminalizing in advance the violence used against it. This is the political expression of the legitimation of violence generated the very paranoia it valorizes.

Ultimately, the target of the assaults on Serbia and Iraq was the territory the US claimed to rescue; both Kuwait and Kosovo are now regions subsidiary to the US military, as if the criminalized figures of Hussein and Milosevich were merely TV "logos" for that project. In effect, the inversion of national and international law, that is, the presumption to internationalize US national law through a nationalization of international law, has not only become standard procedure, it has become a land-clearing operation bent on dispersing local infrastructures.

The irony is that such procedures, all promoted in the name of democracy (clearly a messianic democracy), make real democracy impossible. Under its nationalization of international law, US policy jettisons any pretense to respecting the sovereignty of nations. Sovereignty has become a tabled issue, for which impunity has been substituted as the unacknowledged center of the attack-sequence. Yet sovereignty is the necessary precondition for democracy; if democracy signifies a people's ability to determine their own destiny, they have to be sovereign in that destiny first in order to determine it. "Bringing" democracy to another land is a priori oxymoronic, a self-subverting process because it constitutes, as an intervention, a violation of sovereignty. But it is of a piece with that strange, upside down notion that humanitarianism and human rights can be promulgated through military aggression and violence. Both partake in the same cultural logic.

And it is perhaps this cultural logic (a "logic" that, for each attack in the sequence, was self-contradictory) that explains why all the assaults in the attack sequence received great popular support in the US, why the violence, death, destruction, massive refugee situations, and the ravaging of civilian social space could be understood as a project for social justice and democracy. In the face of their overt and known destructiveness, these attacks remained culturally acceptible and even desirable to most citizens, suggesting that a more profound ethic than the principles of democracy or respect for national sovereignty is at work. But this brings us to the necessity to look further into that cultural logic, as it has expressed itself in US history.

We can begin to discern the antecedents of the internationalization of paranoia and hyper-violence that characterizes the attack sequence in the pursuance of Manifest Destiny. The ideology of Manifest Destiny brought together two threads of nationalism, and embedded them in the cyclic structure of white racialized identity. The first, the desire to separate from England, has been mentioned; it emerged from a substitution of a culture of whiteness for English origins. The second, overlaid upon this in the 1820s and 1830s, was a defense of slavery generated in response to European criticism of its hypocritical continuance in the shadow of the independence declaration's proclamation of equality.

The defense of slavery took two forms, first that slavery was for the African-American's own good, since if they were given their freedom, there would be chaos in society, and mob action against them. For the control of black people, and the control of white antipathy (with no mention of law, democracy, or justice beyond this abrogation of responsibility), therefore, slavery was the optimum solution. In other words, paranoia, white solidarity, and an acceptance of violence were its fundamental presuppositions. The other defense claimed that slavery was an essential foundation of freedom. To be free, one must dominate someone; in dominating absolutely, the US was the freest of nations. In addition, slavery carried the principle of property right to its ultimate conclusion, and property was the foundation of freedom. In short, slavery was what made the US great.

But in these terms, the project to intervene in Mexico in 1846 and annex the southwestern territories presented a dilemma. Annexation would mean accepting the inhabitants of that territory as citizens, though they had been racialized already as inferior. And direct colonization, it was feared, would corrupt the nation's republican institutions through the exigencies of administration. White society was caught between corrupting its racial purity or corrupting its political structure -- reflections of paranoia and violence respectively. Thus, the concern was not with a messianism toward others, but rather a sense that the territory itself were corrupt and would exact a toll for taking it as a resource. The solution was a renarrativization of the problem through a conflation of prior nationalisms. The purpose of bringing democracy and freedom to the land was seen not as a civilizing mission toward its present inhabitants, but a settlement of open land devoid of prior societies by white people who would implant white civilization on the land through their own persons. In pretending the land was empty, annexation brought territory but not people into the US. If those already living there were enslaved or segregated, it would only testify to the righteousness of the US cause. Thus, the principle of democracy was inverted from popular participation to exclusion from political process in the name of anglo-saxon governance and the white republic.

The concept of Manifest Destiny thus must be understood as the explicit Anglo-saxon "mission" to implant white society in new territory rather than impart "civilization" or democracy to those who inhabit it. Its contemporary version is the implanting of corporate domination over all local economies after destroying those economies through modes of debt servitude called "Structural Adjustment Programs." The destruction of local economies, along with the traditional societies they support, produces starvation, destitution, and a clearing the land of prior social structures. This was the goal of privatization in Russia after the demise of Soviet power, of the bombing of Serbia, and of the extended sanctions against Iraq.

Manifest Destiny, as the archetype of US interventionism, provides the template that the attack sequence then iterated with varying content -- a conflation of land seizure as a depopulated source of wealth (the first nationalism) with the reduction of those somehow living there to racialized nonentity and servitude status (the second), in order to refashion that land and its settlement by corporate investment after the Anglo-saxon's own image. In the attack sequence, the imposition of US law disguised as international law, cancelling native pretensions to a local infrastructure and political organization, whether through invasion, bombing, or economic sanctions, creates a social emptiness that opens to just such anglo-saxon corporate settlement, sometimes in the name of democracy and freedom, sometimes in that of a free market and property rights, but always through the importation of these structures from white Euro-America.

And here, in all its nakedness, we see what makes each new act of intervention extending the attack sequence familiar to the white American consciousness, and elicits its support. The identification of a threat, its rhetorical expulsion from the realm of civilization, the demand for allegiance to consensus against it, and the enactment of hyper-violence to prove the honor of civilized intent and to valorize the paranoia as reality, is the structure common to all its moments. Aggression against a nation in which a civilian population is dissolved, which renders them an enemy as symbolized by a leader, and which must be cleared from the land, gets inverted into a project of imparting a humanitarian condition (that of interventionist occupation). Yet it is humanitarian only for the US occupiers and their corporate infrastructure. One cannot foster the human rights of people by killing and terrorizing them.

If this represents a messianism of democracy, it is a white messianism, revealing in its unfolding the structure of white supremacy, where whiteness remains the sign of dominion over others. And if its project to impose its freedom on others consists of dismantling the other's autonomy and economic organization in the name of combatting a threat, then it is an exterminist messianism. In sum, interventionism claims to defend sovereignty because it violates it; it claims to establish freedom because it dominates; and it claims to build democracy because it obviates it through imposing external structure.


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