“Build Back Better”: The Battle for America's Soul Continues
The Superpower Wrestles with Itself over Its Global Supremacy
I. A fundamental revision within the country to restore what America takes for granted: unchallengeable, global superiority
Bernie & Co. would not have believed the dusty establishment could have so much courage for making changes. But no sooner has Joe Biden taken office than he announces a reconstruction and modernization agenda that starts with two trillion for an ‘American Rescue Plan’ to cope with the Corona pandemic. He calls his agenda ‘Build back better’ so that no one can miss that he is concerned with far more than coping with a pandemic state of emergency. This emergency shines a harsh light on the deficiencies in America’s normal conditions, which a decent president finally can no longer accept. So his reformist ambition cannot be big enough: “The biggest risk is not going too big … it's if we go too small” (Biden, Feb. 5, 2021). The rescue plan is therefore followed by an ‘American Jobs Plan,’ involving another two trillion for repairing and modernizing America's aging and decaying infrastructure, for a digital offensive, and for a ‘green’ change in the nation’s energy production. Another nearly two trillion for an ‘American Families Plan’ to upgrade the so-called ‘human infrastructure,’ i.e., for a huge expansion of the notoriously freedom-observing, thus notoriously scanty American social welfare state definitely makes it hard for observers to find suitable historical points of comparison. One would have to go back to Johnson’s ‘Great Society,’ possibly Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal.’
In the meantime — as of mid-November — the large legislative package has shrunk enormously. The tough wrangling with an intransigent Republican opposition that considers Biden's energy and welfare reform plans — especially the planned tax increases — to be un-American devil’s work, as well as with some stubborn Democratic ‘centrists’ for whom the reform program is a few sizes too big, has left its mark. The ‘progressive’ wing of the Democrats, initially so pleasantly surprised by the big plan, is now no longer able to recognize its hand in it. Even professional punditry with its democratic judgments has its doubts. When the struggle drags on for so long and the whole thing is repeatedly on the brink of collapse; when ever larger parts of the plan crumble away and Biden cannot even gather enough votes in his own party, let alone in the Republican opposition; then the democratically most important question becomes ever more urgent: Can Biden do it at all? Has he mastered the art of power struggle that is the essence of governing in a democracy? Despite all the preliminary indecision, there is nevertheless agreement: the great reform agenda remains historic even in its shrunken form.
And that it is, since for all the individual deletions, the main thrust has not changed. The long-serving conciliator has after all undertaken an explicit revision of the traditional, typically American relation between the state and its competing citizens. The motto “the best government is that which governs least!” is to be taken out of circulation once and for all — however much of it ultimately survives the mills of legislation and party politics. The notion that abstinence, of all things, is the prevailing ethos of the use of political power is, in any case, one of the better jokes of the operation of American government. Historians assure us that even the most neoliberal depths of the Reagan era saw vigorous government, growth of state tasks and expenditures, and thicker law books. Even in America, no politician has ever promoted himself as one who simply let things take their course; even the freedom-loving American people, as those who professionally determine their will assure us, want to see their authorities act. That the old adage does not demand and justify governmental restraint at all, but rather decisive action for the freedom of business, i.e., the consistent use of state power against all social and environmental objections, has always been made clear in practice and ultimately always understood. Biden now counters this favorite lie of the art of American governance with another one, which though clearly a minority belief in America, certainly exists: that of the caring state. Although state action first and foremost speaks to the destruction of people and nature that an exemplary freedom-based capitalism brings about, it is precisely for this reason that it is supposed to prove the goodness of the state that looks after them. It is precisely in this sense that Biden and his team can no longer doubt the necessity and usefulness of a spirited intervention of state power in economic competition — far beyond the state of emergency of the Corona crisis, in fact as a new American normality. They have apparently drawn interesting conclusions from the experience of recent years.
Actually, they always draw the same one. They detect a dangerous weakness in the devastation that climate change has wrought for several years in the form of numerous natural disasters scattered across the country. It is the same weakness they see in the pandemic-induced disruption of important supply chains — semiconductors and such — and in the poverty and discontent of the American working class. The latter, according to official government information, though not starting with the pandemic, have finally reached the stage of offering a very prominent example of the same, general national problem: America is not in control of its own living conditions. And the remedy for this weakness — safeguarding the climatic, energy, technological, and human essentials of the nation’s capitalism — cannot be left to the ingenuity and enterprising spirit of its capitalists. Conversely, in order to turn dangers into opportunities to fully exercise said entrepreneurial virtues and to invest quite a bit of capital for the benefit of America, the state must decide to change course. This includes, first, a commitment to industrial policy. In order for American capital to succeed in the right places and unfold its blessings, the state itself must develop the relevant industries and protect this capital from foreign competitors. This is all the more necessary because other nations, in particular the great Chinese rival, have long been successfully doing the same thing, albeit by unfair means, but with results that have gained the USA’s respect and a certain willingness to learn. Secondly, this includes a change in social policy — starting from the admission that even the famous ‘hard-working Americans’ are powerless to work their way out of their predicaments on their own, despite all their typical American calculated optimism. They cannot provide for their own reproduction and that of their families by their own efforts, which also makes their contribution to America's success precarious — both as workers and as buying power in the service of American businessmen. So it is no longer possible to ignore the danger that the dissatisfaction of these citizens poses for the functionality of American democracy. After all, they twice got out to vote in alarming numbers for a “populist,” “antiestablishment,” “antidemocratic tyrant,” while others took to the streets in large numbers and very aggressively against the authority of a state power that is perceived as systemically racist. Both reduce the new administration to the one common denominator, to a feeling of total disregard by the American state. The answer the administration gives to this is quite un-American — the Republican opposition is not so wrong about this. The social hardships that traditionally rank as perils of the freedom-filled American pursuit of happiness, perils that the freely competing individual and his family have to sort out entirely for themselves as their own test of character, it now defines as a test for the democratic state. The state must show that it can ‘deliver’ for its citizens when and because they so urgently need it.
From the outset, Biden attaches great importance to the fact that the proof owed by American state to its own people is at the same time of global significance. To this end, he makes use of the phony image of a new competition of systems for the favor of the world’s citizens, with the democracies led by America on one side and the representatives of — populist or state capitalist — authoritarianism on the other. Biden kindly says right away what the image stands for in practice: the test is considered to have been passed and the system competition to have been won when America has demonstrated its supremacy as a world power, especially vis-à-vis its Chinese rival. This test — according to his repeated appeal to his Republican critics and the waverers in his own ranks — cannot leave any social Darwinist hero of competition or fiscal conservative fanatic of freedom cold. This global superiority is what Biden wants to see ‘built back better’ from within and from the state, when he lays into the inner workings of the nation with a great desire for change:
“But we’ve risked losing our edge as a nation. …These are not about left versus right, or moderate versus progressive, or anything else that pits Americans against one another. This is about competitiveness versus complacency. ‥ It’s about leading the world …”(Biden, October 28, 2021)
No matter how vehemently Biden would like to distance himself from Trump and blame him for a good part of the nation’s economic, political, and moral crisis, it is nevertheless impossible to overlook where he agrees with his hated predecessor, at least in this matter. There is no mistaking his wanting his program of internal regeneration and national reconciliation to be understood as the decisive means of securing and finally restoring America’s global supremacy: ‘America first!’ definitely does not display any special malice on the part of Trump. In the elementary sense that Americans are self-evidently unchallengeable victors in all decisive matters, this is apparently the prevailing national consensus — the most apt expression of what it means to be American at all. Biden’s great imperialist ‘self-care’ agenda betrays the same unshakable confidence in his nation’s ability and desire to win that Trump celebrated in each of his acclaimed, or ridiculed, appearances. And if, as Biden says, preserving this supremacy requires a sweeping domestic overhaul, hardly less subversive by American standards than Trump’s various taboo-breaking acts, then Biden shares the judgment that the view from the Oval Office has been imposing on its occupants for some time: American greatness is no longer self-evident and beyond all need for proof. America can and must restore it, because — according to the self-assured but problem-aware diagnosis — America itself has let it slip out of its hands.
II. The economic foundations of American world power
At least this much is true about the diagnosis: the unique greatness that America has for so long and so firmly become accustomed to, celebrating it as its quasi-natural right, even as its national identity, has indeed been lost to it.
Not in the sense that Americans’competitive ability is gone. On the contrary.
1. Superior competitiveness and a currency that reigns supreme
The notorious ‘rust belt’ is lamented as evidence of industrial decline, by campaigning US presidents as well. But even in this gloomy picture, what shines above all is the enormous capital productivity with which enterprising American industrialists have made whole swaths of land and parts of the population superfluous just to give their still existing and newly formed workforces all the more ample opportunity to showcase their hard-working national character. And this they do today as they have always proudly done it, in the dependent service of companies in all key industries — from automobile production to the global player in aerospace, up to the heavyweights of the American armaments industry. There, American workers may do even more than help their capitalist employers achieve a collective leading position. They also do great things for the nation’s military competitiveness, for its unsurpassed leadership over the entire spectrum of military conflict, up to and including the waging of a nuclear world war.
Today, American capitalists are demonstrating their extraordinary business acumen above all in an industry in which the monopolistic ideal of each and every capitalist competitor is equal to the entire ‘digital’ business concept. Whatever need their particular ‘services’ are meant for at the outset, they all revolve around one thing, namely, ‘networking.’ Its content is no secret to anyone, least of all to customers and competitors from all sectors: it is about controlling entire ‘value chains,’ ideally global business life in toto. What is certain is that the US tech giants, who like to be thought of in the alphabet soup GAFAM[*] as a collective, are involved in every phase of the circuit of global capital and at every intermediate juncture with their respective digital offerings; and that they have thereby achieved an impressive power to determine the global business process at quite a few places and are far from being finished with that, so that concerned journalists like to furnish their relevant reporting with the title, “The new rulers of the world?” This is a question that very practically concerns the traditional state rulers of the world.
Definitely not a mere concern, but an established fact, is the continuing dominance of American businessmen who trade in the exquisite commodity of credit, whose allocation generally decides on existence or nonexistence, on the ability of capitalists in all sectors to function, and on the financial potency of states. The global trade in money capital, as is well known, still has its most prominent address on the American East Coast. Businessmen and states all over the world depend on the monetary trust of the risk-averse and security-mindful players based there. Which brings one closer to the core of American economic superiority.
This lies less in the deeds of American capitalists than in their means of doing business: in the money that is not merely the currency of their nation, but the dollar itself. It is the world’s preferred means of payment for cross-border transactions of all kinds; it is used to grant loans, incur debts, make investments, and create means of investment all over the world; it is used by companies in all sectors and in all regions to assess their wealth. Nations stock their reserves with dollar-denominated debts, especially with those of the American state, thus vouching with dollar-denominated capital for the money quality of their own currencies. With this, the businessmen and state powers of the world, even where no American enterprise has its hands in, render an enormous service to American might. For with the dollar being universally utilized as the decisive material for accumulating global capitalist wealth, as the economic substance around which global doings and dealings generally revolve, America gets permanent and widespread confirmation that what its central bank creates in promises to pay is definitively world money — absolutely valid, direct expression of the monetary wealth that the world competes for. With this, America’s economic and political competitors provide this nation with an incomparable means for its competitiveness as a state power: an unassailable creditworthiness; with this, the financial freedom to afford everything that this world power in its uniqueness deems necessary, i.e., a civil means of power of impressive force. How powerful is evidenced by worldwide complaints about the ‘exorbitant privilege’ of the dollar issuer, about the notorious viewpoint summed up in ‘our currency, but your problem’[**] and the unavoidable effects of American financial sanctions up to the evil phrase ‘dollar imperialism.’
2. Not having to compete as world power — the iron principle on which America erected a free, global competitive order.
Nevertheless, when Biden and Trump before him place the recovery of American supremacy on the agenda, they invoke with their respective election slogans — ‘America first!’ and ‘Build Back Better’ — a greatness that has always consisted in much more than the extraordinary competitive ability of the USA. When they — as, in general, all those who exercise some political responsibility in it — call their nation the ‘exceptional nation’ and act accordingly, they make it clear that Americans see their greatness in their not having to compete. And as a basis for this famously exaggerated self-image, they can exhibit the actually unique, imperialist feat of their state, to have created and dominated a system of competition — first a half, then a whole world order, in which America has used its money and its power to set the standards for what it means in the modern world to be a successful capitalist competitor and a successful state power.
What the USA insisted on from the very beginning, even before the end of the Second World War, was that there can be a ‘world order’ only in the singular. If the world of states is not under the patronage of one unchallenged world power, then there is no order in it; and without order there is also no freedom. For the defeated wartime enemies and the ruined Allies this meant that they had to disband their partitioning of the world, their respective colonial empires, and to seek their fortune in the competition for the one world market ordered solely by the USA; in which their former colonies also had to be allowed to participate as independent sovereigns with equal rights. As for the other, Soviet, wartime ally, the sheer existence of a state, a bloc of states to boot, which did not recognize this order as its own and asserted its own socialist order as an alternative system, was not only an annoying spatial limitation on the American world order, but an intolerable violation of it. The defiant offender thus lost its right to exist. And when it procured the nuclear means to oppose this death sentence, then it was due for ‘containment’ — this was the trivializing expression for a world war front spanning the globe, in which the USA added the capacities to annihilate the world several times over and put its best brains to work on the solution to the question of how a nuclear war, which was technically due but, in view of the threat of mutual annihilation, unfeasible, could nevertheless be made feasible and winnable, a freely calculable war option. And on numerous desolate secondary fronts the USA demonstrated, with a few self-waged and many ‘proxy’ wars around the world and not least in the ex-colonies, that the freedom of the nations consisted in their subsumption without any alternative under US imperialism and its main front. With the greatest war alliance of all times, the USA engaged precisely the most capable and ambitious capitalist state powers of Europe in the aforesaid world war constellation, which left them only one alternative: to place themselves under the protective umbrella of the leading power of the USA and to line up behind it. The enmity they made their own toward the Soviet Union thus coincided with their subordination to the American leading power; both became the premise of their reason of state, the fundamental constant of all their own calculations and ambitions as sovereign, capitalist states. Calling this wartime alliance a ‘community of values’ was a bit of euphemistic cynicism, but at least it expressed the unconditionality of the American claim to subordination in unmistakable terms.
The USA presented the regime it thereby imposed in the ‘free West’ on its side of the ‘iron curtain’ as the promising offer — quite officially in the NATO treaty — of a rule of law supported by all states and equipped with purely supranational institutions, which the American creator and forceful guarantor of this law also submitted to when it bindingly enforced it. Under this regime, the freedom of competition applied equally to all states; all had to open their land and people to access by foreign — naturally primarily American — capital and expose their societies to cross-border competition for profit. For most countries, participation in free competition consisted only of performing subaltern services to the dollar wealth that grew in the hands of foreign capitalists and increased the power of other states. For the American homeland of the most productive capitalist competitors, this liberal and egalitarian set-up amounted in principle and for a long time to a guarantee of success in utilizing the world for its own capitalist accumulation. For the European countries ruined by the world war, hopelessly indebted to the victorious American power but nevertheless capitalistically ambitious, this meant that in order to realize this promising perspective of their own successful capitalism, they depended without alternative on the money of the USA — more precisely, on American capital and dollar-denominated credit. Though they had their own currencies and their own monetary sovereignty, the economic substance of their money consisted in dollar-denominated credit, which came in abundance to turn their countries into areas for applying American capital and outposts of American military might. Only as national proxies for the dollar, the only credit money recognized worldwide as embodying capitalist wealth, were their currencies at all money and as such useful for participating in international doings and dealings, that is, convertible. From the beginning, their efforts to increase their own national wealth served the USA, which is how — with its singular power and singular money — it made the global economy a dependency for the utilization of American credit. In this way, the USA made its superiority and, conversely, the service of its credited competitors to this superiority, the factual functional condition for the national egoism of all countries. On this basis and according to the standards that the USA set with its superior capital productivity and that it was already the sole nation to satisfy, it opened up competition and got it going. The credited competitors were supposed to compete peacefully against the USA for the accumulation of monetary wealth in dollar form; they were to use their own competitive successes to give substance to their own currencies, even to aim at having them attain the status of world money; using the proceeds from participating in global capitalism they were to make their masterful way and gain political power themselves to help shape the world. This was the path for success mapped out for them, and it confronted them with a fundamental contradiction, between the necessary ambition of capitalist nations, i.e., a reason of state aimed at successfully acquiring money and power across borders, and the fact that the USA, with its superior weapons, established the forceful guarantee for this success and, with its national credit, the means and the material for it.
3. The competition of nations on the world market — the contradictory but undeniable success story of American imperialism
This construction involved America in a contradiction, too. It faced the competition it had invited and enabled its competitors to participate in, and under the same rules. But America simply did not have to be disturbed about this contradiction because — and as long as — this was precisely the way in which it elevated its interest in utilizing the whole world, its superior competitiveness and the uniqueness of its monetary power in practice, to global validity, to the operating principle of an entire world order.
This is precisely how the USA set up Western Europe to be the alter ego of American capitalism: the first and best investment sphere for American capital outside the homeland, the huge playground for the dollar. And with its own dollar earnings, an aspiring European capitalism attested US debt and US credit money as the globally valid material of capitalist property par excellence. Along with their faithful services as NATO allies, the members of the ever-growing European union proved themselves as quite sturdy and stable mainstays of US economic as well as military power, as the first and most important contributors to the realization of America’s imperialist uniqueness.
In the case of China, the USA succeeded in escorting a giant country with the world’s greatest mass of people out of the Soviet Union’s ‘actually existing’ socialist ‘camp,’ moving it toward a capitalist opening. In the process it was incorporated as a gigantic contribution into global American capitalism, as a huge sphere of expansion for an American capitalism in which far too much wealth had been accumulated for it to be satisfied with the existing possibilities of capitalistically exploiting the homeland and its people. The USA reveled in China: it made a bunch of hard-working Chinese out of the country’s typical poverty and put them to work at a tremendously productive ‘workbench.’ On the basis of the growing wealth that thereby came about in China, too, a nicely dynamic market developed; the dollars that China earned en masse in the course of its export successes moved reliably into American government bonds and attested them en masse. However large the US debt may have been, it was unquestionably capital; America’s national credit money was endlessly sound — evidenced above all by the perpetually lamented US trade deficits with the giant country.
Finally, the USA managed to finish off the great nuclear-armed violation of its claim to a true world order. The masters of the Soviet alternative system had — like it or not — entered into the competition that the USA had opened up for them and had set the relevant standards for: into a race for destructive capacities that ultimately led the Soviets to the admission of the inferiority of their system and a turning point of world history. After all, the USA managed to turn the gigantic outlay of money, resources, and labor for destructive forces fit for world war into a bombshell business, a positive contribution to its national wealth. By contrast, for the Soviet socialists, armaments — already at the level of a world war configuration — remained a heavy burden and at some point became a crushing one. After the ruling comrades then finally came to doubt the suitability of their system and the ‘Eastern Bloc’ dissolved, the ‘One World’ of American-dominated capitalism finally became reality. Then what applied to the rest of the world also applied to the countries of the formerly hostile camp: the wealth of the nation rose and fell to the extent that globally active capital could use them as means of its accumulation. And after it had been thoroughly proved to them in practice how little the socialist productive forces and consumer goods were up to the standards set by the capitalist competitors in the West, they largely joined the great majority of the world of states whose place in the world order had always been to perform more or less useful services for the real actors of the capitalist world order. With the end of hostility to the system, the claim that the USA based its world order on in the first place became real. It was the superpower, the ‘only remaining’ one; its order and its power to establish one finally — for a whole ‘unipolar moment’ — faced no alternative.
III. The contradiction of the American path to success and its outcomes
For what feels like an eternity, American presidents have been complaining about competitors who — for example, with extraordinary export successes — have called into question the customary capitalist superiority of the USA. They have routinely inferred from disadvantages and defeats, which are not supposed to be, violations of the competitive order, which cannot be. Basically, the same logic has applied in all cases in which the USA has encountered political resistance, discovered in it a lack of respect for its right as the global regulatory power, and concluded that ‘rogues’ threaten the world community as a whole. With blackmail and threats of an economic and military nature, with sanctions, military interventions, and also with new deals, the USA has somehow managed to cope with the particular problem cases, sometimes better, sometimes worse, and sometimes not at all to its liking. But the threat that the occupants of the White House have had an eye on when viewing the goings-on of Russia, the EU, and China has a somewhat different quality. In the rise and conduct of these powers, the USA has seen — albeit differently in each case — the loss of its not having to compete, i.e., the loss of the uniqueness of its position in the economic and political competition it founded and ordered. That Biden has struggled with this loss as much as Trump did is understandable. What is definitely unfair is for the two of them to place the blame on their own country, in the political failures of its leadership. The competition they now have to deal with is not due to their own failures, but to the imperialist success of the USA: the advances of its world order.
1. Competitors that have grown up within the American order undermine America’s not having to compete
The downside of the success story already started with the defeated Soviet enemy. The scenario of nuclear war with the Russian heir to the Soviet superpower has not been disposed of. For all the changes on this front, neither the relevant nuclear armaments nor the strategic planning nor the blackmailing influence on the Russian adversary have somehow become invalid. Russia has been demonstrating for several decades that, though by no means equal to the American standards for capitalist competition and world order, the dollars it earns on the world market with its raw materials and its now capitalistically profitable armament industry are definitely sufficient for the expansion of a military power that at sensitive points prevents America from obligating all corners of the earth to perform various desired services for America — even if this merely means not interfering. This in itself is an unbearable outrage for the USA; Russia is definitely too big a power for America’s claim to world order.
And at the same time, in another respect it is too small — namely, for the imperialist collateral benefit that the past world war configuration for so long provided in the West for the USA. The unconditional enmity against the Soviet Union, and thus the existential threat to the members of the wartime alliance, and thus the unavoidable necessity to obey the leading American power, have become passé. And the European partners in particular have left no doubt that their means have long since become too great for them to be satisfied with the role of the largest junior partner of the ‘only remaining superpower.’ They want a ‘multipolar world order,’ which their think tanks now call a ‘great power competition,’ in which the EU absolutely must be among the top three. In this way, the Europeans are proving what quick and eager disciples of American imperialism they are. In every respect, they have adopted American standards for what it means to be a successful world power. It is precisely the leading powers of the European union, all the more as this union, that have developed a capitalism that is successful on all levels. Their economy consists in nothing but competitive industries, whose players have access to the world’s resources and whose products are sold all over the world; they have a financial ‘industry’ that satisfies the credit needs of capital worldwide, earns money from it, on this basis markets financial products worldwide, and buys into the accumulation of capital worldwide; they have established a euro that has become a globally sought-after means of business, not merely a vehicle for earning a dollar-denominated wealth, but the independent embodiment of capitalist wealth par excellence, the starting point and endpoint for global business. Finally, they have disposal over a military power that allows some members in the club to assert themselves as co-determiners of the world order; actually they want to do this to a much greater extent than what in truth they are capable of. The Europeans are far from their project goal of attaining world power — and their complaints about their dependence on the USA are becoming louder as their competitive efforts bear fruit and they outgrow the effective monopoly of American capital and credit on world markets and the global financial market. But what is already certain is that the EU, too, is doing its part to turn the equation between the freedom of capital in the world order established and supervised by America and the absolutely unchallenged unique leadership of the USA into an unequality — turning what is a built-in premise of global competition into an American claim attacked by its competitors, i.e., into a struggle.
The really great ‘system rival,’ China, which stands at the center of Biden’s imperialist danger scenario, is all the more a bright pupil of the USA, albeit on a somewhat different scale than the Europeans. The country measures itself in every respect on the power that has drawn the greatest benefit from its opening and development. China has achieved a status in the American world order that the others continue to struggle for. It has at its disposal enormous national wealth; it has competitive companies in crucial industries that are not mere suppliers for foreign capital accumulation but act as competitors, setting standards themselves, tapping into and dominating its own vast domestic and foreign markets; it has a financial market that increasingly attracts capital from all over the world; it has, finally, a national credit money that is increasingly used internationally. Even though the Communist Party of China certainly accomplished this capitalist rise quite differently than the land of capitalist freedom did, it has in crucial respects grasped and copied the American path to success. A truly successful capitalist power is one that becomes the master of the conditions under which it follows its path to success; and this in turn means that it also specifies this path for other countries as their path to success, and creates the relevant means for this purpose. China is doing this, too, following the American pattern, albeit still lower on the ladder than its teacher; it is increasingly using its enormous dollar earnings as a basis for coming to its partners with its own credit, exploiting their hunger for capital, and classifying them itself as economic and political means. China has also understood the most elementary imperialist tenet: the civilian utilization of foreign countries, the application of one’s own economic levers of blackmail, cannot function reliably, certainly not in the peaceful, constraint-setting way that China has copied from its American model, unless one acts as a military power that can also guarantee these civilian relations. It is precisely because China understands the American world order so successfully, i.e., knows what it means and what it implies to be an imperialist great power of the capitalist type, precisely as this extremely system-conforming, imperialist copyright violator, that China is arming itself, spreading itself out militarily — for the time being in its own vicinity — and thus becoming a second fundamental outrage for the USA.
2. America chalks up the world situation as an assault on its reason of state and its identity — and goes to work on itself
In different ways and to different degrees, then, these products and competing beneficiaries of American imperialist success are making the American world order lose the solidity of a given state of affairs; a situation that America’s claim to universal respect and benefit can refer to when the USA maintains the regime it needs with selective interventions — from punitive tariffs to sanctions and, if necessary, military global policing. These competitors are letting the USA feel the contradiction that its system presents for it: unleashed and utilized by American supremacy, they relativize American uniqueness, thus undermining the entire imperialist path to success of the USA. America is downgraded to a competitor, an extremely strong one to be sure, but still one among others. At the same time, its dominance is relativized to a claim that must first or again be honored. America has to struggle for the preeminence that is no longer built into its competitors’ reason of state. Trump was certainly not the first to realize that America is faced with the necessity of a counteroffensive that cannot be achieved with solo financial and military actions, but he made it the core of his foreign policy, hammering it out as an official imperialist standpoint with all the relevant measures and symbolic gestures. Biden may distinguish himself from his predecessor here when with great fanfare he shouts out ‘America is back!” and offers a friendly renewal of US leadership in all decisive global political affairs. In the main thing, i.e., in the necessity to make America’s imperialist self-image as the ‘exceptional nation’ once again the real principle of the imperialist state of affairs, he completely agrees with Trump.
What else could he do. Anything else is simply out of the question, because America has achieved so much on its unique path to success that a world order that functions for America is the functional condition built into its reason of state. This is not only historically but logically its gain from no less than a hot and a cold nuclear war. What it must restore is — from the American point of view and in the nature of the matter — a claim so far-reaching and at the same time a need so elemental for the superpower that it is worth a correspondingly ruthless course of action. Of course, America’s presidents are aware of the fundamental and forceful nature of this need for correction. And there is no doubt that under Biden, too, the escalation of hostility toward Russia and China is being diligently worked on. And when he proclaims a new ‘system competition’ with ‘authoritarian’ states such as China and Russia, and invokes anew the democratic community of values that the USA has already led to global victory, then he is demanding a renewed alliance loyalty on the part of the Europeans in world war style. But the all-important difference cannot be overlooked: the common enmity, let alone of the same existential kind, is not to be found at all in this alliance. So that even the beguiled Europeans are under no illusions about the renewed friendship that Biden offers with recourse to the former Western brotherhood in arms and the ideals that go along with it. In substance, the offer of American leadership amounts to a demand for allegiance pure and simple, a rejection of the autonomy that Europe insists on as a competing, calculating world power. Though in a conciliatory tone and explicitly distinguishing himself from Trump, yet in remarkable continuity with him, Biden insists on partnership in America’s unrestricted freedom of action. The factual progress compared to “America first!” — the first samples are provided by the way America withdrew from Afghanistan and the submarine deal with Australia — may simply lie in this: whereas Trump also demonstratively treated the European allies, and especially them, as rivals and as derelict servants to whom America offered only to accept their total capitulation and unconditional allegiance, Biden does not even recognize the significance of an opposition to the calculations of the allies, which he thwarts, that could harm their friendship with America in any way, i.e., their allegiance to the USA.
For all the advances and transitions on this front, there is nevertheless a striking contrast between the heart of the Biden administration’s agenda and the diagnosed imperialist crisis of the United States. In the threat increasingly posed by major rivals — especially China — Biden discovers that America has for far too long taken far too little care of itself, needs above all to renew itself within the country to become great again. For Biden, this means that foreign policy, too, must obey the guiding principle of domestic policy, to be “politics for the American middle class,” i.e., for what hard-working Americans and their families need to get by in their everyday life. The diagnosis and the promise have tradition behind them. For a good decade and a half, American presidents have preached the necessity of renewing America, of practicing ‘nation building’ not ‘over there’ but at home. And that includes bringing to the fore the woes of the American working class, and in turn having them symbolize the decline of America’s monopoly on world order. With this now routine practice, US presidents provide evidence that while they have nothing to do with ‘isolationism,’ a withdrawal from imperialist business, they do confront their imperialist rivals self-referentially in a way that might be scorned as arrogance and ignorance if it did not fit so perfectly with the self-assurance of a truly extraordinary world power. America faces the challenge posed by its competitors in the certainty, as wrongheaded as it is unshakable, that America alone decides on its position in the world, and that this nation always wins if it really wants to: what the other competitors have to do and what they can do — to ‘us’ — is ultimately a dependent variable on how Americans face themselves, on their own will and resolve to do whatever is necessary for America’s superiority.
That is already a demand, worthy of a superpower, on the American people. And now they get to enjoy a president who promises to do everything in his power to help them actually provide the domestic basis for global supremacy and live off it, and that means for it. Here, too, Biden does not have to invent anything, but only follow the tried and tested prevailing logic. When the nation’s position in the world leaves something to be desired, even and especially a world power turns to its very own means, to its disposal over land and people — naturally at the highest level required. This is now how Biden, in his own particular way, is putting into practice the fundamental lie that America has always celebrated its supremacy with: America is the unique superpower because the American people are so uniquely super.
IV. America divides — at the top and at the bottom — on the question of how to make it great again and what makes it so great in the first place
When Biden justifies his modernization agenda with the goal of restoring the United States’ right to its customary supremacy, this is undoubtedly in keeping with the national identity that all Americans can loosely agree on. And when Biden presents this offensive for American greatness and uniqueness as a service to reconcile the nation, to restore its unity, one can easily accept his desire to reconcile all American patriots. But one should not deceive oneself. The talk of ‘unity instead of division!’ is a challenge of a fundamental kind: a refusal to let his own plan for the restoration of American greatness be regarded as only one alternative among others, as something that there could possibly be two opinions about. Biden represents the unity of the nation, the will of the entire nation; the Republicans, then, represent — well, what? Apparently the opposite, a mere faction, ergo: the division of the nation. This is by no means merely the impertinent standpoint of a president vis-à-vis the opposition, but rather what the country’s established ‘liberal media’ finds and now takes for granted — even if the Democratic Party can only dream of the media clout and loyalty to the party line of a “Fox News.” In this respect, it is only fair and in no way testifies to the Republicans’ particular quarrelsomeness or craziness if Biden’s unity and reconciliation offensive merely reaps on the part of the Republicans the continuation, even the aggravation, of the country’s notorious ‘division’ that he has set out to heal.
The hostility that Biden and his party attract concerns first of all his reconstruction program. For the Republican faction of concerned nationalists, the Democrats’ very need to remake America exposes them as the whole root of the problem they claim to want to remedy. In the vision of a more active, more caring state, Republicans see a rejection of the way of life that makes America so special and so especially great in the first place. The politest possible formulation of their reproach is that Biden far too counterproductively restricts capitalist wealth and the rich, and in return shows far too little salutary self-restraint in government support for the poor. There was just enough agreement on one piece of ‘industrial policy’ to secure supply chains and a digital edge over China, even on repairing and modernizing the nation’s infrastructure, provided the financing plans did not unfairly hit those who have the most to lose. But even that was very tricky. The two handfuls of Republicans who approved the infrastructure program in Congress immediately drew accusations of treason: whatever was in the bill, they allowed the adversary a legislative success, i.e., helped it show its vigor, which in democracy speaks first of all basically in favor of the actor. Biden’s climate program, on the other hand, has been rejected by the opposition from the outset, no matter how much he extols the greening of the nation’s energy supply as a competitive offensive. As the Republicans read it, his energetic advance sets America back, endangers the energy independence it has already achieved and its actually already successful rise to global energy dominance, i.e., the lucrative business that is already being done with its own fossil treasures at home and around the world. When it comes to welfare state reforms, well that does it. The planned social progress would only thwart American businessmen, make job creation — the social act par excellence — even more difficult for them, i.e., could make their job offers a bit easier to reject. Worse, Biden not only invokes the importance of ‘good, well-paying jobs,’ but outright wants to strengthen the bargaining rights of unions, which are only good for destroying the jobs Americans live on, however they live on them. As regards the funding of the government program, beyond the question of whether current interest rates on US Treasury bonds make such expenditures affordable, and beyond any worries about inflation, it’s clear as day that the nation definitely can’t afford the social entitlements Biden is talking about. The same applies to Biden’s announced tax reform. It is stupid enough that it is precisely those whose wealth is already growing so nicely who will be burdened here; but even if America’s rich and enterprising people might be able to manage these costs at present, America can in no way afford such a relativization of their entitlements. All in all: nothing but violations of economic reason, which says that restricting business and relativizing the right of businessmen to their earnings will not allow the growth of either business or the earnings on which everyone else lives. If there is to be government-promoted growth, it must be without ifs and buts. Only free competition, i.e., the needs of capital, can decide on the usefulness of the working class.
But the Republicans’ hostility is aimed at far more than the domestic reconstruction program itself. It is a total rejection just as fundamental as Biden’s unity offensive and is pursued with word and deed, with feats of legislative and propagandistic brilliance. The principle of the attack is as simple as can be. The Republicans and their media organs discover in simply every declared need for social policy and moral revision — whether by Biden himself, but above all by left-wing Democrats in politics, in the public sphere, and at the universities — the same rejection of America’s exceptional position. Not that the Republicans do not have their own need for revision; for their part, they see the urgent necessity for a fundamental revision in the relation between the American state and its people. Their program of restoring a perfect unity of the people with themselves and their leadership consists of course precisely not in committing state institutions for social purposes and strengthening them, but rather in dismantling, if necessary eliminating, all such institutions, which for Trump and his Republican followers only disrupt the direct line between the people and their embodiment in the ruling executive. For them, then, the unity of the nation hangs entirely on Trump’s person. Accordingly, they are using all the legislative means at their disposal to block the Biden administration’s legislative plans; they are also thinking significantly longer-term, aiming at the state level to reform electoral law to ensure that the wrong people neither vote nor get elected. Finally, the Republicans are using all means the media provides to denounce the ‘progressives’ in the Democratic Party, thus also the entire Democratic Party infected with them, as America-hating communists.
It is clear that the dispute that is raging here between the parties and among the people is, on the one hand, completely divorced from its imperialist basis. Instead it revolves around what is often called the ‘culture war’ — very wrongly with the connotation that the quarrelers have lost sight of what is really important for the nation. It concerns the fundamental question, ‘What sort of people are we?’ — a question that in America is immediately translated as, ‘What does it mean to be a unique victorious nation?’ On the other hand, it is also clear that despite all their detachment from the imperialist cause of American woes, the disputants nevertheless remain true to the self-referentiality of this imperialism. And they address the identity question in the only way that fits this worrying occasion: Who has become alien to the American identity as victor, that is, to the soul of the nation? This dispute draws its material from every conceivable corner of the nation’s political and social life — from tax rates to abortion to vaccination. Currently, the matter of so-called ‘critical race theory’ — the academic superstructure to the actual race question — is in the foreground, mainly because the Republicans have elevated it to the core of the dispute, quite prominently in the groundbreaking, because successful, election campaign of a ‘race baiting’ candidate for governor in the state of Virginia. From this it becomes clear from the Republican point of view how immediate and real the leftist danger to America is. The Democratic Party, its supporters, and its whisperers apparently want to critically distance themselves from America as a dream and as a really existing country, as a glorious ‘idea’ come true, which can only mean that they ‘hate’ America — this country apparently triggers only the strongest feelings. The dispute about textbooks and words is extremely relevant, because it — though only symbolically and yet precisely for that reason so vividly — goes to the heart of the matter: the very greatness and uniqueness of America, of its correspondingly great people. On the one side, there is the traditional standpoint that America — with its democratic principles, its wealth, and its power — from the beginning, at least pretty much always, has been on the best path to extraordinary Good. On the other side, while not exactly the Democratic Party, is a left-wing minority that has achieved a considerable media presence since the ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests. Here, a very patriotic/affirmative, but by American standards nevertheless unforgivable alternative is represented that in a certain way proves the Republicans’ accusation right. It says America must make clear to itself and to its young that it is a normal country; like any other country, it has strengths and weaknesses in its past as well as in its present; so America has a special obligation in terms of world history to finally live up to its truly unique promise of realizing humanity’s best values. To treat this issue as a ‘race issue’ is inadequate insofar as what is at stake here overall is the self-image with which America has risen to become an extraordinary superpower. With this issue in the American ‘culture war’ as with any other, it basically boils down to the same either/or for those involved: must America finally deal with its self-bred and far too long coddled denigrators in order to remain as great as it has always been? Or must America mend its ways to finally become as great as it has always intended to be?
How intensely this dispute is to be conducted and how seriously the image of the other side as enemy is to be taken is a question that is not entirely decided. Is it a dispute between stone-age conservatives on the one side who want to transform America into a ‘white supremacist’ dictatorship and in the process deliver up the American people to the world-destroying rapacity of fossil-fuel capitalists, and communists on the other side who intend to exchange the American people for a random, motley, i.e. inferior population; or is it instead about well-meaning but misguided colleagues and ‘fellow Americans’ who merely need to appeal with more urgency to the traditional good spirit of ‘bipartisanship’? Opinions are divided on this in both parties as well as among the people. The tendency is nevertheless clear: the unwavering will to cooperate and compromise, which the so-called ‘centrists’ in both parties exhibit because what matters most to them is to practice the unity whose lack is deplored by them and everyone else, rarely earns them compliments anymore. This applies also and even more so for the hope of the nation, Biden himself, the hero of bipartisanship par excellence. The great respect for his desire and his ability to bridge even the deepest divides is increasingly giving way to groans: the man is just yesterday’s news — and a politician who cannot guide his agenda to success is also not reconciling anyone with anyone in American politics. The ability of the top leadership to assert itself is still the highest value in this model democracy.
In any case, what is at least certain is that in the escalating ‘battle for the soul of the nation,’ all sides find plenty of supporters for the accusations they direct against the other side, no matter how seeped in conspiracy theories they may be. The fact that they all seem quite credible in this respect is not because any of the accusations and denunciations put out would be true, but because the starting point for all sides already contains the definite finding that the primordial American equation, America = number one, no longer applies absolutely, i.e., at all. It is precisely the agreement that the nation is at stake that does not permit the ‘factual’ dispute about imperialist recipes for success so longed for by the patriotic idealists of the center. After all, both sides are certain that a fundamental violation of the supreme principle of good rule must have taken place, namely, the inalienable right of the American people to the absolute success they are accustomed to. And it is also indisputable for the parties to the dispute, then, that the will to succeed is obviously in trouble, both at the top and at the bottom. Thus, all of them together — America’s traditional parties, the authorities of free public opinion, and the freedom-loving citizens — are providing the proof that the essence of this nation is truly its worldwide superiority, the undisputed global domination of its state. In all the branches of their permanent dispute, they are demonstrating that if this nation is not sure of its supremacy, if it at all feels the need to have to make ‘America great again,’ then Americans can no longer tolerate not only this need, but also and above all each other.
 The breadth and depth of the program are gigantic, even by American standards:
— The American Rescue Plan (enacted March 11, 2021) provides a total of 1.9 trillion: “In the recovery plan, $123 billion are earmarked directly for health measures. 360 billion will go to states and localities, 176 billion are to upgrade schools before they reopen, 40 billion will go to colleges for emergency student aid, 50 billion to transportation and mass transit, 28.6 billion to support restaurants and bars, 10 billion to agriculture, including five billion for Black farmers. Larger or smaller amounts are also available for airlines, the Amtrak passenger railroad service, or indigenous tribes. The crucial amount, however, is for direct payments to individuals, totaling 860 billion. Most Americans are receiving a check from the president for the third time, this time for $1,400. This benefits 85 percent of American households. The unemployment benefit supplement is extended through September; costing 246 billion. On top of that, parents will receive $3,600 for each child under five, and $3,000 for each child between six and seventeen. This will more than halve child poverty” (Zeit Online, March 16, 2021). The original plan to raise the minimum wage to $15 was dropped from the final version of the bill.
— On the original draft of the ‘American Jobs Plan’: “$650 billion for modernizing roads, bridges, and expanding electric mobility; $650 billion for housing infrastructure and schools, expanding broadband technology, modernizing the power grid and water supply; $580 billion for industry, education, and research, among other areas in renewable energy and domestic chip manufacturing; $400 billion for improving care for the elderly and sick. He [Biden] wants to spread the spending on the projects over eight years and pay off the costs within 15 years: by raising taxes on businesses so that the country’s already enormous debt doesn’t rise further as a result of these stimulus funds. … Biden wants to finance the spending primarily by raising the tax rate on corporate profits to 28 percent. Donald Trump had lowered it from 35 to 21 percent.” (tagesspiegel.de, April 1, 2021)
— On the original draft of the ‘American Families Plan’: “The plan includes about a trillion dollars in investments and $800 billion in tax relief for families … An increase in the child tax credit from $2,000 to between $3,000 and $3,600, depending on the age of the child, by 2025 … Tax rebates to keep health insurance premiums affordable for millions of families are even to be made permanent. Some $200 billion are to go toward preschool education for children ages three and older. With $109 billion, the government wants to provide two years of free tuition at community colleges. Other funds are earmarked for scholarships for low-income students. In total, the government would fund up to 17 years of education. In addition, $225 billion are earmarked for grants to allow parents to take time off from their jobs to care for children or relatives in case of illness. This is intended above all to help middle-class families and especially to allow women, who still do most of the care work, to participate more fully in the labor market. The USA is so far the only industrialized country not to offer maternity, parental, or child benefits … Also with $225 billion, families are to be helped with the cost of child care. Average earners will have to spend no more than 7 percent of their income on childcare. In addition, Biden wants to expand the free school-lunch program and change unemployment insurance to entitlements that do not depend on budget commitments from Congress. The whole thing is being called the ‘care economy.’” (manager-magazin.de, April 29, 2021)
 The ‘American Jobs Plan’ and the ‘American Families Plan’ have been reworked into two bills in the course of congressional negotiations. One is called the ‘Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act,’ also known as the ‘Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework,’ and was passed in mid-November. It totals $1.2 trillion and provides for about $550 billion in additional spending, about a quarter of what was originally envisioned. Spending in all key areas —transportation, energy and water supply, environmental protection, building and retrofitting housing, and elder care — has been either reduced or eliminated, with the exception of environmental cleanup. The bulk of spending is for construction and repair of roads, rails, bridges, water and waste systems, ports, and broadband. There is no longer any spending at all on building upgrades and maintenance. The plan also no longer includes the $363 billion in tax relief originally envisioned for clean energy consumption.
The second bill bears the unofficial name ‘Build Back Better’ and concerns social policy. As of mid-November, the New York Times reports: “The House narrowly passed the centerpiece of President Biden’s domestic agenda on Friday, approving $2.2 trillion in spending over the next decade to battle climate change, expand health care and reweave the nation’s social safety net, over the unanimous opposition of Republicans. … The bill still has a long and difficult road ahead. Democratic leaders must coax it through the 50-50 Senate and navigate a tortuous budget process that is almost certain to reshape the measure and force it back to the House — if it passes at all. But even pared back from the $3.5 trillion plan that Mr. Biden originally sought, the legislation could prove as transformative as any since the Great Society and War on Poverty in the 1960s, especially for young families and older Americans. … The bill offers universal prekindergarten, generous subsidies for child care that extend well into the middle class, expanded financial aid for college, hundreds of billions of dollars in housing support, home and community care for older Americans, a new hearing benefit for Medicare and price controls for prescription drugs.” (New York Times, Nov. 19, 2021, updated Nov. 21, 2021)
 It is precisely the development of the relevant national infrastructure that is supposed to function as a complete growth program for American capital: “When we make all these investments, we’re going to make sure, as the executive order I signed early on, that we buy American. That means investing in American-based companies and American workers. Not a contract will go out, that I control, that will not go to a company that is an American company with American products, all the way down the line, and American workers.” (Biden, March 31, 2021)
 “… we’re dealing with competitors like China that are not operating on market-based terms. … China is increasing its strategic R&D as a share of its economy … we’ve lived through a decade where China has been meticulously thinking about making those investments, marshaling those investments — not all successful, but all with a deliberate focus on trying to build its own industrial base and its own intellectual and innovation base. And we have, for the better part of a decade, ignored or derogated and undermined those levers.” (Brian Deese, Biden's chief economic policy advisor, New York Times, April 9, 2021)
 “It’s going to boost America’s innovative edge in markets where global leadership is up for grabs — markets like battery technology, biotechnology, computer chips, clean energy, the competition with China in particular.” (Biden, March 31, 2021)
 This is the position Trump famously represented against the ‘establishment’ for four years in the White House and now with equal vehemence in opposition — even and especially against those Republicans who still see things somewhat differently. In keeping with the penchant in American politics for catchy acronyms, such resistant Republicans are labeled ‘RINOs’ (Republicans In Name Only) by Trump and the majority of his colleagues in the ‘MAGA’ (Make America Great Again) faction.
 They, of course, only feel provoked to do this by the unfair voting reform efforts of the Democrats; and the latter, in turn, feel compelled to push their reforms by the Republicans’ traditional techniques of effectively preventing poor blacks in particular from exercising their right to vote: “It would be the most far-reaching voting reform in decades — if Democrats could get the project through the Senate.… The ‘For the People’ bill is meant to respond to increasingly aggressive measures by Republican-governed states that make it harder for people to vote.… For both parties, it is a confrontation of historic proportions that is likely to have a decisive impact on the preponderance of power for decades to come. The new law would require all states to allow both early in-person voting and absentee voting to the greatest extent. All citizens would be automatically registered as voters. So-called ‘purges’ of voter rolls would be prohibited by the federal government. In the past, for example in Georgia or Ohio, hundreds of thousands of citizens were purged because they had not exercised their right to vote for a while. In addition, people who have served prison sentences would have their voting rights restored. Election Day would become a national holiday so that no one could not participate because of their jobs. All of these measures would annul individual states’ barriers to voting. The practice of ‘gerrymandering,’ cutting out voting districts based on partisan politics, would also be stopped.… Since Joe Biden’s election victory, Republicans in several states have already pushed for new restrictions on voting rights. Many politicians are motivated in this by Trump’s lies of ‘voter fraud’ or at least use them to justify the new rules. In Iowa, for example, the legislature recently passed stricter rules for absentee voting, shortened the early voting period by nine days, and decided to close polling places an hour earlier. Republican state senator Jim Carlin said during debate on the bill that most members of his party believed the 2020 election had been ‘stolen.’ In Georgia, Republicans want to drastically restrict absentee voting and early weekend voting, among other things, where African-American churches traditionally mobilize heavily on Sundays. What this is ultimately about was openly explained by the attorney for Arizona’s Republican Party on Tuesday. Conservative [Supreme Court] Judge Amy Coney Barrett asked Michael Carvin why the party wanted to prevent votes cast in the wrong precinct from being counted anyway. Carvin replied, ‘Because it puts us at a competitive disadvantage relative to Democrats.’” (faz.net, March 4, 2021)
[*] Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft
[**] US Treasury Secretary John Connolly at the G-10 summit in Rome, 1971.
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