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  • America the Hopeless1
  • John McGowan (bio)

Paul Smith clearly prides himself on calling a spade a spade—and he does so in italics. “The essentially primitive aspect of America resides in the fact that all social and cultural phenomena are dedicated to one central process, the process of capital accumulation” (42). Layered on top of this base is “a constitutive contradiction for the history of American society and culture,” a “dialectical interplay” between “freedom and equality” that “should in fact be seen as merely epiphenomenal” (42). Freedom from interference, which is what American democracy really delivers, produces inequality, because that freedom is primarily the ability to accumulate wealth at others’ expense. Yet American democracy earns its subjects’ allegiance through an appeal to equality as an honored value even though it never delivers on that promised good.

The theoretical problems associated with such orthodox Marxism are, I assume, familiar to anyone likely to read this review. Certainly, I don’t intend to rehearse these all-too-familiar debates here. Smith’s cavalier disregard for facts is startling, however. “[M]ost Americans manage to live in ignorance of class and to maintain ignorance of their own individual relationship to capital’s circuits of production and consumption” (9), he solemnly tells us, offering no support for this claim and ignoring the abundant evidence of its falsity. (Solid empirical studies ranging from Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb’s classic The Hidden Injuries of Class [1973] to, more recently, Andrew Gelman’s Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State: Why Americans Vote the Way They Do [2008] and Benjamin Page and Lawrence Jacobs’ Class War?: What Americans Really Think About Economic Inequality [2009] make it very clear that Americans are well aware of class differences in U.S. society. It is not ignorance, but powerlessness, that afflicts non-wealthy Americans.)

America’s economic sin is an original one in Smith’s account, producing necessary, long-lasting, and (it seems) inexorable results. The “primitive” in American history and society is ineradicable. The American constitution is produced to enable “the freedom to conduct commerce without interference, rather than” concerned with “some more idealistic notion of human freedom [End Page 317] or human dignity or human rights (as I’ve suggested, the latter are afterthoughts in the creation of America, arriving with the enshrinement of equality)” (35). What to make of such a willful erasure of Jefferson’s ringing—and originating—statement of equality in the Declaration of Independence, or of the monocausal blinders that renders rights like free speech, protection from double jeopardy, and religious freedom as effects or enablers of capital accumulation?

Similarly, how plausible is an economist interpretation of the 9/11 attacks and America’s response to them that never once mentions nationalism or religion? (These two motivational and political affects are totally absent from the book.)

The attacks of 9/11 were direct strikes against the beating heart of capital, the symbolic center of capital’s circulatory system…and the American ‘response’…has been only marginally—or rhetorically—related to either a retaliatory or preemptive war on terror or ‘rogue’ states. More fundamentally, the attacks of 9/11 produced the occasion for the United States to do two things: first, to attack Afghanistan and Iraq and thereby free up two blocked arteries in the circulatory system of twenty-first century capitalism; and second, to reassert its hegemonic role in the system of states.


Needless to say, I object to the “fundamentally” here. Actions have multiple, often contradictory, motives, and I don’t see where any one motive can be deemed more fundamental than any other. That America’s two Middle Eastern wars were primarily aimed at bringing Afghans and Iraqis into capitalism’s “wage relation” system, as Smith argues, is not very convincing. And to claim that Al-Qaida was primarily concerned with protesting against capitalism requires fairly ingenious hermeneutic jujitsu.

But the second point—America’s desire to assert its hegemony in the “international order”—is more plausible. Throughout his book, Smith assails other writers for failing to pay heed to the “very specific historical features of capitalism” (121). Yet, in his account, capitalism never changes; it is the...


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pp. 317-321
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