“To be brutality frank, I mean Christianity is dying in Europe, and Islam is on the rise….we’re in a war…” Steve Bannon quoted in Steve Reilly and Brad Heath, “Bannon Takes a Dark View of Islam,” USA Today, February 2, 2017).
The Ideology of “the Clash of Civilizations”
The history of the United States cannot be understood without grasping the central role of the capitalist mode of production. The Western Hemisphere became vital to the emerging world system of capitalism in the fifteenth century. Also, the globalization of capitalism was inextricably connected to the rise of modern racism, an ideology that justified mass murder, kidnapping, and enslavement of millions of people, primarily people of color. Rising capitalism and racism grew in tandem. Each was the product of the other. In one of Marx’s most powerful renditions of the emergence of the two phenomena he wrote in Capital:
The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation. On their heels treads the commercial war of the European nations, with the globe for a theatre. It begins with the revolt of the Netherlands from Spain, assumes giant dimensions in England’s Anti-Jacobin War, and is still going on in the opium wars against China, &c.
Beginning with the introduction of capitalism and slavery in the Western Hemisphere in the fifteenth century, different iterations of white supremacist ideologies were articulated using metaphors that denied humanity to the indigenous people who lived in the Hemisphere before the arrival of European colonial powers and the slaves kidnapped from Africa. For some, people of color were not human beings. For the “liberals” they were like children. And as the United States expanded across the North American continent, the taking of land, the slaughter of indigenous people, and the establishment of slavery were all justified by virtue of the superiority of the white man.
As the new great power emerged from the war with Spain, soon to be President Theodore Roosevelt referred to the special contribution of the white race to civilization. Indiana Senator Albert Beveridge declared that it was the Christian duty of the United States to expand on a worldwide basis ( See Harry Targ, “The Ideology of U.S. Hegemony in the Hemisphere, The Rag Blog, June 6, 2012). In our own day, President Reagan reiterated the old Puritan metaphor: the United States is the “city on the hill.” Secretaries of State Albright and Clinton, as well as former President Obama referred to the United States as “the indispensable nation.” In sum United States history is replete with references to the intellectual and moral superiority of the United States and, directly or indirectly, of the “white race.”
As neoliberal ideology is a contemporary version of classic theories of free market capitalism, the thesis of the “clash of civilizations” is a modern derivative of classic ideologies of white supremacy. Distinguished political scientist Samuel Huntington published books and articles in recent years that posited a fundamental global contradiction between civilizations. For him, wars are not about disputes between nations but between civilizations. A civilization is a large swath of land, millions of people with a shared culture, values, and beliefs, and overarching political and military institutions.
In world history Huntington suggested, it was because of incompatible civilizations that wars occurred. In his 1996 book ( The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, Simon and Shuster), he suggested that the fundamental clash that would be occurring in the years ahead was between the Christian West and Islam. (Huntington’s writings have had an enduring and negative impact on public policy. He recommended for South Vietnam, the Strategic Hamlet Program, which was designed to move rural Vietnamese people away from their communities where the enemy was strong. He also warned in the 1970s of the excesses of democracy. Too many people are participating in political processes, he argued).
White supremacy gave inspiration to support for wars in the twenty-first century. Muslim people were increasingly conceptualized as monsters, killers, and terrorists. They constituted a civilizational threat to the West. And it was this conception of the clash of civilizations that was used to build support among a war-weary US population to fight in Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf, and the Middle East. During the 2016 election, the theory of the clash of civilizations hovered just below the surface of discourse. United States security was threatened first and foremost by Muslims, but also by Latinos, Africans, and Asians.
While not all supporters of candidate and now President Trump are white supremacists, he and his key aides constantly imply that the United States is currently in a World War, a war of a new kind, a civilizational war. For the Trump narrative, the maintenance of the racial superiority of the United States requires economic policies that limit the outflow of United States investment dollars and the inflow of migrant labor and goods produced overseas. In other words, in the contemporary ideological climate the ideology of the clash of civilizations is connected to policies promoting economic nationalism, a perspective at variance from the neoliberal ideologues. And, at least rhetorically this ideological wing of the foreign policy elite favors less involvement in global diplomacy and institutions while we prepare for global conflicts.
If one had to oversimplify political discourse on the United States role in the world in 2017, the ideological struggle is between one faction of the political class that prioritizes the globalization of the United States economy, pursuing policies to open doors to American capitalism, particularly finance capitalism, and another which pursues white supremacy at home and seeks to impose the dominance of the United States, while limiting economic, political, and cultural ties across the world.
Another World is Possible
The two ideologies, neoliberal globalization versus the clash of civilizations, vary in theoretical underpinnings. On occasion followers of one or the other ideology advocate differences in policy. But both are committed to establishing or reestablishing ( in the twenty-first century) United States dominance of the globe economically, militarily, and politically. The neoliberal ideology begins with an economic motivation for militarism; the clash of civilizations begins with a racial motivation for militarism. One proclaims that our economic and political institutions represent a beacon of hope for the world; the other frankly believes that the United States, because of its racial identity, is a superior civilization. Neither approach to the world provides any semblance of hope for economic and social justice.
Therefore, one task of the peace movement in 2017 entails offering a population skeptical about United States wars and military spending a new way of thinking about how the nation should participate in the world and why this new way is vital to the survival of humankind. The task includes articulating a theory of how the world can work.
First, a new world order that maximizes human potential everywhere and minimizes violence can only be built on a shared, equitable distribution of societal resources. The promotion of any economic system that institutionalizes exploitation must be opposed. Peace can come only in a global society that is based upon economic fairness.
Second, a just world order economically requires the development of a political culture, values, beliefs, and practices, that celebrates human oneness—solidarity—and diversity. Political cultures based on notions of superiority and inferiority are diametrically opposed to ideas of solidarity and diversity.
Third, combatting the institutionalized violence bred of economic disparity and racial supremacy requires mass movements that oppose war-making, killing, and the amassing of the weapons of war. A twenty-first century peace movement must oppose the war system.
The two-year presidential campaign is over and a new administration is serving in its first one hundred days. The campaign and election have shown that large numbers of Americans, and people from around the world who watched the US elections carefully, reject the ideology of neoliberal globalization. Growing resistance to the new Trump administration suggests also that people are rejecting the white supremacist/economic nationalist alternative that this new administration represents. The peace movement task in the months and years ahead includes developing a coherent theory or ideology of peace and engaging in processes of education, agitation, and organization to achieve its goals.