A People’s History of the United States, by historian Howard Zinn enrages conservatives. For good reason, the controversial retelling of American history depicts an early republic founded on genocide.
Former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, now President of Purdue University, reflects the sentiment of conservatives. “We must not falsely teach American history in our schools.”
But what is history, and who gets to decide?
George Orwell well described this impulse. “He who controls the past controls the future, and he who controls the present controls the past.”
For all the blather about a liberal media and academia, conservatives ideas have dominated how American history is understood. A People’s History of the United States challenges this narrative by expanding the focus of history. Rather than following the hierarchical, great man theory of US history, Zinn recounts stories told by the participants. What he depicts is revolutionary.
Especially relevant is Zinn’s treatment of the early American economy and how fortunes were created. Wealth in America was acquired much the same way as in England, through primitive accumulation. British colonialism of North America was simply the next stage. Capitalism requires new markets, raw materials, and workers to grow, which it must. Having a new world to plunder was essential.
Zinn makes this abundantly clear. ” …the frenzy in the early capitalist states of Europe for gold, for slaves, for products of the soil, to pay the bondholders and stockholders of the expeditions, to finance the monarchical bureaucracies rising in Western Europe, to spur the growth of the new money economy rising out of feudalism, to participate in what Karl Marx would later call the ‘primitive accumulation of capital’.”
OK, so the British colonists used primitive accumulation to acquire wealth. Didn’t we have a glorious American revolution to overthrow the redcoats and end this plunder?
The new American elite quickly used the success in the revolt against Great Britain for primitive accumulation of their own. The American revolution was an elite revolution, after all. This salient fact helps explain the differing response from the aristocrats of Europe to the French Revolution versus their response to the American Revolution. One was deeply threatening because of the proletariat nature of the revolutionaries whereas the other was just swapping one set of elite for another.
As Zinn recounts. “One would look, in examining the Revolution’s effect on class relations, at what happened to land confiscated from fleeing Loyalists. It was distributed in such a way as to give a double opportunity to the Revolutionary leaders: to enrich themselves and their friends, and to parcel out some land to small farmers to create a broad base of support for the new government.”
Then there’s that little matter of genocide. Conservatives want to pretend that God above blessed our noble experiment with freedom and liberty for all, and that early America was a bright shining city on the hill. But it wasn’t like that at all. It was widespread slaughter, ethnic cleansing and genocide. See the Trail of Tears if you have a smidgin of doubt.
Zinn pulls no punches. “Now, with the British out of the way, the Americans could begin the inexorable process of pushing the Indians off their lands, killing them if they resisted…”
This original sin of genocide has always been the ultimate nightmare for US rulers. Luckily, they’ve always had talented fixers.
Future Supreme Court justice Lewis Powell wrote the Powell Memo in 1971 advising conservatives how to combat the outbreak of democracy and liberalism of the 1960’s, that was threatening, what Powell described as, free enterprise.“Corporate activists took his advice to heart and began building a powerful array of institutions designed to shift public attitudes and beliefs over the course of years and decades.”
In addition to controlling how history is depicted, conservatives, since the Powell Memo, have become quite adapt at defining the English language. Patriotism has come to mean endless war. Christianity equals the Moral Majority. Freedom has come to mean surveillance. But their ultimate success has been the depiction of our economy as the “free market.”
Nothing illustrates this capture more than the enduring popularity of Ayn Rand, the author who worshipped serial killers and wrote a book entitled The Virtue of Selfishness. She also wrote the immensely influentially novel Atlas Shrugged, creating a milieu where heroic businessmen provide for parasitic workers. We just endured a Presidential campaign where the Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, denigrated the majority of American workers as takers. Not only that, but his Vice Presidential pick Paul Ryan, declares with pride, “Rand makes the best case for the morality of democratic capitalism.”
But who are the real takers?
We don’t even need to study history to witness how primitive accumulation continues in a modern guise. What do you call the looting of pensions by the private equity firms? What about the privatization of our public schools by hedge funds? And, don’t even get me started on the crippling austerity on government spending and denial of unemployment benefits.
No wonder conservatives loath A People’s History of the United States. Zinn’s history combined with the ongoing predation of American capitalism makes it quite apparent who the real takers are.