Selling capitalism as Americanism - The corporate manufacture of patriotism

from the New Unionist, January 2002

Selling capitalism as "Americanism"

The corporate manufacture of patriotism

By Alan Bradshaw

The proliferation of flags and other indications of patriotism since September 11 should not be too much of a surprise. It is the result of a century of intense indoctrination of workers toward the concept of "America above all."

Of course, the outburst of patriotism is not all the result of indoctrination. We feel alone and insecure as individuals and we require a sense of belonging to a group of other humans. Earlier, people were loyal to their clan, their tribe. Now they are loyal to their nation.

Over the last 200 years nationalism has proved to be a very unifying concept. In this country the ruling class, the wealthy and their corporations, have taken advantage of nationalism to shape it to their benefit.

The large corporations and their associate organizations started their Americanization program right after the successful strike of mostly foreign workers at textile mills in Lawrence, Massachusetts during February, 1912. The top corporation heads formed the Committee for Immigrants in America, which pushed a program of Americanization through chambers of commerce, churches and industrial concerns. As one historian noted, it became "the general consulting headquarters for immigrant and Americanization work throughout the country."

In 1915 the Committee decided on a tactic to involve workers as Americans. It established a National Americanization Day Committee (NADC) to institute a day for "a great Nationalistic expression of unity and faith in America." This committee was comprised mainly of leading capitalists and their wives, such as Mrs. Vincent Astor and Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt.

They began by launching an America First campaign, publishing millions of copies of patriotic booklets, distributing flag posters throughout the country, and forming patriotic societies. Despite all this effort, however, they failed to make much headway among most workers.

In 1918, aided by World War I, they succeeded in getting a number of government agencies involved, including the Federal Bureau of Education and the recently formed Council of National Defense and Committee of Public Information. In addition, thousands of industrial plants had their Americanization projects, along with churches and night schools. It became an immense project that now began to produce results.

That same year the NADC abandoned the Americanization Day idea for an Independence Day. It presented a petition to President Wilson to recognize the 4th of July as Independence Day, a day to celebrate being an American, which proved to be a big success.

Over the years the Committee put all its powerful efforts into preaching the gospel of patriotism. It pushed such activities as the Pledge of Allegiance, flag ceremonies, the playing of the national anthem, and the use of history textbooks to promote a sense of belonging. These books were monitored for proper content, and some libraries and schools removed books not approved by patriotic groups. One such group said the ideal would be a text that would "preach on every page a vivid love of America."

The corporations also made use of the government. They pushed for the creation of the House Un-American Activities Committee, which harassed left-wing groups and writers for many years. The FBI had its operations against groups deemed un-American, as did local "red squads" and state committees. By 1939 seventeen states had laws requiring people to salute the flag.

Obviously, patriotism must help the ruling corporations and their wealthy owners for them to put so much effort into promoting it.

In the 1920s the National Association of Manufacturers, the Bankers Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce distributed a flood of anti-labor literature to the press, churches, schools and others, with the message that unionism was un-American and that the open shop was the "American Plan."

A study financed by the top ten corporations in 1945 advised them not to sell capitalism primarily on its merits but to identify their desired policies with Americanism. Opposing policies, such as the New Deal, should be identified as un-American. Over the years the message has been that free enterprise equals Americanism, and that critics and labor unions are not 100% American.

Another benefit of patriotism for the highly class conscious ruling class is that it blunts the class consciousness of the working class. Politicians and the media insist that we do not have classes in America, and that to claim we do is to promote "class warfare." We are all citizens of "the greatest country on earth." We stand united, one nation indivisible. We are committed to our "American way of life," which equates with the American system of free enterprise. Preventing workers' class consciousness by promoting patriotism is a very important part of corporate strategy.

Still another benefit of patriotism for the corporations and their owners is that it affords support for military interventions in other countries. Americans are conditioned by patriotism to consider only American lives as important, and killing people of other countries is always justified in the name of "freedom." When asked if the economic embargo was worth the deaths of more than half a million children in Iraq, Madelaine Albright, the then Secretary of State, said that "we think the price is worth it."

Americanism is also brought forward in Corporate America's disputes with nations that are considered our allies.

Take the case of global warming. A coalition of energy companies and auto manufacturers are opposed to the imposition of restrictions on the use of the automobile or coal-fired electric generators. At the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, the elder Bush said that "the American lifestyle is not up for negotiation." Last June Bush the younger said, "We will not do anything that harms our economy, because first things first are the people who live in America." The head of the Commission of the European Union responded, "If one wants to be a world leader, one must know how to look after the whole world and not only American industry."

The U.S. was almost alone in voting against a UN resolution to ban the sale of land mines, even if it meant millions of crippled civilians worldwide - but not Americans. Now of course, several American Marines have been maimed in Afghanistan by land mines.

Ironically, in December, 1987 the UN passed a measure on terrorism 153 to 2, the U.S. and Israel voting no. The resolution called for "measures to prevent international terrorism, study the underlying political and economic causes of terrorism, convene a conference to define terrorism and to differentiate it from the struggle of peoples for national liberation." At the time, of course, the U.S. was supporting "freedom fighters" in Nicaragua, Afghanistan, Angola and other spots. The danger was that other nations might regard them as terrorists.

Nationalism is a great aid to the capitalist class, so it is probable that they will continue to spend millions to enhance it.

But it is out of place in the 21st century. Steelworkers in the United States have more in common with steelworkers in Russia than they do with the owners of the steel mills here. As Abraham Lincoln said, "The strongest bond of human sympathy, outside of the family relation, should be uniting all working people of all nations and tongues and kindreds."

Our only hope for a peaceful and humane world is for the workers of all nations to overcome their devisive nationalism, and unite and organize to create a world without borders, armies and wars.