Despite the mewling of the American right, Joseph Biden has officially been inaugurated as the President of the United States. As such, he will be the steward of the massive American military and economy, which dominate the globe in equal part. However, on the eve of Biden’s ascension, the American empire has never seemed weaker. In the face of the COVID-19 crisis, and the lesser “crisis” following the election, the empire and its new manager are utterly ill equipped to rise to the challenge.
It is difficult to pinpoint the exact moment at which an empire begins to crumble, but in retrospect, it always seems obvious. The Visigoths storming Rome almost appears inevitable to historians, despite the empire having stood for nearly half a century.
While the United States may not have an image as compelling as the sack of Rome (yet), National Guardsmen, masked for COVID, sleeping next to their rifles on the floor of the Capitol building leading up to the inauguration seems to come close. A small fraction of what the Americans have imposed on foreign capitals has finally come home to their own.
They arrived to protect Wednesday’s inauguration in response to the pro-Trump protestors who breached the Capitol building on January 6, and briefly occupied it. The right-wing zealots who stormed the US Capitol, however, were a far cry from Visigoths. Despite frenziedmedia coverage, the crowd which stumbled into the Capitol was no marauding horde.
Even before the chaos, stupidity, and death of the 6th, the American press was bubbling with comparisons to “other” countries. On January 4, CNN ran the article “What Would Happen if the Anti-Democratic Plotting in Washington Were Unfolding Anywhere Else?”
This article opens with a description of Trump administration’s electoral machinations, and asks the readers to envision the same elsewhere:
“Imagine: A raging president refuses to accept that his rule is ending and incites mass protests to disrupt the certification of his election loss. A radicalized band of loyalist lawmakers also tries to deny voters’ verdict. The wannabe autocrat leans on a party subordinate to “find” enough votes to let him win. Propagandistic media organs spew misinformation to support the his lies. Meanwhile the real crisis — a once-in-a-century pandemic that kills 3,000 citizens each day — is ignored in a gross display of negligence.”
CNN goes on to muse that “were this anywhere else” the American President would call for “the restoration of democratic principles and good governance.”
The President is unable to do so, because, as the argument goes, turmoil is wracking “the world’s oldest democracy and undermining America’s claim to be a moral example and advocate for free people worldwide.” Is this really “what would happen” though? And has American ever been a moral example?
In short, no, the US would not insist on democratic principles, nor has it been “a moral example and advocate for free people worldwide.” The chaos in America leading up to the 6th, and the pathetic violence of the conservative “assault” on the Capitol, represent an absurd parody of the actual chaos and violence the United States inflicts on the rest of the world.
The question CNN is asking is far from the hypothetical they seem to treat it as. When, as CNN puts it, a “radicalized band” (particularly a right-wing one) tries to seize control of a government, or a “wanna be autocrat leans on a party subordinate,” chances are they are doing so with US funding and support. What does Washington do when anti-democratic plotting happens elsewhere? They pay for it, of course.
When Donald Trump Actually Plotted a Coup
The United States, nearly since its founding has backed coups, attempted to influence elections, and overthrown governments on nearly every continent (this list provides a good starting point, but an accounting of each instance of US aggression would prove nearly impossible).
Less than a year ago Donald Trump himself attempted to sponsor a coup, but it similarly ended in failure –with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro holding the passports of the captured US military contractors who attempted to kidnap him and overthrow his government.
If the attempted storming of the American capital made Trump supporters look ridiculous, the attempted storming of the Venezuelan capital made the Trump administration look doubly so.
When a relatively obscure Venezuelan politician, Juan Guaido, declared himself the president in January of 2019, much of the world laughed. The United States, however, did not. Within a month, Guaido was already seeking US military support.
That “US military support” would arrive just over a year later in May 2020, though in an incredibly paltry form. Silvercorp USA, an American private military corporation, spearheaded this effort. Jordan Goudrea, the owner and operator of Silvercorp, provided security for Trump rallies and has long been acquainted with Trump’s director of security. Juan Guaido signed a contract with the mercenaries, and they developed a strategy to take the country.
Goudrea even released a video as the operation was underway, essentially detailing their plan:
Their plan was as far-fetched as it was unlikely to succeed. The Americans and a small band of Guaido’s Venezuelan allies trained and prepared in Colombia. Ideally, a combination of former US special forces and Venezuelan volunteers would seize an airport, raid military bases, and kidnap Nicolás Maduro.
Their attack would inspire a massive popular vote that would overthrow Venezuela’s socialist government, and steer the country back into the arms of neoliberalism.
From the earliest days of planning, this cadre had been infiltrated by the Maduro government. A mere sixty people ended up landing in Venezuela, and as it happens, sixty people is not enough to overthrow Venezuela.
On May 3, two boats arrived and their occupants were dealt with swiftly by the Venezuelan military. Eight were killed, and seventeen captured, including two US mercenaries (whose passports Maduro is holding triumphantly). The next day an additional boat attempted a landing, and was captured by Venezuelan fishermen.
Once the plot fell apart, the ringleaders safely fled to the JW Marriott in Bogota. With one exception: The highest ranking Venezuelan dissenter, former general Cliver Alcalá, is currently awaiting trial in federal custody in New York.
Is he awaiting trial for attempting to overthrow a democratically elected socialist government? No. Rather, the self-styled rebel was supplying guerrillas in Colombia with surface-to-air missiles in exchange for cocaine. The Guaido-Goudreau team certainly fell far from grace.
Donald Trump had for several months been positioning himself as the American Guaido. Although unlike Guaido, he lacks an imperial benefactor. The irony is, with the US cutting checks for right-wing splinter movements across the globe, there is no power to give these blundering American extremists the same service. Who will fund the right-wing coup for the right-wing coup funder?
Still, despite this amateurish nature of this uprising, were this to happen elsewhere, Americans would doubtless deploy the condescending phrase “failed state.”
With an empire such as the United States, perhaps the failure to overthrow governments in Venezuela and Bolivia are more indicative of failure than the more domestic unrest in Washington D.C.
American Fragility: Lacking the Motive, not Resources, to Fight a Pandemic
The term “failed state” is no longer in vogue. Instead, they are merely considered “fragile.” These fragile states, as officially compiled by The Fund for Peace –which is funded by the US State Department and several petroleum companies– are victims of US aggression quite frequently.
Venezuela, for instance, is ranked 28th most “fragile.” Numbers one and two, Yemen and Somalia, are currently victims of US bombing campaigns. The United States, however, appears not fragile at all, given its ranking of 148th.
In response to hospitals running out of beds, and turning patients away, all Lebanese citizens must now request permits to leave their homes. For the first time, grocery stores and supermarkets are now only offering delivery services, their doors having been closed as well. This is only the most recent in a series of Lebanese lockdowns.
Despite the government’s attempts to reduce the rate of infection, they have absolutely not made similar efforts to provide a safety net for people brutalized by both the pandemic and concurrent economic crisis. Like many states, Lebanon is demanding people stay at home, while not giving them the support to make this remotely possible.
Unlike Lebanon, the United States can mobilize nigh-unlimited resources to address the pandemic. Looking at the results, however, one would never know. The United States makes up less than five percent of the world’s population, yet accounts for nearly twenty percent of all global COVID-19 deaths. While there are innumerable reasons for this level of failure, three stand out.
Primarily, the United States will never challenge the entrenched forces of capital, and thus the state will remain too “fragile” to mount a successful relief effort.
Stemming from this, the state will not provide the necessary support and direct payments (though some assistance has been offered in an ad hoc fashion) for the citizenry to remain “locked down” as public health authorities suggest.
Finally, healthcare in the United States is based largely on employment. If you lose your job due to the crippling economic crisis accompanying the pandemic, or if your employer does not deem you worthy of medicine, you will largely be out in the cold.
Ed Yong gives an extensive overview of the utter failure of the American state to address the pandemic in the Atlantic magazine:
“A sluggish response by a government denuded of expertise allowed the coronavirus to gain a foothold. Chronic underfunding of public health neutered the nation’s ability to prevent the pathogen’s spread. A bloated, inefficient health-care system left hospitals ill-prepared for the ensuing wave of sickness. Racist policies that have endured since the days of colonization and slavery left Indigenous and Black Americans especially vulnerable to COVID‑19. The decades-long process of shredding the nation’s social safety net forced millions of essential workers in low-paying jobs to risk their life for their livelihood.”
In short, the American state is not meant to grapple with this type of problem. Each and every facet of the pallid healthcare system is tied purely to profit.
Yet, given the staggering wealth of the United States, it did not, and does not, have to be this way, especially now that a vaccine exists.
Despite the existence of a vaccine, the United States is still proving itself too profit driven, and too decentralized, to adequately administer them. The vaccine rollout, thus far, has been an unqualified failure:
“ ‘All the focus was on developing the vaccines,’ said Walter A. Orenstein, an epidemiologist at the Emory University School of Medicine, who was director of the U.S. Immunization Program for 16 years. ‘I don’t think there was enough focus on getting vaccines into the arms of the people who need them.’ ”
“More than 30,000 doctors and nurses were sent to Wuhan from across China. Forty-five hospitals were designated as COVID-19 treatment centres, 12 temporary hospitals were converted from exhibition centres and similar buildings, and two brand new hospitals (with a capacity of 1000 and 1300 beds) were constructed from the ground up in a matter of days (Collier 2020). The health system prioritised keeping people alive, scaling up the production of ventilators and adding capacity across the range of treatment and detection options.”
Thus, China’s infection and death rate never reached a fraction of the horror we see now in the United States, despite being more highly populated and having less wealth per capita. In fact, even in Wuhan, the very epicenter of the pandemic, life has largely returned to normal due to effective state interventions.
Adding to the country’s admirable handling of the virus domestically, at every turn the country has assisted in the international fight. Italy, again more wealthy per capita than China, was hit brutally by the virus. China deployed a massive number of experts, and planeloads of medical supplies, to assist the country.
China’s capitalist counterpart, however, spent much of the pandemic levying even more extensive sanctions against some of the nations hardest hit by the virus, including Iran and Venezuela. The United States is more than willing to use the virus as a weapon.
In the light of China’s comparative success, it is impossible to read American failure as anything but a conscious choice. The daily death count in the United States has surpassed the total number killed in the 9/11 attack of 2001.
Following 9/11, the United States ransacked Iraq and Afghanistan, launched an endless global war, and basically rewrote large sections of their domestic law. With the death of 9/11 happening every day, but with no solution that would feed the US military industrial complex, there is nothing to be done.
A Feature, not a Bug, of the American State
To the hundreds of thousand of Americans who have died of COVID-19, the government’s response was a catastrophic failure.
Although, describing the undertaking as having failed or the US as being a “failed” state would require believing that “success” –defined by people surviving this pandemic as living peaceful lives and having their basic needs met– was ever truly the goal.
Even the massive $900 billion COVID-19 relief package contained tens of millions of dollars “for democracy programs for Venezuela” (read: the continued funding of Guaido’s efforts to overthrow the Venezuelan government). This spending could never be justified by a state taking this pandemic, or their own population, seriously.
Marxist scholar and Indian parliamentarian Sitaram Yechury handily summarizes the dynamic:
“It boils down to the question of who controls the state or whose class rule it is. Under bourgeois class rule, it is profit indicators that are the driving force. Under working class rule, it is society’s responsibilities that are the priorities.”
Sitaram Yechury, Economy: Reforms for Restoration of Capitalism
Society’s responsibilities surely do not seem to be the priority of the United States government. Needing to call upon tens of thousands of National Guard troops to defend your capital city from the supporters of the former President as COVID-19 vaccines expire, unused, across the country certainly seem like markers of state “fragility.”
The contradiction of protecting public health amidst a crisis, and ensuring the profitability of the healthcare industry is unresolvable. Given Biden’s record, it’s clear which he will pick.
Biden’s proposals lean into the exact type of neoliberalism that has crippled American healthcare, and bolster the already bloated and deadly national security state. As right-wing cultists breach the Capitol building in Washington, and vaccine distribution continues to lag amidst a mounting death toll, there is little cause for celebration in the empire as Biden begins his rule.
”What makes him say this? Certainly not Joe Biden’s record or his 2020 victory. And as the American Lieutenant Nately is reminded in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, “Rome was destroyed, Greece was destroyed, Persia was destroyed, Spain was destroyed. All great countries are destroyed. Why not yours? How much longer do you really think your own country will last? Forever?”