The Origins of American Empire – What They Didn’t Teach You in School

Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States – Prequel A

Directed by Oliver Stone (2014)

Film Review

Owing to the series’ great success, Oliver Stone has produced two prequels to his  Untold History of the United States. The first traces the origins of America’s present empire-building spree at the end of the 19th Century.

Stone credits Lincoln’s Secretary of State William Seward (1861-69) for the launch of America’s imperialist ambitions. Following the US conquest of half of Mexico in 1848, Seward sought to expand US empire even further by conquering Alaska, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Canada, Columbia, the Virgin Islands, Hawaii and Midway.The US would eventually succeed in annexing all of these territories, except for Canada, Haiti and the Dominican Republic – although they only formally possessed the northern section of Columbia, which they renamed Panama.

Then, as now, the US undertook these military adventures at the behest of Rockefeller, JP Morgan, William Randolph Hearst and other Wall Street robber barons. After the severe depression of 1893 (which caused 20% unemployment), they were convinced the only way to prevent further economic instability was to conquer foreign countries for their resources, cheap labor and markets for surplus US products.

During this period, US troops also invaded Cuba, the Philippines, Honduras, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua and China for the benefit of Standard Oil, United Fruit and other US corporations. Stone quotes extensively from General Smedley Butler’s War is a Racket. Butler participated in nearly all of these invasions.

Stone goes on to trace the British, French, US and czarist designs on Middle Eastern oil that were the true basis for World War I and the invasion of Russia by British, French, US and Japanese troops following the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. I was unaware the US refused to recognize the Soviet Union until 1933, when Roosevelt took office.

My favorite parts of this film concern the brave rebels who opposed this US imperialist aggression despite a brutal federal crackdown on all protest activity: Mark Twain and other in the Anti-Imperialist League, Eugene Debs, Bill Haywood and International Workers of the World, Emma Goldman and Mother Jones (Mary Harris Jones).

Hidden History: US Workers’ Bitter Struggle for Labor Rights

Plutocracy II: Solidarity Forever

Directed by Scott Noble (2016)

Film Review

Plutocracy II (the sequel to Plutocracy) covers the resistance movements that arose in response to the brutal sweatshop conditions of US mines and factories in the late 19th century. Prior to the rise of the labor movement, most US workers earned starvation wages, as well as experiencing the highest rate of work place accidents and deaths in the developed world.

This documentary traces the rise of the Molly Maguires, the United Mine Workers, the Western Federation of Miners, the American Railway Workers Union (started by Eugene Debbs), the American Federation of Labor (which only represented white male skilled workers), the Peoples Party (aka the Populist Party), the Socialist Party, the International Workers of the World (IWW) and the progressive and anarchist movement.

Solidarity Forever also highlights the extreme violence used by industrialists and federal and state governments to suppress these movements. During this period, the Pinkerton’s guards (a private army hired by corporate elites), national guardsmen and even US troops openly shot and killed nonviolent strikers without fear of legal repercussions.

The parts of the film I found most interesting concerned the IWW and the anarchist movement. I was previously unaware of IWW’s strict code of nonviolence, despite the stark brutality they experienced at the hands of government authorities. I was also unaware of their role in empowering Mexicans, African Americans and women to assume lead organizing roles – nor that the IWW organized the highly successful (women’s) textile workers strike in Lawrence Massachusetts in 1912.

I was also intrigued to learn about a faction of the early anarchist movement that engaged in “Propaganda of the Deed,” planning and carrying out assassinations of industrialist, generals and politicians in the hope of inspiring mass insurrection.

I was previously unaware of the involvement of the early progressive movement (which had its origins in middle class Christianity) in the eugenics movement and Native American residential schools.

 

Emancipate Yourself from Mental Slavery

“Emancipate yourself from mental slavery – none but ourselves can free our minds” – Bob Marley Redemption Song

PsyWar: the Real Battlefield is the Mind

Directed by Scott Noble (2010)

Film Review

PsyWar is about the fundamental role of propaganda in a political system that pretends to guarantee  “democracy” in a society that simultaneously promotes extreme wealth inequality.

It begins with an examination of the vital role propaganda plays in war time, with a special focus on the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and World War I. It then explores the morphing of the World War I propaganda machine into the modern public relations industry.

The film moves on to the concept of “polyarchy,” which the filmmakers maintain is the most accurate description of government in the industrial north. In a polyarchy, power is closely guarded by a wealthy elite and the population remains passive except for periodic elections in which they vote for the elites of their choice. When a tiny minority controls nearly all the wealth, “democratic” elections are only possible if the majority is systematically controlled with psychological propaganda.

Big breakthroughs in transportation and communication technology at the end of the 19th century caused a major crisis for polyarchy, as they fed the rise of popular resistance movements (eg the populist and progressive movement, International Workers of the World and militant labor movements). The response to this crisis was the public relations industry.

The Rendon Group and Perception Management

The documentary introduces us to the Rendon Group, the private “perception management” company the Bush administration paid to manage propaganda leading up to the US invasion of Iraq. Immediately after 911, the CIA paid the Rendon Group $23 million to generate anti-Iraq propaganda. They also paid them to manage “public perception” during the US bombing of Afghanistan.

The Dirty Secret Behind the US Constitution

PsyWar devotes nearly 15 minutes to the secret framing of the US Constitution by a group of rich landholders and merchants to overturn the Articles of Confederation and protect their wealth from the “tyranny of the majority.” It contrasts the system of direct democracy of the Iroquois Federation (on which the Articles of Confederation were based), where all members of society (including women) had direct input into policy decisions.

The Crisis of Capitalism

According to PsyWar the modern public relations machine performs two vital functions in maintaining the stability of our current capitalist system. The first addresses chronic overproduction. One of the main flaws of capitalism is that once a population’s basic needs are met, the need for continuing production ceases. Our ruling elite could have addressed overproduction by reducing work hours and increasing wages (as they have recently done in Sweden*), but this would have hurt profits. Instead, under the guidance of Edward Bernays (known as the father of public relations) they ramped up consumption by bombarding the masses with pro-consumption propaganda deliberately playing on their psychological insecurities.

The second major role played by modern public relations is to “manufacture consent” of the governed to their overall powerlessness and passivity. Manufacturing consent is a term coined by journalist (and former government intelligence/propaganda agent) Walter Lippmann. It was Lippman’s view that the majority of Americans are meddlesome outsiders who are totally incompetent to govern themselves.


*In October, Sweden announced they were moving to a six-hour work day to improve productivity and improve work-life balance Sweden introduces 6 hour work day