The Century: A Nation's-Eye View

by Eric Foner

The Nation magazine, Jan. 10/17, 2000


The turn of the century has become the occasion for all-too-predictable retrospectives and prophecies. In the hope of offering a somewhat different perspective, this special issue of The Nation presents a listing of 100 of the century's crucial events. Drawing on the magazine's rich archives from 1900 on, we have also assembled a running commentary on the century-a Nation's-eye view, as it were-in the form of excerpts from editorials, articles and reviews in the magazine.

This list focuses on two central developments. The first is the triumphant growth of American corporate capitalism (overcoming disasters like the Great Depression and the challenge posed by socialism and communism) and the concomitant emergence of the United States as the world's pre-eminent power, striving, sometimes with calamitous results for the rest of mankind, to remake the globe in the American image. The second is the unfinished struggle between the powerful and the disempowered, the free and the less free, the haves and the want-to-haves, over what kind of country this hegemonic power is and ought to be.

When the twentieth century opened, the United States had stridden onto the world scene as an aspiring economic empire with dominion over far-flung colonial peoples, thanks to the acquisition of overseas possessions in the Spanish-American War. But American power rests on far more than territorial sovereignty. At the last fin de siecle, the British writer W.T. Stead published a short volume with the arresting title, The Americanisation of the World, or the Trend of the Twentieth Century. Stead observed that the United States was emerging as "the greatest of world-powers," and he identified the inexorable spread o f American ideas about art, science, music, gender relations and "the pursuit of wealth," rather than military prowess, as the fundamental source of American power. He foresaw a future in which the United States would promote its values and interests through an unending involvement in the affairs of other nations.

Today, as the century draws to a close, we are in many ways living in the world Stead imagined. The collapse of communism as an ideology and of the Soviet Union as a world power has made possible an unprecedented internationalization of current American values, among them free choice in the consumer marketplace, reduced government economic regulation and an emphasis on individual self-fulfillment rather than the social good, all promoted by an internationalized mass media and consumer culture.

As this century turns, America's historic sense of mission has been redefined to mean the creation of a single global free market in which capital, natural resources and human labor are nothing more than factors of production in an endless quest for ever greater productivity and profits, while activities with broader social aims are criticized as burdens on international competitiveness. The ideology of the global free market assumes that the economic life of all countries should be refashioned in the image of the United States.

Even as the United States has risen to become the predominant international power, however, conflict has persisted over the nature of American society itself and what its role in the world should be. This debate has involved not only political leaders and captains of industry but the struggles of anonymous men and women protesting their exclusion from the "pursuit of happiness" promised by the Declaration of Independence and the "blessings of liberty" enshrined in the Constitution. Often in the face of powerful opposition and government repression, popular social movements of workers, feminists, civil libertarians and many others have done much to shape the twentieth century, extending American rights and freedoms into realms inconceivable in 1900.

The Nation came into existence in 1865, a pivotal year in the consolidation of American nationalism (hence the magazine's title) and of racial egalitarianism, products of the North's victory in the Civil War and the destruction of slavery. But the nation and The Nation soon retreated from the ideal of racial equality. E.L. Godkin, this magazine's first editor, an early advocate of enfranchising the (male) former slaves, added his influential voice to calls for abandoning federal responsibility for enforcing blacks' newly acquired rights.

By the turn of the century, the language of "race"-race conflict, race feeling, race problems-had assumed a central place in American public discourse, applied not only to now disenfranchised and segregated African-Americans but to Asians, increasingly barred from entering the country, and to the millions of new immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. This has indeed turned out to be the century of the color line, as W.E.B. Du Bois prophesied, and of its dismantlement-at least in its legal manifestations-thanks to the courage of ordinary men and women who braved violent retribution to demand racial justice. ~

History, however, is not a linear narrative of progress. Rights may be won and taken away; gains are never complete or uncontested, and popular movements generate their own countervailing pressures. As the century draws to a close; long-discredited ideas (social Darwinism, belief in inborn racial inequality and the "natural" differences between the sexes) again occupy respected positions in public discourse. Today's attacks on affirmative action, abortion rights, freedom of expression and the separation of church and state remind us that, as the abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson put it during the Civil War, "revolutions may go backwards." Nonetheless, America at the turn of this century is a far freer, more egalitarian society than in 1900, the result not of the immanent logic of a supposed American Creed of justice and equality but of struggles on picket lines and at lunch counters, in polling booths and even in bedrooms.

From the Spanish-American War to Vietnam, citizen movements have also challenged the dominant imperial vision of American power and the ways the United States has ridden roughshod over others' right of self-determination. Today's challenges to the ideology of globalization by a revitalized labor movement, environmentalists and others are heirs to a long tradition that imagines this country's worldwide role as the promotion of greater social equality rather than military power and corporate profits.

Of the questions that have preoccupied Americans for the past two centuries none are more pressing than the vast inequalities in wealth, income and power spawned by capitalism's heedless expansion. The Founding Fathers, convinced that democratic government required an economically independent citizenry, feared that progress would ultimately produce a society with a wealthy aristocracy akin to the upper classes of Europe and a non-propertied majority easily incited to use their political power to despoil the rich. In such circumstances, they feared, republican government could not flourish. Today this same fundamental question of the relationship between political and economic democracy continues to bedevil our country and, indeed, the entire world.

With the fall of the Soviet Union and the replacement in Africa and Latin America of military regimes by elected governments, the 1990s were supposed to be the worldwide decade of democracy. Yet in our own country, democracy is in disarray: Fewer than half the population bothers to vote, and distrust of government as an alien and intrusive force is pervasive.

Much of this disillusionment stems from the popular belief (not unreasonable, based on recent experience) that our political system is so corrupted by money that only wealthy individuals and giant corporations can expect to have their interests attended to by the state. The challenge of the new century is whether this disillusionment with the functioning of our democracy can become the basis for a revitalization of the traditions of American radicalism

Globalization may be Americanizing the world, but it is also throwing into question traditional ideas about the relationship between national identity, social justice and political freedom. Decisions that affect the day-to-day lives of millions of people are made by institutions-the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organization and multinational corporations- that operate without a shred of democratic accountability.

Will capitalism's global march produce a widely shared abundance or a continued widening of the gap between social classes-or, more precisely, on the evidence of the 1990s, the gulf between the very rich and everyone else, which persists amid an economic boom? Will political rationales for corporate power like neoliberalism or the Third Way become more deeply entrenched? Will democratic self-government survive the next century, or will the continuing internationalization of economic relations render the nation-state essentially irrelevant? Will America's role in the world be that of an increasingly isolated superpower, or will the United States support and work through multilateral organizations like the UN? Will the growing racial and ethnic diversity of the American population promote greater toleration and a more egalitarian society in which all share the same substantive rights or will it produce fragmentation and bitterness as the affluent (mostly white) wall themselves off from those at the lower rungs of the social order? These are the questions, bequeathed by the twentieth century, that will shape the life of the nation and The Nation in the twenty-first.

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