By Sam Ashman
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Home and Away US Style

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Review of 'What's Wrong with America?' by Jonathan Neale, Vision £10.99
Issue 289

I don’t suppose there is much left to say about the pictures, and the reality, of the Iraqi prisoners left grovelling on the floor of Abu Ghraib. No matter how much they say Abu Ghraib is an aberration, Bush, Cheney et al cannot claim to be strangers to racialised, brutal incarceration.

The United States jails 2 million of its citizens, and more than 60 percent of the prison population is African-American or Latino. Incarceration has reached unprecedented levels, and US prisons are, like Abu Ghraib, systematically run on the basis of violence, humiliation and racism. It is not exactly the same, of course, because it’s not a colonial situation. But it is no accident that two of the ringleaders of Abu Ghraib were correction officers in the US.

This is the strong central argument of Jonathan Neale’s new book – that the rulers of the US do to their ‘own’ what they do to others abroad. One powerful chapter documents the nature of the living hell that US prisons are today. You will have to read it for yourself, but even a federal judge has described Texas’s segregation units as ‘virtual incubators of psychosis’.

Jonathan puts all of this in a bigger context. The huge movements for civil rights for blacks, against the war in Vietnam, for women’s and gay liberation, shook the US ruling class in the 1960s and 1970s. Some 100 US cities burned after Martin Luther King was assassinated. Subsequently we have seen a two-pronged strategy that, in short, explains what is wrong with America.

Firstly, employers and governments have faced pressure on the rate of profit from the 1970s onwards. In response there’s been increasing exploitation, longer hours, cuts in pay, loss of jobs, and all the pressure and social effects that go with this. Successive defeats of US workers have meant an accumulation of ‘both helplessness and bitterness.’

Jonathan quotes a labour lawyer who wrote in the early 1990s of how his heart sinks whenever he hears the words ‘organised labour’ because he so desperately wants labour to be organised but also feels it is futile and impossible to organise, that people have tried and failed ‘a million heartbreaking times’. He concludes that solidarity and the union are ‘the only love left in the country that dare not speak its name’.

Throughout this – and the rest of the book – Jonathan shows what can only be described as tremendous feeling for the frustrations and bitterness of ordinary working class Americans, and how the fact that politicians and trade union leaders do not talk about class only makes matters worse. In a way, this is the importance of what Michael Moore does – as Fahrenheit 9/11 shows so brilliantly. He speaks to ordinary working class Americans about being ordinary working class Americans. He talks openly about class.

The second part of the two-pronged strategy of the US ruling class has been taking control of and reshaping the social agenda or, in other words, rolling back the clock on the gains made for blacks, women and gays by the mass movements of the 1960s and 1970s. In particular, Jonathan focuses on the ‘war on drugs’ and the general offensive on law and order of the last 25 years, and how it is a war on poor black men – and it is precisely this war that has increased the prison population.

It doesn’t stop here though. It is the same strategy that is also being pursued by the rulers of the US in the international arena. Here Jonathan’s account of ‘globalisation’ is especially good. He argues that globalisation is about restoring US profits ‘by doing to the world what they were already doing to American workers’.

Globalisation is the ‘conscious attempt, led by the American ruling class, to restructure the world economy’. Firstly the American ruling class tries to increase the share of wealth going to corporations at the expense of the share going to working people and, secondly, it tries to increase the share of wealth going to American corporations as opposed to any other corporations.

Jonathan talks about some of the global consequences of this strategy through the example of the WTO and Aids. This takes him to the revival of protest, to Seattle and new movements of resistance, to 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, Kerry. It’s quite a tour de force. It’s also a passionate, angry, illuminating and extremely readable book.

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