Rightists Sell Anti-Government Message

Since Ronald Reagan, the Republicans have rallied many Americans around the notion that “government is the problem.” And, despite disasters for the middle and working classes, right-wing intellectuals like Charles Krauthammer continue to sell the same message, as Lawrence Davidson describes.

By Lawrence Davidson

Charles Krauthammer is the most celebrated contemporary conservative thinker in the United States. But let it be known that he is not just a theorist. He is man of political action who wants a conservative in the White House to line up with those already in control of Congress.

He wants to win. Thus he supports Republican candidates such Marco Rubio and Chris Christie (Ted Cruz, while a “genuine conservative,” is too “radical,” and Jeb Bush isn’t mentioned at all) as potential presidents who “would give conservatism its best opportunity since Reagan to become the country’s governing philosophy.” Those are the words of an unapologetic ideologue: what is good for the country is the Krauthammer philosophy of conservatism in control of the government.

Neoconservative pundit Charles Krauthammer.

Neoconservative pundit Charles Krauthammer.

What does this mean? For Krauthammer, as for so many other conservative thinkers who have never really evolved away from Nineteenth Century capitalist economic theory, conservatism in power means the “reform” of big government, or as he still describes it, “the Twentieth Century welfare state.” Reform essentially means significant downsizing of government in the name of individual “freedom,” primarily in the marketplace, and, of course, a corresponding cut in taxes for the business class.

There are several things dangerously wrong about Krauthammer’s simplistic approach to “conservative governing.” One is that, in a country like the U.S. with approximately 320 million people (a considerable number of them getting steadily poorer), doing away with welfare state services and regulations seriously risks further impoverishment, increased economic exploitation in the workplace, an erosion of state and local infrastructures, and an explosion in business corruption.

While Krauthammer would never agree, it is simply historically untrue that capitalism, without widespread government regulation and significant financial support for basic services, has ever brought prosperity to the majority of any population.

The second thing wrong with Krauthammer’s thinking is his apparent inability to understand the difference between inefficiency and government size. Big government is necessary for the social and economic health of big societies. But increased size does not automatically translate into government inefficiency.

The need to monitor the efficiency of all bureaucracies so that they perform their jobs in a smooth and timely fashion is one thing. Downsizing to the point of near dismantlement of necessary government bureaus based on the conservative ideological assumption that they are chronically inefficient and overly expensive dead weight is quite another. The former will make things better. The latter will risk societal collapse.

Populism and Socialism

Nonetheless, it is this downsizing “reform” of the welfare state that Krauthammer tells us is the answer to the “deep anxiety stemming from the secular (sic) stagnation of wages and living standards that has squeezed the middle and working classes for a generation.” He juxtaposes this ideologically dictated answer against those he believes come from Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

The former offers “ethnonationalist populism.” Krauthammer tells us what is already obvious, that Trump blames the nation’s problems “on foreigners, most prominently those cunning Mexicans, Chinese, Japanese, and Saudis who have been taking merciless advantage of us.” (How anyone can put the Mexicans in with the Saudis is beyond me.)

However, while debunking Trump’s xenophobia, Krauthammer fails to mention that it is those conservative ideologues of his own camp who have pushed hardest for the sort of free trade agreements that have allowed Donald Trump to focus on outsiders.

Then there is the phenomenon of Bernie Sanders. As far as Krauthammer’s understanding goes, Sanders is preaching socialism, and the apparent positive response to this baffles him.

It is hard to believe that the U.S., having resisted the siren song of socialism during its entire 20th century heyday should suddenly succumb to its charms a decade after its intellectual demise,” Krauthammer writes.

Only from behind the walls of Krauthammer’s conservative ideology can socialism be considered “intellectually dead.” It is certainly alive and politically competitive in western and northern Europe.

Of course, despite Krauthammer’s failure to make the distinction, Sanders is nowhere near the kind of socialist found in the Soviet bloc during the Cold War. In truth Sanders is closer to the prevailing social democrats of Western Europe or even the liberal wing of the Democratic Party prior to the coming to power of the Bill Clinton crowd.

And, it can be argued, the success of Sanders’s message is in direct proportion to the failure of Krauthammer’s conservatism to bring lasting economic prosperity and secure social services to the people of the United States. Nonetheless, Krauthammer cannot see this relationship. For him, Sanders’s ultimate success is unimaginable.

The Dems would be risking a November electoral disaster of historic dimensions” if they nominated Sanders, he says. Actually this might be so, but not because of any real socialist program on Sanders’s part. Rather, disaster would be the product of relentless Republican red-baiting, to the point that the reality of Sanders’s policy proposals becomes irrelevant. Indeed, Krauthammer’s characterization of Sanders may well be the first shot in such a red-baiting campaign.

Charles Krauthammer’s conservative ideological outlook is every bit as destructive as Trump’s “ethnonationalist populism.” The reality is that Krauthammer’s conservatism has been the guiding light of the U.S. economy since its inception and produced a history of continual booms and busts, the latter coming as ever deeper and prolonged depressions.

This went on throughout the late Eighteenth and Nineteenth and into the Twentieth Century, culminating in the Great Depression of 1929. So disastrous was that crash, along with the fact of competition from the young Soviet Union, that there was finally some soul-searching on the part of the smarter capitalists, who then made the effort to rationalize their system.

In the U.S., this came in the form of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Roosevelt brought the necessary regulation and government expansion to semi-stabilize the economy and bring a modicum of security to the common citizen. Depressions were held down to periodic recessions while Social Security, unemployment insurance and other commonsense social programs made their debut.

It is a mark of the ahistorical nature of their ideological worldview that Krauthammer conservatives have been complaining about big government ever since, while apparently forgetting all about capitalism’s original sins. Just to juice up their argument, they throw in talk of “individual freedom” in the marketplace while disparaging other freedoms and rights, such as those relating to healthcare, education, equal opportunity, and gender equality and the like as if they were not part of the mix that should make up a modern civilization.

There is something truly inhumane in the Krauthammer perspective. But that does not mean that those politicians such as Marco Rubio and Chris Christie who espouse such bankrupt ideas are incapable of winning local, state and national elections. Never underestimate the ignorance and gullibility of conservative-minded voters.

For them there will always be the siren song of a Charles Krauthammer. One is reminded of the description of a British conservative politician given by the English philosopher Gilbert Ryle, one that fits America’s celebrated conservative thinker pretty well: “He stood like a light out to sea, firmly beckoning ships on to the rocks.”

Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.

31 comments for “Rightists Sell Anti-Government Message

  1. Perry
    February 14, 2016 at 12:31

    Our experiment in conservatism has shown us that government is the only solution for all the problems we created by treating government as the problem.

  2. J'hon Doe II
    February 10, 2016 at 13:14

    Dave S
    February 10, 2016 at 7:43 am
    “Capitalism did not create a dangerous war machine attacking the globe, government sycophants and demented sociopaths who believe in government force did. Blaming capitalism for terrible state of the American economy, in my opinion is just poor thinking or dishonesty in service of an even more government controlled economy, which by any measure is bankrupting the USA.”

    February 9, 2016 at 7:16 am
    US has the most dismal role in all the recent conflicts . They have thrown west Asia to Jehadi hounds by their unscruplous support of regimes like Saudi Arabia . Its Petro dollar fraud on the world is already compromised and challenged . Saddam ,Gaddafi and Asad all put together are like saints compared to the vile Wahabi Al Saud family . I wish Asad all the success and liberation from these so called well wishers of Demcracy .

    To Dave S:
    Is capitalism related to imperialism? (globalization)
    Aren’t capitalist expansionist ideals driving our imperialism?
    Who is most to blame for alhaudal’s dilemma?

  3. J'hon Doe II
    February 10, 2016 at 12:16

    So, Dave S, you apparently think in the realm of “Government is not the solution, government is the problem.” –Don’t you realize the decline of the American middle class is squarely on the shoulders of the falsely revered Ronald Reagan? — That the capitalists’ termination of the Glass-Stegal Act opened the door to massive deregulation of banks and massive Wall Street corruption?

    FDR’s social programs lifted the US out of the ‘great depression’ which was provided by republican favortism toward the wealthy. under Hoover.
    Please don’t forget that the recent ‘great recession’ came under GW Bush and new transfer-of-wealth republican policies.

    If capitalism is not to blame for the state of our economy, who is? The 47% of so-called “takers”?

    Non-Jaundiced eyes know whom are the real TAKERS in this economy – it’s not the 99%.
    You should find the work of Ellen Brown on US economic problems.

  4. Dave S
    February 10, 2016 at 07:43

    I really dislike Charles Krauthammer, but really have to fundamentally disagree with many of the authors contentions in the article. Until FDR created the now bankrupt Social Security and his other socialist programs the US was the freest and most prosperous nation on the planet. This without a Central Bank for most of its existence. I can double check the dates but after the closure of America’s second of three central banks until the creation of the third which was ostensibly to transfer even more power to entrenched government and banking interests the US enjoyed the greatest period of economic growth in history. His other social programs were arguably no better and the continual piling on of government programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, FHA, Affordable Care Act to name just a few have completely cartelized the American economy into fiefdoms feeding from the government trough. Is crony capitalism or this quasi socialist economy working anymore? No, except for those who can buy the political class. Central banking, social security, massive subsidies, deposit insurance, HUD, the list of socialist programs that have turned America into the greatest debtor nation in history is readily apparent. Capitalism did not create a dangerous war machine attacking the globe, government sycophants and demented sociopaths who believe in government force did. Blaming capitalism for terrible state of the American economy, in my opinion is just poor thinking or dishonesty in service of an even more government controlled economy, which by any measure is bankrupting the USA.

  5. J'hon Doe II
    February 9, 2016 at 19:17

    Perhaps the act of giving, helping, listening to others enhance self preservation as the Word says ,
    “Greater Love has no man than this than a man lay down his life for a friend….
    to say not give all but the act of willful self less ness is warranted and necessary today as the world and its people(s)
    are SO self centered.
    And so man has through history desired to rule as Kings
    the caste (class ) system
    much like the super rich
    backed by corporate America
    dumps on the POOR of all colors, races, ethnicity….

    So a clique maybe but as times get harder then the TRIBE theory of last season we spoke is the BEST
    and will be the only way to stay alive and well in the USA.

  6. J'hon Doe II
    February 9, 2016 at 19:10

    Outcry from a dear friend:
    Perhaps the act of giving, helping, listening to others enhance self preservation as the Word says ,
    “Greater Love has no man than this than a man lay down his life for a friend….
    to say not give all but the act of willful self less ness is warranted and necessary today as the world and its people(s)
    are SO self centered.
    And so man has through history desired to rule as Kings
    the caste (class ) system
    much like the super rich
    backed by corporate America
    dumps on the POOR of all colors, races, ethnicity….

    So a clique maybe but as times get harder then the TRIBE theory of last season we spoke is the BEST
    and will be the only way to stay alive and well in the USA.
    Perhaps the act of giving, helping, listening to others enhance self preservation as the Word says ,”Greater Love has no man than this than a man lay down his life for a friend…. to say not give all but the act of willful self less ness is warranted and necessary today as the world and its people(s) are SO self centered. And man has through history desired so to rule as Kings the caste (class ) system much like the super rich backed by corporate America dumps on the POOR of all colors, races, ethnicity…..So a clique maybe but as times get harder then the TRIBE theory of last season we spoke is the BEST and will be the only way to stay alive and well in the USA.

    Perhaps the act of giving, helping, listening to others enhance self preservation as the Word says ,”Greater Love has no man than this than a man lay down his life for a friend…. to say not give all but the act of willful self less ness is warranted and necessary today as the world and its people(s) are SO self centered. And man has through history desired so to rule as Kings the caste (class ) system much like the super rich backed by corporate America dumps on the POOR of all colors, races, ethnicity…..So a clique maybe but as times get harder then the TRIBE theory of last season we spoke is the BEST and will be the only way to stay alive and well in the USA.

  7. dahoit
    February 9, 2016 at 19:09

    Zionist ideologues are not intellectuals,by any measure,and only in their warped minds is there that description.
    Can anyone point out where any of these clowns have been right about anything other than causing chaos,death and destruction?Diabolical maybe,but if that’s intellect we might as well all commit suicide.

  8. J'hon Doe II
    February 9, 2016 at 18:28

    Which are the proletariats? –
    or Social Media-ites

    and, what became of the
    “liberal media”?
    sequestered by corporates

    Those “Ruling Elites”
    (Bush’s Base)
    now known as, the 1%.

    the Ownership Society
    descendents of Eli Yale
    Original Colony Members.

    • dahoit
      February 9, 2016 at 19:11

      No,Zionists didn’t come over on the Mayflower.

  9. Karl
    February 9, 2016 at 14:08

    How exactly is it “conservative” to revert to a system which was abandoned almost 100 years ago? Why not call the reactionaries what they are? Lets us not forget that when we allow reactionaries call themselves conservatives, we also let conservatives call themselves liberals, and liberals call themselves socialists.

  10. jaycee
    February 9, 2016 at 13:55

    As committed ideologues, most conservative advocates would reject a critique of free market economics as having failed to ever provide for the welfare of the majority by claiming that the full free market prescription had yet to be fully enforced or realized.

    Helpful in understanding modern conservative ideologues is seeing that their intellectual world-view is more Ayn Rand than it is Adam Smith. Along with “Wealth of Nations”, Smith authored “Theory of Moral Sentiments”, which condemned greed and selfishness. Smith believed the free market of Wealth of Nations should be regulated by the moral universe of the earlier book. But when Smith was lionized by conservative economic theorists in the 1970s and 80’s, his book on morality and ethics was entirely ignored. In its place, Ayn Rand’s theories of selfishness.

  11. J'hon Doe II
    February 9, 2016 at 10:33

    To Curious;

    Thank you for the above erudition on proper usage. Your knowledge of grammar far exceeds mine. I’ve copied your comment to my notes page and will dig up my Elements of Style, thank you very much…

    As for the distraction you mentioned, my emphasis is set upon the common distortions of history past and present – vis-a-vis the today propaganda that feeds the American “news” reports. I’m sure you caught that intent. Past is Present —

    The today disturbed, shouting Conservatives want to “Take Our Country Back” —
    Again, past is present… .

    In his superbly documented work, “A Little Matter of Genocide”, author Ward Churchill examines the genocide of Native Americans by Europeans and Euro-Americans, quite possibly the gravest perpetration in history of that utterly insane collective behavior that for lack of a more comprehensible term is denominated crimes against humanity. The book presents detailed accounts supported by solid evidence that clearly establish the magnitude of this unparalleled event in terms of the scores of millions of individuals that were murdered or intentionally driven to death, cultures annihilated, cultures terrorized and victimized, mortality rates in the surviving cultures, geographic extent and duration of the crimes (the entire hemisphere for five centuries so far), number of countries committing the crimes, and shocking degree of horrid brutality employed in the persecutions, especially against defenseless women, children and elders. Not even modern-age, race-based slavery, that other shamefully atrocious invention of Western civilization, can compare in terms of the scale of the depravity. Churchill’s book is essential reading for anyone concerned about the historical foundations of and contemporary policy implications for Western governments and societies as well as the pervasive influence of this legacy on personal mindsets.

    • J'hon Doe II
      February 9, 2016 at 10:53

      The above paragraph is book review published on Amazon;
      A sobering look in the Western cultural mirror
      ByDiego Azeta
      February 2, 2011

  12. Andrew Nichols
    February 8, 2016 at 19:22

    Krauthammer? Wasnt he one of the James Bond villains?

  13. Christene
    February 8, 2016 at 16:42

    “However [political parties] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people…..”
    ~George Washington~

    The spark of the Revolution and the birth pangs of democracy began with an act of sheer rage. It was called the Boston Tea Party, and it was the opening salvo against tyranny. Americans have finally been shaken out of their political stupor only to be greeted by the nightmare of a tyranny run by greedy, corrupt, duplicitous, manipulative, power hungry politicians, lobbyists and billionaire Elitists.

    The spectacle of watching the Beltway Establishment on both sides of the aisle hunkering down, determined to thwart the will of the people in their very own parties, is reprehensible and revolting.
    Clinton, by all rights, should be toast, but I am sure she will end up being the nominee because the powers-that-be will it.
    Over on the Republican side, the energy being put forth trying to derail Trump and Cruz is breathtaking. The Republican Elitists don’t even try to hide their contempt and disdain for their own constituents anymore. It’s just all out war.

    If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over but expecting a different result, then this farce we are all engaging in is sheer lunacy. As a lifelong Republican and political junkie, who cast her first vote in 1980 for Reagan, I have decided that I am done with national politics. Real change demands courage, fortitude, and plain hard work, but it is possible. I would invite all Americans who still have some common sense and intestinal fortitude left to learn about Article V, the Tenth Amendment, and the Convention of States.

    P.S. And disregard the overwrought fear mongering you may have heard about this movement. It has been beyond the pale. Put forth some effort, educate yourself, and then decide FOR YOURSELF.

  14. Rob
    February 8, 2016 at 15:34

    Lest we forget, Krauthammer is not only a conservative ideologue, he is also a card-carrying neoconservative who has relentlessly agitated for war and regime change wherever and whenever he felt that it would serve the interests of Israel and the American moneyed class. The man is a true menace. I would love to see him airlifted into the middle of the Syrian civil war and left alone in his wheelchair to fend off ISIS, whose formation was the direct result of policies that he advocated.

  15. Zachary Smith
    February 8, 2016 at 14:49

    This Krauthammer character is simply in denial. He just can’t admit that a great many Americans intensely dislike the direction the US has been going. Having to drink poisoned water and eat hormone-laced food. Having to sign for “contract” employment despite having regular money outlays like food and house mortgages which don’t function well with long interruptions. Being forced to train the much-lower-wage replacement for your present job. Watching the filthy rich get ever more wealthy, and being preached at that it’s a great idea – that one of these days you’d get some “trickle-down” benefits when they urinate on you again.

    It’s my own view that both parties have many members who share in the dissatisfaction. The Republicans flooded to Trump for no other reason than his departing from the standard line. Democrats strongly resent the unending betrayals from their own party, the most recent of which is the self-righteous expectation of the warmongering & and incompetent & corrupt Hillary Clinton that she be offered the Democratic nomination on a silver platter.

    Krauthammer’s dream tickets would be Hillary and Cruz. Either way, his most favorite nation of Israel wins – big time. At heart, Hillary remains a right-wing Goldwater Republican herself. Personally, I expect she’d trounce Cruz or some similar idiot, her own glaring flaws being simply overwhelmed by those of almost any member of the Republican Clown Car. I’m not sure about a Hillary-Trump affair, and I’ll admit I’d be hoping for Hillary to lose such a contest. Trump would be a disaster beyond words, but not quite as much so as Hillary, IMO.

    Where things fall apart for the fanatics like Krauthammer is the possibility of Sanders becoming the Democratic nominee. Despite all his own flaws, Sanders is obviously the class of the candidates, and even a great many Republicans would recognize the fact.

    Given all the opposition against him, Sanders faces an uphill fight. Virtually all the media with the editorials of their resident neocons & neoliberals and the Diebold-Type no-verification voting machines make an impressive obstacle course.

    • J'hon Doe II
      February 8, 2016 at 15:40

      I sign on to every preposition, Zachary Smith.
      Great ideas, thoughtful paragraphs w/deep focus.

  16. Bill Bodden
    February 8, 2016 at 14:26

    It is mind-boggling that Krauthammer and others like him who got it so very wrong on so many issues that evolved into monumental disasters, especially the war on Iraq, are still prominent figures in the media and in the halls of power. Other commentators claiming decadence and moral decline in the United States and Europe appear to be closer to the truth.

    • Bill Bodden
      February 8, 2016 at 20:33

      Of course, the retention of power by people responsible for monstrous blunders and travesties is mind-boggling for people who adhere to the concept that this nation should be one that functions according to laws based on the Constitution and moral principles. The reality, however, is that the United States is dominated by people in pursuit of power with the credo that might makes right and morality has nothing to do with decision-making. Accordingly, these insults to the American people are understandable:

      “Hillary Clinton Boasts Praise by Henry Kissinger—a Man With Blood on His Hands, Critics Say” – http://www.truthdig.com/eartotheground/item/hillary_clinton_accepts_praise_from_a_man_with_a_lot_of_blood_20160207

      “Albright: ‘special place in hell’ for women who don’t support Clinton: Former secretary of state says women must help each other, while people are talking about a ‘revolution’ led by the first female US president” – http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/feb/06/madeleine-albright-campaigns-for-hillary-clinton

      This is the same Albright who was Bill Clinton’s secretary of state and who infamously said of the sanctions that cost an estimated half million Iraqi children their lives, “We Think the Price Is Worth It.” “We” would have included Bill and co-president Hillary and key figures in their administration. We think the price is worth it – http://fair.org/extra-online-articles/we-think-the-price-is-worth-it/

  17. J'hon Doe II
    February 8, 2016 at 14:13

    Who vs Whom

    Who is an interrogative pronoun and is used in place of the subject of a question.
    Who is going?
    Who are you?
    Is this who told you?

    Who can also be used in statements, in place of the subject of a clause.
    This is who warned me.
    Jack is the one who wants to go.

    Anyone who knows the truth should tell us.

    Whom is also an interrogative pronoun, but it is used in place of the object of a question.
    Whom is this story about?
    With whom are you going?
    Whom did they tell?

    And whom can be used in statements, in place of the object of a clause.

    This is the man whom I told you about.
    John is the man whom you met at dinner last week.

    Whom is always the correct choice after a preposition.

    The students, one of whom is graduating this year, failed the test.

    Lisa is the girl with whom I’m driving to Maine.


    • J'hon Doe II
      February 8, 2016 at 15:09

      Who or Whom, is or will write the early history of the 21st century?
      Those now writing as opposed to latent period reports.?

      The now ‘journalists’ can’t compare to W. Cronkite nor to
      Twilight Zone writers whom creatively chronicled their era.

      They who create reality control the process of thought.
      Thereby is history established by those who/whom control it.

      • Curious
        February 8, 2016 at 20:57

        to Doe Jr;

        I believe, if you take the who/whom issue further, you will find that English, as a Germanic language, ‘whom’ is used in the dative case vs the nominative case, and often not in the accusative case without a verb. In German, the declension follows aus,bei,mit,nach,zeit,von,zu which all will put the following use of whom in the dative case. e.g. with whom, to whom, from whom, to whom etc. Something in the nominative case should not use the dative. But a lot of words were borrowed from the Latin and French of course.

        I suppose you could also point out that the use of an apostrophe is to show a deletion of a letter. e.g. it’s, that’s etc but all our spell checks use an apostrophe in the possessive which is not a deletion. e.g. the owners’ store, the parents’ child has become the owner’s, and the parent’s which is fundamentally bad grammar. But as George Bernard Shaw wrote, Americans have stopped using English for years.

        I’ll go back to reading how Krauthammer (in German, hammer of cabbage) is a person worth negating at all cost. But thanks for the distraction.

        • J'hon Doe II
          February 9, 2016 at 11:29

          A closer look at hammer of cabbage through the reasonings of his friends and cohorts

          The Truth About Western “Colonialism”
          by Bruce Thornton
          Tuesday, July 21, 2015

          Language is the first casualty of wars over foreign policy. To paraphrase Thucydides, during ideological conflict, words have to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which is now given them.

          One word that has been central to our foreign policy for over a century is “colonialism.” Rather than describing a historical phenomenon––with all the complexity, mixture of good and evil, and conflicting motives found on every page of history––“colonialism” is now an ideological artifact that functions as a crude epithet. As a result, our foreign policy decisions are deformed by self-loathing and guilt eagerly exploited by our adversaries.

          The great scholar of Soviet terror, Robert Conquest, noted this linguistic corruption decades ago. Historical terms like “imperialism” and “colonialism,” Conquest wrote, now refer to “a malign force with no program but the subjugation and exploitation of innocent people.” As such, these terms are verbal “mind-blockers and thought-extinguishers,” which serve “mainly to confuse, and of course to replace, the complex and needed process of understanding with the simple and unneeded process of inflammation.” Particularly in the Middle East, “colonialism” has been used to obscure the factual history that accounts for that region’s chronic dysfunctions, and has legitimized policies doomed to fail because they are founded on distortions of that history.

          The simplistic discrediting of colonialism and its evil twin imperialism became prominent in the early twentieth century. In 1902 J.A. Hobson’s influential Imperialism: A Study reduced colonialism to a malign economic phenomenon, the instrument of capitalism’s “economic parasites,” as Hobson called them, who sought resources, markets, and profits abroad. In 1917, Vladimir Lenin, faced with the failure of classical Marxism’s historical predictions of the proletarian revolution, in 1917 built on Hobson’s ideas in Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. Now the indigenous colonized peoples would perform the historical role of destroying capitalism that the European proletariat had failed to fulfill.

          These ideas influenced the anti-colonial movements after World War II. John-Paul Sartre, in his introduction to Franz Fanon’s anti-colonial screed The Wretched of the Earth, wrote, “Natives of the underdeveloped countries unite!” substituting the Third World for classic Marxism’s “workers of the world.” This leftist idealization of the colonial Third World and its demonization of the capitalist West have survived the collapse of the Soviet Union and the discrediting of Marxism, and have become received wisdom both in academe and popular culture. It has underwritten the reflexive guilt of the West, the idea that “every Westerner is presumed guilty until proven innocent,” as French philosopher Pascal Bruckner writes, for the West contains an “essential evil that must be atoned for,” colonialism and imperialism.

          This leftist interpretation of words like colonialism and imperialism transforms them into ideologically loaded terms that ultimately distort the tragic truths of history. They imply that Europe’s explorations and conquests constituted a new order of evil. In reality, the movements of peoples in search of resources, as well as the destruction of those already in possession of them, is the perennial dynamic of history.

          Whether it was the Romans in Gaul, the Arabs throughout the Mediterranean and Southern Asia, the Huns in Eastern Europe, the Mongols in China, the Turks in the Middle East and the Balkans, the Bantu in southern Africa, the Khmer in East Asia, the Aztecs in Mexico, the Iroquois in the Northeast, or the Sioux throughout the Great Plains, human history has been stained by man’s continual use of brutal violence to acquire land and resources and destroy or replace those possessing them. Scholars may find subtle nuances of evil in the European version of this ubiquitous aggression, but for the victims such fine discriminations are irrelevant.

          Yet this ideologically loaded and historically challenged use of words like “colonial” and “colonialist” remains rife in analyses of the century-long disorder in the Middle East. Both Islamists and Arab nationalists, with sympathy from the Western left, have blamed the European “colonialists” for the lack of development, political thuggery, and endemic violence whose roots lie mainly in tribal culture, illiberal shari’a law, and sectarian conflicts.

          Moreover, it is blatant hypocrisy for Arab Muslims to complain about imperialism and colonialism. As Middle East historian Efraim Karsh documents in Islamic Imperialism, “The Arab conquerors acted in a typically imperialist fashion from the start, subjugating indigenous populations, colonizing their lands, and expropriating their wealth, resources, and labor.” Indeed, if one wants to find a culture defined by imperialist ambitions, Islam fits the bill much better than do Europeans and Americans, latecomers to the great game of imperial domination that Muslims successfully played for a thousand years.

          “From the first Arab-Islamic empire of the mid-seventh century to the Ottomans, the last great Muslim empire,” Karsh writes, “the story of Islam has been the story of the rise and fall of universal empires and, no less important, of imperialist dreams.”

          A recent example of this confusion caused by careless language can be found in commentary about the on-going dissolution of Iraq caused by sectarian and ethnic conflicts. There is a growing consensus that the creation of new nations in the region after World War I sowed the seeds of the current disorder. Ignoring those ethnic and sectarian differences, the British fashioned the nation of Iraq out of three Ottoman provinces that had roughly concentrated Kurds, Sunni, and Shi’a in individual provinces.

          There is much of value to be learned from this history, but even intelligent commentators obscure that value with misleading words like “colonial.” Wall Street Journal writer Jaroslav Trofimov, for example, recently writing about the creation of the Middle Eastern nations, described France and England as “colonial powers.” Similarly, columnist Charles Krauthammer on the same topic used the phrase “colonial borders.” In both instances, the adjectives are historically misleading.

          France and England, of course, were “colonial powers,” but their colonies were not in the Middle East. The region had for centuries been under the sovereignty of the Ottoman Empire. Thus Western “colonialism” was not responsible for the region’s dysfunctions. Rather, it was the incompetent policies and imperialist fantasies of the Ottoman leadership during the century before World War I, which culminated in the disastrous decision to enter the war on the side of Germany, that bear much of the responsibility for the chaos that followed the defeat of the Central Powers.

          Another important factor was the questionable desire of the British to create an Arab national homeland in the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, and to gratify the imperial pretensions of their ally the Hashemite clan, who shrewdly convinced the British that their self-serving and marginal actions during the war had been important in fighting the Turks.

          Obviously, the European powers wanted to influence these new nations in order to protect their geopolitical and economic interests, but they had no desire to colonize them. Idealists may decry that interference, or see it as unjust, but it is not “colonialism” rightly understood.

          No more accurate is Krauthammer’s use of “colonial borders” to describe the region’s nations. Like all combatants in a great struggle, in anticipation of the defeat of the Central Powers, the British and French began planning the settlement of the region in 1916 in a meeting that produced the Sykes-Picot agreement later that year. But there is nothing unexceptional or untoward in this. In February 1945, Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin met in Yalta to negotiate their spheres of influence in Germany and Eastern Europe after the war. It would be strange if the Entente powers had not laid out their plans for the territories of the defeated enemy.

          Thus as part of the peace treaties and conferences after World War I, the French and British were given, under the authority of negotiated treaties and the supervision of the League of Nations, the “mandates” over the former Ottoman territories lying between Egypt and Turkey. In 1924 the goal of the mandates was spelled out in Article 22 of the League of Nations Covenant: “Certain communities formerly belonging to the Turkish Empire have reached a stage of development where their existence as independent nations can be provisionally recognized subject to the rendering of administrative advice and assistance by a Mandatory until such time as they are able to stand alone. The wishes of these communities must be a principal consideration in the selection of the Mandatory.”

          Thus the nations created in the old Ottoman territory were sanctioned by international law as the legitimate prerogative of the victorious Entente powers. There was nothing “colonial” about the borders of the new nations.

          One can legitimately challenge the true motives of the mandatory powers, doubt their sincerity in protesting their concern for the region’s peoples, or criticize their borders for serving European interests rather than those of the peoples living there. But whatever their designs, colonizing was not one of them. Indeed, by 1924 colonialism had long been coming into question for many in the West, and at the time of the post-war settlement the reigning ideal was not colonialism, but ethnic self-determination as embodied in the nation-state, as Woodrow Wilson had called for in February 1918: “National aspirations must be respected; people may now be dominated and governed only by their own consent.” The Anglo-French Declaration issued a few days before the war ended on November 11, 1918 agreed, stating that their aims in the former Ottoman territories were “the establishment of National Governments and administrations deriving their authority from the initiative and free choice of the indigenous populations.”

          Again, one can question the wisdom of trying to create Western nation-states and political orders in a region still intensely tribal, with a religion in which the secular nation is an alien import. That incompatibility continues to be an ongoing problem nearly a century later, as we watch the failure of nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the hopes of the Arab Spring dashed in the violence and disorder of the Arab Winter.

          But whatever the sins of the Europeans in the Middle East, colonialism is not one of them. The misuse of the term may sound trivial, but it legitimizes the jihadist narrative of Western guilt and justified Muslim payback through terrorist violence, now perfumed as “anticolonial resistance.” It reinforces what Middle East scholar J.B. Kelly called the “preemptive cringe,” the willingness of the West to blame itself for the region’s problems, as President Obama did in his 2009 Cairo speech when he condemned the “colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims.”

          This apologetic stance has characterized our foreign policy and emboldened our enemies for half a century. Today the region is in more danger of collapse into widespread violence and more of a threat to our national interests than at any time in the last fifty years. Perhaps we should start crafting our foreign policy on the foundations of historical truth and precise language.


  18. Private Citizen
    February 8, 2016 at 11:57

    I love the comments section of this website.

    Always fascinating to read.

  19. Ted Warren
    February 8, 2016 at 11:47

    IN RE Krauthammer. See the final essay in “The Presence of the Past” by Sheldon Wolin. As early as 1989 Krauthammer’s “conservatism” was unmasked in “Democracy and Operation Democracy”, an analysis of “Krauthammer’s attempt to create an intellectual apologia for the Reagan Doctrine.” Wolin enunciates what I would call an iron law of “democracy promotion”: “When democracy is stretched to fit the needs of global empire, its substance is thinned to the vanishing point.” Unfortunately Krauthammer is still at it and Wolin no longer here to point out the obvious. Fortunately Wolin’s books are still in print.

  20. Robert
    February 8, 2016 at 11:22

    Perhaps one root of the extreme anger on the American Right, is the failure of Reaganomics. Reagan promised a painless solution to everything: government is the Problem, just cut taxes and the budget will balance. The failure of the promises made by this beloved man, can only be the work of some Leftist America-hating group.

    • Sendero Santos
      February 14, 2016 at 13:48

      Excellent comment. May I post your letter on Google+, with attribution, of course?

  21. Erik
    February 8, 2016 at 08:09

    It is best to deny the right wing the excuse of “conservatism.” They conserve nothing but personal wealth and power. They steal government funds for themselves and their campaigns by giving it away to their supporters.

    While the right wing has infested every society throughout history, as Aristotle warned of the warmonger tyrants over democracies, they are the antithesis of “conservative” of those democracies: they are the disease, not the victim.

    While some will claim that their presence in the US from the beginning, and the presence of economic exploitation, somehow makes their ascendency “conservative”, the argument does not hold. The US was founded on extremely liberal egalitarian principles, which were in fact treason in the nations of the settler’s origin, and there were no major economic concentrations when the Constitution was written. The reluctant acceptance of slavery was a compromise to get it ratified, not a rejection of human rights, as proven by the Bill of RIghts, the first ten amendments. There is nothing like the right wing of today in the nation’s origins.

    The right wing of today advocates not only warmongering to pose as false protectors and accuse their opponents of disloyalty. They advocate economic tyranny so as to abolish democracy, the very opposite of the principles of the United States. Their entire belief system is the most extremely anti-American tyranny devised.

    While one might refrain from calling the right wing traitors, only because the Constitution defines treason as making war upon these United States, in fact they do make war upon the US. The rise of concentrations of economic power since the Constitution was written, and its use to control all tools and institutions of democracy through the mass media and elections, has made economic power the principle means of warfare. The right wing use of economic power against the people is treason, and they should all be rotting in prisons. The right wing are truly traitors wrapped in the flag.

    Only a liberal can be a political conservative in the United States.

    • Erik
      February 8, 2016 at 08:20

      I should add that when one speaks out against “conservatives” the case is lost. Most of the audience is very unsure of their political knowledge, and suppose that they had better stick to the tried and true until they know better. They don’t want sudden radical change for fear that all will lose in the ensuing instability. They do not see through the right wing claim of “conservatism” which could not be more false. So they are troubled that liberals denounce “conservatism” and decide that “whatever it is” probably has more credibility. So the use of the term concedes the field to what are in fact radically anti-conservative right wing scoundrels.

  22. Peter Loeb
    February 8, 2016 at 06:57


    “..[The political culture… of America]—the assumptions, expectations,
    patterns of responses, and clusters of information are British with
    a peculiar emphasis…It was a pattern … of ideas,
    attitudes, and beliefs given distinctive shape by the opposition
    elements in English politics…” Bernard Bailyn, THE ORIGINS OF
    AMERICAN POLITICS (Alfred A Knopf, NY, 1968, p.57)

    In fact, Bailyn in this brief reassessment of the origins
    (and character) of American politics has characterized this nation
    in many ways since the colonial days. This includes not only
    earlier manifestations but continues up to the present day. Charles
    Krauthammer can be seen as one expression of a long
    historical development which few comprehend.It should be
    noted that these traditions do not only pervade the “right”.

    (Incidently “Cato” played a major role in the expression and
    development of these attitudes both in England and America.)

    I urge this brief and lucid book to all for its perceptions about
    American character and public discourse.

    “This went on throughout the late Eighteenth and Nineteenth and into the Twentieth Century, culminating in the Great Depression of 1929. So disastrous was that crash, along with the fact of competition from the young Soviet Union, that there was finally some soul-searching on the part of the smarter capitalists, who then made the effort to rationalize their system….”

    This commenter continues, perhaps too stubbornly, to resist this all-too-easy
    of cause and effect which has become a basic illusion about an era
    before most writers today were around.Gabriel Kolko in his book MAIN
    Kolko concludes his documentation of the failure of the New Deal programs
    observing, “World War Two itself ended the protracted crisis in
    American capitalism [the Great Depression]…” Davidson, above

    These comments do not take away Professor Davidson’s analysis but
    rather moves his observations from a small and exclusive focus.

    Had Bernard Baylin dealt with American politics not only in the
    context of America and England but as well in the context of
    rampant world imperialism , our assessment would
    be more complete. Many other factors have played major
    roles. The results have differed from the American experience
    in many cases but the similarities are of great significance.

    —Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

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