American Theocracy: A Study of Late Stage US Capitalism

Kevin Phillips’ American Theocracy: The Perils and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century is a stunning political and intellectual achievement. In several respects it is courageous; given that Kevin Phillips almost thirty-five years ago began his career as a Republican strategist. It is not without flaws, especially in Phillips’ understanding of race, slavery and colonialism in the creation of capitalism and the role they play in its current crises. These matters will be dealt with later in this essay. Put succinctly, however, this book is an examination of late American capitalism.

The basic thesis of the book is that America is in the throes of several converging crises: a crisis of ideology, manifested in the rise of Christian and, to a lesser extent, Jewish fundamentalism, and their becoming a significant part of the ideology of the state and the Republican Party; a crisis of oil dependency, which is deepened as the world’s supply of oil peaks; and a crisis of debt, manifested in historically unprecedented levels of private, business, government and foreign indebtedness. Phillips argues that the George W. Bush presidency is at the center of these converging crises. It is entangled in oil and debt capitalism and is deeply implicated in the rightwing Evangelical ideological movement. Due to these entanglements it can only deepen these crises. Phillips does not suggest that a Hillary Clinton or John Kerry presidency would make a significant difference. He argues that the GOP government in Washington is a southern-dominated, biblically driven rogue coalition, like the southern slavocracy before Lincoln’s election.

Phillips sees the current crises as symptomatic of national decline. They transcend the Bush presidency; they are systemic, meaning they manifest a crisis of American capitalism. These symptoms were present in almost exact form in past capitalist hegemons, i.e. Spain in the 17th century, the Netherlands in the 18th century and Britain in the late 19th and early 20th century. Each of these nations were imperial empires. Each, like the US, experienced imperial overreach and imperial hubris.

His examination is at once historical, examining long trajectories of national development and decline; systemic, rooted in economic and political analysis; and ideological, wherein he asserts the active role of ideology, in particular fundamentalist Christianity, in the shaping of the contemporary American state and foreign policy. The focus on systemic crises in American capitalism makes this work, even if unintended, a radical critique of American capitalism. The book is divided into three parts: oil, radical religion and debt. Each is a specific study of an aspect of 21st century American capitalism.

Foreign Oil and American Capitalism

He begins with oil. This beginning is particularly timely as oil per barrel topped $75.00 with the prospect of its reaching $100.00 not far off. The narrative starts in the mid 1970’s when US oil reserves peaked, several Middle East oil producers (Iraq, Libya and Iran) nationalized Western oil interests and when OPEC’s size and influence over global oil markets increased. Phillips observes:
When we look back on the three subsequent decades, it is now possible to describe a much grander convergence of forces: (1) oil’s ever tightening grip on Washington politics and psychology; (2) the cumulative destabilization of the Middle East; (3) the rise of varying degrees of radical Christianity, Judaism and Islam around the world; (4) the biblical and geopolitical focus on Israel; and (5) the reemergence during the 1990’s of eastern Europe, the Middle East and the Caspian republics [of the former Soviet Union] as the unstable, but pivotal thirty nation borderlands of the rogue Eurasian heartland. (page 41)

Since the 1970’s US foreign policy has been disproportionately driven by oil and the overarching need to insure that foreign oil flows uninterruptedly to the US. Connected to an oil driven foreign policy were the aims to block Soviet (perhaps now Chinese) access to the Persian Gulf, maintain the House of Saud in power in Saudi Arabia and insure that OPEC uphold the dollar as the currency through which oil is traded. This last assures the recycling of petrodollars (dollars accumulated in oil producing nations’ central banks) to purchase US treasury bonds and weapons systems.

Iraq and the Hundred Years Oil Wars

Phillips argues that the US has been in a thirty years oil war. The two Iraq wars, 1991 and 2003, are its decisive events. Iraq is strategic in completing three interrelated parts of US 21st century oil policies. They are “rebuilding of Anglo-American oil reserves, transformation of Iraq into an oil protectorate-cum-military base, and reinforcement of the global hegemony of the US dollar.” Iraq’s place was heightened by the 1990’s when it was suspected that Iraq might have more oil reserves left than Saudi Arabia. The Middle East and oil have fueled a hundred years war, pitting British, German, American, French, Russian, Israeli and Arab interests against one another and in fleeting coalitions against one or another combination of the players. Iraq’s central place in the hundred years struggle to control Middle East oil goes back to the pre World War I proposal by the Germans to build a Berlin to Baghdad railway as a way to connect Mesopotamian oil fields to German industry and its war machine.

By the 1990’s sharp and, it seems, enduring conflicts and contradictions over oil had emerged. On the one side American imperialism’s drive to achieve hegemony and on the other the French, Russian, German and Chinese efforts to get access to Iraqi oil. In this mix China has emerged as a critical competitor to the US. For instance, in April 2006 following his visit to Washington President Hu of China flew directly to Saudi Arabia and China and Saudi Arabia signed mutual defense and economic cooperation treaties. On the other hand, in 2001 Dick Cheney’s National Energy Policy Development Group linked foreign oil needs and national security and the capture of new and existing oil and gas fields. Phillips points out that these policies of containing Iraq in order to control access to its oil fields goes back to the Clinton Administration. Clinton signed off on air strikes against Iraq in January and June 1996 and deployed troops on Iraq’s borders in 1997-98 after Baghdad proposed oil concessions to Russia, China and France. The Bush-Cheney Administration continued Clinton’s policies, upping them to include full scale war and an energy forward strategy which was based on hamstringing Iraq with respect to negotiations with China, Russia and France. As this policy played out US foreign policy became militarized. At the same time the Bush Administration began negotiations with the Taliban in Afghanistan to accept the construction of an American pipeline from Turkmenistan (a former Soviet Republic) through Kabul to Karachi, Pakistan. Phillips suggests that the US military has become a global oil protection service and the war on terrorism is being conflated with wars for oil.

Africa’s Oil and Global Resource Wars

When all the pieces are put together the wars on terrorism and the Iraq wars are what Michael Klare claims are resource wars, where oil is not a mere commodity, but a matter of national security. In this scenario resource wars could extend beyond the Middle East to Russia, China, Africa and Latin America, especially Venezuela. There have, however, been counter moves by China and Russia, a significant example being the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, established to blunt the imperial overreach of the US in South Asia. Beijing’s aggressive challenges to American trade hegemony is expressed in what Joshua Cooper Ramo calls the Beijing Consensus (China’s counter to the neoliberal globalist policies of Washington), another global counter move to contain the US militarily and economically.

Under the cloak of fighting terrorism, talks have begun between Washington and several African nations to build permanent naval and military bases in West Africa, particularly Senegal, Ghana and Mali – a rising oil region. The Wall Street Journal indicates that the key mission for US forces in Africa is to guarantee that Nigerian oilfields, that in the future could account for 25% of all US imports, remain secure. US military officials have visited Gabon and Sao Tome where they are considering building a deepwater port. The US European Command has recently stated its carrier battle groups would spend half their time going down the west coast of Africa. The US oil strategy in Africa has ignited ethnic conflict, corruption, wealth and income disparities and interstate tensions. Sudan and Chad and the political and ethnic struggles in Nigeria are case studies of these developments.

Right Wing Christianity: Oil, Race and the State

While the transition is not neat, Phillips moves to rightwing religion as the second stool in the crisis scenario. He perceives America’s deep religious, ideological and cultural divisions as forms of warfare, specifically ideological civil war. These divisions are motor forces of American politics and history. This thesis originates with his book The Cousins Wars. He traces the current religio-ideological conflicts and divisions among whites (when Phillips talks about America, he is talking about white America almost exclusively) to the Civil War and Reconstruction. The late 20th century rise of right wing fundamentalist Christianity based in the ideas of biblical inerrancy, the end of time theological mythology, the idea that white Americans are a chosen people, war, including nuclear war, in the Middle East to signify the return of the Messiah, and creationism and intelligent design as a substitute for science, is part of the Southification of the nation and American religion.

The national divisions over Christianity are really division about race first, and then gender relations, war and peace, science and ultimately the shape of 21st century capitalism. Phillips easily acknowledges how religion plays into all of the issues of division; his problem is to account for how race is factored in. The Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, opposed the Civil Rights Movement, was and is a center of white resentment against Blacks and more recently gays, lesbians and transgendered people. While accurately understanding the religio-ideological form of the divisions among whites, Phillips fails to acknowledge the substance of these divisions in race and racial inequality.

He conceptualizes the South as more than a region; it is, he tells us, a culture and an ideology. In this respect he speaks of a greater South, which reaches beyond the old Confederacy and its border states. The main institutional mechanism for the Southification of the nation is the Southern Baptist Convention and more recently, the Republican Party. The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) became the “nurseries of American fundamentalism.” Southern Baptists, during the long period of the Cold War, the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, the anti-Vietnam War Movement, the Women’s Movement and the Gay and Lesbian Movement, defined themselves as representatives of the white majority and of cultural and ideological normativity. Their goal was not to reject society, but to absorb it. Under the leadership of the SBC, Baptists linked Christianity to American patriotism and support for all wars and for huge military spending. Normalcy was associated most strikingly with some form of Southern white culture. Ultimately, they viewed themselves as the nation.

New White Ethnic, Religious and Ideological Identities

Out of the Southification of a large part of the nation new ethno-religio-ideological identities have formed. White fundamentalist Evangelical Christianity (Black hangers-on not withstanding) is an identity within the white population. It makes up about 40% of the white population and 60% of the Republican coalition. They view themselves as authentically American and authentically white. They are the political and ideological underpinnings of right wing authoritarianism, and I would insist, crypto-fascism. This coalition, Phillips observes, is driven by “the South’s haunted history, regional religion and combative temperament.” Moreover, “the twenty-first century Greater South commands a much bigger share of the nation’s population and resources then did the ill-fated Confederate States.” In politics this produces religious excess, attacks upon science and plans for global war and crusaderism. To stay in power the Republican Party after Ronald Reagan was transformed into a reservoir of fealty to whiteness, manifested as white Southern folk culture and white resentment to blackness. George Wallace, segregationist Governor of Alabama, in the 1968 and 1972 Presidential elections, first demonstrated this combination as a potent national political force.

Phillips believes that one third to one half of the exodus to the Republican Party is explained by race. The fact of the matter is that new ethno-religio-ideological identities among whites in the post civil rights era are necessary in the refashioning of whiteness and white supremacy to meet the new domestic and global situation especially as they relate to the color line. Phillips severely understates the role of race in the Southification of the nation. Yet, if not for race then why organize political and religious life around ‘Southern values’ in the first place? What is the attraction of white Southern culture and religion if not their formation in the cauldrons of slavery and Jim Crow? Moreover, creationism and intelligent design theories (based in so-called Biblical authority) uphold notions of fixed and permanent race relations based on white supremacy. The young earth thesis, (i.e. the earth is between 6 and 10 thousands years old) ultimately suggests that the appearance of ‘white people’ in Europe is coterminous with the creation of the planet and of human life. Stated another way, the beginnings of life are the beginning of ‘white people’ as a distinct group in the genetic history of humanity. All of this, of course, denies the 2 million year history of anatomically modern humans on the African continent, as well as humanity’s civilizational origins in Africa and Asia, at least five thousand years ago. The end times narrative where the ‘chosen’ and the ‘righteous’ will be saved from Armageddon is coded in ways that suggest that white Southerners will rise again. In the end, the defeated South, in God’s plan will rise in the end days. Tim La Haye’s Left Behind series of novels is the fictionalized version of this fiction. Religio-racism sees Americans, especially Southerners (in the expanded sense) as God’s chosen people, with a manifest destiny to rule the world and use for their benefit its peoples and resources.

Fundamentalist Christianity and State Power

Blind faith and religious excess have signaled and often initiated the decline of former capitalist hegemons. Phillips’ concern, and one of the places where his analysis of religious ideology is most poignant, is how religious fundamentalism becomes an organizing ideology of the state and Republican Party. This moves the state and a large part of political debate from the secular realm to religion. While Phillips does not extend his analysis of the state, it can be argued that the configuration of the state on the basis of Evangelical Christian ideology reflects both a crisis of the state as well as a crisis of American capitalism itself. (See Monteiro, “Race and the Racialized State: A Du Boisian Interrogation,” Socialism and Democracy, Volume 20, No. 1.) As the crises of the system accumulate religious state ideology asserts itself as all knowing, the defender of absolute truths rooted in biblical authority and the defender of those who believe in its truths.

Phillips points to several southern and Southwest Republican Party conventions that endorse so called ‘Christian nation’ party platforms. These platforms are based on Christian Reconstructionist theology, “the tenets of which range from using the Bible as a basis for domestic law, to emphasizing religious schools and women’s subordination to men.” The 2004 Texas Republican platform “affirms the US as a ‘Christian nation’, regrets the myth of the separation of Church and state, calls for abstinence instead of sex education and broadly mirrors the Reconstructionist demand for the abolition of a large group of federal agencies.” Theological Reconstructionists have called for the death penalty for homosexuals and adulterers, prostitutes and drug users; moderate Reconstructionist called merely for jail time.

Debt and Capitalist End Times

The last leg in the three cornered stool is debt. Phillips asks, how long can an economic system grow in which in 2004 credit market debt reached 304% of Gross Domestic Product, net foreign debt was $3.3 trillion, assets of the financial services sector of the economy were $45.3 trillion dollars, and financial sector profits significantly exceeded those in manufacturing and services? His answer is not long. Phillips calls this the financialization of the American economy. Where debt and debt services is more important than producing useful commodities. The financial services, broadly construed, have taken over the dominant economic, cultural and political role in the national economy. Since that sector of the dominant economic class, which V.I. Lenin, John Hobson and Rudolph Hilferding called finance capitalist, are non productive and parasitic, they, as Phillips suggests, undermine the economic system. “No presidential clan has been so involved in banking, investment and money market management over so much time,” as the Bush clan. Lifetime patrons of George W. Bush are Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch, Pricewaterhouse Cooper and MBNA, the credit card giant.

Phillips asserts that over the last part of the 20th century the federal government chose finance to be ascendant over manufacturing. America’s productive sector, manufacturing, lost its markets, profits and prime political access. Furthermore, between 1995 and 2000 11,000 bank mergers occurred and new mega financial holding companies were created; all predicated upon bank deregulation. Three US banks, Citigroup (the world’s largest), Bank of America and JP Morgan, became super banks.

It is not coincidental that at the time the leading sector of the economy was assumed by finance and oil (a declining global resource) that right wing Christianity emerges as a state ideology under Republican rule. Phillips’ point is that an economy that unduly relies upon an outdated, limited and expensive source of energy, substitutes finance and money markets over manufacturing and production, whose foreign policy is defined by imperial overreach and where religious dogma that denies science in the name of biblical inerrancy has the upper hand among a sizable part of the population, these are markers of national crisis leading to national decline

Judas Capitalism and End Times

Business Week’s William Wolman calls the American economy a ‘Judas economy’; dominated by debt and financiers. He identifies this with late stage capitalism. In an ironic sense Evangelical Christianity’s concern with the end times might really reflect its followers sense that American capitalism could be in its end times. The tragedy is that without struggle and programmatic unity among the victims of the Judas economy the ‘chosen’ might only be the super rich. If the meek are to inherent the earth deep and radical social reforms must be fought for. In the course of which Christianity must redefine its essence, much in the way Martin Luther King Jr. proposed in the 1960’s, i.e. spiritual vitality and questioning, anchored in the Christian duty to act on behalf of peace and social justice. The state and the economy must be democratized in ways similar to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s partially successful Great Society. Education and jobs must be the center of a national youth program. Anti-racism and gender equality along with immigrant rights must be intertwined in all movements for change. Uppermost has to be the struggle against wars and the military industrial complex.

Phillips looks at oil, debt and religion. In the end he is looking at American capitalism.

Some reviewers commented that this is a pessimistic book, even conspiracy theory driven. For ordinary people late stage capitalism, like late stage cancer, is not an optimistic picture. Phillips’ book glimpses the now times of American capitalism.

Human beings will decide the end times.

About Anthony Monteiro

I am a activist and scholar who is a professor in the Department of African American Studies at Temple University.
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