Capitalists, Fernand Braudel observes, “behave in various ways.” “Some were calculating, others ready to take risks, some were mean, others prodigal, some had a touch of genius, others were ‘lucky’ at best.” The story of America’s westward expansion includes all of these types of capitalists. If long distance trade, as Braudel contends, was crucial for the development of capitalism, then the construction of America’s continental empire is in large part the story of the development of capitalism in North America. The course of American history as portrayed by University of Chicago historian Bruce Cumings in Dominion from Sea to Sea, however, is not merely about the construction of a continental empire; rather, it seeks to reorient American history from the East to the West.
That was the first paragraph of my world-changing review essay that was aborted abruptly due to existential angst and the fact that some other jerk (Andrew Bacevich) wrote exactly what I intended to write but much more thoughtfully and elegantly than I ever could. It’s a damn shame too, because the book is very engaging and well-written; just look at this gem: “The rhetoric engulfing Manifest Destiny soon became so replete with purple prose and gaseous emission that one imagines a venal politician taking lessons in circumlocution while lubricating his throat as if readying for an opera—the great West, the ‘far West’ (China), the world itself, it seemed, was now an American plaything.” [p. 63]
In any case, here is the link to Bacevich’s somewhat lengthy review of Dominion from Sea to Sea. Although Bacevich does pass up the opportunity to discuss a lot of Cumings’s most interesting observations on California (a lot of which comrade Reft discussed in his last post), his main critique is a sound one. Enjoy:
….within America itself, doubts proliferate about whether California’s vaunted lifestyle is sustainable or even worth sustaining. If that road points to a destination, it’s toward escape into some idyllic “endless summer” where the sun always shines, wireless connectivity never fails and someone else foots the bill. For more than a few contemporary Americans—not only Californians—this describes what they understand by freedom. Yet freedom defined as lifestyle is devoid of moral purpose. It is nihilism with a suntan. And sooner or later the bill collector does come calling.
William Kiwiman Williams