Supremacy Or Property, At The Roots Of Identity?

Due to the rise of the extreme right-wing movement gathered arround the former US President, Donald Trump, “white supremacy“ has now become a widely popular notion. When the number of the people who claim that the American nation needs to be reconstituted on the basis of its White Anglo-Saxon Protestant foundations has risen up to almost seventy million, thereby producing a potential basis for creation of a separate, exclusively white American nation – as opposed to the existing, multi-racial one – it has become difficult to ignore the concept of “white supremacy“ on which this movement seems to have been built. However, one of the basic questions is whether this movement is really built on these ideological foundations, or simply flirts with the concept of “white supremacy“ in order to acquire a degree of ideological articulation and thereby overcome the populist chaos that marks its imminent appearance? More importantly, is the populist movement surrounding Trump, presumably based on racial supremacy, a pattern that can successfully resonate with other parts of the world where members of the white race find themselves in the position of power and domination?  

Above all, however, we should ask the question whether supremacist ideology in the US is a truly racist one, or simply a part of a new type of American nationalism? For,  mobilizing people on the basis of racial identity can also be a best available instrument for implementation of a nationalist ideology, rather than a genuine goal to put a particular race in the dominant position, a goal based on the deep-seated belief in one’s racial supremacy.  But then, we should also ask, why a robust form of nationalism, flirting with the principles of “white supremacy“, has emerged in the US?

In the first place, a robust form of nationalism has emerged in the United States due to the long-term domination of the neoliberal economy, which caused a dramatic widening of the socio-economic gap between the richest few and the rest of society. This widening has made the gap between these two layers economically, but also socially, unsustainable, leading to the increase of labour-socialist tendencies that may become a threat to the capitalist system itself. The mechanism is simple: the more aggressive exploitation of the labouring classes, the wider the gap; and then, the more robust nationalism required, as a solution that engages the potentially revolting masses with the ideology of absolute allegiance to the idol of national unity, behind which the very system of capitalist exploitation is safely hidden. However, the systemic crisis of capitalism in the period 2008-2021 has gradually brought the system to the breaking point, so that the need for more robust and aggressive forms of nationalism has arisen in an increasing number of countries.

This is becoming particularly visible in the birthplaces of both capitalism and nationalism, as well as neoliberalism, such as Great Britain and the United States. While counting on the system’s stability, their elites championed liberal democracy as the ultimate form of government. However, since they were the most active in a thorough application of the neoliberal doctrine, they have also dramatically widened the gap between the richest 1% and the rest of their populations. Therefore, as a logical consequence, they had to introduce the extremely aggressive nationalist narratives of America First and Brexit in order to mobilize the most affected parts of the population in a war-like mode and generate in their minds the radical nationalist idea of their exceptionalism and supremacy over the rest of the world. However, this mobilization has not turned out to be an end in itself, as was usually the case with nationalist narratives. At the same time, it has allowed the right-wing governments representing the top 1% to further legitimize enormous concentration of power by introducing certain authoritarian elements, while surpassing the hitherto unavoidable democratic procedures and institutions. This also demonstrates that a systemic crisis is at stake and that the system itself can hardly survive it in the same form. Indeed, the contemporary nationalism may reach a point of total divorce from democratic principles, those that characterized nationalism from the 19th and 20th centuries. The 21st-century nationalism, acting in alliance with the hitherto most robust form of capitalism, may actually become fully linked with the most robust forms of authoritarian government.

Therefore, the lesson to be learnt from the emergence of robust, semi-authoritarian nationalisms in the US and other Anglo-Saxon countries is the following one: if the widening of the gap between the richest and the rest happens to go beyond the point of reparation, so that the crisis develops into a systemic one, then nationalism in a common form, no matter how aggressive it may be, cannot serve as the only cure. Then it has to be implemented in the form of a lasting authoritarian or totalitarian regime, in which the rebellious tendencies among the masses are going to be suppressed in a double-key, with nationalism imposed, rather than proposed, as the only dimension of human existence.

What is the role of “white supremacy” within such a system? As we could see it during the riots on January 6 and the following attack on the Capitol Hill, launched by Donald Trump’s most extreme supporters, the new White Anglo-Saxon nationalism is closely related to both authoritarian tendencies and the concept of “white supremacy”. For, it was a coup attempt with the ultimate ambition to overtake both legislative and presidential power, with abolishment of democratic institutions and introduction of an authoritarian regime and one-man rule. On the other hand, the rioters and their ideologues, in their effort to seize power and give it back to Trump, legitimized the whole enterprise with the narrative of the necessity to empty the framework of the official American national identity from the multiracial content of the current US population and fill it in with the exclusively white, Anglo-Saxon one. Does that narrative imply the existence of an inherent “white supremacy” over other races contained in this concept of the American nation? Is the mono-racial concept of the American nation based on the idea of superiority of the white race over others?

If we look at the original concept of the American nation, the one framed by the Founding Fathers, to which Trump’s supporters refer as their guiding light, it is not based on the idea of inherent racial superiority. It is rather based on the idea of private property: the white Anglo-Saxons who founded the American nation did not perceive themselves as legitimate founders because of their declared racial superiority over the native inhabitants of America, but because they were the first to appropriate the land, having introduced the concept of its private possession, a concept that was totally unknown to the native Americans. The concept of private property over land is what initially separated the white Anglo-Saxons in America from the native Americans: the skin color was far less relevant than the concept of private property. But it also consequently detached the former from the British Crown and its sovereignty and led them to proclaim their own sovereignty over that land. In other words, those who appropriated the land and turned it into private property eventually had to claim sovereignty over it. For, they may have initially appropriated the land on behalf of the British Crown, but once they turned it into private property, they felt an urge to claim their own sovereignty over it. Thus, the founding and legitimizing principle of the American nation is not to be identified with the concept of racial superiority, but rather with the concept of landed property. It was only with the introduction of black slavery, several decades later, that racial hierarchy was introduced into the American society as a relevant principle.

The white Anglo-Saxon fundamentalists, those who belong to Trump’s political movement and now claim their exclusive right to nationhood, do not advance such claims on the basis of racial superiority over other inhabitants of the United States. Their claims to exclusive nationhood are based on the exclusive right to land possession, the right inherited from those white Anglo-Saxons who initially appropriated the land in America and turned it into landed property. In their views, private property, especially the one over land, constitutes the very spirit of the American nation: from this perspective, non-whites are not regarded as inferior in racial terms, but rather as those who disturb the spirit of exclusive landed property that pervades the American nation. For, these non-whites are coming to live in urban slums and the possession of land is equally alien to them as it once was to the native inhabitants of America. In this sense, these newcomers are not treated as racially inferior to the so-called “white trash”, the white blue-collar inhabitants of poor urban areas: they are all treated as equally inferior in terms of absence of landed property.  

Property, rather than racial supremacy, has also remained the foundation of American global expansion and domination: American appropriation of natural resources in foreign lands has always been legitimized exclusively by their capital, by their ability to possess. If we go back to these roots of the American nationhood, a nation whose all-pervading spirit is the possession of land is, in effect, a nation of the propertied land-oligarchy: constitutional democracy that their Founding Fathers established in the 1770s was actually a democracy tailored for this oligarchy; it was never meant to be applied to the entire population located there. Hence the founding slogan, “Life, liberty, property”: only the propertied white Anglo-Saxons were meant to be free to elect their political representatives. Therefore, other racial groups, but also other social classes, were not granted the right to vote until the mid-1960s.

When the right to vote and elect their representatives was extended to the entire population, the oligarchic spirit of the original American nationhood was lost, so that the concept of democratic rule also became disputable to those who were seeking a return to the property-related foundations of the American nation. The fundamentalists are, therefore, ready to change the very rules: in order to preserve the oligarchic spirit of the original American nationhood, they are ready to abandon a democracy that applies to the entire population and introduce an authoritarian regime that would more securely protect their property, with power concentrated in a small oligarchic group or a single person. Donald Trump intuitively recognized all these tendencies and therefore received unlimited support from the fundamentalist groups that wanted the American nation to return to its oligarchic, property-related foundations. On the surface, it may have looked like a white supremacist movement, but beneath the surface it was much closer to an oligarchic fundamentalist movement.    

However, the concept of “white supremacy” is closely related to the expansion of European powers into other continents in the process of the former’s colonization of the latter. In this sense, those who point to the fact that the true foundations of the American nation are exclusively white and Anglo-Saxon are formally correct – it was the white Anglo-Saxons, supported by some other white Europeans, that colonized the American continent and eventually established a nation-state for themselves, having withdrawn from the position of suzerainty to the British crown. The very idea of colonization and the subesquent ideology of colonialism were based on the concept of white men’s intrinsic right to exploit the lands that had previously been occupied by non-white populations. Of course, colonialism was a consequence of capitalism’s perpetual expansion, indeed, of its inherent need for perpetual expansion and its consequent conquest of the entire world. As such, it had no moral grounds other than mere exploitation of the resources identified as suitable for that purpose in the conquered and colonised lands.

However, the ruthless exploitation of non-European lands by the European powers was always covered and legitimized in a specific way, as a historical mission of white men to civilize non-whites and include the latter into the world of the European civilization. In this respect, exploitation was practically equated with ‘civilization’. This is where the roots of the concept of “white supremacy“ are to be located: within this narrative, only the European capitalist system was presented as ‘civilization’, while all other civilizations were presented as a state of barbarity that had to be ‘civilized’ by the European exploiters. Moreover, in the Anglo-Saxon colonialist folklore, exploitation of the lands inhabited by non-white populations was presented as the “the white man’s burden“, a phrase taken from the poem under the same title written by an ideologue of both Anglo-Saxon colonialism and “white supremacy“, Rudyard Kipling. So, within this narrative, it was not only a God-given right of white men to exploit other people’s lands under the guise of the latter’s ‘civilizing’; moreover, it became a moral obligation, a moral burden to exploit and thereby ‘civilize’ those who were proclaimed ‘uncivilized’ for not having been part of the capitalist system.  Thus the right to exploit non-white peoples and their lands and resources became translated into a moral obligation of white people to manage the affairs of non-white peoples, so as to bring the latter closer to the former’s level of economic, social and cultural development, that is, to make them part of the former’s capitalist system. In this respect, the concept of “white supremacy” is directly linked to one specific economic system, that of capitalism.

There were systems, such as feudalism, in which conquest and exploitation of foreign lands were very important parts of the economy, no less than they have been in capitalism. Although the only resource to be exploited in the pre-capitalist epochs was land itself, its conquest and inclusion into hierarchical structures was an unavoidable part of the feudal economy: more conquered land always meant more wealth for the conqueror. Legitimization of such conquests was derived from the same principle upon which the legitimacy of rulers themselves relied in those times: while the legitimacy and sovereignty of rulers was based on the principle of “divine right”, as interpreted and supported by corresponding religious institutions, their conquests were also legitimized by these religious institutions: if the conquered belonged to the same religion as the conquerors, conquests were legitimized by the former’s proclaimed deflection from the official religious course; if the conquered belonged to a different religion, conquests were legitimized by proclaimed superiority of the conqueror’s religion over the religion of the conquered; in both cases, the conquerors were legitimized as executors of the “divine will”.

In the context of European conquests in this epoch, the Crusades come up as a paradigm: the proclaimed supremacy of Christianity over Islam served as an ideal legitimization of a pan-European military enterprise with clear economic goals. However, once the concept of “divine right” was abolished as the founding principle of legitimacy and sovereignty, with the rise of capitalism and its introduction of another principle of legitimacy, that of “popular sovereignty”, foreign conquests and expansion of the capitalist system could no longer be legitimized by spiritual causes: superiority as a legitimizing principle for expansion and colonialization had to be founded on something tangible and material. In this sense, it was only in this relatively short period that racial differences served as the most obvious material cause for legitimization of the European capitalist expansion and consequent exploitation of non-European lands, under the slogan of “white supremacy”.

After the decline of colonialism, the relevance of the concept of “white supremacy” has certainly decreased. The question is, then, to what extent is the current European type of economic expansion and political domination rooted in any genuine belief-system, as it once was based on the concepts of religious and racial supremacy? There is a vague image of European supremacy, despite the fact that it cannot be supported by economic success anymore. Also, this supremacy cannot be defined as racial or religious, since capitalism and colonialism have also produced an enormous amount of immigrants from other continents and consequent mixing of races and religions on the European soil. Then, what is this feeling of supremacy actually based on? Similarly to Kipling’s concept of “white man’s burden”, according to which white men defined their identity on the basis of their ‘burden’ to civilize others, Europeans tend to define their identity on the basis of supremacy that is supposed to serve as a guiding light to other ‘inferior’ civilizations, regardless of the fact that such a supremacy is now very much void of content.

Yet, where does this concept of European supremacy come from? Although some prefer to say that it comes from the Ancient Greek concept of Greek supremacy over ‘barbarians’, it is not plausible to claim any actual continuity between the Ancient Greek civilization and the current European one. It is much more plausible to say that the current concept of European supremacy has been derived from the first truly pan-European enterprise, that of the Crusades, which gave birth to the European civilization. The Crusaders’ concept of supremacy over their Muslim counterparts was, of course, religiously based and militarily projected. Although the European civilization has eventually adopted secular values, economic means, and particular national identities on the internal level, its concept of identity directed towards the outside world has remained rooted in the Crusaders’ concept of religious supremacy, remaining primarily counterposed to the civilizations based on Islam, but also projected against civilizations based on other non-Christian religions. However, it does not lead towards any authentic “clash of civilizations” (as Huntington labelled big world’s religions and their hypothetical conflict). It rather leads towards a Crusader-like type of unilateral ravages, still legitimized in terms of religious/civilizational supremacy.   

prof. Zlatko Hadzidedic
prof. Zlatko Hadzidedic
Dr. Zlatko Hadžidedić is the founder and director of the Center for Nationalism Studies, in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina (