2021-22 Europeans in the USA

Traveling to and through the American center of gravity

Having grown up on a dwarf planet in the solar system of the United States’ cultural imperialism, my frame of reference is replete with American products, phenomena, and even phrases. While the orbital elements of U.S. hegemony – politics, news, and entertainment – have thus shaped how I look at the world, life in my native country, the Netherlands, only exposed me to reflections and derivatives of life in the American center of gravity.

Traveling to and through that center as a Fulbright scholar at Harvard Law School’s Labor & Worklife Program, then, was at once a deeply familiar and a deeply alien experience. It also turned out to be a uniquely enriching one. After two pandemic-induced postponements, I was more than ready to finally make my way to Harvard’s hallowed halls in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Although I had already visited the United States on two occasions, I had never stayed in one place for more than a few weeks. As I settled into what would be my home for five months, the confusing combination between the alien and the familiar in my environment struck me immediately. The colonial preference for wooden construction, which had seemed so risky to my sister and me when we watched Extreme Home Makeover as children, was now all around me. Copies of the New York Times, oft-quoted and celebrated in my parents’ favorite Dutch talk shows but a rarity in newsstands and bookshops, now laced the pavements of my neighborhood. Franchises like Taco Bell and Dunkin’ Donuts, omnipresent in pulp shows on day-time television and many Netflix shows but absent from the city centers I know, were now everywhere.

My surprise, perhaps even awe, at the sight of these simultaneously familiar and foreign hallmarks of life in the U.S., soon turned into a mix of disappointment and frustration with the evident depth of my provincialism. Why did I feel impressed by such mundane things? Indeed, why was I even familiar with them if they had only played a less than marginal, solely mediatized role in my actual life? The frustration spurred by these questions gave rise to an escalating sense of indignation when I realized that this odd combination between familiarity and distance extended well beyond the mundane. Key markers of power dynamics in U.S. society, from one’s right to plead the fifth to the jury system to presidential elections, are better-known to people in my environment (and, doubtlessly, similar environments in other countries in Europe and beyond) than our own institutional structures. Key politicizing moments in my childhood and student years – from protesting the Iraq war to demonstrating against Trump’s election – had been directed at a political sphere that, again, may have seemed familiar, but was in fact well outside our own sphere of influence. As such, didn’t my own and my community’s orientation towards all things American amount to a rather disempowering distraction from our own lives?

This question loomed large in the back of my mind as I started to engage with the Harvard community and embarked on my U.S. research, which focused on labor organizing within the corporate giant Amazon. I should say, before all else, that both these dimensions of my experience as a Fulbright scholar allowed me to meet and exchange with truly exceptional, incredibly inspiring people. Besides bringing inspiration, though, these exchanges also shed a new, more optimistic light on the question introduced above. A double common thread ran through the rich series of encounters I will cherish for a long time – from beers with poets in Cambridge to noodles with union organizers during fieldwork in Queens to Zoom interviews with activist Amazon workers across the United States. Firstly, I was amazed by the vitality of the radical imagination of my interlocutors and their organizations and communities. On the academic side of things, the event calendars of the institutions I frequented were populated by speakers with unapologetically bold visions for progressive transformation of not just the U.S., but global society. In addition, a good portion of friends and acquaintances at Harvard were involved in ground-breaking efforts to organize and improve conditions of graduate students, building on growing pro-union sentiments among young people observed across the country. Similarly, workers and campaigners active in the Amazon organizing landscape at the heart of my studies deeply impressed me with their unshakeable commitment to the pursuit of change at a notoriously anti-union corporation and their deeply innovative visions of how, and to what effect, such change might be realized. Even at the very heart of Amazon’s operations, the tech hubs where the software governing its global infrastructure is developed and maintained, my conversation partners dreamt out loud of an unprecedented transformation; one that would not only see the company become a good place to work, but would dramatically alter its set-up from a hierarchical, profit-maximizing, cut-throat capitalist corporation to a decentralized cooperative geared towards collective prosperity.

Secondly, I started to realize that the remarkable ease of my exchanges in the U.S. was at least partly a product of the overlap in frames of reference; familiarity with the same political histories, the same social and cultural notions, and even the same jokes. Although this familiarity was rather unidirectional (inevitably, I was more familiar with the U.S. context than my interlocutors were with mine), it started to dawn on me that such one-sidedness did not have to be disempowering for those outside the U.S. context. If, in fact, the radical vitality and enthusiasm running through academic and activist circles in the U.S. are channeled through the same cultural conduits that underpin the hegemony that, in my view, has routinely facilitated or masked injustices inflicted overseas, the dynamic that first troubled me could actually be empowering. A powerful illustration of this potential at the macro-level, of course, can be found in progressive thinkers and figures on the New American Left, who have electrified not just millions of young people in the United States, but across the globe too. But, as evidenced by the transnational academic and activist connections that rendered Black Lives Matter a global movement, the same dynamic could proliferate in broad-based social movements too.

My stay in the United States inspired me to play whatever role I can to aid precisely this kind of proliferation in whatever way I can. Cherishing the connections I built during my time as a Fulbright scholar, I believe, is the best possible way to start.

Casper Gelderblom is a Dutch 2021-2022 Fulbright Visiting Student Researcher to Harvard University. Casper Gelderblom (1995) is a PhD-researcher at the European University Institute, where he works on the theory and practice of transnational labor solidarity. He holds degrees in Governance, Economics, and Development (LUC The Hague), History (Leiden, Panthéon-Sorbonne, and Oxford) and Political Thought (Cambridge). Casper previously worked as a policy trainee in the Dutch and European Parliaments, and as a researcher at the labor rights NGO Kav LaOved in Tel Aviv and Cornell University’s Worker Institute in New York. As a trade unionist, he has served in various positions in the Netherlands (FNV) and at the EU-level (ETUC). Alongside his studies, Casper coordinates the global Make Amazon Pay campaign on behalf of Progressive International.

Articles are written by Fulbright grantees and do not reflect the opinions of the Fulbright Commission, the grantees’ host institutions, or the U.S. Department of State.