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Imperialism and “Empire”

This article is based on a talk on István Mészáros’ Socialism or Barbarism delivered to the Brecht Forum in New York on October 14, 2001.

Only a little more than a month ago at this writing, before September 11, the mass revolt against capitalist globalization that began in Seattle in November 1999 and that was still gathering force as recently as Genoa in July 2001 was exposing the contradictions of the system in a way not seen for many years. Yet the peculiar nature of this revolt was such that the concept of imperialism had been all but effaced, even within the left, by the concept of globalization, suggesting that some of the worst forms of international exploitation and rivalry had somehow abated.

A growing fashion on the left in the treatment of globalization—one equally attractive to ruling circles judging by the attention given it by the mass media—is exemplified by a new book by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, entitled Empire. Published last year by Harvard University Press, this book has received unstinting praise in such places as The New York Times, Time magazine and the London Observer, and has led to a guest appearance by Hardt on the Charlie Rose show and an Op-Ed piece in The New York Times. Its thesis is that the world market under the influence of the information revolution is globalizing beyond the capacity of nation states to affect it. The sovereignty of nation states is vanishing, and is being replaced by a newly emerging global sovereignty or “Empire” arising from the coalescence of “a series of national and supranational organisms united under a single logic of rule,” with no clear international hierarchy (p. xii).

Space does not allow me to deal with all aspects of this argument here. Rather I will comment on just one issue: the supposed disappearance of imperialism. The term “Empire” in Hardt and Negri’s analysis does not refer to imperialist domination of the periphery by the center, but to an all-encompassing entity that recognizes no limiting territories or boundaries outside of itself. In its heyday, “imperialism,” they claim, “was really an extension of the sovereignty of the European nation-states beyond their own boundaries” (p. xii). Imperialism or colonialism in this sense is now dead. But Hardt and Negri also pronounce the death of the new colonialism: economic domination and exploitation by the industrial powers without direct political control. They insist that all forms of imperialism, insofar as they represent restraints on the homogenizing force of the world market, are doomed by that very market. Empire is thus both “postcolonial and postimperialist” (p. 9). “Imperialism,” we are told, “is a machine of global striation, channeling, coding, and territorializing the flows of capital, blocking certain flows and facilitating others. The world market, in contrast, requires a smooth space of uncoded and deterritorialized flows…imperialism would have been the death of capital had it not been overcome. The full realization of the world market is necessarily the end of imperialism” (p. 333).

Concepts such as center and periphery, these authors argue, are now all but useless. “Through the decentralization of production and the consolidation of the world market, the international divisions and flows of labor and capital have fractured and multiplied so that it is no longer possible to demarcate large geographical zones as center and periphery, North and South.” There are “no differences of nature” between the United States and Brazil, Britain and India, “only differences of degree” (p. 335).*

Also gone is the notion of U.S. imperialism as a central force in the world today. “The United States,” they write, “does not, and indeed no nation-state can today, form the center of an imperialist project. Imperialism is over. No nation will be world leader in the way modern European nations were.” (pp. xiii-xiv). “The Vietnam War,” Hardt and Negri state, “might be seen as the final moment of the imperialist tendency and thus a point of passage to a new regime of the Constitution” (pp. 178-79). This passage to a new global constitutional regime is shown by the Gulf War, during which the United States emerged “as the only power able to manage international justice, not as a function of its own national motives but in the name of global right….The U.S. world police acts not in imperialist interest but in imperial interest [that is, in the interest of deterritorialized Empire]. In this sense the Gulf War did indeed, as George Bush claimed, announce the birth of a new world order” (p. 180).

Empire, the name they give to this new world order, is a product of the struggle over sovereignty and constitutionalism at the global level in an age in which a new global Jeffersonianism—the expansion of the U.S. constitutional form into the global realm—has become possible. Local struggles against Empire are opposed by these authors, who believe that the struggle now is simply over the form globalization will take—and the extent to which Empire will live up to its promise of bringing to fruition “the global expansion of the internal U.S. constitutional project” (p. 182). Their argument supports the efforts of the “multitude against Empire”—that is, the struggle of the multitude to become an autonomous political subject—yet this can only take place, they argue, within “the ontological conditions that Empire presents” (p. 407).

So much for today’s more fashionable views. I would now like to turn to the decidedly unfashionable. In contrast to Empire, István Mészáros’ new book Socialism or Barbarism represents in many ways the height of unfashionability—even on the left.* Instead of promising a new universalism arising potentially out of the capitalist globalization process if only it takes the right form, Mészáros argues that the perpetuation of a system dominated by capital would guarantee precisely the opposite: “Despite its enforced ‘globalization,’ capital’s incurably iniquitous system is structurally incompatible with universality in any meaningful sense of the term….there can be no universality in the social world without substantive equality” (pp. 10-11).

For Mészáros, the rule of capital is best understood as a social metabolic process akin to that of a living organism. It thus has to be approached as embodying a complex set of relations. Whatever capitalism achieves with regard to “horizontal” liberation is negated by the dominant “vertical” ordering that always constitutes its decisive moment. This overriding antagonism means that “the capital system is articulated as a jungle-like network of contradictions that can only be more or less successfully managed for some time but never definitively overcome” (p. 13). Among the principal contradictions that are insurmountable within capitalism are those between: (1) production and its control; (2) production and consumption; (3) competition and monopoly; (4) development and underdevelopment (center and periphery); (5) world economic expansion and intercapitalist rivalry; (6) accumulation and crisis; (7) production and destruction; (8) the domination of labor and dependence on labor; (9) employment and unemployment; and (10) growth of output at all costs and environmental destruction.* “It is quite inconceivable to overcome even a single one of these contradictions,” Mészáros observes, “let alone their inextricably combined network, without instituting a radical alternative to capital’s mode of social metabolic control” (pp. 13-14).

According to this analysis, the period of capitalism’s historic ascendance has now ended. Capitalism has expanded throughout the globe, but in most of the world it has produced only enclaves of capital. There is no longer any promise of the underdeveloped world as a whole “catching-up” economically with the advanced capitalist countries—or even of sustained economic and social advance in most of the periphery. Living conditions of the vast majority of workers are declining globally. The long structural crisis of the system, since the 1970s, prevents capital from effectively coping with its contradictions, even temporarily. The extraneous help offered by the state is no longer sufficient to boost the system. Hence, capital’s “destructive uncontrollability”— its destruction of previous social relations and its inability to put anything sustainable in their place—is coming more and more to the fore (pp. 19, 61).

At the core of Mészáros’ argument is the proposition that we are now living within what is “the potentially deadliest phase of imperialism” (the title of the second chapter of his book). Imperialism, he says, can be divided into three distinct historical phases: (1) early modern colonialism, (2) the classic phase of imperialism as depicted by Lenin, and (3) global hegemonic imperialism, with the U.S. as its dominant force. The third phase was consolidated following the Second World War, but it became “sharply pronounced” with the onset of capital’s structural crisis in the 1970s (p. 51).

Unlike most analysts, Mészáros argues that U.S. hegemony did not end in the 1970s, though by 1970 the U.S. had suffered a decline in its relative economic position vis á vis the other leading capitalist states when compared with the 1950s. Rather, the 1970s, starting with Nixon’s abandonment of the dollar-gold standard, mark the beginning of a much more determined effort on the part of the U.S. state to establish its global preeminence in economic, military and political terms—to constitute itself as a surrogate global government.

At the present stage of the global development of capital, Mészáros insists, “it is no longer possible to avoid facing up to a fundamental contradiction and structural limitation of the system. That limitation is its grave failure to constitute the state of the capital system as such, as complementary to its transnational aspirations and articulation.” Thus it is here that “the United States dangerously bent on assuming the role of the state of the capital system as such, subsuming under itself by all means at its disposal all rival powers,” enters in, as the closest thing to a “state of the capital system.” (pp. 28-29).

But the United States, while it was able to bring a halt to the decline in its economic position relative to the other leading capitalist states, is unable to achieve sufficient economic dominance by itself to govern the world system—which is, in any case, ungovernable. It therefore seeks to utilize its immense military power to establish its global preeminence.* “What is at stake today,” Mészáros writes,

is not the control of a particular part of the planet—no matter how large—putting at a disadvantage but still tolerating the independent actions of some rivals, but the control of its totality by one hegemonic economic and military superpower, with all means—even the most extreme authoritarian and, if needed, violent military ones—at its disposal. This is what the ultimate rationality of globally developed capital requires, in its vain attempt to bring under control its irreconcilable antagonisms. The trouble is, though, that such rationality—which can be written without inverted commas, since it genuinely corresponds to the logic of capital at the present historical stage of global development—is at the same time the most extreme irrationality in history, including the Nazi conception of world domination, as far as the conditions required for the survival of humanity are concerned (pp. 37-38).

The claim that today’s imperialism, represented above all by the United States, is somehow lessened by the fact that there is little direct political rule of foreign territories, simply fails to understand the problems facing us. As Mészáros points out, European colonialism actually occupied only a small part of the territory of the periphery. Now the means are different, but the global reach of imperialism is even greater. The U.S. currently occupies foreign territory in the form of military bases in sixty-nine countries—a number that is continuing to increase. Further, “the multiplication of the destructive power of the military arsenal today—especially the catastrophic potential of aerial weapons—has to some extent modified the forms of imposing imperialist dictates on a country to be subdued [ground troops and direct occupation are less necessary] but not their substance” (p. 40).

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, it has become necessary for imperialism to take on new clothes. The old Cold War justification for interventions no longer works. Saddam Hussein, Mészáros observes, provided such a new justification, but only temporarily. Even then the United States was compelled to present its warmaking in the guise of a universal alliance in the interest of global right, albeit with the United States acting the part of both judge and executioner.

Among the disquieting developments that Socialism or Barbarism points to are: the enormous toll in Iraqi civilian causalities during the war on Iraq and the death of more than a half million children as a result of sanctions since the war; the military onslaught on and occupation of the Balkans; the expansion of NATO to the East; the new U.S. policy of employing NATO as an offensive military force that can substitute for the United Nations; U.S. attempts to further circumvent and undermine the United Nations; the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade; the development of the Japan-U.S. Security treaty aimed at China; and the growth of an aggressive U.S. military stance with regard to China—increasingly seen as the emerging rival superpower. Over the longer run even the present apparent harmony between the United States and the European Union cannot be taken for granted, as the United States continues to pursue its quest for global domination. Nor is there an answer to this problem within the system at this stage in the development of capital. Globalization, Mészáros argues, has made a global state imperative for capital, but the inherent character of capital’s social metabolic process, which demands a plurality of capitals, makes this impossible. “The potentially deadliest phase of imperialism” thus has to do with the expanding circle of barbarism and destruction that such conditions are bound to produce.

How do these two views of globalization/imperialism—-the increasingly fashionable one focusing on the emergence of global sovereignty (called “Empire”) and the decidedly unfashionable view pointing to “the potentially deadliest phase of imperialism”—look today, following the events of September 11 and the commencement in Afghanistan of a global war on terrorism?

It might perhaps be argued that the analysis of Empire is confirmed since it was not a nation state that offered a challenge to the emerging system of global sovereignty but international terrorists outside the Empire. In this view the United States could be seen as carrying out a “world police” action in Afghanistan “not as a function of its own national motives but in the name of global right”—as Hardt and Negri described the U.S. actions in the Gulf War. This is more or less the way Washington describes its own actions.

Socialism or Barbarism, however, would appear to suggest an altogether different interpretation, one that sees U.S. imperialism as central to the terror crisis. In this view, the terrorists attacking the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, were not attacking global sovereignty or civilization (it wasn’t the United Nations in New York that was attacked)—much less the values of freedom and democracy as claimed by the U.S. state—but were deliberately targeting the symbols of U.S. financial and military power, and thus of U.S. global power. As unjustifiable as these terrorist acts were in every sense, they nonetheless belong to the larger history of U.S. imperialism and the attempt of the U.S. to establish global hegemony—particularly to the history of its interventions in the Middle East. Further, the United States responded not through a process of global constitutionalism, nor in the form of a mere police action, but imperialistically by unilaterally declaring war on international terrorism and setting loose its war machine on the Taliban government in Afghanistan.

In Afghanistan, the U.S. military is seeking to destroy terrorist forces that it once played a role in creating. Far from adhering to its own constitutional principles in the international domain the U.S. has long supported terrorist groups whenever it served its own imperialist designs, and has itself carried out state terrorism, killing civilian populations. Its new war on terrorism, Washington has declared, may require U.S. military intervention in numerous countries beyond Afghanistan—with such nations as Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines already singled out as possible locales for further interventions.

All of this, coupled with a worldwide economic downturn and increased repression in the leading capitalist states, seems to suggest that capital’s “destructive uncontrollability” is coming more and more to the fore. Imperialism, in the process of blocking autocentric development—i.e., in perpetuating the development of underdevelopment—in the periphery, has bred terrorism, which has blown back on the leading imperialist state itself, creating a spiral of destruction without apparent end.

Since global government is impossible under capitalism, but necessary in the more globalized reality of today, the system, Mészáros insists, is thrown increasingly upon the “extreme violent rule of the whole world by one hegemonic imperialist country on a permanent basis: an…absurd and unsustainable way of running the world order.” (p. 73).

Ten years ago, following the Gulf War, MR editors Harry Magdoff and Paul Sweezy observed:

The United States, it seems, has locked itself into a course with the gravest implications for the whole world. Change is the only certain law of the universe. It cannot be stopped. If societies [on the periphery of the capitalist world] are prevented from trying to solve their problems in their own ways, they will certainly not solve them in ways dictated by others. And if they cannot move forward, they will inevitably move backward. This is what is happening in a large part of the world today, and the United States, the most powerful nation with unlimited means of coercion at its disposal, seems to be telling the others that this is a fate that must be accepted on pain of violent destruction.

Alfred North Whitehead, one of the greatest thinkers of the past century, once said: “I have never ceased to entertain the idea that the human race might rise to a certain point and then decline and never retrieve itself. Plenty of other forms of life have done that. Evolution may go down as well as up.” It is an unsettling but by no means far-fetched thought that the form and active agency of this decline may be taking shape before our very eyes in these closing years of the twentieth century A.D.

This is of course not to suggest that irreversible decline is inevitable until it happens. But it is to suggest that the way things have been going for the last half century, and especially for the past year, holds that potential. And it is also to recognize that we, the American people, have a special responsibility to do something about it since it is our government that is threatening to play Samson in the temple of humanity (The Editors, “Pox Americana,” Monthly Review, July-August 1991).

The last ten years have only confirmed the general validity of this analysis. By any objective standard, the United States is the most destructive nation on earth. It has killed and terrorized more populations around the globe than any other nation since the Second World War. Its power for destruction is seemingly unlimited, armed as it is with every conceivable weapon. Its imperial interests, aimed at global hegemony, are virtually without limits. In response to the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, the U.S. government now has declared war on terrorists that it says reside in more than sixty countries as well as threatening military action against the governments that harbor them. In what is presented as merely the first stage in a long struggle it has unleashed its war machine in Afghanistan, already taking a frightful human toll, including those who are perishing for want of food.

How are we to view these developments except as the growth of imperialism, barbarism and terrorism—each feeding on the other—in an age in which capitalism seems to have reached the limits of its historic ascendance? What remaining hope there is for humanity, under these circumstances, lies with the rebuilding of socialism and, more immediately, with the emergence of a popular struggle centered within the United States—to prevent Washington from continuing its deadly game of Samson in the temple of humanity. Never have the words “socialism or barbarism,” once eloquently raised by Rosa Luxemburg, taken on more global urgency than in the present day.


* Hardt and Negri refer to the work of Samir Amin, especially to his Empire of Chaos (Monthly Review Press, 1992), as the leading alternative view of imperialism/empire to their own—one that differs sharply on the issue of center/periphery. See Hardt and Negri, Empire (pp. 9, 14, 334, 467).

* Socialism or Barbarism (2001) and Mészáros’ major theoretical work Beyond Capital (1995) were both published by Monthly Review Press.

* This is an abbreviated and slightly modified version of Mészáros’ list of principal contradictions in his book.

* The U.S. strategy of establishing global hegemony through the global projection of its military power is examined in detail in David N. Gibbs, “Washington’s New Interventionism: U.S. Hegemony and Interimperialist Rivalries,” Monthly Review 53:4 (September 2001): 5-37.