New Internationalist

Empire Left & Right

Issue 386

The most ancient form of human domination just won’t go away and historians and philosophers of every political stripe have joined battle over its meaning. Richard Swift acts as referee.

Illustrations by Polyp
Illustrations by Polyp

It seems hard to credit all the talk of Empire. Not so long ago one would have been forgiven for believing colonial history to be a mildly interesting area of academic study, good mostly for the nostalgia of Colonel Blimps or the arcane fascinations of nerdy graduate students. Didn’t the age of colonization finally end when the last vestiges of Portugal’s colonial empire in Africa were swept away in the mid-1970s? Didn’t this finally put paid to the project of colonial empires, sweeping them forever into the ‘dustbin of history’? And with it didn’t any sense of political credibility attached to the paternalism of the ‘white man’s burden’ or a dozen other ‘civilizing’ hypocrisies also disappear forever? Gandhi caught the spirit of the times after the Second World War when asked what he thought of Western civilization. His cryptic retort: ‘I think it would be a good idea.’ The end of an era, right?

Perhaps not. Today talk of Empire is everywhere from Left to Right across the political spectrum. Two significant panoramic studies, both entitled Empire – one by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri on the Left, one by Niall Ferguson on the Right – have made claims to alter significantly the way we think about empire. Both are books of towering political ambition. Both have set off ferocious debates about the nature and prospects of imperial power. The stage for such debates was set by the collapse of optimism that accompanied the era of post-colonial independence. Read an issue of the NI from the mid-1970s and you get a flavour of the hope that infused the period. The enduring poverty and brutality in the global South is for some an indication that colonized peoples are incapable (culturally? genetically?) of self-government. For others it is stark evidence that Empire has never really gone away.

The cowboy Rome

Empire is coming out of the closet, and not just in books: it has once again taken centre stage, this time with a cowboy swagger. The idea of an American Empire has produced a veritable avalanche of learned tomes, articles, documentaries, TV shows, web interventions and not a little resistance. If you are an Iraqi or an Afghan this is an everyday reality. No longer is it just the not-so-subtle velvet hammer of IMF and World Bank advice. In country after country US military bases dot the landscape. While this is not, in most cases, the direct territorial acquisition of formal colonies, the presence of foreign troops on one’s soil is clear evidence that someone else is making claims on your natural resources and the nature of your institutions.

Boots on the ground, then, have made Empire more than an academic exercise. What might yet prove to be the world’s most powerful (if most reluctant) empire is clearly flexing its muscles. Is the ‘world’s only superpower’ becoming the new Rome? The US reluctance to acclaim itself an empire lies not in any unwillingness to impose its will on others through the projection of military might or the imposition of its favoured neoliberal economic model on recalcitrant populations. It lies rather in its unwillingness to admit that that is what it is doing.

Historically empires have proudly proclaimed their right – indeed their obligation – to impose their order. The Glories of Rome; ‘The Sun never sets on the British Empire’; Hitler’s Thousand Year Reich; La Civilisation Française: empires have usually trumpeted their own greatness from the rooftops. But the US has, until recently, been very modest in this regard, preferring to see itself as a champion of anti-imperialism and democracy. Pop historian Karen Farrington has produced a lavish, illustrated Historical Atlas of Empires that starts in Mesopotamia in 40,000 BCE and ends with the fall of the Soviet Empire in 1991. Farrington never even entertains the possibility that there could be an American Empire. Even more serious historians of Empire like Frederick Cooper and Michael Doyle shrink from such a judgement.

The reluctance of the US to name itself may be because the tricky question of democracy is at the centre of this latest empire’s self-image. Hard to square Empire with democracy, so let’s not talk about it. Maybe people won’t notice. But bits of evidence are starting to accumulate that indicate this is changing. Lynne and Dick Cheney in their most recent Christmas card quoted Ben Franklin: ‘If a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid?’ In the White House, meanwhile, Cheney’s boss has commissioned a study of the ruling practices of past empires going back to Rome and Genghis Khan.

A plethora of imperial-minded think-tanks and institutes, military and oil industry lobbyists and Christian fundamentalist battlers against various ‘evil others’ populate the official US political landscape. Their belligerence is delivered in a rather macho register. Michael Ledeen, who holds the ‘Freedom Chair’ at the American Enterprise Institute, catches the mood: ‘Every 10 years or so, the US needs to pick up some crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.’ The bold and the brash have gained imperial ascendancy inside the Washington beltway.

Glorifying the emperors

It is against this background that the bright young Scottish historian Niall Ferguson has made the glory (and glorification) of empires his speciality. He cloaks the cowboys in intellectual respectability. If pacifists and human rights activists seek to speak ‘truth to power’, Ferguson and his fellow-travellers seek if not to speak ‘flattery to power’ then at least to boost the self-assurance of the powerful. The title of Ferguson’s provocative piece in the New York Times magazine says it all really: ‘The Empire Slinks Back: Why Americans Don’t Really Have What it Takes to Rule the World.’ No room for liberal wusses or socialist foot-draggers here. In 2004 Ferguson warned Americans against being too ‘squeamish’ about Iraq, warning that: ‘Putting this rebellion down will require severity and ruthlessness.’ Stand up, be a real man, get with the programme. Music to the ears of a Cheney or a Rumsfeld.

Ferguson has always looked at Empire from the point of view of the colonialists. As Stephen Howe points out, in an essay for openDemocracy1, an excellent website, Ferguson almost never looks for evidence or refers to sources among either people or scholars of those that have been colonized. Writing in Empire, Ferguson takes it as a self-evident good that: ‘No organization in history has done more to promote the free movement of goods, capital and labour than the British Empire in the 19th and early 20th centuries. And no organization has done more to impose Western norms of law, order and governance around the world.’

In his follow-up book on the American Empire, Colossus, Ferguson worries that the US lacks the fortitude to impose a much-needed order on the world. He breezily throws off phrases about ‘constabulary’ functions of Empire that, when you unpack them, amount to brutal counter-insurgency and racist police methods. Such methods, as practised by his beloved British Empire in Kenya in the 1950s, are now central to the way the US is fighting its War on Terror. Ferguson goes so far as to suggest that a solution to the problem of military personpower may lie in the US mobilizing its vast prison population as a resource for a larger army. All this from a learned historian who originally specialized in the historical machinations of financial markets…

Ferguson is, however, useful in at least one respect: in pointing out that the costs, both political and economic, of running empires can be prohibitive. This is the root of his pessimism about his favoured form of social organization. It can be seen today in the US: the political costs of the war are escalating, the numbers coming forward for the ‘volunteer’ military are declining and the economic costs of the war are swamping US public finance. The martial spirit and fiscal discipline needed to run an empire may just not be on offer.

It was these same factors that led to the Europeans abandoning their formal empires in the post-World War Two era. Granted, the US is currently in a bellicose mood and plenty of evidence can be mustered that the old imperialism is back. But the approach of ‘get them by the balls and their hearts and minds will follow’ raises serious questions of long-term legitimacy – questions mirrored in international polling data as the reputation of the US tumbles worldwide.

One of the values of the second Empire (that by Hardt and Negri) is that it anticipates (rather prematurely) a newer self-managed imperial form that could forgo some of the heavy costs of the current model. Hardt and Negri offer a significant rethink of the Marxist legacy in the analysis of imperial power. They have produced an eclectic (some would say idiosyncratic) body of work, including two main texts – Empire and Multitude – that put forward the notion of a kind of multilateralist global domination based on networked ‘deterritorialized’ corporate power. They believe this to be the emerging model that must be challenged from below.

This is highly unorthodox stuff, which draws from Spinoza and St Francis of Assisi as well as Karl Marx and Rosa Luxemburg. It takes all the basic categories of Marxist analysis and opens them up for reinterpretation in the context of ‘postmodern’ realities. It is the kind of thing that drives Marxists of a more orthodox stripe to distraction – especially when the War on Terror and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan have had traditional Marxists preening their ‘I told you so’ feathers.

Marxists in a lather

The assault has been ferocious, with Argentinean social scientist Atilio Boron leading the charge with a whole volume – Empire and Imperialism – dedicated to discrediting Hardt and Negri. He goes so far as to claim that the real function of Empire, when it was published in the year 2000, ‘seems to have been to make a little bit more palatable the increasingly atrocious and despicable features of the imperialism of the end of the century’. Henry Veltmeyer and James Petras have also launched a furious attack in their soon-to-be-published Empire with Imperialism: the Globalizing Dynamics of Neo-Liberal Capitalism. These authors (and a number of others) take Hardt and Negri to task for exaggerating the changes in global capitalism and downplaying traditional tensions and struggles – particularly the central role of the US in shaping military neoliberalism. Instead of seeing what might be valuable and useful in Hardt and Negri, they take it as an assault on the whole edifice of Marxist thinking on imperialism.

It is true that Hardt and Negri can be maddeningly imprecise in their analytic categories – their notions of ‘networked power’ and an ‘oppositional multitude’, for example, are very difficult to define. In many ways they overplay their hand when identifying a new system of emerging soft power. They act as master-thinkers sweeping away the old edifice to create their new one. With the usual Marxist brash self-assurance, they mistake tendencies for already established realities. In the wake of the emergence of a distinctly unilateral US Empire currently operating to fight terror and impose a neoliberal economic order they seem badly out of step. Both Empire and Multitude greatly underestimate the persistence of ugly old-style imperialism, tending to be blinded by a seamless vision of postmodern, globalized Empire.

Still, Hardt and Negri may be right, or at least not wrong, in the long run. And their work is refreshing in its attempt to break out of both orthodox Marxist notions of imperialism and the postmodern desire to avoid all analytic generalization. They have produced not so much a new ‘science’ for understanding global domination as an alternative structure and a quarry of insights that can be used, developed and if necessary contradicted. Their Empire is, after all, more a book of political philosophy than of political economy. They are in some ways the theoretical expression of the movement against globalization that came into being in the late 1990s. Their political spirit is more informed by the libertarian and democratic strain of Left thinking than that of the various currents of state socialist thought.

Hardt and Negri’s cardinal sin, for the orthodox, is to call into question the old notion of Left political strategy. This notion, stripped of its nuances, is that a hierarchical political party is needed to lead the working class in the capture of state power. What Hardt and Negri have done (for which they cannot be forgiven) is to challenge the categories of party, state and class so central to this old anti-imperialism.

The plain fact, however, is that these things just ain’t what they used to be. Class has been globalized in the crucible of migration, destroying much of its immediate centrality both in politics and production. The state has proved either too weak or too strong to sustain popular rule. The party is either compromised or has mutated into an authoritarian cult. When Hardt and Negri bring these ‘holy cows’ in from the field for closer inspection, they do us a great service.

Oddly enough, it is not when they stray from Marxist orthodoxies that Hardt and Negri are at their weakest but when they cling to them too closely. Their belief in progress seems at times breathtakingly naïve. Postmodern production and the new forms of intelligence it is creating and spreading are seen as some kind of prerequisite for socialist self-rule. Maybe. But couldn’t it just as easily lead to the mass hypnosis of entertainment spectacle covering the continuing ravages of military neoliberalism?

The Achilles’ heel

There is, moreover, barely a word wasted on the crisis of the global ecosystem through chemical and climate disintegration. This is the real Achilles’ heel of Hardt and Negri’s optimistic postmodernism. The underlying notion of progress through technology remains undisturbed. The possibilities for freedom are enhanced by the march of productive forces. They romanticize the potential of postmodern globalism in the same way Marx in his day romanticized the progressive nature of capitalism and underestimated the persistence of older forms of authoritarianism.

But Hardt and Negri’s attempt to rethink anti-Empire politics needs to be treated with more sympathy than their critics are currently doling out. After all, ‘national liberation’ as a response to Empire has proved a very tricky matter. Too often this has resulted in the kind of reactionary nationalist populism currently on display in Zimbabwe, Eritrea and a dozen other places. It is arguable that the stage of ‘national liberation’ was inevitable, but it is one over which we can no longer have any illusions.

Hardt and Negri romanticize the potential of postmodern globalism in the same way Marx in his day romanticized the progressive nature of capitalism

Even when ‘national liberation’ has been successful, as it was in China and Vietnam, the societies that emerged have been reintegrated back into global capitalism. A worker without rights making goods for Wal-Mart for a couple of dollars a day in ‘liberated’ Vietnam or China isn’t all that different from a similar worker in Honduras or Bangladesh. Cuba has been unable to combine its national liberation (and undoubted social gains) with any meaningful kind of popular power. Too often, even when some coalition of the Left has managed to get into government – as they have in contemporary Latin America – the combination of internal and external pressures can prove overwhelming. The current struggles of the Workers’ Party in Brazil are a classic case.

The most militant form of anti-imperialism these days is fundamentalism in its various guises. This is distinctly internationalist in its orientation as it holds up the mirror of terror for the militarism of Empire to see its own face. In this context, Hardt and Negri’s wish to move opposition to Empire beyond ‘the state form’ and to identify new sources of cross-border solidarity is a breath of fresh air.

The resistance to Empire has historically taken more ‘internationalist’ forms, from the earliest days when Toussaint l’Ouverture and the Black Jacobins revolted against slavery to the 20th-century politics of Pan-Africanism and Pan-Arabism. The movements against slavery and later against minority white rule were very much international creatures. Unfortunately these revolts (and many others) have been forced back into the mould of the nation-state, either to be reintegrated into the imperial system or to become authoritarian outposts of rhetorical opposition.

Hardt and Negri scan the horizon for other cosmopolitan impulses of resistance to Empire and they see them in the World Social Forum movement given birth in Porto Alegre, the wandering migrant proletariat that breaks down national identities, the anti-globalization demonstrations and the internet-based activism that makes borders impermeable. Even Hugo Chávez of Venezuela appears to understand that he needs to make his Bolivarian revolution international if it is to survive.

The stalemate between authoritarian Empire and authoritarian national liberation looks increasingly a dead end. So while Niall Ferguson would move us back into a 19th-century imperial governability based on exploitation, Hardt and Negri, whatever their many shortcomings, are at least trying to identify fragments of a hopeful future without Empire.

  1. http://www.opendemocracy.net/content/articles/PDF/2021.pdf

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