Cracking Empire

Cracking the Empire


1. Political terms, including euphemisms (marked with *)

Empire, obviously.

And collateral terms:

imperial, imperialism, colonial, colonialism, colonization, neo-colonialism, neo-imperialism (?)




*special administrative measures

*extraordinary rendition

*enhanced interrogation techniques (i.e., torture) including water boarding, shackling, hooding, stress positions


war on terror (GWOT, GSAVE, WW IV)

“overseas contingency operations”



2. Economic

Globalization or Globalism?

neoliberalism (neoclassical economics)

IMF (World Bank)


private contractor (i.e. mercenary)

Blackwater (Xe) Titan, CACI, et al.

3. Military terms, including euphemisms (marked with #)

4th generation warfare

#shock and awe

#clear and hold

full spectrum dominance

depleted uranium

#collateral damage

smart (and– believe it– “brilliant”) weapons

MOAB (Massive Ordnance Air Blast)

white phosphorous

#shake and bake fire mission (Fallujah)

cluster bomb

PUC (person under control): extremist/ militant/ terrorist

#“stop loss”


black site

4. Cultural terms


Taliban (“the students”)

Al Qaida (“the base” or “the database”)


“Modern democracies have been around for long enough for neo-liberal capitalists to learn how to subvert them. They have mastered the technique of infiltrating the instruments of democracy– the ‘independent’ judiciary, the ‘free’ press, the parliament– and molding them to their purpose. The project of corporate globalization has cracked the code. Free elections, a free press, and an independent judiciary mean little when the free market has reduced them to commodities on sale to the highest bidder” (3).

— Arundhati Roy

“We know how people create enemies where none exists. We know, and have plenty of pictures to illustrate it, what happens in war when the target is not quite hit. We are familiar with the words for damage and casualties which we are told to accept as inevitable. We are used to the relatively small number of its own dead that the world’s number one ruling power has to count and mourn while the mass of enemy dead, including women and children, go uncounted and are not worth mourning.

“So now we wait for the new war and the old repetitions. This time new missile systems will be even more accurate. We can be confident about the choice of pictures from this looming war. The flow of images will be sanitized of every detail of horror. Familiar TV channels will be there to give us a new installment of war as soap opera, interrupted only by ads for consumers who are living happily in peace.”

— Gunter Grass

“We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

–anonymous Bush administration official, possibly Karl Rove.

“I ask our youngest citizens to believe the evidence of your eyes. You have seen duty and allegiance in the determined faces of our soldiers. You have seen that life is fragile, and evil is real, and courage triumphs. Make the choice to serve in a cause larger than your wants, larger than yourself – and in your days you will add not just to the wealth of our country, but to its character.”

— GW Bush

“For unlike the great powers of old, we have not sought world domination. Our union was founded in resistance to oppression. We do not seek to occupy other nations. We will not claim another nation’s resources or target other peoples because their faith or ethnicity is different from ours. What we have fought for – and what we continue to fight for – is a better future for our children and grandchildren, and we believe that their lives will be better if other peoples’ children and grandchildren can live in freedom and access opportunity.”

— Barack Obama, Dec. 1 2009

“No one likens September 11 to August 6. Instead, the analogy we hear over and over again is to Pearl Harbor, December 7, even though the experience of a sudden, horrific attack on civilians in an urban center seems, in fact, much more like the events of September 11 than the Japanese attack on a US naval base.”

— Amy Kaplan

“The United States was not attacked because we are free.  Bin Laden was not attacking the Bill of Rights.  We were attacked because the United–over here because the United States’ military and political presence is massive over there.”

— Pat Buchanan

“The war is part of an alibi every imperialism has given itself, a civilizing mission carried to the extreme, as it always must be.”

—Gayatri Spivak

“Even before September 11th, the US government had a military presence in 140 countries. The United States now has military personnel deployed in 156 countries. It has between 700 to 800 military bases around the world totaling more than 250,000 personnel with around 845,000 different buildings and equipments covering land surface of 30 million acres.

“The United States has long been involved in meddling with the affairs and influencing the domestic policies of the third world nations directly and indirectly. Some of the methods used for exercising influence over the subject nations include initially providing arms and aid, training foreign military leaders, conducting covert actions through the CIA and twisting arms through organizations like the United Nations. The procedure involves providing aid to the less developed nations through IMF and World Bank, funded by the West, that leads to the eventual inability of the  poor country to repay the loan. Part of the debt is forgiven the third world countries are asked to make laws favorable to the West. These poor nations are then bound to become subordinate to the loan providing nations.”

–Pakistan Daily, Aug. 21 2009

“[T]here are different types of empire and they maintain their interests in different ways. Argentina, for instance, was never a formal part of the British Empire but in the 19th century it was so dependent upon the London bond market that it was, to all intents and purposes, part of the Informal Empire.

“The end of the Cold War could have changed some of this. But rather than retreat, the US actually expanded. The world, famously, became uni-polar. In addition to its financial interests and leadership, the [Americans] maintained their network of bases around the globe. The message was clear: the US is prepared to intervene in any country on earth. Just as importantly, it maintained the capability of so intervening.”

— Alex Massie

“For years they had preyed on the Saracens, had taken nobody knows what spoils of gems, precious metals, silks, ivories– the cream of the cream of the East. That is history, sir. We all know that the Holy Wars to them, as to the Templars, were largely a matter of loot.”

–Caspar Gutman from Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon

“Ain’t r de Emperor? De laws don’t go for him.”

–Brutus Jones from Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones

“The whole world is made to pass through the filter of the Culture Industry.”

— TW Adorno

“God has… made us the master organizers of the world to establish system where chaos reigns. He has given us the spirit of progress to overwhelm the forces of reaction throughout the earth. He has made us adepts in government that we may administer government among savage and senile peoples. Were it not for a force as this the world would relapse into barbarism and night. And of all our race He has marked the American people as His chosen nation to finally lead in the regeneration of the world. This is the divine mission of America…. We are trustees of the world’s progress, guardians of its righteous peace.”

— Sen. Albert Beveridge

“Wars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder. In the Middle Ages when the feudal lords… concluded to enlarge their domains, to increase their power, their prestige and their wealth they declared war upon one another. But they themselves did not go to war any more than the modern feudal lords, the barons of Wall Street go to war. The feudal barons of the Middle Ages, the economic predecessors of the capitalists of our day, declared all wars. And their miserable serfs fought all the battles. The poor, ignorant serfs had been taught to revere their masters; to believe that when their masters declared war upon one another, it was their patriotic duty to fall upon one another and to cut one another’s throats for the profit and glory of the lords and barons who held them in contempt. And that is war in a nutshell. The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and all to lose—especially their lives.”

— Eugene Debs

“Moloch! Moloch! Robot apartments! invisible suburbs!

skeleton treasuries! blind capitals! demonic

industries! spectral nations! invincible mad

houses! granite cocks! monstrous bombs!”

— Allen Ginsberg, “Howl”

“It is an illusion that imperialism will decay peacefully. Imperialism has meant constant war. Imperialists defend their control of the means of life with terrible force. There is no reason to believe they will become humane or relinquish power.”

— WUO, Prairie Fire

“War is the health of the state.”

— Randolph Bourne

“Detached from religion and at the same time purged of the doubts that haunted its classical exponents, the belief in the market as a divine ordinance became a secular ideology of universal progress….”

— John Gray

“The best time to invest is when there is still blood on the ground.”

— delegate at the “Rebuilding Iraq 2” conference in Washington, D.C.

Two Dates:

2/15/2003: Tens of millions of people worldwide protest against the impending invasion of Iraq, an event unprecedented in human history. They do not know that CIA teams are already in Iraq, having arrived in June 2002, laying the ground for US troops. Between January and April 2003, 36 million people demonstrate.

3/18/2003: The bombing of Iraq begins.


What is Empire? Is the US an Empire?

Empire is a geopolitical term, which is to say that it attempts to describe power and space. Empire is of necessity larger than a state. It is an agglomeration of different territories under a single overall rule. This rule may be indirect. It may be exercised almost exclusively in economic terms. The Empire thus ruled might be described as “informal.”

Consider all the various polities and agglomerations that constitute social life: from that atom of society, the family, to villages, towns, cities, nations, regions, transnational groupings (EU, NATO, etc.) and finally to global capitalism, a process/logic/system under which almost everyone on the planet falls.

Empire is deployed very broadly to describe an economic/cultural/diplomatic/military formation, which is to say both a political entity that can be located in time and space as well as an ideology and process.

Empire has been widely discussed in recent years, and positions on that concept range from old skool Leninist denunciations to a self-identified right wing recuperation of Empire (“Empire’s a good thing”) to some fairly sophisticated theorizing along the lines of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s book Empire. One thing all agree upon is that the concept is rooted in the exercise of power– whether, as Max Boot might argue, for the good of us all or, as a writer like Arundhati Roy clearly thinks, as a form of dominating the surplus populations of the world.

Characteristics of Empire:

large territory, composite units, formed out of previously separate units, diverse, unequal, a relationship of domination, core-periphery, local administration, usually by colonized proxies, creation of hybridized practices and identities, flow-counterflow of people, plants, germs, goods, ideas, etc.

imperialism: as a process and a set of ideas. first used with regard to Napoleon III (1860s) and later with the policies of Disraeli, et al, who self-identified as imperialists.

JA Hobson’s Imperialism identified it as the pursuit of new investment spaces, an idea developed by Lenin’s Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, which held that monopoly capitalism and imperialism were identical. This formulation was widely influential even outside Marxist circles, and gave rise to the notion that imperialism was largely a Western phenomenon. Still, others held that imperialism simply meant the domination or control of one people over others, particularly through the mechanism of the State, which allowed for a distinction between formal and informal imperialism. If the former signified absolute physical control then the latter indicated something less direct though still powerful.

In general, most people think of the latter, informal imperialism, when they employ the term Empire: a small group of nations dominates and exploits the rest of the world via state power, TNCs, World Bank, etc. The radical view holds that Empire is more or less synonymous with US foreign policy, which shares certain features with the formal colonialism of the 19th and 20th C. Not so direct. Instead, using client regimes, as well as economic, diplomatic, and cultural forms of control. Military action however is never as they say “off the table” as witnessed in Kuwait, Iraq, Kosovo, Panama, Grenada, Afghanistan.

Rise of the term colonialism. and its variants: postcolonialism. Colony, colonist, colonial, colonialist, colonize, colonization, etc. orig. colonus (‘colony’) meant a farming settlement. later, a place to which people migrated (plantation). Settlement is the key in this early sense.

Late 19th and early 20th C: the meaning of colony shifts to include all distant areas controlled by mainly European states. The term colonialism was coined as a direct attack on European exploitation. links to white racial hegemony.

alternatives: Chas. W. Mills: “global white supremacy as a political system”

colonialism and racial schemata are usually linked.

All of this gets fairly complicated, esp. when we look to historical precedent. The Dutch colonized S. Africa in the 16th and 17th centuries and the descendants of these colonials, the Boers, in turn became the object of British imperialist aggression.  Also, Palestine, a place whose inhabitants were dispossessed by the victims of European genocide. Or even the US, a nation founded by colonizers who gained their political identity via an anti-colonialist struggle with England.

Other, non-European examples: Indonesia in East Timor, Turkey in Kurdistan, Mongol Empire….

Robert Young’s work complicates the above ideas. From his Postcolonialism:

“both colonialism and imperialism involved forms of subjugation of one people by another” (15)

caravels were the key to colonization– sea-based empires no longer necessarily contiguous.

American style colonialism:

extraction of natural wealth, conversion of indigenes

“the militant Spanish drive for conversion to Christianity was an imitation of the Islamic Jihad that had been responsible for the Moors’ colonization of Spain” (16)

US: Pilgrims fled England, rather than acting on its behalf?

Empire precedes imperialism by several centuries as a category of human activity.

splitting empire into colonialism and imperialism.

the latter developed via the state for financial gain and ideological reasons, the former centered on settlement for the purpose of trade.

“colonization was pragmatic and until the 19C generally developed locally in a haphazard way”

imperalism bears scrutiny as a concept while colonialism need be thought of as a practice

Historical imperialism: Roman, Ottoman, Spanish on the one hand; late 19C Europe on the other.

Colonialism: 1) settlement 2) exploitation

French: colonization or domination. Brits: dominions or dependencies

a 3rd possible category: “maritime enclaves” (ie Guantanamo, Hong Kong, Gibraltar, Guam, Diego Garcia, Malacca)


Robert Young gives us further insight, this time into the creation of an Other, a Native who must either be saved or destroyed.

For Fanon, “imperialism initiated a process of ‘internalization’ in which those subjected to it experienced economic, political, and social inferiority not merely in ‘external’ terms but in a manner that affected their sense of their own identity…. material inferiority creates a sense of racial and cultural inferiority…. Colonization, he argues, also took place through language: under French domination the Creole language is rendered ‘inferior’ to French, and the colonized subject is compelled to speak the tongue of his/her imperial rules, thereby experiencing  their subjugation in terms of their own linguistic abilities and identity.”

But this process not only damages the colonized– it structures the colonizer himself. The colonized, as the colonizer’s Other, is intimately linked to his/her oppressor.

Other: a form of cultural projection of concepts which constructs the identities of cultural subjects through a relationship of power in which the Other is the subjugated element. In claiming knowledge about the Colonized (Muslims, barbarians, terrorists) this projection (this discourse, what Edward Said termed “Orientalism”) constructs them as its own (European) Other. Through describing purportedly ‘native’ (Muslim, ‘Oriental’, etc.) characteristics (irrational, uncivilized, etc.) Orientalism provided a definition not of the real ‘native’ identity but of the European identity in terms of the oppositions which structured its putatively innocent account. Hence, irrational Other presupposes rational Self. The construction of the Other in Orientalist discourse, then, is a matter of asserting self-identity, and the issue of the European account of the Other is thereby rendered a question of power.

Abdul Jan Mohammed characterizes the othering of the native this way: “If every desire is at base a desire to impose oneself on another and be recognized by the Other, then the colonialist situation provides an ideal context for the fulfillment of that fundamental drive. The colonizer’s military superiority enables him to impose his will, to otherize the native and thus gain recognition or acknowledgement. This is a narcissistic self-recognition because the colonizer doesn’t recognize or acknowledge the natives subjectivity independent of his relatinship tot he colonizer. The native is a recipient of the negative elements of the self that the European projects onto him.

not fulfillment but interminable dissatisfaction

constructing the native and angered that the native does not appear to be someone (a subject) other than that construct

‘the European’s alienation from his own unconscious desire…. The self becomes the prisoner of the projected image” Negated by the colonizer’s projection, the native onetheless constitutes a presence in his absence.

In addition to the hapless Native-as-victim/ Native-as-object of colonial solicitude and discipline we have the “extremist” or “militant” or “terrorist.” This is the Native gone mad. In the case of Al Qaeda, a kind of contagion from without, destroying the fiber of the host society. In the case of the Taliban, a benighted, barbaric element from within. The Islamic fundamentalist as the new menace, one who, like a zombie, is totally committed and impossible to reason with.

Notes on Ellen Meiksens Woods’s “Democracy as the Ideology of Empire”

“The association of imperialism and democracy seems to be a deeply rooted American idea, and many Americans firmly believe that this represents their country’s manifest destiny.”

At issue here is the seeming oxymoron of an empire of liberty or democracy. Jefferson actually used that phrase– ‘empire of liberty’– at one time to describe the mission of the United States.

We should perhaps emphasize the notion of mission as related to the myths of American Exceptionalism, capital P Progress, and Manifest Destiny in the context of Empire.

the “five fundamental truths” sound pretty good, though they are deeply invested in particular ideologies of the role of politics in society. The idea that “the basic subject of society is the human person”, for instance (versus a corporate person?) reflects a very Anglo-Saxon concept of the political realm as an aggregation of righs-bearing atoms.

Woods, however, is more concerned with this list of “truths” as a set of principles and their relationship to actions and realities.

“Just war”– a venerable western concept from the medieval era.

To continue: Bush admin. foreign policy seems to be transparently concerned with maintaining and even expanding global “hegemony” (in this context, rule or dominion).

Woods gestures at the strategic value of the Iraq/Afghanistan invasions. Such strategic benefits would not only include access to vital (and finite) natural resources such as oil or gas, but military advantage. Central Asia, as its name suggests, commands a view of the whole of the continent. Should there be crisis or conflict in Asia, US bases would allow a rapid US military response.

The key question: “How is it that freedom, equality, and universal human dignity can seem a convincing justification for imperialism and war?”

The quick answer, or at least its beginning: capitalism.

Woods begins by distinguishing between the status of people under capitalism, an economic system, and democracy, a political one. In capitalist democracies, every citizen is equal under the law though in terms of economic power there may be and in fact are great inequalities. Currently income inequality in the US is the highest it has ever been since records began to be kept. Globally, the situation is even more dire.

So a fundamentally hierarchical economic system can co-exist with what is ostensibly an egalitarian political structure. How so?

“[C]apitalism has created new, purely economic compulsions: the propertylessness of workers, which compels them to sell their labour power in exchange for a wage [or salary] and the compulsions of the market, which regulate the economy. Both capital and labour can  have democratic rights  in the political sphere without completely transforming the relation between them in a separate economic sphere; and much of human life is determined in that economic sphere, outside of the reach of democratic accountability….the idea that capitalists and workers alike are free and equal has become the most important ideological support of capitalism. Formal democracy, with its ideology of freedom, equality, and classlessness, has become one of the most effective mechanisms in sustaining and reproducing capitalist class relations.”

At issue here is a confusion or conflation of the freedoms promised by democracy and those which seemed to be implied by capitalism. After all, capitalists often speak of the “free” market as an economic ideal. Yet formal political liberties do not address us in our totality– the right to vote, speak at a rally (itself under threat of late– try keywording “free speech zone” sometime) etc. has no direct relationship to how we live or our economic well-being.

This contradiction, Woods argues, has only grown more opaque. With legal distinctions of status abolished, the facts of economic hierarchy– that there are some who have more than they could ever need or use and many who never have enough– seem to be obscured.

Such a situation is ideological in the extreme. As a general rule ideology is strongest when it is least visible. Ideology can go down to the very root of our identities as well. Criticisms of economic inequality are often met with the phrase “that ‘s just how it is”– in other words, as a fact of nature rather than a contingency of society.

“Ideologies of capitalist imperialism”

In this section Woods takes us from “the early days” to the present. Note the distinctions being established here: from a period of “outright colonial settlement” (what happened, for example, in British North America) to a phase of imperialism (Empire) which is less concerned with physical presence in space as a means of control or domination than with ensuring that capital remains free to flow in all directions. Empire, then, does not necessarily require people taking over new territories directly, though, as we shall see, Woods believes that the State as a political form and its military arm are vital to capitalism.

To return: Woods describes how theories of property undergird imperialism. Unoccupied land can be seized, a kind of theory of squatters’ rights (More). Even further, land that is occupied may be taken if its inhabitants are not making proper use of the land’s resources (Locke)– i.e., if not being exploited for profit in a market economy (for “the production of exchange value”).

Colonization thus acquired an ideological justification. It was alright to dispossess the native peoples of North America b/c they did not hold the same ideas about property that the colonists (colonizers) did.

“This was an application of capitalist principles, the principles of competition, accumulation, and profit-maximization by means of increasing productivity. It expressed a wholly new morality, in which exchange value took priority over all other goods, making possible the justification of everything from exploitation and expropriation to ecological destruction– all in the name of freedom and equality.”

As Woods notes, however, this ideological innovation soon required revision to keep pace with historical change. Eventually, colonization proved to be inefficient– insufficiently profitable. What she terms “the new imperialism… which really only emerged in the [second half of] the twentieth century” came about when direct control of native lands and populations was no longer required. It is important to emphasize Woods’ periodization of this phenomenon: she argues the new imperialism appeared post-1950, which is to say at exactly the same time that Africa and Asia were decolonizing. How do we make sense of this?

“The fully developed capitalist empire, which depends above all on economic imperatives, is basically the story of US imperialism.”

Woods evokes George Washington’s warning against “foreign entanglements” and may have the work of William Appleman Williams in mind when she refers to the US model of “a so-called informal empire, imposing market forces and manipulating them to the advantage of US capital.” Williams believed that in the 19th century the US had adopted a sort of “Imperial anti-colonialism” based on the principle that international trade should be as free as possible. The US itself, of course, made extensive use of tariffs to defend its growing economy. But other nations must be encouraged or, if need be, compelled to open their borders to trade and investment. This form of informal empire was summed up with the phrase “the open door policy” and is generally associated with US involvement in China: “the policy of the open door was designed to clear the way and establish the conditions under which America’s preponderant economic power would extend the American system throughout the world without the embarrassment and inefficiency of traditional colonialism” (Williams 50).

Back to Woods: Rather than obtain and maintain colonies, the US model  was “to police the global system to make it safe for the movements of capital.”

“How does one theorize and justify a non-colonial, non-territorial empire? How does one explain and defend exploitation of people and resources that requires no direct rule or territorial expansion, and where there is no need for personal rule or the seizure of property?”

New empire’s objectives:

“free access for capital… anywhere in the world”

which requires a system of sovereign nation-states

and does not mean a wholly integrated global economy.

Profit can only be extracted under uneven or unequal conditions. For example, Adidas’ plants in littoral China, the “special economic zones” where transnational corporations can produced commodities in conditions with weak workers’ rights and low pay.

“What global capital needs is not a global state but an orderly global system of territorial states, which maintain economic and political order within territorial boundaries and at the same time permit and facilitate the penetration of those boundaries by global capital, without presenting any dangerous challenges or competition.”

Woods returns to her last question: how justified?

First, deny the existence of Empire altogether in ways that are, to an extent, analogous to the ways that class hierarchy is concealed domestically. For example: Chinese teenaged girls are probably grateful to have even low paying jobs in hazardous or uncomfortable conditions. Nobody is forcing them to make running shoes. Or better yet: an impoverished nation isn’t forced to take IMF loans. Its citizens could, after all, simply starve. There are compulsions at work in this situation. A loan from the World Bank often entails what used to be referred to as “structural adjustments.” For instance, South Africa.

“There is an analogy here between citizens in a capitalist democracy and states in a global capitalist empire. The democratic polity is made up of formally free and equal civic individuals, just as the global order is make up of formally free and equal sovereign states. And just as citizenship tends to mask class domination in capitalism, legal state sovereignty tends to mask imperial ambition.”

But there’s more: we need to justify capitalism itself. Woods offers a general outline.

Global capitalism is like nature, neutral and inevitable (“that’s just the way it is”). This strategy is based on the notion of the inscrutable yet eminently just laws of “the market” and what Woods calls “technological determinism.” It is inevitable that capitalism triumph and blanket the planet.

Yet, as Woods, points out, this sense of the inexorable spread of capitalism will not produce a single global state. Globalization requires a variegated terrain to maintain profitable investment and exchange. Thus as capital penetrates the last reaches of global economic life, the nation-state remains the only viable political form. Such a geopolitical landscape, however, can lapse into crisis and “that requires political, military, and ideological supports that are not supplied by purely economic power.”

Thus the mission of the US and other nation-states is radically open-ended: to keep the world safe for capital. Because of this, the military apparatus is even more gargantuan than ever. “To put it bluntly, it needs an ideology to justify what amounts to a state of permanent war.”

Interference in other nations’ affairs for the benefit of capitalism must be concealed under the aegis of democracy. “The concept of democracy covers a multitude of sins, and it has become especially useful now that the old postwar imperial strategies no longer work.”

“as the long postwar boom in the advanced capitalist countries gave way to a long economic downturn, the development strategy gave way to neoliberalism, with its policies of ‘structural adjustment,’ privatization, and the complete vulnerability of subordinate economies to foreign capital and financial speculation.”

“talk of democracy is cheap and makes a useful rhetorical substitute, at least for home consumption in imperial capitals.”

the contradictions of democratic rhetoric/imperial practice:

practical support for oppressive regimes: Saudi Arabia, Colombia, etc.

working “the dark side”: Gitmo, black sites, extraordinary rendition, torture, etc.

domestic spying, preventive detention, conspiracy prosecutions

Set these abuses aside for the moment and focus on how the Bush regime justifies its policies. First, consider that the ideal of democracy espoused today is a pale shadow of what it once might have meant. Woods argues this is a peculiarly American conception of democracy, one that goes all the way back to the 18th century:

“its main purpose… was not to strengthen democratic citizenship but, on the contrary, to preserve elite rule in the face of an unavoidable mass politics and popular sovereignty.  The object was to depoliticize the citizenry and turn democracy into rule by propertied classes over a passive citizen body, and also to confine democracy to a limited, formal political sphere…. the did everything possible to make democratic citizenship compatible with… a hierarchy of economic interests.”

The “checks and balances” of the American political system were intended and indeed do function as a means of foreclosing the possibility of dramatic, radical socio-economic change.

“So here was a democracy whose essential purpose was to leave class domination intact, while maintaining democratic suffrage and other democratic forms.”

“Today, the USA represents the model capitalist democracy. It combines, in ideological conception and in practical reality, the formal sovereignty of the people with the substantive rule of capital.”

BUT “capitalism relies on the state to create the conditions of accumulation and enforcement that capital cannot create for itself.” In other words there is a division of labor between the state and economy, yet the economy depends in a meaningful way on the state for its conditions of success.

“The US idea of democracy, for all its undoubted benefits, especially in the constitutional protection of civil liberties… is designed to make politics subordinate to class inequality and differences of economic interest.”

“How the US Conception of Democracy Operates in Support of Imperialism”

“The essence of democracy as conceived in the USA is the coupling of formal democracy with substantive class rule, the class rule of capital. This involves a delicate conceptual balancing act between an assertion of popular sovereignty– government of, by, and for the people– and the dominance of capital, the subordination of politics to capitalist markets, and the imperatives of profit. Those of us who grew up in the United States are well primed to accept this tricky combination. We are well prepared to view class power as having nothing to do with either power or class. We are educated to see property as the most fundamental human right and the market as the true realm of freedom. We are taught to view the state as just a necessary evil to sustain the right of property and the free market. We are taught to accept that most social conditions are determined in an economic sphere outside the read of democracy. We learn to think of ‘the people’ not in social terms, as the common people, the working class, or anything to do with popular power, but as a purely political category; and we confine democracy to a limited, formal political sphere. As the founding fathers intended, we think of political rights as essentially passive, and citizenship as a passive, individual, even private identity, which may express itself by voting from time to time but which has no active, collective, or social meaning.”

The above is the necessary ideological grounding for the justification of imperial democracy. Woods then moves on to China and the Open Door:

“This doctrine began by asserting the territorial integrity of China, in other words its right to be free of foreign domination (!).

Again, the analogy between the citizen’s formal political freedoms and the nation’s sovereignty: nations have rights yet should be subject to a global capitalist order. The self-interest of each nation will produce an overall good for the world. In other words, China is free to do as she pleases so long as she does not seek to interfere with “economic imperatives.”

How does the US promote its own power imperially even as it appeals to “democracy”?

“two essential strategies”: limit the electoral process, evacuate the social content of democracy.

“the desocialization of democracy is the really crucial anti-democratic strategy, more important in the end than any electoral devices. The whole point of this strategy is to put formal political rights in place of any social rights, and to put as much of social life as possible out of reach of democratic accountability.”

Iraq, the Bremmer programs of privatization, direct investment. Cf. Shock Doctrine.

“The conceptual balancing act in the ideology of empire and democracy has depended on a particular division of labour between political and economic spheres…. But the old relation between political and economic power… is being disrupted…. The consequence of a globalized economy has been that states have become more, not less, involved in managing economic circuits through the medium of inter-state relations, and capital has become more, not less, dependent on organization of the economy by a system of many local states. This means that the division of labour between the economic and political is less clear-cut than it was.”

In other words, an opening: “local and national struggles are more important now than ever.”

Further Reading:

Harvey, David. A Brief History of Neoliberalism.

Johnson, Chalmers. The Sorrows of Empire.

Klein, Naomi. The Shock Doctrine.

Lenin, VI. Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism.

Roy, Arundhati. An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire.

Williams, William Appleman. The Tragedy of American Diplomacy.

Woods, Ellen Meiskens. Empire of Capital.

Young, Robert J.C. Postcolonialism.

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