Democracy as Ideology of Empire (ContCult)

Here are my reading notes for the essay we discussed in class on Wednesday. Incidentally, when I discussed her analogy I think I got the order of terms wrong. It should look like this:

citizenship: class domination :: sovereignty: imperialism

So, just to reiterate: the form (of democratic rights, state sovereignty) not only obscures the “true content” of the situation (class hierarchy, empire) but that mask in fact facilitates the extension or perpetuation of capitalist/imperialist exploitation. Does that make sense? Any questions, please direct them to the comments section of this post.

Notes on Ellen Meiksins 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.”

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