Imperialism: just a phase we’re going through?

Issue: 102

Judy Cox

A review of Alex Callinicos, The New Mandarins of American Power (Polity Press, 2003), £13.99; Imperialism Now (Monthly Review, August 2003), £8; David Harvey, The New Imperialism (Oxford University Press, 2003), £16.99; Leo Panitch and Colin Leys (eds), The New Imperial Challenge: Socialist Register 2004 (Merlin, 2003), £14.95

The term imperialism has been thrust into the centre stage of political debate. This is a result of the increasing regularity of wars involving the US over the last decade. ‘US Empire: get used to it,’ declared The New York Times last June. For some, US imperialism is a benevolent force in the world. Max Boot, editor of The Wall Street Journal, wrote, ‘A dose of US imperialism may be the best response to terrorism.’ All the books reviewed here challenge this view. Alex Callinicos reveals that the US’s strategy was in place long before the attacks of 11 September 2001. In April last year James Woolsey, ex-head of the CIA, claimed that World War Four had begun and that the US mission was to create ‘a new Middle East’. The Bush administration has developed the terrifying concept of what Alex Callinicos calls the ‘cult of eternal war’, what The Financial Times calls the ‘entirely fresh doctrine of pre-emptive action’ and a Bush official called a doctrine of ‘pre-emptive retaliation’.

The ideological dimension of the White House agenda plays an important role in creating cohesion around the Republicans’ worldview and disarming their opponents. To challenge this agenda, David Harvey draws widely on critics of the Bush regime, while Alex Callinicos concentrates on the words of the hawks themselves. He explains how terms like ‘terrorism’ and ‘rogue states’ are loaded with different political meanings and uses. Bush and Blair’s rhetoric of humanitarian concern falls down when confronted with the reality of how the US backs the bloodiest of dictators, including Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan, Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan and, of course, Saddam Hussein himself back in the 1980s. And US claims to be fighting for democracy prove just as hollow.

The Bush regime’s declared intention was to introduce democracy into Iraq. But the one thing they cannot do is introduce free elections, because these may produce the ‘wrong result’. The Bush regime has attempted to create a symmetry between the concepts of democracy and free enterprise. Two leading right wing thinkers, Lawrence Kaplan and William Kristol, make the astonishing claim:

Democracy is a political choice, an act of will. Someone, not something, must create it. Often that someone is a single leader—a Lech Walesa, a King Juan Carlos, a Vaclav Havel. Other times the pressure for democracy comes from a political opposition movement—the African National Congress in South Africa, Solidarity in Poland, or the marchers in Tiananmen Square. But history suggests it comes most effectively from the United States.1

But the democracy in question has been reworked to mean not political freedom, but the economic free market with its privatisations and social injustices. The National Security Document of the United States, written by many of the most influential figures in today’s White House, describes free enterprise as a ‘moral principle’. As Arundhati Roy says, ‘Democracy has become Empire’s euphemism for neo-liberal capitalism.’

A powerful force in shaping the US’s theory and practice is the Project for a New American Century (PNAC). The PNAC gathered together figures of the status of Richard Perle, John Bolton, Paul Wolfowitz, William Kristol, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. Alex Callinicos sketches a fascinating picture of their intellectual origins in the University of Chicago department run by Leo Strauss. They developed a consistent approach to foreign policy through the 1990s, arguing, ‘At present the US faces no global rival. America’s grand strategy should aim to preserve and extend this advantageous position as far into the future as possible.’ This strategy rested on increasing US firepower: ‘US nuclear superiority is nothing to be ashamed of; rather, it will be an essential element in preserving American leadership in a more complex and chaotic world’.2 Those associated with the PNAC saw 9/11 as a great opportunity to ram through their programme, which had been fermenting for at least a decade. On the very day the Twin Towers came down, Donald Rumsfeld was already plotting to hit Iraq.3 One-time Bush official Sam O’Neil has recently claimed that George W Bush was determined to smash the Iraqi regime as soon as he was elected.

The PNAC never limited their ambitions to regime change in Iraq. Just before the invasion of Iraq intelligence specialist George Friedman wrote:

The conquest of Iraq will not be a minor event in history: it will represent the introduction of a new imperial power to the Middle East. The United States will move from being an outside power influencing events through coalitions to a regional power that is able to operate effectively on its own. Most significant, countries like Saudi Arabia and Syria will be living in a new and quite unpleasant world.4

There are also strong links between the PNAC and Israel, which helps to explain the US administration’s implacable hostility to the Palestinians.

Some devastating demolitions of the US administration are carried in these books. But such effective criticisms have not stopped some one-time critics of the US rallying to the Stars and Stripes. Both David Harvey and Alex Callinicos turn their fire on those providing ‘liberal alibis’ to the Bush gang, such as US philosopher Michael Waltzer and British writer Christopher Hitchens. Another hawkish liberal is Robert Cooper, a diplomat and adviser to Tony Blair. Cooper proposes a ‘new kind of imperialism, one acceptable to a world of human rights and cosmopolitan values’.5 Such arguments not only reinforce old colonial prejudices but also help create a new demonisation of those who don’t fit in with the US agenda and help to justify a massive onslaught on civil liberties.
Problems for the US

At home: The US waged war on Iraq for access to its oil reserves and for the US administration to establish its power to enforce its will around the world. David Harvey raises the interesting possibility that problems for Bush at home may also have played a role in fuelling the war. Harvey reminds us of the serious issues that were threatening the stability of US society at the beginning of the 21st century: recession, rising unemployment, cascading corporate scandals, shrinking pension funds, evaporating healthcare, growing social inequality and gutted environment protections. Harvey goes on:

To cap it all, the president had been elected by a five to four vote of the Supreme Court rather than by the people. His legitimacy was questioned by at least half the population on the eve of 9/11. The only thing to prevent the political annihilation of the Republicans was the intense solidarity—verging on nationalist revival—created around the events of 9/11 and the anthrax scare.

The war on Iraq was more than a mere diversion from problems at home. It was a great opportunity to ‘impose a new sense of social order at home and bring the commonwealth to heel’. But if war on Iraq was at least in part aimed at securing internal cohesion, it has failed. All the problems that were so obvious before the war on Iraq are returning with a vengeance. And the growing unpopularity of the war is a new factor adding to growing discontent with Bush’s administration.

Opposition to the war and the occupation is increasingly creating tensions and divisions at the heart of that administration. Today the Bush gang itself is increasingly divided between those who want to press on with imposing their will around the world and those who want to co-opt the opposition rather than trample on it. And there are splits between the ‘assertive nationalists’ such as Cheney and Rumsfeld, whose priority is the safety of the US, and ‘democratic imperialists’ such as Wolfowitz, who want to transform the world in the US’s image. But these weaknesses make the US more dangerous, not less: ‘If hegemony weakens, then the danger exists of a turn to far more coercive tactics than the sort we are now witnessing in Iraq’.6

Abroad: The US also faces problems abroad, despite its massive economic and military power. In fact Immanuel Wallerstein writes that ‘contemporary imperialism is a product of US weakness, rather than strength’.7 In 1945 the US was genuinely hegemonic—economically, militarily and culturally. In fact, the US enjoyed a degree of hegemony unparalleled in world history.8 During the Cold War, Peter Gowan argues, the US established a ‘hub and spokes’ model, where countries’ relationship with the US was more important than that with any other state. But even then the US didn’t have it all its own way. After the Second World War the US ruling class had to confront the Soviet Union. It used military force, economic aid packages such as the Marshall Plan, and multinational organisations to create a vision of liberal capitalism and shore up its empire in the face of competition from the USSR. But the US lost its edge over economic competitors such as Japan and West Germany. In addition, the US’s world order was shaken by the great revolts of 1968 and the defeats of imperialism in China, Algeria, Cuba, Vietnam and Iran. Military operations aimed at throwing off a ‘Vietnam syndrome’ followed throughout the 1980s.

The demise of the Soviet Union, and with it the discipline imposed by a world polarised between two huge powers, led to greater competition between states. Russia remains a powerful force in the world and new rivals to US power have emerged in Europe and China. For most of the Cold War the Soviet Union was half as wealthy as the US. But China has the potential to have a national wealth of two and a half times that of the US: ‘China, in short, has the potential to be considerably more powerful than even the US’.9 This intensifying international competition and the relative decline of US economic power explains the strategy pursued by US administrations since 1989.

US capitalism today is far weaker than it was in the 1940s: ‘A major faultline of instability lies in the rapid deterioration in the balance of payments situation in the US’.10 The most important aspect of this is the undermining of the value of the dollar, which could go into free fall. Any other country with a deficit spiralling so wildly out of control would ‘by now have been subjected to ruthless austerity and structural adjustment procedures by the IMF. But the IMF is the United States,’ says Harvey. This means the US relies more on the military stick and less on the economic aid carrot to maintain its influence. The Clinton administration clung to the appearance of multilateralism but increasingly abandoned institutions such as NATO and the UN and coalition building with other states. Instead Clinton relied increasingly on military superiority to enforce their will. Madeleine Albright, Secretary of State during Clinton’s second term, explained, ‘If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall. We see further into the future’.11

George Bush Jr went further faster than Clinton. NATO was the US’s preferred instrument of intervention in the Balkan War. It was abandoned by Bush. The US military became increasingly dominant within the administration. Dana Priest wrote in The Washington Post:

Long before 11 September, the US government had become increasingly dependent on its military to carry out its foreign affairs. The shift was incremental, little noticed, de facto. After 11 September, however, the trend accelerated dramatically with the war on Afghanistan and the likelihood of military operations elsewhere. Without a doubt, US-sponsored political reform is being eclipsed by new military pacts focusing on anti-terrorism and intelligence gathering.12

So it seems that the dreams of the Project for a New American Century are coming true. A massively boosted US military is calling the shots, in more ways than one. US commanders in chief enjoy huge budgets—four have an annual budget for their headquarters of $380 million and thousands of staff—while other instruments of foreign policy, such as the State Department, ‘shrivel in size, stature and spirit even as the military’s role expands’, Callinicos argues. While the US ruling class may be aware of its potential long term economic weaknesses, it is super-confident about its military ability to inflict ‘shock and awe’ on any country that gets in its way. As Harvey notes, ‘We see the Bush administration looking to flex military muscle as the only clear absolute power it has left.’ Military power is not enough to subdue Iraq. What the US did with the Marshall Plan after the Second World War in West Germany and Japan underlines the difficulties of imposing political structures on countries if there is not an internal social force willing to sustain them. There is no such force visible in Iraq today—in fact there is active and growing resistance.
Imperialism: the theory

Alex Callinicos places at the core of his book the classical Marxist account of imperialism. He draws a distinction between two different views of imperialism. In one, broad view imperialism means the domination of weak countries by strong ones. This concept applies equally to ancient Greece as to modern America. The other, narrower definition lies within the Marxist tradition and locates imperialism within the development of the capitalist system. Specifically, it is rooted in the rise of monopoly capitalism around the turn of the 20th century. It identifies imperialism not as a policy pursued by any particular government, but as a stage in the development of capitalism itself. This stage is reached when the tendencies towards the concentration and centralisation of capital, which are inherent in the free market system, create a situation where branches of industry are dominated by huge multinational corporations. The competition which is suppressed within the borders of individual nation-states bursts out more spectacularly than ever onto the international arena. This economic competition flows into a deadly military competition. This takes place in a world which has developed unevenly, with some countries developed, rich and powerful and others undeveloped, held down or thrown backwards. Nikolai Bukharin argued, ‘Imperialist annexation is only a case of the general application of the general capitalist tendency towards the centralisation of capital.’ Marxists like Bukharin were writing when capitalism dominated only a minority of the world. The relationship between capitalist and non-capitalist societies was a key issue. Nevertheless, the key aspects of their theories are still relevant to the modern capitalist world.

But the current revival of interest in imperialism has spawned other formulations. Many of the most popular are based on the idea that globalisation has made the nation-state increasingly irrelevant. One example of this was formulated by Michael Hardt and Toni Negri in their acclaimed book Empire. Hardt and Negri argue that traditional imperialism is dead because competition between nation-states has given way to a single power, Empire, that is ‘post-colonial, post-imperialist’. They write, ‘In this smooth space of Empire, there is no place of power—it is everywhere and nowhere.’ Callinicos shows that Hardt sees Empire as an alternative to US imperialism, one that better suits the real interests of captains of US capital. Negri, on the other hand, argues that Empire is the reason that the US is competing with Europe for position in the New World Order.

In contrast to Negri and Hardt, most of the writers included in these volumes explain how violence organised by the state is still a central feature of capitalism. David Harvey, for example, draws on Rosa Luxemburg’s work from around 100 years ago. Luxemburg argued that there were two sides to capital accumulation. One operated through exploitation at work and was economic and transparent. The other, predominant in colonial policy, relied more on naked force: ‘Force, fraud, oppression and looting are openly displayed and it requires effort to discover within this tangle of political violence the stern laws of the economic process.’ Harvey argues that Luxemburg’s concept of the ‘original stage of capitalism’ should not be seen as something that took place only in the early phase of colonisation. Likewise, Marx’s concept of the ‘primitive accumulation of capital’ is not something that should be relegated to the past. The violent, brutal, predatory elements of capital accumulation so visible at the birth of capitalism are still with us.

Harvey calls this ‘accumulation by dispossession’. Features that Marx identified as central to the primitive accumulation of capital, such as the displacement of peasant populations, the proletarianisation of others, the swallowing up of small businesses by larger ones, the forcible bringing of commodities into the logic of the market, are all continuing today. In fact, Harvey argues, contemporary privatisations enforced by the IMF and the World Bank constitute a new phase of this kind of accumulation, akin to the ‘enclosure of the common lands’. The primary weapon of this accumulation by dispossession is the international financial system, which is orchestrated by the US and brought to bear on the economies of countries including South Africa, Argentina and Mexico, forcing cuts and privatisations. In this context, the US bourgeoisie has discovered what the British bourgeoisie discovered at the end of the 19th century—that the robbery that made the first accumulation of capital possible must be repeated to keep the motor of accumulation running. ‘This is the heart of contemporary imperialist practice’.13

There are some fascinating and suggestive arguments in Harvey’s damning account of contemporary capitalism. But I have to take issue with some of them. He argues that since the world economic crisis of 1973 accumulation by dispossession has become more important to the world system. He says that stock promotions, asset stripping through mergers and acquisitions, asset destruction through inflation, debt peonage of whole populations, corporate fraud, the robbing of pension funds and credit and stock accumulations are ‘central features of what contemporary capitalism is about’. Financial speculation is now the cutting edge of accumulation by dispossession. The conclusion of this is that the heart of resistance to the system does not lie with the working class. In fact, Harvey argues, the working classes in advanced capitalist countries fell into the trap of supporting imperialism to bolster their own privileges. Forms of organisation based on the working class are now out of date. Now we must look to struggles against the destruction of habitats, bio-piracy and expulsions from the land as central fights within civil society. The balance of interest within the anti-globalisation movement must acknowledge accumulation by dispossession as the primary contradiction to be confronted.

However, industrial capitalism was not defined by robbery perpetrated on the undeveloped world. Industrial capital depended on the exploitation of an expropriated working class within the capitalist society. The enclosures of the common land were important to the growth of capitalism not because of the easy spoils they gave to the capitalist robbers, but because they involved the creation of a dispossessed class with no choice but to submit to capitalist exploitation. The enclosures were part of creating the working class. Today’s privatisations do not involve such a social change. Harvey gives no figures to support his argument that financial speculation and privatisation are now more central to capitalism than the exploitation of labour in the world’s factories and offices. Capitalism still depends upon the production, buying and selling of commodities. In advanced capitalist countries, the quantity of goods being produced is growing. The growth of the Chinese economy is based on the production and export of goods. The working class in advanced countries has shown itself prepared to challenge imperialism. And the working class remains a social force with immense power to challenge the system. While many struggles contribute to resistance against capitalism, it is the growing world working class that is uniquely placed to challenge the system at the point of production which remains the heart of the beast.

Capitalism and the state

The Marxist theory of imperialism rests on the fusion of the nation-state with capitalism at its monopoly stage. However, the state and capital are not identical. David Harvey sees a fundamental imbalance between the state and the economy. He defines ‘capitalist imperialism’ as a fusion of two distinct processes, of ‘the politics of state and empire’ and ‘the molecular processes of capital accumulation in space and time’. The state, Harvey argues, operates within fixed territories and is subject to some democratic processes. The capitalist, on the other hand, operates in continuous space and time, and can come and go, shift location, move resources and make decisions privately. ‘The fundamental point’, he argues, ‘is to see the territorial and the capitalist logics of power as distinct from each other. Yet it is also undeniable that the two logics intertwine in complex and sometimes contradictory ways.’ The relationship between the state and capitalist concerns is dialectical. For example, the Vietnam War was not fought for obviously economic reasons, but US capitalism did benefit from having as big a section of the world as possible open for business. Harvey argues that the literature on imperialism too often assumes that political and economic processes are guided by state and empire and that they are guided by capitalist motivations. In practice, Harvey writes, ‘the two logics frequently tug against each other, sometimes to the point of outright antagonism’.14

Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin take that antagonism a stage further and challenge the basis of Marxist theory on imperialism. They say Lenin overemphasised the economic motor of imperialism, rather than the political motor, expressed through the workings of nation-states rather than economic rivalries associated with ‘turn of the century monopoly capitalism’. This, they say, was the fundamental mistake that has, ever since, continued to plague proper understanding. ‘The classical theories of imperialism developed at the time, from Hobson’s to Lenin’s, were founded on a theorisation of capitalist economic stages and crises.’ They argue that imperialism was not a product of the concentration and centralisation of capital. Rather, international expansion was a product of competitive pressures and opportunities. They argue that imperialism was an early stage of capitalism, rather than the highest stage of capitalism.

Panitch and Gindin are articulating an argument that has been alive in the socialist movement for around 100 years.15 They argue that imperialism is purely a political question and exists independently of economic interests. This leads to the idea that imperialist adventures can be blocked by capitalist forces with counter-interests. Imperialism is a mistaken policy. However, the strategies pursued by nation-states are shaped by the interests of the capitalists on whom they depend. ‘It is all too easy to see imperialism as a parasitical product of powerful groups and individuals who have hijacked nations’ foreign policy to serve their own narrow ends,’ says John Bellamy Foster in his essay ‘The New Age of Imperialism’. Foster then goes on to explain how many people characterise the Bush gang and those associated with the Project for a New American Century as parasites who have hijacked the US to pursue their vendetta against Iraq. This is, however tempting, a mistaken view. Imperialism is not a policy, ‘but is a systematic reality arising from the very nature of capitalist development. Imperialism is the monopoly stage of capitalism’.16

This does not mean that the actions of states can be reduced to economic motives. For example, author Mike Davis has called Bush’s administration the ‘executive committee of the American Petroleum Institute’.17 The US administration fears its growing dependency on oil-producing foreign powers which may be hostile to it. The US’s strategy in the Middle East can be seen as a ‘strategy of global oil acquisition’. But the US did not wage war on Afghanistan purely to secure access to oil and gas reserves in Central Asia. Nor did it attack Iraq purely to grab oil reserves. Rather, the US waged war for political reasons, to reassert its global hegemony in the wake of 9/11.

However powerful US imperialism is today, it is good to be reminded that, as Eric Hobsbawm has written, ‘the only thing of which we are absolutely certain is that historically it will be a temporary phenomenon, as all other empires have been’.18 And, as John Bellamy Foster argues, ‘The new age of imperialism is also a new age of revolt.’ These books can help speed that revolt by deepening our understanding of what we are fighting against.


1. A Callinicos, The New Mandarins of American Power (Polity, 2003), p25.

2. As above, p70.

3. As above, p51.

4. As above, p86.

5. As above, p41.

6. D Harvey, The New Imperialism (Oxford, 2003), p74.

7. I Wallerstein, ‘US Power and US Hegemony’, in Imperialism Now (Monthly Review, August 2003).

8. P Gowan, ‘US Empire’, in Imperialism Now (Monthly Review, August 2003).

9. A Callinicos, as above, p60.

10. D Harvey, as above, p71.

11. A Callinicos, as above, p64.

12. As above, p73.

13. D Harvey, as above, p182.

14. As above, p29.

15. Karl Kautsky pioneered the view that capitalism could develop into a supra-imperialism in which conflict between nation-states was superseded.

16. J B Foster, ‘The New Age of Imperialism’, in Imperialism Now (Monthly Review, August 2003).

17. A Callinicos, as above, p84.

18. L Panitch and C Leys (eds), The New Imperial Challenge: Socialist Register 2004 (Merlin, 2003).