Interrogating empire

Issue: 131

G Francis Hodge

Gopal Balakrishnan, Antagonistics: Capitalism and Power in an Age of War (Verso, 2009) £14.99

Reading Antagonistics is a contradictory experience. Written by US academic Gopal Balakrishnan, currently on the editorial board of New Left Review, the book is on one hand a theoretically dense interrogation of several contemporary (and some not so contemporary) thinkers on international politics. On the other, it is a frustrating exercise in mining through prose so turgidly impenetrable as to render its potentially excellent essays virtually inaccessible to all but academics and specialists.

The book is a collection of review articles written between 1995 and 2007, the bulk of them having appeared in New Left Review in the early years of the new millennium. Balakrishnan covers a lot of intellectual ground through the course of these essays, from territory occupied by non-Marxist theorists on the left, to that dominated by commentators on the political right. Chapters interrogating works on figures as diverse as the well-known Jürgen Habermas, Antonio Negri and Alexis de Tocqueville cohabit with thoughts on Machiavelli and several lower-profile theorists such as Israeli Security Studies specialist Azar Gat and Philip Bobbitt, former advisor to US President Bill Clinton. In each review, Balakrishnan attempts, in his own words, “a reconstruction of the overall argument of a work, which explores the possibility that its logical, empirical and even stylistic failures arise from ideologies embedded in its framework”.

Balakrishnan interrogates both politically conservative and progressive writers in order to find “the authentic insights” they may have to offer and to polemicise against them. In so doing, he provides a rigorous survey and critique of recent writing by several key theorists, though one not without problems.

The survey of conservatives presented in Antagonistics is an excellent introduction to the assumptions underlying much of establishment thinking since the early 1990’s. In his reviews of Bobbitt and Gat, Balakrishnan commends the ambition of each writer and effectively summarises the arguments made, before thoroughly dismantling their central claims. Azar Gat’s point in War in Human Civilisation, that the history of human conflict can be understood largely as an expression of evolutionary biology, is shown to be critically flawed. Likewise, Balakrishnan offers a sharp critique of Philip Bobbitt’s The Shield of Achilles and Terror and Consent. He demonstrates that while both books combined offer a broad overview of the debates that have shaped American foreign policy since the collapse of the Stalinism, they substantially fail to engage with or even acknowledge the role played by the US in propagating the international conflicts in which it is currently engaged. He points out that nowhere in Terror and Consent is there a serious discussion of the actual causes of Islamic terrorism or the motivations of those who identify as Islamic terrorists.

As incisive as he is with those far from his politics, Balakrishnan does not spare those who might be considered his allies. In his critique of Afflicted Powers by the Retort Collective, first published in New Left Review in late 2005, Balakrishnan does a fine job exposing the problems associated with theorising the international system in mechanistic terms.

The Retort Collective attempt to explain the current geopolitical situation by referring to Marx’s concept of primitive accumulation, “the earth-shaking use of force to create or restore the social conditions of profitability”. They portray post-9/11 US foreign policy as a response to the economic difficulties faced by US capitalism at the end of the boom of the 1990s, rather than making any “reference to the structure and history of the capitalist, or more specifically, the American state”. In the view of the Retort Collective, the drive to militarise US foreign policy can be understood as an attempt to seize capital and force open new parts of the globe to American capital investment, an attempt to secure the conditions for the ongoing expansion of capitalism.

This conception, as outlined by Balakrishnan, misses the complex connection between economic competition and geopolitical rivalry, reducing geopolitical competition between states to simply economics. Balakrishnan rightly argues that there are problems with the Retort Collective’s formulation. He notes that the process of capital accumulation and economic restructuring that took place from the 1980s onwards actually occurred “without any significant bouts of organised violence from above”, a fact which suggests there is more to capital accumulation than simply the use of force and coercion. He also points out that the world now being organised exclusively on the basis of nation-states, “impedes the open use of military coercion to acquire or retain spheres of influence”. Simply put, the world is now organised in such a way as to make military coercion less straightforward than in the era of classical imperialism and empire-building. This suggests there is more to the connection between military force and capitalism than is suggested by the Retort Collective’s argument.

Balakrishnan is right when he takes the Retort Collective to task for an economically deterministic conception of the connection between war and capitalism. However, he throws the entire Marxist baby out with his critique of deterministic bathwater. He does not convince when he remarks that “there are no theories that explain in general terms what advantages accrue to major states in the current world market environment from possessing more military power than their peers or competitors”.

Almost 100 years ago, Nikolai Bukharin argued that geopolitical competition between states and economic competition between rival firms based in those states was becoming increasingly fused together. National states were thus compelled to act for a complex mix of geopolitical and economic reasons. This classical Marxist theory of imperialism has been developed in the decades since, not least in the pages of this journal. One example is Alex Callinicos picking up the thread in 2002 when he wrote “The Grand Strategy of the American Empire”, arguing that while there were economic motives contributing to the decision by the Bush administration to invade Afghanistan the primary motive was geopolitical, “focused on reasserting [US] global hegemony after 11 September”.1 Callinicos is at pains to argue that one cannot simply reduce the geopolitical to the economic or vice versa. This theory of imperialism, appropriately developed and applied, goes some way to answering the question posed by Balakrishnan. Antagonistics would be much improved if it incorporated a closer examination of this theoretical tradition.

Balakrishnan’s short critical examination of multiculturalism in many ways sums up both the strengths and weaknesses of Antagonistics. A pugnacious and determined look into the limits of multiculturalism as a vehicle for human emancipation—”its treacly pieties are incompatible with any political élan against the established order”—at the same time the essay fails to acknowledge that the idea of multiculturalism, whatever its limits, must be defended when attacked by that same established order. In a context of governments throughout the industrialised world looking to scapegoat immigrants and racialised populations, a call to defend the basic inclusiveness that multicultural policy protects seems necessary, whatever the content of one’s own critique of those policies. In fairness to Balakrishnan, the essay was written in early 2001, before the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the ensuing US Global War on Terror. However, its inclusion in a collection appearing in 2009, with no mention of that changed context, makes one wonder exactly who is the intended audience for Antagonistics.

In his quite favourable remarks quoted by the publisher, Slavoj Žižek writes of Antagonistics that “it is a book for everyone”. Would that this were true. The book might have been an excellent primer for specialist and non-specialist alike on several key contributions to political thought since the collapse of the Soviet bloc. Problems aside, it remains a useful resource for specialists and students requiring a theoretically dense interrogation of post-Cold War intellectual history. The shame is that Antagonistics is a bit of an opportunity missed. Its opaque prose, coupled with the decision on the part of the writer to avoid direct engagement with the struggles of the day, limits the potential appeal of the book to only those academics and specialists already versed in the ideas to which it contributes.