Empire and After Jayati Ghosh

Over the years, the scholar and activist Walden Bello has provided some of the most incisive, trenchant and powerful critiques of the global capitalist system and its various implications. He has also led the struggle against imperialism in its various manifestations, including neoliberal policies, and been part of the movement for developing genuine alternatives. All this of course in his native country the Philippines, but also internationally as a leading and influential citizen of the “Global South”, which he sees as the base from where new and progressive social realities can be developed.

His latest book “Dilemmas of domination: The unmaking of the American empire”, (Metropolitan Books, New York 2005) distils some of his  most significant recent arguments into a cogently formulated yet passionate statement about the world today. The book is about what Bello describes as the current crisis of the American empire, resulting from the dilemmas and contradictions emerging from both imperial politics and imperial economics. In fact he sees three interrelated crises of imperialism: the crisis of overextension, the crisis of overproduction and the crisis of legitimacy.

The first crisis results from the US administration’s open-ended drive for military superiority, which has had the perverse effect of severely compromising both the power and the effectiveness of the US military machine. There is no doubt that the particular nature of the George Bush regime has been critical to this process, but Bello shows how even the previous Clinton regime, which had a very different take on foreign policy in general, laid the seeds for some of what followed.

In particular, the Clinton presidency bequeathed a legacy of some dangerous practices, for example through its actions in Kosovo and Haiti. These included: an overly elastic definition of national interest that could be supported by armed force; identifying the national interest with the spread of what it claimed was US-style democracy abroad; unilaterally identifying the conditions under which state sovereignty could be overturned without international sanction; and the idea that precision bombing could deliver quick military victories with minimum casualties. The other historical point to note is that the American way of warfare has always involved the targeting and killing of civilian populations, from the firebombing of Dresden and Tokyo to the nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to Operation Phoenix in Vietnam.

Bello is clear that Iraq has reversed the fortunes of the US empire, dragging it into a quagmire that has weakened its position everywhere else. He shows how that invasion of Iraq was essentially over-determined, with various segments of the Bush regime seeking it for their own purposes. These reasons ranged from the general – a belief in the desirability of “regime change”,  to the juvenile – taking revenge on someone for the events of September 11, 2001, to the most obvious one of all – the centrality of oil. While the need to control oil resources was obviously crucial, there was also the intention of limiting the access of Europe and China to these oil resources. Yet Bello argues that with all these reasons, the strategic reason may have dominated, with the purpose of reshaping the international political environment into a desired form, through intimidation by the blatant application of American force.

But the attempts to make first Afghanistan and then Iraq into demonstrations of US military invincibility have ended up doing precisely the opposite, and has exposed the limits of this military strength. The imperial overstretch is therefore reflected in the very failure of its occupation even to cover most of the geographical area of Afghanistan despite years of fighting, and in the complete inability to provide the most minimal security of life in Iraq, or to defeat the Iraqi resistance despite the huge US resources still deployed in Iraq. As a result, two important lessons are available to the foes of this grand US design across the world. One, that it is possible to fight the US military to a stalemate, which is effectively a victory in guerrilla warfare. Two, that effective resistance in one part of the empire weakens the empire as a whole.

The “crisis of overproduction” is the term Bello uses to refer to the contradictions created in the capitalist system by the combination of concentration of capital and domination of finance, which have resulted in a widening gap between the growing productive potential of the system and the capacity of consumers to purchase its output. Bello argues that the world economy is nearing the end of a Kondratieff long wave of expansion and decline, driven by speculative finance which now powers economic activity and has replaced manufacturing activity as the prima source of profitability. This has been associated with recession and jobless growth in the developed world and more frequent and intense financial crises in emerging markets.

The acute vulnerability of developing countries to the instabilities created by ascendant finance are exacerbated by the disruptive economic effects of free trade and structural adjustment policies, in what Bello calls the economic of anti-development. While these are commonly perceived as the accompaniment to “globalisation”, Bello notes that since 2001, the Bush administration has been retreating from globalisation, is increasingly sceptical of multilateralism, and has aggressively put the interests of some segments of US capital ahead of the concerns of the global capitalist class, even at the risk of severe disharmony within the core.

This explains some key concerns of recent US economy policy: achieving control over Middle East oil; being aggressively protectionist in trade and investment matters and focussing more on regional trade agreements than on multilateralism; incorporating strategic considerations into these trade agreements; using exchange rate movements to maintain competitiveness; making other economies adjust to the burden of the environmental crisis, and so on.

Ultimately, the most critical contradiction may result from the crisis of legitimacy. Since sustained domination cannot be continuously coercive, the US must seek legitimacy and support for (or at least acceptance of) its actions. Yet this is the source of the most profound ideological dilemma. The military overextension and the drive for economic expansion have been accompanied by the American promise of democracy, which is no longer believed in anywhere else in the world and is even less persuasive within the US as human rights are curtailed in the name of the war on terror.

Since in the end, the future will be determined by what people believe, this may be the real source of the unravelling of the American empire. So the multiple crises of empire can become the opportunity for liberating change.