Understanding Imperialism – Then As Now

March 15, 2011 9:55 pm Published by Leave your thoughts

Law, good faith and security were not arbitrary things to the entrepreneur Charles Gould in Conrad’s Nostromo. They were, on the contrary, quite contingent: “Anyone can declaim about these things, but I pin my hopes to material interests. Only let the material interests once get a firm footing, and they are bound to impose the conditions on which alone they can continue to exist ‘ A better justice will come afterwards.” This fundamental principle accounts, rather more sincerely and convincingly than any claptrap about spreading civilisation per se, for the missionary zeal of the pioneers of the ‘classic age’ of imperialism; as the era of inter-imperialist rivalries came to an end, the same deterministic logic underpinned US efforts to shape the world since the Second World War. The world was to become one great, US-led co-prosperity sphere, and if this meant dictatorships and police states in exchange for an indefinitely delayed better justice, then so be it.

This was all, we were told, a matter of expediency, because we were at war with global communism. In his 2004 book on Colombia, America’s Other War (Zed Books), Doug Stokes advanced the thesis that the aims of US foreign policy have remained essentially the same as they had been prior to the end of the Cold War – namely, to prevent independent economic development, and support only that order and security that accorded with its broad ideological and strategic vision. Taking this as its point of departure, Global Energy Security & American Hegemony examines how the world’s only superpower has set about dealing with a devastatingly simple problem, neatly summarised by Stokes and Raphael as a “mismatch between the geographical distribution of global energy stocks and the location of the largest energy consumers.”

It is the same dilemma that faced US policymakers after World War Two, but now in a world of rapidly declining resources. Academics like Michael Klare have predicted a “voracious, zero-sum contest that, if allowed to continue along present paths, can only lead to conflict among the major powers”. Once the debate has been couched in the right terms, the reasonable claims of a China or a Russia can become a question of national security, perhaps even national defence, to US policymakers. The Soviet threat may be long gone, but it has perhaps never been more important for Washington to cultivate friendly, pliable governments in the oil-rich South, and today’s State Department strategies for dealing with internal subversion will be frighteningly familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of the politics of the Cold War era; under the rubric of “psychological operations” or “psyops”, the doctrine of Counterinsurgency warfare provides governments in the Global South with what the authors describe as “a blueprint for a campaign against civil society”. Importantly, the authors’ analysis does not cast the US as a lone crusader acting solely in its own interests; where the narrow interests of the US oil sector come into conflict with the interests of the capitalist world order as a whole, the latter easily trump the former. This is an important distinction that goes to the heart of the nature of imperialism in the contemporary world.

Stokes and Raphael are writing more than a century after JA Hobson’s Imperialism: A Study was first published; inter-state rivalry was more overt, and the international system considerably more unstable, in Hobson’s time, but if the events of the past decade have taught us anything at all, it is that the world is not a safer place for having become unipolar. In seeking to expose the “economic taproot” of imperialism, Hobson was among the first to explore the connection between political economy and the impetus for foreign expansion. Hobson saw imperialism as a function of unfettered capitalism – as capital sought new outlets abroad, he argued, the state had to follow to provide security, making inter-imperial rivalries – and wars – inevitable. His remedial prescription involved a domestic redistribution of ‘surplus’ wealth along social democratic lines, anticipating by some four decades the post-1945 settlement. Marxist writers would, in their turn, come to develop the argument further; some, like Trotsky, defined imperialism as consisting exclusively in the alliance between finance capital and state militarism, a rigid position that would help furnish apologist explanations of the Soviet Union’s own attempts at empire-building in the 1950s and 1960s.

Hobson’s searching economic enquiry is supplemented by a sociological critique of the insidiousness of militarism as a way of life – the psychological and emotional damage inflicted on serving soldiers, the tendency towards centralisation and circumvention of democratic processes in politics, and the rise of racialism and jingoism in academic and journalistic discourse. Academics like Hardt and Negri have argued that the language of state-led ‘imperialism’ is no longer relevant to our times. But the reality is that the increasingly transnational nature of the world economy has only enhanced the importance of the state as its only capable facilitator. The Wikileaks disclosure of the US State Department’s lists of foreign facilities deemed vital to US national security an instructive indicator of how the US sees its role in the world – the list included a variety of industrial sites across a range of supposedly sovereign territories. National security is synonymous, in US planning, with the security of the international capitalist order. As Jeremy Corbyn notes in his Foreword to the new edition of Imperialism, the ’empire’ of today is a free market model that can deliver neither security nor sustainability; with the global economy in turmoil, and natural resources dwindling, it is surely inevitable that the immovable object of US foreign policy will, at some point, acquaint itself with the irresistible force of world history.

“Global Energy Security & American Hegemony” by Doug Stokes and Sam Rafael is published by Johns Hopkins University Press.

“Imperialism: A Study” is published by Spokesman Books.


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This post was written by Nathaniel Mehr

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