Imperialism Reloaded

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Megan Trudell looks at three recent books that have sought to analyse imperialism

War without end is the grim prognosis that seemingly faces the world since 9/11. The bid for global hegemony by the US in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, given accelerated impetus by the attacks on the World Trade Centre, is the feature of capitalism shaping contemporary politics more than any other. As John Bellamy Foster opens his recent collection of essays, "Global warfare, putatively against terrorism but more realistically in the service of imperialism, is the dominant political reality of the opening decade of the 21st century."

Three recent books - The Sorrows of Empire, Naked Imperialism, and Imperialism and Resistance - have joined the deluge of works since 9/11 that have sought to analyse imperialism. Imperialism is not just the domination of weak states by stronger ones. It is a stage of capitalist development in which corporations swell to huge sizes and tend to integrate with the state. At the same time, the increasing internationalisation of production means that competition spills into military conflict between states.

The actions of the US in Afghanistan and Iraq are products of a process of competition in which the economic imperatives of US capitalism are pursued through military methods.

Chalmers Johnson is author of Blowback - the book that argued US policies in the Middle East would provoke some attack on it before 9/11 had happened. His latest book is The Sorrows of Empire - an exhaustive account of US imperialist practices that does not analyse imperialism in the way outlined above but provides a fascinating, if frightening, examination of part of the imperialist process.

This latest account is concerned with the proliferation of the US military's "empire of bases" around the world, arguing that US foreign policy is imperialist in the sense of powerful states dominating weaker ones, and comparing its actions (and their consequences) with the Roman and British empires. Johnson's case is that the proliferation of US bases represents an expansion of empire and they - as part of US foreign policy - will generate increased blowback and ultimately bring the empire down.

The increasing interpenetration of private companies with the state is realised in the shape of private military companies which train armies and mercenaries in other countries, service bases, repair weaponry and provide logistical support. These companies, gathered together in the Orwellian-sounding International Peace Operations Association, are expected to make collective profits of $202 billion by 2010.

Empire of bases

Johnson's detailed history and genuinely revelatory detail about the US's "empire of bases" illustrates clearly the internationalisation of the system, and the requirements of US capitalism to dominate as much of the world as possible physically as well as economically, and its domination of smaller, weaker states through military might. His insistence that the growth of militarism can only lead to more frequent and bitter wars is impassioned and convincing.

In taking a comparative historical approach, locating current events within the history of US imperialism, drawing out examples from the Spanish-American war of 1898 onwards, and comparing US involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq with the British in India, Johnson also rejects the neo-conservative cabal explanation for recent policy and lambasts the concept of "humanitarian" imperialism. His argument that Woodrow Wilson, US president during the First World War, laid the basis for the ideological justification of war as a "crusade" to democratise the world is a welcome rebuttal to liberal imperialists.

However, his analysis of imperialism as the result of this growth of militarism and the impulse by US elites to dominate "because they have the power to do so" smacks of a conspiracy, and the picture he presents is of a one-sided process of US power expanding until it collapses from within rather than any notion of the tensions within imperialism.

A fluent and concrete illustration of the ways in which military power is increasingly entangled in and central to the expansion of capitalism is marred by a notion of modern imperialism as the product of the military and a psychological compulsion to total power.

The difficulty with Johnson's analysis is twofold. While he is good on the nature and extent of militarism, and on the pressures for global hegemony undermining the empire's base, he sees it as a self-generating, self-perpetuating system separate from economic capitalism rather than utterly interconnected. Therefore it is the existence of the bases and the increased influence of the army over government that drive the US to war, not economic competition.

Further, while he correctly regards the US military's expansion of bases as intrinsic to policing the world, this is presented as a one-way process. He points out situations where the US has had to leave an area and dismantle bases under the pressure of local political or geopolitical considerations, as in Spain and Greece in the 1980s. He also describes the fragging of officers in Vietnam and mutiny against the British in India, yet doesn't draw the conclusion that US imperialism can be resisted and rolled back by revolt, mutiny and protest.

It is an important lesson from the history of imperialism that military dominance does not guarantee political domination, either at home or abroad, something the US ruling class is discovering in the occupation of Iraq and the growth of anti-war feeling within its own borders which looks likely to punish the Republicans in the November Congressional elections.

As a theoretical counterweight to Johnson, John Bellamy Foster in Naked Imperialism follows Lenin and other Marxists in analysing imperialism as the latest stage of capitalism, concluding that the struggle against war and imperialism must therefore be combined with the struggle against the system as a whole.

His aim is to demonstrate that such an approach "offers a much more consistent, powerful, and revealing perspective" on the developments of US imperialism in the 21st century. Like Johnson, Foster rightly insists that the period of endless war ushered in by 9/11 is not due to the ravings of a cabal of neo-conservatives around Bush, but is intrinsic to the development of US capitalism in the post-Soviet era.

The consistency of this analysis through separate discussions of elements of imperialism allows him to place discussion of the current situation in the framework that Johnson lacks, therefore avoiding both the latter's overemphasis of US strength and its pessimism. This is no abstract theoretical discussion, however. Foster is to my mind always very intelligent and readable, and here manages in the main to combine concrete examination of aspects of the history of imperialism with a coherent theoretical insistence on their underlying causes.

There are some small problems with the book, however, and one larger analytical one. As it is a collection of editorials from the Monthly Review journal there is a high degree of repetition, which could have been edited for the book. It also makes it more difficult to develop the analysis, which can be frustrating when the articles are read together.

More importantly, while Foster rightly discusses the ways in which imperialism has impoverished smaller states he also sticks rigidly to a model of "core and periphery" which sees this exploitative relationship as the central one in the global economy, whereas in actual fact most profits - and therefore competition - are generated between developed states.

This weakens his analysis. Because he blurs the class aspects of imperialism, Foster misses the responsibility of the ruling classes in Third World countries in the exploitation of their own population. Foster has a powerful critique of the interpenetration of economic and military competitions but little concrete discussions of permanent class solution to imperialism. His position that the struggle against war and imperialism must be linked with that against the system in general is correct, but disappointingly vague as "exit strategies" go.

One of the great strengths of John Rees's Imperialism and Resistance is that it provides a vital corrective to Foster's rather abstract conclusions. By discussing the interrelationship between the global capitalist economy, the state in its various national formations, and the international mass of working people on whose labour the system depends, Rees gives a concrete consideration of the power that can defeat the aims of the imperialist powers.

As the Lebanese resistance demonstrated, the movement of those drawn into political action by the tensions between nation states jostling for influence within a global economy dominated by neo-liberalism is inseparable from the changing nature of imperialism and has the capacity to roll it back.

Considering the world system as a totality, Rees stresses the military strength of the US, and also its economic weakness; the historical importance of oil in the Middle East and also the resistance to imperialism in the same region - the intertwining of contemporary wars and neo-liberal capitalism and also the changing pattern of revolutions against the system as a whole.

John Rees's material examination of the modern world in its various aspects bears out the Marxist analysis of imperialism and - critically - of where the potential solution lies to the increasing instability and mayhem facing all of us. He avoids Foster's ambiguity over the role of the weaker states in the imperialist system, arguing instead that these often vicious regimes are not the answer to the rage felt across the planet by the ravages of globalisation and war.

His analysis that the global working class is one aspect of a single process together with and interacting with the wider economy and national state clarifies the nature of class consciousness and how ideas change. Rees's view that anti-capitalism is accelerating the process of the erosion of social democratic parties, driving millions to look for alternatives to reformism, while resistance to imperialism - in all its forms - grows daily, clearly suggests the practical political tasks, and the polemics, that socialists need to engage with.

  • The Sorrows of Empire by Chalmers Johnson is published by Verso, £9.99
  • Naked Imperialism by John Bellamy Foster is published by Monthly Review Press, £13.99
  • Imperialism and Resistance is published by Routledge, £14.99

These books are available from Bookmarks bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to Bookmarks' website.