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The New Imperialists – Ideologies of Empire - Book Review by Jim Miles
Sunday, 30 March 2008 22:52
by Jim Miles

The New Imperialists: Ideologies of Empire

The new imperialism is part a recognition that, yes, the United States is an imperial power as accepted and supported by various neocon pundits and apologists, and part a recognition that it takes a different form than previous empires, no longer so much as colonial-settlement projects but an economically-ideologically based empire. There is still very much a land base to the empire with over seven hundred fifty military establishments of one form or another in over one hundred thirty countries. Yet it is the institutional structuring of global enterprises that now determines the nature and kind of empire, with a somewhat different rationale behind these structures. It could be argued that the ‘new’ imperialism is only different from the ‘old’ imperialism as a matter of degree and a few not so cleverly disguised rationalizations, as the military is a necessity to support the economic push of free-market capitalism, as militarism had always supported either the greed of the original corporate entities – the Hudson’s Bay Company, the East India Company (Dutch and British) – or the settlement policies that frequently accompanied them, especially in North America, South Africa, and Australia.

Accepting however that there are certainly new parameters to the current American empire – it being the sole empire; the emphasis on ‘neutral’ free market capitalism; the support of major world institutions such as the WTO, World Bank, IMF and more recently the UN; the rationales of ‘rule of law’ and ‘transparency’ – this volume deconstructs the arguments of the apologists for empire, those that see it as a valid and good thing for the world in general.

Ellen Wood, formerly Professor of Political Science at York University, Toronto, argues that the ideological basis for the new empire is democracy, in a form that “Thwarts the majority in one way or another” as well as “to empty democracy of as much social content as possible.” Anyone who has read James Madison’s writings in the Federalist Papers will know the essence of this discussion. Freedom of capital markets is the new democracy, a democracy of form and rhetoric but no real substance, no function for the ‘demos’, the people.

Aziz Al-Azmeh’s essay “After the Fact: Reading Tocqueville in Baghdad” is both obtuse and grittily realistic, depending on whether he is discussing the philosophy of Tocqueville in relation to U.S. democratic ideals, or whether he discusses the aftermath of U.S. policy in action in Iraq and Palestine. He does support Ms Wood with the argument that U.S. democracy can be “dark, irrational, highly illiberal and intolerant….rendering it at times undemocratic in all but formal arrangements.”

The ideas of Fukuyama and Huntington are discussed by Tariq Ali under the topic of “Tortured Civilizations”, stemming from the American view of history and empire that suffers “from intellectual and historical amnesia, and a sense of denial bordering on the delusional.” This “collective memory loss” it is argued, stems from the superiority complex of the victors – the victors get to write the history as it suits them. The end result of Ali’s discussion is the idea that “Through its own myopia, the West has given radical Islam the ammunition it was thirsting for….If this blindness and these lies persist, the long term prospects are too desperate to contemplate.”

The argument of support given to radical Islam is continued by Shahrzad Mojab, of the University of Toronto, who indicates that “The imperial interests of the United States…acted as a brake on the struggle for the separation of state and religion,” by consistently encouraging “the suppression of civil liberties, nascent civil societies and public spheres, which they considered to favor communism.” Mojab writes for the feminist perspective, using academic terminology perhaps not fully accessible to the reader unfamiliar with these views, but there are also statements clear and succinct that support both the theme of the book and her views that the women involved in U.S. empirical conflicts are not being aided but conversely “U.S. control has helped the traditionalizing, retribalizing and reprimordializing of society,” where the true enemies of women are “patriarchy…and capitalist forms of exploitation.”

My favourite essay, due to personal bias as a Canadian having to suffer under the flaky intellectual admonitions of Michael Ignatieff, is David McNally’s essay “Imperial Narcissism: Michael Ignatieff’s Apologies for Empire.” Perhaps because I am more familiar with this topic, this is one of the more clearly written essays, effectively deconstructing Ignatieff’s arguments using personal and intellectual descriptors sprinkled freely within his arguments: “moral superiority…smugness…empty platitudes…banalities…opportunistic…narcissistic…converses with himself…arrogant presumption…fetish of empire…appalling historical revisionism…double standards…fractures logic” and the final conclusion that Ignatieff is an “accomplice of madness and horror.” Couldn’t have said it better myself. Canada should dread the day if Ignatieff ever succeeds to Liberal leadership and possible leadership of Canada, as he would take us into realms of the “lesser evil” unknowns alongside the violent decline of the American empire.

In a similar vein, Colin Mooers lashes into Niall Ferguson and his “Nostalgia for Empire: Imperial History for American Power.” Ferguson is great for revising and sanitizing British imperial history, describing all its supposed benefits, but fully ignoring the context of wars, famines, and wealth accumulation that are the real essence of empire. The example presented here focuses on India, “a pre-capitalist economy by means of a ‘military-despotic’ state based on an alliance with the most backward religious and caste ridden elements of Indian society.” How nostalgic!

Following these rather pleasingly damning critiques is a more intellectual essay by Thom Workman discussing the influence of the Straussian scholars from which the current neocon group is largely descended. For Strauss, empire becomes the natural outcome of a “relatively permanent human nature.” Through discussing Thucydides’ descriptions of the Peloponnesian wars – readings that the Straussians claim supports the idea of empire as a natural outcome of human nature – Thom concludes that “Thucydides cannot be appropriated…for the Athenian historian generated a sobering indictment of the Peloponnesian war and its excesses.” His concern is that the Straussian interpretation “lends a sense of historic continuity...even destiny, to U.S. imperialism…and [it] helps the capitalist class pursue its renovated accumulation strategies globally….”

The next essay starts with a description of Iraq as it “provides a perfect illustration of this intimate connection between neoliberalism and imperialism. The significance of the case lies in the manner with which neoliberalism has been so thoroughly driven by U.S. military force.” Adam Hanieh deconstructs the arguments of Deepak Lal, described as a “Leading neoliberal economist…whose work has been widely promoted in U.S. government circles and neo-conservative think-tanks.” Hanieh argues against the assumptions of the ‘perfect’ market, of consumer sovereignty, establishing the position that conversely, the centralization of capital, the commodification of resources, the privatization of government functions, all represent the “domination of increasing spheres of human activity by the profit motive,” not the “satisfaction of human needs.” He reaches into the area of credit, saying it is “critical to the functioning of the global economy,” with results we are seeing now, seen presciently with his comment about “when the natural limits of this process will be reached….” After working through advertising (which negates the argument of ‘consumer sovereignty’), and the environment, he finalizes his position on a familiar theme, indicating, “the necessary partners of economic freedom are the guns of the U.S. military.”

Arguments around “American Soft Power, or, American Cultural Imperialism?” are explored by Tanner Mirrlees, looking at first at how the idea of ‘cultural imperialism’ was replaced with apparently more acceptable ‘cultural globalization’. The underlying ideas for cultural dominance are “a belief in America’s exceptionalism” and “a belief in America’s universality” (readily evident for any readers of Kaplan, Ledeen, Friedman, or similar apologists for empire). The reality supporting it all is the “desire to sustain U.S. political and economic dominance – and global capitalism.” Mirrlees concentrates on deonstructing Joseph Nye’s (formerly Undersecretary of State for Carter, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Clinton, and Dean of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government) recent “Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics.” Nye’s arguments are filtered down to supporting “the imperial state’s hegemonic goal of…coercion with...ideological suasion.”

Nye’s discussion is actually quite soft in comparison to that of Leigh Armistead (former instructor of information warfare at the Joint Forces Staff College) who writes about U.S. information operations, a pleasant euphemism for propaganda. Armistead edges into hard power territory with arguments for “computer network attack (C.N.A.) as the first offensive information strategy”, followed by the “deepened militarization of space by U.S. transnational media, surveillance, and technology corporations”, into “electronic warfare…or use of electromagnetic energy to control or attack the electromagnetic fields of an adversarial entity.” Armistead is reduced to “an acceptance of military and state propaganda as a necessary function of U.S. national security.” Ahh, finally, someone who accepts all the corporate advertising as propaganda for the debt-ridden consumptive lifestyle habits that support the homeland.

A fellow Canadian is analysed next, Matthew Fraser, who clearly says, “America’s global domination is based mainly on the superiority of U.S. hard power,” while self-contradicting with the statement that “the influence, prestige, and legitimacy of the emerging American Empire will depend on the effectiveness of its soft power.” Another ahhh moment….what you do speaks so loud, I can’t hear what you are saying….

Finally, a discussion I had not considered before, but one that makes sense as presented, that of “U.N. Imperialism: Unleashing Entrepreneurship in the Developing World.” by Paul Cammack, Professor of Politics at Manchester Metropolitan University. The UN is seen as being co-opted to the values of ‘globalization’ in its economic terms in order to alleviate global poverty through free market capitalism. Under the leadership of Kofi Annan, the UN accepted the ideas of the corporate world – the WTO, OECD, World Bank, IMF, a truly multi-lateral layering of concepts – in order to achieve the Millennium Development Goals to eradicate world poverty. Cammack’s conclusion is that America accepted a “broader imperialist project than it could possibly control” with “the uncompromisingly pro-capitalist project developed by the U.N. over a decade [winning] universal acceptance.” A nice concept except that free market capitalism necessitates poverty and has much evidence against it in many areas of the world (see most recently Ha-Joon Chang’s “The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism,” as well as Amy Chua’s “World on Fire”, Greg Grandin’s “­Empire’s Workshop” and works by John Pilger, Gilbert Achcar, Walden Bellow, Chalmers Johnson, and Noam Chomsky among others).

The terminology used by the current apologists is seductive, the words carefully crafted to make it seam at least benign and at best a wonderful panacea for the world’s ills. Issues that disrupt the apologist’s arguments are carefully avoided or conceitedly derided as imaginative or unimportant. The authors of these ten essays draw out the illogic of the arguments presented as well as drawing in the relevant information that counters the weight of the arguments. As with any assortment of essays – ten in this case – some are more clearly written than others from a terminology-philosophy perspective while others are more clearly written in terms of essay construction, following a clear pattern of arguments. Generally it works well, and for anyone interested in finding support for their arguments against empire, this is a strong volume to have in one’s library.

Jim Miles is a Canadian educator and a regular contributor/columnist of opinion pieces and book reviews for The Palestine Chronicle. Miles’ work is also presented globally through other alternative websites and news publications.

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