The Stacks

The Stacks – Issue 7


The Stacks

The Stacks: The American Empire

Welcome back to The Stacks! This month’s focus is on the way globalized capitalism reinforces a new kind of imperialism — and for the best example, we don’t have to look far from home. The Extremely Offline section will serve as your guide through some essential readings on modern imperialism, American-style, and we’ve got national updates and a report from Detroit DSA’s political education program. And be sure you stick around for a special imperialism-themed Class Enemy of the Month!

The Extremely Offline

Too often lost in the onslaught of daily news is the perspective that enables us to make sense of political events as they occur. In this section, we connect the enduring ideas of the socialists who preceded us to the pressing topics of today.

Since our recent wave of socialists was elected to office, we’ve begun to see anti-imperialist mobilization and policy finally receive the light of day. Rashida Tlaib, the Detroit DSA–endorsed congressional representative, has emerged as a supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Tlaib is also leading a congressional delegation to Palestine, in an effort to counteract the conservative influence that AIPAC has over Congress in their delegations to Israel. Even before she’s taken office, she has already begun to agitate as effectively as she can in her position, a role that every elected democratic socialist should seek to play.

For his part, Bernie Sanders recently advanced a resolution — which passed by a vote of 63-37 in the Senate — to withdraw U.S. forces and assistance to the Saudi war on Yemen. Sanders has not only invoked the moral aspect of the war that Saudi Arabia, with great aid and assistance from the United States, has waged on Yemen. He’s also criticized it on the grounds that it’s undemocratic, a framework that has the potential to be pushed onto other cases of ongoing or future American intervention and war.

As socialists, and as highlighted in the battles that Tlaib and Sanders have engaged in, we know that the United States is a key source of imperial power on the international stage. In order to maintain that position, it is also a central actor in crushing left-wing governments and movements globally, reinforcing both international capital and the domestic ruling classes of those countries.

If this sounds complicated, that’s because it is. Contemporary imperialism doesn’t follow the old model of the British or Spanish empires, which maintained formal colonies under the direct control of the ruling state. The anti-colonial liberation struggles of the twentieth century made that model unsustainable. And the complexity of globalized capitalism means dominant powers need new methods for maintaining power.

That’s where our first piece is helpful. Ellen Meiksin Wood’s “Globalization and Imperialism” (available in Haymarket’s Ellen Meiksins Wood Reader) offers us a more thorough understanding of how imperialism has changed along with capitalism. This reading is challenging, but worth it for building a big-picture understanding of how imperialism has changed with globalization.

Wood’s main intervention has to do with the role of the nation-state in the new model. Many people assume that as corporations become more and more international, employing people and doing business all over the world (extending their “purely economic factors”), national governments become less and less important. Wood disagrees. She argues that international capital is still dependent on national governments to maintain its power:

“The new imperialism, in contrast to older forms of colonial empire, depends more than ever on a system of multiple and more-or-less sovereign national states. The very fact that ‘globalisation’ has extended capital’s purely economic factors far beyond the range of any single nation-state means that global capital requires many nation-states to perform the administrative and coercive functions that sustain the system of property and provide the kind of day-to-day regularity, predictability, and legal order that capitalism needs more than any other social form. No conceivable form of ‘global governance’ could provide the kind of daily order or the conditions of accumulation that capital requires.”

Wood pushes against the centrist idea that as capitalism becomes more “global” and “interconnected,” borders will melt away, states will become less important, and our world will become more peaceful. Capital still needs all the tools that local governments use to maintain power: military, police, laws that protect property, infrastructure, and more. It can’t break strikes, clear territories, or intimidate dissidents without them.

As we saw from the transition from direct colonial rule to the new form of imperialism, all this repression isn’t coordinated directly from the capitalist core. The United States no longer tries to completely take over states and manage their affairs remotely. But it does use its overwhelming military and financial resources to empower repressive national governments while undermining even moderately redistributionist ones. This is what creates the network of “more or less sovereign” national governments that capital can rely on to maintain conditions for making profits.

To provide a more contemporary, practical example of the ways neoliberalism and imperialism have developed in tandem, we go to Vivek Chibber’s “American Militarism and the US political establishment: the real lessons of the invasion of Iraq.” Chibber shows how American policy evolved during the existence of and after the collapse of the Soviet Union. During the Cold War, he explains, American expansionism was justified by the idea of “containment”: the idea that the reach of dictatorial communist states had to be pushed back. Yet the fall of the Soviet Union didn’t spell the end of US intervention. The following years saw sanctions, and then regime change through invasion, and ultimately the continuity of a brutal foreign policy. Decades on, both Republican and Democratic presidencies have upheld that continuity — especially in the case of Iraq.

With Tlaib’s and Sanders’s actions against imperialism, we see a drastic break from this bipartisan consensus on foreign policy. This shifting of the Overton window will require mass movements from below to be able to take it even further.

In our final piece, Naomi Klein’s “Shock Doctrine,” Iraq appears again. Klein shows how US military power was necessary for allowing neoliberalism to operate in the country. This was demonstrated when the people of Iraq simultaneously expressed a desire for democracy and an opposition to mass privatization. As elections broke out across multiple villages and towns, the US’s stated commitment to bringing democracy to the Middle East melted away, just as “containment” did after the Cold War:

“The democratic enthusiasm, combined with the clear rejection of [the US] economic program, put the Bush administration in an extremely difficult position. It had made bold promises to hand over power to an elected Iraqi government in a matter of months and to include Iraqis in decision making right away. But that first summer left no doubt that any relinquishing of power would mean abandoning the dream of turning Iraq into a model privatized economy dotted with sprawling U.S. military bases; economic nationalism was far too deeply ingrained in the populace, particularly when it came to the national oil reserves, the greatest prize of all. So Washington abandoned its democratic promises and instead ordered increases in the shock levels in the hope that a higher dosage would finally do the trick. It was a decision that brought the crusade for a pure free market back full circle to its roots in the Southern Cone of Latin America, when economic shock therapy was enforced by brutally suppressing democracy and by disappearing and torturing anyone who stood in the way.”

Eventually, after this initial suppression, the US installed a provisional government to which it could outsource repression. Naomi Klein shows in practice what Wood means by globalized capital still relying on the state and its policies to open up sources of profit. Eventually, these neoliberal experiments imposed by imperial force in Iraq, Chile, and elsewhere find their way back to the United States in the form of charter schools, police militarization, water privatization, and more.

Jumping from theory to step-by-step change, Chibber and Klein both show how the U.S. used military violence to open Iraq up to neoliberalism. These dynamics help us understand why the US still wages bloody wars abroad, even as it holds no colonies and its companies appear more and more international. Using force and coercion to aid international capital helps maintain the US’s position in the world. And the stronger neoliberalism is internationally, the easier it is for American elites to repress and profit off the working class at home.

To sum up, between Wood, Chibber, and Klein, we can understand a few key things about modern imperialism. First, contrary to those who claim that neoliberalism will bring us a borderless utopia, this form of capitalism still requires states and their military violence to thrive. Second, even as the justifications for (and style of) US imperialism change over time, between Republican and Democratic administrations, its central goals do not. And third, our fates are linked with the victims of US imperialism abroad.

This is why the opening Tlaib and Sanders have provided is invaluable, and it’s why it’s crucial for us to keep pushing them to be staunch anti-imperialists.

National Updates

  • The first issue of Socialist Forum, DSA’s new long-form political discussion publication, is now live. For this first issue, contributors reflected on what Bernie Sanders’ famous “political revolution” phrase should mean for democratic socialists today.
  • Democratic Left now has its own website with an archive of past issues for DSAers to explore and bonus online exclusives for each new print issue. Their newest issue is on socialist feminism!
  • DSA’s Democratic Socialist Labor Commission has developed a Labor 101 curriculum DSAers can use to educate beginner members about the central concepts of the labor movement. You can find it on their new website here.
  • YDSA’s Labor Committee held an educational call on their rank-and-file strategy. You can access it here.
  • The second issue of DSA’s Medicare for All newsletter is now available here.

The Ground Game

Each month, we’ll highlight a political education event, resource, or project developed by a local DSA chapter, in the interest of inspiring new ideas, collaboration, or just jealousy. (If you have a story about your chapter’s political education program, email [email protected]).

As the buzz of the midterms fades into our collective memory, the hum of 2020 gets louder every day. In an attempt to prepare for some inevitable disagreements, the Metro Detroit DSA membership took it upon themselves to tackle a particularly contentious issue head on — the role of socialists in electoral politics.

Through a panel discussion and Q&A with our general membership, we grappled with the challenges of electoral work and posed some difficult but important questions. How much should our chapter focus on elections? How flexible should we be and what compromises are worth making?

Some said DSA ought to work within the status quo, pulling the Dems to the left. They advocate a local (read: winnable) strategy that emphasizes running DSA members, the desired result being increased visibility of the organization, our goals, and values. Others questioned whether a socialist organization should be in the business of bourgeois elections at all — arguing that compromises on our values are inevitable and our energies are better spent elsewhere.

In spite of many members’ reluctance to engage with electoral work, many did point to Bernie’s 2016 campaign as their introduction into socialist ideas and de facto proof that elections have some sort of value. While we had little consensus on the specifics, membership unanimously agreed the chapter should be involved electorally in some capacity. Just how much remains to be seen.

Overall, the forum gave members a chance to try their hand at public speaking and test their ideas. It also provided a common foundation of knowledge and debate around the question of electoral politics. When it comes time to make hard decisions, this foundation will serve the chapter well.

Mike Espejo, Detroit DSA

Class Enemy of the Month:
or, the Martin Shkreli Award

This edition’s arch-imperialist class enemy award goes to Washington Post columnist Max Boot. Last week, The Weekly Standard — the neoconservative publication most synonymous with Boot’s warmongering screeds — announced that it will be shutting its doors. But the Standard’s murderous ideals are sure to live on through Boot’s rebranding as the standard bearer for a “reasonable,” anti-Trump conservatism.

Boot is part of a cadre of war-hungry neocons, including Bill Kristol and David Frum, who’ve managed to parlay their disdain for Trump into lucrative second careers as mainstream commentators, working for liberal-leaning outlets like the Washington Post, CNN, and The Atlantic. His recent book, The Corrosion of Conservatism: Why I Left the Right, offers his hair-shirted perspective on the evils of the modern GOP, for which he takes very limited responsibility.

In his book, Boot justly criticizes the right’s dog-whistle racism, but his quibbles are more with style than with substance. (Perhaps this is unsurprising for someone who wrote in 1999 that the Supreme Court’s decision to desegregate schools in Brown v. Board of Education was unconstitutional.) He is mostly interested in how the GOP has used coded rhetoric to appeal to racist whites, not on the right-wing policies that daily immiserate people of color. Missing from the book is an accounting of mass incarceration, a criminalized immigration system and deportation regime, and unprecedented wealth inequality — all of which have disproportionately affected working class people of color. Boot does however propose Senator Jeff Flake, Jim Mattis, and French President Emmanuel Macron as examples of the kind of center-right leaders who can unite and rebuild once “the GOP as currently constituted is burned to the ground.” He may want to tell that to the gilets jaunes.

While the rebranded Boot is a sharp critic of Trump’s racism, he has built a career as an unapologetic defender of U.S. imperialism, capitalist hegemony, and white supremacy. In a 2001 essay titled “Imperialism!” (yes, that’s an exclamation mark), he remarked that “on the whole, U.S. imperialism has been the greatest force for good in the world during the past century.” Boot was an early and implacable champion of the Iraq war, writing as late as 2013 that “there is no need to repent” for support of that disastrous conflict. He was, as The Intercept notes, part of a key group of “conservative intellectuals… who for years (starting well before 9/11) made the argument for invading Iraq.” Given this history, it is understandable that many leftists are uncomfortable with Boot’s reincarnation as a leader of the #resistance. Some commentators have observed that his zealous promotion of Russiagate is an all-too convenient scandal for the longstanding Russia hawk, who is using anti-Trump and anti-Putin sentiments to abet a more aggressive military presence in the region.

The limits of Boot’s credibility as a principled defender of the republic were on full display in the aftermath of George H.W. Bush’s death. In a column for the Washington Post, Boot joined the mainstream media’s chorus of praise for the war criminal, eulogizing him as the quintessential “anti-Trump”. Like other pundits, Boot portrayed Bush Sr. as a patrician statesman and one of the last relics of a more “civil” era of politics. But he left out some important details about Bush’s legacy, including his pardoning of Iran-Contra criminals, his support for the dictator Manuel Noriega and the dirty wars in Central America, and his invasion of Iraq during the Gulf War.

Perhaps his selective memory of Bush reveals something deeper about Boot’s true principles. His allegiance is less to any imagined form of “civility” and more to propping up the myth of American exceptionalism and U.S. military might abroad — both of which have been responsible, for centuries, for the deaths and misery of countless people across the globe. He isn’t sorry about any of it.

That’s all for this month, folks! Remember to share with your friends, and send any comments or questions to [email protected].

Editorial team:
Ella Mahony, John Speranza, Ajmal Alami, Rachel Johnson, Andrej Markovčič, Zoe Holden, Stephen Gose (graphic design).