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.