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Last days of the US empire?

This article is over 18 years, 6 months old
The US-based Marxist David Harvey gave this speech on the new imperialism at the recent Marxism 2005 conference in London.
Issue 1961

My method is to see imperialism as the outcome of a tension between two sources of power. One is a territorial source of power lying in state organisations. The other is the capitalist logic of power, which is the control of money and assets, and the flow and circulation of capital.

I argue strongly that you cannot reduce one into the other. One of the mistakes sometimes made is to believe the two are wholly consistent with each other.

In fact they sometimes support each other and sometimes run against each other—and they are always in tension with each other.

At every historical and geographical moment we really need to apply that very general idea of what produces imperialism to analyse the specific situation.

You don’t find the answers in the writings of Lenin and Bukharin. It is fantastic to read what those people said about their time and their situation. But we have to use their insights to analyse our contemporary situation.

I’d like to make some remarks about US imperialism, which has always had a different character to European imperialism.

George Bush gave one of the clearest indications of this during a speech about 18 months ago. He said he saw himself standing in a long line of US presidents—Woodrow Wilson through ­Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.

There is a deep continuity in US practices in relation to the rest of the world, which my colleague Neil Smith has just elaborated upon in a new book called The Endgame of Globalisation. Neil points out that US imperialist strategy has been global all along.

The US has never been interested in particular territories—it has always been interested in global power. We have to see in the events unfolding an attempt, always, to construct a global regime of power with the US at the centre and able to pull the strings.

It worked out how to do this in the 1920s. To take a particular instance, in the 1920s the US sent marines into Nicaragua and attempted to occupy it. They got bogged down in a sort of guerilla war. So the US decided to carry through what has become a familiar strategy. It found a local strongman, in this case a man called Somoza.

The US gave him the economic and military help he required and allowed him to become as rich as he liked. This was as long as he did the bidding of US corporate capital and helped the US in its strategic concerns to halt the spread of revolutionary movements.

This indirect method of imperialism became the fundamental way the US operated, particularly after the Second World War. It was system of indirect control, with the US constantly fighting low level guerilla warfare with special forces.

The one big area it could not control was that which was controlled by the Communist bloc during the Cold War.

After the Cold War this created some interesting dilemmas for the US. How could its strategy work in the absence of the Cold War? How could it work in the absence of a fundamental enemy that could bind many European countries to its demands and requirements?

This led to a reassessment of US imperialist practices.

In the past the US felt that it could dominate through production, finance, military power, politics, or even culture, to construct a kind of hegemony [predominance or leadership over rival states]. However, we are now in a situation where the US is militarily dominant but no longer hegemonic.

I want to suggest that this is a very dangerous situation because it leads to the temptation for the US to use military power to make up for the fact that it is no longer hegemonic.

The US has lost its hegemony in a number of areas. It is no longer hegemonic in the world of production. The US dominated production in 1945, but it began to lose that dominance in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

By the 1980s much of the world’s production had moved outside the US.

We can see that most clearly within the conflicts in the US administration over the big issue facing the US—how to deal with China as a potential competitor.

The US corporations are very much embedded in China. The only place where General Motors made a profit last year was in its operations in China.

So US corporations such as Wal-Mart and General Motors need China, at the same time as it is becoming a competitor to the US in other areas.

Once the US lost its dominance over production, it thought it could dominate through finance. Essentially, the financialisation of everything that set in after 1980 was part of a US-led strategy to construct its domination through financial institutions—the US treasury, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and other institutions.

It led that charge, and very successfully so, but because the sphere of finance is ultimately linked to production, we saw the gradual erosion of US dominance in the world of finance during the 1990s.

US financial institutions, like US corporations, are still very powerful and significant in the world. But today most of the US’s debt is held by foreigners—a good deal of it by Asian central bankers.

So financial power has begun to flow away from the US. We are reaching a very interesting crossing point where the amount of interest flowing into the US is roughly being offset by the amount of interest flowing out of the US.

In other words, the net benefit of the financialisation of everything in the 1980s and 1990s is gradually eroding to the point where the US is actually going to have to pay out to the rest of the world, rather than extracting a kind of tribute.

So in the area of finance the US is no longer as dominant as it once was. Its financial imperialism is beginning to dwindle. Its production imperialism is beginning to dwindle. That leaves it with its military imperialism.

That in turn leads to the question of why the US has suddenly turned militaristic and why it went into Iraq in the way it did.

There are a number of reasons for this. First the internal situation in the US—we know that in order to maintain power in certain circumstances you need to construct solidarity around the idea of some external enemy.

Osama bin Laden came along and provided that, allowing the US to move into the idea of a perpetual war against terrorism.

This was important also in terms of internal control, because the US was beginning to fissure internally, particularly after the bursting of the economic bubble in the late 1990s.

As that bubble burst you had all these scandals such as Enron and many other internally disruptive things going on. The neo-conservatives wanted to establish internal order and one of the ways of doing this is to have an external enemy.

The second reason for the Iraq war is to do with oil—not simply oil consumed by the US, but having a military position in a primary oil producing region. And this also has a lot to do with countering China.

There is a lot of competition involving China trying to get into oil fields. The US wanted a military presence near Saudi Arabia to control this.

The US also wanted to demonstrate with its attack on Baghdad, the CNN spectacular called “shock and awe”, just what its military power could do. It played the same sort of role as the dropping of atomic bombs on ­Hiroshima and Nagasaki did in relation to the Soviet Union.

The final reason is overcoming the “Vietnam Syndrome”. The problem for the US all along has been that it got its ass kicked in Vietnam.

It looked at Iraq and thought it could overcome the Vietnam Syndrome there. It was a catastrophic mistake—they’ve gone back into exactly the same sort of situation.

It is now losing its military credibility. It has tremendous capabilities from 30,000 feet up, but it simply does not have it on the ground.

The US has gone down its militaristic route for very particular reasons. The big question in the US is how to exit Iraq.

The distressing thing—and this is why I talk about the continuity with people like Woodrow Wilson and Roosevelt, and even the Clinton years—is that no one in the Democratic party wants to depart from this trajectory.

Everyone in the political elites in the US is committed to this global domination strategy. They just have different mechanisms to do it.

Now what I’ve said is all about US imperial strategy and I want to point out that global capitalism does not always ride with US imperialism.

If you look at China and Europe you find that very different imperialist strategies are beginning to emerge around the world. Those different strategies are not likely, I think, to lead to conflicts between states.

I think they are likely to lead to conflicts between fragments and fractions within ruling corporate elites. There will be arguments within elites about how to stabilise capitalism.

This is hard to do right now because capitalism is not in good shape, its growth rates are very slow. If you took China and the US out of the picture you’d be looking at a global recession on the scale of the 1930s.

And even if you look at the whole US situation, the data is similar to Argentina before its recent crash. The only difference is the US owns the IMF and is not going to send the IMF in to discipline itself.

One question for those of us in the US is to what extent will world markets discipline the US, and how will the US elite respond?

My fear is that it is likely to respond with a good deal of violence, it is likely to promote some kind of clash, particularly with China. In those circumstances we’re likely to find ourselves in a very difficult and dangerous situation.

David Harvey’s recent book, The New Imperialism, is available from Bookmarks (£9.99). Phone 020 7637 1848 to order a copy.

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