Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 13, 2006

Once again on Empire and imperialism

Filed under: economics,imperialism/globalization — louisproyect @ 7:54 pm

Michael Hardt

In the latest issue of the Nation Magazine, Michael Hardt makes a valiant but doomed attempt to rescue his Empire thesis from the dustbin of history. This requires confronting recent literature on “imperialism” inspired by the last 4 years of assaults on Islamic peoples in the third world. Hardt grants that for some gullible souls, “The Bush doctrine of unilateralism was, in fact, nothing but a new name for US imperialism.” Even though certain bronto-Marxists were never invited on Charlie Rose’s talk show, they did come forward with “a flood of books… about the new (or not so new) US imperialism.”

I can certainly understand Michael Hardt’s frustration. Unlike him and Toni Negri, these “leftist intellectuals” were content to stick within the limits of Marxism and not try to supplant it with jazzy new theories. Dreaming up a brand-new theory takes at least 5 years or so, but writing those oh-so-boring Monthly Review books with the word “imperialism” in the title is no challenge at all. Contrary to the John Bellamy Fosters of the world, Hardt insists that “imperialism is no longer an adequate concept for understanding global power and domination, and clinging to it can blind us to the new forms of power emerging today.”

You see, if you have a proper dialectical handle on world affairs as Michael Hardt does, you’ll understand that U.S. power is really quite limited and that we are actually observing its “death throes”. Proof of that is America’s inability to stabilize a Quisling regime in either Afghanistan or Iraq. They are not just failing militarily; they have also “failed to create a stable market for profits.” In addition, the prestige and hegemonic capacities of Uncle Sam have diminished under daily revelations of civilian deaths, illegal imprisonment and torture. The USA is being challenged in global trade. Treaties that would insure its hegemony have been turned down, the FTAA rejection constituting the latest example. Things have gone downhill inside American borders as well. The failure to fix New Orleans is understood by Hardt as proof that it is not the superpower it once was. (However, some of us with bronto-Marxist leanings just might interpret this failure as old-fashioned racism.)

Now that he has effectively punctured musty old ideas about imperialism, surely as dated as last year’s car models, Hardt puts forward his counter-thesis, which was first elaborated in the pages of the July 2001 “Empire”.

My view is that the recent failures of US imperialist adventures are not simply the result of tactical errors or bad luck but of a profound shift in global power structures. One might say that the United States is not powerful enough today to be an imperialist power–and I think that is true, but it misses the deeper, more important point: that imperialism and its methods are losing their effectiveness and another form of global domination is emerging in its stead.

So if imperialism no longer exists, what has taken its place? The answer, of course, is Empire:

Antonio Negri and I proposed before 9/11 and the “war on terror” that the coming global order should be understood in terms not of imperialism but Empire, by which we understand a wide network of collaborating powers, including the dominant nation-states, supranational institutions like the IMF and World Bank, the major corporations, some of the major NGOs and others. This, we claim, is the emerging power that will maintain global hierarchies, keeping the rich rich and the poor poor, keeping power in the hands of the few. Such an Empire is the political form adequate to the interests of global capital rather than simply the capital of one nation or another. Partly for that reason, for being more purely capitalist, its forms of domination, social segregation and geographical divisions of the globe will be even more severe, its structures of poverty more brutal and its forms of exploitation more degrading.

In a possible retreat from the extreme anti-nationalism of “Empire,” Hardt now seems prepared to accept the possibility that the new assertiveness of the Latin American left might constitute a “progressive” alternative to the more powerful and more dangerous elements of the Empire that he analogizes to a monarchy. Opposed to the American state acting as a King, united, lesser “aristocrats” can mount a challenge:

Indeed, the “Bolivarian” strategy of the Venezuelan government seeks to capitalize on the election of progressive governments in so many countries in Latin America by forming partnerships from Uruguay and Argentina to Brazil and Bolivia, and perhaps in the future also with Ecuador or Mexico. Acting alone, of course, none of these nation-states has the power to confront the United States or the IMF and transform the imperial arrangement. Acting together, emphasizing their strategic interdependence, they clearly can.

Hardt even grants the possibility such states might act on behalf of the people even if they don’t achieve the elevated status of the ideals professed on behalf of the “multitude” in “Empire”:

Some governments that defy the neoliberal order and US command–Venezuela, again, is a good example–bring enormous benefits to their populations in literacy, healthcare, economic opportunity and other essential domains. In the short term these benefits may be the most important element.

Yet in the final analysis, it is better not to get your hands dirty by managing the affairs of state. Compared to the nasty business of wielding power, it is far better to emulate purer but less powerful phenomena such as the EZLN in Mexico, the landless movement in Brazil and the piqueteros in Argentina. In this, Hardt obviously sides with John Holloway, another new-fangled thinker.

So much of this is wrong that one hardly knows where to begin to correct it. It is an embarrassment of riches.

To start with, imperialism does not rest on the assumption that there is some kind of hegemon. If anything, WWI and WWII demonstrate that wars break out when rival groups of monopoly capital have insufficient power to impose their will on each other. The emerging ability of Russia and China, for example, to counter U.S. (and British) political, economic and military influence in certain places in the world does not mean that the concept of imperialism is obsolete, only that the specific dynamics have evolved. If China is about to build an automobile factory in the USA or if Russia uses its oil and gas as leverage against Western Europe, we can only understand this as signs that U.S. power is limited.

But there are precedents for this. During WWI, Germany the British intercepted German cables to Mexico promising return of their land back in the United States if they became an ally. According to some historians, this forced the U.S. to enter the war on April 2, 1917.

There has been jockeying for power among major capitalist rivals since the mid-19th century. Furthermore, Lenin never tried to identify a hegemonic “center” in his writings about imperialism. If anything, the decline of the USA (or Great Britain before it) has never been understood as “proof” by classical Marxists that Lenin’s theory was obsolete.

In 1926, Leon Trotsky–a most “classical” Marxist–wrote an essay titled “Europe and America” that summarized the difficulties facing powers in decline:

“This is revealed most graphically and incontestably in England’s situation. England’s trans-oceanic exports are cut into by America, Canada, Japan, and by the industrial development of her own colonies. Suffice it to point out that on the textile market of India, a British colony, Japan is squeezing out England. And on the European market, every increase of sales of English merchandise cuts into the sales of Germany, France and vice versa. Most often it is vice versa. The exports of Germany and France hit those of Great Britain. The European market is not expanding. Within its narrow limits, shifts occur now to one side, now to another. To hope that the situation will change radically in favor of Europe is to hope for miracles. Just as under the conditions of the domestic market, the bigger and more advanced enterprise is assured victory over the small or backward enterprise, so, in the conditions of the world market, the victory of the U.S. over Europe, that is, first and foremost over England, is inevitable.”

Although it would require nearly as much space as this article to explain, suffice it to say that the tensions that preceded WWI and WWII are mounting once again. In a desperate attempt to control oil, the U.S. is following an aggressive foreign policy that threatens to boil over into bloody conflagrations throughout Asia. While it seems unlikely–at this point, at least–that the highly industrialized nations will once again resort to all-out war, we are operating in a period characterized by imperialist war.

To confront this mounting menace, it is necessary to achieve laser-like clarity on the dominant questions of the past century, namely how to take power and to wield on behalf of the world’s overwhelming majority: those who are forced to sell their labor power. Any obfuscation about “multitudes” and “Empire” only gets in the way.


  1. I guess you never noticed that your god is dead.

    “How to take power and to wield on behalf of the world’s overwhelming majority: those who are forced to sell their labor power”

    It’s the “on behalf of” that’s the rub. Who are to be the anoninted wielders? Kim Jong Il has power and no doubt claims to exercise it “on behalf of” the starving workers of North Korea, Stalin and Mao “on behalf of” the workers of Russia and China. Acolytes of Trotsky can try to dodge those examples by saying the “on behalf of” only existed for a few weeks in the Paris Commune, or months in the soviets. Still, the half-life of such power “on behalf of” the workers has proven remarkably brief. If the “permanent revolution” could ever happen, the “on behalf of” would collapse into a propagandistic myth displayed on banners over the killing fields perhaps after a couple of years.

    Enough Bolshevik tedium. My eyes just glazed over.

    Comment by Grumpy Old Man — July 14, 2006 @ 1:31 am

  2. I never fail to be amazed by rightwing bloggers like this character. With corporate control of the media, you can count on anti-Communist wallpaper 24/7 but still they feel the need to supply extra propaganda. If socialism was as dead as these people claimed, they wouldn’t feel the need to keep arguing with a corpse.

    Comment by Louis Proyect — July 14, 2006 @ 2:03 am

  3. Louis,
    Nice job. In some ways I think that Hardt and Negri have resusitated Karl Kautsky’s thesis on “Ultra-imperialism” where the formerly competing imperial powers exhaust themselves and then join into one large imperialism. (I believe a similar point is made in the latest Spartacist review of Empire and Multitude.) In this ultra-imperialism as in Empire the real competition between real states is disappeared or at least put in to a secondary causal category, to the primary causal mechanism which is stateless global capital.

    A second point is that there is much that is not even Marxist in their analysis and prescriptions. First, why the fawning over the third world petty bourgeois socialists who seldom question the capitalist system and have not come to power through revolution? I believe the answer is that these theorist do not wish to face the reality of the situation and realize the vast work that needs to be done in making or remaking revolutionary workers parties that will in fact “take power and to wield on behalf of the world’s overwhelming majority” Chavez will never and can never do this. Second, they have disappeared class as they have disappeared states. Imperilaism is Empire and the proletariat is now multitude. By doing this they do away with, as you point out, a century of revolutionary teachings on strategy.
    In Solidarity

    Comment by Nicholas — July 16, 2006 @ 3:54 am

  4. You are an idiot

    Comment by Hugh Jass — July 17, 2006 @ 11:29 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: