Submitted by Michael Brenner
“Is the United States now an imperial power?” – that question is posed by many of those who are critical of the steady rise in the use of American power to expand its influence in the world.
The empirical evidence in support of an affirmative answer includes: the officially stated aim of maintaining military and Intelligence dominance in every geographic region; the vast increase in defense spending which already dwarfs that of any other country; the invasion and occupation of Iraq without any legal basis or security justification; the identification of a long list of states as enemies whose alleged threat to American interests is the strained justification for the exertion of various forms of pressure in order to produce regime change and/or a dramatic reorientation of their foreign policies (e.g. Iran, Russia, Syria, North Korea, present-day Iraq, Libya, Venezuela); the widespread use of coercive economic methods, most commonly sanctions that often violate international treaties, to force such changes; the deployment of Special Operations forces in dozens of countries to determine the outcome of internal conflicts; tangible as well as diplomatic support for allies who use military force aggressively (e.g. Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Yemen); the resort to economic and political pressures to force countries to alter commercial policies and practices so as to generate outcomes that serve American national interests; the effort to weaken and subvert political or economic multilateral organizations seen as obstacles to maximizing American interests and influence (e.g. the European Union; ASEAN; the World Bank; the IMF; CIS; OAS; the Silk Road project/Belt & Road Initiative); and the unilateral setting of behavioral standards for others from which the United States exempts itself.
Together, these actions form a pattern that very well may qualify the United States to be labelled an imperial power. Moreover, they represent trends in the country’s external relations that go back to the Cold War and became more pronounced with the advent of the age of the “sole surviving superpower” or “unilateral moment.”
They were visible under Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama – albeit accentuated and radicalized by the Trump administration. As of today, there is little dispute in American foreign policy circles over objectives and goals – just methods.
To confirm this statement, scan the output of the think tanks and foundations. Or, look critically at ‘liberal’ The New York Times’ editorial page, op eds, and – yes- its slanted news coverage re.: Russia, Iran, Syria, everything related to Israel, China and Latin America. Yet, we hesitate to use the terms ‘Imperial’ or ‘Empire” to characterize American strategy.
Understandably so – for two reasons. First, they come heavily freighted with historical baggage and negative connotations. Second, the very idea of the United States as an imperial power is alien to Americans’ self-image as the selfless promoter of peace, stability and democracy in the world. We see ourselves as the first anti-imperialists who have been well-wishers of all those seeking to throw off the yoke of domination by a foreign power.
This attitude was entrenched in the collective national mind right through World War II in whose aftermath Washington kept its pledge to grant the Philippines independence, pressed the British to leave India and the Dutch to liberate the East Indies. John Kennedy made a name for himself, and saw political advantage, in giving a speech before the Senate calling upon France to yield in Algeria.
Of course, the primacy given the global struggle against Soviet-led Communism changed much thinking about American idealism on this score. And, in fact, American practice in the Western Hemisphere throughout the country’s history was in contradiction of that ideal.
The resulting schizophrenia continues until this day – indeed, its condition is more acute than ever. The ambiguous nature of the present-day strategy of seeking a position of global dominance perpetuates it and resists any resolution. For the empires of yore bore certain traits that do not match exactly what the United States is doing today.
Conquest is the exception rather than the rule. Occupation as the basis for direct rule of foreign lands is not the order of the day (in Iraq, our direct rule was temporary).
The preference is for invitations by friendly governments to establish bases and for those who respond sympathetically to our desires as forwarded from Washington – rather than dictates by viceroys. Where a governmental leader becomes starchy about following our lead, though, we feel free to do what it takes to replace him – as we have done across Latin America over the past decade or so.
In the economic sphere, there has been a transformation. For half a century, the United States saw arrangements that encouraged plus-sum dealings in an open system as in the national interest. Indeed, successive administrations were prepared to sacrifice some potential benefits for the sake of political stability, as with Japan until the late 1980s.
That philosophy now has been rejected by Trump and his advisers. They see all commercial dealings in nationalist zero-sum terms and are insistent in setting outcome goals more favorable to the American national economy. (These calculations are complicated by the fact that the national interest and corporate/financial interests these days are by no means identical).
The prevailing view in the White House today has been succinctly described by Chas Freeman:
‘To understand the importance of this to President Trump, you must suspend normal economic reasoning and think like a real estate investor and property manager. You own and operate a number of buildings. To you, as a manager, what matters most is the bilateral landlord-tenant relationship in each building. Each embodies a struggle for advantage between landlord and tenants.
If more cash is being spent on the building than is coming back to the landlord, the tenants are getting more out of the relationship than he is. From President Trump’s perspective, China [and others] is raking in more cash from bilateral trade with the United States than the U.S. is getting from bilateral trade with [them]. Ergo, they are ripping America off.” (Trump’s dealings with builders, suppliers, service contractors, and staff followed the same logic).
“As a corollary, from the point of view of a real estate investor, multilateral institutions are the moral equivalent of municipal governments or the Mafia, that is, political organizations that complicate the lives of landlords by imposing regulations, staging inspections, and levying fines.
They are an unwelcome modern echo of the millennial Chinese curse: ‘may you come to the attention of persons in authority.’ President Trump is trying to free America from the WTO and other external organizations and influences that restrict his international freedom of maneuver.”
In traditional empires, there never was any question of mutual benefit on anything like an equal basis. The imperial objective was to extract as much wealth from the subject territory as possible.
The American experience of that practice contributed to the rebellion of the colonies. That history did not prevent the United States from acting in a similar manner in pressing its commercial advantages in the Caribbean, Latin America, and in forcing the Open Door in China and Japan.
The difference was that it managed to do so without outright occupation except in the territories seized from Spain which were more adornments than rich economic prizes. The Europeans (including Russia in Central Asia and the Caucasus) were more overt and ruthless in their wealth extraction. Belgium’s murderous plunder of the Congo was the most extreme.
The British in India and elsewhere, the French in Algeria and Indo-China, and the Dutch in the East Indies were better at institutionalizing their exploitation for the long haul.
The British wealth extraction system was the most sophisticated; and India had more wealth to extract than anywhere else.1 Indeed, the combined economy of the Mughal Empire and the independent states of the south (which together would be consolidated into the British Raj) is estimated to have represented 25% of global GDP in the 18th century.
Those riches contributed a substantial fraction of the capital that fueled the industrial revolution. The initial phase involved outright plunder. Vast hordes of gold and silver bullion, accumulated through lucrative trade, and precious jewels were taken to Britain where they served as a form of liquid capital.
The longer-term strategy was two-fold. India as an economy was organized to generate even larger trade surpluses in traditional markets throughout the region. Opium was one major export item whose entry into China was imperative to offset the costs of importing tea (not as yet established in the sub-continent) and other commodities.
That was the motive for the Opium Wars that forced Chinese authorities to cease their efforts to restrict sale and use of hard drugs. That brutal tactic makes the Latin American cocaine cartels look like gentlemen merchants.
As a method for ‘rectifying’ a negative trade balance, it is analogous to the one currently pursued by Trump vis a vis Xi’s China. They are commanded to buy more ADM soybeans, Teslas and toxic securities packaged by Goldman Sachs or else! Plus ca change….
In Britain’s case, the Indian surpluses were in turn transferred to the home country’s account via a variety of mechanisms. Those mechanisms included: repatriated profits of the East India Company and other companies, the forced importation of British manufacturers at the expense of indigenous products, the required use of ‘Council Bills’ that diverted export revenues to the London Treasury,* high tariffs on Indian manufactures, taxation that ensured that all costs of maintaining the necessary infrastructure were borne by the Indians, and the exploitation of labor.
Hence, roads, irrigation canals and later railways were built while a corps of clerks and a thin elite of native administrators were educated to provide ‘soft’ infrastructure. At independence in 1947 only 12% of Indians were literate. (No one knows what it was in 1757).
That itself was a substantial rise over what Lord Curzon estimated it to be in 1892: 3%, and less than 1% in English. If the Curzon figure is correct, literacy in India after a century of British rule was about as low as has existed anywhere among reasonably complex societies over the past two and a half millennia). Life expectancy in 1947 was 33.
(By comparison, literacy in Turkey circa 1950 was about 35% and in Iran 20-25% – two countries deprived of Western colonial tutelage).
Exploitation of Indian labor included the mass transfer of impoverished, illiterate peasants who were coerced, cajoled or tricked into signing away their freedom to become indentured servants in the Caribbean plantations and elsewhere in the empire. They replaced the African slaves whose importation had been prohibited in 1807. The Indians were treated little differently than the slaves had been. V.S. Naipul is one of their descendants.
(Abusive labour practices continued right to the end. In World War II, thousands of tribals and farmers were press-ganged to work on the notorious Ledo/Burma Road under appalling conditions. Many thousands died – as did over 1,000 American soldiers – mainly from black units – who worked on the project. Its completion in January 1945 had no bearing on the war against Japan. Indeed, the same might be said for the entire Assam-Burma front).
200 years later, there is a faint whiff of the old days in the callous and deceitful expulsion back to the West Indies of the elderly Windrush immigrants after 60 year residence in Britain. Private contractors, like the East India Company of yore, do much of the government’s dirty work.
(THE GUARDIAN: “Incentivised contract gave Capita 2.5% extra payment if target for removals exceeded”)
The contrasts with America in the 21st century are not inconsiderable. Invasion and imperial rule, as noted above, are not the order of the day. Outright plunder is frowned upon and impractical. (Extravagant fortunes are made by plundering the American tax payer and consumer, and squeezing employees, instead).
Ruling foreigners won’t wash domestically. There is no nostalgia industry for the U.S. ‘Raj’ in the Philippines to match the British romantic memory of the Indian Raj ( the latest expression being David Gilmour’s sepia tinted “The British In India”). As for North American conquests, they were capped by ethnic cleansing. Voters are casualty averse – unless there is an emotionally cause like the War On Terror – the successor to the War On Communism.
But Russia and China don’t send Americans diving under the beds the way they did two generations ago. The violent jihadis have been dropped to Number 3 or 4 on the Pentagon’s league table of enemies. And the Iranians mainly scare the Israeli lobby and their Pentacostal allies eager to bring forward Armageddon before their homesteads are overrun by waves of Latinos with babes in arm.
A more significant, and interesting, difference between then and now – between America and its imperial forerunners, lies in the political realm. The United States has become a “Reactionary” power – in deviation from its historic role in world affairs.
It is now the world’s primary force for reaction in two senses. Internationally, its conception of a global order is that of a ‘non-system’ which harks back to the age when relations among states followed the power political logic of all-against-all – albeit of a less violent character, combined with a form of neo-mercantilism wherein the dominant notion is that somebody’s gain is somebody else’s loss. (Like cities competing for Amazon Headquarters II or NYC real estate moguls competing for choice properties).
The assumption is that were cooperation to yield to competition and were competition commonly to take the form of conflict, the United States would come at on top. That certainly is the idea that guides the actions of Trump, Navarro, Lighthizer, Bannon and other members of the Radical-Right entourage.
There are certain behavioral traits characteristic of imperial projects in decline and/or whose ambitions are being frustrated. They become all the more arbitrary in their actions, less attentive to appearances, and compulsive rather than deliberate in their ventures. Such is the case for the United States today. That is evident in the economic realm as well as the security realm.
A striking example is provided by the Huawei affair. Washington has reached new heights of imperial arrogance in ordering Canada to detain and extradite the CFO of the giant Chinese technology firm Huawei – a challenger to the global dominance of their American rivals.
It claims that Meng Wanzhou, sister of the company’s founder, is culpable for violation of the Iran Sanctions Act to prohibits any party from a wide range of commercial dealings with the Islamic Republic. In effect, the U.S. is imposing a secondary boycott on Iran in violation of WTO rules and customary practice.
The claimed justification is that the boycott qualifies under the exemption for ‘national security’ interests. What are they? One, the unilateral declaration that Iran is an outlaw regime. Two, that Huawei is inserting into its products devices that will enable the Chinese government to gain access into the networks of users in the U.S. and elsewhere. No evidence of this alleged action is provided.
These arguments are in fact a cover story for an aggressive campaign to prevent Huawei from eroding American dominance of the high tech sphere. We already have strong-armed Australia and New Zealand into blocking Huawei products.
A related objective is to use the hostage-taking of Meng to extract concessions from the PRC in the current fraught trade talks. Trump himself publicly stated that. In other words, Washington now has pioneered hostage-taking as a method for getting its way in commercial disputes.
In this, it is abetted by allies who – intimidated by threats of punishment – become accomplices to Washington’s lawless action rather than constraints. The Canada of Justin Trudeau thus acts as an accessory to American imperial strategy.
The same phenomenon saw all NATO governments (bar France) implicate themselves and facilitate the United States’ rendition program that swept suspected Islamic terrorists off the streets for dispatch to torture sites. The net effect of allied passive compliance with American demands is to nourish the over-confidence of Washington leaders – with adverse effects for all.
The whole Hua-wei episode reeks of hypocrisy. The U.S. is contradicting itself in the light of its repeated contention that secondary boycotts by Arab countries of firms doing business with Israel violate the GATT and WTO rules.
Moreover, government authorities have been pressing American high-tech firms to create dedicated access portals that would allow the Intelligence agencies to spy on users – domestic and abroad – exactly what we accuse the Chinese of intending.
This unprecedented action is also stupid. Normally, unhinged leaders are less dangerous when they are stupid rather than smart. That supposes, though, that they are held to account.
(For an excellent discussion of the illegality of secondary boycotts under the GATT, see Professor Eugene Kontorovich’s comprehensive article in the Chicago Journal of International Law).
Consider this role reversal scenario. The PRC authorities indict Sheryl Sandberg for Facebook’s violation of a Chinese law that prohibits commercial dealings with Taiwan. It also claims that Facebook has been making available to the NSA sensitive data acquired from Chinese users. On a business trip to Bangkok, she makes a stopover in Singapore. Beijing puts the arm on Singapore authorities to arrest her.
President Xi tweets that she may be released were Washington to demonstrate greater flexibility in outstanding trade disputes with the U.S. What would happen? Would The New York Times condemn the United States for its government directed plot to use American high tech firms to threaten the security interests of China? Would its editors demand that Trump et al respect legal norms by telling Sandberg to accept being judged by the Chinese judicial system?
Instead, war fever would sweep across America. The hot air spewed would add 1 degree F to global warming. Such are the ways of empire.** The presumption of privilege to do whatever has come to mark American foreign policy generally. In the same arrogant vein is the conduct of the recently appointed Ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, a Los Angeles media consultant who is a crony of Trump.
He had barely arrived in Berlin when he chose to pick a fight with the respected German news magazine Der Spiegel. Condemning the paper as “anti-American,” he insisted that it send its dispatches about the United States to the Embassy to be checked for correctness before being published. Imagine the Russian ambassador demanding the same of the Washington Post!
On domestic politics, the United States everywhere is abandoning its commitment to liberal democracy; instead, by example and by meddling it is lending its weight to autocratic elements and traditional oligarchs. The harsh truth is that the Trump administration has become the leader of a Fascist-tinged transnational movement to hack the software of liberal democracy and, where opportunity presents itself, to cripple the hardware as well.
That is what animates the embrace of people like Orban in Hungary, the Kaczyński spawn in Poland, Duterte in the Philippines, Bonosaro in Brazil, the Khalifa clan in Bahrain, and the homicidal ‘boy wonder’ in Riyadh. Elsewhere, it has brought to power the junta in Honduras, the military in Paraguay, and the repressive government in Guatemala. Across Latin America, the United States is staunchly opposed to reformist, progressive elements.
That outlook also explains Trump’s meddling in the domestic politics of Western European countries by promoting publicly the likes of Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Marine Le Pen and Matteo Salvini (the last a self-declared Fascist like Bonosaro). That sheds light on the well-funded project of Bannon to form a neo-Fascist Internationale based on an avowed ‘racialist’ ideology (his word) which has the blessing of his advisee, protégé and confidante in the White House.
The main impediment to this multi-pronged imperial enterprise comes not from domestic opposition in the United States or staunch defenders of liberal democracy in the West generally. They have proven themselves feeble, dispirited and inept.
Moreover, they already have been gravely weakened by the crushing blows they have absorbed from quite another reactionary source: the neo-liberal juggernaut which for the past 40 years has undercut the great postwar social consensus while concentrating economic power and political clout in the hands of an international plutocracy.
Market fundamentalism has been the rationale, neo-liberalism the enabling doctrine, and the cooptation of state institutions the key to legitimizing their project. Globalism is their motto.
The paradox is that globalization has been cast as a progressive concept that will liberate hundreds of millions from poverty, empower them, engage them in a new world of peaceful cooperation to the benefit of all. In short: FREEDOM! Innovation there certainly has been. The subordination of the state to the market is an historic achievement.
But that market has been rigged to favor some at the expense of others. Thus, inequality has widened to the point that wealth distribution resembles the 1920s – if not the 1890s. In the United States, incomes of most persons have stagnated for a half a century.
In Britain, the average salaried worker earns a third less in real terms than in 2008. 50% of even German salaried workers are worse off today than they were in 2008.
Social programs are being shredded with a further deterioration of standards of living – especially in the English speaking world. Debt has been substituted for hard assets and secure earnings throughout the developed world. And electoral democracy has been so corrupted by money and media manipulation that universal suffrage no longer is the great equalizer.
In those countries where global economic integration has been beneficial, as in India at the system level, conditions reflect a similar distortion. In absolute terms, almost as many Indians subsist on income below that country’s very low poverty line than did 20 years ago: 280 million by the government’s measure, 400-600 million by other standard measures.3
In China’s case, where the largest fraction of those lifted out of poverty have lived, macro-economic success is due to the rejection of the neo-liberal liturgy by an activist state that does macro-economic management and heavy regulation. That was demonstrated during and after the great financial crisis when Beijing leaders weathered the storm with barely a hitch in its growth trajectory – and boosted the global economy – by close bank supervision, by following a neo-Keynesian strategy, by raising investment by 40%, and by spurning the Ptolemaic austerity doctrine preached by the market fundamentalists. (India, too, avoided the most drastic shocks of the banking collapse thanks to a central bank director who wisely prevented financial institutions from playing the reckless, marginally criminal games of their Western brethren). It was dogmatic and self-serving market fundamentalist dogma that imposed a lost decade on Europe and Japan, an historically weak recovery in the U.S., and destitution to Greece. Thereby, neo-liberalism contributed to the conditions that have spawned neo-Fascist movements.
Greece today is 25% poorer than it was in 2011. This is what its masters at the EU Commission, the European Central Bank and the IMF have officially declared a ‘success story.’ The pain, of course, has fallen mainly on wage earners rather than the rich elite whose tax sheltered wealth is parked in off-shore havens. Public services like education and health care are a shambles. Public assets have been sold off at a fraction of their worth – the Parthenon exempted, for the time being. That last will be Tsipras’ one legacy achievement. The banks (primarily German and French) who made reckless loans on a massive scale in quest of big profits also have gotten off scott-free. The same for Goldman Sachs which designed the elaborate scheme allowing corrupt former governments to falsify national accounts and to conceal the machinations of the big financial players. Goldman Sachs is now implicated in the unprecedented scheme to loot the sovereign wealth of Malaysia of $1 billion by the ex-Prime minister and his cronies. Both Lloyd Blankfein and Gary Cohn (Trump’s chief economic adviser) allegedly played key roles. (https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/politics-news/1mdb_malaysia-goldman-sachs-criminal-charges-772795/)
There, in a nutshell, is neo-liberalism. For the purveyors of this economic gospel, and the rigid policies it prescribes, the priority is not sustainable growth, economic security and equitable distribution. Rather, it is to institutionalize the control, political power, and preferential rewards for transnational economic elites.4 The nefarious consequences of this historic power grab cum wealth transfer are interpreted as the unavoidable side-effects of objective forces in technology and modes of economic transaction. They point the finger at automation, at robotization, at the IT revolution. They also point the finger at global market integration that enhances system efficiency – making the world richer while disturbing existing economic roles. There is a nugget of truth to these assertions. However, these trends intentionally have been featured in market-fundamentalist doctrines that serve some interests (those of capital and financial service) above those of labor and productive investment. (See Joseph Stiglitz’s Globalization and Its Discontents Revisited: Anti-Globalization in the Era of Trump for alternative conceptions of globalization. Also, Dean Baker Rigged: How Globalization and the Rules of the Modern Economy Were Structured to Make the Rich)
Moreover, there are simple, time-tested methods for counter-acting any resulting widening of inequalities. That is for the state to provide social services that raise the standard-of-living of the majority without drastic interventions in the economy. Think of the United States where those services are thin. The provision of child-care, of universal health care, of nursing care for the elderly, of higher education at minimal cost (as was done half a century ago at dozens of state universities like Berkeley and UCLA – $62.50 per semester), of accessible transportation in both urban and rural areas, etc. would substantially reduce living costs for salaried workers and their families. They, in effect, would become richer in terms of their standard-of-living.
We also would experience an ancillary decrease in all forms of anti-social behavior. Admittedly at the cost of some unemployment among the babbling classes.
Doesn’t this involve wealth transfer through fiscal programs? Of course it does. That case was made convincingly 75 to 100 years ago. And in today’s economic circumstances where the ‘system’ so grossly favors the super-rich, the case is all the more compelling and persuasive. This holds no matter the inevitable softening of the market for over-priced Great Master paintings of dubious provenance.
How is it that this approach is never mentioned in public discourse? Ask Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan. Better yet – ask Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi. While you’re at it, ask your favorite pundit-commentator.
There is, therefore, an apparent conflict of outlook, if not interest, between the plutocracy and the Trump-led autocracy/neo-Fascist and nationalist project. The former were on the brink of completing their success with ratification of the TPP-Trans Pacific partnership (and its trans-Atlantic counterpart) which would have consolidated the suzerainty of transnational bodies favorable to them over the state – national or multinational. That was to be Barack Obama’s and the corporate Democrats’ parting gift. It was slated to be a bipartisanship gift. Corporate and financial interests had no reason to complain about the last two Democratic Presidents. They served the neo-liberal cause. Indeed, it can be argued that they better served the ulterior purposes of the plutocracy than did Republicans insofar as they gave the impression that nothing fundamental was changing when in fact the very foundations of the Republic were being shifted. Furthermore, the so-called ‘social issues’ that energized the Republican base (abortion, LBGTQ, etc) were of no concern to most of the big plutocrats – or to their wives and daughters, anyway.
It is important to stress that otherwise the Trump administration has satisfied long-standing ambitions of the plutocracy, of which he is himself a full member. Their tax rates have been cut, new give-aways added, regulatory regimes crippled, spending on all manner of domestic programs cut to the bone, the defense budget inflated, positions at senior levels stacked with billionaires, and the terms of public discourse pushed far to the Right.
Trump does worry them in two respects. One is by whipping into a lather the motley collection of the discontents who are the only possible danger to their vision and to realizing their plans. The other is endangering the transnational commercial and financial networks that provide rich rewards and freedom from government oversight. Why then has the plutocracy been such firm backers of an increasingly radical/reactionary Republican strategy – personified by Trump – that generates widespread estrangement, marshals the army of the discontent, and creates an ebb tide of opposition to their prized globalization enterprise?
The most obvious answer is that it channeled the discontented into movements that did not challenge their economic privileges. In addition, they are riven with avarice: they want as much as they can get. Trump has given them that. In other words, the answer is greed. They seek not just dominance – they want it all! They want to run the show as well as pull the strings. They want to be celebrated. They want opposition voices, however feeble, to be muted. They want the trappings as well as the reality of power.
Those are the same reasons why they have been so uninhibited in siphoning everything they could out of the economy. Why they sought to collapse social programs. Why they sought to erode Social Security and Medicare. Why they refuse to pay even minimal taxes. Why they were so ruthless in closing down every factory and outsourcing every conceivable job where there was the smallest marginal gain to be made. Why they insist on paying poverty level wages. Why they exalted in their wealth and ostentatious life style. That is not a prudent plutocracy. Logically, they should have left a few crumbs on the table. That would better have served their long-term interests. They were stupid – like so many before them.
But that is not the entire story. There is a compulsive, illogical aspect to this behavior pattern. It is explicable by reference to the status anxieties and identity crises and fragile self-esteem that are features of post-modern society – features most pronounced and with the deepest roots in the American experience. These are the phenomenon examined by Tocqueville, by Hoffer, by Durkheim et al related to anomies and ‘nihilism’ – as discussed in earlier essays.
Now the plutocrats are in a quandary. For the maniac whose path to the White House they themselves had cleared is too dumb, too narcissistic, too desperate for the mob’s adulation, to realize that he is jeopardizing the full realization of his fellow plutocrats’ impossible dream. Still, Trump and the obedient Republican Congress deliver the goods in further empowering and enriching them. Were the Democrats to do anything as sensible as to run Elizabeth Warren, the plutocrats will scurry anxiously to Trump’s side.
Where does that leave somebody who is neither a Tea Partier nor a camp-follower of the plutocrats? The adherents to the post-war consensus of enlightened socio-economic policies, thoughtful international engagement with an increasing emphasis on multilateral arrangements, on the uncompromising protection of civil liberties?
The honest answer is that it leaves them between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. In the United States, that indeed looks to be the dispiriting reality. The notion that the Democrats winning a clutch of seats in the House of Representatives augers a restoration of an enlightened polity is pure illusion. In 2009, the Democrats controlled the Executive and the Congress. Republican ideas and performance both had been disgraced. They were presented with a unique historical opportunity. Eight years later, they not only were bereft of political power. The plutocracy was more strongly ensconced than ever and the country elected a Tea Party president to boot. The Republican ‘moderates’ have vanished – in elective office and in elite corridors of power more generally.
Social democratic sentiments haven’t died; rather, Social-Democratic parties have committed suicide. By blinding themselves to the reactionary movement in its formative stages; by thirsting for office at any price; by selling out to the moneyed interests; and by being too disheartened/self-satisfied/lazy to engage in the battle to counter the reactionary juggernaut in narrative and in political combat.
It was President Bill Clinton who pronounced, in 1997, that “The era of big government is over!” It was President Barack Obama who, on multiple occasions, publicly stated that his model of an effective president was Ronald Reagan. It was Nancy Pelosi and Charlie Schumer who were unable to explain that the multiple functions of state are not trivial commodities to be held hostage to the whims of a President who does not understand the Constitution. With leaders like that….
Europe is more complicated – and varied. Outright neo-Fascism is on the rise. Still, it has very little chance of seizing power in any major country at the Western end of the country. The movement there is driven mainly by the issue of refugees – where it is tied to terrorism and where the ‘Erdogan tidal wave’ was a shock to the system. That gives it a sharp edge but that very radicalism, set against the continent’s historical backdrop, makes it vulnerable to political counters. It is not a quirk that the one striking success of the autocratic movement with Fascist characteristics has occurred in the United States. For America lacks the antibodies produced by earlier contagions to fight it at the first sign of infection. Furthermore, the social fabric in Europe is more durable than in the United States and the social service state still pretty much intact (Britain being the exception; there the danger is not neo-Fascism but debilitation and decline).
Such is the outcome of the TWO imperial projects that have reshaped the world built in the half-century between 1933 and 1983 – a world that realized much the West’s two centuries of enlightened social thinking. The first was the neo-liberal plutocratic project. It has been partially overtaken and absorbed into the America-centric imperial project of unravelling both the international order and the national orders this generation has inherited from more responsible forebears.
Imperial projects can be placed in a taxonomy of objective and effect. Some leave structures at the state level and the international level pretty much intact. Major shifts may occur in positions of dominance and subordination but little else changes. Consider Spain’s 100 years of glory in the 16th century or France’s ambitious strategy under Louis XIV. Or to go back much further, the 500 year war between ‘Rome’ and Persia. Others upset the established order of things from top to bottom: Napoleon’s empire building being the outstanding example. Additional examples are provided by the colonial empires alluded to earlier.
Coming back to present times (post 1991), the striking feature of the current American ‘imperial’ project is its reactionary objectives and the stunning successes it has achieved very quickly. This phenomenon can only be understood by noting the preliminary work done by the neo-liberal project in eroding the foundations and some super-structure of the pre-existing system. There is little evidence of previous attitudes and interests sympathetic to the Trump project being so intense and widespread as to generate so powerful a momentum. The ingredients of the new ‘nationalism’ cum new ‘authoritarianism’ are filling a void. Their leaders are concocting a movement compounded of feelings rather than an ideology; what passes for half-baked dogma in and of itself is less than irresistible. Moreover, their actions manifestly harm the tangible interests of the popular mass, many of whom who support it.
The psychology of leaders and deluded followers alike is best comprehended through a deeper study of the peculiar illnesses that plague our post-modern society. They were permissive of neo-liberalism. Together, social-psychological malaise, and neo-liberalism’s cannibalizing of social democracy, have set the stage for the singular enterprise of ‘imperialism’ and reactionary politics that is Trumpism.
“By 1700, Mughal India had become the world’s largest economy, ahead of Qing China and Western Europe, contains approximately 23% of the World’s population, and producing about a quarter of world output. Mughal India produced about 25% of global industrial output into the early 18th century. India’s GDP growth increased under the Mughal Empire, exceeding growth in the prior 1,500 years. The Mughals were responsible for building an extensive road system, creating a uniform currency, and the unification of the country. The Mughals adopted and standardized the rupee currency introduced by Sur Emperor Sher Shah Suri. The Mughals minted tens of millions of coins, with purity of at least 96%, without debasement until the 1720s. The empire met global demand for Indian agricultural and industrial products.
Early modern Europe imported products from Mughal India, particularly cotton textiles, spices, peppers, indigo, silks and saltpeter (for use in munitions). European fashion, for example, became increasingly dependent on Indian textiles and silks. From the late 17th century to the early 18th century, Mughal India accounted for 95% of British imports from Asia, and the Bengal Subah province alone accounted for 40% of Dutch imports from Asia. In contrast, demand for European goods in Mughal India was light. Exports were limited to some woolens, unprocessed metals and a few luxury items. The trade imbalance caused Europeans to export large quantities of gold and silver to Mughal India to pay for South Asian imports. Indian goods, especially those from Bengal, were also exported in large quantities to other Asian markets, such as Indonesia and Japan.”
See, too, Stanley Wolpert A New History Of India (Oxford University Press 1989) for a fuller treatment.
- Today (2016), 22% live below the poverty line, i.e. = 290 million – according to the Indian government. That is based on the stipulation that the poverty level is Rs, 33/day – a presumption that is widely viewed as unrealistic. It was set at that level in 2012 to gain political advantage and to burnish the country’s international image.
If it were taken at Rs.122/day (US $1.9/day), as a number of international bodies recommend, we get the much higher figure of almost 500 million. That could be ameliorated somewhat by the extensive dole programs at the state level. i.e. ‘soup kitchens’ in the cities, hand-outs of basic foodstuffs in rural areas (where suicides among despairing peasants have reached the unprecedented level of roughly 50,000 per year), and ration coupons.
In truth, what we are observing is a modern-day form of primitive capital accumulation.
Amazingly, the impoverished have the right to vote – and, don’t watch FOX NEWS
- This thesis is presented and persuasively argued by Thomas Palley in “Globalization Check-mated: Political and Geopolitical Contradictions Coming Home To Roost” (attached) which was distributed a few months ago.
- This plutocratic attitude sometimes reveals itself in stark clarity at unguarded moments. Emmanuel Macron, France’s self-proclaimed ‘Jupiterian’ leader,’ is prone to such moments. He gave the game away early on, just weeks after his election, in a talk to a group of entrepreneurs – the sort of people this Rothschild alumnus admires and sees as the torch bearers for a renewed France. There, he boldly drew a basic distinction between “people who succeed and those who are nothing.” (Mitt Romney’s 47% of spongers) The ‘heroic’ goal is to motivate the latter via financial penalties and cutbacks in social services until they see the light and pursue success as job-creating derivatives traders and designers of video games.
This “profound transformation” that Macron promises certainly is stirring the hearts of his former colleagues at Rothschild’s Bank and MEDEF where, indeed, he is being lionized as a hero. He also won adulation from the star struck Paris political class who imagine him as their own pale version of Barack Obama. However, he has had less success in inspiring masses of French men and women to take to the streets to celebrate their great new freedom of choice.
The gilets jaunes have irritated elite opinion in the West beyond measure. The world is getting too complicated for (what they think is) enlightened opinion to bear. Their unstated consensus that the rise of “populism” (still conveniently undefined) posed a binary choice between the plutocracy – masquerading as normal democratic politics – and the Far Right racists/neo-Fascists. In France, that would mean Macron & friends versus Marine Le Pen’s National Front & naïve friends. In reality, that is a highly distorted, misreading of the situation. That hasn’t stopped newspapers like The New York Times from imposing it on its readers. Last Tuesday, a very long front page study headlined a supposed alliance between the gilets jaunes and the Far Right of Le Pen. The evidence? The mayor of a small town in the north of France who has been elected on the NF ballot has allowed the local g.j. demonstraters to gather around a fire in the municipal parking lot. Journalistic ill-will, laziness or ignorance? All three –in that order.
* “As the East India Company’s monopoly broke down, Indian producers were allowed to export their goods directly to other countries. But Britain made sure that the payments for those goods nonetheless ended up in London. How did this work? Basically, anyone who wanted to buy goods from India would do so using special Council Bills – a unique paper currency issued only by the British Crown. And the only way to get those bills was to buy them from London with gold or silver. So traders would pay London in gold to get the bills, and then use the bills to pay Indian producers. When Indians cashed the bills in at the local colonial office, they were “paid” in rupees out of tax revenues – money that had just been collected from them. Meanwhile, London ended up with all of the gold and silver that should have gone directly into the Indian economy.
This corrupt system meant that even while India was running an impressive trade surplus with the rest of the world – a surplus that lasted for three decades in the early 20th century – it showed up as a deficit in the national accounts because the real income from India’s exports was appropriated by Britain.”
** “Some States, the United States in particular, have given their export controls and economic boycotts extraterritorial application. As a result, persons and companies in other States have been prevented from exporting to or investing in the States that are actually the targets of the boycott. It is argued that extraterritorial export controls are unlawful under international law, unless they can be justified by accepted principles of jurisdiction (territoriality, national security, nationality), or if other States acquiesce. Permissive principles should not be construed too broadly, however: jurisdiction solely based on national control of foreign corporations does not seem to be lawful, nor does jurisdiction based on perceived but largely unsubstantiated security threats.”
FOR THE CURIOUS
‘The late 18th and 19th centuries saw increase in the incidence of severe famine.[fn 3] These famines in British India were bad enough to have a remarkable impact on the long term population growth of the country, especially in the half century between 1871–1921. The first, the Bengal famine of 1770, is estimated to have taken the lives of nearly one-third of the population of the region—about 10 million people. The impact of the famine caused East India Company revenues from Bengal to decline to £174,300 in 1770–71. The stock price of the East India Company fell sharply as a result. The company was forced to obtain a loan of £1 million from the Bank of England to fund the annual military budget of between £60,000–1 million. Attempts were later made to show that net revenue was unaffected by the famine, but this was possible only because the collection had been “violently kept up to its former standard”.[fn 4] The 1901 Famine Commission found that twelve famines and four “severe scarcities” took place between 1765 and 1858. “
“Devastating famines impoverished India every 5 to 8 years in late 19th century and the first half of 20th century. Between 6.1 and 10.3 million people starved to death in British India during the 1876-1879 famine, while another 6.1 to 8.4 million people died during 1896-1898 famine. The Lancet reported 19 million died from starvation and consequences of extreme poverty in British India, between 1896 and 1900.”
Victims of the Great Famine of 1876–78
The famines were a product both of uneven rainfall and British economic and administrative policies. Colonial policies implicated include rack-renting, levies for war, free trade policies, the expansion of export agriculture, and neglect of agricultural investment. Indian exports of opium, rice, wheat, indigo, jute, and cotton were a key component of the economy of the British empire, generating vital foreign currency, primarily from China, and stabilising low prices in the British grain market. Export crops displaced millions of acres that could have been used for domestic subsistence, and increased the vulnerability of Indians to food crises. Others dispute that exports were a major cause of the famine, pointing out that trade did have a stabilising influence on India’s food consumption, albeit a small one
The Odisha famine of 1866–67, which later spread through the Madras Presidency to Hyderabad and Mysore, was one such famine. The famine of 1866 was a severe and terrible event in the history of Odisha in which about a third of the population died. The famine left an estimated 1,553 orphans whose guardians were to receive an amount of 3 rupees per month until the age of 17 for boys and 16 for girls. Similar famines followed in the western Ganges region, Rajasthan, central India (1868–70), Bengal and eastern India (1873–1874), Deccan (1876–78), and again in the Ganges region, Madras, Hyderabad, Mysore, and Bombay (1876–1878). The famine of 1876–78, also known as the Great Famine of 1876–78, caused a large migration of agricultural labourers and artisans from southern India to British tropical colonies, where they worked as indentured labourers on plantations. The large death toll—about 10.3 million—offset the usual population growth in the Bombay and Madras Presidencies between the first and second censuses of British India in 1871 and 1881 respectively.
The large-scale loss of life due to the series of famines between 1860 and 1877 was the cause of political controversy and discussion which led to the formation of the Indian Famine Commission. This commission would later come up with a draft version of the Indian Famine Code. It was the Great Famine of 1876–78, however, that was the direct cause of investigations and the beginning of a process that led to the establishment of the Indian Famine code. The next major famine was the Indian famine of 1896–97. Although this famine was preceded by a drought in the Madras Presidency, it was made more acute by the government’s policy of laissez faire in the trade of grain. For example, two of the worst famine-afflicted areas in the Madras Presidency, the districts of Ganjam and Vizagapatam, continued to export grains throughout the famine. These famines were typically followed by various infectious diseases such as bubonic plague and influenza, which attacked and killed a population already weakened by starvation.
Florence Nightingale pointed out that the famines in British India were not caused by the lack of food in a particular geographical area. They were instead caused by inadequate transportation of food, which in turn was caused due to an absence of a political and social structure.
Nightingale identified two types of famine: a grain famine and a “money famine”. Money was drained from the peasant to the landlord, making it impossible for the peasant to procure food. Money which should have been made available to the producers of food via public works projects and jobs was instead diverted to other uses. Nightingale pointed out that money needed to combat famine was being diverted towards activities like paying for the British military effort in Afghanistan in 1878–80.
Mike Davis regards the famines of the 1870s and 1890s as ‘Late Victorian Holocausts‘ in which the effects of widespread weather induced crop failures were greatly aggravated by the negligent response of the British administration. This negative image of British rule is common in India.Davis argues that “Millions died, not outside the ‘modern world system’, but in the very process of being forcibly incorporated into its economic and political structures. They died in the golden age of Liberal Capitalism; indeed, many were murdered … by the theological application of the sacred principles of Smith, Bentham and Mill.”
“The first major famine that took place under British rule was the Bengal Famine of 1770. About a quarter to a third of the population of Bengal starved to death in about a ten-month period. East India Company’s raising of taxes disastrously coincided with this famine and exacerbated it, even if the famine was not caused by the British colonial government. Following this famine, “Successive British governments were anxious not to add to the burden of taxation.” The rains failed again in Bengal and Odisha in 1866. Policies of laissez faire were employed, which resulted in partial alleviation of the famine in Bengal. However, the southwest Monsoon made the harbour in Odisha inaccessible. As a result, food could not be imported into Odisha as easily as Bengal. In 1865–66, severe drought struck Odisha and was met by British official inaction. The British Secretary of State for India, Lord Salisbury, did nothing for two months, by which time a million people had died. The lack of attention to the problem caused Salisbury to never feel free from blame.
“I did nothing for two months. Before that time the monsoon had closed the ports of Orissa-help was impossible—and—it is said—a million people died. The Governments of India and Bengal had taken in effect no precautions whatever… I never could feel that I was free from all blame for the result.” –The British Secretary of State for India, Lord Salisbury.
“In the dispatch addressed to the Duke of Buckingham, in which the Viceroy announced his intention of visiting the famine districts of Madras and Mysore, the general principles for the management of famine affairs were once more laid down. After stating that the Government of India, with approval of Her Majesty’s Government, were resolved to avert death by starvation by the employment of all means available, the Viceroy first expressed his conviction that ‘absolute non-interference with the operations of private commercial enterprise must be the foundation of their present famine policy.’ This was based on the belief that ‘free and abundant trade cannot co-exist with Government importation’ and that more food will reach the famine-stricken districts if private enterprise is left to itself (beyond receiving every possible facility and information from the government) than if it were paralysed by Government competition.
Any government which imperiled the financial position of India in the interests of prodigal philanthropy would be open to serious criticism; but any government which by indiscriminate alms-giving weakened the fibre and demoralised the self-reliance of the population, would be guilty of a public crime. (The same logic held in China. “Qing China carried out its relief efforts, which included vast shipments of food, a requirement that the rich to open their storehouses to the poor, and price regulation, as part of a state guarantee of subsistence to the peasantry (known as ming-sheng). When a stressed monarchy shifted from state management and direct shipments of grain to monetary charity in the mid-19th century, the system broke down”)
Some British citizens such as William Digby agitated for policy reforms and famine relief, but Lord Lytton, the governing British viceroy in India, opposed such changes in the belief that they would stimulate shirking by Indian workers. Reacting against calls for relief during the 1877–79 famine, Lytton replied, “Let the British public foot the bill for its ‘cheap sentiment,’ if it wished to save life at a cost that would bankrupt India,” substantively ordering “there is to be no interference of any kind on the part of Government with the object of reducing the price of food,” and instructing district officers to “discourage relief works in every possible way…. Mere distress is not a sufficient reason for opening a relief work.” There, we have the mating of Imperialism & Neo-Liberalism.
(The historical record does not tell us whether Viceroy Lord Lytton tossed rolls of paper towel to the starving famine victims in Odissa)
‘In 1874 the response from the British authorities was better and famine was completely averted. Then in 1876 a huge famine broke out in Madras. Lord Lytton’s administration believed that ‘market forces alone would suffice to feed the starving Indians.’[fn 9] The results of such thinking proved fatal (some 5.5 million starved), so this policy was abandoned. Lord Lytton established the Famine Insurance Grant, a system in which, in times of financial surplus, INR 1,500,000 would be applied to famine relief works. The result was that the British prematurely assumed that the problem of famine had been solved forever. Future British viceroys became complacent, and this proved disastrous in 1896. About 4.5 million people were on famine relief at the peak of the famine.
Curzon stated that such philanthropy would be criticised, but not doing so would be a crime.[fn 10] He also cut back rations that he characterised as “dangerously high,” and stiffened relief eligibility by reinstating the Temple tests. Between 1.25 and 10 million people died in the famine. The famine during World War II lead to the development of the Bengal Famine Mixture (based on rice with sugar). This would later save tens of thousands of lives at liberated concentration camps such as Belsen.””” (Collateral Benefit)
“British famine policy in India was influenced by the arguments of Adam Smith, as seen by the non-interference of the government with the grain market even in times of famines. Keeping the famine relief as cheap as possible, with minimum cost to the colonial exchequer, was another important factor in determining famine policy. According to Brian Murton, a professor of geography at the University of Hawaii, another possible impact on British policy on famine in India was the influence of the English Poor Laws of 1834, with the difference being that the English were willing to “maintain” the poor in England in normal times, whereas Indians would receive subsistence only when entire populations were endangered. Similarities between the Irish famine of 1846–49 and the later Indian famines of the last part of the 19th century were seen. In both countries, there were no impediments to the export of food during times of famines. Lessons learnt from the Irish famine were not seen in the correspondence on policy-making during the 1870s in India.
In 1865–66, severe drought struck Odisha and was met by British official inaction. Reacting against calls for relief during the 1877–79 famine, Lytton replied, “Let the British public foot the bill for its ‘cheap sentiment,’ if it wished to save life at a cost that would bankrupt India,” substantively ordering “there is to be no interference of any kind on the part of Government with the object of reducing the price of food,” and instructing district officers to “discourage relief works in every possible way…. Mere distress is not a sufficient reason for opening a relief work.”
In 1874 the response from the British authorities was better and famine was completely averted. Then in 1876 a huge famine broke out in Madras. Lord Lytton’s administration believed that ‘market forces alone would suffice to feed the starving Indians.’[fn 9] The results of such thinking proved fatal (some 5.5 million starved), so this policy was abandoned. Lord Lytton established the Famine Insurance Grant, a system in which, in times of financial surplus, INR 1,500,000 would be applied to famine relief works. The result was that the British prematurely assumed that the problem of famine had been solved forever. Future British viceroys became complacent, and this proved disastrous in 1896. About 4.5 million people were on famine relief at the peak of the famine. “”
MB: This is the ineluctable outcome when crisis meets ideological dogmatism, religious cant, gross incompetence and moral numbness – all cemented by raw racism. It’s not unknown in our day – let’s call it ‘The Puerto Rico Syndrome.’
** Anyone keen to keep the idea of heroism alive might point to France’s President Emmanuel Macron. His rhetoric is certainly grandiose: a “new humanist Renaissance globally,” a unified and energized ‘Europe’ gamboling on the world stage, the flood of immigrants reversed by a new partnership with the governments they are fleeing, restricting participation in public protests, criminalizing ‘fake news’ on the Internet, and – of course – a new France set on the road to glory by unleashing the potent forces of IT entrepreneurship. Then, there is Macron’s audacious domestic program: cutting taxes for business and the rich; curtailing social programs; vocationalizing education; weakening trade unions, and cutting back France’s superb health care system that is recognized universally as the world’s Number One. He makes positive reference to the U.S. alternative where 50% more is spent to achieve, inter alia, an infant mortality rate on a par with Russia and worse than New Caledonia, Bosnia and the Grenadines– and to the U.K. where General Practitioners are offered half of the savings as kickbacks for denying patients hospital care. Macron. something of an Anglophile, also sees Britain as a model for his plan to privatize France’s outstanding rail service – despite the former’s deplorable state.
Macron gave the game away a few days before the Versailles extravaganza in a talk to a group of entrepreneurs – the sort of people he admires and sees as the torch bearers for a renewed France. There, he boldly drew a basic distinction between “people who succeed and those who are nothing.” The ‘heroic’ goal is to scorn the latter until they see the light and pursue success as job-creating derivatives traders and designers of video games.
This “profound transformation” that Macron promises certainly is stirring the hearts of his former colleagues at Rothschild’s Bank and MEDEF where, indeed, he is being lionized as a hero. Less likely is that masses of French men and women will take to the streets celebrate the advent of the ‘opportunity state.’
Professor of International Affairs, Emeritus
University of Pittsburgh