Imperialism, Ultraimperialism and Hegemony at the dawn

June 08, 2009

The September/October 2002 issue of New Left Review carried an editorial entitled ’Force and Consensus’. In it, Perry Anderson analyzes the changes in American politics and the present state of the relationships between the US and Europe. Casting aside the rhetorical battles that accompanied the clash between the transatlantic partners, he gets down to appraising ’the underlying parameters in the current international situation.’ In order to do so, he poses three analytical questions: ’To what extent does the line of the Republican administration in Washington today represents a break with previous US policies? Insofar as that is the case, what explains this discontinuity? What are the likely consequences of the change?’ In his reply to these questions, Anderson tries to go beyond the conjuncture, grappling with a long-term perspective, and assessing the foundations of American hegemony in the aftermath of World War Two.

Thus, he states that: ’From the start, Washington pursued two integrally related strategic goals. On one hand, the US set out to make the world safe for capitalism. That meant that the containment of the USSR became a top priority along with that of halting the spread of revolution beyond its borders... On the other hand, Washington was determined to consolidate an unrivalled American supremacy within world capitalism... Once this framework was in place, the wartime boom of American capitalism was successfully extended to allied and defeated powers alike, for the common benefit of all OECD states.’

Further below, he argues that: "During the years of the Cold War, there was little or no tension between these two fundamental objectives of the US policy. The danger of Communism for the capitalist classes everywhere, increased in Asia by the Chinese Revolution, meant that virtually everybody was happy to be protected, assisted and surveyed by Washington.’

’The disappearance of the USSR signaled the complete victory of the US in the Cold War. But, by the same token, the knot tying the basic objectives of America’s global strategy together was loosened. The same logic no longer encompassed its two goals into a single hegemonic system. Once the Communist danger was faded away, the American supremacy ceased to be an automatic prerequisite for the security of the established order tout court. Potentially, the field of inter-capitalist rivalries, not only at the level of corporations but also of states, was open once again, while -in theory at least- the European and East Asian regimes could now contemplate degrees of independence unthinkable during the epoch of the threat of totalitarianism. Yet there was another reason for this change. If the usual foundations of the consensual structure of American domination had been eroded, its coercive superiority was, at a stroke, abruptly and massively enhanced. With the demise of the USSR, there was no longer any countervailing force on earth capable of withstanding the US’s military might... These interrelated changes were eventually bound to alter the role of the United States in the world.’

Certainly, as we argued in another article of this journal, the demise of the former USSR has nourished the rivalry among the imperialist powers. Meanwhile, the overwhelming American military supremacy, without the counterbalance of the Soviet nuclear might, has resulted in an enhanced room for maneuver for the US in the international arena, reinforcing its ’coercive superiority’. But, is the changed role of the US in the world alone to account for this?

Is American hegemony in decline or not?

Perry Anderson points out correctly to the eroded foundations of America’s rule. But he overlooks the economic and home constraints weighing down on its domination, pushing it in the direction of a less ’consensual’ form.

The period that followed the Second World War saw the heyday of its hegemony, when both rival and allied imperialisms alike were in ruins or else exhausted by the war, and the economy of the US accounted for almost 50% of the world GDP, being in turn overwhelmingly more advanced and efficient. This endowed it with an irresistible appeal. Together with the need for new valorization sources for the American capital, these laid the basis for the spread of Americanism. But from the 1970s until this day, the world has witnessed the emergence of three imperialist blocs with a more or less equal economic power, whatever the token shifts in the balance of forces between those blocs through the last decades.

In turn, at home, the decline of the US economy has resulted in an increase of social inequality compared with the boom years. The US is the country with the widest gap in the income distribution between the well-of strata of its population and the most impoverished ones among the G7 members. Nowadays, over forty million people are living below the poverty line while the exploitation of the workforce has been increased -the exhausting working days and the increase of the hours worked per year by labor bear testimony to that.

These two elements, the relative retreat of the dominant position of the US in the international economy and the social backlash at home, are boosting the reactionary drift of the US in the international arena. This is striving to uphold its position in the world, in spite of the tendencies to its historical decline -which are still at work in spite of the of the relative invigoration of the 1990s. This historical perspective that even non-Marxist schools such as the theoreticians of the world-system, like Wallerstein and Arrighi, have been postulating for so long, is surprisingly absent from the analysis of a major historian such as Perry Anderson.

Has the unstable equilibrium of the 1990s unraveled?

Anderson brilliantly describes the conditions that allowed the token reinvigoration of the US with regard to its competitors during the 1990s (1), set against with the decades that elapsed since the onset of the crisis of capitalist accumulation in the early 1970s. ’Two years later, the scenario looks very different. But in what respects?’, he wonders. Anderson is far from any kind of impressionistic analysis operating a complete separation between the imperialist politics of the current Bush administration and that of Clinton in the 1990s, -e.g. Toni Negri. Instead, Anderson points out that ’...such alterations in style did not mean a big change in the fundamental aims of America’s global strategy, which have remained completely stable for half a century. Two developments, however, have radically reversed the ways in which these are currently being pursued.’

Anderson remarks that: ’...two changed circumstances -the inflamed popular nationalism in the wake of September 11 at home, and the new heights reached by the RMA [Revolution in Military Affairs] abroad- have gone hand in hand with an ideological shift. This is the main element of discontinuity in the current US global strategy. Where the rhetoric of the Clinton administration spoke of the cause of international justice and the construction of a democratic peace, the Bush administration has raised the banner of the war on terrorism. These are not incompatible ideas, but the emphasis put on each of them has changed. The result is a sharply changed atmosphere. The war on terrorism orchestrated by Cheney and Rumsfeld is a far more strident, and also feebler, rallying-cry than the usual pieties invoked during the Clinton-Albright years. The immediate political credit yielded by each is also different. The new and sharper line put forward by Washington has gone down badly in Europe, where the human-rights profile was and remains a highly esteemed agenda. Here the previous line appears clearly superior as a hegemonic modality.’

Apart from the breakthroughs in military technology, which have undoubtedly enhanced the war capacity of the US, it is very clear that September 11 was a sea change. Not only in the sense pointed out by Anderson, i.e. a massive boost to jingoism at home, but mainly as a catalyst of the contradictions that were already accumulating in the international situation and in the US itself. The attacks launched against the symbols of American power, revealed in a rather barbaric fashion the external vulnerability of the US and a shift in the relationship between the center and the periphery of the world, with the shock waves of instability coming from the latter making a deeper impact on the former. In the last few decades, the reinforced domination of the US over the world has resulted in the former importing home all the contradictions at work in the world area. Global-scale terrorism in the realm of security along with the strong deflationary pressures coming from the crisis-ridden world economy are the two most acute symptoms of that process.

On the other hand, the corporate bankruptcies at home and the drops in the stock market both express the emergence of a social crisis in the US, which hits the lower-income tiers of the population the hardest, thus alienating wide layers of society. This has the potential to rock the feeble American political system, a mere platform for the lobbying activities of finance capital reliant on the manipulation of public opinion by the mass media. The hegemony enjoyed by financial capital during the last decades, which allowed the US to download the burden of its own crisis on to the shoulders of the rest of the imperialist powers and the periphery, wreaking havoc to the international economy, has now become a ’boomerang’ that is hitting home hard.

All these elements point to a disruption of the unstable equilibrium of the 1990s. In this sense, the rise of Bush not only represents an ideological shift with regard to the previous administration as Anderson asserts. It also represents a backlash bearing wholesale Bonapartist features in response to changed conditions both at home and abroad, when those factors that contributed to the token rejuvenation of the US in the 1990s have been massively eroded. The Bush administration seeks to rally the people behind its policy of growing militarism by cranking up on the need for defense from an external enemy, in an attempt at channeling the population’s fears towards the economic instability and the security uncertainty affecting it at home. Besides, this aggressive drive in the realm of foreign policy goes hand in hand with an armory of repressive legislation and a restriction of democratic liberties at home, in an attempt at recreating the conditions that underpinned the American growth during the 1990s, this time through a tour de force and a reactionary political engineering.

The control of the oil routes, a strategic weapon in the inter-imperialist rivalry

We agree with the three factors that Anderson points out as the main reasons for the forthcoming war in Iraq. The first one is the necessity of a resounding victory against terrorism, a much bolder one than the victory in Afghanistan. The second one is related to a more strategic calculation: to send a warning to the challenge posed by the other countries members of the traditional nuclear oligopoly, setting a precedent as to the necessity of pre-emptive wars and their right to impose ’régime changes’ whenever they see fit. The third reason is more directly political and it is bound to the situation in the Arab world, where a system that has relied so far on leverage exerted from afar and indirectly, has also nourished the emergence of aberrant feelings and political forces there -the September 11 attackers being its clearest manifestation. Anderson concludes that ’taking over Iraq, by contrast, would give Washington a large oil-rich platform at the heart of the Arab world, which will serve as a ground for building an enlarged version of an Afghan-styled democracy, designed to change the whole political landscape of the Middle East.’

In appraising the pros and cons of an eventual attack on Iraq, he points out that, although it enshrines a risk, ’The operation is clearly in line with America’s capacity, and its immediate costs -there will undoubtedly be some- do not at this stage look exorbitant.’ We might put a different stress on one or another aspect of the American campaign in Iraq, but as a whole we believe that both the reasons and short-term prospects outlined by Anderson are quite sensible.

At this point, Anderson wonders: ’Why then has the prospect of war aroused such unrest, not so much in the Middle East, where the protests raised by the Arab League bluster are largely pro forma, but in Europe?’ He first says that the strong presence of Muslims in Europe makes the European states more fearful of the risks that any war move in the Middle East might bring about. In turn, ’The EU countries, far weaker as military or political actors on the international arena, are inherently more cautious than the United States.’ And he adds that: ’By and large, whereas the European states know they are subordinated to the US, and accept their status, they hate being reminded about it publicly...’ (2)

Once again, we agree with the reasons postulated by Anderson and accounting for the standoff between the US and Europe with regard to an eventual war against Iraq. However, in our view, there is a key question that is surprisingly glossed over in his article, which ponders the relationships among the imperialist powers so accurately in other respects. With this we mean the ominous consequences the direct control by the US and its increased military and political influence in this oil-rich area of the globe would have for Europe -and also for Japan, as well as, according to the Department of State, for other ’strategic competitor’ such as China. This strategic leverage would be used as a weapon by the US for increasing its bargaining power in its commercial disputes with the other centers of power, seeking to gain an advantageous geopolitical position that would help it consolidate its hegemonic position -thus reinforcing the subordination of the rest of the imperialist nations. This is a major oblivion on the part of Anderson, one that is closely related to his own methodological approach.

Ultraimperialism, Imperialism and Hegemony at the dawn of the 21st century

The theoretical kernel of Anderson’s article lies in the following excerpt: ’Left to its own devices, the outcome of such anarchy [of capitalist competition] can only be a mutually destructive war, of the kind Lenin described in 1916. Kautsky, by contrast, abstracted the clashing interests and the dynamics of the concrete states of that time, coming to the conclusion that the future of the system -for the sake of in its own interests- lies in the emergence of mechanisms of international capitalist coordination capable of transcending such conflicts, or what he called ’ultra-imperialism’. This was a prospect Lenin rejected as utopian. The second half of the century produced a solution that both thinkers failed to envisage, but one that Gramsci glimpsed intuitively. For in due course it became clear that the question of coordination could be satisfactorily worked out only by the existence of a superordinate power, capable of imposing discipline on the system as a whole, in the common interest of all parties. Such ’imposition’ cannot be a by-product of brute force. It must also correspond to a genuine ability of persuasion -ideally, in the shape of a leadership that can offer the most advanced model of production and culture of the day, as a target of imitation for everybody else. That is the definition of hegemony, as a general unification of the camp of capital.’

In another article of this journal, we resort to the Gramscian concept of hegemony to grapple with the order of rule established by the US in the postwar period. Back then, the disputes for world hegemony were settled and the inter-imperialist contests muffled, as the US was in a position to lead the reproduction of the capitalist world not only for its own benefit, but also guaranteeing the interest of its old rivals. But Anderson presents this concept in isolation from any historical context, expanding it to encompass the whole second half of the 20th century without distinguishing the different periods of the American hegemony, (3) and opposing it to the theses on imperialism outlined by Lenin. In doing so, he takes a step further than Gramsci himself, who never opposed his concepts to the theory of imperialism.

Today, the opposition to this theory flows from two different viewpoints. There are those who look at the enhanced geographical spread of capitalist relationships and the increased internationalization of the productive forces, and take up the views of ’ultra-imperialism’ first devised by Kautsky to mean a harmonious globalization, or else trans-nationalism. On the other hand, there are those who, basing themselves on the sharply uneven balance of power in the international system of today, especially that opposing the US and the rest of the powers, have resorted to the theses of ’super-imperialism’. (4) Anderson does not stand by this view, espoused by those that anticipate an American hyper-power for the 21st century. However, as long as he downplays the inter-imperialist divisions, Anderson also moves in this direction.

The theoretical operation carried out by Anderson, far from enhancing Gramsci’s concepts, enriching them to better explain reality, actually turns them even more abstract. Although they might be useful for dealing with many of the external features of the hegemon, they are rendered useless when it comes to tracing its laws of motion, its dynamic and therefore the chances of subverting it. Thus, Anderson fails to see that the more frequent use of force is not just an expression of an enhanced room for maneuver in the military arena, or else of its increased self-confidence after its victory against the USSR -as he points out. In our view, this is also a symptom of a potential weakness in the long term.

Thus Anderson transforms the categories of ’force’ and ’consensus’, which are useful notions to explain how a hegemonic power rules, into useless and sterile concepts, which do not enable us to grapple with the cracks in the hegemonic system. This is the case because they fail to take into account the tendencies to the historical decline of the US and, in a shorter term, the disruption of the unstable equilibrium of the 1990s.

Such one-sidedness is not a random mistake in such sharp an observer like Anderson. Instead, it is an expression of Anderson’s deep skepticism after 1989, as he considered the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the USSR as a ’historical defeat’ that wiped out all revolutionary perspectives from the political horizon of our time.

Has the American economy just become jittery?

Anderson maintains that the relevant political question in relation to the divergences between Europe and the US is whether they are anticipating a major rift or further reversals in the inter-imperialist balance of power. Anderson also claims that ’ the EU is in no position to deflect or challenge any major American initiative’, and opinion we also share. He predicts that after the invasion in Iraq and with the setting-up of a mild Arab-styled ’democracy’ in that country, along the lines of Yugoslavia’s and Afghanistan’s, ’the storm in the Atlantic tea-cup will not last very long. The reconciliation [between the US and Europe] is all the more predictable, since the current shift of emphasis from what is ’cooperatively allied’ to what is ’distinctively American’ within the imperial ideology is, by nature, likely to be short-lived.’

We do not rule out such scenario ourselves, that the US and Europe may attempt some kind of reconciliation, as implored by commentators at both sides of the Atlantic, fearful for the consequences that American ’unilateralism’ could bring about for the entire world system -especially the dangers entailed by an open break between the two major allied blocs of the Western world. But the key to a Marxist analysis is to trace the growing rifts between the US and Europe, as well as their possible dynamics within the framework of the whole relationships of the world capitalist system. In this regard, a notorious weakness of the article is the lack of a deep analysis of the present state of the American and also the world economy. This leads Anderson to an excessive reliance on political and geopolitical factors, taking them in complete isolation from the tendencies at work in the capitalist economy. It will be those that will shape -together with the military and diplomatic operations and the level of the class struggle- both the extent and the likely evolution of the standoff between the US and Europe, as well as among the other powers.

Anderson points in passing to the ’jittery behavior’ of the American economy. If that was the case, a quick victory in Iraq might reinstate or even extend the unstable equilibrium of the past decade and heal the inter-imperialist rivalries. We do not rule out such perspective. At any rate, we do not deem it as the more likely scenario. We are not just witnessing a ’jittery behavior’ of the US economy. This has experienced the biggest loss of assets in its whole history -with big corporations such as Enron or World Com going bust, in the context of a world economy subjected to the strongest deflationary pressures since the 1930s. So we think that is a totally inadequate notion, a too gullible perspective about the ways that might lead the capitalist economy onwards to reach a new equilibrium.

Far from an easy way out of the world crisis, the most likely scenario for the world economy is one proceeding along ’catastrophic’ lines, as well as a tendency to the disruption of the capitalist equilibrium. If that was the case, the increase of geopolitical tensions in the rarefied atmosphere of the world economy will most likely become intensified, radically altering the relationship between the economy, the state-system and the class struggle currently unfolding within the world system today. Anderson’s ’historical pessimism’, as Gilbert Achcar put it, prevents him from considering this perspective at all.


1: Anderson asserts that: ’By the end of the decade, strategic policymakers in Washington were totally right to be satisfied with the overall balance sheet of the nineties. The USSR had been knocked out of the ring, Europe and Japan kept in check, China drawn into increasingly close trade relations, the UN reduced to little more than a permissions office; and all this accomplished in tune with the most appealing of ideologies, whose every second word was international understanding and democratic goodwill. Peace, justice and freedom were spreading around the world.’

2: He points out to a smaller though important element: ’An additional ingredient in the hostile reception given to the plan to attack Iraq by the European intelligentsia -and to a lesser extent also liberal Americans- is the justified fear that it could strip away the humanitarian veil covering the interventions in the Balkans and in Afghanistan, thus revealing too nakedly the imperial ethos standing behind the renewed militarism. This quarter has bet high stakes on the human rights rhetoric, and feels uncomfortably exposed by the bluntness of the blow about to be dealt.’

3: We mean the ’golden age’ of the boom, the beginning of the American decline in the early 1970s, the unstable equilibrium of the 1990s -when the US was relatively strengthened with regard to past decades - and the current period, which may usher in a new stage for its hegemony.

4: As Mandel remarked: ’According to this view, a single imperialist superpower holds such a hegemony that the other imperialist powers lose any real independence with regard to it and are reduced to the condition of small semicolonial powers.’ Further on he adds the following assertion, a very poignant one when it comes to analyzing the current attempt of the US to reshape the world relying on its military might: ’In the long run, such a process cannot come to rely solely on the military supremacy of the superimperialist power -such a domination could only be achieved by American imperialism-, but rather it should set itself the task of taking over the property and the direct control of the production centers and the most important capital concentrations, of the banking and other financial institutions overseas. Without that direct control, that is to say, without the immediate power for disposing of capital, nothing will prevent the law of uneven development from altering the relationship of economic forces between the major capitalist states in the long run, in such a way that the military supremacy of the most important imperialist power itself is eventually undermined.’ (Ernest Mandel, Late Capitalism, Spanish edition).