From Imperialism to Empire

From Imperialism to Empire

The crises faced by Bush signal not only the errors of his Administration but the end of imperialism itself–and the emergence of new, more dangerous forces.


With every day’s headlines, the failure of the Bush Administration’s unilateralist policies and imperialist adventures becomes clearer. In Iraq the military occupation and efforts at nation-building are such fiascos that even the architects of the war can no longer muster optimism. The fact that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s death, which earlier would have been celebrated as a sign of imminent victory, solicited from George W. Bush only a note of caution on the long road ahead is a measure of how deep things have sunk.

Meanwhile in Afghanistan, which until recently had been vaunted as the model of success, the veneer of order and control has completely dissolved. We are now told that there is danger of a resurgence of the Taliban, the government’s handle on social order is tenuous at best and the population is seething with resentment against the US occupying forces. Here, too, the mirage of victory has been revealed as failure.

It is worth taking a moment to step back from the rush of events, though, to reflect on what these failures mean. My view is that they indicate not only the errors of one government’s policies but also the end of imperialism itself and the emergence of a new logic of global power that comes with new dangers and possibilities. In order to understand this “end of imperialism” and what it means for politics, we need to look back a few years and approach the current failures from another perspective.

Not so long ago, in the 1990s, after the collapse of the cold war, the “new world order” posed an intellectual challenge to understand the nature of an emerging form of global power that was not simply a repetition of the old imperialisms. A series of surprisingly powerful social protests took aim at this new global order. The movements gained mass media attention only after the Seattle demonstrations in 1999, but they had grown throughout the decade in other parts of the world, with efforts to grasp this new global enemy in its various guises, including neoliberalism, the WTO, the IMF and NAFTA. It already seemed then, in fact, that the age of imperialism–that is, the imposition of the national sovereignty of a dominant country over foreign territory through colonial administration, military occupation or economic coercion–had finally come to an end. The demise of the logics and structures of imperialism obviously had not given way to a democratic and free global society but rather to a new form of domination that needed to be understood and confronted differently.

Beginning in 2001, however, after the September 11 attacks and especially after the launch of the US “war on terror,” the notion that the era of imperialism had come to an end suddenly seemed entirely implausible. The US government’s new wars, its policy of pre-emptive strikes, its military occupations, its seizure of oilfields and its projects to remake the political map of the Middle East were all immediately recognized as imperialist endeavors. The Bush doctrine of unilateralism was, in fact, nothing but a new name for US imperialism.

It was shocking how quickly many right-wing intellectuals and politicians began to speak positively about imperialism. For some, “imperialist” ceased to be an accusation and became a name they could embrace openly. Many others, who demurred from using the term imperialism, advocated unilateral US military interventions and occupations for “advancing freedom” that were clearly imperialist in substance. Neoconservative intellectuals were the leaders in this return to imperialism, but the White House authors of the Iraq War also conceived the world and the US role in it through the old-fashioned lens of an imperialist imaginary, adopting the traditional weapons and objectives of the imperialist traditions.

Many on the left, as well, quickly returned after 9/11 to traditional discourses of imperialism. Suddenly it seemed that the new world order wasn’t so hard to understand–and it wasn’t even so new! It was just US imperialism, after all. And indeed we have seen a flood of books from leftist intellectuals about the new (or not so new) US imperialism.

The problem with this interpretation of world events and this notion of a resurgence of US imperialism is that the forces of reality are acting against it. I am not posing any question about the justness of imperialism–I take for granted an absolute opposition to it. My point is rather 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.

The Death Throes of US Imperialism

Perhaps US leaders could play the role of successful imperialists when they celebrated the “victory of Baghdad” in spring 2003, but things have changed since then. The Iraq War is a disaster, not just for the Iraqi people and the occupying soldiers but also for the authors of the war. They have proven themselves incapable of doing what imperialists must do. Not only have they failed militarily by being unable to contain a stubborn insurgency; they have also failed to create a stable market for profits, failed to make the oil money pay their expenses and failed to line up a substantial number of other countries and political forces behind their cause. The prestige and hegemonic capacities of the United States have steadily declined through the course of the war, particularly with the widespread reporting of civilian deaths, illegal imprisonment and torture. The architects of the war seemed to think they could follow and even outdo the old imperialists with superior efficiency and power, but, to the contrary, they have demonstrated their inability to conduct imperialist adventures successfully.

In other parts of the world, too, attempts at US unilateral policies are being challenged. The burial of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) process, for example, in Mar de Plata, Argentina, this past November is an indication of the incapacity of US imperialism. The United States is no longer able to impose its economic policies on its “backyard” as it had throughout the twentieth century.

The failures of US imperialism are also clear with respect to the domestic situation. The devastation of Hurricane Katrina was a symptom of this inability, one that revealed the poverty, social division, structural racism and profound dysfunction of the US government. Among many other things, the New Orleans disaster demonstrated, in an era defined by neoliberal economic policies, the inability of the United States to devote so many resources to foreign conquest and occupation while maintaining social well-being and stability at home.

Some right-wing ideologues, of course, admit setbacks but still cling to the possibilities of imperialism. The strategy is correct, they say; there were just tactical errors. If only the US military had attacked the Iraqi resistance harder at the beginning, if only they had enlisted the help of some Baathist officials, if only the United States had devoted more troops… It is not surprising that right-wing intellectuals and politicians who have staked their careers on imperialism would stubbornly stick to it. More surprising, however, is that many leftist intellectuals similarly continue to miscalculate US imperialist power.

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.

Clearly, we should oppose the Bush doctrine, the Iraq War and all other imperialist projects. And there is no doubt the United States is the most dominant nation-state, in economic and political as well as military terms. However, no nation-state today, not even the United States, is capable of determining and maintaining order over foreign territory with the old imperialist instruments, whether occupying armies or imposed economic models. So while there’s no question that US leaders–through an overestimation of their power and a failure to recognize the new characteristics of the current global situation–will again act as imperialists, they cannot be successful. That is what I mean when I insist that the age of imperialism, even US imperialism, is over.

It is important to remember that imperialism did not die of its own accord. It was defeated by decades of anti-imperialist struggles, particularly national liberation struggles in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Each time an imperialist power was defeated, of course, and national sovereignty achieved–from Indonesia to India and Senegal, from Algeria to Cuba and Vietnam–that did not mean that imperialism as such was defeated. After each defeat, imperialism lived on as a form of domination and continued to be applied elsewhere. We have reached a point with the accumulation of these defeats, however, when the general form itself has lost its applicability. Anti-imperialist struggles were the primary force that undermined imperialism and led ultimately to its death.

Some time in the future, looking back on our present period of US unilateralism, maybe it will seem like that cliché moment at the end of every teen horror movie when the young survivors gather around the grave of the monster they’ve defeated. As the reassuring music starts and the protagonists are beginning to walk away from the grave, just when we expect the final credits to roll, the monster’s hand shoots up through the dirt and grabs one of them by the ankle, sending one last gasp of fear through the theater. But after that final shock they can cut off the arm, put the monster to rest and walk away. There is no point continuing the fight against the old monster, dead and buried. Its time has passed. But we know there will be a sequel with a new monster that requires new forms of struggle.

The New Monster

If it is true that the era of imperialism is over and that the recent failures of US unilateralist strategies demonstrate this fact, this is not necessarily cause for celebration. It does not mean the end of domination or exploitation but signals instead the passage from one form of power to another. If it’s not imperialism, though, what is this new monster?

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 light of recent events this notion of an emerging Empire gives us, now more than ever, a framework for understanding why imperialism cannot succeed today, and specifically why the Bush Administration’s unilateral projects in Iraq and elsewhere are failures. No single power can be successful in this situation without paying attention to the internal dynamics of Empire and gaining the collaboration of others–not only the other dominant nation-states but also the subordinated nation-states, the supranational institutions, corporations and so forth. This does not suggest that the various collaborating powers in this network are equal. The United States undoubtedly is and will remain for the near future the dominant nation-state of the network. It simply means that no power can go it alone.

The current US strategy in dealing with Iran is one sign that some sectors of the Administration have glimpsed this new reality. At least temporarily, the Bush Administration has abandoned its unilateralist stance on Iran and is collaborating with Europe, Russia and China. This is an experiment, of course, that may quickly be reversed, but it indicates that in the face of past failures, Washington feels the pressure to develop wider collaborations to achieve a stable global order.

The internal dynamic of Empire is analogous to a collaboration between a monarch and a group of aristocrats. The monarch in most cases today is the US government, but in some cases it’s the IMF or other powers that act monarchically. The aristocratic powers in this analogy include the other nation-states of various levels, the corporations, the supranational institutions and various nongovernmental organizations. This analogy helps, first, to draw attention to the hierarchies among these powers in the ruling structure and, second, highlights the fact that the monarch cannot act unilaterally, depending constantly on the aristocrats, among other things, to finance its wars and pay its debts. The Bush Administration thought it could dictate the terms of global order unilaterally, but it was a monarch who failed to gain the support of the aristocrats and was thus doomed to failure.

This analogy also helps us understand the progressive strategic role of some of the regional alliances of nation-states that have emerged in recent years. The aristocrats can in many ways, especially when they band together, dictate to the monarch the terms of the imperial arrangement. One of the most visible and successful operations of this sort was carried out by the so-called Group of 22, led by Brazil, which blocked the 2003 WTO meetings in Cancún. The recent coalition of Latin American states that blocked the FTAA is another example. 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.

Autonomy and Interdependence

What good is it, though, if some group of aristocratic forces, some alliance of nation-states, succeeds in transforming the imperial arrangement in its favor? Such aristocratic struggles, even when they are progressive, should never be mistaken for democracy. Empire, however it is arranged internally, is still a form of domination and exploitation, still a structure to facilitate and guarantee the profits of global capital. Why should we care, then, about these contests between monarchs and aristocrats? One answer, to continue with our analogy, is that when confronting the monarch, aristocracies can have significant progressive effects for the entire global order and for their own countries. 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. But if we take a longer view we can see, as a second answer, that such aristocratic forces are important insofar as, by changing the imperial arrangement, they favor the increase of the power of the multitude. The ultimate significance of progressive alliances of subordinated nation-states, in other words, will be realized only to the extent that they facilitate the eventual destruction of Empire (including the aristocracies themselves) and allow the multitude to create a democracy from below.

When I say “increase of the power of the multitude,” I mean something in line with the long history of political projects to transfer power to the people. Using the concept of multitude, however, does indicate some important differences. First of all, “the people” refers to a unitary whole that inevitably obscures or excludes portions of the population. Multitude highlights, instead, the real and important differences among us in terms of gender, race, culture, geography, economic position and other factors. Recognizing such differences need not lead to fragmentation and weakness but rather can pose the conditions for strategies of interdependence and cooperation. Second, “the people” designates a national identity: the Algerian or the Mexican or the Indian people. And indeed the primary and most powerful response to imperialism throughout the centuries was national liberation–that is, the liberation of the national people. One consequence of the fact that imperialism is over is that the era of national liberation has come to an end. Multitude helps us conceive of a nonnational liberation–a form of struggle both below and beyond the national people to create regional and even global movements of interdependence.

The aims of many of the most creative social movements of recent years correspond to these qualities highlighted by the concept of the multitude. Consider, just for a few examples, the social movements that have emerged so powerfully in Latin America. The Zapatista movement in Mexico, which has served as a reference point for the continent and beyond, experiments with local autonomy in relation to regional and even global networks of interdependence. The Zapatistas manage to confront the most local questions of racism and poverty while taking aim at NAFTA and other instruments of international and global capital. Similarly, in the great Bolivian social battles since 2000 over water and gas–which while challenging foreign corporations and rigid structures of racial exclusion swept a new government to power–the different social groups in struggle remain autonomous while establishing powerful networks of interdependence. Álvaro García Linera, the vice president, calls these horizontal coordinations of indigenous communities with various sectors of labor the “multitude form.” Movements focused more directly on labor and property issues also share these qualities and emphasize that autonomy requires equality. One of the great contributions, for instance, of the Unemployed Workers Movement in Argentina is its critique of the political hierarchy between waged and unwaged workers, between the employed and the unemployed. The Landless Workers Movement in Brazil also struggles for the inclusion and political equality of those poor agriculturalists who have long been excluded from or subordinated in national politics. These are the kinds of multitudinous experiments that a new generation of social movements has been inventing in Latin America and throughout the world.

We should recognize, first of all, that these movements are not really designed to confront US imperialism, as liberation struggles were in decades past, or simply to forge and liberate a national people or reinforce national sovereignty. Instead, their guiding principles are autonomy and interdependence, below and above the national border. (From the perspective of these movements, then, and with a view to the long run, one might say that the most powerful and novel element in Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution is not the anti-imperialist stance of the president but the development of autonomous movements in the barrios of Caracas–and I imagine Hugo Chávez himself would agree with this assessment.) Second, these are all anti-capitalist movements but ones that reason not in terms of national capital or US capital but in global perspective. They do not ignore the power of the United States but neither do they overestimate it: It is one element in the network of imperial power, a monarch constrained by various aristocrats. Finally, although many of these movements were instrumental in bringing progressive governments to power and benefit from their actions, none of them are willing to exchange their dreams for the promise of a just nation. In fact, the relation between progressive governments and powerful social movements is one of the most complex and urgent issues in Latin America today.

Movements like these have taken the baton from the national liberation movements of the past and carry today the hope for democracy. They clearly realize, though, that anti-imperialist methods are no longer adequate for the fight. There is a new monster out there, and we need new strategies and new weapons to confront it.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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