Leo Panitch & Sam Gindin ‘American imperialism… has been made plausible and attractive in part by the insistence that it is not imperialistic.’ Harold Innis, 19481 I The American empire is no longer concealed. In March 1999, the cover of the New York Times Magazine displayed a giant clenched fist painted in the stars and stripes of the US flag above the words: ‘What The World Needs Now: For globalization to work, America can’t be afraid to act like the almighty superpower that it is’. Thus was featured Thomas Friedman’s ‘Manifesto for a Fast World’, which urged the United States to embrace its role as enforcer of the capitalist global order: ‘…the hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist…. The hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies is called the United States Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.’ Four years later, in January 2003, when there was no longer any point in pretending the fist was hidden, the whole cover of the Magazine featured an essay by Michael Ignatieff with the words, ‘The American Empire: Get Used It ’: ‘…[W]hat word but “empire” describes the awesome thing that America is becoming? …Being an imperial power… means enforcing such order as there is in the world and doing so in the American interest.’2 Of course, the American state’s geopolitical strategists had already taken this tack. Among those closest to the Democratic Party wing of the state, Zbigniew Brzezinski did not mince words in his 1997 book, The Grand Chessboard: American
Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives, asserting that ‘the three great imperatives of geo-political strategy are to prevent collusion and maintain security dependence amongst the vassals, to keep tributaries pliant, and to keep the barbarians from coming together.’3 In the same year the Republican intellectuals who eventually would write the Bush White House’s National Security Strategy founded the Project for a New American Century, with the goal of making imperial statecraft the explicit guiding principle of American policy.4 Most of what passes more generally for serious analysis in justifying the use of the term ‘empire’ in relation to the US today is really just an analogy, implicit or explicit, with imperial Rome. On the face of it, as with Brzezinski’s terminology, this is by no means absurd since ‘Romanization’ could indeed be understood as the assimilation of the conquered nations to Roman culture and political worldview. The conquered became partners in running the empire. It was a selective process that applied directly only to the upper level of subject societies but it trickled down to all classes with benefits for some, negative consequences for others…. Roman supremacy was based on a masterful combination of violence and psychological persuasion – the harshest punishment for those who challenged it, the perception that their power knew no limits and that rewards were given to those who conformed.5 But an analogy is not a theory. The neglect of any serious political economy or pattern of historical determination that would explain the emergence and reproduction of today’s American empire, and the dimensions of structural oppression and exploitation pertaining to it, is striking. This serves as a poignant reminder of why it was Marxism that made the running in theorizing imperialism for most of the 20th century. Yet as a leading Indian Marxist, Prabhat Patnaik said in his essay ‘Whatever Happened to Imperialism?’, by 1990 the topic had ‘virtually disappeared from the pages of Marxist journals’ and even Marxists looked ‘bemused when the term is mentioned.’ The costs of
this were severe for the left. The concept of imperialism has always been especially important as much for its emotive and mobilizing qualities as for its analytic ones. Indeed, in Patnaik’s view, rather than ‘a theoretically self-conscious silence’, it was the ‘very fact that...