[Reader-list] Imperialism and "Empire" by John Bellamy Foster

Harsh Kapoor aiindex at mnet.fr
Wed Dec 5 01:31:48 IST 2001

John Bellamy Foster, "Imperialism and 'Empire'," _Monthly Review_
53.7 at <http://www.monthlyreview.org/1201jbf.htm>.

... The term "Empire" in [Michael] Hardt and [Antonio] Negri's
analysis does not refer to imperialist domination of the periphery by
the center, but to an all-encompassing entity that recognizes no
limiting territories or boundaries outside of itself. In its heyday,
"imperialism," they claim, "was really an extension of the
sovereignty of the European nation-states beyond their own
boundaries" (p. xii). Imperialism or colonialism in this sense is now
dead. But Hardt and Negri also pronounce the death of the new
colonialism: economic domination and exploitation by the industrial
powers without direct political control. They insist that all forms
of imperialism, insofar as they represent restraints on the
homogenizing force of the world market, are doomed by that very
market. Empire is thus both "postcolonial and postimperialist" (p.
9). "Imperialism," we are told, "is a machine of global striation,
channeling, coding, and territorializing the flows of capital,
blocking certain flows and facilitating others. The world market, in
contrast, requires a smooth space of uncoded and deterritorialized
flows imperialism would have been the death of capital had it not
been overcome. The full realization of the world market is
necessarily the end of imperialism" (p. 333).

Concepts such as center and periphery, these authors argue, are now
all but useless. "Through the decentralization of production and the
consolidation of the world market, the international divisions and
flows of labor and capital have fractured and multiplied so that it
is no longer possible to demarcate large geographical zones as center
and periphery, North and South." There are "no differences of nature"
between the United States and Brazil, Britain and India, "only
differences of degree" (p. 335).*

Also gone is the notion of U.S. imperialism as a central force in the
world today. "The United States," they write, "does not, and indeed
no nation-state can today, form the center of an imperialist project.
Imperialism is over. No nation will be world leader in the way modern
European nations were." (pp. xiii-xiv). "The Vietnam War," Hardt and
Negri state, "might be seen as the final moment of the imperialist
tendency and thus a point of passage to a new regime of the
Constitution" (pp. 178-79). This passage to a new global
constitutional regime is shown by the Gulf War, during which the
United States emerged "as the only power able to manage international
justice, not as a function of its own national motives but in the
name of global right .The U.S. world police acts not in imperialist
interest but in imperial interest [that is, in the interest of
deterritorialized Empire]. In this sense the Gulf War did indeed, as
George Bush claimed, announce the birth of a new world order" (p.

Empire, the name they give to this new world order, is a product of
the struggle over sovereignty and constitutionalism at the global
level in an age in which a new global Jeffersonianism -- the
expansion of the U.S. constitutional form into the global realm --
has become possible. Local struggles against Empire are opposed by
these authors, who believe that the struggle now is simply over the
form globalization will take -- and the extent to which Empire will
live up to its promise of bringing to fruition "the global expansion
of the internal U.S. constitutional project" (p. 182). Their argument
supports the efforts of the "multitude against Empire" -- that is,
the struggle of the multitude to become an autonomous political
subject -- yet this can only take place, they argue, within "the
ontological conditions that Empire presents" (p. 407).

So much for today's more fashionable views. I would now like to turn
to the decidedly unfashionable. In contrast to Empire, István
Mészáros' new book Socialism or Barbarism represents in many ways the
height of unfashionability -- even on the left.* Instead of promising
a new universalism arising potentially out of the capitalist
globalization process if only it takes the right form, Mészáros
argues that the perpetuation of a system dominated by capital would
guarantee precisely the opposite: "Despite its enforced
'globalization,' capital's incurably iniquitous system is
structurally incompatible with universality in any meaningful sense
of the term .there can be no universality in the social world without
substantive equality" (pp. 10-11)....

..."[T]he capital system is articulated as a jungle-like network of
contradictions that can only be more or less successfully managed for
some time but never definitively overcome" (p. 13). Among the
principal contradictions that are insurmountable within capitalism
are those between: (1) production and its control; (2) production and
consumption; (3) competition and monopoly; (4) development and
underdevelopment (center and periphery); (5) world economic expansion
and intercapitalist rivalry; (6) accumulation and crisis; (7)
production and destruction; (8) the domination of labor and
dependence on labor; (9) employment and unemployment; and (10) growth
of output at all costs and environmental destruction.* "It is quite
inconceivable to overcome even a single one of these contradictions,"
Mészáros observes," let alone their inextricably combined network,
without instituting a radical alternative to capital's mode of social
metabolic control" (pp. 13-14).

According to this analysis, the period of capitalism's historic
ascendance has now ended. Capitalism has expanded throughout the
globe, but in most of the world it has produced only enclaves of
capital. There is no longer any promise of the underdeveloped world
as a whole "catching-up" economically with the advanced capitalist
countries -- or even of sustained economic and social advance in most
of the periphery. Living conditions of the vast majority of workers
are declining globally. The long structural crisis of the system,
since the 1970s, prevents capital from effectively coping with its
contradictions, even temporarily. The extraneous help offered by the
state is no longer sufficient to boost the system. Hence, capital's
"destructive uncontrollability" -- its destruction of previous social
relations and its inability to put anything sustainable in their
place -- is coming more and more to the fore (pp. 19, 61).

At the core of Mészáros' argument is the proposition that we are now
living within what is "the potentially deadliest phase of
imperialism" (the title of the second chapter of his book).
Imperialism, he says, can be divided into three distinct historical
phases: (1) early modern colonialism, (2) the classic phase of
imperialism as depicted by Lenin, and (3) global hegemonic
imperialism, with the U.S. as its dominant force. The third phase was
consolidated following the Second World War, but it became "sharply
pronounced" with the onset of capital's structural crisis in the
1970s (p. 51)....

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