There is no American Empire, and American power is not a source of good in the world

The final portion of the series of posts looking at the perception of American Empire in the last few decades focuses on the perspective that US dominance in the last decade of the 20th and first decade of the 21st century was ultimately not a good thing for most people in the world, but nevertheless argue this domination did not constitute an empire. This viewpoint takes two forms based on similar assumption about the obsolescence of imperialism: 1) the “Neo-Marxist” perspective that American power during this era was part of a new global authority comprised of the concentrations of global capital and the social forces they control and 2) what can be loosely called “post-structural” critics who suggest an age of expanding diversity renders American power, for all its visible might, illusory, disorganized, and incoherent.

The first perspective belongs almost solely to the work of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, who distinguish their own theory of Empire, defined in its most generic way as “a series of national and supranational organisms united under a single logic of rule,”[1] from traditional state-centric imperialism. The “empire” of Hardt and Negri’s conception is a structure of rule and control that functions by bringing together a collection of powerful transnational institutions, powerful states and their attendant militaries, hegemonic organizational and corporate frameworks and planetary communications platforms. What binds these various elements together is what might be described as a “consensus of truth” around the globalization of liberal capitalism and its moral superiority over all possible alternatives. While the United States has a privileged role in this assemblage of power, the nature of the global “imperial” network, with its fluidity and flexibility of its most vital components (i.e. the ability to function even if one part of the network is compromised of malfunctioning) means that “empire” is no longer headquartered in one state—nor is the imperial project the attempt by a single state to globalize their rule. Globalization may be described as “Americanization” of global governance, but Hardt and Negri argue this is an incorrect interpretation. Indeed, as time has passed and the world entered the third decade of the 21st century, the power and influence of the United States appears to be on the wane. The election of Donald Trump has signaled some contradictions in US domestic politics that suggest that the US state may not have the stomach for permanent global overseas commitments (if it ever had them in the first place) while the rise of China suggests the US would struggle to maintain its imperial project on the same footing as the previous decades.

The argument in Empire is also a discussion of rethinking the traditional Marxist narrative of class antagonisms in a new era when many of the conditions Marx described are no longer applicable. Perhaps the most controversial of proposals from Hardt and Negri is the idea that the agent of social and political change is no longer the industrial working class, but a similarly networked global subaltern they dub the “multitude.” The multitude is a heterogeneous mixture of people who experience the alienation of “empire” in their own unique ways. The fragmented nature of globalization and its scattering of global production has produced a agent of resistance who is equally scattered in their encountered and participations within empire. They are not merely producers that build the empire through their alienated labor, but also consumers, investors, voters and other functionaries who perform multiple hybrid roles. Focusing in on the “working class” is an obsolete way of thinking about power dynamics in the empire of the 21st century.

There is no need to go into more detail with Hardt and Negri’s argument here. The point being made is that American Empire as it is usually discussed is a flawed and misleading concept. Empire exists to be sure, and the United States has an enormous role to play in it—perhaps the most important role. But this new structure of global sovereignty and power is not American Empire—just Empire.

The other viewpoint considered here is far messier than the more regimented account of global power on display by Hardt and Negri. This other perspective is best captured by Michael Mann in the book Incoherent Empire.[2] This approach sees the United States as a “disturbed, misshapen monster stumbling clumsily across the world. It means well.  It intends to spread order and benevolence, but instead it creates more disorder and violence.” American clumsiness is due in part to the rise of competing centers of power in Europe (when the European Union looked more formidable) and China that share enough in common with the United States to avoid its full chagrin, but nevertheless offer alternative methods of social organization that infringe on the American self-perception of exceptionability. The move into Iraq in 2003 (and subsequently in Libya in 2011 and Syria after that) are not the result of an organized imperial blueprint or coherent ideology, but a knee-jerk reaction to the normal socio-economic and political turmoil in the world. Because of its huge military and insecure self-image, US intervention overseas and its efforts to at times to dictate politics and policy to certain countries is not evidence of empire, but of confusion and anxiety about the place of the US in the world. The death and destruction that result from the dubious acts of US intervention in the last few decades is not due to an inherent evil vision among US leadership and its animating ideologies, but is better understood as the effects of incompetence, bewilderment and insecurity. This argument is not offered up as excuse for these acts, merely to take some of the Manichaeism out of many of the critiques of US foreign policy.

In exploring these differing viewpoints of American power and alleged American empire, perhaps the real takeaway is that all these perspectives are probably obsolete. The contradiction of US power in the Trump era is the desire to “make America great again” while eschewing many of the things that historically are required to be “great.” Leadership in addressing the world’s toughest challenges is usually on that list, but the US has taken a back seat in many of these crucial discussions. Part of this might have to do with the nature of these challenges—global climate change, coronavirus pandemics, and global inequality are not the kind of problems that can be solved with brute military force. They require cooperation, compromise and coalition-building and the measure of success is not victory on a battlefield that translates easily into nationalist myth-making and propagandistic narratives but silent consensus for which it may take decades to experience the material effects.

What is lost in this is that by this new standard, the United States could be great again. Several generations in the future, the world might marvel at the crucial leadership the US exercised to curb the emission of greenhouse gases, willingly making dramatic cuts in its output of carbon dioxide and methane despite the fact there was not treaty obligation to do so and inspiring (or shaming) other rich states to do the same. It could marshal its still substantial productive capacity to produce vast amounts of medical equipment and export them at low cost to the rest of the world to confront the current coronavirus pandemic and lay the groundwork for a genuinely global response to future outbreaks. It could lead the way in creating an international tax facility to fund sustainable development programs around the world to reduce the ever-yawning gap between rich and poor in a world of unprecedented wealth creation. The surplus of soft power the US enjoyed at the end of World War II (when many begin the historical clock with regards to the existence of an American Empire) could be exceeded by a factor of 100 if the US showed leadership on these issues, in essence confirming some of the arguments from the first portion of this discussion whereby American Empire, such that it existed, would be a genuine benefit for the world. Yet none of the four perspectives looked over the past few posts have really seen American power in this way, suggesting the American Empire, such that is existed, has collapsed.

     [1] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambrdige, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), xii.

     [2] Michael Mann, Incoherent Empire (London: Verso, 2004).

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