The Crisis of the Spectacle After Trump

With the election of Joe Biden to the office of President of the United States, the reign of the world’s most spectacular head of state comes to an end. The legacy of the Trump term will likely be debated for years to come with little prospect for any immediate consensus on what this long strange trip of a presidency means in the greater historical context of the current era (and this of course, looks past the fact that Trump could regain the White House in 2024 as part of a “comeback special” that would fit very well within the television-oriented mindset Trump operates.[1])

Within the society of the spectacle, however, a greater crisis looms. Whatever one thought of Trump’s manners, leadership style or policies, his place at the center of the world’s political universe was a boon to the various media outlets that covered, commented or criticized the comings and goings of the 45th President. Traditional cable news channels like Fox News and Fox Business Channel became a magic mirror for Trump to stand in front of and be paid flattering comments from the networks’ sycophantic reporters. Even more profoundly, the upstart One American News Network, which came into existence a few years before Trump’s election, flailed in obscurity until it re-oriented itself as the unofficial mouthpiece of the Trump administration.[2] Meanwhile, several broadcast and print platforms took to performing a critical role in the face of what was seen by traditional elites as a quasi-authoritarian Trump government and heavily scrutinized Trump’s policies (such that they existed) and disparaged his surly demeanor. The most noteworthy examples of this included the evening programs of Chris Hayes, Rachael Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell on MSNBC, Anderson Cooper and Don Lemmon on CNN and the written print columns of Jonathan Chait and Paul Krugman in the New York Times (among countless others). And these represent just the mass media outlets—the online blogs, websites, podcasts and social media accounts that reveled in or reviled all things Trump are too numerous to count.  

The result of this fawning programming and critical counter-programming was enormous profits for the various media companies involved. While Fox News had long generated a small windfall of revenue as the informational safe space for ideological opponents of Obama, cable news outlets like CNN and MSNBC as well as the regular news operations of NBC, ABC and CBS and news and opinion web and social media sites enjoyed a flood of new viewers and subscribers who liked the daily castigations of all things Trump. Especially when the Russiagate scandal broke, viewers eager to see Trump get his comeuppance for his alleged clandestine ties to Vladimir Putin (or see these allegations explained away by Trump-friendly personalities) swelled the ratings for news media operations that were used to having audiences smaller than those that watched coverage of soccer matches in foreign countries. In a comment that has gained a certain amount of infamy at this point, Les Moonves, who was president of CBS network in 2016, said regarding Trump’s antics in the presidential primary race, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”[3] Few statements capture the idea Debord was talking about when he said in thesis 34 of The Society of the Spectacle that the spectacle is “capital accumulated to the point that it becomes images.”[4]

But now Trump is gone and the question now is what will the spectacle offer in his place that sustains the new expectations of the contemporary media political economy? The specialty of the spectacle, as Debrod describes it, “is the concrete manufacture of alienation. (…) The “growth” generated by the economy developing for its own sake can be nothing other than a growth in the very alienation that was its origin.”[5] What Debord is suggesting here is that economic growth requires the creation of an ever greater gap between the material reality of the present-day assemblage of power and the lived experience of that reality by the general masses. For example, a complicated discussion of the material reality of wealth disparity and who is responsible for the creation such disparities is rarely provided among the spectacle’s leading institutions in favor of sweeter and more digestible treats of scandal and salaciousness. Even before Trump’s arrival on the scene of presidential politics, the coverage of political campaigns assumed a reality-show like structure that emphasized sports-talk style analysis of each candidates “electability” and the meticulous delving into every action and statement by the candidates in the hopes of unearthing a bouillon cube of controversy that could be made into a full soup of scandal. The complexities of the world and the forces that vie for control within it rarely receive illumination. The result, as Debord argues, is an individual that may make a good-faith effort to understand the world around them, but “the more he contemplates, the less he lives, the more he identifies with the dominant image, the less he understands his own life and his own desires.”[6]

Trump upended this process not by withholding controversy, but by controlling it and serving it up to serve his interests. Like passing motorists that cannot help but stop to gaze at a car crash, Trump instinctually seemed to know that media institutions, desperate for ratings and viewers, could not help but point their cameras at him and cover whatever faux car crash he conjured through his outrageous statements, rude insults and shameless braggadocio. Audiences that watched this pageant unfold increasingly began to identify with some element of this alienated presentation. Some drawn by Trump’s supreme confidence and aggression toward elites and “liberals” found themselves increasingly devoted to supporting him and his success even though what little in the way of policy he offered was unlikely to benefit them materially. Conversely, those who found his antics repugnant were entranced by tropes of resistance fighters struggling against a fascist dictator or concocting elaborate spy-novel like scenarios that made Trump to be a secret asset of clandestine Russian intrigue. What both these approaches to Trump had in common was their fabrication within the framework of the spectacle, the growth of the financial benefits of the primary institutions of the spectacle (media outlets, political fundraising operations, etc.) and the deepening alienation of those who consumed the pageant.

Which brings us back to the looming crisis. What will the spectacle do now that Trump appears to be on the way out? If the spectacle is capital accumulated to the point at which it becomes an image, and capital itself, as David Harvey paraphrasing Marx argues, “cannot abide a limit,” then we should expect some new contrived abomination conjured up by the spectacle to overcome this new obstacle.[7] What follows are three possibilities among countless others.

  1. The Second Coming. Donald Trump eventually and reluctantly accepts that he has lost the election. He vacates the White House without formally conceding his defeat and still insists massive fraud was the reason why he lost. He makes no overtures or gestures to the incoming Biden Administration and spends his last weeks in office doing a kind of “farewell tour” where he teases the idea that he will run again in 2024—a statement that delights his still substantial following. In the succeeding months, Trump becomes a staple on conservative and insurgent right media, even hosting a show on One American News Network where he viciously savages Biden and the Democrats and occasionally does live mass rallies which continue to be well attended. After the midterm election in 2022, he declares his intention to run for president in 2024 and a similar series of events unfold as in 2016—wall to wall coverage of primary debates as Trump swats away “mainstream” Republicans who campaign on the promise to bring “dignity back to the Republican Party” but gain no real traction in the face of Trump’s usual antics. Choosing some media personality like Mike Lindell (the My Pillow guy) or Kanye West, Trump easily gains the Republican nomination and is poised to reclaim the White House. Left-oriented media outlets and operations resume their familiar position as banner-carriers of the so-called “resistance.”
  2. Fragmentation and Internecine Warfare. Trump continues to insist he is not going to concede the race and even refuses to vacate the White House as Inauguration Day approaches. This obstinacy alienates many members of MAGA nation, especially those in more elite perches who are worried about their ability to secure gainful top-level employment with elite law firms, think tanks and consulting groups. Many of these personalities go on Fox News to express their displeasure to the consternation of more hard-core Trump surrogates who launch their own broadsides against these traitors on the more fringe media outlets like One American News Network and Newsmax. As Biden takes the oath of office, conservatives find themselves in a savage process of ideological cleansing where once stalwart Republicans–including those members of the Lincoln Project–are accused of being communists or socialists. Meanwhile, though things seem calmer on the left side of the spectrum, certain vocal online voices begin to demand a purging of their own—starting with what many are calling an out of touch ruling gerontocracy in the Democratic Party that includes Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. News outlets like MSNBC rush to the defense of establishment figures of the technocratic center, but they suffer from a thousand small cuts from the podcasting and social media universe encouraging key progressive elected politicians to stall and block any legislation that is deemed too tepid and timid. A massive conflagration of endless guerilla media attacks on both the left and right are funded by thousands of Patreon and Substack subscriptions while legacy media struggles to survive in a spectacle where everyone must pick a side in order to survive.
  3. The Chosen One. Finally realizing that all his legal posturing is not going to give him the results he wants, a dejected Trump concedes the race and very somberly and sadly goes through the rituals of the hand over of power to Joe Biden. The sight of a defeated Trump briefly causes despair among the MAGA nation before a series of cryptic messages from obscure message boards loosely connected with the QAnon phenomenon begin to speak of a “chosen one” who is the real messiah of the conservative movement and will complete the work that Trump began—a kind of Jesus Christ to Trump’s John the Baptist. Depression and sadness quickly turn to joy and anticipation as far right media speculate who will fulfill the prophecy–perhaps a well-connected media figure like Tucker Carlson or an upstart fire-eater like newly elected Colorado Congresswoman Lauren Boebert. Media tied to evangelical Christianity will get into the act as well, blending apocryphal Bible prophecy with key conservative policy issues. But most spectacular of all will be the attempts to paint political figures on the left as agents of Satan—lightning rod figures like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar will be invoked in select churches and suburban barbeques around the country as tools of the devil resulting in an avalanche of online threats and even a few assassination attempts. As the presidential race begins in 2022, many Republicans will attempt to claim the mantle of the chosen one, but as with most Messianism, a consensus on who the chosen one actually is never emerges. Nevertheless, this discourse of a chosen one fills countless hours of programming on cable news networks, radio programs and a wide array of podcasts, blogs and social media accounts.   

[1] https://www.vulture.com/2017/01/donald-trumps-tv-rating-obsession-a-history.html

[2] Indeed, some of Trump’s cohort outside of the government have floated the idea of purchasing the channel. See Chung, Juliet; Driebusch, Corrie; Ballhaus, Rebecca (January 10, 2020). “Trump Allies Explore Buyout of Conservative Channel Seeking to Compete With Fox News”.The Wall Street Journal.

[3] https://www.politico.com/blogs/on-media/2016/10/cbs-ceo-les-moonves-clarifies-donald-trump-good-for-cbs-comment-229996

[4] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (Berkeley, CA: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2014), 11.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 10-11.

[7] David Harvey, The Enigma of Capital (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press: 2010), 47.

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).

American Empire Exists, But It Is Not A Force For Good in the World

Previous posts have sought to scratch the surface of thought about US foreign policy within the context of the now dormant question of American Empire. The first post on this topic briefly discussed those thinkers that believed American Empire was real and that is was a force for goodness in the world as well as hope for improving the lot of other states and societies in other parts of the world—a sort of mission civilsatrice updated for the American Century. The second post agreed that American power was a good thing, but that the use of this power as well as the global structure from which it came did not constitute an “empire” in any classical or academic sense. To be sure, American hegemony exists, but empire practiced in the manner of British or French imperialisms of the past were in no way applicable.[1]

This post samples perspectives who agree with the first set of ideas arguing for that American Empire is a reality in some form, but makes a sharp disagreement with the idea that American power represents a good thing in the world or is necessary to maintain any form of global order—imperial or otherwise. Indeed, the samples here generally see the projection of American power (especially military power) in a very negative light. These perspectives include what one might understand as the continuation of the Maxists-Leninist critique of imperialism, the “paleoconservative” critics of US foreign-policy interventionism, and a category one might label as “progressive internationalists” and “liberal anti-interventionists.” Together, they constitute one of the more diverse blocs of thought on the ontology and morality of American Empire.

The Marxist-Leninist perspective represented here flows from Vladimir Lenin’s critique of capitalism and the imperatives it places on the state for imperial expansion made famous in his pamphlet Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism.[2] In a nutshell, Lenin’s argument asserts that as capitalism progresses to its more advanced stages where competition between various commercial and banking concerns becomes ever more intense while profits become ever less abundant, will seek out foreign opportunities to escape saturated domestic markets and once more reap substantial profits. But these foreign opportunities are often fraught with danger—both from local native populations who resist foreign intrusion as well as from competing concerns from other countries seeking their own overseas windfalls. The state, which is famously described by Marx as being an “executive committee”[3] for bourgeoise, uses its military force to protect these commercial endeavors from the variety of these threats before more permanent arrangements are made (which can range from establishing settler colonies, formally annexing foreign territory, or working with local intermediaries to establish a framework of business-friendly rule and governance). Lenin’s argument is, among other things, an attempt to explain the outbreak of World War I and why this war, as least for Lenin at the time, was straw that would break the camel’s back in terms of bringing down the bourgeoise regimes of Europe. Unfortunately for Lenin, while revolution did arrive in Russia, it never fully materialized in the rest of Europe, even after the war ended.

For latter day critics of American foreign policy, this failed prediction on the part of Lenin, did undermine the larger critique he made in Imperialism. For much of the Cold War, writers like Harry Magdoff sustained a voice of radical critique of US foreign policy, which he dubbed “imperialism without colonies.” This form of imperialism, Magdoff argued, deployed other forms of governance and institutions beside direct political rule to economically exploit the natural resources and consumer markets of countries outside of Europe and North America, including conditional development assistance, unequal trading arrangements, and military bases that together constitute a “new imperialism.”[4]  In the wake of the attacks of September 11th, Robert Bellamy Foster borrowed from this strand of thought to characterize much of the transformations in US foreign policy taking place in the heady days after the attack as a need to reconsolidate and reorganize American interests overseas to protect capital investment (especially in Middle East oil infrastructure) and legitimize new waves of military interventions under the banner of humanitarianism.[5]

Taking a radically different path, but no less coarse in the their criticism, are the so-called paleo-conservatives. Represented most auspiciously by Patrick Buchanan, paleo-conservatives come at the idea of American Empire from a much less philosophical view. Instead, the problem of American foreign policy is one of elite policy errors brought about by a rejection or ignorance of the founding principles of the United States as expressed in key early documents like George Washington’s Farewell Address.[6] Because of this detachment from this original founding myths, the United States has, to mutate the title from one of Buchanan’s most famous book, transformed from a republic to an empire.[7] Instead of spending gargantuan amounts of money overseas to protect assets belonging to economic and cultural elites, US foreign policy should reduce or eliminate its global footprint and focus on developing the national economy alongside a national spirit and identity (with rhetoric that often features racial and other prejudicial overtones). Certain staunch libertarian activists also fit into this category, including Republican gadfly Ron Paul, who wrote with regards to foreign policy that, “setting a good example is a far better way to spread ideals than through force of arms.”[8] Ron’s son Rand continues to uphold this tradition in the Senate.

The final category of US foreign policy critics who see the United States as an Empire to the detriment of the itself and the rest of the world can be labeled as anti-interventionist. The main argumentative thrust of this perspective is that while the US should be engaged with the rests of the world diplomatically and economically, the propensity for US foreign policy elites and popular ignorance (or support in the form of patriotic bravado) to use its enormous military power as tool for realizing its interests creates what Andrew Bacevich calls “an imperial tense” that creates as many problems for global stability than it solves.[9] Perhaps the most visible adherent of this viewpoint is Noam Chomsky, who has published a series of books that often feature harsh critiques of US foreign policy and its role in creating or exacerbating global conflicts. For example, in Hegemony or Survival, Chomsky places events like the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq in a larger historical context going back to the early twentieth century and the frequent interventions in Latin America and the Caribbean to argue that the terrorist attacks of 9-11 did not change US foreign policy in any genuine or substantive way. Foreign intervention and empire-building were always in the DNA of US foreign policy and the “war on terror” that began after 9-11 is merely a rebranding of the same set of ideas and actions.[10]

This category also includes a collection of former military officers who, in the spirit of former Marine Smedley Butler, have written scathing critiques of US foreign policy and often use the words “empire” and “imperialism” in their arguments (even if they don’t offer any comprehensive definition of these terms).[11] During the late 90s and early 00s, one of the most prolific writers in this vein was Chalmers Johnson, who most famously invoked the term “blowback” to describe the consequences of an overreliance on US military force as a tool that could solve any and all foreign policy woes. While engagement with the world diplomatically remained crucial, Johnson argued, “the United States should bring most of its overseas land-based forces home and reorient its foreign policy to stress leadership through example and diplomacy.”[12] The aforementioned Andrew Bacevitch has also written eloquently on this topic. He writings range from a pre-9-11 critique of a mistaken bi-partisan foreign policy consensus on the liberal use of American military power to “the spectacle” and celebration of militarism in American society to a critical history of US military intervention in the Middle East.[13]

While no category discussed here can be said to have the ear of major foreign policy decision-makers or constitute an approach to foreign policy in general taken seriously among the halls of power in the United States, they have served a useful role in keeping the idea of American Empire alive in academic and cultural circles. And given President Donald Trump’s apparent aversion for foreign policy adventurism, especially as it pertains to his condemnations of the invasion of Iraq, it is perhaps possible a few of the ideas expressed here, especially by the likes of Johnson and Bacevich, made it to his ears or those of his advisors.

     [1] See Nye, Soft Power, (New York: Public Affairs, 2004).

     [2] Vladimir Lenin, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. Online version available at:  https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1916/imp-hsc/index.htm

     [3] Karl Marx, The Manifesto of the Communist Party available at:  https://marxists.catbull.com/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/ch01.htm

     [4] Harry Magdoff, Imperialism Without Colonies (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2003).

     [5] John Bellamy Foster, Naked Imperialism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2006).

     [6] For George Washington’s Farewell Address, see:  https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/GPO-CDOC-106sdoc21/pdf/GPO-CDOC-106sdoc21.pdf

     [7] Patrick Buchanan, A Republic, Not an Empire (Washington DC., Regnery, 1999).

     [8] Ron Paul, A Foreign Policy of Freedom: Peace, Commerce, and Honest Friendship (Foundation for Rational Economics & Education, 2007).

     [9] Andrew Bacevitch, The Imperial Tense, (Chicago, Ivan R. Dee, 2003).

     [10] Noam Chomsky, Hegemony or Survival (New York: Holt, 2004).

     [11] Smedley Butler was one of the most decorated Marines in US history but who nevertheless came to recognize his frequent deployments were in service to things other than vital US national interests. In War Is a Racket, he famously worte  “I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers.”

     [12] Chalmers Johnson, Blowback: The Cost and Consequences of American Empire (New York: Holt, 2000). See also The Sorrows of Empire (New York: Metropolitan, 2004).

     [13] See Andrew Bacevich, American Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2005), America’s War for the Middle East (New York: Random House, 2016).

 

American Empire Does Not Exist, But American Power Is The Best Hope For the World

This post will renew a thread of thought begun several months ago that contemplated the status of American power in the world. The key line of inquiry centered on the question of American Empire, and whether such a term was accurate or useful in the current assemblage of global politics. The discussion lent itself to four different answers based on how one responded to the questions of whether or not US power was a good thing or bad thing in the world and whether this power constituted an empire of some kind. The last post to address this question briefly explored a double affirmative response to these questions–that American power IS a good and necessary thing for world order and that American power IS an empire. Admittedly, there is not much scrutiny here in terms of whether those who argue for the existence of American Empire are actually describing an empire in the academic sense (something that some academics themselves have claimed is impossible to do)[1] or simply using the term to denote the overwhelming power of the United States—primarily its military power. But whatever the reason for using the term, there is clearly a cross-section of writers and thinkers who believe the US to be some kind of empire.

This post focuses on a similar perspective in terms of those who believe American power is a good thing and necessary for global stability. Yet those who fall into this box are either reluctant to use the term empire or eschew it altogether.

The main group one can identify holding the position of American power being good, but not an empire position is the neoconservatives. While many of what we might term as “hard neoconservatives” occupied the position where they believed American power was empire, these “soft neoconservatives are hostile to this position. Like Max Boot (discussed in a previous post), soft neoconservatives are unapologetic about the enormous righteousness and virtue they believe American power brings to the sphere of global politics, but they refrain from labeling this power imperial. The best examples of these “soft” neo-conservatives arguments come from the words of former officials in the George W. Bush administration who may indeed be more sympathetic to the view of more orthodox “hard” neo-conservatives, but must confront the burden of conveying their ideas in a more conciliatory fashion. Indeed, the credibility of American foreign policy initiatives that purportedly are designed to create and deepen democracy would be frightfully damaged should American overseas conduct come to be seen an imperialistic. Or, as Donald Rumsfeld declared in an interview with Al-Jazeera, “We (the United States) have never been a colonial power. We don’t take our force and go around the world and try to take other people’s resources, their oil….That’s not how democracies behave.” Fuller statements of this position are found in works by David Frum and Richard Perle, though even these seem to be little more than point-by-point defenses of American foreign policy since September 11th. Unfortunately, the more one becomes familiar with the soft neo-conservative vantage point, the more one sees they suffer from the same deficiencies as regular neo-conservatives, namely the inability to maintain a critical perspective on their own ideas and an almost divine belief in the inevitability of their vision.

This is, in an odd way, the current position of Trump and his administration as well. Trump’s rhetoric is full of references to the idea of “America First” and related phrases, but for the most part the language is free from references to a formal “empire” or imperium. Indeed, part of the “America First” disposition is a distancing from some of the imperial hallmarks of the past—including invasions of foreign countries, taking a leading position in international institutions (especially in institutions like NATO) and challenging foreign rivals. Of these past practices of US foreign policy, Trump has been highly critical of the Iraq invasion, has threatened to pull out of NATO, and been friendly with states like North Korea and Russia. He has maintained more hostile positions with China and Iran, but even here, his rhetoric is more about, in his words, “getting a better deal” (on trade with China and a more aggressive nuclear deal with Iran) than a recognition of a perpetual struggle against intractable enemies. On the Iran, issue, Trump has even squelched military actions that likely would have gone forward in the previous administration of Obama or the hypothetical administration of Hilary Clinton.

Yet Trump still believes in the central role of American power in the world. His eschewing of the language of empire does not negate his policies that still see a world where American power is best way of maintaining world order. Trump’s has boosted spending on the military, increasing the amount allocated to the Pentagon by several hundred billion dollars compared to where the budget allocation sat the last year of the Obama presidency. Trump has also directed much at the spending on systems and platforms of an offensive nature.[2] Trump has launched cruise missiles against Syria (in a moment when his normally harsh establishment critics praised him)[3] and rattled the US sabre against Venezuela (perhaps even being persuaded to launch a slow-motion coup in the that state).[4]

The tensions within the current national security apparatus are thus not debates about fundamental values about the role of the United States in the world, but debates about where to tinker with this power. Should the focus be in the Middle East or China? Should the US boost its nuclear capacity or keep it where it is? Should institutions like NATO be a focal point of US power or should the US be more independent and autonomous? Yet despite the differences, the common ground remains the same: American power is the central facet of world order today and maintaining it is the key priority of US foreign policy. But no matter how powerful it, how intrusive it may or may not be, or how much is costs: it is not an empire.

 

 

     [1]  “Imperialism is no word for scholars.” W.K. Hancock quoted in Benjamin J. Cohen, The Question of Imperialism: The Political Economy of Dominance and Dependence (New York: Basic, 1973).

     [2]  https://theweek.com/articles/828753/trump-isnt-rolling-back-american-empire-hes-expanding

     [3]  https://thehill.com/homenews/administration/327779-cnn-host-donald-trump-became-president-last-night

     [4]  https://www.newsweek.com/maduro-trump-venezuela-guaido-1444914

Russiagate and the Spectacle

The release of a summary of the key findings of the Mueller investigation into the alleged malfeasance of Donald Trump has caused a stir in the media world. Though the complete report has yet to be seen, the summary suggests the most tantalizing of the various accusations against Trump—his possible collusion with or being an agent of Russia—is either untrue or cannot be sufficiently proven given the information uncovered by the two-year probe. All this despite the fact that much of the news media, especially those outlets and personalities who have taken an oppositional or “resistance” stance with regard to the Trump presidency, have been weaving an intricate narrative of a complicated and clandestine plot that, once discovered by the Mueller investigation, would result in multiple arrests of Trump’s family and inner circle, the impeachment and removal of Trump from the White House and possibly a prosecution of the now deposed president on charges as grave as treason. With the release of the summary, however, it appears that these narratives were mostly fantasies brought about by wishful thinking or projections of suppressed shame and guilt on the part of a portion of the media industry unable to confront its role in bringing Trump to power in the first place.

A handful of writers skeptical of these narratives (and who feel a certain sense of vindication in what the summary report suggests) have suggested the media’s behavior throughout the entire Russiagate hullabaloo resembles the last time American (and to certain extent Western) media collectively adopted and mutually reinforced a dubious narrative about a major news event—the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in weeks and months leading up to the invasion in 2003. There, most of the major news media outlets disconnected their critical capacities and largely repeated and amplified the standard story about Saddam Hussein developing a sophisticated weapons of mass destruction program and a series of crafty platforms of deploying it (including remote-controlled drones). This narrative proved to be an essential component of the larger myth of justification for the invasion that succeeded into creating majority support for the invasion among both politicians and the general public. It was only later, when the invasion bogged down into a chaotic occupation and the popular jingoistic fever dream that accompanies the opening days of war subsided, was it revealed that no weapons of mass destruction were found and the supposedly rock-solid intelligence that was proof of their existence was a corrupt combination of speculation, dubious sourcing and outright falsehood.

But as bad as this episode was in terms of demonstrating the gullibility and groupthink of the media, the journalist Matt Taibbi thinks the Russia controversy is worse:

As a purely journalistic failure, however, WMD was a pimple compared to Russiagate. The sheer scale of the errors and exaggerations this time around dwarfs the last mess. Worse, it’s led to most journalists accepting a radical change in mission. We’ve become sides-choosers, obliterating the concept of the press as an independent institution whose primary role is sorting fact and fiction.

Taibbi then concludes:

We had the sense to eventually look inward a little in the WMD affair, which is the only reason we escaped that episode with any audience left. Is the press even capable of that kind of self-awareness now? WMD damaged our reputation. If we don’t turn things around, this story will destroy it.[1]

The question at this point centers on why the various elements of the national and international media fell into this trap of exaggerating and amplifying the most contrived and spectacular aspects of a major story like Russiagate? This question is especially pertinent given that if one were keen on trying to discredit Donald Trump and had an agenda of prematurely removing him from office, there was still plenty of corruption, malfeasance, venality and evidence of illegal or immoral activities to justify a campaign for impeachment and possibly indictment. Why latch onto the one story that, while certainly having the biggest blockbuster potential, was also going to be the hardest to prove? A conventional answer to this question lies in the commercial aspects of American media, with its focus on maximizing ratings and clicks in order to deliver the largest audiences as possible to advertisers. However, a deeper and more theoretical explanation is found by looking not just at the profit motive of the media companies themselves, but their place in the larger holistic world of the society of the spectacle—a world where appearances have the ultimate sovereignty over any material realities and, in the words of Guy Debord, “the true is a moment of the false.”[2]

As has been discussed here before, the spectacle is a world order built by the current iteration of global capitalism. It represents a world where the bulk of value-added assets come not from manufactured goods or commodities, but from the imaginary aura created by the sum-total of these commodities into various competing lifestyles and cultures. Each of these cultures conjure a menu of dreams, fantasies, aspirations and fears that individuals seek by associating themselves with a galaxy of brands, logos, and other signifiers through the purchase of the goods and services affiliated with those brands. For most individuals living in the spectacle, life becomes and endless effort to imbibe and emulate the sensory output of the spectacle, not just for the mere purposes of entertainment, but because this pursuit creates a ready-made existential meaning for individuals and communities in world that otherwise provides no such meaning. As Debord argues, “The spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people that is mediated by images.”[3]

What this means in terms of Russiagate is that certain material realities, such as Trump’s venality and the allegations of possible Russian interference in the 2016 get treated as the ingredients for an elaborate and sophisticated cloak-and-dagger intrigue resembling the plot from a spy novel written by a best-selling author rather than a story of banal quid-pro-quo style corruption that, while still constituting a genuine crime requiring investigation and prosecution, falls far short of the spectacular parameters of the pulp-fiction political thriller or summer blockbuster action movie. The problem is that in the spectacle, where millions observe and interpret politics and politicians along the lines of the fantastical portrayals in popular culture and “infotainment” news media, the existence of the clichéd and timeworn forms of corruption Trump is guilty of become invisible. The day-to-day conversations and arrangements by unremarkable middle-aged white men engaged in garden-variety conspiracy fail to capture the imagination of the masses who, after consuming endless hours of comic books, movies and streaming television, cannot recognize the banality of evil when they see it. They expect to see supervillains clad in dark hues or featuring grotesque physical deformities of the kind seen in a Tolkein or Brooks story. What they get instead is a cadre of pasty retirees, and whatever physical deformities they possess are the result of the excesses of consumerism rather than any “evil” that is growing inside of them.

So pervasive is the power of the spectacle that those who have active roles in creating and perpetuating it are no longer conscious of its existence (if they ever were). One of the more sinister elements of the Russiagate phenomenon was the ability of a few individuals on a few platforms to amplify the pageant to its epic proportions. Cable news, one of the central manufacturing hubs of political spectacle in the United States, proved to be an assembly-line of relentless speculation, opinion-making, partisan debate, and general myth making/busting on all facets of the conflict. On MSNBC, Rachael Maddow would present in breathless tones the latest kernel of rumor and conjecture on the status of the Mueller investigation and conclude that the day of reckoning for the Trump presidency will soon be at hand. Sean Hannity at Fox News would arrogantly dismiss the same rumor or conjecture and reassure Trump’s most ardent supporters that nothing would stop Trump from making American great again. CNN would feature endless panels of interchangeable pundits robotically espousing the talking points of the factions they represented. On social media, a swarm of Facebook posts, tweets, Youtube videos and Instagram pics went forth from the world’s TVs, computers and smart phones to devour the cognitive matter of whomever placed themselves in the path of this pestilence.

Yet nowhere in this audio/visual ecosystem was there anything that might be recognized as the truth—or at minimum, a sober narrative. In the Society of the Spectacle, Debord explains the reason for this:

The images detached from every aspect of life merge into a common stream in which the unity of that life can no longer be recovered. Fragmented views of reality regroup themselves into a new unity as a separate pseudo-world that can only be looked at. The specialization of images of the world has culminated in a world of autonomized images where even the deceivers are deceived.[4]

Perhaps most importantly, the farcical fantasy that was at the core of so much of the Russiagate coverage was a symptom of what put Trump in the White House in the first place. So much of the storytelling and mythmaking that comes out of the contemporary media is so detached from the lived realities of most people that, like a drug addict who hates the life chemical dependency has created but can’t break away from the euphoric effects of the drug they are using, keep consuming the same stories and internalizing the myths because its preferable to facing the grimness of reality. At some subconscious level, they know that part of the reason they find their life so thoroughly inadequate is due in part to the implied promises and subtle seductions of most media output—from the television advertisement that makes the purchase of a product the first step in a life of excitement and adventure to the binge-watchable serial drama that creates a relationship between the viewer and its characters more intimate than what that viewer experiences in the “real world.” On an instinctual level they know that something about this arrangement is not right, but cannot articulate this discomfort and are paralyzed to act when moved to try to change this situation. Along comes Donald Trump, who is a creature of this world and can provide a narrative of interpretation the people themselves struggle to produce themselves. He arouses and articulates the despair and rage of those whose lives turned out less beautiful and glamorous than what was presented in the various forms of media consumed and offers a ready-made list of culprits and enemies to blame for their discontent. That all this is yet another false narrative that will make things worse in the long run matters little. For now, Trump is providing a stronger and more potent myth that will temporarily ease the pain of the audience’s existence.

The spectacle, in its sinister way, now provides an alternative set of myths, stories, theories and conjectures that provide those whose existential crisis is connected to the threats to the status quo presented by the election of Donald Trump. While there are clearly examples of a growth in active engagement among certain segments of society, resulting in things like the turnover of the House of Representatives to Democrats in the 2018 election, for those who imbibed most deeply in the story, Russiagate was to be the sequel where the heroes win in the end—where Donald Trump is ousted from his perch in the White House and, perhaps through some extra-constitutional maneuver, Hilary Clinton takes her rightful place in the Oval Office. The key finding in the summary of the Mueller Report that no collusion existed between Trump and Russia shatters that fantasy, leaving those who pinned their hopes to this story left in a state of denial or despair. Unfortunately, with the spectacle, this is where everyone winds up in the end.

 

 

     [1]Matt Taibbi, Hate Inc. (OR Books, 2019). Forthcoming

     [2] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, (Berkeley, California: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2014), 4.

     [3] Ibid., 2.

     [4] Ibid., 2.

American Empire Exists; It Is the Best Hope for the World

One of the great ironies of the aftermath of the attacks of September 11th was the sudden fascination and celebration of the idea of American Empire. While the topic was occasionally kicked around by some—mostly on the far left side of western discourse—the moment when the United States was seemingly at its most vulnerable was also the moment when the recognition of an imperial potential on the part of the United States became the most widely recognized. Alongside the reckoning of the enormous power and influence of the United States was a moral imperative for the imperial project. The attacks in New York and Washington demonstrated that large areas of the world were governed by rogue states and brutal dictators that could provide safe havens for terrorists and other unsavory actors around the world. In the emerging world of globalization, maleficent actors had access to capabilities that empowered them to an unprecedented extent, suggesting they could not be left alone in some isolated mountain valley where they could possibly metastasize into a global movement. For this reason, the United States, with the help of its allies, had to go on the offensive and use all its power and influence to destroy these pockets of barbarity while constructing the conditions that would prevent any chance of their resurrection.

Two types of advocates emerged with this logic in mind—one that argued US power and might were needed to make the world a safer and more prosperous place but that a more interventionist and active role in the world did not necessarily mean an embrace of imperialism or “American Empire.” The other type did embrace the idea of American imperialism and American Empire. It is this latter category this article will focus on.

Among those who believe that some kind of “American Empire” exists and that the world is better off for having the United States adopt this position, one can identify two subgroups. The first is what we might label a “liberal imperialist.” This advocate believes in the importance of traditional liberal values like free and interdependent trading relationships, use of international institutions to facilitate cooperation among states, and a preference for states to be ruled via democratic government. However, as much of the world refuses or is unable to submit to these principles, the United States, as the world’s most powerful state and chief booster of this rule-based order, should embrace an imperial role akin to the British or the French in the nineteenth century and intervene in those areas that have yet to understand or appreciate the light of liberal values.

Examples of this “liberal imperialism”[1] include someone like Michael Ignatieff, who in 2003 called for, in his study of nation-building efforts by the United States, a more imperialistic attitude toward intervention in places like the Balkans and Afghanistan. This would yield greater success than the current short-term mindset that emphasizes “empire on the cheap or “empire lite.”[2] In this sense, Ignatieff can be distinguished from a host of other advocates for a muscular American interventionism who nevertheless avoid, refrain or dismiss from their discussion of interventionist foreign policy the existence and parameters of an American Empire (more about them in a future article).

A far more articulate advocate of liberal American Empire is Niall Ferguson. His 2004 book[3] Colossus remains the most powerful argument for both the existence of American Empire and the moral imperative for the United States to accept and embrace the role of “imperialists.” Focusing on the sacrifices necessary to maintain its imperial status, Ferguson insists that if the United States changes its attitude and gets over its “softness” toward long-term commitments to nation-building overseas and protecting the “public goods” of international capitalism, the American Empire can endure far into the future. Part of embracing this role would be getting its domestic fiscal and budgetary house in order, as the costs of long-term overseas commitments can be endured if programs like social security and medicare bankrupt the republic.[4] In this way, the American Empire is not merely a question about foreign policy, but about what each individual American is willing to give to the cause. In one particularly interesting passage, Ferguson laments the short attention spans of young US adults and explains how these spoiled and privileged adolescents lack the fortitude or vision to be the empire builders the US needs to be great:

But few, if any, of the graduates of Harvard, Stanford, Yale or Princeton aspire to spend their lives trying to turn a sun-scorched sand pit like Iraq into the prosperous capitalist democracy of Paul Wolfowitz’s imagination. American’s brightest and best aspire not to govern Mesopotamia but manage MTV; not to rule the Hejaz but to run a hedge fund.[5]

The second type of liberal imperialist argues the world needs American Empire because of the exalted status of the United States itself, and not necessarily because the United States is in the best nation or the only nation to defend a liberal world order. From this perspective, 21st century liberal empire gets its virtue from its origins in the founding ideas of the United States and the spread of those ideas with the expansion of US power around the world in the succeeding two hundred odd years. Implied in these arguments is that if the US was not a liberal country, American Empire would still be worthy of support. From their perspective American Empire is more important than American Empire.

Many so-called neoconservatives fall into this category. The controversial writer Dinesh D’Souza is a good preliminary example. Writing in 2002, D’Souza remarked the United States “is the most magnanimous power ever,” before giving examples of how the United States respects human rights and confers great benefits on the nations that it enters and occupies. He also comments on the role of US soft power, observing that in a “hotel in Barbados or Bombay, the bellhop is whistling the theme from “Titanic.” African boys in remote villages wear baseball caps. Millions of people around the globe want to move to America. Countless people are drawn to America’s technology, freedom, and way of life.”[6] For these and a host of other reasons, the American Empire is different than the empires of the past both in its power and its size, leading D’Souza to conclude “let us have more of it.”[7]

Other neoconservatives take their cue from the classic British poetry of Kipling or Tennyson (Ferguson also very much makes references to these poets). In making “The Case for an American Empire,” Iraqi war advocate Max Boot observed that “Afghanistan and other troubled lands today cry out for the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets.”[8] It was up to the United States, Boot continued, to assume the mantle of the British Empire and “Take Up the White Man’s Burden” to bring stability, democracy and prosperity to the regions of the world where chaos and mayhem give shelter to terrorists planning more evil deeds. Other neoconservatives invoked older cultural imagery, with Robert Kaplan quoting generously from ancient Greek and Roman texts that celebrated national greatness and the obligation of empires to rid the world of barbarism, since “Thucydides teaches us that civilization represses barbarism but can never eradicate it.”

This is but a small sample of the arguments that posit both the existence of an American Empire and the need for such an empire to exist in order to protect all that is good and virtuous in the world, whether that is civilization or human rights or democracy or any other “progressive” set of values. But many foreign policy analysts and practitioners are uncomfortable with this sort of language and go out of their way to avoid it. One need only look to the words of one of the Iraqi War architects, Donald Rumsfeld, (quoted in the last post) for evidence of this. This position of American Empire denialism but embracing of American interventionism is of particular interest in that it represents perhaps the most problematic and contradictory position—how does one insist the United States involve itself in countless conflicts and power rivalries around the world without believing something like an American Empire exists. These arguments will be explored in a subsequent post.

     [1]  https://foreignpolicy.com/2013/05/20/top-10-warning-signs-of-liberal-imperialism/

     [2] Michael Ignatieff, Empire Lite: Nation Building in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan (New York: Vintage, 2003).

     [3] Niall Ferguson, Colossus: The Price of the America’s Empire (New York: Penguin, 2004).

     [4] https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2004/05/our-imperial-imperative/303127/

     [5] Ferguson, 204.

     [6]Dinesh D’Souza, “In praise of American Empire,” Christian Science Monitor, April 26, 2002: See  https://www.csmonitor.com/2002/0426/p11s01-coop.html

     [7] Ibid.

     [8] Max Boot, “The Case for American Empire,” The Weekly Standard, October, 2001. See  https://www.weeklystandard.com/max-boot/the-case-for-american-empire

American Empire in the Age of Trump

The recent controversy over the resignation of Secretary of Defense James Mattis amid Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from Syria represents an interesting reshuffling of the rhetorical deck among thinkers, commentators and practitioners of US foreign policy. While debates and perspectives on key questions of US activity overseas have not been subject to the same fault lines as questions of domestic policy, the upheaval over the Syria questions has seen the usual strange bedfellows become even kinkier with each other. Key cheerleaders of the disastrous Iraq War policy of 2003 like David Frum and Max Boot are becoming frequent fonts of wisdom on MSNBC, a cable channel that arose to prominence by being a vicious critic of almost all things George W. Bush[1] (though in truth it was for the war in Iraq before it was against it).[2] Conversely, liberal antagonists like Glenn Greenwald (who is best known for reporting on the Snowden leaks in 2013) are finding themselves welcome on Fox News to discuss, among other things, the moral dubiousness and strategic miscalculation of traditional US foreign policy.[3] The excessively solemn Richard Haass—himself a part of the regular rotation on MSNBC—recently expanded some of this debate about the future of Syria to include the US presence in Afghanistan.[4] In a tweet he posted based on a longer article, he wrote:

Neither winning the war nor negotiating a lasting peace is a real option in Afghanistan. Just leaving, though, as we are about to do in Syria, would be a mistake. What we need is an open-ended, affordable strategy for not losing.

Examined more closely, what Haass is arguing for is a kind of American Empire. And given the context of in which Haass is making this argument—the debate on whether it is a good idea for the US to leave Syria—one can observe that almost all the arguments about the importance of the US to maintain its military and political presence in the Middle East and Central Asia are making a similar set of claims about the virtue of permanent (aka “open-ended”) American power deployed overseas. Yet questions of whether the US is an empire get significant pushback, often from the same pundits and commentators who are arguing the most vociferously for the largest and most extended deployments of US might. In the immediate wake of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, then Secretary of Defense had this to say when asked if the US was building an empire in the Middle East:

”We don’t seek empires…We’re not imperialistic. We never have been. I can’t imagine why you’d even ask the question.”[5]

But the question remains a valid one, even if interest in asking it no longer of interest to prominent scholars or diplomats.

This question of whether the US is an empire will be the focus of the next few posts. It admittedly seems a bizarre question to ask given that much of the conventional wisdom on the status of the United States focuses on the pathetic position of the world’s most powerful state. There is indeed no denying the US government is in a state of disarray at the moment, contributing to the US economy experiencing substantial turbulence and uncertainty and doing nothing to alleviate the broader human malaise that typifies the daily lives of millions of individuals in the country. Yet putting all this aside, the US has perhaps never been more powerful in terms of the size of its military and the amount of territory this military can exercise control over (even if it doesn’t formally rule it). Debates about the role of the US in places like Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq merely occupy the center ring of American military activity around the world. What gets lost as these debates rage are the overlooked areas where American power is being utilized and entrenched—places like Mali and Niger in Africa, Poland and the Baltic Republics in Eastern Europe and the South China Sea. It is true that states like Russia and China have gained status and prominence in the last decade, but much of this gain has been from abysmal starting points. Half a century ago, China was still largely inhabited by peasants practicing subsistence agriculture even if it had successfully assembled a simple nuclear weapon. Twenty years ago, Russia was in a state of economic disrepair so profound it provided the space for a strongman like Putin to scheme his way to the top of Russian politics. China’s military has become more powerful, but its navy, to take one example, still trails the US in terms of the number of aircraft carriers it can deploy by double digits. And for all the consternation about the role of Russia in the 2016 US election, part of this strategy (assuming the worst about the level of influence Putin has over Trump) is a subtle admission that Russia cannot confront the US in the same manner it could during the Cold War, when American fighters would daily intercept Russian bombers probing the outskirts of US airspace and Russian missile submarines floated silently off the US shoreline.

So how does one talk about an American Empire in this context?   Looking at the shape of debates about US foreign policy, two questions can be asked that allow one to separate the various arguments and analyses into four categories. The first is a normative question: Is the dominant power exercised by the United States necessary to establish a stable world order? The second question is an ontological one: Does this dominant power that is exercised by the United States constitute an empire? Based on the answers to these questions, one can organize most of the arguments on American foreign policy into four categories:

  1. Dominant American power is necessary for stable world order and does constitute an empire
  2. Dominant American power is necessary for a stable world order, but does NOT constitute and empire
  3. Dominant American power is NOT necessary for a stable world order, but the US is an empire nevertheless
  4. Dominant American power is NOT necessary for a stable world order, and the US is not an empire.

It should be noted at the outset that these are broad categories designed to ensnare as many of the arguments and literature on the topic as possible. Subtle differences exist within the different categories shown here that the framework will not incorporate. For now, however, the stage has been set in subsequent posts to examine the question of American Empire in more depth.

[1] https://www.msnbc.com/the-last-word/watch/the-consequences-of-no-one-believing-what-trump-says-915086403769

[2] https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/silencing-war-criticism-in-the-usa_us_596df7a3e4b07f87578e6bd7

[3] https://insider.foxnews.com/2018/04/11/tucker-carlson-takes-critics-over-skepticism-syria-war-they-want-you-shut-and-obey

[4] https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/us-strategy-for-not-losing-war-in-afghanistan-by-richard-n–haass-2019-01

[5] https://www.nytimes.com/2003/04/29/world/aftereffects-military-presence-rumsfeld-says-us-will-cut-forces-in-gulf.html

The Triumph of the Integrated Spectacle

An interesting and troubling phenomenon is taking shape around the world as far-right populism and authoritarian ideologies make significant in-roads into national governments and the global apparatus of power. As these political forces take possession of more and more territory and occupy larger swathes of humanity’s collective mental space, western liberal democracy—once seen as the bearer of a utopian world order once it was globalized to every nook and cranny of the planet—is either in retreat or fighting a difficult holding action. As explored in a recent article in the magazine Foreign Affairs, democracy is under some kind of threat “from Brasilia to Brussels and from Warsaw to Washington.”[1] This trend has left many who study democracy befuddled. Why would national constituencies accept their nations’ comfort with authoritarian government where it already exists or, perhaps more confusingly, demand more authoritarian measures in states where liberalism has a legacy of legitimacy and good governance. The answer may have little to do with the type of regime one lives under and more about other variables that are more difficult to pin down. In this same article quoted above, the authors also observe that “within the next five years, the share of global income held by countries considered “not free”—such as China, Russia and Saudi Arabia—will surpass the share held by Western liberal democracies.”[2] Stated another way, states that are not democracies have discovered that liberalizing the economic aspects of their country can provide them with the blessing of an advanced consumer economy without the messy popular government that often comes with it.

In this, we can recognize the ideal of the integrated spectacle. This idea has been discussed in previous posts, but for the time being we can remind ourselves that the integrated spectacle is the combination of the representations of authoritarian and totalitarian power (associated with the Eastern Bloc nations of the Cold War) with the representations of upper middle-class luxury and consumer abundance (associated with the West during the Cold War). In the integrated spectacle, these heretofore contradictory ideas enter into a surprisingly comfortable accommodation with each other. It means the shopping malls and sitcoms of liberalism are fused with the secret police stations and state propaganda of totalitarianism. It means the shining skyscrapers that are a signature image of western abundance are now found in cities like Abu Dhabi and Astana while the urban squalor associated with the imagery of the underdeveloped world can be found in the banlieus of Paris or the skid rows of Los Angeles. It means the cult-of-personalities that demanded unquestioned loyalty from their subjects that were a key aspect of leadership in closed societies now manifest themselves in a portion of the voters and supporters of western leaders like Donald Trump in the US or Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.

This is the triumph of the integrated spectacle–the victory of the form of spectacle that will take hold going forward and more fully entrench itself as more and more states realize many groups of people have no problem with curtailing political rights in exchange for the opportunities to enjoy consumerist comforts. One does not need the right to vote or be able to bring a grievance to the state in order to keep up with the Kardashians or become a social media celebrity. The ability to give “hot takes” about sports and show business can sit very comfortably alongside severe sanctions for criticizing political leadership of the decisions of the apparatus of rule. Indeed, the ability to engage in genuine protest can be tolerated up to the point that this protest actually shows signs of enacting real reform—then it can mercilessly be shut down without the dominant institutions of rule losing too much face. One can see this in proposals in places like Portland, Oregon where the mayor, at the behest of high end downtown business and restaurants has proposed limitations of public assembly and protest in an effort reduce the visibility of increasingly violent social tensions in the region.

The retreat from democracy and increasing comfort with authoritarian measures is due in part to the very real threat posed by the spectacle of disintegration to the power of the state and the forces of the status quo from a few years ago. Recall that it was in 2010 that then Secretary of State said:

 …the internet is a network that magnifies the power and potential of all others. And that’s why we believe it’s critical that its users are assured certain basic freedoms. Freedom of expression is first among them. This freedom is no longer defined solely by whether citizens can go into the town square and criticize their government without fear of retribution. Blogs, emails, social networks, and text messages have opened up new forums for exchanging ideas, and created new targets for censorship.[3]

During these heady days, events like the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, indignado occupations of public squares in Europe, and student strikes in Chile and Canada caused the towering superstructure of global capitalism to shake on its foundation. The force of this undulation came from the power of the still novel digital media technologies coming into widespread usage and the acumen those who wielded them demonstrated in confronting the apparatus of rule. Yet with the publication of classified documents by Wikileaks and the revelations of mass surveillance by Edward Snowden, this ferment of contrarian thinking came to constitute an enemy to powerful states and the larger global system they supervise.

This problem is most profound for the United States. Spreading democracy may have been a key objective of US foreign policy, but this objective would not be pursued at the expense of American power, which puts the US in a bad rhetorical position when these two things contradict each other. Authoritarian states like China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia don’t have to worry about this as they never promised democracy in the first place. Moreover, the emerging tensions between a US government embracing more overt  authoritarian policies under Trump and the traditional myths about American moral exceptionalism give many of these illiberal states opportunities to lambaste the United States for its hypocrisy. In the meantime, thanks to some successes in generating economic growth, authoritarian states can offer the same consumerist fantasies (even if they are largely illusory) that were once the exclusive purview of the United States and its western allies. While the US insisted the power of this consumer spectacle was the result of democracy and liberal political principles, the story now taking shape is that liberal politics were less important than liberal economics. One could accommodate the latter without having to indulge the former.

As powerful states and monopolistic media corporations make daily inroads in learning to tame the unruly online world, the spectacle will become more and more integrated. Spasms of subversive information and feral activity will still spring forth from time to time, but these will become less frequent as they are met with harsher repressions by the state and bigger and more elaborate pop culture distractions sponsored by ever more powerful corporations. In the wake of this, a strange new medievalism emerges where the advancement of human knowledge and material well-being goes on hiatus for an extended period of time. But don’t call it a Dark Age—there will be too many bright HD billboards covering the skyscrapers of major buildings combined with the faint glow of millions of personal devices for that.

     [1] Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa, “The End of the Democratic Century” Foreign Affairs (May/June 2018), 29.

     [2] Ibid., 31.

     [3]  See http://www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2010/01/135519.htm.

Celebrity in the Spectacle

One of the more important concepts for Debord was the notion of celebrity. Some of the most crucial passages of in Society of the Spectacle deal with this phenomonen. Indeed, the distinction Debord makes between concentrated and diffuse spectacles comes immediately in the wake of two other concepts: the star of consumption and the star of decision-making. This central place of these ideas deserve deeper analysis.

Debord addresses the occurrence of celebrity specifically in the third chapter of Society of the Spectacle which focuses on the broad theme of irreconcilable tensions contained within the images and appearances of the modern world. Many of the contractions familiar to the media consumer of the present day are discussed here—the contrived nature of political antagonism and debate on television (especially cable news), the fetishizing of abundance even in places that are economically underdeveloped, and the imperative toward morality nestled alongside a relentless media assault of sexualized images.[1] These are examples of what Debord calls banalization, or the process whereby “the vestiges of religion and of the family…along with the vestiges of moral repression imposed by these two institutions, can be blended with ostentatious pretensions of worldly gratification…”[2] Through banalization what is divine is brought down to earth and what is vulgar is given the sheen of the angelic. The spectacle combines them into a new image that fuses authoritative purity with seedy intrigue.

The ultimate expression of this banalization was the vedette which translates into English as the “star.”[3] In Thesis 60 Debord argues:

Stars—the spectacular representations of living human beings—project this general banalitu into images of permitted roles. As specialists of apparent life, stars serve as superficial objects that people can identify with in order to compensate for the fragmented productive specializations that they actually live. The function of these celebrities is to act out various lifestyles or sociopolitical viewpoints in a full, totally free manner.[4]

Stars and celebrities as they appear on television are thus not “real” human beings, but quasi-deified representations of human beings that perform a series of rituals in the public media space that serves as aspirational examples for the masses. In the sense they are human beings living ostensibly “normal” lives, they resemble the vulgar, the everyday, and the humdrum.[5] However, the glitz, glamour and intrigue of the coverage of this life by tabloid media has the effect of imbuing it with the touch of the divine. Though they fall well short of the status of gods, they certainly occupy a demigod position that serves an important function in terms of pacifying the population and legitimating the established assemblage of power:

They embody the inaccessible results of social labor by dramatizing the by-products of that labor which are magically projected above it as its ultimate goals: power and vacations—the decision-making and consumption that are at the beginning and the end of a process that is never questioned.[6]

At this point, Debord makes one of his most critical points in terms of understanding the link between celebrity and politics that might be most familiar to someone living in the twenty-first century. In the concluding line of the Thesis 60, he states:

On one hand, a government power may personalize itself as a pseudo-star; on the other, a star of consumption may campaign for recognition as a pseudo-power over life. But the activities of these stars are not really free and they offer no real choices.[7]

The role of stars in justifying the status quo is so essential that that they come to personify the exercise of its power. In the case of the former example Debord mentions, one can think of totalitarian rulers in North Korea, European royalty or the cult of personality that often surrounds presidential candidates in the United States. In the latter example, one can think of the variety of television and film stars who run for political office, including the current occupant of the White House. In the succeeding thesis (#61), Debord makes a further distinction between the star of consumption (la vedette de la consummation) and the star of decision-making (la vedette de la decision).[8] Stars of consumption legitimate the system by “enjoying equal access to, and deriving equal happiness from, the entire realm of consumption (even the most banal areas of this realm, which is what makes them “just like us”).[9] Star of decision-making “possess the full range of admired human qualities” as well as an “official similarity implied by their supposed excellence in every field of endeavor.”[10] For Debord this difference played out in the alleged difference between Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and US President John F. Kennedy. Both men are flattering representations of “real” men who are flawed and came to power in problematic fashion, but these representations are nevertheless offered up as epitomizing virtue and leadership (even though, as Debord suggests, everybody knows it is all a charade).[11]

The geopolitical and ideological split that existed in the world in 1967 between market capitalism defended by the military power of the United States and the bureaucratic capitalism defended by the Soviet Union’s Red Army was of central importance to understanding the dynamics of world order. Debord’s understanding of this dynamic, interestingly enough, extends from this analysis of the star of consumption and the star of decision-making to an account of the actual split in the nature of the spectacle in the Cold War. Theses 64 and 65 identify two separate forms of spectacle: the “concentrated” and “diffuse”. The concentrated spectacle, with the star of decision-making as its chief celebrity protagonist, is the spectacle that is spun out of the imperatives of totalitarian control found in the Soviet Union and China. The key currency of the concentrated spectacle is the imagery of violence and the implements of coercion whose force lies less from their use than their sight and media representation. But all of this power flows from the concentrated image of the celebrity dictator who occupies the exalted deified space in these totalitarian societies. As Debord argues, the concentrated spectacle “imposes an image of the good which is résumé of everything that exists officially, and is usually concentrated in a single individual, the guarantor of the system’s totalitarian cohesiveness. Everyone must identify magically with this absolute celebrity—or disappear.”[12] This provides the explanation of some of the key images of the Eastern Bloc during Cold War—the ubiquitous pictures of Mao or Lenin or Stalin, the grand military parades in the vast central squares of Moscow or Beijing, and the ultra-elaborate pageants of North Korea.[13]

The diffuse spectacle is the more complicated and more potent form of spectacle. Rather than a single omniscient image of a celebrity dictator-god flowing from a central political command center, the diffuse spectacle provides its subjects with a more polytheistic universe of sovereign images in the form of specific commodities, their various trademarks and brands, advertisements and celebrity endorsers.[14] In the diffuse spectacle, there is an appearance of ostensible competition and rivalry between image-gods—not unlike what one might find in Greek mythology. Car makes and sneaker brands and a galaxy of other commercial signs engage in a celestial war for market share on the airwaves of mass broadcasting outlets. This battle spills into the political realm as well, as politicians participate in election campaigns that largely take place through broadcast media events in an effort to persuade what are assumed to be even-minded voters which candidate has the best policy proposals or (as this election is perhaps showing) personalities. All this gives the appearance of a freedom of choice and liberty that was absent in the concentrated form of the spectacle (and was the primary argument of the moral superiority of the West over the East in the Cold War).

McKenzie Wark captures the distinction between concentrated and diffuse spectacles best when he writes, “Big Brother (the concentrated spectacle) is no longer watching you. In His place is little sister and her friends: endless pictures of models and other pretty things.[15] Whereas the concentrated spectacle gives a permanent and seemingly unchanging image of ruthless power and authority to pacify its people, the diffuse spectacle keeps it subjects pacified by inducing them to constantly chase rotating pop cultural trends and conceptions of “cool.” Yet for all the differences that exist in the nature of the concentrated or diffuse spectacles, however, the effects are largely similar—to legitimize or neutralize resistance to totalitarian political and socio-economic structures. In the concentrated spectacle, the star of decision-making is the omnipotent figure in a highly regimented regime whose visage and public statements of power and strength reassure the star “fans” (in this case the subjected population) who need such spectacular boasting from these god-like to be reassured everything under control. The diffuse spectacle trades these reassurances by the star of decision-making for the opportunity to emulate the luxurious and opulent lifestyles of the star of consumption. Both populations accept their respective status quos and are unable or unwilling to imagine any alternative.

     [1]  In French, banalization. See Guy Debord, “La Société du Spectacle,” Jean-Louis Rançon, ed. Guy Debord: Oeuvres, (Paris: Quatro Gallimard, 2006), 785.

     [2] Debord 2004, 23.

      [3] Debord, 2006, 786.

     [4] Italics are in the original. Debord, 2004, 24.

     [5] One of the more interesting example of this is the feature in US Weekly magazine called “Celebrities: Just Like Us,” which shows pictures of famous people doing mundane activities like going to the grocery store, standing in line at a Starbucks, and taking a nap on a park bench.  For an example, see https://www.usmagazine.com/celebrity-news/pictures/stars-theyre-just-like-us-20131610/33407/ For commentary on this feature, (including the revelation that most of these photos are choreographed, see http://www.slate.com/articles/life/the_next_20/2016/09/the_invention_of_us_weekly_s_stars_they_re_just_like_us_feature.html

     [6] Debord, 2004, 24.

     [7] Ibid., 24.

     [8] Ibid., 24-25 and Debord 2006, 786.

     [9] Debord 2004, 24.

     [10] Ibid.

     [11] Ibid., 25.

     [12] Ibid., 42.

     [13] Debord himself says “If every Chinese has to study Mao, and in effect be Mao, this is because there is nothing else to be. Ibid., 42.

     [14] Ibid.

     [15] McKenzie Wark, The Spectacle of Disintegration (New York: Verso, 2013), 2 and 197-200.

Spectacular Power: A Very Rough First Cut

Thus far, the discussion of power and strategy in the age of the spectacle has revealed three combinations: 1) lethal and coercive force deployed in a direct Clausewitzian manner, 2) lethal and coercive force deployed in an indirect manner in the tradition of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, and 3) non-coercive (or “soft”) power deployed in a direct Clausewitzian manner that takes the form of information campaigns and propaganda. This leaves only one possible combination left—that of deploying non-coercive “soft” power in an indirect manner. This intersection of power and strategy is difficult to define and conceptualize as it is a very diffuse deployment of power. However, it is also in the age of social networking and media saturation the most effective way of altering the behaviors of a targeted community. Like the deployment of coercive force in the Sun Tzu tradition, the object of such approaches is to deceive an adversary of one’s true intentions and bring about a desired behavioral change without overt deployments of force (or in the case of non-coercive power, information). This is especially important in age of mass cynicism when audiences are already keen to the tricks of advertisers and public relations specialists and take any overt message with a grain of salt. How can a state (or non-state actor) maneuver an adversary to a desired outcome without letting their propaganda and efforts at persuasion show?

A situation where subtle deployments of information and imagery can have the same effect as violent deployments of military requires understanding the context in which such an otherwise absurd situation could occur. Suffice to say, such a historical circumstance is not common in the broad sweep of history, yet this is the contemporary reality—an emerging worldwide consumer capitalist amusement park is part and parcel of the project of globalization and there does not seem to be any sign that this project is being abandoned. The often aforementioned Guy Debord—the leading critic on this emerging consumer playground—suggested the starting point was somewhere in the 1920s:

     …the society of the spectacle has continued to advance. It moves quickly for in 1967 it had barely forty years behind it; though it had used them to the full.[1]

In the subsequent decades, the account Debord gave of the spectacle has intensified to a point that what was in the 1960s a phenomenon confined largely to the western world became universalized after the end of Cold War rivalry and the beginning of the process of globalization.

So what are the “weapons” of this form of spectacular power? According to Matthew Fraser, they include four primary platforms: movies, television, pop music and fast food.[2] For the late Ben Barber, it was all these elements plus theme parks and pulp literature.[3] In both these books, the echoes of Creel’s emphasis on “the great war machinery“ of  “…the printed word, the spoken word, the motion picture, the telegraph, the cable, the wireless, the poster, the sign-board.”[4] Yet what is different here is the way these assets are deployed. Instead of a steady and intense stream of facts and information directed a mass audience that is the common feature of wartime propaganda, these life-altering images deploy in a more diffuse manner primarily during one’s leisure time. The “bullets” of these weapons aren’t not metal that maim, but images that entertain. They don’t inspire fear and dread, but stimulate fantasy and imagination. They are, to quote Howard Beale from the movie Network, “the most awesome goddamn force in the whole godless world” (though Beale was only talking about television specifically, it is easy to extrapolate this idea to all broadcast and digital media).

Embedded in these cultural products are a host of principles, values, codes of ethics and morality, biases, judgments, and any other kind of normative ideas. The audience is exposed to them at a time when their normal defenses are down and their critical capacities are not in use. They draw in the attention of millions of individuals with depictions of seductive lifestyles of pleasure and comfort and esteem and status while not explicitly asking for anything in return. They motivate individuals to act and behave in ways they might not otherwise have an incentive in the absence of such stimulation, often placing the pursuit of these comforts over the requirements of king and country. The research done to manufacture the programming dispensed through these implements of seduction seeks to uncover the psychological barriers and mental defenses of the audience to the messages conveyed and then construct precise language and imagery necessary to circumvent these emotional barriers. This is the ultimate application of Sun Tzu’s strategy of war as deception as the targets of these “weapons of mass distraction” are seeking out opportunities to surrender to their power. For an actor that truly masters the techniques of spectacular power, there is never a battle to be fought as the adversary has long ago capitulated.

It is here, perhaps, where another interpretation of the alleged Russian “hacks” of 2016 lie. Unable to challenge the United States in military capability deployed in the Clausewitzian manner, Russia has sought to deploy both coercive and non-coercive force in alternative manners. It has used a Sun Tzu military strategy in places like Ukraine, adopted a similar tact with cyberattacks in neighboring countries like Estonia, and developed a Creel approach to propaganda directed at its rivals in the form of its satellite channel RT. But in developing an army of bots to infiltrate social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, Russia is seeking to find ways to deploy new assets that have not been seen as part of the “war machinery.” These are the assets that entertain and entice and seduce by delivering pleasure, comfort and security to individuals at a time when they are at their most vulnerable—at home seeking social connection and validation on the internet. They develop messages that play on the raw ids of millions of people—their fear of others, their sadness at what they see as the shortcomings of their life, their depression at not living the fantastic (but false and fraudulent) world of the spectacle—and then use the intimate access they have gained to sow chaos in the targeted society. It is unclear if such actions constitute an act of war—the power is non-coercive and the strategy ensures a degree of plausible deniability. But there is a danger that if such actions continue to be effective, a state that is continually a victim of such spectacular power will turn to other forms of power and strategy to defend itself.

     [1]Guy Debord, Commentaries on the Society of the Spectacle (London: Verso, 1998), 3.

     [2] Matthew Fraser, Weapons of Mass Distraction: Soft Power and American Empire (New York: Thomas Dunne, 2003), 13.

    [3] Ben Barber, Jihad vs. McWorld (New York: Ballantine, 1996).

    [4]  George Creel, How We Advertised America (New York: Harper Brothers, 1920), 5.