the implosion of liberal empire
This is an answer to a startling post by Keith Hart, the anthropologist who invented the notion of the “informal economy.” Keith knew CLR James and helped to edit his book on “American Civilization.” Stimulated as we all are by the impressive events in Egypt, he puts some of James’ ideas in the present geopolitical context and writes about “a second American revolution.” Read Keith’s post here.
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Keith Hart wrote:
“After the watershed of the 1970s, we went through three decades of what came to be known as neoliberal globalization in which the power of big money to organize the world for its own benefit was unfettered. The end of the Cold War, the rise of China, India and Brazil as economic powers and the digital revolution in communications speeded up the formation of world society under American hegemony, even as these developments undermined it. This ended with the financial crisis of 2008 and we are now in the uncharted waters of the third period which might take in a full-scale depression, world war, a global democratic revolution, the end of life on earth, who knows?”
All that is so astonishing, daunting, frightful and fascinating about political life today is summed up in those two words: world society. It exists, it’s potentially accessible to everyone, it’s damnably complex, it has not eliminated nation-states or any other power formation and mostly it seems to follow inherent laws based on the blind interaction of separated spheres — corporations, militaries, government bureaucracies, financial markets etc. — whose cumulative effects appear increasingly predictable and decreasingly controllable by anybody. Nonetheless, there it is. A decade ago, some millions of us earthlings on scattered continents had a try at starting a global social movement. I’ve been hooked on world society ever since.
World society is in many ways a dialectical consequence of liberal empire. The latter refers to the military-backed free trade regime installed by the United States and its allies at the close of WWII, as a reaction against the break-up of the world economy into competing trade-and-currency blocs during the 1930s. To absorb the momentous productivity of its war-charged industrial output, the Council of Foreign Affairs claimed during the war that the USA needed a “Grand Area” comprising the entire Western Hemisphere, Western Europe, the former British Commonwealth and East Asia. To achieve this the postwar superpower had to organize the reconstruction of Germany and Japan and to rebuild their currencies which, along with the dollar and sterling, came to form the basis of a new global monetary system. A few states in Western Europe and East Asia became the key US allies, monetary backers and military-base hosts during the Cold War. Outside this partnership structure it would all be about exports, raw materials extraction, democratic promises and power politics as usual. Of course, Britain had run a similar free trade regime under the navy tricolor and the gold standard; and I totally agree with the parallels Keith Hart draws in this respect, and with the distinctions he makes between the two regimes. Drawing on democratic ideals and the use of those ideals to articulate a profoundly capitalist society at home, the US elites set up all kinds of egalitarian internationalist institutions after the war, institutions of which the British would never have dreamed. They then proceeded to flaunt them systematically in obedience to the bottom line of national interest, and against the wishes of much of the citizenry. It was national capitalism expanded to a world scale. However, by the 1960s US investments in overseas industry and its willingness to import cheap manufactured goods had already externalized part of its power, and this transfer of capital helped Western Europe and Japan grow into relatively sovereign spheres. Meanwhile the spread of media, technology and education, favored equally by the Soviet Union, set the conditions for the world revolution of 1968 and the tumultuous decade of the 1970s, when so-called Third World countries made a bid to start a New International Economic Order (NIEO).
Because of the blockages that capital formation had encountered within the US democracy itself, because of the emergence of a tripolar order (remember the Trilateral commision, founded in 1972 as an expansion of the Council on Foreign Relations) and because of the worldwide character of 68 and the self-asssertion of the Third World states, the neoliberal hegemony that beat down the NIEO, outspent the USSR, choked back the Japanese competition and eventually set the rules for a new integration of the world-system had to be transnational in its very essence. For the states that embraced it (initially the Trilateral countries, then increasingly, almost everyone) transnationalism meant the abandonment of quotas and tariff barriers, the loss of much capacity for censorship, the decline of territorial sovereignty and along with it, of many welfare systems, the rise of global oligopolies and the promotion of fractions of the former national middle classes to the new inglorious role of functionaries, free agents, advertisers and gadflies of the World Corporation. But all that also meant the kaleidoscopic multiplication of forms of partial sovereignty, some traditional and some entirely new. This was a dramatic change, something huge, unprecedented. Toni Negri and Michael Hardt called it Empire. It is exactly that, but there is no use blurring the immensities of its intricacies under some vague mythic narrative based on the Romans. Crucial forces within the fully transnational liberal-economic system are: global financial markets, continental blocs, regional and global criminal networks, nuclear proliferation, the new transnational relevance of ancient religions, the rise of the VLCs (Very Large Countries: China, India, Russia, Brazil), the Internet, world-wide social movements including terrorist ones, and last but not least, the persistence of the old, lumbering, super-weaponized, highly educated, obsessively consumerist, compulsively interventionist, media-mesmerized globosaurus known as the USA, whose rearguard holding actions and failed containment strategies dominated world headlines until the crash of 2008.
Keith draws the idea (hope? fantasy? urgent necessity?) of a second American revolution from the Trinidadian cricketer and communist internationalist CLR James, whose work on American Civilization he edited and whom he knew well, so if you get the chance let him regale you with stories. By developing a concept of empire based on the analogy with Britain, Keith gives a unique interpretation of what just happened (and is still happening) in Egypt: he starts extending the hoped-for 2nd American revolution to those Middle Eastern regions which have been under direct American imperial control. This kind of “control” means boots on the ground, bombs from the air and streams of finance that dwarf the imagination, but can be cashed in for just one thing: American guns to be used by local troops to keep American gas-pumps flowing. How could such places be the site of a second American revolution? The paradox to which Keith points, if I can reformulate it in his spirit, is that GW Bush claimed to be invading Iraq in order to create the conditions for a flourishing middle class all over the Arab world; while the Egyptians, by deposing an American-backed dictator, are actually doing that. This interpretation puts the accent on the liberal-democratic character of the movements and their economic aspirations. KH: “The first American revolution provides the rhetoric and even the substance of the second.” Now, there is something to that, because the American hegemony in its transnationalist phase has permeated the entire world-system down to the level of individual subjectivities, and the Holy Triny of Google, Facebook, Twitter is just the symbol, or the metonym, of that vast transfer of subjective capital. Yet I wouldn’t go too far in that direction, because after all, Hardt and Negri’s big mistake was to conflate the atemporal concept of constituent power with the historical form of American constitutionalism (which they moreover conceived as having a network-like character). I guess the political and social formations on the ground are more subtle, less technological and more philosophically and ideologically complex than abstractions like liberalism or constitutionalism would lead you to believe. Maybe the most important thing the US state has done to facilitate this revolution has been to get itself involved in two damaging quagmires which not only interdict further involvements or outlays of (other people’s) money, but which have also destroyed the idea that an imported solution of ready-made American capitalist democracy is worth waiting around for, while your American-backed dictator claims legitimacy by his opposition to an increasingly unlikely terrorist-islamist coup. Let’s admit that’s a pretty slim contribution.
Here’s how I understand it, very partially. The urban movement in Egypt over the last three weeks has been intergenerational, interfaith and interclass, something you can see in the photos and on which there is much direct commentary from the participants. That kind of thing can completely change who you are and may become. The movement in the cities has been joined by great factory strikes, close to a general strike in the industrial sector, still ongoing. I am unaware what’s happening in the countryside (let’s hear from those of you who know). The Cairoti and Alexandrian middle classes who are said to have “led” the movement appear very much aware that almost half their fellow citizens live in deep poverty, and they must surely have seen that Western corporations mainly want to extract their money and resources in whatever way possible; while the European humanist promise of co-development and shared civilizations remains hollow, fallacious and increasingly takes on the features of a border guard with a gun. The burning question of the Middle East, a regional question, is how to distribute the oil money in such a way that the productive ambitions of the middle classes can translate into constructive programs that begin to alleviate the poverty and subservience of all those left excluded from the US-backed regimes — not through aid programs but through rural development, useful industry, education and other attributes of true popular sovereignty which cannot be beamed in over the Internet or purchased with an oil-price windfall. Al Jazeera has just posted an article by Lamis Andoni that says this: “Events in Egypt and Tunisia have revealed that Arab unity against internal repression is stronger than that against a foreign threat… Unlike the pan-Arabism of the past, the new movement represents an intrinsic belief that it is freedom from fear and human dignity that enables people to build better societies and to create a future of hope and prosperity” (http://tinyurl.com/panarabism-now).
I can’t read into the hearts and minds of anyone, but it seems to me that there, in a new and far more pragmatic version of Arab unity, lies at least part of the hope of the Egyptian activists in the January 25 movement, and also of people like the Al Jazeera journalists who have just carried out the most impressive venture in independent journalism I have witnessed in my lifetime. What could now be invented in the Middle East is a way to have fruitful cross-border discussion and set up regional dynamics of socially managed economic growth, as Latin Americans have been doing with some success over this decade. All this points to the need for a singularizing process leading outside the normative binaries of liberal empire (financialization/underdevelopment, democracy/terrorism). And so the global media pundits are too quick to proclaim the “victory” of a revolution that has only started. In recent days Al Jazeera has published multiple testimonies from Eastern Europeans and Iranians explaining that the difficult part comes after the revolution; and to think our Egyptian friends are not aware of these historical precedents and not deeply preoccupied with finding the true organic bases and dynamics of a long transition toward an egalitarian society would be to deny them the intelligence that they have shown over these past weeks – and months, and years, before we could even see it. I reckon Keith agrees with all this and probably has a good deal to add concerning the human economy of a transition to substantial democracy.
But finally, the question of the second revolution in the belly of the beast is the one that I find most compelling. At the end of the Bush regime, I came back to America from a long exile because I knew something was going to happen. Voila, Act I immediately came in all its welcome tawdry glory with the popping of the housing bubble and the intense corruption it revealed in the motherland of liberal empire. The Arab Spring could be Act II, let’s hope, let’s support the process in whatever small way, let’s ask real questions about the changes this requires in the current version of neoliberal globalization. But what’s gonna be Act III? When are we gonna produce something of our own will, and not a catastrophe or a gift that falls down out of the heavens? CLR James talked about the absorption of American intellectuals into the bureaucracy (truly, the fate of most professors and cultural producers), into the labyrinths of self-fulfillment (psycho-analysis in his time, 31 flavors of social-media in our day). I would add two other things. First, outright corruption for large numbers of artists and thinkers simply bought off by their privileges. And then, for many critical disbelievers, the dark black self-protective cynicism that comes from the detailed knowledge of oppressive state and corporate machinery. How to overcome all that? Where would this second revolution come from?
You have to look far and wide to find Americans who have even heard of James, or Raya Dunayevskaya, or the Johnson-Forest tendency which developed a concept of world revolution in the mid-twentieth century (http://tinyurl.com/world-revolution). But you can go to Detroit and listen to a 94-year-old woman in a wheelchair who has far more vitality than any of the airbrushed zombies nervously adjusting their suits in the faculty clubs. An entire generation of young and not-so-young American activists made the journey to Detroit last summer on the occasion of the US Social Forum. The woman they heard speak is Grace Lee Boggs, she’s a Chinese-American and she worked with CLR James and Raya Dunayevskaya before deciding she had to go deeper into the black community struggles of the late 50s-early 60s. Grace Lee Boggs is a quintesential expression of the proliferating black-brown-yellow-red-white grassroots reality of dissent and alternative organizing in the United States, which the crisis has pushed into a higher gear. After the awesome 1967 Detroit rebellion and the cascade of government programs that followed, Grace Lee and her husband the radical black unionist Jimmy Boggs decided that the Black Power movement had now beeen coopted and reduced to just another interest group, so they started NOAR, the National Organization for an American Revolution. They produced no revolution, but some of the deepest homegrown reflection that we have on such things. Grace is all about revolution-evolution. She stresses the histories of struggling communities, the relation between the base and the leadership, the existential character of participation in a movement, the unfinished and provisional nature of all theory – things which you could use as a guide in perceiving what the Egyptian movement is, and even more, what the American movements are and could become. You listen to this woman and you want to build something now, with no fear and no foot on the brakes and no limits on the intelligence, except for that practical demand to walk the walk and make it real. But what does that mean, concretely, for us in the near future?
I guess there will be no American revolution without a deeper crisis, but I also guess it will come. The geopolitical transformations, the resource crunch, the climate chaos, the monetary instability driven by unreformed financial markets, the narco chaos in Mexico due to decades of bad neoliberal policies on both sides of the border, the chasms of inequality, the racism and fascism all that gives rise to inside our country, all that is part, not of the expansion of America into empire, but of the implosion of empire into America. That’s how we are now going to experience world society. In the face of that we need to reconstruct critical thought as practice. In my opinion, the grassroots movements of which I am a part are too naive about the complexity of the imperial implosion. We don’t realize how closely everything that is happening to us is connected to everything that the corporate elites and the military are doing out in the world, and we don’t have enough ways — some, but not enough — of connecting with people who are also trying to break out of liberal empire. I think that as intellectuals we need to give street cred to an analysis of global capital and its possible alternatives. And in the same movement, we have to convince parts of the former middle classes (starting with ourselves) to start thinking and living differently. There is much to build on as the public university collapses and a national network of autonomist activist-intellectuals begins to look like a vitally interesting place to invest one’s life energies. How to proliferate the models of grassroots theory & practice, how to push real political discussions into the public sphere without reducing them to the existing alternatives (repubdem), how to overcome the media drumbeat of the war machine that drowns out everything else in this country, except maybe the big sporting events and consumer fests that are another side of the same coin?
The questions are complex, to answer them needs real study and precise information of the kind that is usually found in universities. But remembers James’ critiques. You can’t play on the house’s table and expect them not to win. Intellectuals and cultural producers are mostly trapped within the corruption of the existing institutions. Even at home, the second American revolution has to come at the price of some kind of exit from liberal empire. I call on those who conceive themselves as intellectuals to do this, at all levels of activity, as many have already done since the turn of the millennium. Let’s show our colors and find out what they are and how to wear them. Let’s get together and do some serious intellectual projects. Serious means the idea is not just to analyze but to change something.
Grace Lee Boggs says: “I think too many radicals use events to demonstrate the validity of their ideas, rather than as challenges to further our thinking” (http://tinyurl.com/grace-revolution). Thanks, Keith, for taking the events in Egypt as a reason to open up the question of the second American revolution.