The Face of Empire

William K. Tabb teaches economics at Queens College, City University of New York and is the author of The Amoral Elephant: Globalization and the Struggle for Social Justice in the Twenty-First Century (Monthly Review Press) and Unequal Partners: A Primer on Globalization (The New Press).
The following is an edited version of a talk presented at the session on “Contradictions and Antagonisms in the Present Phase of Capitalist Globalization” at the European Network for Alternative Thinking and Political Dialogue, November 7, 2002, Florence, Italy.

They who advocate and enforce the neoliberal agenda have now lost intellectually, morally, even in terms of their own beloved market test. The neoliberal policies of the last decades have failed to bring about economic growth and financial stability, to say nothing of meeting the test of justice or of addressing the social costs and wrong headed quality of the growth the existing system does produce. It is now clear to a great many people around the world that the neoliberal agenda is bankrupt. The World Bank and the academic defenders of the so-called Washington Consensus have stopped defending it as before. Suddenly the need for “reform,” which has up to now meant the imposition of the Washington Consensus, is applied by them to the Washington Consensus itself. Of course these “reforms” are mostly aimed at disarming critics. “Dialogue” and “partnership” are on offer only so they can better pursue their unchanged agenda of domination.

What is called the anti-globalization movement, and what I would prefer to call the global justice movement, has won important victories and to a significant extent has forced a change in the terms of the discussion. The moment is bittersweet none the less because what the Bush Administration has succeeded in doing is to change the subject away from social justice, or the lessening of the sum total of human suffering, where the inadequacies and counterproductive nature of its policies had become all too clear. Instead they have focused the world’s media on the so-called war on terrorism, which is primarily a war to expand control over the rest of the world through force and violence, supplementing the work of the economic and financial police at the IMF and WTO. The Bush regime has changed the subject from justice to violence, claiming that the violence and possible future violence of the “evil ones” as the rationale for his own far greater violence. This war is focused on oil and the assertion of an American Empire—the right of the hegemonic sector of U.S. capitalism to rule the world. It is this assertion of power arising out of the large ambition of an arrogant and triumphant American capitalism, and especially of those factions integral to the oil and the military sectors, on which I wish to focus.

We need to take back the initiative not only by opposing U.S. imperialism, not only by continuing to struggle against the social injustices of capitalist globalization and the domination of the global state economic governance institutions, the IMF, World Bank, World Trade Organization and the others, but by making the connections between the two faces of Empire—the economic and the military. By drawing the connections between the two, by explaining that things do not have to be this way, we can show that another world is possible.

There are always two faces of the ruling class. One is its seemingly more reasonable face. In an earlier era it explained colonialism as its white man’s burden, the obligation to civilize the savage races, presumably as an act of Christian charity. Today it says its goal is good governance, free markets, and free trade which are good for all. And all the while unequal exchange, exploitation, and domination (which these days they call partnership) are self-righteously imposed. The second face is revealed when the mask comes off and the gunboats and the laser guided bombs impose order on the natives, the rogue states. Those who for whatever reason are unwilling to obey are taught a brutal lesson. The United States, the hegemon of global capitalism, now shows the world the face of a war without end declared (with what would under other circumstances be laughable puerility) against “evil.” Yet everyone in the world knows that the aim is simply to subjugate all those who would fail to follow its wishes.

In my remarks I will focus on the United States, not because I am a citizen of that country but because it is the United States which is so central to what is wrong in the global economy and polity. However the main problem with American power is not that it is American. The elite who rule the United States exercise hegemonic power in global capitalism. Things would be much the same were that power exercised by a different national capitalist ruling elite.

The imposition of neoliberalism has now also been linked tightly to the U.S. war on terrorism. When U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick, touring the world to drum up support for a new trade round in 2002, argued that free trade would help stamp out terrorism his comments were generally taken as opportunist rhetoric. However President Bush’s threat that if countries “are not with us they are with the terrorists” had a huge impact on trade negotiations, and particularly the outcome of the WTO’s Fourth Ministerial Conference at Doha. As Ninan Koshy writes, “The links between launching new trade talks and security issues only remotely connected earlier, became one and the same issue.” Of course below the surface they always were the same issue. As Thomas Friedman has famously set out: “The hidden hand of the market will never work without the hidden fist—McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell-Douglas, the designer of the F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies is called the United States Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines.”

Suddenly we have a whole lot of writing, mostly by right wing ideologues in the pages of the business press, on the need for imperialism and colonialism . The Bush people hardly need prompting. This after all is an Administration which is drawn not just from corporate America (as all U.S. administrations have been for half a century) but from the oil and the “defense” industries. Its tactic has been to keep the American public in a permanent fright, and so in effect extort the support it claims. Whenever there is bad news, such as the exposure of the President’s close ties with “Kenny Boy” Lay, the CEO of Enron and Mr. Bush’s largest campaign contributor, or news of wrongdoings by Halliburton while Vice President Cheney was its head, or even the embarrassing testimony to the Congress by an FBI agent, Coleen Rowley that the Bureau was forewarned of and bungled September 11th, Attorney General Ashcroft can be counted upon to announce the capture of a dangerous terrorist. Typically the “terrorist” has either been in custody for awhile or under close surveillance ready to be picked up. The word “terrorist” is pronounced and immediately the U.S. media salutes and buries any potentially embarrassing alternative story. This fraud cannot continue indefinitely. There are limits to how spineless the U.S. media can be, and how brainwashed its audience. But it is up to activists to force the issue; to show what is happening and why.

It is surely clear now that the U.S. policy makers intend a unilateralism which is something new. Over the last several years there is quite a long list of narrowly self-interested actions with global consequences: the U.S. has rejected the Kyoto Accords and the establishment of an international criminal court, has imposed steel tariffs and huge agricultural subsidies, has abrogated the ABM treaty so a new generation of nuclear weapons can be produced, has failed to accept treaties on land mines, or to protect the rights of children, has tried to rewrite the UN plan intended to reinforce the convention against torture, refuses to accept an agreement on controlling the international flow of small arms, and more.

At the same time the United States is dramatically increasing its military spending so that by next year (2003) it will spend over $300 billion, an amount equal to the entire Gross Domestic Product of Russia. The U.S. currently spends more on just military Research and Development than either Britain or Germany spend in total on defense. There have been Pentagon announcements that the US is now planning to use tactical nuclear weapons in future conflicts. In post-Soviet Central Asia it is establishing huge military bases and completing the encirclement of China’s borders. It is militarizing space with an objective, as the Space Command’s “Vision 2020” declares, of “dominating the space dimension of military operations to protect U.S. interests and investments… The emerging synergy of space superiority with land, sea and air superiority will lead to Full Spectrum Dominance.” Given this capacity it can be argued the central issue of our time is what to do about the United States.

The Bush Doctrine of preemptive strikes at “evil ones,” declaring that “the war on terrorism will not be won on the defensive,” puts the world on notice that the conventions which have governed relations between nations for more than half a century have been discarded. Self-defense has been re-interpreted to mean that the U.S. will attack whatever enemy it finds appropriate. Even conservative commentators find the implications of such domineering profoundly troubling. As Philip Stephens, the Financial Times columnist, writes: “Where do we draw the line between pre-emptive action against an obvious and imminent menace and what one senior US official called ‘preemptive retaliation’ to head off more distant threat?” And it worries him that “Mr. Bush seems to presume that the US alone would make all these judgments.” This bothers many of us. If the U.S. claims the ability to do whatever it wants in the world, ordinary people must do what their governments and ruling elites are unwilling to do, stand up to Empire. The U.S. approach which threatens and uses violence to extend U.S. economic and political power is the immediate threat to the world. It is embedded in a larger system of structural injustice which we are gathered here at this Social Forum to address and resist.

It has been pointed out by vulgar marxists and some other observant folks that the U.S. seems in need of fighting evil primarily where it doesn’t control oil. This is suggested in such communist publications as Business Week where in a recent article Paul Starobin writes: “The game the Americans are playing has some of the highest stakes going. What they are attempting is nothing less than the biggest carve-out of a new U.S. sphere of influence since the U.S. became involved in the Middle East 50 years ago. The result could be a commitment of decades that exposes America to the threat of countless wars and dangers.” There are already thousands of U.S. troops in new bases and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says they will stay “as long as necessary.” U.S. investments in the Caspian/Central Asian region, one of the world’s last undeveloped cluster of fields, which hardly existed five years ago, are now $20 billion and growing. The U.S. is maneuvering to break Russia’s monopoly over oil transport routes. Such considerations explain much else. Russia’s only operational pipeline for Caspian oil goes through Chechnia which may explain the virulence for the war on terrorists there. China, which imported 20 percent of its petroleum needs in 1995, will need to import 40 percent by 2010 and the China National Petroleum Corporation is active in Kazakhstan. The Chinese are helping equip the Kazakh military and U.S. relations with China seem to resonate in relation to their involvement in the region.

And then there is Iraq, where the prospect exists of ramping up Iraq’s current output limited to two million barrels of oil a day under the UN oil-for-food program to, say, five billion and so break OPEC. All the US needs is to invade and overthrow the government. As Friedman writes in the New York Times “If that scenario prevails, you could look at the invasion of Iraq as a possible two-for-one sale: destroy Saddam and destroy OPEC at the same time. Buy one, get one free. But,” he adds, “you better prepare for the consequences of both.” Among possible consequences are a fracturing of Iraq and a period of ungovernability not only there but where “regime changes” occur in other oil producers who suddenly lose the revenues a dramatic fall in oil prices would provoke. There may well be lots of scope for the United States to fight “evil” in a number of oil producing countries. Oil is found in many places around the world and control over energy resources is always a matter of concern to political leaders of powerful states. It is not surprising then that the U.S. government under a president and a vice president who come from the oil industry and who have filled their administration with oil people, in their war of good against evil concentrate on areas of interest to the industry.

“Terrorist” sanctuaries and a map of principle energy resources from Indonesia to Venezuela have a certain overlap. The nations of West Africa—Angola, Nigeria, Congo, Gabon, Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea will collectively supply 25 percent of US oil by 2015 and have already been designated “an area of vital US interest.” Most important is the region of the Caspian/Central Asia. Estimates of its reserves vary from 200 billion barrels which is on a level with Saudi Arabia to fewer than 100 barrels, on a par with the reserves of the North Sea which would at current prices be worth about $2.7 trillion. Bringing this non-OPEC source on line would also undermine the cartel and give control over oil prices to the major oil companies and their governments, diminish any threat of blackmail from Mideast producers, indeed would allow the pressure to be exerted effectively against OPEC countries. And as Jan Kalicki points out in Foreign Affairs, “Located at the crossroads of western Europe, eastern Asia, and the Middle East, the Caspian serves as a trafficking area for weapons of mass destruction, terrorists, and narcotics—a role enhanced by the weakness region’s governments. With few exceptions the fledgling Caspian republics are plagued with pervasive corruption, political repression, and virtual absence of the rule of law.” Looks like more work for Uncle Sam.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union opened the vast oil and gas resources of the region and unleashed a high stakes contest for regional hegemony over the world’s largest untapped reserves. Halliburton, the company not long ago headed by Vice President Cheney has long been a player planning the construction of a pipeline to exploit the energy resources of the region, once security was established. Some believe the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan has achieved that goal. Afghanistan is the most convenient route to the Pakistani coast on the Arabian Sea, which would reduce dependence on the Gulf as a shipping lane. Whether any of this has anything to do with Operation Enduring Freedom is an interesting question. Brown and Root, a division of Halliburton was the contractor for the construction of Camp Bondsteel one of the many new bases the U.S. has established for what appears to be a long stay in the region. This is an area where economic analysis and politics are intertwined with rumor and conspiracy theory so that, for example, it is said that US-led operations in Kosovo were to secure a route from the Caspian through the former Yugoslavia to Central Europe. Commentators point out the potential gains for other US industries – “from infrastructure to telecommunications to transportation and other sectors” which could also benefit.

Just behind the oil industry at the heart of the economic coalition supporting current policy are the so-called defense contractors, who for a price promise a new generation of weapons which will make all of this possible without loss of American lives. Coming on stream or already in use are ground sensors dropped from drone planes which self-activate and listen and watch for enemy troops and vehicles which they can recognize from memory. Unmanned planes with stealth design can then bomb them. Human soldiers will carry micro air vehicles which use tiny cameras to get bird’s eye views of enemy territory, and so small they can be carried in back packs. “Hornet munitions” are small canisters which can be dropped, right themselves and then their sensors detect and attack with armor piercing projectiles. The list of such new war toys is a long one. They are expensive and very profitable, and are likely to be as accurate as the so-called smart bombs which have killed so many civilians where they have been used. It is a pretense of course that the dirty job of killing accurately can be done by remote control, but the Pentagon is eagerly pushing these scenarios of video war game.

I have already spoken of how substantial are such increases in spending. The Bush people plan to increase their budget by $120 billion or so each year for the next five years, with most of the money going to new weapons systems. This will increase the Pentagon budget by a quarter of a trillion dollars above what it would be if increases kept spending proportional to existing levels, adjusting for inflation. By 2007 the estimate is for a 30 percent increase in Pentagon spending which, along with the Bush tax cuts, will force down all other spending. These numbers are only projections. If the president gets his way, military costs will stay high, crowding out expenditures for social needs in the U.S. Instead of considerations of development aid and debt cancellation, we will get more focus on militarization of societies around the world. The strategy of Empire is one of permanent garrison states led by Washington, with increasing police presence everywhere and all dissent repressed.

In the past the U.S. has wrapped its role in reasonable discussion and gently coerced consent, coaxing the world into line and avoiding obvious brutality as much as possible, although always bringing out the club when needed to make a point. The current Bush administration relies on cruder means, the fear generated by its clear message that anyone who is not “with us” is with the terrorists; it has made clear it will act alone whenever it likes. In the president’s words, the US “will not hesitate to act alone, if necessary, to exercise our right of self-defense by acting pre-emptively.” Iraq will not be the end of such regime changes if Mr. Bush gets his way. While the U.S. has surely overthrown many governments in the past, the Bush Doctrine is a very public statement of a muscular unilateralism. As Steven Mufson has written in the Washington Post of the Bush approach: “Because it stresses the hatred and ambition of ‘evil doers,’ it stands in stark contrast to the outlook of his father as well as former president Bill Clinton, both of whom stressed nations’ self-interest in achieving freedom and prosperity. Bush senior may have waged war against Iraq, but throughout his career he placed greater faith in diplomacy than confrontation. And Clinton… mostly promoted a positive vision of a world where ‘democratic enlargement’ and free trade would spread stability and liberal values.”

Yet this is a difference of degree and not of kind. The U.S. was and continues to be an imperialist power, even if it is perhaps likely that the Clinton people would not have been quite as obvious about grabbing the oil at whatever cost and would have consulted their allies more. The emphasis is not without importance, but we are talking about tactical differences, not any real difference over the interests of U.S.-based transnational capital coming first and foremost. And the U.S. capitalist ruling class has its friends and allies elsewhere. Yet the only major regime which stands without pretense of independent judgment with the United States is Tony Blair’s. This is in part because U.S. and British capital have consolidated to a large extent. British Petroleum has now merged with the American Oil Company (Amoco) which had already eaten Atlantic Richfield. The company is one of the largest if not the largest oil company in the world. There have also been Anglo-American mergers in defense contracting and of course in financial services. To speak of evil for once without quotes, the name Rupert Murdoch might also here be mentioned.

The policies which will ease tensions in the Middle East and address the support terrorists in the region now receive overlap quite substantially with the demands of the global justice movement. These are the recognition of the rights of oppressed people, an end to the outrage of the Israeli occupation and its oppression of Palestinians, an end to the condoning of violations of essential human rights, of course not only in the Middle East. Above all what is required is respect by the rich countries of the core for the needs of peoples and societies of the rest of the world, including the cancellation of odious debt, sharing technology rather than monopoly control in the name of protecting intellectual property, in general a focus on fairness and not arrogance, and the development of a social safety net for all people everywhere as citizens of our global society. To achieve these sensible goals will require a strong popular movement with a basic understanding that these evils are a result of a system, a capitalist system, in which inequality and violence are essential to class rule.

My final thought is that President Bush and those who are part of his project have done us, in a sense, a favor. They have shown the unity of the immorality of the system with which we do battle in its economic, militarist and political aspects. We must be united and resolute in our struggle for global justice and real democracy, participatory democracy in which people take control of the forces which affect our lives. Only then can the world move to the positive moment of emancipatory freedom. when the needs of each are the need of all, and a participatory, democratic, environmentally sustainable society replaces the failed system we gather here to denounce.