Does imperialism exist?

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Wed Nov 6 08:19:27 MST 2002

The Rediscovery of Imperialism
by John Bellamy Foster


A more influential left criticism of the notion of imperialism was
launched by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in their book Empire (2000),
published by Harvard University Press. According to Hardt and Negri
imperialism ended with the Vietnam War. The 1991 Gulf War, in which the
United States unleashed its military power on Iraq, was, according to
these authors, carried out “not as a function of [the United States’]
own national motives but in the name of global right….The U.S. world
police acts not in imperialist interest but in imperial interest [that
is in the interest of Empire without a center and without boundaries].
In this sense the Gulf War did indeed, as George Bush [senior] claimed,
announce the birth of a new world order.” Elsewhere in their book they
declared: “The United States does not, and indeed no nation-state can
today, form the center of an imperialist project.” It was precisely this
position—that denied a relationship between the United States and
imperialism in the classical, exploitative sense, but which also saw the
extension of U.S. sovereignty and power as reflective of “empire” and a
civilizing “imperial” role (the extension of the U.S. Constitution to
the global stage)—that was emphasized in the unstinting praise of Hardt
and Negri’s book that poured out in such places as the New York Times,
Time magazine, the London Observer and Foreign Affairs.*

More recently, Todd Gitlin, a former president of the Students for a
Democratic Society and now Professor of Journalism and Sociology at
Columbia, wrote in an op-ed piece for the New York Times (September 5,

"The American left...had its version of unilateralism. Responsibility
for the [September 11] attacks had, somehow, to lie with American
imperialism, because all responsibility has to lie with American
imperialism—a perfect echo of the right’s idea that all good powers are
and should be somehow American. Intellectuals and activists on the far
left could not be troubled much with compassion or defense…. Knowing
little about Al Qaeda, they filed it under Anti-Imperialism, and
American attacks on the Taliban under Vietnam Quagmire. For them, not
flying the flag became an urgent cause…. Post-Vietnam liberals have an
opening now, freed of our 60’s flag anxiety and our reflexive
negativity, to embrace a liberal patriotism that is unapologetic and

For Gitlin—writing in an establishment media outlet that had been
publishing pieces straightforwardly extolling a supposedly benign
American “imperialism,”—the whole charge of “American imperialism” was
some sort of extreme distortion introduced by the left.” Never mind that
it was the location of U.S. military bases permanently in Saudi Arabia
as a result of the U.S. war against Iraq in 1991 that induced the
Islamic fundamentalists coming out of Saudi Arabia (including al-Qaeda
itself) to turn on the United States. Never mind that Osama bin Laden
got his terrorist training through the U.S.-sponsored war of Islamic
fundamentalists against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Never mind that
Saddam Hussein was a former U.S. imperial client at the time of the
Iran-Iraq War (and indeed up to the very moment of his invasion of
Kuwait). And never mind that Saudi Arabia and Iraq are first and second
in the world in their known oil reserves, or the fact that Afghanistan
is the doorstep to Central Asia, one of the richest areas of petroleum
and natural gas reserves in the world. Finally, never mind that the
United States now has military bases throughout Central Asia and intends
to stay. Somehow, despite all of this and despite the fact that
America’s supposed imperialism” is now being praised widely within the
mainstream, the left is not allowed to raise the issue of American
imperialism as part of a critique of U.S. foreign policy. If imperialism
is being rediscovered it is only within certain circumscribed
ideological limits.



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