Comments on a Wallerstein article

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Mon May 26 09:40:12 MDT 2003

Empire and the Capitalists (
by Immanuel Wallerstein

In short, [Stephen] Roach is arguing that the macho militarism swagger of
the Bush regime, the dream of the U.S. hawks to remake the world in their
image, is not merely undoable, but distinctly negative from the point of
view of large U.S. investors, the audience for whom Roach writes, the
customers of Morgan Stanley. Roach is of course absolutely right, and it is
noteworthy that this is not being said by some left-wing academic, but by
an insider of big capital.

Roach represents a distaff view within Wall Street and the foreign policy
establishment. You get the same sort of hand-wringing from George Soros,
who spoke at a Paris conference organized to explore Wallerstein's thought
that was sponsored by Le Monde, the Paribas Foundation among others. (The
Paribas Foundation was set up by BNP, one the most powerful investment
banks in France and--like Soros--given to pangs of conscience about
screwing the rest of the world.)

What Roach, Soros, Krugman, Stiglitz and Jeffrey Sachs all represent is the
nagging doubt of the bourgeoisie about whether the current expansionist
drive is sustainable. In other words, it is the expression of mainstream
Democratic Party thinking. It tends to crop up on the eve of some
imperialist adventure and subside after the unruly natives are subdued.

Contrary to Wallerstein's spin on Roach's remarks, the "macho militarism
swagger" is not something that Bush initiated. It is simply the latest
installment in a foreign policy around which is there is a substantial
consensus. Clinton's war against Yugoslavia involved virtually all the same
themes, including "human rights" rhetoric and large-scale Goebbels-esque
propaganda-lies. The war in Afghanistan was simply a more ambitious version
of the "war on terror" that had led to the bombing of Sudan's only
pharmaceutical factory and other violent attacks by the Clinton
administration that were barely noticed by the liberal establishment.

Seen in longer historical perspective, what we are seeing here is the
500-year-old tension in the modern world-system between those who wish to
protect the interests of the capitalist strata by ensuring a
well-functioning world-economy, with a hegemonic but non-imperial power to
guarantee its political underpinnings, and those who wish to transform the
world-system into a world-empire. We had three major attempts in the
history of the modern world-system to do this: Charles V/Ferdinand II in
the sixteenth century, Napoleon in the beginning of the nineteenth century,
and Hitler in the middle of the twentieth century. All were magnificently
successful - until they fell flat on their faces, when faced by opposition
organized by the powers that ultimately became hegemonic - the United
Provinces, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Odd. I had the distinct impression that the United Kingdom ran a
world-empire. At least that's what NYY professor and imperialist ideologue
Niall Ferguson believes and promotes. Does Wallerstein think that Winston
Churchill was less of an architect of world-empire than Adolph Hitler? The
people of India, China, Burma, and most of Africa might have quibbled with
that assessment not too long ago.

Hegemony is not about macho militarism. Hegemony is about economic
efficiency, making possible the creation of a world order on terms that
will guarantee a smoothly-running world-system in which the hegemonic power
becomes the locus of a disproportionate share of capital accumulation. The
United States was in that situation from 1945 to circa 1970. But it's been
losing that advantage ever since. And when the U.S. hawks and the Bush
regime decided to try to reverse decline by going the world-imperial path,
they shot the United States, and U.S.-based large capitalists, in the foot
- if not immediately, in a very short future. This is what Roach is warning
about, and complaining about.

There is a fundamental confusion here. No advice from Roach, nor Soros, nor
Stiglitz can change the precarious situation world capitalism finds itself
in today. Despite my sharp disagreements with Robert Brenner over the
origins of capitalism and his inexplicable endorsement of the right of the
USA to fund a counter-revolutionary movement in Cuba, his 1998 New Left
Review article seems more astute than ever. With the rise of the German and
Japanese economies in the 1960s, the USA has been forced to respond by
driving down wages at home and stepping up attacks on the 3rd world. All
this falls under the rubric of 'neoliberalism'. Despite the crocodile tears
of a Joseph Stiglitz, there is NO ALTERNATIVE within the capitalist system.
The logic that drives this is the need to accumulate capital. Since attacks
on wage labor in the pursuit of profit introduce other potentially sharper
contradictions, reformist illusions about a global Marshall Plan, etc. will
crop up. On my employer's website, you can find a press release about
Professor Jeffrey Sach's proposal to end "extreme poverty" by 2015.

The one measure that is capable of accomplishing such a goal is the very
one these liberal do-gooders will never support, namely proletarian revolution.

But doesn't the Bush regime give these capitalists everything they want -
for example, enormous tax rebates? But do they really want them? Not Warren
Buffett, not George Soros, not Bill Gates (speaking through his father).
They want a stable capitalist system, and Bush is not giving them that.
Sooner or later, they will translate their discontent into action. They may
already be doing this. This doesn't mean they will succeed. Bush may get
reelected in 2004. He may push his political and economic madness further.
He may seek to make his changes irreversible.

It does not matter what Buffett, Gates or Soros want. To paraphrase
Wallerstein: not John Kerry, not Dennis Kucinich, not George W. Bush are
capable of providing a "stable capitalist system". We are in a period of
deepening crisis, imperialist war and--ultimately--revolutionary war. If
you can't stand the heat, then get out of the kitchen.

But in a capitalist system, there is also the market. The market is not
all-powerful, but it is not helpless either. When the dollar collapses, and
it will collapse, everything will change geopolitically. For a collapsed
dollar is far more significant than an Al-Qaeda attack on the Twin Towers.
The U.S. has clearly survived the latter. But it will be a vastly different
U.S. once the dollar collapses. The U.S. will no longer be able to live far
beyond its means, to consume at the rest of the world's expense. Americans
may begin to feel what countries in the Third World feel when faced by
IMF-imposed structural readjustment - a sharp downward thrust of their
standard of living.

The near bankruptcy of the state governments across the United States even
today is a foreshadowing of what is to come. And history will note that,
faced with a bad underlying economic situation in the United States, the
Bush regime did everything possible to make it far worse.

A typical Wallerstein declaration from Mount Olympus. Not a single
strategic recommendation, let alone an engagement with politics. I guess
when we are dealing with 500 year long waves, such imperatives must appear
mundane if not an outright nuisance.

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