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Monday, October 13, 2014


The discussion I invited with my post “Three Cheers for Jeremy Bentham” has been vigorous and lively, drawling in an unusually large number of serious commentators.  I am certainly not going to attempt a summary characterization of the discussion, nor am I going to presume to offer a definitive response.  However, I do wish to respond to several of the things that were said by one commentator or another. 

Let me begin by offering my own assessment of the current situation in which we find ourselves in America.  The United States is now and has been for all of my adult lifetime [since 1952, let us say] an imperial power, pursuing a number of imperial goals, among which very prominently is making the world safe for capitalism.  It is not, so far as I can see, markedly worse as an imperial power than those that preceded it on the world stage or than those that that have been competing with it for half a century and more, but it is not markedly better either.  America, like other imperial powers, uses its military power to overthrow governments, capture and torture individuals, bribe regimes, protect the investments of its capitalists, ensure its access to raw materials, and prop up corrupt governments from whom it imagines it can gain some temporary advantage.  Like other imperial powers [with the possible exception or the Mongols], America cloaks its actions in self-justifying rhetoric, in its case claiming to defend democracy and promote justice.  Its claims are no more plausible than the analogous claims of the Roman Empire, the British Empire, or the Soviet Empire.

I have been opposed to America’s imperial project for all of those sixty-odd years, as have a number of folks whom I think of as comrades, but we have been completely unsuccessful in altering the goals and methods of America’s foreign affairs, and I see absolutely no prospect that this will change in the decades left to me.  What is more, I cannot even imagine a realistically plausible sequence of events that would result in imperialism itself giving way to some other form of international relations.  That is certainly a pessimistic appraisal of the world in which I live, but it is not at all unrealistic, so far as I can see.  I can certainly fantasize about an America that, as a world hegemon, pursues policies of which I would entirely approve [encouraging human rights and democratic forms of government, fostering socialism, embracing transparency and eschewing hypocrisy], but I cannot, even within the confines of my mind, imagine a pathway to a domestic politics that would support such policies abroad.

During that same period, America’s domestic reality has in some ways improved markedly and in other ways deteriorated.  I take as genuine, undeniable, important advances the several domestic social liberation movements – the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Liberation Movement, the Gay Liberation Movement, and the struggle for women’s reproductive rights.  I simply do not recognize as a person I can usefully engage in conversation anyone who brushes those aside as unimportant or of purely secondary importance.  But with these victories have come sharply increased economic inequality, the gutting of the union movement which served as a bulwark of progressive policies, and a marked rise in religiously based no-nothing-ism that corrupts the public discourse.  I can imagine a path to an improvement in America’s domestic politics, always within the unfortunate constraints of capitalism, and in my very small way I do what I can to move us all down that path.

Because America is so rich and powerful, and because I am one of the privileged and protected in this country, I believe that I have an obligation to seek ways in which I can contribute to whatever marginal improvements are possible, all the while acknowledging [to myself and to others] that I am failing entirely to contribute to a fundamental redirection or redefinition of America’s foreign and domestic policy.

It is in that context that I posed the question that triggered the current discussion on this blog.

I thought Peter DO Smith’s remarks about political retribution were political retribution were very wise.  A cycle of punishment by each administration of its predecessor’s evil actions would have destabilizing consequences in American politics, and I am not so naïve as to imagine that in today’s America destabilization would favor the forces of the left.  Perhaps I am more haunted than I ought to be by the descent of Weimar Germany into the hell of Nazism, but I am painfully aware of the fragile institutional protections against fascism.  Those who are too quick to say that what we have in America today is fascism would do well to take a look at the historical reality of real fascism.

Peter DO Smith’s sketch of a system of international accountability is pleasant reading but is utterly unrealizable, as I suspect he knows.

There is a good deal more I could say by way of response, but perhaps it would be better for me simply to thank one and all for their participation in the discussion, and cast about for some new topic to blog about.

1 comment:

enzo rossi said...

I'm afraid this might sound like a pointed rhetorical question, but it's neither pointed nor rhetorical. Do we know of any imperial regime that was successfully steered towards foreign policy changes through internal intellectual arguments?

Maybe the abolition of slavery in the British empire, and maybe the changed means of US foreign policy (e.g. abolition of the draft) after Vietnam are examples of this sort of thing. But it's easy to retrospectively overplay the role of arguments in both of those developments. Empires don't mend their wicked ways unless they have something to gain or lose.