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Tuesday, March 29, 2011


I listened very carefully to Obama's speech about Libya last night. It was intelligent, careful, prudent, restrained, high-minded, and -- I thought -- admirably clear. In short, it is just about the best version we are going to get of American Imperialism. As I suggested yesterday, Obama's foreign policy is entirely continuous with the Imperial stance that America has adopted for the past two-thirds of a century. The United States, despite its economic troubles, bestrides the world like a colossus [if I may borrow a phrase from Shakespeare]. Its military power, unmatched in magnitude, flexibility, and efficiency, underwrites our imperialism in much the way that Britain's navy underwrote hers and Rome's legions hers. Obama proposes to wield that power with restraint, with intelligence, with international cooperation, and with determination both in defense of what we conceive to be our vital national interests and in pursuit of our collective policies, be they the opening of markets, the securing of friendly rulers in oil-laden lands, or even the protection of subject populations yearning to be free. As I have several times argued in this space, this imperial project is the shared commitment of every sector of the American political establishment, and of the vast majority of the American people as well. There is, I believe, no realistic prospect of America giving up this project until it is forced to do so by circumstances, as has happened sooner or later to every previous empire. I am not in principal opposed to a powerful, militarily dominant America, inasmuch as there will always be some nation or nations dominating the international scene. I would simply have liked America, when it ascended to this eminence, to use its power to advance the progressive and revolutionary interests of common people around the globe, rather than to undermine those interests while supporting dictators, tyrants, and religious fundamentalists. I would have liked this country to throw its support unreservedly behind Fidel Castro, so that he could create the socialist paradise he dreamed of for Cuba. I would have liked America to support Mossadegh, not assissinate him, to embrace Daniel Ortega, not plot to overthrow him. But I am well aware that there is not the slightest hint of popular or elite support in this country for a truly progressive use of our military power. Would it be better if we were to retire from the world scene, disband our enormous military-industrial-governmental complex, and maintain only enough military power to protect the country from genuine threats? That would certainly allow us to repair the economic damage of two thirds of a century of war-making and war-preparation, although I have no reason to believe that the vast funds thus freed up would be used for anything other than further enrichment of the super rich. Were we to adopt that course, we would then live in a world dominated by the Chinese, whose imperial ambitions are no less deeply rooted than ours. Would that be a better world? I honestly do not know. But these are idle speculations. The reality is that for at least another generation or two, America will be the dominant imperial power in the world [and there are no Jedi knights waiting on out of the way planets to step in and sort things out.] So I guess we are left with Obama's version of imperialism for the next two to six years. We shall have to wait and see how things work out.


Chris said...

Hmm. I'm not so sure China is next in line for imperial exploitation. It's a US rumor for sure, but I'm not convinced on the evidence. Although it's next in line as far as defense budgets go, it's still roughly 1/9th of our budget. And the top 10-15 defense budgets across the globe are predominately US allies, or simple NATO/Allied countries. China also doesn't occupy any countries that I know of that aren't directly connected to its borders...

Otherwise your post is almost entirely, and unfortunately convincing!

English Jerk said...

Dr. Wolff:

You claim that "the vast majority of the American people" support "the opening of markets [and] the securing of friendly rulers in oil-laden lands" through enormously costly military operations. What is your evidence for this claim? The studies I have seen say exactly the opposite.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

My evidence is simply that for sixty years, they have voted for presidents and senators who endorsed those policies, while at the same time supporting ever larger military budgets to build and sustain an imperial army. I would certainly like to think that there is a large constituency for changing the past two thirds of a century of policies, but I don't see it. Just try reversing our policy on Cuba, for example. Try cutting our military budget by fifty or seventy-five percent, and using the money to rebuild America's infrastructure.

Chris said...

I think both of you are correct.
English Jerk, you're right that in general the American public does not support the imperial ambitions of the US, when asked in isolation. But Wolff is right that the US population does support the imperial ambitions of the us, when asked, in a time of...imperial ambition! This speaks to the manipulating, and as Chomsky would call 'manufacturing of consent,' of main-stream media, and state apparatus.

So, in the year 2000, no one supports a war with Iraq. With enough bravado and chicanery bu March 2003, they do. Once those in power desire a war, the opinion of the population will change. As Marx pointed out, the mainstream news, and ideas will reflect mainstream ideology, which is promulgated by the elite.

English Jerk said...


I'm entirely on board with Chomsky & Herman's analysis of the propaganda system. But what's astonishing is the extent to which it doesn't work. The polls in 2003 in which a majority was in favor of invading Iraq might, for many reasons, not reflect people's actual beliefs about US foreign policy. For example, many people feel that they ought in general to stand behind the president, and will thus say they favor a policy that they actually don't. Those surveys are usually carefully worded (by the likes of the Rand corporation) to ensure that they obtain the most pro-war result possible, since they too are part of the propaganda machinery.

Dr. Wolff:

You are, of course, quite right that (some) Americans vote fascists into office over and over again, whether it's a fascist from Big Business Party #1 or Big Business Party #2. But that, again, does not necessarily reflect their approval in principle of those fascists--the fact that there's such a narrow range of choices (that, as Chomsky likes to say, it's "flipping a coin to choose a king") suggests that a vote is unlikely to reflect people's real values.


Consider the following thought experiment: Suppose the American people were given the option to specify on their tax return what percentage of their tax dollars was to be spent on what general area (Military, Education, Infrastructure, and maybe a few others). What do you think the numbers would look like? All the evidence I've seen suggests that those percentages would look nothing at all like they do at present in the hands of politicians.

As one piece of evidence in this direction, consider the following study conducted at the University of Maryland:

In this study, the researchers provided ordinary people with basic factual information about the budget, and then asked them to revise it as they saw fit, with the aim of reducing the deficit. The plans that ordinary people came up with were perfectly feasible and generally quite sensible (including large cuts in military spending)--and they deviated dramatically from the plans of any of the corporate golems who currently control such matters.

As another piece of evidence, consider the many surveys done over the years in which Americans are asked about where their tax dollars are spent. These surveys consistently show that Americans vastly overestimate the amount of money spent on foreign aid and the amount of money spent on education, and they vastly underestimate the amount of money spent on the military. (See, for example,

(To be continued...)

English Jerk said...

Both of these data points suggest that ordinary people are relatively sensible, even in the absence of substantial knowledge--and are eminently sensible when that knowledge is provided. As we all agree, the US is not at all, nor ever has been, a "government of the people, by the people, and for the people." It is, and has been since WWII, a government of the people, by corporations, for corporations.

I belabor this point because I think that the left (especially the more centrist, "liberal" end) is catastrophically hampered by a pervasive (largely unconscious) contempt for ordinary people. This contempt seriously hampers any attempt to organize people to fight for their own interests against state-corporate power. And it also reflect a serious failure to recognize the enormous capacity for rationality and altruism that seems to be an intrinsic feature of our species. Chomsky rightly emphasizes such capacities (and the rationality of ordinary people) any time he is asked about popular opinion. Mass culture is definitely designed to dupe people, but it doesn't follow that people are simply dupes.

Chris said...

I think your studies rather vindicate my point that you and Wolff are both correct.

I'm not seeing any notion of disagreement, so, glad we agree!

English Jerk said...


I think we actually do disagree (in a friendly way, of course!). You're saying that the US population does support US foreign policy sometimes (e.g., in 2003); I'm denying this. And I take Dr. Wolff to be making the even stronger claim that the (majority) US population supports US foreign policy most of the time, which, again, I'm denying. It's an important point, I think, because how much confidence one has in ordinary people to do the right thing has a large effect on what kinds of strategies one adopts to achieve political aims. This is true both domestically and in terms of foreign policy. The liberal rationale for invading Libya, for example, presupposes that the Libyan people are incapable of toppling the tyrant on their own. Moreover, it's worth noting that the consequentialist argument for the Libya invasion is identical to the paternalistic argument liberals offered in 2003 for our invasion of Iraq: 'whatever the US's motives, it topples a malevolent dictator and thus gives the Iraqi people their freedom.' But I hardly see how we can justify the invasion even instrumentally when what is sure to replace the current government of Libya will be a government formed under a US military occupation, and it will therefore inevitably be a malevolent puppet government serving the interests of US oil companies--a tyranny that is surely no better, and quite possibly worse (cf. Iraq, where we've exterminated at least a few million people, far more than Quadaffi ever has).

Such are my tuppence, anyway.