The Iraq War and the Structure of Imperial Power
By Robert Kurz
[This article is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, http://www.krisis.org. Other translated articles by Robert Kurz are available on http://www.mbtranslations.com and http://www.portland.indymedia.org.]
The preventive war of the US and Great Britain against Iraq has not only destroyed countless human lives and the infrastructure of this already shattered country. The unanimity of the West has also fallen by the wayside.
A tear goes through the political alliance of the NATO states for the first time since the Second World War. The integration of the old capitalist core countries developed in the decades of the Cold War into an empire of Pax Americana survived the first decade after the collapse of the Pax Sowjetica and is confronted with a whole series of world order wars and world police measures against the "zones of uncertainty", the disintegrating periphery. Dissent over Iraq marks a turning point. The West no longer speaks with one voice since the beginning of 2003. The talk of a new international political axis of Paris-Berlin-Moscow is heard. As the weights of global power shift, this dissent is the beginning of a great historical schism. The preventive strike contrary to international law and the conflict within NATO show that the imperial power is beginning to lose its countenance.
The degree of nervousness grows with every new thrust of the global crisis. Uncertainty expands with very new center of destabilization. No wonder differences break out within the imperial structure. The question is what actually constitutes these differences. Since the beginning of the 90s, a nostalgic discourse has broken out among leftists and conservative ideologues who see a new era of imperial competition brewing. The Cold War, it is said, only covered the rivalry of the great capitalist powers since they had a common enemy. Since this enemy has now disappeared, the world will return to a state as before 1914. The acute dissensus within NATO seems to be grist to the mill of this argument making it more plausible than during the Kosovo intervention of 1999.
However an interpretation determined by the surface of appearances is associative and facile. Historical analogies are always misguided. These analogies are influenced more by moods or legitimatorial needs than by theoretically sound analysis. The unknown makes one fearful and causes confusion. Therefore the new situation of the world after the epochal break is ordered in a familiar model of the past. Still the deficient character of the nostalgic imperialism discourse is manifest. The epoch of Pax Americana and Pax Sowjetica was not a mere temporary interruption of the competition between national empires. A global structural change occurred with the Cold War.
The imperial conflict between the two superpowers was focused on controlling a global political and economic space, not primarily on national appropriation of territories, workers, raw materials and markets. Under this cover, transnational structures of capitalism formed which led to the process of globalization.
There is no turning back from this development as there was no about-face of the capitalist dynamic in the past. The modern goods-producing system is an irreversible process, not a state or condition. Those who want to return to a "geo-political" reasoning according to the global constellation model at the beginning of the 20th century now suddenly act as though a fundamental structural change in history had not occurred after the Second World War.
Two illusions must be confronted: the illusion that the accumulation of capital will wondrously flourish everywhere and that the flood of "new wars", socioeconomic breakdowns and mass migration has nothing to do with the universal model of the "market economy and democracy". The fundamental crisis of the 3rd industrial revolution is ignored just like the new capitalist tendency of globalization. Both processes are closely connected.
Not entirely surprisingly, the remaining representatives of a traditional Marxism seek their salvation in the models of an irretrievable past. The interpretation of Marxist theory was tied to the paradigms of "catch-up or equalizing modernization" and the forms of the modern goods-producing system for more than a century from the western working class movement to the "national liberation movements" of the South. Lenin's theory of imperialism stops in 1914 to avoid facing the problems of the new epoch. Representatives of the middle class European intelligentsia also see themselves prompted to turn the clocks of history back with other motives than traditional Marxists. The well-known French historian Emmanuel Todd took the actual conflict in NATO as the occasion for predicting the coming "geo-political" emancipation of the European Union from the US, perhaps together with Russia and China.
One outward factor speaks against backward-oriented interpretations of western dissent. This factor is the unsurpassed military superiority of the US. In the half-century after 1945, the military-industrial complex of the US has assumed the new dimension of a "permanent war economy". The core of this complex was built in the time of global prosperity between the Korean- and the Vietnam War. This kind of tour de force or strong man act is not repeatable because the sources of prosperity long dried up that could have financed the basis of a comparable unproductive military industry. Building on that, the US alone in the era of "Reagonomics" could initiate a second historical thrust of armaments even though purchased with an historically unparalleled deficit economy. As everybody knows, the inflated military Keynesianism of the US in the 80s was one of the causes for the collapse of the Soviet Union that could not keep up with the arms race.
In the world order wars of the 90s, the distance of the US military machine from all other states expanded. Today the arms budget of the US is ten times greater annually than France, Germany and Great Britain combined. The technological advantage amounts to several generations for most high-tech weapon systems.
If the European Union were a real political unit which it is isn't, many decades would be necessary to come near the US with an independent military-industrial complex. This project also could not be financed under present economic conditions. Therefore Emmanuel Todd didn't attempt to justify the "geo-political emancipation" of Europeans that he forecast. Instead he pointed out that Europe could be strong because it "rejects militarism". This cannot seriously refer to the world of imperial politics. The one with the greatest potential for killing always has preeminence in the free wild race of capitalist power.
Economic power, not outward military superiority, is the ultimate ground of hegemony. Economic power cannot be considered in isolation but always in the context of general capitalist development. When capital as such strikes its limits, the problem of crisis will be decisive, not the problem of hegemony. Todd (like traditional Marxists) doesn't want to know anything about an historical crisis of capitalist accumulation. The world for him moves "toward stability". On the background of this alleged stability, he recognizes a growing economic dependence of the US on the rest of the world demonstrating that the hegemon is on shaky foundations. This is very true.
The deficit domestic economy of the US is conditioned by another deficit. Since the end of the 70s, the deficit in the balance of trade and capital of the western superpower has continuously increased. The US consumes more and more while producing less and less. US consumers buy on credit without saving themselves. They suck up the money capital of the world and then the stream of goods of the world.
Todd acts as though this were only a problem of the US whose hegemony must ultimately be thwarted in favor of Europe's hegemony. In truth, the US doesn't only depend economically on the world. The world also depends on the US. The weakness of the last superpower is also Europe's weakness and the weakness of all world regions.
Todd considers the weakness of the US in an isolated way because he denies the connection of crisis and globalization. An interdependence is involved that is caused by the historical weakness of capitalist accumulation in general. For lack of profitable possibilities of investment, all the world transfers its surplus money capital to the US that buys the surplus goods of the world. Deficit military Keynesianism is the economic catalysor. As soon as this deficit cycle comes to a standstill, the crisis of the US will become the crisis of Europe and of the rest of the regions of the world.
Seen this way, the replacement of US hegemony by another hegemony (European or Eurasian) is made impossible. In reality, the central western states altogether depend on the imperial structure of the Pax Americana in which they are negatively integrated through the process of globalization and its deficit cycle. Thus western dissent cannot emerge from a new imperial competition of economically independent nation states.
What occurs before our eyes is the secular crisis of this reference system making all hegemonial competition irrelevant. A change of hegemonial power in a stable reference system isn't possible.
Dissent within the West is an expression of the common crisis in the context of globalization. Only superficially does it take the form of an opposition of national governments (Washington and London versus Paris, Berlin and Moscow).
The economic substance of globalization remains tied to the political form of the nation state that by its nature cannot globalize itself. Therefore the imperial structure of globalization appears largely as the relation of the national power of the US and second-rate states of the West. Form and substance are in contradiction. What appears according to form as national dissent is according to substance a dissent in the overall imperial structure across the national elites. Parts of the management and the political class in France and Germany defend the position of the US government as conversely parts of management and the political class in the US and Great Britain support the position of the French and German governments.
The opposition is not more substantial because it involves the defense of the common reference system. An ideological dissent also isn't involved since the appeal to the neoliberal paradigm, to the "market economy and democracy" and to human rights isn't a disputed subject. A strategic difference doesn't arise since the goals of the common western security- and exclusion imperialism are identical. A conflict between "hawks" and "doves" doesn't appear since both sides advocate military interventions and preventive strikes as in NATO's "New Strategic Concept" of April 1999.
The conflict is a "tactical" and "legitimatorial" conflict. The "legitimists" want to flank the world order wars outwardly by the institutional legitimation of "sovereignty", international law and the UN and inwardly by the regime of social repression while retaining remnants of state authority against the globalized economy. In contrast, the hardliners are ready to pass over to a kind of global military dictatorship that outwardly and inwardly breaks with all institutional rules that aggravate crisis management and ruthlessly advance globalization. Only the function of the global Leviathan in the form of the US military machine is left of state authority. Forced deregulation leads to conscious delegitimation.
Perhaps the position of the hardliners on the progressive world crisis is "more realistic" from the standpoint of capitalist logic. However the fundamental crisis of the 3rd industrial revolution cannot be overcome this way. The violent high-tech machine cannot banish the specter of barbarism produced by the system itself. The result could actually be that the hybrid form of a global socialization will be crushed by capital. The purely negative unification of humanity in a universal space of blind competition is not possible. If the US, Europe and Japan/ Southeast Asia break apart in this sense, this will not mean any return to the old forms of imperial competition. Rather this would be the end of the common political-economic reference system. The "developed" western countries will then be thrown back on themselves and their barbarism of inner crises as now demonstrated by the disintegrating regions of the global periphery.