Hegemony is not in the DNA

Submitted by Matthew on 5 February, 2014 - 11:37

The main theses of Leo Panitch’s and Sam Gindin’s book The Making of Global Capitalism: The Political Economy of American Empire, an important new book which Paul Hampton reviewed recently in Solidarity, are restatements of what the authors have argued in many articles. They are, I think, plain fact and important fact.

The forty-odd years of turbulence since the end in the early 1970s of the 1950s-60s “golden age” of West European, Japanese, and American capitalism have not brought a relative decline of the USA and a rise of inter-imperialist rivalries.

They have brought the extension of global capitalist markets and global capitalist interpenetration.

That has not been a process of the pushing-aside or marginalising of states by markets, but of new active roles, and in many cases new capacities for capitalist states.

US hegemony has been a lynchpin. It not disappeared or declined, but remains strong.

The forty years have not been a time of permanent crisis or permanent depression, leavened only by “speculative” or “artificial” booms. They have included long periods of profit-rate recovery and capitalist expansion, as shaky and contradiction-ridden as capitalist expansions always are, but also as real as capitalist expansions often are.

In 2002, I wrote (Workers’ Liberty 2/3): “The unremarked surprise of the 13 years since 1989 is that the web of international regulatory institutions built up on the US side of the Cold War, and mostly lynchpinned by the USA — IMF, WTO, G7, World Bank, NATO, European Union — has proved strong and flexible enough to integrate vast new territories”, despite follies, pauperisations, and shocks.

Even more surprising now. The EU has by some measures been through its worse and most discreditable period ever. Despite that, Latvia has just joined the euro, Lithuania wants to do so soon, Croatia has joined the EU, Serbia is a hopeful candidate, and Turkey’s EU membership application talks restarted in November 2013. In Ukraine there have been mass demonstrations in favour of Ukraine moving towards the EU.

As Panitch and Gindin rightly explain, EU development is not the development of an alternative pole to the USA, but the development, encouraged from the start by the USA, of an integrating mechanism within a US-hegemonised world order.

All that is true.

I worry, however, that in working their researches up into a book Panitch and Gindin tend too much to “rationalise”, to read back events as having turned out as they did because previously-established capacities and qualities of the US state ensured that they had to happen that way.

They are careful at points to stress contradictions, fumblings, and cross-currents in the progress of US power. Yet they sum up the process in these words: “The ambitious project for the making of global capitalism, imbricated in the American empire and first articulated during World War II, was realised in the last two decades of the twentieth century”.

What does “imbricated” mean here? Their text hesitates to endorse Toni Negri’s and Michael Hardt’s claim that “Empire” is driven by the unique “network power” that the US constitution gives to the US state as a manager of global capitalism. But in a footnote Panitch and Gindin give a modified version of that claim: “the remarkable informal imperial ‘carrying power’ of the American constitution”.

I worry here about the danger of falling victim to the always-tempting illusion of success, that it comes from the successful entity always having the DNA of success within it.

In the heyday of the British Empire, its rulers, when they wished, as they often did, to distance themselves from crude racism, would explain the empire in terms of Britain having a special facility at “good government”.

In reality, the British ruling class appeared to have that capacity for governing, and developed nuanced methods and flexibility and an eye to the long term, because it had great power. The capacity arose with and from the success. What also arose, in large part, from the success, was the greater stability and security of the British state, which also enhanced its capacity.

None of that saved the British ruling class from carrying through debacles like the partition of India or its ignominious collapse in Palestine, or atrocities like its campaign against the “Mau Mau” in Kenya.

Is there not the same with the US state? That it seems to have special capacities because it has such power and stability? Rather than the power and stability being essentially a “realisation” of some given-in-advance capacities?

The US has one of the most complicated tax codes in the world. Panitch and Gindin note that almost all the top international law firms are American. That fact also reflects the enormous drain on productive effort in the USA from its army of lawyers and its much higher rate of jailing people than other countries’. Legal liability costs for businesses in the USA are the highest in the world, and over two-and-a-half times higher than in Europe. The US has a quarter of all the world’s prisoners, and jails people at a higher rate than any other country, almost ten times the rate of the Netherlands or Germany, for example.

Because the US has a sort of gang system for politics rather than proper political parties, US legislation is specially susceptible to pork-barrelling by special interests.

The American Society of Civil Engineers compiles a “report card” each year on the country’s physical infrastructure. “Since 1998, the grades have been near failing, averaging only Ds [‘poor’, on an A-to-F scale], due to delayed maintenance and underinvestment across most categories”.

Although the USA has most of the world’s richest universities, the average performance of its education system, so far as figures allow us to tell, is clearly below the OECD (34 richer countries) average. Although it has the world’s most skilled medical centres, on average its enormous level of health spending produces, so a January 2013 report found, a poor outcome: “a large and widening ‘mortality gap’ among adults over 50 compared with other high-income nations”. Exceptionally great inequality like the USA’s, as Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett have shown, has regressive effects even within the ambits of capitalist development.

Not in Engels’s day, but today, the USA also sees much of its surplus product sucked away in military spending.

Large, hugely-resourced, constantly reinvigorated by waves of immigration, geographically gifted with a large default sphere of influence, enjoying feedback advantages of centrality in a global economy where those advantages are important (as Saskia Sassen demonstrated in The Global City), the US has prevailed. We should not read back from that fact the conclusion that it prevails as a “realisation” of its “DNA”.

Connected is the fact the Cold War scarcely figures in Panitch’s and Gindin’s narrative.

They draw a pretty straight line from the more confident, expansive, liberal-internationalist variants of US ruling-class thinking in the 1940s to the feathered-out global capitalism of today, with little attention to the other variants of the 1940s (which included schemes to chop up Germany into half-a-dozen states, all forcibly deindustrialised) and the way US policy was determined over much of the interim by Cold War imperatives.

We now know that Stalinism would suffer internal collapse in the late 1980s. Stalinism now looks like a sideshow. No-one knew that for sure in advance. At times like those after the USSR launched its Sputnik satellite in 1957, things looked very different to everyone, including the US ruling class.

Even if the US’s rulers had been able to foresee that Stalinism would suffer internal collapse after a due span of decades — and they could not have done that in abstraction from the actual and unpredictable struggles which brought down Stalinism — they lived in the meantime. They planned for periods in which Stalinism was dynamic.

Panitch and Gindin say that the US defeat in Vietnam was not followed by a “domino effect”. The effect was not as large as the most anxious US strategists, or those most concerned to colour things so as to sustain support for the infamous US war in Vietnam, said. But in fact there was some “domino effect” — a continued advance of Stalinism in the decade after the point, about 1969, when it became clear that the US would win no clear victory in Vietnam.

We now know that the revolt of the peoples of Afghanistan would so shake the USSR as eventually to bring down the whole Stalinist structure. We now know that the revolt of the people of Poland in 1980-1 could only be partially quelled by the military coup of 1981, and that the internal rotting of East Europe’s governments had gone far.

None of that was obvious in advance. None of it was even fixedly true in advance, in abstraction from the struggles in Afghanistan and Poland and elsewhere that made it true.

Fading the Cold War out of the story fades out a number of things. It fades out the expedient-to-block-Stalinism character of such things as the Marshall Plan. It fades out the reasons why the US sponsored the most drastic land reforms in history in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, reforms which played a part in those countries’ subsequent industrial rise. It fades out a large dimension of why so many governments turned to seek deals with the USA after the collapse of Stalinism. It fades out a large dimension of why so many governments and politicians came to think that an arrangement with the USA was now the only game in town, and why the USA became more willing and even keen to “let go” previous Cold War allies like Marcos in the Philippines (1986), Suharto in Indonesia (1998), the military in Chile (1990), or Stroessner in Paraguay (1989).

All these things then tend to be read as just consequences of the capacities of the US state, or of the progressive working-out of the “project” which was “imbricated” in it from way back.