The current weakness of American imperialism has provoked much new debate, but we still need Lenin and Trotsky, argues William Booth
Vassilis Fouskas and Bülent Gökay, The Fall of the US Empire: Global Fault-Lines and the Shifting Imperial Order (Pluto 2012), x, 196pp.
The study of empire, hegemony and long-term power structures has attracted many prominent and respected authors. On the left these have included Giovanni Arrighi, Eric Hobsbawm, Hardt and Negri, and of course Lenin and Trotsky. Vassilis Fouskas and Bülent Gökay, two professors of international relations of socialist sympathy, are the latest to attempt a reframing of the debate for the contemporary period.
‘Global fault-lines’ is the way Fouskas and Gökay explain the decline of US power, an approach to international relations which uses the geological metaphor of ‘tectonic plates’. Inspired by Andre Gunder Frank, and specifically his post-Marxist works, Fouskas and Gökay sketch out various fault-lines which mark the points at which the ‘tectonic plates’ collide and crumble: the ‘failure of financial statecraft’, ‘the power shift to the Global East’ and ‘depletion and degradation’, the latter referring to both the impending scarcity of oil, water and food but also to climate change and its associated problems. The main thrust of the book is that the US is in serious decline, and that even if it manages to recover, it will only be one power among many: Russia, Brazil, South Africa, Indonesia, China and India, referred to (in somewhat puzzling fashion) as the ‘Global East’. This is contrary to the assertions of Leo Panitch (for whom US hegemony is not declining, merely ‘restructuring’) and Ray Kiely (who sees a ‘clash of globalisations’).
Fouskas and Gökay make a historical comparison between contemporary China and India on the one hand, and the United States in the nineteenth century on the other: ‘a huge continental economy with a young population, providing the driving force that enabled it to grab the lead in agriculture, apparel and the high technologies of the era’ (Fouskas and Gökay, p.115). In this way they follow several of the other authors referred to above in seeing both a generalized leeching of global power from the US to China, and the specific possibility that China will emerge as the new global hegemon.
This is in contrast to the work of Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin, who claim that China has no imperial ambition beyond its own borders. This sort of political-culture argument is, however, undermined by the economic reality. In their recent book The Making of Global Capitalism (2012), Panitch and Gindin refer to the American crisis of the 1970s as ‘neither decline nor moderation but restructuring’ (Panitch and Gindin, p.183). That restructuring, they claim, was borne out of necessity: the necessity of expanding markets to a global scale but on American terms. They argue that hegemonic power is not shifting eastwards, instead suggesting that the world is entering a multipolar phase. Fouskas and Gökay seem to see the multipolar near-future as a transitional stage before the hegemonic rise of the ‘Global East’.
In other ways, The Fall of the US Empire is similar to The Making of Global Capitalism, arguing that US imperialism contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction. In this respect, there is some crossover with the political ‘realism’ of Chalmers Johnson (Dismantling the Empire) and David P. Calleo (Follies of Power) who argue that the US state ought to recognise its own (overreached) limits before the costs of running an empire become prohibitive. Fouskas and Gökay do not necessarily see such ‘overstretch’ in military terms though: their critique is rooted in political economy, and they identify ‘Open Door Imperialism’, the imposition of free market ideology (and eventually financialization) through coercion and without reciprocation, as the destabilising factor.
In fact, one of their main objections to Giovanni Arrighi’s work is his apparent underplaying of the weakness inherent in America’s imposition of economy policy throughout large swathes of the world. The other objection cuts to the heart of the debate on empire, hegemony and power: does the rise and fall of imperial nations constitute a cyclical pattern or are should we be thinking about a series of related but ultimately separate phases of capitalism? On this matter, the authors of The Fall of the US Empire are somewhat unfair to Arrighi, as indeed are Panitch and Gindin. They present a caricature of his work which does not, as they suggest, equate early modern city states with contemporary global empires. Arrighi made it perfectly clear that he considered the concentration of power in the financial sector, over-commitment to foreign wars, and increasing government debt, to be signs of American decline.
Hardt and Negri (in Empire, Commonwealth and Multitude) argue that the globalisation of both ‘empire’ - broadly, the state, military and financial elites and their power structures – and the ‘multitude’ (the rest of us) has set up the world for a generalised conflict between the two. They are optimistic about the prospects for a revolution of the multitude against the empire. Fouskas and Gökay do not go into much detail about broad (transnational) class solidarity in this way, instead concentrating on the relative positions of nation-states, though they are also optimistic about opportunities for ‘socialism and green politics ... [and] new radical forces’. Against this optimism, though, they (rightly) emphasise the emergence of what they call the ‘increasingly predatory state’ whose functions – ‘police, surveillance, violence’ - are intended to suppress the ‘multitude’. Care must, of course, be taken with the entire concept of ‘multitude’: in its broad nature and inherently vague definition, it tends to obscure crucial class dynamics.
Finally, how does the theory of ‘global fault-lines’ relate to Trotsky’s thesis of uneven and combined development? Trotsky argued that despite an inherent interconnection between national economies and societies, development could advance along various paths and at strikingly different speeds. Fouskas and Gökay characterise their work as a challenge to Trotsky’s position, an attack on not only Trotsky’s supposed Eurocentrism but also on his privileging of economic factors. Yet within uneven and combined development we can find many of the factors (or ‘fault-lines’) they identify. As with their objections to Arrighi, there is a tendency towards the construction of a straw man. Trotsky always claimed that the Russian Revolution could only be understood in a global context, as the expression of many long-term historical processes; where Europe takes centre-stage, it is often simply as a reflection of concrete realities.
Though the book is partly conceived of as a challenge to Trotsky, the authors concede that uneven and combined development in conjunction with the imminent environmental and resource crises will undermine the current dominance of the US and its allies. Finally, Fouskas and Gökay do (despite their claims to the contrary) return to economic determinants in the final analysis: as capital ‘gains mastery’ over global markets’ ‘inherited unevenness’, it exerts pressures in contradictory ways, and this accounts for the counterproductive nature of ‘Open Door Imperialism’ (Trotsky, The Third International after Lenin, Part One, Section Four).
This is a compelling, interesting book. It is punchy, has a clear line of argument and is written in an engaging style and with some fascinating data. In short, it has much to add to the discussion of the future of the US as an imperial power, including some very strong sections dealing with trends and predictions. However, it does have two significant flaws: one, its claims to originality are a little overstated, since many of the battles it picks with existing left-wing theories of empire turn out to be minor quibbles or changes of emphasis, or based on apparent mischaracterisations of other authors’ work; and the other, a tendency to give the concept of ‘global fault-lines’ a much more profound and revolutionary explanatory power than it perhaps merits.
 A different political-culture argument can be found in Walter Nugent’s Habits of Empire, which sees a longstanding and inertial culture of imperialism as determining the US’ foreign policy.