Socialist Register 2004 Leo Panitch and Colin Leys editors and After the Empire by Emmanuel Todd
March 7, 2004        

Emmanuel Todd is a prolific French anthropologist and historian, a student of family structure and its role in political and economic development. He has always cast his net wide; in 1976 he published La Chute finale (The Final Fall), one of the few books to predict the near-term demise of the Soviet Union, which he deduced from its falling birth rate and other demographic statistics.

After the Empire first appeared in 2002 and became a bestseller in Europe. No doubt its unflattering description and grim predictions about the United States did not hurt sales. But as Todd insists in his introduction to the American edition, “it would be a mistake to think of me as one more ‘typical French intellectual’ carrying the same old anti-American virus that has infected so many Parisian intellectuals.” He trained as a scholar in England, his family is partly American, and he initially opposed the Maastricht Treaty and European unification. Quite rightly, Todd has no patience with reflexive, a priori anti-Americanism. Unfortunately, though, he sometimes leaves the impression that he believes there is no other kind. For example, on the book’s first page he describes America’s role in the world after World War II as “the guarantor of political freedom and economic order for half a century,” a judgment he occasionally repeats and never qualifies. Au contraire, as most Dissent readers know, at various times since 1945 the United States has strongly supported governments hostile to political freedom in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay, Greece, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Zaire, Pakistan, Thailand, Indonesia, South Korea, and the Philippines; while American agribusiness and mining companies have wrought widespread economic and environmental havoc, tobacco exports pressed on unwilling countries by the Reagan administration under threat of trade sanctions will contribute to an estimated 50 million deaths in the first half of this century, and the forcing open of capital markets by the Clinton administration for the benefit of American financial institutions has left tens of millions of people in less developed countries without jobs, savings, or a social safety net. Still, Todd’s disinclination to dwell on (or, for the most part, even mention) these regrettable lapses should at least reassure thin-skinned American readers that he takes no pleasure in telling us the bad news.

The bad news is that America “has made foolish strategic choices, and … Americans must prepare for a reduction of their power and, most likely, of their standard of living.” A less-than-astonishing conclusion, perhaps, but Todd’s path to it is unusual. First he outlines a theory of modernization. One of the theory’s independent variables is literacy. Progress on this front, though uneven, is steady: universal literacy (expected for the younger half of the world’s population around 2030) is about as inevitable as any social outcome can be. As literacy rises, so do most indicators of political, economic, and gender equality, even though the transition is often mediated by revolutionary violence. Exogamy also increases, and fertility declines. “Economic development in Asia and Latin America today is linked almost automatically to educational development, just as it was in Europe between the seventeenth century and the beginning of the twentieth.”

Terrorism is a transitional phenomenon: “The move into modernity is frequently accompanied by an explosion of ideological violence.” Nevertheless, rising literacy rates and falling birth rates across most of the Islamic world guarantee that eventually these countries too will achieve political and economic modernity. The current American “obsession with Islam,” Todd argues, derives from various peculiarities of our own situation.

Todd’s other independent variable is family structure. Traditional family relations and other anthropological features determine the forms that modernity will assume in each society. Drawing on his earlier work (The Explanation of Ideology: Family Structure and Social Systems, 1985), Todd sketches some correspondences. Anglo-Saxon liberalism derives from the relative independence of children from parents and from the inequality among brothers reflected in primogeniture. Equal inheritance among brothers produces French republican universalism. German authoritarianism results from a combination of paternalism and sibling inequality; Russian communism from the egalitarian patrimonialism of the Muzhiks. Arab family structure is complicated, featuring strong vertical and horizontal linkages among fathers and married sons, low status for women, and endogamy, resulting in an egalitarian and communitarian ethos but a weak state. All these correspondences help explain the apparent “clash of civilizations” during the present period of transition to modernity. But Huntington is only superficially correct; fundamentally, Fukuyama has the right idea, even though he wrongly identifies economics rather than education and demographics as the agent of progress toward a “democratic convergence.” “If,” Todd concludes, “we take into account, on the one hand, the diversity of traditional family customs in the original peasant world – the anthropological variable – and on the other hand, the universal advance of literacy – the historical variable – we can grasp simultaneously the unique direction of history and the diversity of particular phenomena.”

Very interesting; but what does it all have to do with empire? This: after the end of history, remember, there is no place for heroic prowess or contests for mastery – in short, for empire. War between liberal, capitalist democracies is, after all, unthinkable. If Todd and Fukuyama are correct, “the United States would have to become just one liberal democracy among others, scale back its military machine, retire from its geostrategic activities, and humbly accept the gratitude of the rest of the planet for its long years of exemplary service.” But this is just what the US is unwilling to do. Not, however, because we are too strong and proud, lusting for global dominion. The opposite is true: the United States is too weak to abandon militarism. We lost our economic primacy long ago and have foolishly tried to compensate by a combination of financial gamesmanship and “theatrical micromilitarism,” or military bluff. Rhetorical crusades against “terrorism” and “rogue states” are ideological ploys to keep our allies mobilized, since “economically dependent, America requires a minimum level of global disorder in order to justify its politico-military presence in the Old World.”

What lies behind Todd’s perception of American weakness? By around 1970 Europe and Japan had more or less recovered from the Second World War and were becoming economically competitive with the United States, which had recently wasted enormous resources in Southeast Asia. The US responded by reneging on the Bretton Woods regime: going off the gold standard, establishing the dollar as the world’s reserve currency, and turning the IMF into a global enforcer for Wall Street. Among its other benefits, this move conveniently positioned us to capture the flood of petrodollars that followed the oil price rises soon afterward.* The savage Volcker interest rate hikes later in the decade further weakened the US manufacturing sector and strengthened the financial sector. The Reagan years saw American companies flee abroad in droves.

The end of the Cold War presented the US with a fateful choice. We could relinquish the artificial financial advantages that kept money flowing into Wall Street even as foreign demand stagnated, American industry declined, and the American trade deficit grew. This would have meant military retrenchment and a period of economic austerity, but it would have restored our competitiveness, allowing for reindustrialization on a solid basis and with a more evenly distributed prosperity. But we didn’t. Instead, after declining through most of the decade, military budgets began increasing in the late ‘90s. Was this a deliberate decision by America’s rulers to go for empire rather than rejoin an international community of equals?

No, says Todd, they just … blew it. “The American ruling class is even more rudderless and clueless than its European counterparts.”

Choosing to remain a leading nation rather than become an empire would have been by far the better long-term strategy for the United States. Moreover, it would have been far easier to achieve in America given the continental proportions of the country and the centrality of its investment system. But it would have required a lot of organizational and regulatory hard work on the part of the administration. Most important, it would have necessitated an energy policy combined with a protectionist economic policy to defend industry. At the same time, this two-pronged domestic policy would have had as an external counterpart a multilateral foreign policy to encourage other nations and regions to move toward economic autonomy beneficial to all. Reinvigorating developed economies on a regionalist basis would have permitted offering practical help to developing countries in the form of debt forgiveness in exchange for the return of protectionism. A worldwide plan of this sort would have made the United States the world’s undeniable and definitive leader. But thinking it all up and putting it into action would have been so tiring.

And besides, as Todd points out, the rich were getting so much richer. Finance-led globalization generated colossal rentier profits, while the trade deficit created an illusion of wealth among an increasingly indebted working population. Reindustrialization would have meant a modest redistribution of income, and the rich might then have had to work a little harder choosing investments. So the drift towards empire was also a result of the eclipse of egalitarianism in the United States, to which Todd devotes a fascinating chapter that I can do no more than mention here, except to note that it draws ingeniously on his anthropological model.

This “global gamble” (Todd’s argument resembles that of Peter Gowan’s brilliant book) might have paid off for the rentier class, allowing them to extract indefinitely what Todd calls their “imperial levy” – the huge capital inflow that translates into a cost-free trade deficit. If (as seemed likely in the early ‘90s) Russia had disintegrated, there would have been no military counterweight anywhere to the United States. As a last resort, we could simply have bullied the entire world. But Russia has begun to recover. Like Turkey and Eastern Europe, it will integrate economically with the rest of Eurasia – all three have much more trade with the EU than with the US. And eventually Russia will regain sufficient military strength to deter any American threat to an insufficiently submissive Europe or Japan. In effect, Todd claims that it is already too late for the strategy announced in the Bush administration’s National Security Strategy Document of September 2002 to succeed. Let’s hope he is right.

I have (believe it or not) considerably simplified the argument of Todd’s audacious and scintillating book. The essays in Socialist Register2004 about American empire are, in the tradition of Marxist political economy, not at all scintillating, but they are invaluable nonetheless. Two of them in particular complement Todd’s arguments: Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin’s “Global Capitalism and American Empire” and David Harvey’s “The ‘New’ Imperialism.” (I also recommend two others, which I won’t be able to discuss here: Michael Klare’s “Blood for Oil,” which links the Bush administration’s energy policy with its military plans, and Amy Bartholomew and Jennifer Breakspear’s “Human Rights as Swords of Empire,” which tries to reconcile respect for the norm of nonintervention with the protection of human rights.)

Panitch/Gindin and Harvey tell much the same story as Todd about finance-led globalization, though in more detail. They also emphasize more than him its political and predatory aspect, as a means of reversing wage gains, unionization, worker protections, and environmental regulation, which by the late 1970s had improved many Americans’ quality of life but had also dampened profits. Panitch/Gindin see the US foreign-policy agenda as the universalizing of this neoliberal program by means of pressure (exerted through the IMF and WTO) on European social democracies to privatize nationalized assets and reduce social-welfare expenditures, on the developed countries of East Asia (Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and to some extent China) to open their markets and banking systems, and on developing countries to forget about retaining control of their economic destiny and instead become what the IMF calls “effective states.”

David Harvey’s “The ‘New’ Imperialism” argues that “expanded reproduction,” the normal form of capitalist profit-making, has been overtaken by “accumulation by dispossession,” the generation of profits through fraud, political coercion, or legal fiction. This is a Marxist way (a novel and exciting way, I’m told by people who speak that language) of saying that finance has outstripped manufacturing, paper-shuffling has displaced production, and fictitious profits now outweigh real profits. But Harvey can speak ordinary language too, and very bluntly:
The US could turn away from its current form of imperialism by engaging in a massive redistribution of wealth within its borders and seek paths to surplus absorption through … dramatic improvements in public education and repair of aging infrastructures. An industrial strategy to revitalize manufacturing would also help. But this would require even more deficit financing or higher taxation as well as heavy state direction, and this is precisely what the bourgeoisie will refuse to contemplate … Any politician who proposes such a package will almost certainly be howled down by the capitalist press and their ideologists and lose any election in the face of overwhelming money power.

Even more suicidal politically, within the US, would be to try to enforce by self-discipline the kind of austerity program that the IMF typically visits on others. And any attempt by external powers to do so (by capital flight and collapse of the dollar, for example) would surely elicit a savage US political, economic, and even military response. … This is where the huge modernization program within China … may have a critical role to play in siphoning off the surplus capitals of Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea. … The consequent diminution of the flow of funds for the US could have calamitous consequences.

As you can see, the Marxists are generally gloomier than Todd about the prospects for capitalism’s eventual harmonious readjustment. (Though in fact Todd does allude, almost offhandedly, to the likelihood of “a stock market crash larger than any we have experienced thus far that will be followed by the meltdown of the dollar – a one-two punch that would put an end to any further delusions of ‘empire.’”) They also see different outcomes from America’s current military adventurism. Like Todd (and most other people outside the United States), Harvey does not believe the US invasion of Iraq had anything whatever to do with democracy, human rights, terrorism, or national security. On the contrary, since well before September 11th it was envisioned as a means of intimidating our potential rivals for world economic leadership, all of them more dependent than us on imported oil. Four new bases in Iraq plus several in Central Asia are meant to insure cooperative regimes in the region (whether democratic or not makes not the slightest difference to the US), who will favorably entertain American suggestions to raise oil prices or reduce supplies if Europe, Japan , or China should tire of propping up the dollar or decide to move toward further regional economic integration. As Harvey sees it: “If the US engineers the overthrow of Chavez as well as Saddam, if it can stabilize or reform an armed-to-the-teeth Saudi regime, … if it can move on, as seems likely, from Iraq to Iran and consolidate its position in Turkey and Uzbekistan as a strategic presence in relation to Caspian basin oil reserves, then the US, through firm control of the global oil spigot, might hope to keep effective control over the global economy and secure its own hegemonic position for the next fifty years.”

Todd thinks Russia’s recovery will prevent this. For one thing, Russia has plenty of oil, which it will sell to its (formerly our) allies. For another, the US Army cannot win a land war against Russia in Central Asia, especially in view of its recent (and very creditable) unwillingness to accept casualties, which appears to be based on a humane reluctance to throw away young American lives for dubious geopolitical purposes. And most important, if the US attempts to make economic war on Europe and Japan, they can fight back, protected by Russia’s nuclear deterrent. Once again, I hope Todd is right. It all appears to depend on how quickly Russia rebuilds and on whether America succeeds in militarizing space. Todd doesn’t seem to have considered our space-weapons program. Nor is he sufficiently aware, perhaps, of the deformations of American politics: the violent resentments of the Southern/Mountain States flag-and-gun culture; the single-issue fanaticism of the religious right; the venality of legislators and bureaucrats hoping for lucrative future employment by the defense, energy, pharmaceutical, and other industries; and the general stupor induced by TV. He believes that Americans will adjust rationally to the inevitable “reduction of their power and, most likely, of their standard of living.” I wish I could share his optimism.

As Rosa Luxemburg observed, it is “often hard to determine, within the tangle of violence and contests of power, the stern laws of economic process.” This is what Panitch, Gindin, Harvey, Gowan, and their colleagues on the Marxist left are trying to do, along with a few non-Marxist mavericks like Todd. For this, whatever our other differences, the rest of us owe them much gratitude.

*Peter Gowan argues in The Global Gamble (Verso, 1999) that Nixon colluded with our Saudi clients to raise oil prices in order to deal a blow to the Europeans and Japanese, more heavily dependent on imported oil.