The State of the Neo-Empire Is Strong

Showing symptoms of a widespread terminological or conceptual allergy, Daniel Drezner tweeted back at my characterization, as in the title of this post, of his recently articulated thesis on the state of everything ca. 2014 – “The Year of Living Hegemonically” – to accuse me of a failure of “comprehension.” ((Drezner does not apparently comprehend that I was comprehending his comprehension as possibly valid, and certainly richly arguable. In other words, from my point of view, he was disagreeing with and disapproving of himself through me.))

I see no reason other than autonomic mental reflex to explain why Drezner apparently considers his or his editors’ notion of “living hegemonically” to be innocuous as compared to “being neo-imperial.” Indeed, though I might differ with aspects of Drezner’s analysis, which in my view somewhat contradicts its own emphasis on a “waning” of American power, his final paragraph articulates a perspective on America’s spontaneous ascendancy – exceptionality prior to any exceptionalism, the relatively passive or seemingly unconscious or unconscientious acceptance of historical election to global-political office – on which I have also written many times:

…[G]iven the depths of its domestic political dysfunction, one can only imagine what America’s rivals must think. In 2013 alone, the federal government couldn’t evade a stupid, counterproductive budget sequester, a government shutdown, and brinksmanship with the debt ceiling. There was no agreement on immigration reform, much less on policies such as climate change, education, or infrastructure. Despite mounting gridlock and policy own goals, however, the United States ends 2013 with a rapidly declining federal budget deficit, a surging energy sector, and accelerating growth in the economy and employment. President Obama was justified in noting that 2014 could be a breakthrough year for the United States. The most brilliant strategists living in Moscow, Beijing, or Tehran can’t displace the structural strengths of the United States.

Drezner’s framing of the current global conjuncture recalls Carl Schmitt’s compact formula for the American role in global affairs, during the fall of the Eurocentric order that it precipitated, a formula that also applies to the American constitutional system across its periodic re-articulations or re-foundings: “political absence, economic presence.” We need to note immediately that an ideology of political absence, of final political passivity, neutrality, disinterest, or unself-consciousness, would not be and has very evidently not been an actual political absence: Perhaps most of all during periods of isolationism or “withdrawalism,” the economic (or material) presence that an absence of intentionality seems to facilitate has remained of great, perhaps the highest conceivable, political importance. Much of Schmitt’s most striking analysis in The Nomos of the Earth concerns the inestimably disruptive effect on everyone else’s politics of a politico-economically, eventually politico-militarily and therefore culturally preponderant state, a world-historical power as per Hegel, that sees itself or its ethos as above politics or policy, as constituted by and therefore constituting universal and “self-evident” truths, an attitude that tends to operate on the level of unconscious presumption in the work of all of its best and brightest. ((Put differently, the secret or mechanism of that actual preponderance, of its being or realization, is its disconnection from particular ideas: which is very much its paradoxical idea, paradoxically realized.))

To the extent Drezner’s observations are valid, they would confirm that neither the ascension of the United States of America to global leadership nor its becoming conscious of itself in that role has neutralized the formula. Neither on the rise nor in ascendancy does the U.S.A. need to understand what it does or is, or even to do it or be it very well. Its governance does not need to be exceptionally skillful or thoughtful to succeed exceptionally well. Or: The American destiny remains exceptional, however incoherent or primitive American exceptionalisms. On a similar theoretical basis, de Tocqueville was able both to foretell the future of the North American democratic empire with impressive accuracy, and to analyze its early development with unsurpassed moral clarity: A nation-state too fully conscious of itself, too capable of elaborated self-governance, too consequential in the realization of its preferred self-understandings could not have conquered a continent and its prior inhabitants, nor have gone on to conquer the world, leaving the ideologically more self-consistent powers and all of the Old World behind, where not in ashes prior to their re-constitution in its refracted image. By this formula or according to the hypothesis it encapsulates, America came to world imperial or neo-imperial primacy, or hegemony, not because “we” operated according to a collectively acknowledged and conscientiously implemented “interest” in “dominating” “them,” according to any greatly significant articulated policy or strategy of domination for its own sake ((“Manifest Destiny” like other openly imperialistic formulations would stand in this context as a reflection on a process already well under way.)), but because an American way all but indistinguishable from an American state of being simply was and remains dominant (by now “hegemonic”), and self-evidently, or so all the smoking heaps of rubble and stinking heaps of corpses, alongside the rapid Americanization of global “monoculture,” seemed, and seem, to testify.

Up until now, perhaps for a while longer, America has not merely survived or been able to afford repeated descent into “depths of… domestic political dysfunction,” or a lack of a coherent and effective strategy for the conduct of world affairs: It has flourished – some would say “despite,” but an American theory of politics might say “because” of its congenital and self-reinforcing imbecility. ((That this actual or spontaneous rather than conscious and conscientiously implemented strategy has so far succeeded does not mean that it or we will forever be successful, but that the same history of success that cannot yet be distinguished from history altogether may mean that we will be terminally unprepared to accept – to recognize, affirm, and adopt – any other strategy or form of strategy, or, to say almost the same thing, any strategy at all. The day that we do will be the day we have become someone else.)) To use Drezner’s terms, America is structurally undisplaceable. Of course, Americans may attempt and will from time to time employ consequential policies and strategies whose effects are by no means insignificant to self and others. As has often been observed, when the imperial power sneezes, lesser powers are stricken by pneumonia. In addition, aggregate consumption and lifestyle choices by the masses of citizens nearer the center or linked to it are experienced as primordial matters of life and death for the masses less favored. The latter or their leaders – all the other guys and gals, the losers and the second-raters, the backworldspeople – are the ones who truly need policy and strategy: The Neo-Empire or Empire of Liberty is its own strategy and is by “being there” already the final determinant of every policy and politics (thus the quandary that would-be “strategists” face even defining what “strategy” is or can mean for American war college curricula ((See, e.g., Adam Elkus on “The Metaheuristics of War,” a post that, on the basis of all of the best and latest thinking, seems to propose a strategy of no-strategy, strategic idea of no strategic idea, fantasy of pure empiricism, madness of total rationality…))). Hegemony is. It simply “lives hegemonically.” All else on Earth if not necessarily in Heaven (nor necessarily not) is secondary, perhaps usefully diversionary, since an achieved new consensus, as we occasionally set out to remind ourselves, would be counterproductive compared to our actual, virtually inarticulable but pre-eminently successful one, and possibly the sole true danger to it.

34 comments on “The State of the Neo-Empire Is Strong

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  1. ” America is structurally undisplaceable”

    Until it isn’t.

    An interesting idea I ran across about this includes this.

    At issue is not the identification of conspiracy theories of U.S. power, but ways of untangling a set of political rubrics imbued with a widely resonant moral vocabulary that reframe and redefine what counts as imperial intervention and what does not. Those terms signaling the unclarified sovereignties of U.S. imperial breadth —unincorporated territories, army bases in over 130 countries (with 200 bases added in 2004 alone) — are not the blurred edges of what more “authentic,” visible empires look like, but their empowered variants.

    The United States has mastered this art of governance, but again, uncertain domains of jurisdiction and ad hoc legal exemptions based on cultural difference framed as religious irrationalisms are familiar imperial principles.

    Rhetorics of exceptionalism are more than part of the discursive apparatus of empires: imperial states vigilantly produce excepted spaces, exemptions for certain populations, exclusions for others, and exit strategies from international law. Stoler and Bond – Refractions Off Empire – Untimely Comparisons in Harsh Times

    Perhaps another way of pointing out that too much consensus, not producing exceptions as a strategy, would be counterproductive.

  2. Well, a couple of things wrong with that, the 200 bases, that the late Chalmers Johnson identified, are mostly among allies, our retrenchment is not atypical, as it happened after the Phillipine campaign, and subsequently after the greater wave of direct interventions in the Americas, where we moved to proxy regimes, say Cuba, Dominican Republic, et al, but our last ‘Five Year Plan’ has been dissapointing of late,

    Egypt, and the Kingdom, add Afghanistan, and India, are certainly not following our dictates, but finding new sponsors,

    • I think it illustrates SB point that you can say that the expansion of bases was “mostly among allies”. It illustrates the idea that part of this type of empire is the production of exception. Each base is in some ways unique in the confluence of factors producing the agreement for it to be there. Just the fact of having bases in an allied country (aren’t all the base hosting countries an ally in some sense? each an exception to the rule?) illustrates part of their point. What countries have military bases in the US ally or not?

      As for previous “retrenchments” (I think SB are saying the US isn’t retrenching at all), they are part of the process of getting the US to the style of empire we find ourselves in. I don’t think they suggesting this something that has developed only recently.

      • At a certain point you also have to begin to ask – or don’t “have to” but it may cross your mind!, especially if a leftist or post-leftist mind – to what extent “the” empire is “an” empire at all. So we can talk about multiple simultaneous, partly autonomous imperialisms, joined in part by narrative, but not fully commensurable and therefore contradictory: So, the national empire (or national-imperial narrative) overlaps the transnational economic empire, and there are other empires or imperialisms, sometimes expressed as spheres of influence or imperial potentials. To varying extents they may depend on each other, but in other ways come into conflict. The national-imperial narrative retains its strength and arguably its primacy because it focuses mutually reinforcing relatively dynamic technological, economic, and political factors in relatively stable geographic and cultural-historical formations, even though the last remains a principle of authentic change or “progress,” even though geography is eventually subject to alteration (as discussed in relation to geographical determinism previously) and even though what finally binds the neo-imperial formation together is its connection to (the) sacrificial community. The last “even though” requires its own development.

          • I expressed myself ambiguously: The point was that “the” empire might not be a “single” empire or expressive of any single imperialism. It might not qualify as imperial at all, or the phenomenon may not be a singular phenomenon at all, but to acknowledge alternative answers isn’t to adopt them. I think we can speak of one neo-imperialistic complex – a single Empire or Neo-Empire – an imperialism of imperialisms that by the nature of imperialism tends toward, insists on, and compels unity or univocity, and that in the present era it still resolves to a state-imperial project under American leadership. At the same time, it’s possible only because “America” or “American” does not fundamentally refer to the ethno-national concept, but rather to its negation.

        • Asking if the empire is an empire at all is the subject of the SB article. They might replace in part at least your “even though”s with “because”s. Stoller’s work is mainly focused on the intimacy, (her phrase is “rush to intimacy”) between the imperial and subjected individuals. It undoubtedly is a stretch to equate this to the “sacrificial community”, but it’s one of those thoughts that maybe doesn’t have to, but does cross at least my mind.

            • Meant to say tho that those even thoughs often seem to turn into becauses, and back again. For the same reason, I have to struggle to avoid overusing “even and especially” when exploring these dialectics. I’ll have to take a look at this “intimacy” question, though initially it looks like something different from what I had in mind with “sacrificial community.” I started defining the term – which refers to ideas discussed here several times – then realized I had only enough time to get myself in trouble.

  3. bob: ” America is structurally undisplaceable”

    Until it isn’t.

    It’s a version of the “Mountain Strategy.” And that’s exactly what they or some say about mountains, or “a mountain,” anyway.

    As for the rest of Stoler and Bond, I still read a lot of leftwing and leftish critique of that sort, but in a lot of it – not sure about S & B yet – the effort to read through or past governing prejudices and presumptions sometimes gets taxing.

    Regarding Egypt and the others mentioned by don miguel, looking for and finding new sponsors are not the same thing, and not all sponsorships are alike. India has too many people and too much potential simply to be ignored, and we’re not ignoring it, and the KSA still plays too significant a role in the global energy economy to be ignored, and we not ignoring it, but whether we want or need to deliver “dictates” to them, and ought to or can prevent them from developing their own alliance and trading relationships, are other questions.

    • I don’t read a lot of this kind of stuff, so it may be reasonably typical. So that said, I did find the idea of empire as the production of exception interesting. I think they’re trying to get beyond the typical discussion of Exceptionalism. I cited it because I thought there are some similarities to your view.

      I haven’t read any of Stoller’s books, only a few web this, an interview and some references to her in other stuff. She certainly is a lefty, but one that seems to try to go against the grain of lefty habits.

  4. Going to the Roman example, our recent travails, resemble that of the Jugurthan wars, perhaps one of the rounds against Pontus, the error is to think that they were some great defeats, but we are not an Empire,

    • Not really sure what you see as similar for us to the Jugurthan and Mithridatic wars, nor what you mean by “Empire.” Obviously, I think the term, carefully defined, can be usefully applied to the U.S., and in multiple ways, even if for all sorts of reasons it doesn’t operate according to the same forms and definitions as the empires of previous eras.

    • I think I see what you’re saying: You meant the “error” would be for us to see the expeditionary misadventures of the ’00s and perhaps whatever Obamian follow-ons or diversions as “great defeats.” If so, then I mostly agree with you, and the analysis would likely extend to Vietnam, Korea, and sundry other wars that count as small compared to the world wars, but seemed vastly problematic in other ways, morally for us, materially for adversaries and bystanders. Some hold Mithridates in higher regard than that, however, at least in reference to the terror he is said to have put in the hearts of the Romans.

  5. The problem with Stoller’s analysis, well it ignores why Gitmo was deemed necessary, because paramilitary organization like AQ, chose to disguise themselves under civilian auspices, denying
    the prerequisites of Geneva’s Article 3, the narrative of the Tipton 3, or that misunderstood Al Shehri
    chap, riffing off Casino Royale was just that.

      • Right – but how do we know that the formula isn’t fully reversible, as don miguel is implicitly suggesting – i.e., that the exception produced the imperialism? A further related question would be whether you are or she is presuming an alternative and a better one.

        • Not sure I understand. Stoller is proposing I think that empire is a regime of exception making. It makes exceptions in response to necessities, and this indeed produces the next iteration of empire.

          A thought that occurred to me is that independence became necessary to our fore-parents because the crown made them an exception to full citizenship ie the crown treated the colonists not as colonists but the colonized. Maybe this could be a place to start, if start is the right word.

          As to alternatives…I don’t know about Stoller – she is a lefty and certainly the tone is one a negative one. But from what I understand of her work she carries a desire to see empire making humans in all their complexity.

          If we confine our horizon to the present, then there is not much alternative. Maybe with insight there’s a way forward to make that not true.

          • I’ve now read the Stoler essay, and am mulling over how best to respond to it or its possible uses in this discussion. Much of what she writes seems directed at her academic colleagues with a presumed shared interest in a particular radical anthropology project, in relation to the situation ca. 2006 as she perceived it. It’s hard for me to isolate the part beyond the paragraphs you quoted that might matter to the rest of us and how. Am not saying it’s not worth the effort, however…

          • I think our fore-parents’ exceptional status (as colonials) was already a given, and that the condition became intolerable for them or un-sustainable for the British reflected other factors. The radical forms of exceptionality regarding slaves and “savages” existed prior to independence. In the imaginations and terminology of the Founders, the consolidation and expansion of the new state already amounted to an “imperial” project ahead of them, something many viewed quite positively. Sooner or later we get to the question of deconstruction, and the critique of modes of thought or ways of being/writing/etc. held already to imply and therefore inevitably to reinforce or re-inscribe or re-produce “the imperial” (logocentric, phallocentric, racist, classist, sexist, etc.).

  6. True, but a constabulary function in certain countries, doesnt neccesarily entail imperialism, there is also another factor, Gitmo is a function of a certain colonization of Wahhabism, in communities as far afield as the UK.

    • To the contrary, it’s the existence of one or another empire or effectively imperial structure that makes a constabulary function possible, though we again run into questions of definition, and the familiar problem of “isms” that sometimes refer to ideology, sometimes to policy or substance, sometimes both at once, and in any event contestably.

  7. Well did Gates believe in anything, certainly Obama didn’t at the time he committed to the surge then underfunded it,

    • If you did not believe in the surge then the proper funding for it would have been the least you could get away with it. To call it “underfunded” is to presume, without evidence, that there was some actually available higher level of funding that would have led to better results.

  8. Afghanistan, was the good war, Iraq was the bad one, or so we were led to believe, more likely his statements in the first week, after September 11th, are operative.

    • “Good war/bad war” was something someone else made up. Afghanistan was the better-justified war that, according to campaign rhetoric, had suffered from inattention due to the Iraq War – none of which has necessarily any bearing on what the best or a better path in the situation of 2009 to the present would have been or would be.

  9. Right as if ‘Bush lied, soldiers died’ is unknown to you, the ten years of vilification, ‘screw um their merc, they deserve what they got, that gave Markos cache in the nutroots, like a blood oath.

    • I think you’re replying to last night’s twitter convo? What’s Kos got to do with it? The left has people making scurrilous charges of betrayal, too. The right usually does it with a stab-in-the-back theme, which underlies the Woodward attack, rather than with a blood-for-profit. theme. The main impediment to the spread of a new Dolchstosslegende is that so few on the right honestly believe in paths to full victory or extended victory in Afghanistan and Iraq. About the only specific idea they come up with is the notion that if Obama had tried harder he could have gotten a better SOFA in Iraq, but no one cares, and the implication of a larger and longer continuous presence in Iraq remains impossibly unpopular.

  10. Not just the left, but Al Gore ‘he prayed on our fears’, most of the entertainment industry, media et al, of course the Solon of Scranton, who opposed the Bin Laden raid, has been monumentally wrong, that goes without saying,

  11. Of course, if Olbermann’s (who was AQ’s favorite broadcaster outside of Al Jazeera) network had any actual ratings, then one would take Harris Perry’s postmodern babble as a sign of the failure of public intellectuals,

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  1. […] democracy. Or: read your Madison and de Tocqueville, or prior posts at this blog (for instance, “The State of the Neo-Empire Is Strong”), or await publication of a long-form post current in draft form on “Strategy and the […]

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