WHAT IS EMPIRE?
We’ve all heard about Empires and Emperors, in ancient and recent times. Egypt, Rome, Babylonia, Mesopotamia, Japan, China, Macedonia (under Alexander), Britain, the Caesars, the Tzars, Napoleon, Hitler and hundreds of others (depending on the criteria for using that name). This Wikipedia article on Empire explains what the term means, and When, Who, and Where were the rulers. You may recognize the imperialist persons and places shown here. They are Napoleon, Hitler, Putin, the Giza Pyramid, The Forbidden City in Beijing, and the Kremlin in Moscow.
I’m glad to see Germany apparently coming (cautiously) into the coalition against Putin, despite its long, understandable policy of military non-involvement. Hitler invaded Russia (June, 1941) with the strongest invasion force in history; and Stalin’s troops were no match. But Hitler’s troops had no warm clothes, and their deisel-engined tanks and trucks stopped dead when the temperature reached -40 Fahrenheit, as it did this winter in Minnesota. So Russia was saved by her weather.
My thesis for this post is that the United States is rapidly approaching, or perhaps has reached, Imperial status. That may sound preposterous, but I’ll try to support it. The major objection would be that we Americans live in “One Nation, Indivisible with Liberty and Justice for All”. It is a wonderful piece of rhetoric (with a thought-provoking history), expressing the idealistic hopes of many citizens around the globe. But does anyone seriously believe that rhetoric, given America’s polarized factions, poverty, racism, increasing protests, intimidation, murder, and on-going military incursions?
Mentioning ‘military incursions’ needs an explanation. At the moment, we are probably not sending troops directly into battle, despite the encouragement of some business and political factions. But our deployment of military personnel the world over requires great expenditures, and causes personal hardship for those deployed and their families. This Wikipedia article gives an analysis and data on the topic. See especially the last couple paragraphs about damage to marriages, spouses and children of those deployed.
There are some who with good reason believe we should intervene directly in the present Russian invasion of Ukraine. E.g., Oil Mogul Mikhail Khodorkovsy, imprisoned for 10 years by Putin, expelled and forbidden to return, tells The Economist that only force will deter a thug like Putin. But even if that is the case, Pres. Biden would have a hard time convincing Congress. The public presently has very little taste for war, and he knows it. I believe that just wars are possible – e.g., The Civil War, and World Wars I and II. Whether Putin will necessitate another, I won’t guess. Today speculation is all over the map.
Returning to Empire, Progressives might say, ‘But we’re making progress’. I think not, in general. That claim is part of our ‘big sales pitch’ era; keep people ignorant and happy. But there is some progress. For the past century, since the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, progressive thinking has been likened to Communism. But since Bernie Sanders’ appearance, actually implementing those ideas has become a real possibility, even discussed in mainstream media. Sanders showed that ‘socialism’ – of the democratic sort, with a small ‘d’ – can be a serious issue politically in America, for a lot of people. There may also be fresh interest in, rather than glib dismissal of, ideas from classic social critics like Marx, Trotsky, Lenin, and Mao, now that the ‘threat of communism’ has subsided. That assumes the conflict with Russia is not sold as ‘communism’. However, among other factors, our two-party system and human nature make new world views like ‘love your neighbor’ hard to realize, to put it mildly.
I’m a philosopher, critical thinker, social critic, and lean toward pessimism. I’m also over 80 – just after the ‘Greatest Generation’ but before the ‘Baby Boomers’. I don’t expect that ‘talkin’ bout my g-g-generation’ will put young thinkers off, but age can help to broaden our worldview. I’ve been watching, studying and discussing these issues a long time, traveling to many countries – East, West and South – and comparing viewpoints in them. Since retirement (2010), I write about them.
Jayati Ghosh, a professor of economics and gender at Nehru U. in New Delhi, writes from a feminist perspective, for example in this 2017 dollars and sense article that impressed me greatly. To introduce her, here’s a 3 min. video – Invisible woman – from 2021.
If memory serves, I first saw her work in this Foreign Policy magazine article. My uncharacteristic reaction to the 2017 article was to write a note, ‘Wow! For anyone who wants to take time to read it, this article by Indian economist /political scientist Jayati Ghosh, brings together information about empire building, that has been growing, and changing its face for the past, at least, 75 years. (That’s my adult lifetime!)’ I like her analysis of why Capital used to be in league with Labor, because it benefited from the latter, but that has changed radically. I also appreciate her critical thoughts on the control of social benefits through privatization, and the management of what passes for ‘knowledge’.
Michael Hudson is another source I respect and often cite. In various places, he says 80% of bank loans are made for real estate. In the United States, in the last year, housing prices have gone up 20%.! He also argues that typically, in America, if you go to a bank and take out a loan, the government is going to guarantee the bank that you will pay the loan up to the point where it absorbs 43% of your income (in Savage Minds, Oct 2021). Here’s a link to some points Hudson made, gleaned from a long interview with the Penger Group, July 2021.
I don’t dislike wealthy people. In fact statistics put me in the ‘comfortable or affluent’ category. Thanks to a thoughtful retirement plan at my college, managed by a state university retirement system (SURS), my income is guaranteed, and my debts are negligible. What I DO object to is the presumption of many rich people that others should KowTow to them. And I greatly dislike the influence – even control – a few people at the top of the wealth pyramid have over the lives of millions and millions of people who work for them, or use their products. For instance, Mr Bezos’, Mr Buffett’s and Mr Gates’ combined wealth equals the wealth of the lower half of the country, as CNBC reported in Nov 2017. It has grown a lot since then, especially during the Covid pandemic. I appreciate their philanthropic generosity – Buffett even says their taxes should be increased (which isn’t going to happen) – but the control they have is inherently undemocratic. This Evonomics article argues the point. I would add that such control is inherently unjust – even immoral.
This long 2017 study by Cerney and Prichard: The new anarchy: Globalisation and fragmentation in world politics, deals with many economic (and social) issues. Here are some good generalities taken from it:
“… austerity and the erosion of the rights of labour are undermining the mid-twentieth century social contract on which the welfare state and liberal democracy have been based… In the aftermath of the 2008 crisis, there is growing personal, public and corporate indebtedness rather than deleveraging (Farrell et al, 2008; Fuller, 2016). Derivatives and securitisation still drive the debt economy which dwarfs the equity market. Market ‘flexibility’ outruns regulators and policymakers, while in the real economy foreclosures, debt defaulting, debt strikes and simple miscalculations mean another major crisis is only one systemic shock away. [Would Covid be that shock?] In the context of increasing inequality and continued and unnecessary austerity policies, finance for the sake of capital is probably unfit for purpose. In 2008, the state was arguably an effective firebreak, but only at the expense of the public, who had to carry the burden of multi-trillion bailouts of the financial sector.”
Anthropologist, historian and social critic Yuval Harari wrote an interesting and very popular book 10 years ago titled Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. It includes a section on the ‘cognitive revolution’ (70,000 years ago), which discusses ‘fictive’ thinking and language. That means humans could imagine things that went immeasurably beyond everyday ‘memories’ of what humans had ever experienced. This allowed larger and larger masses of people to think about and follow the same concept. Among the most influential of such concepts, he mentions Religion, Empire and Money. Religion is prehistoric. Empire and Money are historic; they require written records, which existed in Sumeria about 5200 years ago. Money was needed to equip armies, pay soldiers, build homes, raise crops, keep craftsmen working, etc. That required records of debts and payments. David Graeber discusses this in his 2011 book, Debt: the First 5000 Years.
Harari also believes that over time, the world has gotten more and more unified, although he admits some ‘splintering’ (e.g. in USSR breakup, and the Balkans). His theme of unification is very hard to confirm or refute scientifically. Moreover there are some scathing criticisms of his whole work – especially as it discounts our experience of self, of God and of purpose. So I’ll remain unconvinced.