A world made safe for capitalism

A world made safe for capitalism
by David Allen
/ December 11, 2013 / Leave a comment

Is Perry Anderson’s revisionist history of the Cold War credible?
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Is Anderson’s US-centric approach reductive?

In the latest issue of the New Left Review, Perry Anderson has written 60,000 words on the topic of world domination. Of course, “world domination” sounds a bit passé nowadays, a bit cartoonish. Anderson instead casts the United States as a “planetary power” that has secured and spread capitalism across the globe. Its success, he suggests, is already beginning to haunt it.

As a leader of Marxist New Left, Anderson’s focus is unsurprisingly on capital. For him, the thousands of historians who have dug through archives only to write histories of American foreign policy that focus on politics, ideology, and external threat have missed the point. Instead, he thinks we should have been investigating how the United States has furthered the interests of capital. Where many historians have seen the United States acting defensively, Anderson sees a “grand strategy” concocted by America’s elite to build an empire that would make the word safe for free markets.

Anderson’s story goes as follows. Before Woodrow Wilson became president, the United States increased its influence across the Pacific and south into Latin America through its businessmen. Although they were supported by the State Department’s policy of the Open Door (the negotiation of free trade rights which the United States could exploit), bankers and industrialists mostly led this expansion on their own initiative. But Wilson, Anderson writes, provoked a “convulsive turn,” fusing “religion, capitalism, democracy, peace and the might of the United States” into an ideology of empire to justify entry into the First World War, and afterwards to lead the world.

Wilson’s plans for the League of Nations were rejected and in the 1920s Americans returned to their pre-war ways. After the Depression brought home the perils of international financial markets, Pearl Harbor offered Franklin Roosevelt a chance to turn this traditional expansion from below into an empire of command, securing by military might. His planners, writes Anderson, had two aims: “the world must be made safe for capitalism at large; and within the world of capitalism, the United States should reign supreme.”

Anderson’s vital point, borrowed from historian Anders Stephanson, is that the Cold War was therefore not a defensive reaction to an expansionist Soviet Union. How could Stalin seek expansion given the devastation of Eastern Front and the presence of American troops in Germany? No, the Cold War was invented to justify empire. The United States could not tolerate an alternative, although lesser, vision of history’s end. Victory was the Cold War’s aim: the objective, to “delete the adversary.” The Cold War was a temporary necessity fought to secure the final aim of a world made safe for capitalism.

The problem was how to overcome Americans’ historic aversion to a military role in the world. For Anderson, “containment,” the purportedly defensive but in his view aggressive strategy laid down by the diplomatic planner George Kennan, was just a “bureaucratic euphemism,” too “arid a term to galvanize popular opinion.” Instead, the architects of empire invented “security.” Anderson does not suggest how this term came to dominate the language of foreign policy, but he does see it as inherent in the liberal project of the decades around the Second World War. Franklin Roosevelt’s Social Security Act (1935) guaranteed prosperity for all at home. Harry Truman’s National Security Act (1947) guaranteed safety for all abroad. Anderson argues, correctly, that the United States itself was impregnable, but nevertheless Truman was able to argue that defending the homeland necessitated taking the offensive around the world. So the War Department became the Defense Department. The executive branch began, irreversibly, to grow, immediately gaining the National Security Council and the Central Intelligence Agency. What profit was for firms, “security” became for government: there could never be enough of it.

For Anderson, the Cold War was never a symmetrical battle. The United States was a global power, the Soviet Union a regional one. Only one could provide both guns and butter, and so the Soviet Union spent itself into oblivion by trying to keep up with American military expenditure. It is other American actions, beyond the Cold War, that interest him more. Seeing empire as the desire to secure capitalism at any cost–rather than a fight for rights or democracy–Anderson has no trouble explaining what often seems like the hypocrisy of the United States’ reliance on dictatorships around the world. Why, after all, would the abrogation of human rights and the support of military coups matter if friendly regimes did not touch private property? Even so, Anderson cannot resist providing a rather predictable recitation of the United States’ misdeeds in liberty’s name.

The Cold War, though, had an unintended legacy. Protected by the American security umbrella, Germany and Japan could devote their energies to economic growth. By the 1970s, with the catalyst of oil shocks from the Middle East, the United States was playing for time in a dangerously competitive atmosphere. It still had stunning power: it destroyed the Bretton Woods system that it itself had created in the 1940s to underwrite international economic stability and forced others to deal with the consequences. And in Anderson’s view the United States aimed to make capitalism a “planetary universal under a single hegemon” with renewed ambition after the Cold War.

Largely, in Anderson’s view, it succeeded. George HW Bush—“the most successful foreign policy President since the war”—managed to secure empire by waging the first Gulf War under UN authority (ensuring international organisations would continue to be American tools). Bush also made certain that the nuclear club would be small by agreeing the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and safely brought Germany into NATO. Bill Clinton did even more for capitalism, creating the World Trade Organisation, sending Harvard economists to impose the free market on Russia, and constructing a global neoliberal regime. Beyond his obvious use of military power, George W Bush expanded the surveillance state and made the CIA a “private army.” And Obama has only made empire more concrete. His multilateralism has allowed Britain and France to do America’s dirty work in Libya, Syria, and Iran. Drones have replaced torture. Anderson brands Obama the “Executioner-in-Chief.”

Anderson, still faithful to his economic determinism, believes that this expansion of physical empire masks the fact that the fundamental base of American power is crumbling. Capitalism approaches crisis, and debt and financialisation are the chief symptoms. Germany and China snap at America’s heels. “American primacy,” as Anderson writes, “is no longer the automatic capstone of the civilization of capital.” If America has built a free trade empire, an Open Door for the world, does it still have the domestic stability and economic prowess to walk through it?

Cue Anderson’s demolition of the current crop of imperialists. The second part of Anderson’s essay, “Consilium,” excoriates the contemporary “in-and-outers” who enact imperium in the halls of government and worriedly justify it outside. Anderson’s list of empire’s “useful idiots” is distinguished indeed: Michael Mandelbaum, Charles Kupchan, Robert Kagan, Walter Russell Mead, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Robert Art, Thomas Barrett, Richard Rosecrance, and the most paradigmatic of them all, John Ikenberry. Skipped over are Fareed Zakaria, Peter Beinart, and the tempting target of Thomas Friedman, solely because they are journalists. The obvious absentee is Joseph Nye, who Anderson dismisses dismissed euphemistically as “insufficiently original.”

The pen portraits are relentlessly incisive, with Anderson deploying all his skill as an intellectual historian to skewer his subjects. The arguments here are myriad, but the crucial one is this: for all their warnings of decadence and decline, what does not change for any of these writers is the assumption of America’s necessity in the world. Fretting about troubles at home, the leeway of empire allows them to conjure “fantastical” visions of renewed power abroad. For Anderson, this is welcome, a sign of “unconscious desperation” as late capitalism crumbles. For those of us less taken with his political line, it might better be occasion for fear.

The elegance and power of Anderson’s essays is undeniable regardless of political stripe. Yet few historians would agree with his insistence on the United States as an omniscient empire-state, preferring a more consensual, diffuse vision of its world leadership. The view of the Cold War as an American “project,” as Anders Stephanson calls it, reduces the management of the world to a Pennsylvania Avenue cabal and requires historians to find a “grand strategy,” passed down from one generation of leaders to another. The documents suggest such a strategy simply never existed.

Rather than Anderson’s US-centric approach, it would be better to analyse how American power—capitalism itself, even—has been negotiated and negated across the world, and indeed at home. Otherwise all we do is reinforce America’s own vision of its indispensability. By breaking down the notion of an empire foisted on a credulous public at home and enforced relentlessly abroad, we might show that world domination, although hoped for, has been little of the sort – See more at: http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:apGEa09GN40J:www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/art-books/a-world-made-safe-for-capitalism/+&cd=1&hl=es-419&ct=clnk&gl=sv#.U7GpvEA0_Fw

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