What Did I Learn That Is Still Relevant?
I would have to say that everything I learned in the preparation of United States Penetration of Brazil is still relevant — and never more so than right now, at the mid-point of the first decade of the twenty-first century. Certainly what I learned is more relevant for Brazil now than at any time since 1964. Whatever Leftist means now, in a post-Cold War world, Brazil now has the most Leftist leadership it has had since the counterrevolution of 1964, and the most popular since independence. Whatever their shortcomings, Lula and the Partido dos Trabalhadores spring from and aspire to represent the great mass of working and would-be-working people. That in itself sets Brazil on a collision course with the most elitist government – the most heavily beholden to mega-corporations – that has ruled the United States in more than half a century. The Bush Administration is also arguably the most ambitious and straightforwardly imperialistic that we have seen in that period, and the least fettered at home by the legislative and judicial branches of government.
Brazil is by no means alone in this challenge. Latin America as a whole is now, for good or ill, experiencing new kinds of popular mobilization and new levels of instability. Consequently, it has much to fear from an increasingly ambitious US government; but it is demonstrating in many ways a new willingness to stand its ground and generating new strategies for doing so.
Thus for much of the Third World, concerned now about the implications of a “New American Century,” ( presumably all around the world this time) Latin America has much to teach. Since the colonies of the Western Hemisphere, from Mexico south, emerged from that status to become nominally independent states, what has cast them as a region has been their vulnerability — but also their resistance — to domination and exploitation by external powers. Beginning with Mexico in the mid-nineteenth century and stretching to the Southern Cone by the mid-twentieth, the external power they have experienced as most threatening has been the United States. The lament of South America’s great Liberator, Simon Bolivar, has been echoed by nationalists across two centuries: “The United States seems destined by Providence to plague Latin America with misery in the name of liberty.”
Ahead of the learning curve is not necessarily a comfortable place to be; but most Latin Americans appear to understand well what the United States failed to learn in Latin America or in Vietnam and now resists learning in Iraq – that resistance is not quelled by occupation; it is nurtured by occupation. From the Latin American experience, I will draw some distinctions between those U.S. approaches to imperialism that are enduring and those that are subject to change; between those that are on the order of state-to-state actions and those that constitute penetration – continuous manipulation of the internal political process; and between those that are old (but still in the tool shed) and those that are new, with particular attention to electoral “democracy” as a maintenance tool of empire.
Unchanging Motives, Changing Means
What is most enduring in the U.S. approach to empire has been enduring far longer than the United States itself – that is, the nature of the power game. In the Golden Age of Greece, Thucydides expressed it in simple terms: “Of the gods we believe, and of men we know, that by a necessary law of their nature, they seek to dominate wherever they can.”
Empire does not imply the exploitation by one nation of another, but rather the exploitation by a ruling group, in the first instance, of its own nation (e.g., as taxpayers and troops), enabling the exploitation of others. Thus the empire-building and maintenance strategies and tactics and their consequences that affect subordinated states affect the population of the metropole, or core state, as well. It cannot be said, then, that the American imperial system has failed – every system works for somebody – but it has clearly failed to serve the interests of the American people.
American exceptionalism is a myth. Superpowers do not promote democracy, not at home and certainly not abroad. Democracy requires popular sovereignty – power to govern without external control – the antithesis of empire. Empire implies control, what U.S. officials often refer to as maintaining stability. Popular sovereignty means “getting out of control.” Empires do, however, promote theater – cover stories or rationales – that most often, of late, include elections, a theme to which we will return.
What, then, apart from rationale, or “spin,” is subject to change in the building and maintenance of empire? 1) tools, techniques, and tactics – the means of rape and pillage; 2) institutional roles, or career and interest profiles, of the actors; and 3) the nature of the loot – from gold and silver to land and minerals, including petroleum; markets and utilities, now including even water; interest and portfolio investment; and finally cheap and docile labor.
As to spin, empire from the perspective of its architects and apologists has enduringly been about bringing God and/or civilization to the heathen, along with, for the last half-century, development and democracy. The most immediate packaging of the pursuit of empire, however – from the Crusades to White Man’s Burden to the Monroe Doctrine, Manifest Destiny, Gunboat Diplomacy, Wars-to-End-all-Wars, the Cold War, the Drug War, or the War on Terrorism — has been sensitive to targets of opportunity and to serendipity (particularly the scare potential of unanticipated events) and subject to change at the drop of an opinion poll.
There is little doubt that national leaders, generally adept at the resolution of cognitive dissonance, have been able to convince themselves of the worthiness of their intentions. What has been exceptional about the American experience, however, has been the ease with which leaders have marketed their spins and passed along to the general public a predilection to seek plausible deniability for the society at large and to excoriate any who might ask probing questions.
The Administration of George W. Bush has put a particularly clever spin on the American Empire, speaking instead of the American Century. Those of us who have been around for a few decades have had some practice in opposing empires, but how does one go about opposing a Century? Unfortunately for the Bush league, they are staking their claim a little late. While the power game doesn’t change, the powers in the play-offs do. America has already had a half-century, and that’s about all we are likely to get. Competition for imperial control of the twenty-first century comes not only from an emerging superpower – China, to which the U.S. has become deeply indebted – but also from the stateless creditor cartel, the black-hole density of corporate economic power that propels what has become known as neoliberal globalization. The appearance of coincidence between that “market power” and US political and military power does not mean that global economic power is at the service of US Empire, but rather that US power is at the service of the creditor cartel.