The Nature of Empire

Multitude, by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, adds enormous clarity to the libertarian worldview.

The Westphalian nation-state’s sovereignty rested on its sole right to define the legitimacy of both use of violence within its boundaries and the exercise of violence against other nation-states. Under the Westphalian system, whatever their differences in actual military power, states regarded each other as equal sovereigns, with equal claims to territorial integrity and equal rights to conduct war, subject to common standards of legitimacy under international law.

This has been superseded by Empire. The Hegemon has the sole right to define legitimate state violence within the world system. It becomes, in effect, a super-state, excercising the same sovereign rights in the world-system as a whole that ordinary nation-states exercise internally. Hence the American national security establishment defining as a “threat” the credible ability to successfully resist American attack, and “aggression” as refusal to obey the Hegemon’s orders.

The Hegemon, as sovereign of the world-system, upholds a global system of power in exactly the same way national governments uphold their domestic systems of power.

War, for the Hegemon, is a police activity. Wars in the Westphalian system were limited to specific theaters of operations and specific timespans, directed against defined nation-states, and ended by treaty when their finite objectives were met. But the Hegemon’s military action is no extraordinary state of affairs that punctuates periods of peace; it is the normal, “peacetime” state of activity. Like the operation of police forces within the nation-state, the Empire’s military actions are continuous and omnipresent acts by which the system is constituted and maintained. War is the normal global state of affairs, just as “law enforcement” is the domestic norm.

The blurring between military and police action is exemplified by several things: Militarization of domestic police forces through SWAT teams; erosion of constraints on the use of the regular military for domestic law enforcement; and the use of drone warfare for constant police action in which foreign nationals are killed in large numbers on the territories of formerly sovereign nation-states, with which the U.S. is formally at peace, with or without their governments’ permission.

The passage of the National Defense Authorization Act is especially troubling in this regard. It formalizes the redefinition of U.S. territory as a permanent theater — the “Homeland” Command — in a global war, with American citizens subject to indefinite detention without charge just like foreign nationals in a foreign theater of operations. Like Italy in the Roman Empire, America is becoming just another province among many of a global Empire. Martial law, is implemented retail as an ordinary instrument of policy under bureaucratic caesarism rather than as an abrupt and dramatic act

File-sharers and hackers are increasingly classified as “terrorists” — the likely next shoe to drop being their assassination as “enemies” without due process — as the state imports military crowd control technologies for police repression of domestic protestors.

The sovereignty of foreign states is increasingly conditional, with the Hegemon revoking “failed states'” sovereignty and conferring it again after a process of “nation-building.” Like the American federal system in the Civil War and Reconstruction, the global system is reconstituting from one of equal sovereigns into one in which sovereignty is conferred by a central Hegemon. We’ve seen this in Somalia, Haiti, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya — Syria’s probably next. If Iceland becomes an information haven for Wikileaks’ servers, or Spain and Greece fall to M15 and Syntagma, we may see American drones and special forces enforcing an American version of the Brezhnev Doctrine (no state, once having embraced neoliberalism, may secede from the Empire).

War is no longer an extraordinary use of force between states, but (in Hardt and Negri’s words) “the basis of the internal politics of the global order.” As Emmanuel Goldstein put it, “War is Peace.”

If there’s a single takeaway from all this, it’s the nature of the system of power the imperial Hegemon enforces. However much the Hegemon differs from ordinary states, like them it monopolizes power on behalf of an economic ruling class. The Hegemon, like the Westphalian nation-state, is the executive committee of the ruling class. The state is an instrument of organized violence for enforcing political means to wealth: Political appropriation of vacant land, enforcement of artificial scarcities and artificial property rights, and restraint of competition in the interest of concentrated economic power.

The Hegemon enforces a world economic order associated with the IMF, the World Bank, the WTO, GATT, and the G-8. And it does so in order that a few hundred global corporations can strip-mine the planet’s resources and turn its population into sweatshop workers. Whatever the high-minded talk of Peace and Freedom coming from the Hegemon’s imperial functionaries, the reality is slavery.

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