Empire and Resistance, an Interview with Tariq Ali


1. What are the new features of current imperialism, as opposed to the one described by Hilferding, Kautsky, Lenin, Luxembourg? Is it a policentric phenomenon, a new “allotment of the world,” a “government of monopolies,” a “last and highest stage of capitalism” –or something else?

TARIQ ALI: The most startling aspect of the 21st century– something that is genuinely new– is that we have, for the first time in human history, the existence of a single Empire. This is not the abstract utopian ’empire’ of Hardt-Negri, but something very concrete and real. The dominant position of the United States has no precedent in history. The figures speak for themselves: there are 189 member states of the United Nations, there is a US military presence in 121 countries. We are closer now to the ‘ultra-imperialism’ of Karl Kautsky than ever before. Kautsky’s text, ‘Der Imperialismus’ Was written before the outbreak of the First World War, but published afterwards despite the fact that the war itself, a classic demonstration of inter-imperialist contradictions, had dynamited Kautsky’s central thesis, namely, that the latest phase of capitalist development would abolish inter-imperialist conflicts forever.

Despite the war, Kautsky insisted on publishing his text and for good reason. He believed that the growing rise of anti-colonial movements in Asia and the Arab East would compel imperialism to close ranks against a common enemy. And he argued that the arms race would become an unacceptable burden on capitalism, necessitating a strategy of peace, not war between the major imperialist powers. On this last point, of course, he was proved totally wrong. Military spending helped to protect capitalism after the Depression of the Thirties as demonstrated by Germany, Japan and the United States. And it would take another inter-imperialist war to bring the capitalist world to its senses. The refusal of German imperialism to accept the division of the world into British and French zones brought about the Second World War. Its spread to the Soviet Union and Asia created the basis for a spread of the revolution. Vietnam, China, Korea, Indonesia benefited from the inter-imperialist conflicts. It was only after the defeat of Germany and Japan that the capitalist world accepted US leadership, though former rivals secretly celebrated US defeats in Cuba and Vietnam.

Nonetheless the existence of a ‘communist world’ forced capitalism to discipline its competitive urges in the politico-military sphere. The US re-built German, Japanese and West European capitalism that had been devastated by the war and, in return, these states accepted US leadership. In Kautsky’s words the ‘result of the World war between the great imperialist powers may be a federation of the strongest, who renounce their arms race.’ What he predicted after the First World War actually happened after the Second one.

However as long as the non-capitalist world existed there was still some space for manouevre. The French under de Gaulle and the Scandinavians, were strongly opposed to the US war in Vietnam. And not a single NATO country dispatched troops to help the US war effort in South-East Asia. The collapse of 1989 changed all that and brought about a new unarmed struggle for hegemony. There could only be one victor: the United States. The major European states might moan and grumble and search eagerly for crumbs of comfort (‘multilateralism’, the ‘UN’ etc) but US politico-military hegemony was unchallengeable. The British and Spanish leaders accepted this and positioned themselves permanently in the posterior of the US Empire. Despite this the old spectre could not be completely exorcised. The question arose: given that there is no real enemy to unite the capitalist world (the notion of Islam as the new enemy is a joke) might not inter-imperialist contradictions re-emerge? And, horror of horrors, might they lead to war?

This question was not posed by isolated Marxists in the Western academies. It was first raised in the White House during the reign of George Bush I. An Afghan-American ideologue, Zalmay Khalilzad, published an essay in which he suggested that US hegemony had to be preserved at all costs. If necessary by force! The disintegration of Yugoslavia—-a direct result of global economics and inter-imperialist rivalries within the European Union—concentrated the Clinton White House. US intervention in the Yugoslav civil war was an assertion of raw power…..Rwanda where a real genocide was in motion was ignored.

2. Is the war economy a basic component of current imperialism? Is it consistent with global chain networks, free trade, neoliberalism?

TARIQ ALI: Yes. The Washington consensus includes wars necessary to preserve the consensus. The founder of neo-liberalism, Friedrich von Hayek was a staunch imperialist. He suggested that Teheran be bombed in 1979-80 and advised Margaret Thatcher to bomb Buenos Aires during the Malvinas conflict.

The recent wars in Yugoslavia and Iraq had, as one of their aims, the ‘opening up’ of the market. US corporations are heavily involved in plans to privatise Iraqi oil and ‘reconstruct’ the country. Haliburton and Bechtel, the two corporations closely tied to the ruling elite in the US, hope to benefit from the Occupation, though the growing resistance might make that difficult. The privileged status of the defense industry in the United States reflects the strength of the military-industrial complex. For a long time Marxist theorists studied imperialism largely from the vantage point of economics.

The situation today is such that the US Empire has to be analysed from a politico-military position. Economically, the US is not as dominant as it is militarily. So it will use its military strength to shore up its economy. Here the shift has been dramatic. The US Empire maintains its global hegemony despite the unprecedented levels of debt and deficits. Here East Asia has replaced Europe and accounts for 70 percent of the world’s foreign exchange reserves, the bulk of which are kept in dollars and thus help maintain the exchange rate of the imperial currency. China could easily create a crisis for the dollar and the US economy by shifting to the euro or gold, but it has a gigantic trade surplus with the US ($105billion) and has no desire to provoke a depression. US interdependence with the two East Asian powers_China and Japan—is the Achilles heel of the US economy. Hence the importance of keeping the military option open. If China were to mount a resistance, the Empire has two possible routes of attack and Balkanisation: Taiwan and Tibet. Of course its a very risky business but capital has always taken risks.

3. Is there a new dominant imperialist ideology? Which ideological elements are really new? Is it a worldwide dominant or hegemonic ideology?

TARIQ ALI: Yes, as I have explained above it is the American consensus that dominates the world (with the single exception of Cuba and, partially, Venezuela). The economic basis of this consensus is hardly a secret: prising open the hitherto hallowed domains of public provision to private capital. The state’s control of health, education, housing, broadcasting which was the basis of social-democracy in Western Europe has been effectively dismantled. Speculation has become the hub of all economic activity with the unscrupulous use of employee pension funds to shore up profits. The Enron and WorldCom scandals have made no difference at all. In the absence of any serious political alternative, capital remains confident. The collapse in Argentina was a disaster for the Washington consensus, but in the absence of a politico-economic and social alternative, its back to business as usual. The Brazilian rejection of the consensus, which led to the de-industrialisation of the country and the collapse of the national bourgeoisie, produced Lula’s triumph, but the PT administration, frightened of its own shadow, remains mired in the IMF swamp. Of all the continents, Latin America is in open revolt against the economic fundamentalism of the new order. The social movements in Brazil, Bolivia, Mexico, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela have created a new political climate. The people want change. The politicians are scared. And then we have the obscenity reported in the New York Daily News of 27th August 2003: “The 1300-strong Spanish contingent will formally relieve US forces today in Iraq. They will be joined at their base in the rice- and date-growing town of Al Diwaniya, 160 kilometres south of the capital, this week by 1200 troops from Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and El Salvador – all of whom will be under Spanish command.” The use of old imperial powers to help police the world is part of imperial strategy today.

4. What is the meaning of cultural imperialism? Is the cultural dimension a basic feature of current imperialism?

TARIQ ALI: Cultural imperialism= Starbucks + Hollywood. The control of the means of information by the corporations has meant the curtailing of diversity. Television is strictly controlled. The coverage of the Iraq war on CNN and BBC World was pure propaganda. Fox TV (owned by Murdoch) would have won the approval of Goebells. The US control of cinema distribution has compelled its rivals to try and mimic Hollywood successes. Opposition comes from the margins: Iranian, Korean and Chinese cinema; al-Jazeera TV….. Latin America needs its own equivalents. An al-Bolivar TV that reports what is really happening in Venezuela or Bolivia or Brazil would be a sensational development. The notion that private TV networks are ‘free’ is now seen to be a sick joke. The use of these networks in Venezuela to destabilise and overthrow an elected regime is reminiscent of the use of the print media against Salvador Allende in Chile.

5. As a global structure of power, imperialism may be considered a system of conflicts. What are the limits of its power and its basic contradictions? What are the forces fighting inside current imperialism? Is there an emergent “counter-power”? Which are the main conflicts confronted by imperialism as a global domination system? Which factors are shaping imperialist trends in the long run?

TARIQ ALI: The major resistance to imperialism today comes from the social movements in Latin America, the Palestinians and, recently, the resistance in <Iraq.The> recolonisation of Iraq is not proceeding smoothly. The resistance in the country (and in Palestine) is not, as Israeli and Western propagandists like to argue, a case of Islam gone mad. It is, in both cases, a direct consequence of the occupation.

Before the recent war, some of us argued that the Iraqi people, however much they despised Saddam Hussein, would not take kindly to being occupied by the United States and its British adjutant.

Contrary to the cocooned Iraqis who had been on the US payroll for far too long and who told George Bush that US troops would be garlanded with flowers and given sweets, we warned that the occupation would lead to the harrying and killing of Western soldiers every day and would soon develop into a low-intensity guerilla war.

The fact that events have vindicated this analysis is no reason to celebrate. The entire country is now in a mess and the situation is much worse than it was before the conflict.

The only explanation provided by Western news managers for the resistance is that these are dissatisfied remnants of the old regime.

Washington contradicted its propaganda by deciding to recruit the real remnants of the old state apparatus – the secret police – to try to track down the resistance organisations, which number more than 40 different groups. The demonstrations in Basra and the deaths of more British soldiers are a clear indication these former bastions of anti-Saddam sentiment are now prepared to join the struggle.

The bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad shocked the West, but as Jamie Tarabay of the Associated Press reported in a dispatch from the Iraqi capital , there is a deep ambivalence towards the UN among ordinary Iraqis. This is an understatement.

In fact, the UN is seen as one of Washington’s more ruthless enforcers. It supervised the sanctions that, according to UNICEF figures, were directly responsible for the deaths of half a million Iraqi children and a horrific rise in the mortality rate. Two senior UN officials, Denis Halliday and Hans von Sponeck, resigned in protest against these policies, explaining that the UN had failed in its duties to the people of Iraq.

Simultaneously the US and Britain, with UN approval, rained hundreds of tonnes of bombs and thousands of missiles on Iraq from 1992 onwards and, in 1999, US officials calmly informed The Wall Street Journal that they had run out of targets.

By 2001, the bombardment of Iraq had lasted longer than the US invasion of Vietnam.

That’s why the UN is not viewed sympathetically by many Iraqis. The recent Security Council decision to retrospectively sanction the occupation, a direct breach of the UN charter, has only added to the anger.

All this poses the question of whether the UN today is anything more than a cleaning-up operation for the American Empire?

The effects of the Iraqi resistance are now beginning to be felt in both the occupying countries. The latest Newsweek poll reveals that President Bush’s approval ratings are down 18 points to 53 per cent and, for the first time since September 11, more registered voters (49 per cent) say they would not like to see him re-elected. This can only get worse (or better, depending on one’s point of view) as US casualties in Iraq continue to rise.

A contrast with the Vietnam war might be instructive. The anti-war movement of the 1960s was not simply an anti-war movement. It was also a movement that wanted victory for one side, that wanted the Vietnamese to win. So that gave it extra zest. People knew which side they were on. It was ultra-radical for that reason.

The anti-war movement that erupted before the Iraq war was certainly broader and much larger. You can put all the Vietnam demonstrations together and add them up and, globally, it was 100 times larger. But, this was not a movement supporting one side — because no-one in the anti-war movement supported Saddam Hussein — it was rather a movement trying to stop a war that many people believed was completely unjustified.

And not just unjustified, but the reasons for it were kept completely hidden from public view by the US and British governments. It wasn’t about weapons of mass destruction. It was about capturing an oil-producing country with a regime that was very hostile to Israel, which was giving money to the Palestinians. These were the reasons for that war — apart from being a way of showing just what imperial power is and what it can do.

People felt they were being lied to. They were not happy about this war. They felt it was irrational. That explains the size of the mobilisations. It brought out large numbers of people who were not usually political. The reason why the ‘Vietnam syndrome’ such a force is that the Vietnamese people inflicted a defeat on the US. Fifty-thousand US soldiers died in that war. The Americans could not maintain their hold on that country and were forced to withdraw as a result of the combination of Vietnamese military successes and the fact that the anti-war movement had spread into the US army itself. GIs opposed to the war organised large demonstrations of GIs outside the Pentagon and this scared the living daylights out of them. To say that the US war against Vietnam was bought to an end because of the [Western] anti-war movement is wrong. It was because the Vietnamese people had been resisting three big empires for a long, long time and everyone knew the history of that struggle. Partially, it was bought to an end by the anti-war movement, but what made the anti-war movement happen — after all it didn’t exist as a large movement until the Vietnamese people began to score big victories against the US forces. What made the anti-war movement very big, was that many US people realised the war could not be won.

I think there is demoralisation, but I don’t think people should be too demoralised. The war in Iraq isn’t going well for Washington. The US administration thought it would capture Iraq and everyone there would welcome them. That hasn’t happened. There is a resistance movement and it is not just made up of the remnants of the Baath Party. There are lots of other people resisting the occupation as well.

The only people capable of stopping the US-led occupation is the resistance in the region.

If this resistance carries on, I think the US will switch its tactics, probably by bringing in blue-helmeted United Nations mercenaries to run Iraq for them. For the US, the main thing in Iraq is to push through the privatisation of Iraq’s oil, to achieve the liberalisation of the Iraqi economy and to get the big US corporations in there. They are not too concerned as to how the country will be run, as long as that sort of economic structure is maintained.

Ultimately, this Empire too, like its predecessors will overstretch itself and come to an end. I think by that time many of us will be dead, but our grandchildren might see that day.

Tariq Ali’s latest book, Bush in Babylon: The Re-colonisation of Iraq, is published by Verso. He can be reached at: tariq.ali3@btinternet.com


Tariq Ali is the author of The Obama Syndrome (Verso).