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The Way We Live Now

Perry Anderson, seventy this year, is Professor of History and Sociology at UCLA and the quondam editor of New Left Review.  For more than forty years he has written on political and intellectual history, in a muscular and elegant prose bedecked with classical neologisms, and with a breadth and boldness practically unknown in the somewhat timorous profession of academic history, so that his work has been often nervously categorized as “historical sociology.”

A brilliant member of the British New Left of the 1960’s, Anderson in the 1970s published two volumes of general history — Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism and Lineages of the Absolutist State — that joined historical and political questions.  He followed them with studies of historians and philosophers, always in the context of the social significance of their work.  He has now published a 12,000 word analysis of the present political situation, “Jottings on the Conjuncture,” — modestly titled an editorial — in the November-December 2007 issue of New Left Review.

The “conjuncture” of the title means a combination of events or circumstances, especially one creating a critical situation; a weaker synonym would be “situation.”  It contrasts with “structure” and is used here to refer to the world political situation at the present time. Anderson, alive to linguistic nuance and the vagaries of post-marxist discussion, may even be thinking of the Institute of Conjuncture, founded by the economist Nikolai Kondratiev in Moscow in 1920. (Kondratiev suggested that Western capitalist economies have long-term boom-bust cycles of  more than fifty years, the so-called “Kondratiev waves.”)

Anderson thinks that the deep structural changes in the world economy and in international affairs in the contemporary period — which he dates “from the economic and political shifts in the West at the turn of the eighties [and] from the collapse of the Soviet bloc a decade later” — are difficult to discern. He proposes instead attention to the conjuncture of the world political scene since 2000, a notably ambitious task in itself.  He describes his result as a “rapid survey [that] is limited to a brief span of time, no more than seven years, and clings to the surface of events,” but it is in fact a sweeping and consummate synthesis — with a conspicuous contradiction.  He finds “US power, rationally applied elsewhere, skewed by Israeli interests in the Middle East.”  Of that, more anon.

I. NEO-LIBERAL VICTORY

“The emergence of China as the new workshop of the world … [in] a close embrace with the United States” is the most salient fact of the last few years for Anderson: it has produced “a structural alteration of the world market” comparable to that of Victorian England.  The economic predominance of northeast Asia is paralleled in a lesser way by the European Union’s economic incorporation of eastern Europe. “The EU is now a vast free-trade area [of governments] without much external common will or coherent inner direction.” Germany, France and Italy “have drifted sluggishly in a more neo-liberal direction … without yet matching New Labour in Britain.”  (Neo-liberalism in general is the reduction of government control of the economy, to the advantage of the wealthiest members of society; a good basic account is David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism, 2007.)

China and the EU both face a revived Russia, “financed by the world commodities boom,” where “Putin has for some time now been far and away the most popular leader of any major state in the world”; an India that has so far avoided “any headlong neo-liberal turn”; and a Brazil that aspires to “a permanent seat in the Security Council,” owing to its neo-liberal success. In the US, the Bush administration has continued “the regressive redistribution of wealth and income under way in the country since Reagan,” but, “although its rhetoric has been radical right, the domestic record … has been unremarkable … No durable shift further to the right in the centre of gravity of American politics has occurred under Bush … In the standard pattern for American presidencies since 1945, the activism of the Administration has by way of compensation been concentrated abroad, where its performance in the Middle East has aroused an international furore, giving rise to now familiar rival depictions of the unconcealed emergence of an American empire, or the precipitous decline of one.”

“Together, China, Japan, the EU, Russia, India, Brazil and the US account for well over half of the world’s population, and 80 per cent of global GDP. If the twin objectives of American foreign policy since World War Two have been to extend capitalism to the ends of the earth, and uphold the primacy of the US within the international state system,” then it has to be seen as a success, as “there has been a steady increase in the interlocking of all the major capitalist economies in a common dependence on each other.”

Politically, there is “a modern equivalent of the Concert of Powers after the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars” — with the difference that the US, “occupying a position unlike any other, holds the system together … With still the world’s largest economy, financial markets, reserve currency, armed forces, global bases, culture industry and international language, the US combines assets that no other state can begin to match … The other major powers make little attempt to balance against the United States … both because of the degree of interdependence linking their interests to its economy … and because of their common interest in Washington’s policing role … Thus while the relative weight of America in the global economy is plainly declining, with the rapid rise of alternative capitalist power centres, the political leverage of the United States in a now densely interconnected universe of profit and privilege, all of whose elites regard themselves as fellow-members of the ‘international community’, remains incommensurable with that of any other state.”

Nevertheless, “Russia and China do not want the United States to entrench itself too deeply in Central Asia, or corner Iran too aggressively. India remains on its guard against US patronage of Pakistan. The EU toys with a rapid deployment force of its own … To date, however, the gaps and rough edges in the system have not seriously threatened the emergent legitimacy of the ‘international community’ as a symphony of the global capitalist order, even with a somewhat erratic conductor” — Bush’s US.

Perhaps Anderson’s most surprising judgment is that, because “US primacy and a worldwide [capitalist] civilization are not logically interdependent” … the most lucid theorists of American imperialism … contemplate, calmly and explicitly, the passing of the first as soon as it has accomplished its mission of securing the second — within a generation, perhaps, according to one of the most cold-blooded of estimates.”  That is hardly a view proclaimed with much volume by garden-variety pundits or political scientists in the US, but Anderson is surely right to note that “the overall drive of the Republican Administration has been substantially continuous with that of its predecessors”  — despite all the talk in this country of the radicalism of the Neocons, which reduces to a matter of style rather than substance.  “In Europe public opinion, more swayed by style than substance, has been irritated by Bush’s straightforward rejection of Kyoto or the ICC, as opposed to discreet burial under Clinton.”  In fact, says Anderson -– surely correctly — “American strategy has been, not rhetorically, but structurally continuous since the end of the Cold War.”

II. AMERICAN HEGEMONY

“But if Washington is now, in the belief of much of its own establishment, trapped in a quagmire in Iraq, a catastrophic downfall of US positions in the Middle East still looks unlikely … none of the bastions of American power in the region has yet been affected by the conflict.  All its client regimes remain as loyal as ever: on one side, the long wing of states stretching all the way from Morocco to Egypt; on the other, the entire Arabian peninsula; with Pakistan as the great anchor of the American system to the east … Any radical change in Pakistan would, of course, alter the balance of forces across the region … But the long-standing corporate unity of the Pakistani Army, its grip on the country immune to internal rifts or bouts of nominal civilian rule, makes a disagreeable surprise unlikely.” Anderson thus agrees with the Democratic presidential candidates (and if truth be told, probably the Bush administration as well) about America’s real strategic situation in the Middle East.  (The head of CENTCOM lost his job for saying it too openly.)

How in fact can neo-liberal power in the world be opposed, to the advantage of the dispossessed?  Anderson writes, “Of necessity, such opposition could not be other than ‘anti-American’: that is, antagonistic to the continuing role of the United States as world hegemon … The two most obvious regions to consider are Europe and Latin America: the first as the homeland of the labour movement as a modern phenomenon … the second as the only continent with a continuous record of radical upheavals across the entire 20th century, from the Mexican Revolution before the First World War and the Cuban after the Second to the Venezuelan and Bolivian experiences today, after the end of the Cold War … Not by accident, it is these two regions which gave birth to the World Social Forum, so far the only international movement of opposition to the global status quo … [but which] seems itself now winded” — and neither region so far mounts much of a challenge.

For opposition within the US, “the Bush Presidency has had ambiguous effects — on the one hand galvanizing it politically, on the other weakening its endemically frail defences against collapse into the arms of the Democrats, whose leading candidates have made clear their reluctance to evacuate Iraq, and willingness to contemplate an attack on Iran. But should the crisis in credit and housing markets deepen, discontent with two decades of widening social inequality, already vocal, would no doubt curtail their options abroad, forcing measures of local redressment at home.”  Is that so clear?

Anderson concludes that the first years of the 21st century “have seen some spectacular demonstrations of popular will — the WSF in 2001–02, Venezuela in 2002–03, Bolivia in 2004, France in 2005 — and a patchwork of resistances elsewhere, but the overall drift of the period has been a further shift to the right, as a new Concert of Powers has increasingly solidified, the Arab street continues to be paralysed, and the imperatives of financial markets have more and more come to be taken for granted as conditions of social existence, from Europe to East Asia, Latin America to Southern Africa, Australia to remotest Micronesia … neo-liberal doctrines are nearly everywhere the basic grammar of government. The conviction that there is no alternative to them runs deep in popular consciousness … the cry ‘Another World Is Possible’ risks sounding increasingly desperate…”

III. MIDDLE EASTERN IRRATIONALITY

In a major departure from his overall thesis, Anderson believes that the Iraq War shows that in the Middle East “the US political system, as presently constituted, cannot act according to a rational calculus of national interest [as it does elsewhere], because it is inhabited by another, supervening interest … its massive, ostentatious support for Israel.”

Anderson has accepted — for him, remarkably uncritically — the view defended by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt in a famous article (“The Israel Lobby,” London Review of Books, 23 March 2006) and book (The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, 2007), that American policy in the Middle East is decisively influenced by a US-based lobby dedicated to the policies of the government of Israel.  They argue that the Israel lobby, “a loose coalition of individuals and organizations who actively work to steer U.S. foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction” has succeeded in that “the United States has been willing to set aside its own security in order to advance the interests of another state” — i.e., those of the government of Israel.

Mearsheimer and Walt were met by a “storm of controversy,” wrote Noam Chomsky, “the anticipated hysterical reaction from the usual supporters of state violence [in the US], from the Wall Street Journal to Alan Dershowitz, sometimes in ways that would instantly expose the authors to ridicule if they were not lining up (as usual) with power” (“The Israel Lobby?” ZNet, March 28, 2006).  Although Chomsky suggested that they deserved “credit for taking a position that is sure to elicit tantrums and fanatical lies and denunciations,” he concludes that their thesis is not very convincing.  “What is at stake is a rather subtle matter: weighing the impact of several factors which (all agree) interact in determining state policy: in particular, (a) strategic-economic interests of concentrations of domestic power in the tight state-corporate linkage, and (b) the Lobby.” Anderson agrees with Mearsheimer and Walt that the latter “overwhelmingly predominates” — but that cannot be true.

On the contrary, US Middle East policy has continually served the “strategic-economic interests of concentrations of domestic power” in the US, such as the energy corporations. “They have made ‘profits beyond the dreams of avarice’ (quoting John Blair, who directed the most important government inquiries into the industry, in the ’70s), and still do.”  Of course, the US government was not simply the instrument of one economic sector, but the “executive committee of the bourgeoisie”: for generations, US foreign policy has been “based on control of what the State Department described sixty years ago as the ‘stupendous source of strategic power’ of Middle East oil and the immense wealth from this unparalleled ‘material prize’ … The US has substantially maintained control — and the significant reverses, such as the overthrow of the Shah, were not the result of the initiatives of the Lobby.”

It is important to note that control of energy resources, not access to them, is the cynosure of US policy.  The US imports only a small percentage of its domestic energy needs from the Middle East; most comes from the Atlantic basin — West Africa and the Western hemisphere.  But control of world energy is a weapon that the US has wielded against its real — economic — competitors: Europe and northeast Asia (China, Japan and South Korea).  The National Security Advisor in President Carter’s administration, Zbigniew Brzezinski, recently wrote that “America has major strategic and economic interests in the Middle East that are dictated by the region’s vast energy supplies. Not only does America benefit economically from the relatively low costs of Middle Eastern oil, but America’s security role [“security role” is diplo-speak for “dominance by force” –CGE] in the region gives it indirect but politically critical leverage on the European and Asian economies that are also dependent on energy exports from the region” (“Hegemonic Quicksand,” The National Interest 12.01.2003).

IV. AMERICAN CONSISTENCY

Mearsheimer and Walt asserted, amazingly, that “Pressure from Israel and the Lobby was not the only factor behind the decision to attack Iraq in March 2003, but it was critical. *Some Americans believe that this was a war for oil, but there is hardly any direct evidence to support this claim.* Instead, the war was motivated in good part by a desire to make Israel more secure” [emphasis added].  Since they deny the crucial and generations-long motive for US involvement in the Middle East, they have to find something else to explain American actions, and that something is Israel.  Anderson unwisely follows them.

In fact the US adoption of Israel as client dates from “Israel’s destruction of Arab secular nationalism (Nasser, 1967). In the Middle East, that established the close US-Israeli alliance and confirmed the judgment of US intelligence in 1958 that a ‘logical corollary’ of opposition to ‘radical nationalism’ (meaning, secular independent nationalism) is ‘support for Israel’ as the one reliable US base in the region (along with Turkey, which entered into close relations with Israel in the same year).”  Secular independent nationalists took the line that the wealth of the Middle East — primarily oil — should be used for the purposes of the inhabitants of the region, rather than those of foreigners, so the US had to oppose them.

Chomsky writes that the emergence of Israel as a military power in the Middle East forty years ago is “also when the intellectual-political class began their love affair with Israel, previously of little interest to them. They are a very influential part of the Lobby because of their role in media, scholarship, etc. From that point on it’s hard to distinguish ‘national interest’ (in the usual perverse sense of the phrase) from the effects of the Lobby, [which] includes most of the political-intellectual class — at which point the thesis loses much of its content.”  In its demand for control of world energy resources, US policy in the Middle East is “similar to its policies elsewhere — to which, incidentally, Israel has made important contributions, e.g., in helping the executive branch to evade congressional barriers to carrying out massive terror in Central America, to evade embargoes against South Africa and Rhodesia, and much else.”

As an example of Israel’s acting contrary to American policy, Mearsheimer and Walt instance Israel’s “arms sales to China, which they bring up as undercutting US interests. But they fail to mention that when the US objected, Israel was compelled to back down: under Clinton in 2000, and again in 2005, in this case with the Washington neocon regime going out of its way to humiliate Israel — without a peep from the Lobby, in either case, though it was a serious blow to Israel.”

With Israel as a “stationary aircraft carrier” in the region, US policy in the Middle East “has been a remarkable success, in the face of many difficulties: sixty years is a long time for planning success,” notes Chomsky.  Recognizing what drives US Middle East policy (in both Republican and Democratic administrations) — control of energy resources, not Israeli interests — is more consistent with Anderson’s general description than accepting Mearsheimer and Walt’s alternative explanation, given that Anderson’s analysis conflicts with theirs, notably on the politics of oil.

At the end we find Anderson, by no means standing on his head, but seriously listing.  But all is not lost: with proper support on this one issue, his masterful survey can be winched upright — and should be read.  In his conclusion, Anderson summarizes four “theoretical visions that offer exits from the perpetual free-market present.”  He has set us on the road to the important discussion.

C. G. ESTABROOK has recently retired as a visiting professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he taught in the departments of sociology, history and religious studies; his weekly radio program is archived at www.newsfromneptune.com; he can be reached at galliher@uiuc.edu.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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C. G. Estabrook conducts “News from Neptune” on Urbana (IL) Public Television.  He can be reached at carl@newsfromneptune.com.

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