The U.S. military has nearly 800 military bases scattered over 70 countries. China, its most recent competitor, has one.
Spending for the U.S. military is about three times the amount Chinese government spends, and is more than the military budgets of Russia, India, the U.K., Saudi Arabia, France, Japan, Germany and China combined.
“The U.S. will remain a dominant imperial power for a long time into the future,” Daniel Bessner, assistant professor in American Foreign Policy at the University of Washington explained to me, adding, “The sheer power of the U.S. is just overwhelming.”
There has been some “rot” in the U.S. empire, as exemplified by the election of Donald Trump and how swiftly the U.S. supported government in Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, and yet, the locus of power in the world is still what U.S. policymakers and their allies desire. Still, the global capitalist system that the U.S. and its allies, especially Europe and Japan, had constructed and maintained post-WWII remains relatively intact, and although some countries, like France and Germany, as historian Adam Tooze writes in his latest work reflecting on the past year of Covid-19, have begun to reorient themselves toward China, the Chinese government do not have the capacity to challenge U.S. hegemony worldwide. As Bessner, and others have noted, the CCP-led Chinese government’s ambitions are very much regional, and they may have the upper-hand over the U.S. in Asia, the fact remains that it is the U.S. that can still retain some measure of influence in Asia, as well as shape politics across the globe.
Some argue that China could militarily push the United States out of Asia and dominate that region, denying the country air and naval access and hence support for critical allies. This would presumably have an existential impact by virtue of the supposedly critical importance of that region to the stability and prosperity of the United States. Yet there are no signs that Washington is losing either the will or the capacity to remain a major military actor in the region and one closely connected to major Asian allies, which are themselves opposed to China dominating the region. In reality, the greater danger in Asia is that Washington could so militarize its response to China that its actions and policies become repugnant even to U.S. allies.
In fact, the Biden administration, the U.K. and Australia have formed an alliance (of nations built on colonial plunder but think of themselves as arbiters of “freedom”), sending in submarines to surround China, a move that China cannot replicate. China does not have the same level of allies nor the individual strength the U.S. does.
It is evident that the U.S. empire, despite pulling troops out of Afghanistan and the rise of China, and the global recessions, continues to loom over the rest of the world. Its power unmatched by any other nation, including China.
How has this been the case, especially following the collapse of the U.S.S.R., when the justifications for a so-called free world led by the U.S. had essentially disappeared practically overnight? Why hasn’t spending on the military been cut? Why has there been a looming presence of U.S. imperial might, or to some extent, an acceptance of U.S. power? Why hasn’t U.S. empire been more scrutinized politically? Why has it taken this long for even some, such as members of The Squad, to start that necessary discussion of U.S. as an empire to begin with?
Part of the answer is quite simple, in that the U.S., after WWII, used what some analysts would call “gunboat diplomacy”, which is brute force, from supporting coups, to leading invasions and occupations, to shattering any opposition abroad, like arming and financially supporting gangs and thugs in Indonesia to go ahead and murder and torture and disappear millions of Communists, who had been organizing the peasants who still lacked power and resources after Indonesia achieved its independence from the Dutch.
Brutality is always behind an empire’s rise, especially that of the U.S., a settler colonial nation with its origin story made possible through the stealing of land, the snatching away of resources, of so-called founding fathers burning crops so that indigenous peoples could starve.
Yet, as the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci recognized in the machinations of capital broadly and its ability to regenerate beyond crises, the ability for the U.S. empire to sustain itself has also much to do with developing constituencies that also depend on its power and influence.
After all, if the U.S. empire had to solely rely on brute force and the suppression of all other groups and nations and peoples, it would not be able to maintain the power it’d need to extract profit and resources. Frantz Fanon, the anti-colonialist thinker and practitioner, also knew that empire needs a mixture of extreme coercion and consent.
“A blind domination on the model of slavery is not economically profitable for the metropolis,” Fanon wrote in his famous essay, “On Violence”.
Instead, economic deals must be made. French settlers must be encouraged to own land in a place like Algeria and thereby, tie them deeply to the cause of sustaining French rule. A material incentive that develops a people, regardless of personal motivation, are now feeling intertwined with the fate of the empire.
In the U.S., that would be the defense contractors, including the workforce, policymakers, “intellectuals”, and the broader U.S. public, oftentimes kept in the dark, or kept at bay with fairly cheap consumer goods. An immune system has been developed.
Andrew Cockburn, author of The Spoils of War: Power, Profit, and the American War Machine, writes, “The implications are profound, suggesting that the [Military Industrial Complex] is embedded in our society to such a degree that it cannot be dislodged, and also that it could be said to be concerned, exclusively, with self-preservation and expansion, like a giant, malignant virus.”
Coercion and consent. The twin drivers of U.S. power and global doom.
THE U.S. EMPIRE: FORM & FUNCTION
Contrary to the myth, which has been eroded due to pressure from activists and historians, the U.S. has always depended on modes of violence to quell certain populations, to expand from its original thirteen colonies.
The violence included the murder of indigenous peoples, with the enslavement of Africans, and the repression of those who would resist against the dominant social order of private property, racialized terror, and the right for businesses to turn a profit above nearly all other demands.
Historian Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz writes,
The origin of the United States in settler colonialism—as an empire born from the violent acquisition of indigenous lands and the ruthless devaluation of indigenous lives—lends the country unique characteristics that matter when considering questions of how to unhitch its future from its violent DNA.
To this day, particular populations in the country, African Americans who are working poor or working class, those who are trying to create a more egalitarian society, one that provides for what people need to live, immigrant workers who stand up for themselves against the tyranny of agricultural capitalists, are oftentimes suppressed through physical force.
This was most evident during last year’s protests against the police, in which protestors were pushed, mauled, and attacked by law enforcement. Tear gas and Billy clubs were unleashed the moment people spilled into the streets, demanding that the social order change. When people started to attack businesses, the police responded with extreme force, willing to crack some skulls for some “peace”.
As the U.S. expanded its empire overseas, violence remained a critical tool, as countries hoping to rehabilitate and create economies that European colonialists had ruined, were one-by-one occupied and coerced through other forms of U.S. force.
As countries in the Third World witnessed the rise of socialists and Leftists, those who identified the need for redistribution of land and resources, and were willing to challenge the dominant role that U.S. and European companies played in their respective nations, the U.S. helped lead right-wing coups (like the one in Indonesia in which were millions were killed overnight), as well as apply other coercive tactics, such as sanctions on Cuba following their own revolution that overthrew the U.S.-supported dictator, Fulgencio Bautista, which have prevented the Cuban economy from receiving access to critical resources to mass produce their own Covid-19 vaccine.
Of course, the U.S.’s brutal methods have been in bloody display through its invasions and occupations of territories overseas, from the Philippines to Vietnam to Grenada to Afghanistan and Iraq.
Mai Elliot expressed in a piece about the heavy toll of the Vietnam War on the Vietnamese people at the hands of the U.S. and its South Vietnamese trained forces,
By the time of the cease-fire in Vietnam in 1973, more than 10 million South Vietnamese, mostly from rural areas — well over half of the estimated total population of 17 million — had been driven from their homes by the war. The United States Senate subcommittee on refugees estimated that by 1974, over 1.4 million civilians had been killed and wounded, and attributed over 50 percent of these casualties to the firepower of American and South Vietnamese forces. These displacements and casualties were not just the byproduct of warfare but also a result of deliberate policies by the United States and South Vietnamese governments.
Violence was directly harnessed by the U.S., time and time again, to “pacify” populations that needed to be held in check for U.S. interests and that of its allies to spread.
The existing social order we have now, of global capitalism led by the U.S. and supported by its allies across Europe and Japan and other regions of the globe, would not have been made possible without this level of violence, coups or otherwise.
However, the U.S. has also achieved its interests, such as maintaining a global capitalist system that all countries must either assimilate to or contend with in some manner (even if that means deciding to not liberalize their economies which leads to losing access to critical resources, such as foreign investment), by cultivating forms of consent to its leadership.
As much as the U.S. relies on violence, its empire does not function the same way as did empires from Europe. For one thing, the Europeans usually administered direct control of their territories as a means of pacification. Hence, English officers were sent to India, to manage its bureaucracy and day-to-day policy.
“Having set up the police, army, civil service, and judiciary on African soil, the colonizing powers were in a position to intervene much more directly in the economic life of the people than had been the case previously”, the anti-colonialist scholar Walter Rodney explained in his classic survey of European dominance in Africa, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (a formidable text that everyone should read).
The U.S., at first, would directly administer policies in overseas territories, as it did in its brutal occupation of the Philippines and Haiti, but unlike the Europeans, would look forward in drawing back some of its military forces, and instead, seek other ways to dominate and influence the regions it once occupied.
The U.S. would accomplish its mission of retaining influence by leaving behind military bases scattered across the globe (just in case it would need to help with suppressing local revolts), as well as seeking to shape the broader political environment that countries must contend with.
The American empire functions in a different way. It is an empire of bases, pinprick bases all around the world. It is an empire of institutions that tries to govern global trade, global security. It doesn’t exactly mirror the empires of old.
U.S. foreign policymakers viewed its interests as being tied with the creation of a global capitalist order, especially during the Cold War. This is different from the era of European colonization where indeed, Europeans would collude to suppressed non-white populations globally, but ultimately, would continue to compete against one another for territory. Such competition would lead to bloody skirmishes and wars, whether it was the British fighting the Dutch “settlers” in South Africa to bloody battles between the French, the Belgian and the British across Africa more generally to scrambles over territory during WWI between the British, the French, the Germans, and Italians.
The U.S., as it emerged relatively unscathed from WWII, viewed itself as the vanguard of global capital, and desired others to join its mission of creating a global order that rewarded countries who liberalized their economies, from Europe to Japan to parts of Latin America and Asia, and over time, parts of Africa. Thus, it set upon creating global institutions, along with its allies in Europe and Japan, that could shape the globe for global capitalist interests overall.
Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin write in The Making of Global Capitalism: The Political Economy of American Empire,
The wide international range of US firms, as well as the relative size and importance of US markets, gave American state authorities ‘tremendous leverage in pressuring foreign firms and regulatory authorities’ to adopt these rules and practices. But the inherent limits on the extraterritorial application of US law in a world of formally sovereign states also gave rise to extensive coordination of national regulations through international institutions like the newly created WTO, the World Bank, the Bank of International Settlements, and the IMF.
Essentially, the U.S., knowing the limits of directly administering control overseas, sought to apply pressure on countries following WWII, including countries that were now independent from Europe, by creating a global capitalist system that horded access to critical investments and resources, such as loans and foreign investment.
Immanuel Ness, professor of political science at Brooklyn college of the City University of New York, and author of Organizing Insurgency: Workers Movements in the Global South, explained how the U.S. and its allies were successful in creating a global economic system that prioritized the interests of multinational companies, of capitalists worldwide. After all, following the end of WWII, much of the globe had been ravaged, either by the war directly or by the legacy of European and U.S. imperialism (i.e. Latin America).
Most importantly, countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, lacking the industrial capacity to extract and manufacture their own goods and products, or in some cases, still relying on a global marketplace to sell their goods to, desperately needed financial help from Europe and the U.S. In turn, the U.S. and its allies created the WTO, the World Bank, the IMF, as a way of sustaining this inequality in terms of access to the market and to industrial capacity. Desperate countries could either agree to the demands that the U.S. global order wanted, such as allowing for multinational companies to extract mineral wealth, or receiving loans to perhaps sustain some financial stability, or face economic marginalization, such as being denied access to sell consumer goods to Europe and the U.S.
“If you opt out of the system as a whole, one will end up being isolated internationally,” Ness said.
Countries such as Cuba, Iran, and Venezuela are examples of this dynamic, in which nations are denied access to the global market for following a different economic model. After the fall of the U.S.S.R and the Eastern Bloc, the dominance of the global capitalist system that the U.S. and its allies had sustained grew even stronger, since countries now lack any real alternative to the global capitalist market. Thus, countries like Cuba and Venezuela are struggling tremendously, having been denied access to the world market and in the case of Venezuela, literally having a significant portion of its reserves seized by the U.S. and other global banking interests.
In the end, the U.S. has created a global capitalist system in which it doesn’t need to rely on invasion or occupation to punish countries that step out of line.
The U.S. achieved this global capitalist order through explicit violence, but also, through aligning with/supporting local interests across the globe who also believed that the U.S. would protect them from the so-called scourge of communism.
Consequently, when we discuss the coups that the U.S. supported, such coups were a combination of U.S. tactical support, such as providing weaponry or training to those would undertake the coup, but were also made possible because there were constituencies in those respective nations, like in Chile and other parts of Latin America, who also sought to maintain a hierarchical political system to preserve their own social and economic interests.
Unlike European empires, the U.S. leans more heavily on local allies to administer control and leverage power for the broader interests of capital. For the coups to succeed in places like Chile and Indonesia, the U.S. developed connections with local constituencies, whether it was the most regressive elements in society, or liberal capitalists fearing a so-called communist takeover. Figures like Pinochet did represent a constituency of lunatics and sociopaths (a.k.a. the rich and segments of the middle class) but nonetheless, a constituency did exist, that the U.S. was more than eager to side with and bolster.
“And yet in Chile, as much as one-third of the population stood with Pinochet to the end,” stated a report by NPR (the leader of finding both sides on every issue) on the legacy of Pinochet in Chile.
To this day, this strategy continues, as demonstrated by the U.S. support of figures such as Jair Bolsonaro and Rodrigo Duterte, both of whom are exceedingly repulsive, and yet, still retain some measure of support/constituency for their horrid actions.
Again, such figures do not necessarily represent what the majority of people desire in Brazil (Bolsonaro is slated to lose to Lula in the upcoming presidential elections) or in the Philippines, but they do inspire a level of loyalty and support among segments of the population, such as among social conservatives (anti-feminists and anti-queer) and of course, among the wealthy and segments of the middle class and the more conservative elements of the working class as well. Indeed, there was rampant support for even Duterte’s so-called war on drugs, which has meant a war on the poor, and the murder of countless people, including addicts.
Even after the dreadful mismanagement of Covid-19 in the Philippines, there is still a constituency supporting Duterte, as Ted Regencia at Al Jazeera notes, writing, “Yet Duterte has continued to be hugely popular during his last 11 months. In a Pulse Asia survey on vice presidential contenders conducted this month, Duterte came out tops, while a Publicus Asia survey in July gave him an approval rating of 58 percent and a trust rating of 55 percent.”
In turn, the U.S. has continued to also support for the Philippines government, which includes continuing to train its military.
“While the Biden administration has declared human rights the centerpiece of its foreign policy, it has carefully avoided publicly calling out the Philippines over its controversial drug war and other alleged abuses,” Julie McCarthy at NPR writes.
Despite the abuses under Bolsonaro and Duterte, and other U.S. allies, such as Narendra Modi of India, which far exceed that of countries like Cuba, they are not excluded from the global market. They are not sanctioned. They are not facing intense economic or political pressure by the U.S. and its allies.
Overall, through this global capitalist system, local capitalists in countries like Brazil, the Philippines, Bangladesh and Indonesia are provided contracts by U.S. and other multinational companies to build the factories and to reap some profit as well. Through the global capitalist system, local governments feel they have very little option other than allow particular interests to continue to extract resources without paying a living wage to local workers, like in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Thus, those who would support this extractive process seek to preserve it and over time, receive some revenue for themselves as well.
Through this global capitalist system, elites are allowed to reap some financial reward by also having access to the financial hubs in the U.S. and Europe. Even for countries as poor as India, the rising crop of elites find value in the way in which the global economic system is currently structured, as they’re also allowed to store their wealth in the same tax-havens and financial hubs as elites in the U.S and Europe.
“The capital that they hold is not held in New Delhi or Mumbai,” Ness expressed, “It is held in London and New York more likely.”
Thus, without ever having to invade, occupy or bomb, the U.S. has found other ways to maintain a global capitalist system beneficial for its interests, from building alliances among the sociopathic/selfish to rewarding those who follow its leadership, ultimately willing to hand off the role of destroyer for others to fill.
COERCION & CONSENT
Michael Brenes, lecturer in history at Yale University and author of For Might and Right: Cold War Defense Spending and the Remaking of American Democracy, has examined the incentives on the domestic front that allow for the U.S. empire to grow and expand.
“These capitalist interests who shape the military can’t just function through sheer hegemony, through their capitalist power,” Brenes expressed to me in a recent interview about the subject of the U.S. military, adding, “They have to have people acquiesce to their power. They have to have people buy into, implicitly or explicitly, into the ways in which the military shapes their lives.”
Again, there is always a level of violence undergirding U.S. empire at home as well, from the killing of various indigenous nations to the violent repression of Left anti-imperialist forces, such as the Black Panther Party and others who found meaning in the Viet Minh struggle for freedom, as well as anyone who sough to side with the international forces fighting against U.S. might.
Yet, as detailed by Brenes in his work, and also, expressed in the work of historians such as Mike Davis and Nelson Lichenstein, there has also been a constituency that has grown, who will continue to mobilize against attempts as basic as even shaving off a few million from the military’s budget, let alone the shutdown of bases abroad.
The coalition of actors that would over time be the ones to “defend” the military-industrial complex from reform started to take shape during WWII. It was during the war that the U.S. government, led by New Dealers, who developed jobs programs to alleviate the high levels of unemployment caused by the Great Depression. Although the New Deal was revelatory in that it did shift toward more pro-worker policies that would’ve been unheard of just a few years prior, much of its policies did not necessarily seek to create a social order beyond capitalism. Hence, in the factories, it did encourage unionization but also, hoped that unions and bosses could find a “compromise” during moments of potential upheaval.
Similarly, U.S. liberals viewed the burgeoning defense industry as a means of also solving unemployment. Rather than create more government jobs programs, policymakers awarded contacts to defense companies so they could hire from the large pool of the unemployed, or those struggling, including white women, and generally, non-white workers.
“[Defense contractors] start getting money for shipbuilding and submarine building and the New Deal creates jobs for defense spending,” Brenes explains, “Forty-six percent of GDP is through defense spending.”
By the time the war is over, a significant portion of the employed are now working in defense industries, in New York, in places in the south, but also, in states like California, which are seen as booming. As Brenes details, there was a fear among policymakers that if such defense industries were drawn back to level prior to the war effort, the unemployment would shoot back up again.
At the same time, and this would be a recurring problem, there was no discussion at the national level about how else to employ people. The Left was relatively weak, now facing the Red Scare, and the New Deal liberal establishment was very much ensconced in the belief that funding for the U.S. military was critical.
Samuel Moyn writes in Dissent, “Cold War liberals put their faith in the military, and depended on spending related to it to deliver social benefits—employment, economic growth, civic purpose—in the absence of a broader welfare state.”
Or, as Brenes explains, “There was no countervailing force” to the consensus forming in the political establishment nor to the growing constituency of the defense industries that benefited greatly during WWII.
Indeed, when the U.S. did send troops into Korea, which was pivotal in harkening the new era of the Cold War between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. and communism worldwide, this set of interests generated the momentum and resources it had already had to grow the military budget, to maintain and expand defense contracts, to maintain and sustain the various think tanks that were willing and ready to justify U.S. Cold War strategy.
Basically, there was a constituency that was able to mobilize effectively, through the connections it had made during WWII, but also due to the lack of viable opposition to its demands, which New Dealers were happy in elevating and working with for their own political agenda of keeping unemployment low, and not expanding social democracy any further.
This constituency would obviously continue to grow during the Cold War, according to Brenes and solidify its roots within the halls of Congress.
When the U.S.S.R. did finally collapse, this constituency mobilized, which included workers who were (understandably so), desperate to keep their jobs, especially considering how neoliberalism had succeeded in cutting away any real form of social safety net that people could rely on, or had reduced the jobs that were available more broadly to low-wage occupations.
Those who mobilized, included the white-collar engineer as well as the blue-collar on the ground floor actively putting together the weaponry that the company would sell to the U.S. government or to allies abroad.
“They mobilize under their labor unions, they seek politicians out who can lobby Congress or get Congress to change, to stop cuts to defense programs that are going to impact them,” said Brenes.
Hence, following the so-called end of the Cold War, the U.S. military’s budget has grown, with interests embedded within the halls of power ready to lobby, from the CEOs and to segments of the workforce, to seek out future threats, from “jihadis” during the War on Terror, and now, China.
Writing in the Christian Science Monitor, liberal economist Robert Reich explains how robust this constituency that would be against military cuts remains.
Over 1,400,000 Americans are now on active duty; another 833,000 are in the reserves, many full time. Another 1,600,000 Americans work in companies that supply the military with everything from weapons to utensils. (I’m not even including all the foreign contractors employing non-US citizens.)
If we didn’t have this giant military jobs program, the U.S. unemployment rate would be over 11.5 percent today instead of 9.5 percent.
Therefore, policymakers in Washington have now a vested interest in sustaining the current levels of U.S. spending on the military out of fears of jeopardizing the economy and having to face off against a significant constituency of people who would be willing to defend the status quo.
In early September of this year alone, the U.S. House of Representatives Armed Services Committee supported raising the military budget by another $25 billion in a time when rent moratoriums are being lifted and most Americans are struggling financially.
Further, there has also been a group of lawmakers who have been drawn closer into the orbit of defense contractors and pro-military defense big spenders. This, obviously, includes lawmakers in Congress who now have stocks in major defense companies.
“According to a Sludge review of financial disclosures, 51 members of Congress and their spouses own between $2.3 and $5.8 million worth of stocks in companies that are among the top 30 defense contractors in the world” Donald Shaw and David Moore write at The American Prospect, adding, “The House Foreign Affairs Committee oversees arms controls and exports, yet at least four of its members have investments in defense companies whose foreign sales fall under their jurisdiction.”
Last year, the defense companies in the U.S. had sold $175 billion worth of weaponry to other countries, which was a 3% increase from 2019.
According to Stephen Losley at Military.com, the “revolving door” of influence between lawmakers and the U.S. defense industry is across partisan lines, and includes not just critical figures on committees, but also those who directly advise the executive on military strategy and other military-related issues.
The practice appears unlikely to change significantly under the Biden administration. The report notes that while President Joe Biden issued an order restricting officials who leave the White House from quickly lobbying the executive branch or registering as foreign agents, several of his appointees have ties to the defense industry. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, for example, sat on Raytheon’s board before joining the administration.
Finally, there is also, the fact that some Congresspeople do rely on the defense industry to provide jobs in their districts, in California, in the south, in areas in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic (i.e. parts of Maryland and Virginia), what Brenes has called the “gunbelt”. In 2012, when President Obama did float the idea of cutting military spending, those who would be against such an effort knew there was a worker constituency they could mobilize and wield against such a proposal. At the time, Dina Rasor at Truthout wrote,
One of the most vocal defenders of the Pentagon budget is Rep. Buck McKeon (R-California), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. He insisted, along with Pentagon companies such as Lockheed, that according to federal law, these large Pentagon contractors would have to send out thousands of warning pink slips to defense workers across the country that their jobs may be eliminated just a few weeks before the presidential election. I am sure that they thought that that would put President Obama in a box of facing voters in key states such as Virginia and Colorado because possible defense cuts would also mean pink slips, anticipated job losses and panic at the polls.
As the U.S. now begins to apply pressure on China and portray China as an “existential” threat to all that is holy, one must trace the roots of this new Cold War to the fact that there is a constituency, a coalition of material interests, who depend on war, including a segment of the U.S. workforce.
“Once these institutions are created, they don’t have an interest in getting undone,” Brenes said, “There’s a material basis for them to function, to seek out new threats.”
The U.S. Empire as Immediate and Distant
The ability for the U.S. military and defense industries to have become such a major force in U.S. politics was not inevitable. Such things never are.
However, understanding how the power of the U.S. military is rooted in constituencies as well as violence overseas and domestic should show us the necessity/importance/fundamental need of lobbying for particular interests and organizing for those interests in society.
The fact remains, those who benefited from the U.S. military largesse and its interventions abroad, had organized themselves effectively, to get what they want from government, while unfortunately, our side is still very much trying to build our own capacity to serve as a “countervailing force”. Certainly, as the anti-imperialist Left, we have many more obstacles to navigate, including political repression by both liberals and conservatives who very much share a belief in U.S. exceptionalism. However, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t any strategies we could employ to beat back the scourge of U.S. empire.
In fact, the number one thing is to organize into institutional entities that could increase influence in government at the national level. As Brenes argues, this includes supporting elected officials such as Ilhan Omar and others on the Squad, so they can raise such issues surrounding U.S. imperial ambitions and harm, as they’ve already done, as exemplified by Omar’s interrogation of the deplorable Elliot Abrams, the man responsible for Reagan’s support of right-wing death squads in Central America.
There needs to be also actions beyond simply protest. People must be organized into parties, especially revolutionary ones willing to link people across the country who believe in cutting the U.S. military budget as well as others who may be interested but haven’t been approached yet, such as refugees and immigrants from places across Asia and Africa.
“The way to develop a political movement is not through disallowing party organization,” Ness explained, “Its by building that organization.”
Essentially, our own constituency must be forged and that cannot emerge spontaneously, especially when so many Americans already feel overwhelmed by their most immediate interests to think about foreign policy.
The irony is, that as much as U.S. empire has been a money pit and has survived by offering up particular material incentives to people, it has also relied on American ignorance and distance from foreign policy. As much as the U.S. has relied on occupations of particular countries and regions, it also very much has become a leaner machine, in which those who are in its immediate orbit, including workers and members of the military, have shrunk.
Most people in the U.S., as Bessner explains, do not have an immediate face-to-face interaction with the military, especially after the 1970s.
In responding to why the U.S. empire has been able to avoid political pressure against it that are effective, or in generating mass anger, Bessner explained,
I think the answers fairly clear, which is the creation of the all-volunteer force in 1970s. It removed most Americans from a personal relationship with the empire, unless you come from a military family or are in the military, or work for a defense contractor, you don’t necessarily feel the empire, its affects, what it takes to manage it, etc.
Of course, this does not mean that the U.S. empire does not have an affect on most Americans. The spending on the military takes away spending on more important and necessary policies, such as healthcare, and housing, among other priorities. But also, the fact that the pro-U.S. military spending constituency is so much more mobilized within the halls of government, conversations about what policies the country needs are always impacted, oftentimes negatively.
For instance, as the Biden administration seeks to compete with China (spurred on by the pro-U.S. military crowd), as Biden himself has continuously spoke of in his major speeches, the range of policies that are seen as “legitimate” will exclude those that do not directly connect with this mission of “taking on” China. So yes, infrastructure spending is encouraged, since that means enhancing U.S. business interests (better roads, better ports, better global supply chains). Perhaps wage increases, to an extent, so that workers will return to work or be willing to work longer hours.
But policies like universal healthcare will remain off the table. Defunding the police will also be considered as a backburner issue, until another election cycle. And of course, ideas that are actually socialist and just, such as workers in control of industry, will be entirely missing, and have been, through this negative effect that the pro-U.S. empire discourse has on our policy discussions.
“It definitely shrinks the conversation because all the programs you want to pass is justified by how you want to provide security,” Brenes expressed.
Hence, a countervailing force must be developed, through elections of politicians that could bring forth these ideas to a mass audience.
Also, when it comes to developing that countervailing force, we must find ways to break apart the pro-U.S. military constituency itself, especially with workers in the industry. This doesn’t necessarily mean getting every worker onto our side, but we cannot simply ignore those who do work in the defense industry currently, since they have been and will continue to be the ones to also mobilize against us, and again, for some understandable reasons.
As Brenes discusses in his work, when issues like U.S. empire have brought up in the past, especially during the Vietnam War, a significant number of working people were split on the issue, of course. The fact that workers in the defense industry sided with the war effort was not necessarily about believing in U.S. empire wholeheartedly. In fact, those workers and their leadership in the AFL-CIO were very much driven by the immediate concerns they had about their jobs, about the financial security they hoped to maintain. Even workers who were against the war because they had someone fighting or may have been sympathetic to the Viet Minh cause for independence (who wouldn’t, honestly), were incentivized to save their jobs and therefore, believe in the war.
This incentive obviously still holds.
Many workers in the defense economy are concerned about the fate of their jobs long term. They think, ‘I need to feed my family now, I can’t worry about I need to make sure I have the ability to maintain my overall economic status, to pay my mortgage.
Until the Left can provide different incentives, including policies that promise some form of stability when the defense industry does shrink (and eventually, disappear entirely), this constituency will continue to pose as a force against the progress we need.
Furthermore, the Left must also find ways to forge solidarity and ties beyond our borders, with forces internationally if we any hope of building pressure on the behemoth that is the U.S. empire. So long as forces which are amenable to U.S. global interests exist, they will receive support from the U.S. and their allies, and of course, in turn, develop the constituencies they can so they can maintain their rule over the rest of society, as in the Philippines, as in Indonesia, as in parts of Latin America, like in Colombia and now much of Central America.
Conversely, those forces that would objectively benefit from the ending of global capital, and the regional monsters it produces, will continue to be outmatched and outmaneuvered, even when they may form a larger group within a country or region. Hence, such forces also need our material support as the U.S. Left, whether it is sending delegates as the DSA has done to places like Venezuela, to meet with and discuss with the government that’s under siege there, or it is forging bonds across radical labor unions, as Ness would argue.
There must be internationalism on the Left in the U.S. with forces battling the U.S. imperial death machine.
As Martin Luther King, Jr. once recognized, in his final year prior to him being assassinated, there are forces aching to be freed from the U.S. and its middlemen of doom. There are forces struggling to be free, as in the Viet Minh struggle against the French and the U.S.
In his speech, “Beyond Vietnam,” he stated,
After the French were defeated, it looked as if independence and land reform would come again through the Geneva Agreement. But instead there came the United States, determined that Ho should not unify the temporarily divided nation, and the peasants watched again as we supported one of the most vicious modern dictators, our chosen man, Premier Diem. The peasants watched and cringed as Diem ruthlessly rooted out all opposition, supported their extortionist landlords, and refused even to discuss reunification with the North. The peasants watched as all of this was presided over by United States influence and then by increasing numbers of United States troops who came to help quell the insurgency that Diem’s methods had aroused. When Diem was overthrown they may have been happy, but the long line of military dictators seemed to offer no real change, especially in terms of their need for land and peace.
A Left that does not move strategically, that does not take seriously solidarity across borders, a Left that is more about spontaneity than about developing power will always lose to the forces that already exist, the forces that will persist in making sure the bombs are dropped, the tanks are made and sold, and that our society is shaped by war even when we’re miles away from the frontlines.
 This article includes insights from original interviews I’ve conducted with Daniel Bessner, Immanuel Ness, and Michael Brenes.