Empire Can’t be Fixed, It Must be Dismantled

When William Appleman Williams made his modest proposal to reinvent the United States as “an American commonwealth of regional communities” in his 1976 work, America Confronts a Revolutionary World, it was in the wake of two monumental events.  The U.S. defeat in Vietnam and Richard Nixon’s resignation from the presidency as fallout from the Watergate scandal. Williams had some prescient words.

“Some people feel that ending the war in Vietnam and driving Nixon from office created a momentum for change.”  But these were only “marginal victories. The structural determinants of another imperial war, and for another effort to consolidate total power, remain essentially as strong as ever. A massive and centralized empire absorbs such setbacks . . . as a sponge absorbs water.”[1]

Indeed, Reagan’s covert 1980s Central America wars came just a few years later.  Then Iraq, Kosovo, Afghanistan, back to Iraq. Along with many smaller engagements and a spread of special operations and drone warfare across a vast swathe of the globe. Meanwhile, the 9-11 attacks, blowback from Middle Eastern wars, have built up a foreign and domestic surveillance state Nixon only imagined. (He did, in the form of the Huston Plan, which played into his impeachment.)

“We have been reforming America since it was consolidated as a Constitutional empire, and we have ended in an imperial mess,” Williams wrote. “Our rulers are unable to disengage from even the most obvious mistakes in foreign policy with any intelligence or morality, or grace or dignity, and they continue to pout and whine about (and intervene in the affairs of) most of the people with whom we share the globe. They do not offer their ostensible fellow citizens at home any meaningful work despite a list of vast and pressing needs that requires countless books to enumerate. And what we call our social fabric is so sundered by conflicts of color, sex, and class that much of the time it reminds one of the emperor’s new clothes . . . We continue to allow a tiny minority to control our political economy. The system survives through inertia and even more because no viable alternative has been proposed and agitated.”[2]

Words that ring even more true in 2021 than when Williams penned them nearly a half-century ago.

The historian followed them with his basic proposal. “I suggest we organize a social movement dedicated to replacing the American empire with a federation of regional communities. No euphemisms and no talk about reform. The objective is to create a federation of democratic Socialist communities.”

The punctuation is Williams’ own. He was not talking about the attenuated democratic socialism associated with Bernie Sanders, which is in reality a form of social democracy. But one in which the public takes active part in economic management. Williams was not calling for a centralized, Soviet-style economy. By 1976 that model was fairly discredited.  He envisioned political and economic decentralization based on “regional communities of a human scale governed through democratic procedures. We will require plans, but we now live (if that is the word) under plans devised by a tiny elite.” Economic organization would rely “heavily on cooperative action” as opposed to government-owned enterprises. It would provide a greater degree of self-determination for most, but less “for those who now exercise monopoly power over most aspects of life  . . .”[3]

Such fundamental change could only be accomplished by social movements, and they would need a ground upon which to struggle. “It is impossible to begin by organizing a continental social movement . . . The crucial arena . . . is and will remain the states. They are where social movements have to be built, and they are the units for building coalitions to deal with regional and federal issues.”[4]

Williams agreed that state boundaries as they exist “have almost no ultimate relevance to the basic problems that have to be dealt with  . . . “ A sentiment with which bioregionalists seeking more natural demarcations would heartily agree. “Even so, I see no other place to initiate a radical strategy.”  “Some existing boundaries will need to be modified, as we create regional commonwealths, and the largest cities should become regions in their own right . . .”[5] Williams posed a Northwest region he called Neahkahnie which re-drew state boundaries along lines remarkably similar to what David McCloskey has developed in his Cascadia mappings.[6]

Williams set a litmus test for capable state-based social movements: “. . . we are willing and able to confront the power of corporations, the issues of priorities for the use of resources, the question of our relationship with other regions in the world, and have evolved a hierarchy of values to guide us in our life together.”[7]

The ability of massive corporations to overwhelm state governments has been a rationale for the increase in federal power. It is thought only the weight of the federal government can balance against corporate power. But the reality is regulatory capture, with corporate lobbyists and money effectively taking control at a federal level increasingly impervious to democracy and popular movements. Williams posits that the actual power rests at a state level where ordinary people can organize effective social movements.

“  . . . there is no reason . . . why the citizens of any state whose political economy is dominated by a few corporations cannot muster their will and transform these monsters into instruments of community welfare.”[8]

The state and regional level only provide a ground for struggle. “The decentralization of the existing American empire does not provide a guarantee of democratic equity, it only offers a human scale for action and government within which a social movement can operate effectively to create that kind of community.”[9]


[1] William Appleman Williams, America Confronts a Revolutionary World: 1776-1976, William Morrow and Company, New York, 1976, p. 187

[2] Ibid, p. 193

[3] Ibid, p. 198

[4] Ibid, p. 194, 196-7

[5] Ibid, p. 196

[6] Ibid, p. 197

[7] Ibid, p. 197

[8] Ibid, p. 195

[9] Ibid, p. 196

This first appeared on The Raven.