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The New Imperialism (Clarendon Lectures in Geography and Environmental Studies) Paperback – 17 Feb 2005
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Review from previous edition 'The New Imperialism' merits the widest possible public. David Harvey is a social theorist known for a cool, analytical style born of interdisciplinary inquiry, coupled with a keen feeling for political significance. This book showcases his talent.' (The Boston Phoenix)
'Harvey makes an important theoretical contribution to understanding contemporary empire's vicissitudes.' (The Times Higher Education Supplement)
'This book is beautifully crafted, its prose accessible, its narrative one of mounting intensity and urgency. 'The New Imperialism' mounts a stunning indictment of our present institutions of power, while offering hopeful insights about how these institutions could be changed.' (Richard Sennett, Professor of Sociology, London School of Economics)
'Navigating effortlessly between history, economics, geography and politics, with persuasive argument and lucid prose, David Harvey places today's headlines in context and makes sense of the early twenty-first century maelstrom we're all caught up in. His concept of accumulation by dispossession will go far. 'The New Imperialism' is a truly useful book.' (Susan George, Associate Director, The Transnational Institute, Amsterdam)
About the Author
David Harvey is a Distinguished Professor, Ph.D Program in Anthropology, City University of New York.
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To be brief, this book proposes several points. First, America has gradually turned into an empire over the last fifty years. As evidence, the author points to the dozens of military bases the US has around the world. American now has more military installations in more places than any other nation that has ever existed. Many of these bases are located in countries that are not democratic; i.e. the citizens of these countries did not vote to invite America's military in. The only possible conclusions are that the local government stays in power through America's support (financial or otherwise), or are outright puppet governments.
Second, this is not an empire built on the control of land and the founding of colonies in say the English mold, but instead is an empire built on opening up consumer markets for American corporations and controlling non-renewable natural resources such as oil, again for domestic consumption. The first part of this argument is self-evident; America has no colonies in the most literal sense and our ambassadors in most countries are holed-up in concrete fortresses instead of prancing around like local kings of the hill. The second part of this argument is also as self-evident, to those whose eyes and ears are open. Specifically, America's aid, money, attention and soldiers often end up in places that are either important trade posts (Suez and Panama Canals), have oilfields (the entire Middle East), or have a large business community which we do business with (Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Germany).
Third, America has made this transformation to the ignorance of most of its citizens, but to the alarm and suspicion of almost everyone else. This is probably the most important point of this book. Pull over any American on the street, give her a map of the world and ask her to point out all the countries which have been militarily attacked (bombed, invaded, occupied, etc...) by the US since 1900 (excluding the two World Wars). She should answer Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and might recall North Korea, Somalia and Serbia. She will probably leave out Haiti, Cuba, Panama, Philippines, Libya and Mexico, and will surely be unawares of Russia (US troops invaded during the Russian Revolution), Cambodia (secret bombings ordered by Nixon during the Vietnam War) and China (prior to World War II). No other nation in the history of the world has intruded upon the soil of so many other countries as has the USA. If this does not qualify America as an empire, than nothing can.
Fourth, this growth of empire has been fueled by the same historical reasons and processes that fueled the growth of the British Empire, the Nazis, the Roman Empire, and other great empires. War serves as a way to divert the public attention from domestic troubles; usually economic. To be exact, the fruits and costs of war alleviate various economic pressures that could doom a nation's leadership if otherwise left to fester. The centuries prior to England's Age of Empire was marked by a stratification of English society. Most of the livable land in England passed into the ownership of a small, wealthy minority. You were either born into it or outside of it. Those born into it were not going to give up wealth to their less privileged brethren, so colonial expansion provided a way by which those born outside of it could achieve wealth and status in life. Population growth was relieved by sending people off to other lands. The poor benefited because emigration kept the labor pool small, thereby keeping up wages. The rich benefited because English colonies provided an outlet for their produced goods, and a source of natural resources (e.g. tea from India) and cheap labor (cotton from the American south). Similarly, war and the resulting influence of other countries economic and political policies help the US economy grow.
Fifth, all of this is not unexpected. The path America has taken was described over a century ago by Karl Marx and his followers as the path all capitalist countries take. After the end of the Cold War, intellectuals the world over concluded that Marxist thought was over; relegated to the trash heap of history. Actually, the historical processes described my Marx have played themselves out numerous times in the 20th century.
Sixth, the current Bush administration marks a watershed in the history of America, akin to the rule of Augustus in Rome. Specifically, the latter's rule marked the official transition from Roman Republic to Roman Empire. The Bush administration, with either the consent or ignorance of the American electorate, have quickly exited the numerous treaties it had bound itself to in the previous five decades, has openly called out enemies to oppose, and has invaded two countries (so far). As such, the span from 2001 - 2008 is when America, in the eyes of others, has decided to transform from world leader to world bully, akin to the transition from Roman Republic to Roman Empire.
Seventh, like all empires, America clothes its actions abroad (i.e. foreign policy) in morals and ethics, but they are mostly driven by self-interest. The author does not argue this point fully, primarily because it is elaborated elsewhere. This keeps the page count down, but reduces the impact and persuasiveness of the book. In response to the other (incredibly ignorant) review for this book, I will take up this argument here.
a. In World War II, the US declared war on the Nazis ONLY AFTER they declared war on the US. If the US was such a high-minded nation as the other review implies, America would have declared war on Germany the moment Nazi troops entered Poland. Related to this, millions of Jews tried to flee Europe during the 1930's and 1940's. Many of them tried to enter the US. The US rejected most of them and only allowed in those with political connections, those with money, and those with training in quantum physics, nuclear physics, weapons technology (Einstein, Oppenheimer, etc...), and others that could help US science and technology. If the US was such a moral nation, it would have allowed in all the Jews. We, America, defeated the Nazis because they declared war on us, and posed a mortal threat to us. This is no different and no better than one street gang eliminating another street gang that steps on its turf.
b. During the Cold War, the US intervened militarily in other countries to prevent the spread of communism. This was often and usually done without the explicit consent of the populations of the host countries. Vietnam is a prime example. Throughout the 1960s, the US military frequently held secret, mock elections in villages throughout South Vietnam. The Communist candidates nearly always won, even when the US-backed candidates had more funding and resources to bribe the electorate. Why? Because the Communist candidates offered what the people wanted. This is why there was never an election in South Vietnam during the US occupation. America did not care about what the South Vietnamese wanted; we only cared about what we wanted.
c. During the Cold War, the US provided aid to other countries that publicly supported the fight against communism. An example is South Africa. As long as the white government publicly opposed communism, the US government and US corporations turned a blind eye towards apartheid. It was only the civil rights movement, and especially black activists that brought this to a halt in the 1980s.
These and other experiences in countries around the world prove beyond a doubt that America did not care about liberty, justice, freedom and democracy in other countries, but only that they oppose communists. The question then begs as to why America was so interested in opposing communism. This leads to the last point argued in this book. Every empire needs an opposite; Greece had Persia, Rome had Carthage, the English had first the Spanish and then later Napoleon. We had communists. Communists are bad for business because they believe in communal, non-transferable rights to everything, which is anathema to the concept of individual, transferable ownership of anything, the basis of capitalism and business. Who runs America? Not civil rights leaders like Caeser Chavez or Martin Luther King Jr. Not progressive politicians like Eugene Debs or Ralph Nader. No, America is run by businessmen (current and ex) and those who cater to business interests. It was Robert McNamara, JFK and others connected to the business world who led America and its naïve president LBJ into Vietnam, not those who were fighting for freedom and liberty like MLK Jr. or Malcolm X.
In all, this is a great book to read, though the text is tough and hard to work through.
Harvey descibes this new imperialism as accumulation by dispossession, a controversial description since dispossession in classic Marxist thinking is supposed to be restricted to the primitive forms of accumulation of times gone by. Still, the evidence is considerable given the wave of privatization of formerly public assets (water and education, in particular) in many parts of the world, (think also of recent attacks on Social Security). Indeed, these institutional measures inside and outside the US, do in fact resemble the classic "enclosues" of capital's earlier, more primitive stage. Recent attacks on formerly state-sponsored economies such as Yugoslavia's and Iraq's amount to further cases in point. But, again, this revived dispossession need not depend on military invasion; the subtler form attacks through the avenues of capital markets and state-sponsored privatization. Though the current period is dominated by dispossession, Harvey points out that accumulation by reproduction still continues. In fact, he asserts, the two are `organically' related and `dialectically' connected, for which however he offers scant elaboration.
The practical upshot of imperialism by dispossession is to force a shift in anti-imperialist thinking away from the familiar strategies that challenged the pre-1973 expanded reproduction regime. That earlier response stressed organizing the proletariat into a political force in order to seize state power in behalf of socialist principles. Movements outside that exclusive strategy were considered secondary at best, and counter-revolutionary at worst. Though this effort failed in its primary task, the author points out that it's hard to conceive of Europe's social democracies or America's New Deal as taking place without the single-minded drive of communist party politics. However, these methods are now clearly inadequate for confronting neo-liberalism and its capacity to bypass both organized labor and state power (consider neo-liberalism's sabotage of France's Mitterand in his effort to deepen socialist programs in the 1980's). Instead, current forms of resistance are much more diverse and localized, as evidenced by Mexico's Zapatista movement or Bolivian resistance to water privatization schemes. If there's a central rallying cry among these diverse groups, it's opposition to `globalization', at least in neo-liberal form. Generally, the central challenge facing anti-imperialists, as Harvey sees it, is to combine the wisdom of former strategies with the developing modes of today-- a not inconsiderable task, to say the least.
All in all, this is a stimulating read. There is much to digest, especially in grappling with the theoretical aspects. It's important to point out that Harvey approaches the topic as a critical observer and not as an economist, a fact which some may count as a fault since many of the conclusions rest on economic data. Still and all, the work remains an important prism for examining current trends.
D. Harvey places in context the recent developments in US foreign policy. He wrote this book before April 2003 yet, he could still easily see through the smoke screen arguments of WMD, democracy!
Concerning Iraq, Harvey argued that the main goal of USA was regime change and to establish a client state there to control the oil reserves & routes of Middle East. He reminds the US had plans set up for a conflict with Iraq much before the first Gulf War.
Harvey notes the existence of a US empire was long recognized by leftists long ago. It was only after 9/11 when the conservatives started also to recognize this empire and in fact argued for the benefits of one. During Clinton years, this American empire was more like the old Ottoman Empire, a tolerant one with light footprints. Now, it is more like the hard-pressing Roman Empire, trying to change cultures wholesale, not satisfied with only the consent of governments. Most Americans don't understand this, but the pressure by USA in less developed countries in fact causes only resentment and anger there.
He also speculates the war may be a method to distract Americans from rebelling against the government because of deteriorating conditions in economy.
Overall, it is an easy short read containing substantial arguments.
Harvey begins "The New Imperialism" by posing the question of how to properly define an "empire." What is an empire? Why is the U.S. an empire? What drives the financial, political, and military elite of the U.S. to carry out their imperial ambitions? What changed about the imperialism that drove colonialism to the imperialism that drives neo-colonialism?
Harvey, as usual in his books, covers lots of ground in a relatively short amount of space. Here's my attempt to summarize the model he develops in one paragraph:
Capitalist imperialism began with the European powers and was primarily oriented around the administration of vast holdings of other cultures' lands in order to facilitate the accumulation of value. Colonial leaders frequently portrayed their efforts as a means to alleviate social tensions at home by expanding abroad, and thus staving off potential threats to the ruling classes within industrialized capitalist nations. With the fall of the British Empire, the U.S. was free to fill the void, but its imperialism took on a different form. The U.S. empire's attention has historically been focused on both maintaining the flow of essential commodities and the freedom of (uneven) capital flow between nations. As a result, the U.S. furnishes its power by continually fostering the growth of its Pentagon-complex and selectively targeting troublesome nations. American imperialism tends to oscillate between liberal and conservative eras, where the conservatives rally the populace behind aggressive attacks against certain states, while liberal phases tend to value a veneer of cooperation in their efforts.
For Harvey, this model has some important implications. Wars such as the War in Iraq, although inherently tied to the world oil market, are never just about "oil." Rather, these wars serve more as reminders of American power, where fear of American financial and military might secure the empire's objectives. In turn, the Pentagon will probably never cease trying to expand its power, whether domestically or abroad, especially since the near future will present serious challenges to American military power. At the same time, the U.S. still possesses powerful means by which it can financially discipline weaker nations, but the growth of regional powers in Latin America, Eurasia, and the East, along with the U.S.'s growing foreign debt-dependence also pose a threat to this complex.
Harvey uses a variety of philosophers and political economists to help illustrate his theory, and in turn, he assesses the accuracy of these past philosophers. He points out that philosophers as early as Hegel have noticed the tendencies towards constant expansion within capitalism, even if they didn't also acknowledge the sinister implications of this expansionism. Arendt restated Hegel's observation in the 20th century, and argued that capitalism inevitably creates imperialism. More importantly, the growth of capital will require the growth of political power. Perhaps the most nuanced retrospective Harvey undertakes is of Rosa Luxemburg's political economy. Harvey claims that many of Luxemburg's predictions about the trajectory of capitalist development were flat-out wrong, but he also finds her observations about the nature of primitive accumulation (re-termed by Harvey as "accumulation by dispossession") to be essential to understanding the nature of imperialism, most namely in that primitive accumulation holds a permanent position in the process of capitalist development. He also draws on the work of Robert Brenner on the tendency of the rate of profit to fall within the economy as a whole, while also making a brief, yet powerful critique of World-Systems Analysis.
From here, Harvey applies his model to formulate predictions about the future of imperialism and the possibilities of resistance to imperialism. He argues that the U.S., in order to maintain its imperial power, will continue to seek the expansion of both its military and financial power. This could possibly take the form of more imperialist adventures in the future, or it may incorporate an increase in domestic political control of its citizens. As for resistance to imperialism, Harvey, in addition to laying out a map of the imperial system itself, develops a corollary model for resistance against imperialism. Heavily citing Luxemburg, he claims that there are two types of anti-imperialist movements: Movements against exploitation, and movements against accumulation by dispossession. The Old Left was primarily concerned with the former, and in many ways that helped lead to its downfall, because Communists and proletarian organizations failed to confront the needs of those who were victims of accumulation by dispossession. At the same time, the post-modern left, with its emphasis on fighting obviously visible acts of imperialist violence, will hit a dead end if it doesn't balance itself out with vocal opposition to exploitation. This also helps explain why many third-world movements have been sincerely anti-imperialist while still capitalist- they gain their legitimacy by protecting their nations against imperial violence, even if they themselves subject their peoples to economic exploitation at the hands of their elites.
"The New Imperialism" ends with an appeal by Harvey for domestic American opposition to imperialism. The American empire is very likely to opt to become more aggressive in response to future obstacles to its power-expression, and will probably pursue its own growth until its very end. However, Harvey is confident that the empire's days are numbered. The debt that China holds, the Pentagon system's cancerous growth, and the difficult conditions for profit-accumulation that the U.S. experiences within its own borders as a consequence of the conditions of global capitalism, will all most likely lead to the downfall of American power. Unfortunately, it's also very possible that this will lead to an upsurge in authoritarian attitudes in American political culture. Despite these harrowing possibilities, Harvey suggests to the reader that there is an alternative way to dismantle the American empire, one that requires that the left make a comeback in American politics and posit its own vision for an alternative to both imperialism and capitalism. Harvey admits that this presents its own long chain of difficult challenges, but this path is necessary if we want to live in a future free of the insanities of capitalistic imperialism.
Overall-I really can't get a handle on this book there are some liberal elements and some conservative elements but there are many uncomfortable questions raised that an audience may not want to consider but still need to be addressed.
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