by John Bellamy Foster
This article is based on a talk on István Mészáros
Socialism or Barbarism delivered to the Brecht Forum in New York
on October 14, 2001.
Only a little more than a month ago at this writing, before September
11, the mass revolt against capitalist globalization that began
in Seattle in November 1999 and that was still gathering force as
recently as Genoa in July 2001 was exposing the contradictions of
the system in a way not seen for many years. Yet the peculiar nature
of this revolt was such that the concept of imperialism had been
all but effaced, even within the left, by the concept of globalization,
suggesting that some of the worst forms of international exploitation
and rivalry had somehow abated.
A growing fashion on the left in the treatment of globalizationone
equally attractive to ruling circles judging by the attention given
it by the mass mediais exemplified by a new book by Michael
Hardt and Antonio Negri, entitled Empire. Published last year by
Harvard University Press, this book has received unstinting praise
in such places as The New York Times, Time magazine and the London
Observer, and has led to a guest appearance by Hardt on the Charlie
Rose show and an Op-Ed piece in The New York Times. Its thesis is
that the world market under the influence of the information revolution
is globalizing beyond the capacity of nation states to affect it.
The sovereignty of nation states is vanishing, and is being replaced
by a newly emerging global sovereignty or "Empire" arising
from the coalescence of "a series of national and supranational
organisms united under a single logic of rule," with no clear
international hierarchy (p. xii).
Space does not allow me to deal with all aspects of this argument
here. Rather I will comment on just one issue: the supposed disappearance
of imperialism. The term "Empire" in Hardt and Negris
analysis does not refer to imperialist domination of the periphery
by the center, but to an all-encompassing entity that recognizes
no limiting territories or boundaries outside of itself. In its
heyday, "imperialism," they claim, "was really an
extension of the sovereignty of the European nation-states beyond
their own boundaries" (p. xii). Imperialism or colonialism
in this sense is now dead. But Hardt and Negri also pronounce the
death of the new colonialism: economic domination and exploitation
by the industrial powers without direct political control. They
insist that all forms of imperialism, insofar as they represent
restraints on the homogenizing force of the world market, are doomed
by that very market. Empire is thus both "postcolonial and
postimperialist" (p. 9). "Imperialism," we are told,
"is a machine of global striation, channeling, coding, and
territorializing the flows of capital, blocking certain flows and
facilitating others. The world market, in contrast, requires a smooth
space of uncoded and deterritorialized flows
have been the death of capital had it not been overcome. The full
realization of the world market is necessarily the end of imperialism"
Concepts such as center and periphery, these authors argue, are
now all but useless. "Through the decentralization of production
and the consolidation of the world market, the international divisions
and flows of labor and capital have fractured and multiplied so
that it is no longer possible to demarcate large geographical zones
as center and periphery, North and South." There are "no
differences of nature" between the United States and Brazil,
Britain and India, "only differences of degree" (p. 335).*
Also gone is the notion of U.S. imperialism as a central force in
the world today. "The United States," they write, "does
not, and indeed no nation-state can today, form the center of an
imperialist project. Imperialism is over. No nation will be world
leader in the way modern European nations were." (pp. xiii-xiv).
"The Vietnam War," Hardt and Negri state, "might
be seen as the final moment of the imperialist tendency and thus
a point of passage to a new regime of the Constitution" (pp.
178-79). This passage to a new global constitutional regime is shown
by the Gulf War, during which the United States emerged "as
the only power able to manage international justice, not as a function
of its own national motives but in the name of global right
U.S. world police acts not in imperialist interest but in imperial
interest [that is, in the interest of deterritorialized Empire].
In this sense the Gulf War did indeed, as George Bush claimed, announce
the birth of a new world order" (p. 180).
Empire, the name they give to this new world order, is a product
of the struggle over sovereignty and constitutionalism at the global
level in an age in which a new global Jeffersonianismthe expansion
of the U.S. constitutional form into the global realmhas become
possible. Local struggles against Empire are opposed by these authors,
who believe that the struggle now is simply over the form globalization
will takeand the extent to which Empire will live up to its
promise of bringing to fruition "the global expansion of the
internal U.S. constitutional project" (p. 182). Their argument
supports the efforts of the "multitude against Empire"that
is, the struggle of the multitude to become an autonomous political
subjectyet this can only take place, they argue, within "the
ontological conditions that Empire presents" (p. 407).
So much for todays more fashionable views. I would now like
to turn to the decidedly unfashionable. In contrast to Empire, István
Mészáros new book Socialism or Barbarism represents
in many ways the height of unfashionabilityeven on the left.*
Instead of promising a new universalism arising potentially out
of the capitalist globalization process if only it takes the right
form, Mészáros argues that the perpetuation of a system
dominated by capital would guarantee precisely the opposite: "Despite
its enforced globalization, capitals incurably
iniquitous system is structurally incompatible with universality
in any meaningful sense of the term
.there can be no universality
in the social world without substantive equality" (pp. 10-11).
For Mészáros, the rule of capital is best understood
as a social metabolic process akin to that of a living organism.
It thus has to be approached as embodying a complex set of relations.
Whatever capitalism achieves with regard to "horizontal"
liberation is negated by the dominant "vertical" ordering
that always constitutes its decisive moment. This overriding antagonism
means that "the capital system is articulated as a jungle-like
network of contradictions that can only be more or less successfully
managed for some time but never definitively overcome" (p.
13). Among the principal contradictions that are insurmountable
within capitalism are those between: (1) production and its control;
(2) production and consumption; (3) competition and monopoly; (4)
development and underdevelopment (center and periphery); (5) world
economic expansion and intercapitalist rivalry; (6) accumulation
and crisis; (7) production and destruction; (8) the domination of
labor and dependence on labor; (9) employment and unemployment;
and (10) growth of output at all costs and environmental destruction.*
"It is quite inconceivable to overcome even a single one of
these contradictions," Mészáros observes, "let
alone their inextricably combined network, without instituting a
radical alternative to capitals mode of social metabolic control"
According to this analysis, the period of capitalisms historic
ascendance has now ended. Capitalism has expanded throughout the
globe, but in most of the world it has produced only enclaves of
capital. There is no longer any promise of the underdeveloped world
as a whole "catching-up" economically with the advanced
capitalist countriesor even of sustained economic and social
advance in most of the periphery. Living conditions of the vast
majority of workers are declining globally. The long structural
crisis of the system, since the 1970s, prevents capital from effectively
coping with its contradictions, even temporarily. The extraneous
help offered by the state is no longer sufficient to boost the system.
Hence, capitals "destructive uncontrollability"
its destruction of previous social relations and its inability to
put anything sustainable in their placeis coming more and
more to the fore (pp. 19, 61).
At the core of Mészáros argument is the proposition
that we are now living within what is "the potentially deadliest
phase of imperialism" (the title of the second chapter of his
book). Imperialism, he says, can be divided into three distinct
historical phases: (1) early modern colonialism, (2) the classic
phase of imperialism as depicted by Lenin, and (3) global hegemonic
imperialism, with the U.S. as its dominant force. The third phase
was consolidated following the Second World War, but it became "sharply
pronounced" with the onset of capitals structural crisis
in the 1970s (p. 51).
Unlike most analysts, Mészáros argues that U.S. hegemony
did not end in the 1970s, though by 1970 the U.S. had suffered a
decline in its relative economic position vis á vis the other
leading capitalist states when compared with the 1950s. Rather,
the 1970s, starting with Nixons abandonment of the dollar-gold
standard, mark the beginning of a much more determined effort on
the part of the U.S. state to establish its global preeminence in
economic, military and political termsto constitute itself
as a surrogate global government.
At the present stage of the global development of capital, Mészáros
insists, "it is no longer possible to avoid facing up to a
fundamental contradiction and structural limitation of the system.
That limitation is its grave failure to constitute the state of
the capital system as such, as complementary to its transnational
aspirations and articulation." Thus it is here that "the
United States dangerously bent on assuming the role of the state
of the capital system as such, subsuming under itself by all means
at its disposal all rival powers," enters in, as the closest
thing to a "state of the capital system." (pp. 28-29).
But the United States, while it was able to bring a halt to the
decline in its economic position relative to the other leading capitalist
states, is unable to achieve sufficient economic dominance by itself
to govern the world systemwhich is, in any case, ungovernable.
It therefore seeks to utilize its immense military power to establish
its global preeminence.* "What is at stake today," Mészáros
is not the control of a particular part of the planetno matter
how largeputting at a disadvantage but still tolerating the
independent actions of some rivals, but the control of its totality
by one hegemonic economic and military superpower, with all meanseven
the most extreme authoritarian and, if needed, violent military
onesat its disposal. This is what the ultimate rationality
of globally developed capital requires, in its vain attempt to bring
under control its irreconcilable antagonisms. The trouble is, though,
that such rationalitywhich can be written without inverted
commas, since it genuinely corresponds to the logic of capital at
the present historical stage of global developmentis at the
same time the most extreme irrationality in history, including the
Nazi conception of world domination, as far as the conditions required
for the survival of humanity are concerned (pp. 37-38).
The claim that todays imperialism, represented above all by
the United States, is somehow lessened by the fact that there is
little direct political rule of foreign territories, simply fails
to understand the problems facing us. As Mészáros
points out, European colonialism actually occupied only a small
part of the territory of the periphery. Now the means are different,
but the global reach of imperialism is even greater. The U.S. currently
occupies foreign territory in the form of military bases in sixty-nine
countriesa number that is continuing to increase. Further,
"the multiplication of the destructive power of the military
arsenal todayespecially the catastrophic potential of aerial
weaponshas to some extent modified the forms of imposing imperialist
dictates on a country to be subdued [ground troops and direct occupation
are less necessary] but not their substance" (p. 40).
With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War,
it has become necessary for imperialism to take on new clothes.
The old Cold War justification for interventions no longer works.
Saddam Hussein, Mészáros observes, provided such a
new justification, but only temporarily. Even then the United States
was compelled to present its warmaking in the guise of a universal
alliance in the interest of global right, albeit with the United
States acting the part of both judge and executioner.
Among the disquieting developments that Socialism or Barbarism points
to are: the enormous toll in Iraqi civilian causalities during the
war on Iraq and the death of more than a half million children as
a result of sanctions since the war; the military onslaught on and
occupation of the Balkans; the expansion of NATO to the East; the
new U.S. policy of employing NATO as an offensive military force
that can substitute for the United Nations; U.S. attempts to further
circumvent and undermine the United Nations; the bombing of the
Chinese embassy in Belgrade; the development of the Japan-U.S. Security
treaty aimed at China; and the growth of an aggressive U.S. military
stance with regard to Chinaincreasingly seen as the emerging
rival superpower. Over the longer run even the present apparent
harmony between the United States and the European Union cannot
be taken for granted, as the United States continues to pursue its
quest for global domination. Nor is there an answer to this problem
within the system at this stage in the development of capital. Globalization,
Mészáros argues, has made a global state imperative
for capital, but the inherent character of capitals social
metabolic process, which demands a plurality of capitals, makes
this impossible. "The potentially deadliest phase of imperialism"
thus has to do with the expanding circle of barbarism and destruction
that such conditions are bound to produce.
How do these two views of globalization/imperialism-the increasingly
fashionable one focusing on the emergence of global sovereignty
(called "Empire") and the decidedly unfashionable view
pointing to "the potentially deadliest phase of imperialism"look
today, following the events of September 11 and the commencement
in Afghanistan of a global war on terrorism?
It might perhaps be argued that the analysis of Empire is confirmed
since it was not a nation state that offered a challenge to the
emerging system of global sovereignty but international terrorists
outside the Empire. In this view the United States could be seen
as carrying out a "world police" action in Afghanistan
"not as a function of its own national motives but in the name
of global right"as Hardt and Negri described the U.S.
actions in the Gulf War. This is more or less the way Washington
describes its own actions.
Socialism or Barbarism, however, would appear to suggest an altogether
different interpretation, one that sees U.S. imperialism as central
to the terror crisis. In this view, the terrorists attacking the
World Trade Center and the Pentagon, were not attacking global sovereignty
or civilization (it wasnt the United Nations in New York that
was attacked)much less the values of freedom and democracy
as claimed by the U.S. statebut were deliberately targeting
the symbols of U.S. financial and military power, and thus of U.S.
global power. As unjustifiable as these terrorist acts were in every
sense, they nonetheless belong to the larger history of U.S. imperialism
and the attempt of the U.S. to establish global hegemonyparticularly
to the history of its interventions in the Middle East. Further,
the United States responded not through a process of global constitutionalism,
nor in the form of a mere police action, but imperialistically by
unilaterally declaring war on international terrorism and setting
loose its war machine on the Taliban government in Afghanistan.
In Afghanistan, the U.S. military is seeking to destroy terrorist
forces that it once played a role in creating. Far from adhering
to its own constitutional principles in the international domain
the U.S. has long supported terrorist groups whenever it served
its own imperialist designs, and has itself carried out state terrorism,
killing civilian populations. Its new war on terrorism, Washington
has declared, may require U.S. military intervention in numerous
countries beyond Afghanistanwith such nations as Iraq, Syria,
Sudan, Libya, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines already singled
out as possible locales for further interventions.
All of this, coupled with a worldwide economic downturn and increased
repression in the leading capitalist states, seems to suggest that
capitals "destructive uncontrollability" is coming
more and more to the fore. Imperialism, in the process of blocking
autocentric developmenti.e., in perpetuating the development
of underdevelopmentin the periphery, has bred terrorism, which
has blown back on the leading imperialist state itself, creating
a spiral of destruction without apparent end.
Since global government is impossible under capitalism, but necessary
in the more globalized reality of today, the system, Mészáros
insists, is thrown increasingly upon the "extreme violent rule
of the whole world by one hegemonic imperialist country on a permanent
absurd and unsustainable way of running the world
order." (p. 73).
Ten years ago, following the Gulf War, MR editors Harry Magdoff
and Paul Sweezy observed:
The United States, it seems, has locked itself into a course with
the gravest implications for the whole world. Change is the only
certain law of the universe. It cannot be stopped. If societies
[on the periphery of the capitalist world] are prevented from trying
to solve their problems in their own ways, they will certainly not
solve them in ways dictated by others. And if they cannot move forward,
they will inevitably move backward. This is what is happening in
a large part of the world today, and the United States, the most
powerful nation with unlimited means of coercion at its disposal,
seems to be telling the others that this is a fate that must be
accepted on pain of violent destruction.
Alfred North Whitehead, one of the greatest thinkers of the past
century, once said: "I have never ceased to entertain the idea
that the human race might rise to a certain point and then decline
and never retrieve itself. Plenty of other forms of life have done
that. Evolution may go down as well as up." It is an unsettling
but by no means far-fetched thought that the form and active agency
of this decline may be taking shape before our very eyes in these
closing years of the twentieth century A.D.
This is of course not to suggest that irreversible decline is inevitable
until it happens. But it is to suggest that the way things have
been going for the last half century, and especially for the past
year, holds that potential. And it is also to recognize that we,
the American people, have a special responsibility to do something
about it since it is our government that is threatening to play
Samson in the temple of humanity (The Editors, "Pox Americana,"
Monthly Review, July-August 1991).
The last ten years have only confirmed the general validity of this
analysis. By any objective standard, the United States is the most
destructive nation on earth. It has killed and terrorized more populations
around the globe than any other nation since the Second World War.
Its power for destruction is seemingly unlimited, armed as it is
with every conceivable weapon. Its imperial interests, aimed at
global hegemony, are virtually without limits. In response to the
terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, the U.S. government
now has declared war on terrorists that it says reside in more than
sixty countries as well as threatening military action against the
governments that harbor them. In what is presented as merely the
first stage in a long struggle it has unleashed its war machine
in Afghanistan, already taking a frightful human toll, including
those who are perishing for want of food.
How are we to view these developments except as the growth of imperialism,
barbarism and terrorismeach feeding on the otherin an
age in which capitalism seems to have reached the limits of its
historic ascendance? What remaining hope there is for humanity,
under these circumstances, lies with the rebuilding of socialism
and, more immediately, with the emergence of a popular struggle
centered within the United Statesto prevent Washington from
continuing its deadly game of Samson in the temple of humanity.
Never have the words "socialism or barbarism," once eloquently
raised by Rosa Luxemburg, taken on more global urgency than in the
* Hardt and Negri refer to the work of Samir Amin, especially to
his Empire of Chaos (Monthly Review Press, 1992), as the leading
alternative view of imperialism/empire to their own--one that differs
sharply on the issue of center/periphery. See Hardt and Negri, Empire
(pp. 9, 14, 334, 467).
* Socialism or Barbarism (2001) and Mészáros' major
theoretical work Beyond Capital (1995) were both published by Monthly
* This is an abbreviated and slightly modified version of Mészáros
list of principal contradictions in his book.
* The U.S. strategy of establishing global hegemony through the
global projection of its military power is examined in detail in
David N. Gibbs, "Washington's New Interventionism: U.S. Hegemony
and Interimperialist Rivalries," Monthly Review 53:4 (September
JOHN BELLAMY FOSTER is an editor, of Monthly Review. He is the author
of Marx's Ecology: Materialism and Nature and The Vulnerable Planet,
and co-editor of Hungry for Profit: The Agribusiness Threat to Farmers,
Food, and the Environment, all published by Monthly Review Press.