Imperial Overstretch: George W. Bush & the Hubris of Empire
by Roger Burbach and Jim Tarbell
(London: Zed Books, 2004), 240pp. pb.
This is the right topic for a book, a topic dear to MIM's heart. The first 100 pages seem to rebut the Amerikan public that thinks September 11th came out of the blue. Burbach and Tarbell show the U.$. history of imperialism, including those leading Amerikan voices for empire ever since 1776.
One point we like in this book is that pretty much as soon as Negri and Hardt wrote Empire the United $tates asserted its national interests and took over Afghanistan and Iraq, the latter especially without international sanction. The idea that there is one global capitalist empire already without conflicts among nation-states came crashing down with Bush's literally colonial policy in Iraq. (p. 197) The only function of such a book as Negri's and Hardt's now can serve is capitulation to the united $tates.
After proving the historical existence of u.$. imperialism, Burbach and Tarbell focus on recent times under Bush. Burbach and Tarbell come to some surprising conclusions, mostly by analogy with Rome and via the works of others who have written about the decline of empires. Burbach and Tarbell tell us that with Bush in power, the fall of empire is a matter of a few years, maybe even 1 to 4. (p. 195) Something worth considering is that competent administrators such as Clinton prolong the agony of crisis while people like Bush may be speeding it up.
On the point of the collapse of u.$. empire, Burbach and Tarbell created the title of the book but provided little build-up. For an example of the kind of build-up we needed more of, we learn that in 2003 thanks to all the military activities of the u.$. empire, "of the thirty-three active-duty brigades only three were actually free for new duties." (p. 11)
As we have discussed before, the result of that fact is that Democrats such as Hillary Clinton and John Kerry are calling for an expansion of the military while the Pentagon is resisting on behalf of funding for new weapons systems instead. Thus far, the Republicans and Democrats have united in increasing the size of the government budget deficit by spending for both weapons and soldiers.
Readers of MIM Notes and the MIM web page have seen most of the factual material in this book already. Burbach and Tarbell
add some slight social-democratic illusions as well that we would not. For example, they trot out the usual facts on how military spending produces fewer
jobs than other kinds of spending. (p. 5) That's an example of something MIM does not stress, because building a social-democratic
state is not our priority and because the statement implies that in exchange for enough jobs the authors will put away their concerns about imperialist war
not a good idea in this day and age. At the beginning of the 20th century
the European rulers offered their workers pensions and
In response to communism, Burbach and Tarbell said it did not take root in the Amerikan culture, thus leaving discussion of imperialism in intellectual hands. (p. 31) They also attack the Soviet Union's interventions in Eastern Europe while making clear that U.$. interventions have been historically unprecedented in scope and ferocity. (p. 57) By page 70, we see that the authors accepted the Brezhnevite premise that foreign aid to Soviet allies was greater than the gains from exploitation.
In MIM's opinion, Burbach and Tarbell needed to develop such points more deeply. They have misunderstood both the Soviet and U.$. crises. For the same reason that the u.$. empire does not pick the social spending that produces the most jobs, the Soviet empire's compulsion to export capital did not necessarily take any particular form suitable for any particular short-term goals that Burbach and Tarbell would accept as reasonable even for capitalism.
When we argue about pre-socialist systems where planning has yet to reach full acceptance, we must break from thinking that some bourgeois ultra-planner at the top can fully control bourgeois development or would seek to do so toward definite ends other than business competition narrowly construed. Such bourgeois planners will in fact not even be able to maximize the profit of the system as a whole, both because they have no theoretical system to be able to do so and because the state itself is not an even-handed representative of the bourgeois class. Some parts of the capitalist class have more influence on the state than others and those sections with more influence will use the state to make more profit. The only given is that the individual capitalist will seek to succeed in business competition. There is nothing saying that the winners of such competition will succeed in making the state undertake a course of action to maximize profits for capitalism in all its business branches as a whole.
The closest thing to an overall strategy for the imperialists is appeasement of the bond markets; yet, these bond markets are notorious for their psychological fragility. One may rightly suspect that expanding the u.$. military in order to export less oil from Iraq than before is not the kind of thing the bond market will accept not only universally but increasingly at the margin.
Even if Bush does con the public into ever greater wasteful military spending and thus pump up military contractor profits, it's far from clear that really boosts overall profitability. The nature of the bond market is one reason that Burbach and Tarbell are right to point out the strange situation where the united $tates alienates the rest of the world and then borrows from it to attack more countries. Burbach and Tarbell say the financial markets are not going to tolerate that much longer.
In this sense, we are close to the position of Burbach and Tarbell. Whether they know it or not, the u.$. imperialists have already lost the game. It is u.$. imperialism that has the most to lose in the slowdown in trade and business caused by the "war on terrorism." Other countries and political actors have long ago built their strategies without depending on freer trade. The united $tates benefits most from easy border crossings and greater peace. This gets lost in the imperialist vision, because the imperialists see booming military, security and prison profits without grasping the overall picture.