REVIEW: The Fall of the US Empire: Global Fault-Lines and the Shifting Imperial Order

Vassilis K. Fouskas and Bülent Gökay have had their recent work, The Fall of the US Empire: Global Fault-Lines and the Shifting Imperial Order (Pluto, 2012) reviewed in Counterfire, by William Booth.

It’s a rigorous comparative piece, drawing on the analyses of Trotsky, Lenin, and more contemporary theorists such as Leo Panitch, Sam Gindin and Giovanni Arrighi.

We’ve reproduced a section of the review below. For the full article go to Counterfire, by clicking here.

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The study of empire, hegemony and long-term power structures has attracted many prominent and respected authors. On the left these have included Giovanni Arrighi, Eric Hobsbawm, Hardt and Negri, and of course Lenin and Trotsky. Vassilis Fouskas and Bülent Gökay, two professors of international relations of socialist sympathy, are the latest to attempt a reframing of the debate for the contemporary period.

‘Global fault-lines’ is the way Fouskas and Gökay explain the decline of US power, an approach to international relations which uses the geological metaphor of ‘tectonic plates’. Inspired by Andre Gunder Frank, and specifically his post-Marxist works, Fouskas and Gökay sketch out various fault-lines which mark the points at which the ‘tectonic plates’ collide and crumble: the ‘failure of financial statecraft’, ‘the power shift to the Global East’ and ‘depletion and degradation’, the latter referring to both the impending scarcity of oil, water and food but also to climate change and its associated problems. The main thrust of the book is that the US is in serious decline, and that even if it manages to recover, it will only be one power among many: Russia, Brazil, South Africa, Indonesia, China and India, referred to (in somewhat puzzling fashion) as the ‘Global East’. This is contrary to the assertions of Leo Panitch (for whom US hegemony is not declining, merely ‘restructuring’) and Ray Kiely (who sees a ‘clash of globalisations’).

Fouskas and Gökay make a historical comparison between contemporary China and India on the one hand, and the United States in the nineteenth century on the other: ‘a huge continental economy with a young population, providing the driving force that enabled it to grab the lead in agriculture, apparel and the high technologies of the era’ (Fouskas and Gökay, p.115). In this way they follow several of the other authors referred to above in seeing both a generalized leeching of global power from the US to China, and the specific possibility that China will emerge as the new global hegemon.

This is in contrast to the work of Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin, who claim that China has no imperial ambition beyond its own borders. This sort of political-culture argument is, however, undermined by the economic reality.[1] In their recent book The Making of Global Capitalism (2012), Panitch and Gindin refer to the American crisis of the 1970s as ‘neither decline nor moderation but restructuring’ (Panitch and Gindin, p.183). That restructuring, they claim, was borne out of necessity: the necessity of expanding markets to a global scale but on American terms. They argue that hegemonic power is not shifting eastwards, instead suggesting that the world is entering a multipolar phase. Fouskas and Gökay seem to see the multipolar near-future as a transitional stage before the hegemonic rise of the ‘Global East’.

In other ways, The Fall of the US Empire is similar to The Making of Global Capitalism, arguing that US imperialism contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction. In this respect, there is some crossover with the political ‘realism’ of Chalmers Johnson (Dismantling the Empire) and David P. Calleo (Follies of Power) who argue that the US state ought to recognise its own (overreached) limits before the costs of running an empire become prohibitive. Fouskas and Gökay do not necessarily see such ‘overstretch’ in military terms though: their critique is rooted in political economy, and they identify ‘Open Door Imperialism’, the imposition of free market ideology (and eventually financialization) through coercion and without reciprocation, as the destabilising factor.

In fact, one of their main objections to Giovanni Arrighi’s work is his apparent underplaying of the weakness inherent in America’s imposition of economy policy throughout large swathes of the world. The other objection cuts to the heart of the debate on empire, hegemony and power: does the rise and fall of imperial nations constitute a cyclical pattern or are should we be thinking about a series of related but ultimately separate phases of capitalism? On this matter, the authors of The Fall of the US Empire are somewhat unfair to Arrighi, as indeed are Panitch and Gindin. They present a caricature of his work which does not, as they suggest, equate early modern city states with contemporary global empires. Arrighi made it perfectly clear that he considered the concentration of power in the financial sector, over-commitment to foreign wars, and increasing government debt, to be signs of American decline.

Hardt and Negri (in EmpireCommonwealth and Multitude) argue that the globalisation of both ‘empire’ – broadly, the state, military and financial elites and their power structures – and the ‘multitude’ (the rest of us) has set up the world for a generalised conflict between the two. They are optimistic about the prospects for a revolution of the multitude against the empire. Fouskas and Gökay do not go into much detail about broad (transnational) class solidarity in this way, instead concentrating on the relative positions of nation-states, though they are also optimistic about opportunities for ‘socialism and green politics … [and] new radical forces’. Against this optimism, though, they (rightly) emphasise the emergence of what they call the ‘increasingly predatory state’ whose functions – ‘police, surveillance, violence’ – are intended to suppress the ‘multitude’. Care must, of course, be taken with the entire concept of ‘multitude’: in its broad nature and inherently vague definition, it tends to obscure crucial class dynamics.

To read the rest of this article, click here.

Notes

[1] A different political-culture argument can be found in Walter Nugent’s Habits of Empire, which sees a longstanding and inertial culture of imperialism as determining the US’ foreign policy.

The Fall of the US Empire

Global Fault-Lines and the Shifting Imperial Order

Vassilis K. Fouskas and Bülent Gökay

Looks at the debates amongst critical theorists about the decline of US power.

“A major addition to the literature on the decline of US hegemony. Avoids cheap polemics and shows balanced, even prudent, judgement. In addition, it offers a sophisticated survey of grand theories of capitalism including those of Fernand Braudel, Immanuel Wallerstein, Giovanni Arrighi, and Robert Brenner.” – Professor Donald Sassoon, Comparative European History, Queen Mary University of London

“It is widely agreed that the current crisis in the capitalist economies is the worst since the 1930s. But in this timely book, Fouskas and Gokay suggest that the financial disarray reflects the beginning of the end of the US Empire and a decisive shift of power to the ‘Global East’. Their argument is both stimulating and challenging.” – Michael Newman

£17.99 only £16.00 on the Pluto site

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