Skip to content or view screen version

Empire as a Way of Life, Part 8

Chris | 31.05.2007 15:24 | Analysis | History | Terror War | Sheffield | World

The current imperial slaughter in the Middle East, justified by the "Global War on Terror", that has resulted in at least 600,000 deaths in Iraq, is nothing new — the U.S. Empire has a long and sordid history of genocidal mass murder.

The history of the US imperialism and Empire is the subject of a series of ten monthly seminars from Dr John Marciano, "Empire as a Way of Life". Attached is a recording of the eighth of these seminars and the text upon which it was based. The first 9 of these seminars have taken place and the intention is to have the whole series published on this site; the last one will take place on 19th June.

This seminar, recorded on 17th April 2007 by the L.A. Sound Posse, runs for 39 minutes and includes the discussion following. It has been made available under a Creative Commons license. If this recording is broadcast please let the L.A. Sound Posse know. This recording was originally made available on the A-Infos Radio Project site.

The following text has been reproduced here with the kind permission of Dr John Marciano and he can be contacted at He introduced this series of seminars in the following way:

A fundamental purpose of our meetings is to understand the systemic nature of the U.S. Empire and the economic and military imperialism that is its lifeblood. The historian William Appleman Williams argues that empire became "a way of life" in the U.S., a "combination of patterns of thought and action that, as it becomes habitual and institutionalized, defines the thrust and character of a culture and society." This "way of life" has convinced many U.S. "Americans" they have a right or "manifest destiny" to impose their political and economic policies upon others.

Dr John Marciano is Professor Emeritus, State University of New York at Cortland, where he taught courses on social and historical foundations of education and class, gender and race.

Previous parts of this series:

Michael Parenti, Against Empire

Parenti asserts that imperialism “has been the most powerful force in world history” for the past 500 years. The first “victims of Western European imperialism were other Europeans,” e.g., the Irish and Eastern Europeans, whom we now call Slavs. Parenti tells us that “so frequently and prolonged was the enslavement of Eastern Europeans that ‘Slav’ became synonymous with servitude.”

Over the past 500 years, however, European and US imperialism have primarily exploited the Third World – “a source of raw material and slaves [and] a market for manufactured goods.” This market now includes “capital, in the form of machinery, technology, investments, and loans.” The new imperialism “differs from earlier empires in the way it systematically accumulates capital through the organized exploitation of labor and the penetration of overseas markets.”

The key to modern imperialism is capitalist expansion. As part of his critique of capitalism, Parenti challenges the prevailing view of imperialism and Third World poverty, often called “underdevelopment,” arguing that it is often looked at “as an original historic condition.” This is not the case, as “the [Third World has] long produced great treasures … and other natural resources.” The truth is that the Third World “is rich. Only its people are poor – and it is because of the pillage they have endured.” This analysis is similar to others we have cited in this course, e.g., Samir Amin, Eduardo Galeano and Felix Greene.

The rape of the Third World has been justified by “self-serving imperialist theories,” e.g., “people in tropical lands are slothful and do not work as hard as [those in] the temperate zone.” This is not true, Parenti argues, as “[people] of warm climates [built] … magnificent civilizations well before Europe emerged from the Dark Ages. And today they often work long, hard hours for meager sums.” He challenges ethno-centric theories by citing Europe’s social ills during the height of its colonial domination, pointing out that it “was ‘ahead’ in such things as … social inequality and poverty … mistreatment of women and children; and frequency of famine, slavery, prostitution, piracy, religious massacre, and inquisitional torture.”

The ultimate basis of European domination, according to Parenti, has rested on its “advantage in navigation and armaments. Muskets and cannons, Gatling guns and gunboats, and today missiles, helicopter gunships, and fighter bombers have been the deciding factor when West meets East and North meets South.”

His critique of “underdevelopment” asks us to see it as the result of “social relations that [have] been forcefully imposed on countries. With the advent of the Western colonizers, the peoples of the Third World were actually set back in their development…. British imperialism in India provides an instructive example.” He points to a truth hidden by our schooling and mass media indoctrination: the Third World is not ‘“underdeveloped’ but overexploited…. Imperialism has created … ‘maldevelopment’” because “wealth is transferred from Third World peoples to [US] economic elites … by direct plunder, … the expropriation of natural resources” and other forms of exploitation.

Parenti details the Third World imperialism that has resulted in oppression; nations have “concentrated on exporting a few raw materials or labor-intensive commodities” and poor nations find themselves “in acute competition with other impoverished nations…. Attempts by Third World countries to overcome their vulnerability by forming trade cartels are usually unsuccessful.” This imperialist inequality is deepened because in “many poor countries over half the manufacturing assets are owned or controlled by foreign companies.” Compounding this inequality is that large portions of “the earnings of indebted nations [go] to servicing the debt…. ”

US and European imperialism have always been backed by “unspeakable repression and state terror”; thus, “there have been few if any peaceable colonizations.” I would maintain there has never been a single peaceable colonial venture anywhere in the world. Imperialism, therefore, is not a “natural” historical phenomenon because it must rely repeatedly “upon armed coercion and repression.” Empires “do not emerge … ‘in a fit of absentmindedness,’ as was said of the British Empire…. They are built upon the sword, the whip, and the gun.” This truth has almost never been examined in our schools and mass media; therefore, most here don’t have a clue about what the US has actually done to the Third World – to those it just wishes to help.

This terror is not some arbitrary or irrational process, but is used to further a larger “process of extermination and repression in defense” of class interests. It is an eminently rational undertaking to “safeguard private overseas interests.” It is not mindless or stupid, but quite reasonable given the fundamental nature of the US capitalist system.

Parenti bluntly answers a question that has troubled some US citizens for generations: “Why has a professedly peace-loving, democratic nation found it necessary to use so much violence and repression against so many people in so many places.” Because the ultimate goal of US policy is a quest “to make the world safe for the Fortune 500 and its global system of capital accumulation.” Those who move toward some kind of “economic independence or any sort of populist redistributive politics” will face US “intervention or invasion.” The evidence for this assertion is overwhelming.

In order to get citizens to support such imperialist aggression, US ruling elites must convince the rest of us that we share “a common interest with the giant multinationals….” But “on almost every issue,” Parenti claims, “the people are not in the same boat with the big companies.” I would say every issue. Despite this fact, many here have been convinced of a common interest in what is one of the greatest triumphs of class-based propaganda in history.

Parenti disagrees with “the … Popular Imperialism” view of William Appleman Williams in Empire as a Way of Life, asserting that historically “ordinary Americans usually have opposed intervention or given only lukewarm support.” Parenti believes “the American people” are not the prime “motivating force of the war policy. They do not sweep their leaders into war on a tide of popular hysteria. It is the other way around. Their leaders take them for a ride and bring out the worst in them.” Although I question this interpretation of Williams, this is an important point: against their objective interests, brainwashed citizens end up supporting imperialism as a result of propaganda organized and disseminated by the CIA, mass media, US government-funded agencies and the AFL-CIO.

In his discussion of “Empire and Democracy,” Parenti sounds like Chalmers Johnson – “strong empire” must bring about a “weak democracy.” Johnson argues it is destroying democracy. And linked to this destruction is the economic ruin and bankruptcy facing the country from its imperialism abroad. According to Parenti, “between 1948 and 1994, the federal government spent almost $11 trillion on its military – more than the cumulative monetary value of all human-made wealth in the US.”

The figure is now much greater. According to the Center for Defense Information, total military spending from 1946 through 2008 [this last year is an estimate] is some $21.6 trillion dollars. The CDI figure covers just official Pentagon spending; it does not include “black box” funds for the CIA and NSA, interest on the debt related to militarism or funds for veterans benefits, all of which would add a few more trillions to the total. The $21 trillion plus figure is about $72,000 per capita: $2.5 trillion for California, $288 billion for Los Angeles, and $6.2 billion for Santa Monica.

Parenti is right, therefore, to ascribe “most of our domestic woes … to military spending.” As he states, “The cost of building one aircraft carrier could feel several million of the poorest, hungriest children in America for ten years.” The huge amounts spent on the military mean that Americans “must endure the neglect of environmental needs, … decay of our cities, [and] the deterioration of our transportation, education, and health care systems.”

Another aspect of Empire – also a theme in Johnson’s book – is that it “concentrates power in the hands of the few and robs the populace of effective self-rule.” The empirical historical data to prove this assertion are overwhelming, especially when it comes to the growth of the “imperial presidency” since the end of WW II. The US imperial state has been involved in hundreds of overt and covert acts of aggression around the world in the last 60 years; not one has been declared by Congress as mandated by our Constitution.

Parenti’s conclusion may depress readers: US imperialism “has been remarkably successful in undermining popular revolutions and buttressing conservative capitalist regimes in every region of the world.” Thus, US imperialism is not “stupid” and mistake-prone but actually “remarkably successful and brutal in the service of elite economic interests.” An analysis of the historical record reveals that the US ruling class has never consciously pursued a policy that put lofty ideals and common people’s interest ahead of greed and power: not once, not ever.

A number of scholars have provided supporting evidence for Parenti’s assertions on imperialism. In his work, Imperial Delusions, political theorist Carl Boggs argues that “the US … has evolved into something of an outlaw, rogue state – the kind of fearsome entity conjured up by its own incessant propaganda.” This “rogue state” status, however, has been obscured by Orwellian language as officials and media pundits apply “the term ‘defense’ to the massive, and clearly strategic US global presence….” We continually read about the “Defense” Department, rather than the “War” Department – the accurate name that was changed by the 1947 National Security Act.

Boggs claims that US actions throughout the world have nothing to do with “defense” and everything to do with “terror.” Since the US has a long history of “warfare against foreign countries … it would be impossible to arrive at a definition of terrorism that excludes [its] behavior.” What little critical understanding of the US system of military terror we have, in his view, owes a great deal to the work on “the Pentagon system” by sociologist C. Wright Mills. His “classic Power Elite (1956)” anticipated “the dangers of US militarism,” as it “stood virtually alone in its uncompromising critique of the US war economy” that enabled citizens to gain a real understanding of how US foreign policy is shaped.

What Mills “saw in the 1950s was … a military-industrial complex that few others were able to see – then or later.” Many US citizens recall Eisenhower’s statement in his farewell address about the dangers of the “military-industrial complex,” but few are aware of Mills’s far more powerful critique of the Pentagon. It was Mills who first foresaw how the “war economy, the Pentagon bureaucracy, and an aggressive foreign policy converged within the same matrix of development [and] logic. Since WW II the US military has provided an international shield for Western corporations and financial institutions, more global than ever.” Despite the propaganda about free enterprise, it has been “Military Keynesian … that has furnished a major stimulus for dominant economic growth on a foundation of scientific and technical innovations wedded to enormous corporate profits.” As Noam Chomsky observes, “it is difficult to imagine a system better designed for the benefit of the privileged few than the military system.”

A fundamental fact of US history – that the “most established, most powerful liberal democracy in the world also has the longest and most brutal record of militarism among all nations” – has been hidden by the “public and intellectual failure to confront the actualities of US military power and the empire it supports….” Despite myths to the contrary, “the actual history is one of conquest and dominion, … genocidal wars against Indian tribes, the theft of land from Mexico and Spain, and the invasion of Russia after WW I, followed by a succession of bloody military interventions in Korea, Central America, the Caribbean, the Persian Gulf, and the Balkans, not to mention countless proxy wars, covert acts, and other interventions waged in scores of nations.” One can only avoid this actual history by psychological denial and/or outright lying – produced by a compliant educational system and mass media that disarm the public from any substantive understanding and critique of this reality.

Boggs asserts that US “nationalism has always been ethnocentric, messianic, and arrogant, tied as it has been to an ethos of expansion and conquest…. Beneath high-sounding ideals has been the mundane actuality of a ruthless, manipulative [system] that, when practiced by other nations, has been scornfully attacked…. The dark side of US foreign and military policy is [not] a function of mistakes and miscalculations, but has been integral to the development process itself.” The combination of the “ethos … of conquest, domination and violence” has allowed the US to evolve into “an outlaw country, the rogue state of all rogue states, intent on transforming the process of globalization into the building blocks of empire and military domination.” Tough assertions: all true.

Eqbal Ahmad was one of the world’s foremost scholars of imperialism. In a series of essays (Carollee Bengelsdorf, et al., The Selected Writings of Eqbal Ahmad), he laid out a brilliant critique of US terror in the Third World. In “The Lessons of Vietnam,” he wrote about the “incredible perceptible gap between our need for social transformation and America’s insistence on stability, between our impatience for change and America’s obsession with order, our move toward revolution and America’s belief in the plausibility of achieving reforms under the robber barons of the world, our longing for absolute national sovereignty and America’s preference for pliable allies, our desire to see our national soil free of foreign occupation and America’s need for military bases.” These truths were impossible for most US citizens to see at the time (1965).

In his “Notes on American intervention in the Third World,” Ahmad states that at one point “America symbolized [possibility and promises because] Americans … had declared their unequivocal commitment to the right of self-determination, had asserted as inalienable the people’s right to revolution and charged them with the duty to exercise that right.” A “belief in an anti-imperialist America was part” of the mythology he learned growing up in Pakistan.

But this idealist picture of US policies was eventually shattered, however, when he and others began to examine “the realities of American foreign policy [that] stood in sharp contrast to the myths we had nourished” – the actions of the US government and major corporations that “flagrantly [betrayed] principles embodied in the Declaration of Independence” and were “antinationalist, opposed to revolutions, supportive of dictatorships and fascists, and violently interventionist….” People in Pakistan and elsewhere final woke up when they realized that America was “a status-quo-seeking, interventionist monolith” and the “war in Vietnam [that] laid to rest the Third World’s myths and illusions….”

Ahmad pays his respects to those “American historians and economists,” e.g., William Appleman Williams, Paul Baran, Harry Magdoff and Gabriel Kolko, who helped him and others find “the [roots] of American foreign policy … in monopoly capitalism and identify it as a policy in the service of corporations rather than of the public at large.” US imperialism, as these and other writers have argued, is in the very bloodstream of the capitalist system; it is inherent to its very nature, not some accidental byproduct.

Ahmad claims that US imperialism “feeds on what Edward Burns has described as America’s ‘extraordinary’ conception of mission. It is a product, at least in part, of a deeply and popularly held belief in the uniqueness of America and its perfection as a political model…. Since 1945, no president, secretary of state, or secretary of defense … has failed to reproduce and exploit this theme.” Despite the naïve belief of many liberals, no future president of this imperialist system will fail to reproduce it as well.

In his discussion of the “Cold War from the standpoint of its victims,” Ahmad forces us to confront the actual toll of US imperialism from the end of WW II to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. He points out that during this so-called “Cold War,” more than 20 million people “died, countless millions were wounded, and more than a hundred million were rendered refugees by what have been variously described as … limited … and covert wars….” Virtually all of these victims were people of color in the Third World, the expendable ones on the receiving end of a massive growth in the arms race, resulting in “high-tech weapons, except the big one, [being] tested on human beings in the real-life battle fields of Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Iraq.” Some 12 million people died in wars fought in these countries.

Drawing from the work of the eminent scholar and activist Edward Said, Ahmad tells us “the history of the past four centuries is a history of barely recognized holocausts. For the peoples and nations under assault, those belittled wars were always ‘systemic’ and often total wars that had profound historical consequences” – though most US citizens barely noticed the slaughter except when the body bags came home from Korea and Vietnam.

In his fine work, The New Imperialism, David Harvey analyzes the political economy of the US Empire. He points out that we know a great deal about US military imperialism abroad: “… much is both known and documented from official or quasi-official sources. And what a … despicable, and deeply distressing record it is. Liquidation can come by a variety of means. The economic power to dominate … can be used with equally destructive effect as physical force.” The annual death toll in the Third World from economic power is far greater than all the wars combined.

Harvey gives us a brief history lesson in US imperialism since the 1940s, stating that “two cardinal principles of international strategic practices had been defined during [WW II], and these remained set in stone thereafter: the social order in the US should remain stable (no radical redistribution of wealth or power and no challenge to elite and/or capitalist class control would be tolerated), and there should be a continuous expansion” of capitalism to “ensure domestic … tranquility.” The US “used its own military power, covert operations, and all manner of economic pressure to ensure the creation or continuation of friendly governments. To this end it was prepared to support the overthrow of democratically elected governments and to engage directly or indirectly in … liquidating those considered opposed to US interests.”

The key to this imperialist process is one fundamental fact: In any “conflict between democracy … and order and stability built upon propertied interests,” the US ruling class always chooses the latter. The movements that arose to challenge capitalist imperialism “were frequently crushed with ferocious violence … by state powers acting in the name of ‘order and stability.’ Client states supported militarily or in some instances with … forces trained by … the US … took the lead in … repressions and liquidations to ruthlessly check activist movements challenging” capitalism and imperialism.

Militaristic imperialism was absolutely necessary in order to ensure that “the benefits [of the global] system were … highly concentrated among a restricted class of multinational CEOs [and] financiers…. This class looked, as always, to the US to protect its asset values and the rights of property and ownership.” It “paid little heed to place-bound or national loyalties or traditions. It could be multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multicultural and cosmopolitan.”

In his People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn discusses the political economy of the US coming out of WW II that helped to shape post-war imperialism. The ruling elites needed a permanent war economy to keep the capitalist system going, as they greatly feared a repeat of the Great Depression of the 1930s. They realized that the state had to subsidize private capital in order to avoid another economic catastrophe.

The term "permanent war economy” was uttered by Charles Wilson, CEO of General Electric, who warned that after the war the US had to keep the war economy it had in WW II, with the economic system mainly run by corporate executives and geared to military production and profit. Noam Chomsky also argues that after WW II, most economists and business leaders expected a depression unless there could be massive government aid of the kind that during the war years finally overcame the Great Depression. Of course business leaders understood that social spending could also avert a market collapse like the 1930s, but it has a downside. It tends to have a democratizing and redistributive effect whereas military spending is a gift to the corporate elite that keeps on giving.

Business leaders were also aware that high-tech industry could not survive in a competitive free enterprise economy and that government “must be the savior” for their companies. Therefore, virtually the entire “new economy” has relied heavily on the military cover to socialize risk and cost and keep profit private, often after many decades. In essence, the permanent war economy has an economic and purely military function and one cannot understand the true nature of imperialism apart from it.

The context for Zinn’s insights on WW II and the Cold War actually goes back to the Soviet Revolution of 1917 and efforts to destroy the USSR and any nation or movement that attempted to challenge capitalist hegemony in the world. Writer and former US State Department official William Blum (Killing Hope: US Military and CIA Interventions Since WW II) argues that the root of the present imperialist struggle lies with “the war that began with the Russian Revolution in 1917 and the Red Scare of the 1920s continued through the Mccarthyism of the 1950s to the Reagan crusade against the ‘Evil Empire’ in the 1980s.”

For more than 70 years until the fall of the USSR, “people here [were] subjected to a relentless anti-communist indoctrination – imbibed with their mother’s milk and spelled out in their schoolbooks. Daily newspapers told them about it, ministers [found] sermons in it, politicians [were] elected with it.”

The emerging form of imperialism that took new forms in the 1940s and beyond, according to Blum, undermined “the remarkable international goodwill and credibility enjoyed by the US at the close of WW II [that was] dissipated country by country, intervention by intervention. The opportunity to build the war-ravaged world anew, to lay the foundations for peace, prosperity and justice, collapsed under the awful weight of anti-communism.”

He asks us to ponder a profound dilemma: “What did the victims of US anti-communism in the Third World do to bring US intervention which has brought down upon them the wrath … of the world’s most powerful nation?” He argues “it has been … ‘self-determination’: the desire, born of perceived need and principle, to pursue a path of development independent of US foreign policy objections. Most commonly, this has been manifested in (a) the ambition to free themselves from economic and political subservience to the US; (b) their refusal to be a pawn in the Cold War; or (c) the attempt to alter or replace a government which held to neither of these aspirations.” This worldwide struggle of the victims of imperialism lies at the root of fanatical US efforts to maintain its worldwide Empire.

In an article for the website ZNET (“Imperialism 101 – The US Addiction to War, Mayhem and Madness,” 9/17/06), Stephen Lendman asserts “there is no longer a dispute that the US pursues an imperial agenda…. Expansion and militarism have always been in our DNA since the early settlers confronted the nation’s original inhabitants and then over the next few hundred years slaughtered [millions] of them to seize their land and resources.” Our Declaration of Independence “referred to ‘merciless Indian savages’ and thus gave the colonial Americans a moral justification to remove them….” Therefore, “in our imperial wisdom, we came, stole and conquered ‘for their own good….’”

Lendman jumps ahead in this imperialist lesson to Theodore Roosevelt, one of the nation’s most belligerent and racist imperialists. During his presidency, Roosevelt’s aggression extended the US Empire “to the Philippines, Cuba, Haiti, Guam, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and the Canal Zone part of Columbia that broke away to become the new nation of Panama.” This venture was cooked up by Roosevelt and other US officials, and was a blatantly illegal and imperialist action.

Woodrow Wilson, who even beat Roosevelt as an imperialist and racist, managed to mystify citizens around the world with his call for the “right to self-determination.” This deep concern included “the military occupation of Nicaragua, Haiti (beginning 20 oppressive years) and the Dominican Republic” and the invasion of Mexico. In 1916, Wilson was “reelected on a platform promise to keep the US out of the war in Europe that began in 1914.” According to Lendman, Wilson “had to promise that as the US public overwhelmingly wanted nothing to do with it. But he no sooner was reelected than he began making plans to get it into it…. Once in the war, he managed to control most public anti-war sentiment with the help of the … Espionage and Sedition Acts that allowed no criticism of the government, the armed forces or the war effort.”

Whether it was Roosevelt, Wilson, or later presidents, Lendman claims, “at the heart” of US imperialism “is the pursuit of wealth and power and a system of governance beholden to capital, now more than ever dominated by giant predatory corporations….” Parenti would agree with Lendman’s following assertion: “… it’s more true that the flag goes where commerce directs it to secure new markets and a corporate friendly environment once they’ve been opened for business. That’s how imperialism works and why war is an effective geopolitical way to pursue it. War … is just geopolitics by other means, and powerful capital-controlled countries like the US use it freely because it works so well most often.”

Lendman claims that there hasn’t been much of a “problem [convincing citizens to support imperialist policies] as time and again the public is willing to swallow most any reasons government officials tell them (reinforced … by the corporate media trumpeting them like gospel) to get them to go along with the schemes they have in mind, no matter how outrageous they are.” As with Parenti, Lendman believes US imperialism has been quite successful: “… the scaremongering scam has been used so often … with the same or similar language that later proved false, you’d think the public by now would have caught on. But you’d be wrong. Up to now, it’s worked like a charm every time proving you can fool most people all the time.”

University of Texas scholar and activist Robert Jensen, whose insights we examined in this course (Citizens of the Empire), also complements Parenti’s critique of empire. Jensen believes that Americans need “to come to terms with a harsh reality: in the post-WW II world, a primary function of the US military has been to kill mostly nonwhite people in the Third World to extend and deepen American power.” Therefore, he opposes both “nationalism and patriotism…. It is time … to sweep away the notion [patriotism] and acknowledge it as morally, politically, and intellectually bankrupt.” His critique of the link between imperialism and patriotism, therefore, is one that forces progressives to reexamine their fundamental beliefs about the nation and its policies.

He too asks a simple question that is almost never addressed by our nation’s educational institutions and mass media: “Why is it that our political culture, the highest expression of the ideals of freedom and democracy, has routinely gone around the world overthrowing democratically elected governments, supporting brutal dictators, funding and training proxy terrorist armies, and unleashing brutal attacks on civilians when we go to war?” I think Parenti’s analysis in Against Empire provides a cogent and truthful answer to Jensen’s anguished question.

Jensen claims that in “the US … patriots not only can get by without knowing much about the wider world but are systematically encouraged not to think independently or critically and institutionally to accept a mythology of the US as a benevolent, misunderstood giant as it lumbers around the world trying to do good.” It is this fundamental proposition – the US is a force for good in the world – that must be analyzed objectively, confronted and ripped out by the roots if we are to end the imperialist terror that this government has unleashed around the globe.