In mid-March 2023, David Swanson published a very interesting article: “Iraq and 15 Lessons We Never Learned.” There were some things in there I agreed with, some I disagreed with, others I might want to debate. Still, I appreciated his effort to pull together ideas from these experiences.
However, there’s one thing that he did not put out (although he hinted toward it near the end of this article), but I want to put front and center: the US Left (however defined) still does not get that the United States is not just another country; it is an Empire.
Now, the US Empire differs from the Roman Empire and even the British Empire (and I assume all other preceding empires) in one key way: it is not based primarily on territorial acquisition. Now, I’m not saying the US has never conquered countries—ask the Filipinos, Puerto Ricans, Guamanians, and Samoans (and a few others) about that!—and I’m certainly aware of its history of invading countries, particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean, but that has not been its primary mode of operation.
What US leaders have learned over the centuries is that key to maintaining (and possibly expanding) an empire is economic and political control over foreign lands, not “owning” them; they don’t need “boots on the ground.” In fact, that focuses too much attention on their shenanigans; for some strange reason, Americans generally are concerned about the well-being of their troops, even if they’re carrying out terrible violence and destruction against other peoples. However, even better, is to have foreign nationals running their respective country (and other people’s) on the empire’s behalf. This is known as neo-colonialism. By giving political “independence” to former colonies, but continuing economic domination, the empire gets the benefit of stealing raw materials (gold, silver), natural resources (timber, agricultural land for exports), and sometimes even people (migrant labor) with unfavorable terms of trade so as to benefit the home country, even though it is appropriated incredibly unequally at home. [That is why US leaders are so pissed off at Cuba and Venezuela, along with China and Russia, who seek political and economic independence, and a post-colonial world.]
Towards the end of World War II (circa 1943), US political and economic elites began working with British elites so the US would dominate the world after the end of the war, at least outside of the Soviet Empire. They were challenged by the existence of the Soviet Union, and they knew that a number of countries would be seeking “independence” or, more correctly, decolonization. How could they maintain control?
One way was militarily. At the end of the war, the US had the greatest navy and air forces in this history of the world—the Soviet Red Army was more powerful on land—plus it had nuclear weapons and had shown the world it had the will to use them (even after Japan had begun reaching out for peace terms). Twice. Added to this arsenal was the creation of the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) in 1947, which was used “quietly” to enforce the demands of the empire.
Another way was economically. The US emerged as the only industrialized country that had emerged basically unscathed from the war. By the early 1950s, the US produced 50% of all the goods and services in the world; that meant we produced more than all of the other countries in the world combined. That gave it unequaled economic power.
Yet the US wanted to ensure that the global economy would not undermine its ambitions, so it established the Bretton Woods institutions—the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and later, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT)—to keep other countries’ economic houses in order. Serving as the “banker to the world” was another incredible source of power.
And over time, the US elites utilized the cultural power of the United States to help establish cultural domination across the world; movies, in particular, “showed” everyone how wonderful was the US, and basically said that if you accept our values, our standards, our norms, you too can be prosperous, have an upper-middle class lifestyle, without a care in the world.
As the US became more sophisticated—and as they realized they didn’t have to dominate every people, but only needed to gain ideological hegemony over their elites to maintain a level of control—they developed their rhetoric, their language of control; US domination didn’t grate as much on peoples who recognized US hegemony.
The thing, however, that backed US hegemony—and this always must be remembered—was the US military, with its extensive capability to inflict death and destruction on any chosen target.
Tying all of this together ideologically is the idea “the best defense is an aggressive offense,” which provides an “understandable justification” for the US acting anywhere in the world; after all, if we don’t fight in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan (ad nauseum), we’ll have to fight on the beaches of California!
Think I’m joking: why all of the propaganda and military build-up, supposedly to ensure that China or Russia won’t invade the United States? First of all, there’s the sheer idiocy of the idea: the greatest invasion in world history was the 1944 invasion of Normandy, France—D Day—that took place over the 20-mile wide English Channel. And it almost failed. In fact, General Eisenhower had a resignation letter that he carried in his jacket during the invasion, which he was prepared to submit had it failed. Twenty miles! And the Chinese or Russians are going to invade over thousands of miles, through waters dominated by the greatest and most powerful sea-going force in the history of the world? Give me a frigging break!
Second, even if they did something like this, they would be landing in a country where there are more guns than people, and the US people have shown repeatedly shown they will carry out and support the highest level of violence in “defense” of the US. Plus, we have a long history of fear that has been developed against the “yellow peril” and/or “communism,” and the Chinese get both!
So, the chances of either an invasion by foreigners and especially a successful conquering of the United States, make a snowball’s chance in hell a fantastically good proposition!
No, the US has an empire, and it wants to maintain it. In fact, the US political and economic elites desire this so much that they are willing to gut the domestic political economy and social order (jobs, homelessness, lack of health care, economic inequality, racial divide, refusal to address climate change, etc., etc.)—shitting on all of us—to continually accumulate the resources to maintain the empire.
Let me give a couple of examples to concretize this, using the national debt and military spending.
Every year, the US government proposes a budget for the coming year, and afterwards, declares a surplus or deficit for the year. Either one is placed into a cumulative account with all the other surpluses and budgets since 1789, when the US became an independent country, and that is known as the national debt. Between 1789-1980 (beginning of George Washington’s administration to the end of Jimmy Carter’s), the US national debt was $ .909 trillion dollars (or $909 billion). This meant that after paying off the expenses from the War of 1812, the Civil War, the wars against the Native peoples on the Plains, the Spanish-American War (including the Philippine-American War), World War I, World War II, wars in Korea and Vietnam, as well as the Tennessee Valley Authority (that brought electrification to the US South), the Interstate Highway System, and the space program to that date, US national debt was $ .9 trillion. In just over 40 years since then, since 1981 when Reagan entered the White House, the national debt grew another $30 trillion under both Democrats and Republicans! (Total is over $31 trillion today.) And it is projected to increase another $19 trillion by 2033. [The ratio of national debt to the US Gross Domestic Product—the total value of all goods and services produced for the market in a year—has grown from approximately 32.5% in 1980 to approximately 120% today!]
And besides the sheer insanity of this country being bankrupt, and every central banker in the world knowing this, should the world be taken off the dollar standard, the US economy will be in very deep do-do and possibly collapse!
Over this 40+ year period, US military spending alone from the beginning of Reagan’s administration to the end of Trump’s totaled $18.216 trillion. (I’m almost certain this is only direct spending that did not include other costs of war, such as taking care of US veterans through the Veteran’s Administration, nor interest on this part of the national debt.) And this was before the US responded to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
And let’s put this into even more context: in 2021, again before Ukraine, the US military spending was $800.67 billion for one year. Let’s compare that with 10 US allies for the same year: UK ($68.37 billion), France ($56.65 billion), Germany ($56.02 billion), Saudia Arabia ($55.56 billion), Japan ($54.12 billion), South Korea ($50.23 billion), Italy ($32.01 billion), Australia ($31.75 billion), Canada ($26.45 billion), and Israel ($34.34 billion). Add them up, and you see the 10 US allies collectively spent $455.5 billion, or a little over half of what the US spent! [This data is from the Macrotrends, LLC website, “US Military Spending/Defense Budget, 1960-2023” at https://www.macrotrends.net/countries/USA/united-states/military-spending-defense-budget (accessed April 19, 2023).]
And money spent on the US war machine is money that cannot be used for education, national heath care, combating homelessness, fixing infrastructure, adapting to climate change and weather-related damages, paying off the national debt, etc., etc.
The point of all this is that despite what US political and economic elites say, they really do not give a shit about any Americans below the top 1% (Occupy was not wrong on that!), and especially those who are of color. They are interested in preserving the US Empire (protecting their wealth and their power), and they are willing to use poor and working folks to go into the US military and then be willing to kill and destroy upon command. (As I learned from serving in the USMC from 1969-73!)
So, I argue, that any political-economic analysis that does not take the US Empire into consideration is doomed from its beginning. Period.
Tying this back to Swanson’s article; it’s too limited, in my opinion. The biggest mistake the US Left has made is that we have failed to recognize that we are living in the heartland of the most powerful empire and war machine in human history. (I think Che had something to say about this!)
Accordingly, and from that, I’d argue that we have not understood that we, the left (again, however defined) are not powerful enough to end that. The only way we have a chance is by winning the majority of the American public to our side. And, to date—at least from about 1973—we have failed to do this. We have done some good things, and things would be much worse without our efforts, but we have failed to win the American public to our side.
The point is not to bemoan our failure, but to recognize this, and to directly work to overcome this failure. Standing on our political principles, like anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-imperialism, etc., I’m confident we can win their support on a principled basis; and I’m certain that if we don’t try, we will continue to fail the peoples of the world, including those in this country.
Kim Scipes, PhD, is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Purdue University Northwest in Westville, Indiana. A former Sergeant in the USMC, he “turned around” on active duty, and has been a political and labor activist for over 50 years. He has published four books and over 250 articles in the US and in 11 different countries. His writings, many with direct links to the original article, can be found on-line at https://www.pnw.edu/faculty/kim-scipes-ph-d/publications/; his latest book is Building Global Labor Solidarity: Lessons from the Philippines, South Africa, Northwestern Europe, and the United States (Lexington Books, 2021, 2022 paperback).