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  • The New Imperialism, or the Economic Logic of Late Postmodernism
  • Allan G. Borst
Review of: David Harvey, The New Imperialism. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2003.

In The New Imperialism, David Harvey demonstrates once again the adaptability and durability of a critical theory that grafts geography onto cultural studies and historical materialism. In publishing his Clarendon Lectures delivered in February 2003 at Oxford University, Harvey sets out to rethink the “-ism” par excellence, capitalism, in the context of the complex series of cultural, military, political, and economic enterprises currently warming the globe. Harvey’s project, prompted by the current amplification of U.S. imperialist initiatives, convincingly targets “the deeper transformations occurring beneath all the surface turbulence and volatility” in order to understand and respond to contemporary global conditions (1).

Given the avalanche of books like Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire (2000) and Multitude (2004), Thomas Friedman’s The Lexus and the Olive Tree (2000), David Korton’s When Corporations Rule the World (2001), George Soros’s George Soros on Globalization (2002), Joseph Stiglitz’s Globalization and Its Discontents (2002), Noam Chomsky’s Hegemony or Survival (2003), Ellen Meiskins Wood’s Empire of Capital (2003), and Amy Chua’s World on Fire (2003), globalization, empire, and imperialism now serve as the buzzwords of a vocabulary common to academics and public intellectuals. While Harvey’s book does deploy these cultural keywords, part of the distinction of The New Imperialism comes from its difference from the now-generic trends of the globalization studies canon. Unlike Stiglitz and Chua, Harvey appears less interested in engaging or reproducing discussions of World Bank and IMF politics and avoids lengthy case studies of the residuum and fallout from Cold War economic and military policies. Harvey also resists the broad historical narratives and genealogies of empire already detailed in books by Meiskins Wood and others. Even though Harvey acknowledges the need for a different global strategy, the theoretical panache of The New Imperialism generates power by prizing a more rigorous Marxist economic and geographical critique over the somewhat fast and loose energy found in Hardt and Negri’s Empire.

Nonetheless, before Harvey can focus on the “deeper transformations” churning beneath the surface of globalization, he frames his work within popular globalization debates in both the first and the final (fifth) chapter. The first chapter’s survey of the conundrums of Middle East oil politics produces surprising arguments that anticipate Harvey’s interest in deeper transformations by considering the immediacy of George W. Bush’s global policies through a nuanced Bush-post-Clinton understanding of American empire. In a claim indebted to the cultural work he performs in The Condition of Postmodernity (1990), Harvey explains, “different and sometimes rival conceptions of empire can even become internalized in the same space” (5). In the space of American politics, a Clinton-based neo-liberalism seemingly rivals the more recent Bush-led neo-conservativism. But Harvey deflates much of the Democratic and political left nostalgia for Clinton-era global policy by arguing that “the only difference between the Clinton years and now is that the mask has come off and bellicosity has displaced a certain reticence, in part because of the post-9/11 atmosphere within the United States that makes overt and unilateral military action more politically acceptable” (22). While Harvey’s brief introductory engagement with mainstream American intellectuals’ version of globalization fails to demonstrate his true grit, it underlines the book’s overall emphasis on the United States as the primary determining force in global politics. Indeed, although Harvey often tries to situate his book within the broad terms of globalization studies, his talent is not, in style, tone, or argument, that of the public intellectual. Those readers already familiar with Harvey’s oeuvre and its notable blend of structural Marxism, historical materialism, and geography may want to skip right to the middle three chapters where the heart of his argument flourishes. Afterward, consult the robust bibliography and the helpful list, “Further Reading,” in order to fill in the gaps between Harvey and the broader globalization field.

The book’s identity takes its shape and its major contributions are made once Harvey establishes his concept of “capitalist imperialism.” The basic...

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