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Social Text 18.1 (2000) 1-29

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The New Imperialism:
Six Theses * - [PDF]

Mohammed A. Bamyeh

Until recently, the characteristic theoretical image of imperialism consisted of a political form of tutelage over a range of economic interests on the global scene, a tutelage that did not shy away from using its military muscle to further such interests. That image flowed nicely out of Marxist theory and the emergent logic of capitalism in Marx's time, when it seemed abundantly clear that the entire logic of history could be anchored on the harmonious synchronization of the wheels of economy and politics, and that the ideas of the ruling classes were the ruling ideas, in the same way that their interests were the ruling interests. That thesis presumed that throughout history (and not just in modernity), the connection between governance and the welfare of specific groups or classes defined the essence of governance. However, it can be countered that this symbiosis between governance and specific economic interests is contingent, and that contingency reveals itself the more the system experiences the onset of some of the following three conditions: (1) fiscal bankruptcy of the state and thus increasing unaffordability of expensive tasks (this is especially the case when the demands on the state expose it to an increasing spiral of financial obligations); 1 (2) consolidation of the power and legitimacy of the purely political in the system, so that the political, rather than deriving legitimacy by acting on behalf of specific interests, becomes more confident of its continued existence regardless of its abrogation of obligations that only yesterday had seemed fundamental; and (3) collapse of any ideological alternatives to the system, a phenomenon that no one alive today can fail to discern as a prevalent attitude (which is different from saying that one must necessarily accept it as unalterable fate). All three conditions have, of course, been operative with various degrees of intensity for some time now. It is not that they lead to a "weakening" of the system, which bankruptcy suggests, or "strengthening" of it, suggested by its increasingly self-referential legitimacy. In terms of outcome, the convergence of the three conditions in recent history has enhanced the autonomy of the political from other spheres of social life--including culture and economy--as will be explored in this essay.

One of the central dilemmas of our age will continue to be precisely the danger inherent in this detached form of autonomy of power from fields of rationality exterior to it. 2 With this kind of autonomy, power can [End Page 1] be unleashed unexpectedly and in order to attain purely symbolic aims. When capitalism was more wedded to specific policies and governmental strategies, and even in the instances where it led to imperialist adventures, the general course of power exercise and its aim were to some extent predictable, in light of the rational cosmos advising the imperial state. Thus, there existed some rules that allowed those subject to such power to negotiate it, and opponents were thereby provided with mechanisms by which they could adjust to or even belong to the global domain ruled and regulated by this kind of power. Under modernity, imperial power has been a global game with bases in some economic discourse possessing universal potential. 3 The final victory of capitalism everywhere means, among other things, not only that the capitalist state has lost its mission and meaning but also that we are left with a far more threatening spectacle than capitalism could ever have provided on its own as a purely economic system. If one accepts that the state was the ammunition of some economically based ideology in a global battlefield, then it must also be accepted that what is left, now that the battle has been fought and is over, are empty cannon shells everywhere. The menace of the state after the end of this war stems precisely from its unpredictability, now that it is devoid of all ideological grounding. Its raison d'état is once more its raison d'être. This time around, however, history is repeating itself with...


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