The Bush II and Obama administrations and the transition from American hegemony to the “Post-American world”

This past weekend the Common Root conference was held in Minneapolis. Tom and Christine Sine of Mustard Seed Associates led the first plenary session, and my friend Jordan Peacock wrote the following as a summary statement of one of their points:

The Pax Americana is not necessarily the strongest ’empire’. It stands together with global capitalism, which, while largely birthed from the Pax Americana, shares no allegiance to it, and will likely outlast it.

I think this is an excellent point, and one that bears fleshing out a bit by contrasting the approaches of the Bush II Administration and what we’ve seen from Obama so far. The neoconservative plan seemed to me to clearly be an “American empire” kind of strategy, with American military power as the trump card in the world political game. “Regime change” and militaristic power politics, whether through direct military intervention or the funding of “satellite” armies in places like Israel and Colombia, seem to me to be parts of a larger strategy for attempting to maintain a specifically American hegemony over world affairs. The purpose of the use of military and other overtly violent forces in this fashion seems to have been to make the world safe for “democracy”, by which is meant the interests of “American” corporate entities (often really more multi- and trans-national) who have exploited the twin Bush II tools of unilateral military intervention (or the threat thereof) and implementation of neo-colonial “free trade” policies, combined with other corporate-friendly measures, such as the widespread loosening of labor, safety, and environmental regulations at home and undercutting the social safety net (which was already quite sparse in the aftermath of Reaganomics).

The adventure in Iraq is a signal example and convergence of the combination of military and corporate objectives with the toppling of the Hussein government and the swift looting of the country through a forced rewriting of Iraq’s economic laws in an attempt to create a “free trade paradise”, causing a descent into chaos and insurgency that, contrary to what you hear from the corporate media propaganda machine, really only picked up steam as the effects of the combination of economic deregulation and the insistence on American corporations rebuilding the country (translation: looting Iraq and fleecing American taxpayers) destroyed the ability of the average Iraqi to obtain basic needs and services.

Indeed, Iraq-as-originally-conceived could be considered a case study for the Bush II approach to Pax Americana. Key to neoconservatism is the concept that the welfare of corporations is intrinsically linked to the welfare of the nation-state and its security interests and policies. This convergence of military, corporate, and political machinations is the engine that drives the neoconservative American empire project. The very name of the neoconservative thinktank, Project for a New American Century (PNAC), illustrates the imperial designs of the people who made up the backbone of the Bush II administration, as does their stated belief that “American leadership is both good for America and good for the world”.

I want to say, at the outset of my brief foray into what we’ve seen so far from Obama, along with his campaign rhetoric, that in some ways Obama substantially continues some of the Bush II tactics and underwriting assumptions unchanged. Glen Ford, editor of Black Agenda Report, cites no less a media authority than the New York Times calling Obama “center-right” and then goes on to say:

The ideological pillars of America’s first Black presidency have been planted wholly within the parameters of governance allowed by big capital and the imperial military. Obama’s “transition” is more accurately seen as a “continuity” of rule by the lords of finance capital and their protective screen of warriors and spies. The Obama regime, still incomplete, already wreaks [sic] of filthy rich thieves and gore-covered war criminals.

The two biggest differences I see between Bush II and Obama-so-far are:

  1. a re-assertion of government playing a role in establishing some kind of common welfare through a kind of social democracy (NOT the same thing as “socialism”), albeit in a much-weakened state compared to LBJ’s “Great Society” and “war on poverty” programs, over and against the explicit undercutting of the social safety net that has occurred systematically since Reagan; and,
  2. while the desire to maintain America as the foremost world power, the notion of American hegemony seems to have given way somewhat to something perhaps more analogous to America as a “senior partner”. Obama was seen carrying a copy of Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World, which argues for “not.. the decline of America, but the rise of everyone else”. Zakaria sees this story, that of “the rise of the rest”, as the defining narrative for the rest of the 21st century. Obama’s talk, at least, regarding initiatives such as strong diplomacy and sitting down to talk with people with whom Bush II would not, may reflect a similar understanding of America’s role in the coming years.

The basic thrust of these same-nesses and differences between Obama and Bush II seems to me to be that Obama seeks to implement policies that will create greater stability in the world, at least as it relates to America, both at home and abroad, by strengthening regulation of the economy at home that will prevent unrest and by allowing the “junior partner” nations of the world a greater role in determination of world political action. That contrasts strongly with Bush II’s neoconservative agenda focused around American hegemony which in practice led to more destabilized conditions both at home and abroad.

However, this “change we can believe in” is a “change” designed to fundamentally underwrite the corporate consumer capitalist status quo and the continued advancement of an “economic growth” agenda. In other words, it’s a “change” that is geared towards producing “more of the same”. With a decreased link between the welfare of corporate entities and the welfare of the United States, I believe we will indeed see the Sines’ prediction play itself out in world affairs over the coming years. William Cavanaugh (in Theopolitical Imagination and Being Consumed) argues that the universality claimed by the modern nation-state is giving way to the universalizing tendencies of the global market, and the global market almost entirely consists of action by corporations. Also, Brian Walsh argues (in Subversive Christianity) that capitalism is a necessarily expansionist, even imperial, economic system. If the empire of global corporate capitalism is unconstrained by national borders, as is largely (and increasingly) the case due to “trade liberalization”, then its expansion, by definition, must increase beyond the hegemony of the USAmerican political nation-state entity.

Not only that, but it is also the case that the one-and-only responsibility of a corporation is to increase its value for shareholders. Indeed, neoliberal architect Milton Friedman called ascribing any other purpose to the corporation “fundamentally subversive” (he was specifically referring to the idea of corporate social responsibility). A corporation-based economy must grow or it will collapse, and the same is true of the current global debt-based monetary system – new debt must constantly be created to generate money to pay the interest on old debt, according to an ever-increasing practically exponential growth curve.

The empire of global capitalism is highly complex. Whereas the nation-state depends on territory for its very existence, the corporation theoretically is a territory-less entity. While I would argue that this is not true, strictly-speaking, because no economic activity can truly take place without there being land and material products involved somewhere, somehow, according to the currently-accepted rules of the game a trans-national corporation does not depend on the territory of any one nation-state, nor is it accountable to any entity outside its shareholders except insofar as maintaining relations of accountability and corporate social responsibility allow it to maximize profits and therefore value to shareholders. In addition to the “territory-less” nature, though, there is not any one entity that can serve as an object of wrath for those who oppose this evolving empire. Corporations are legion, they are interconnected, they are buttressed by international organizations and agreements, and We the Consumers play a major role in keeping them in business.

This seems to be the world into which we are headed, a world where “change” occurs to ensure “more of the same”, with the locus of imperial activity increasingly translocating from nation-state entities (particularly the United States) to transnational corporations and the entities that ensure their preeminence (such as the WTO). This does not mean that the emerging empire will not favor certain nation-states (or at least certain people in them), as mentioned above, certain nation-states will enjoy “senior partner” status (hence the continuing neo-colonial nature of global capitalism), but the world is shifting from under the dominating shadow of the United States to global corporate consumer capitalism, as illustrated by a comparison of the Bush II administration and what we’ve seen so far from Obama.

This was first posted on the Common Root discussion forum, but I wanted to also open it up for a possibly wider discussion here. Shalom!

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6 Responses

  1. What do you mean by “corporate consumer capitalism”? Any book/site to which you can refer me? Perhaps a “Corporate Consumer Capitalism for Dummies”? And what evidence would you give to show that Obama intends to “underwrite the corporate consumer capitalist status quo and the continued advancement of an ‘economic growth’ agenda”?

  2. “Corporate consumer capitalism” is, so far as I know, my own term and is a combination of consumerism and the domination of corporations on the world economic scene. I’m not aware of anyone else using that term (I googled it while writing this comment and there are uses of it online, though 2 of the top hits were copies of this article).

    I largely follow the analysis presented in Truth Is Stranger than It Used to Be by Brian Walsh and Richard Middleton and Colossians Remixed by Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat. It’s really more complex than I’ve been able to put forth here, as this post was already over 1400 words (I generally try to keep under 1000).

    Regarding the economic growth agenda (in the context of creating a “more stable” growth economy) this aim is summarized well in this article from the New York Times from last February, before the primaries, particularly his statement about creating “bottom up economic growth”. But for the most part it has to do with what I’ve seen on the news at work (I work at a TV station and we show 7 hours of news overnight nearly every night I work), trying to cite specific statements would be more difficult. I do think his cabinet appointments bear out a Clinton-esque agenda, which was certainly neoliberal-oriented, with the advancement of “free trade agreements” as a key goal (but only, apparently, as they benefit the US, since the WTO ruled against US policies that remained unchanged after the ruling more than once during his administration).

    Also, despite his rhetoric about taking care of Main Street and criticisms of Wall Street, Obama got WAY more money from trading and financial institutions than McCain, which shows that, for whatever reason, THEY believed an Obama presidency would be better for their interests than McCain.

    So it looks to me like Obama is still pursuing a growth agenda, but by different mechanisms than Bush II.

    This was really more of a thought experiment than a strong research-based essay, though. My main concern has less to do with Obama and Bush, but the tension between nationalism and globalization and the question of who (and/or what) will have supremacy on the world political stage in the 21st century. The empire language isn’t necessary to my concern and may not really be precise enough, or may need to be redefined to speak of the processes of empire, rather than an identifiable imperial entity. But in the context of postmodernity it seems to make more sense to speak of these interlocking networks and processes rather than focusing too much on any one individual entity such as a state or a corporation. And surely in some ways this is far from a new phenomenon, given American military interventions in Latin America on behalf of United Fruit, and other business-oriented belligerence. So the corporate tail has maybe always wagged the nationalist dog to some extent.

  3. Both Bush and Obama have an agenda to advance American corporate interests, they just have different tactics for different global environments.

  4. The drive for absolute government is coming in from both parties. Bush and O’Bama is the “bad cop, good cop” routine on a national -no, international- level.

  5. I hadn’t thought of it that way, as “bad cop, good cop”. That’s interesting.

  6. There is plenty of evidence that “Change we can believe in” really means “More of the same you’re used to seeing” in terms of how our financial and economic machinations will continue on largely as before. One only has to look at the people who are running Obama’s Treasury, Budget, and other financial agencies to see that they are infested with high-ranking executives from Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, and the other Wall St. heavy hitters. This also explains why no one is forcing the Fed or Treasury to disclose who is getting what bailout funds, and more importantly, how they are being spent. Finally, just how many high-ranking financial executives have been indicted or investigated for the worldwide economic collapse they’ve caused? How many firings have taken place inside the SEC and the other regulatory bodies for things like the Madoff scandal and others?

    Nothing is really changing my friends. It’s just that a “kinder, gentler” face has been put on the remainder of the elimination of the middle class.

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