4 Jul, 2016
In January 2006, one of Asia’s most prominent social activists published a stark warning that a system which allows less than 60 million Americans to vote for a person who gains power to determine, with zero accountability, the fate of the rest of the world, is deeply flawed, deserves to collapse and eventually will.
The core message of the book “Dilemmas Of Domination: The Unmaking Of The American Empire” by Filipino Prof Walden Bello has gained traction and urgency in the midst of the 2016 U.S. election campaign, the result of which is widely predicted to be hugely detrimental for the world at large, regardless of who wins.
It has also been proven right by global events since 2006 which have been marked by persistent uncertainty, volatility and conflict – a far cry from the peace, prosperity, security and sustainability that was envisaged after the 1989 collapse of communism and the Dawn of the 21st Century. Events such as the Brexit vote and the Panama Papers revelations prove that ongoing turmoil is the “new normal”, making the search for new forms of global governance even more imperative.
Prof Bello argues, however, that changing a system in which the decks are already stacked in favour of the rich and powerful will not be easy, especially as the rich and powerful countries fail to recognise themselves as being part of the problem. Nevertheless, he is optimistic that change will come, especially as all global empires historically saw themselves as being invincible at their peak, which then marked the beginning of the end.
The book’s marketing flyer says, “Everywhere America goes, crony capitalism, gross inequalities in income, and the hostile coercion of foreign peoples undermine its pretenses of justice and inclusion, leaving embittered — and often violently vengeful — populations in its wake. A clear and prophetic examination, Dilemmas of Domination reveals a not-too-distant future in which the empire’s hidden weaknesses will yield fatal challenges to American supremacy.”
I am citing this book as a must-read today because yet another U.S. election year. In 2008, the U.S. electorate voted in a candidate on the promise of “Change We Can Believe In.” An honest, objective inventory of what change actually transpired may indicate that the change was for the worse rather than the better. And the change looming on the horizon may be worse still, which will only expedite the realisation of Prof Bello’s forecast.
Like all such books by erudite critics who are always initially dismissed as “Prophets of Doom” until they are proven right, “Dilemmas Of Domination” deserves to be read by all those who genuinely seek Change They Can Believe In.
Says Prof Bello in his introduction, “On November 2, 2004, the most significant electoral contest in the world took place in the United States. Yet only 115 million people participated in an exercise that the British Broadcasting Corporation described as “a truly global election,” the results of which would drastically affect the future of the vast majority of the world’s people.
“To be exact, the choice of only slightly over 59 million people mattered in a decision of global consequence. Hundreds of millions outside the borders of the United States were rooting for the Democratic candidate, John Kerry, mainly because he was not George W. Bush, and they stood by helplessly as the latter won a second term owing to the support of people who saw the rest of the globe as a threat to their privileged status.”
The result of such U.S. elections, Prof Bello notes, is that the “global population (becomes) hostage to the dynamics of political competition and political succession in an imperial republic.”
He adds, “Only recently have Americans begun to think of their country as an empire. But for those of us subjected to repeated imperial interventions—incursions designed to uphold the interests of a distant power—empire is an everyday reality.”
This book cites three crises which “threaten to convulse the empire: a crisis of overproduction, a crisis of overextension, and a crisis of legitimacy.” Here are some quotes on each:
Crisis of Overproduction: Today global capitalism is distinguished by the hegemony of the U.S. economy, both as a market for goods and as a destination for capital. Roaming the world, U.S. transnational corporations function as agents for capital accumulation and production. Their drive for profit makes capitalism both relentlessly expansive and prone to contradiction or to crises. It has also resulted in global financial speculation becoming the central source of profit and capital accumulation.
Crisis of Overextension: In an international system marked by anarchy, states are driven to maintain or extend their strategic reach. The wealthy nations tend to develop a grand strategy, or a fundamental approach toward the world — a conflict-ridden process fueled by competition among elites. Contending elites mobilize mass constituencies to provide them with a decisive edge in imposing their policies.
In addition, the drive to extend the state’s strategic reach may run up against, and even outstrip, the resources available for achieving its ambitions. Such an eventuality is the source of the second crisis of the U.S. dominated global system: overextension or overstretch.
Crisis of Legitimacy: Ideologies are central to creating and maintaining not only the economic but the social conditions for capital accumulation, both domestically and abroad. Ideologies legitimate the system. In the legitimation process, the subordinate classes (the citizens of a superpower, for instance) assent to the control of the dominant elites. Legitimacy, rather than force or coercion, is the linchpin of social order. At the international level….domination cannot simply take the form of coercion. The creation of international or multilateral institutions that seemingly promote universal interests is essential.
Writes Dr Bello, “Today a crisis of legitimacy pervades the multilateral system and the neoliberal ideology that underpins it. Instead of promoting prosperity, as the major postwar financial institutions promised, corporate-driven globalization has proven destabilizing. It has increased poverty and widened inequalities both within and between nations.”
He adds, “Born out of an anticolonial struggle, the United States has found traditional mechanisms of colonial rule problematical. To maintain the reality of empire while concealing it, America has resorted to forging dependent political structures posing as carriers of democracy. Dependent democracies, however, have often failed to take root. In many cases, Washington has had to rely on authoritarian regimes to serve its strategic and economic interests, dealing a severe blow to imperial legitimacy.”
Dr Bello also points to the ongoing “conflict between the major economies of the North and the developing countries of the South, where most of the world’s marginalized people, some three billion, are located. More and more, this complex struggle defines the age we live in.
“The resistance by northern elites to the demands, by newly independent countries, for political equality and economic redistribution has aggravated this conflict. At the same time, the industrialized world seeks to speed up the integration of the South into the global economy in order to offset the stagnation overtaking the northern economies.”
He asks, “Who believes any longer in the American promise of democracy — either abroad or at home — a promise that has accompanied the drive for economic expansion and strategic extension? The loss of legitimacy has many sources. Most significant were the subversion of fledgling democracies in the South in the 1980s and 1990s by draconian financial regimes imposed by the North, and the hijacking of the democratic process in the United States by the increasingly heavy-handed influence of corporate lobbyists over the electoral and legislative processes. Yet another factor has been the erosion of individual freedoms by nonconstitutional measures justified in the name of fighting terrorism.”
He concludes, “Although the United States remains the world’s prime power, its global system of domination is under severe assault and may be in the process of unraveling.” This crisis of empire, he says, “may in fact translate into an opportunity for liberating change not only for marginalized nations but for the people of the United States as well.”
Walden Bello, a professor of sociology and public administration at the University of the Philippines, is the author of numerous books on globalization. Also an award-winning peace and human rights activist, he lives in Quezon City.