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Hakiem & Margo Nankoe

The Historical Trajectory of the Late Capitalist World towards World-Empire

Paper being prepared for the Conference on Reflexive Representations: Discourse, Power, and Practice in Global Capitalism. Transforma #1. July 4th - 6th, 2003, Magdeburg. 1 All rights reserved. Not to be quoted without permission of the authors. 

Throughout the long 20th century, the capitalist world-economy has been undergoing challenges and transmutations which seem to be affecting its very historical nature in such a way that the global system we have known may be evolving into a different type of entity. These challenges include World War I, the rise of the Soviet alternative where the introduction of the 'capitalist model' had disastrously shattered the Russian economy, the failure of the world-economy during the Great Depression, the rise of the national-socialist German late-comer, World War II which crippled the world’s most affluent centers, the rebellion of the underprivileged Third World to the inequitable structures of historical capitalism, and shocks rocking the U.S. -- the dominant power of the 20th century. Any appearance of a transition of the capitalist world into another one, will not bbe posed as a certainty in this paper, but as a possible process which may be unfolding. 

The first part of the paper deals with a number of historical transformation processes of the capitalist world-economy: e.g. commercialization, commodification, proletarianization, geographical expansion, and politization through which the capitalist system has been regenerating itself. Our argument is that some of these processes have become more difficult to sustain during the era of late-capitalism, e.g. (extensive) geographical expansion. 
The second part of the paper deals with the 1914-1945 crisis and the rise of geopolitical alternatives to the international order. At a time when the young revolutionary Soviet Republic found itself isolated and attacked by the West, Lenin sought recourse in Third World national movements. Woodrow Wilson -- especially in the light of the U.S.'s need for raw materials and markets in the periphery -- reciprocated by offering soverreignty as a future prospect to the Third World. The colonial area was about to be loosened from European domination. 

The period of the 1930s and World War II can be considered an important 'reflexive' moment in the invention of the hegemon. When the U.S. hegemony was at the drawing table of its designers, the projected self-image of the hegemony was one based on 'consensual,' and free trade relations. Contrasting itself with totalitarianisms of the left and the right, this was the time that the thesis of a distinctively democratic culture was implanted in the heritage of the ‘Atlantic world’--while an elaborate racially segregationist structure had been erected domestically. Social constructions of reality can havee -- even if extensively misconstrued -- major consequences. Our paper will touch upon matters relating to constructing ('actionable') geopolitics by leading factions as well as the U.S. administration. The third section of the paper deals with the apparatuses of hegemonic management of the world-economy through 'consensual' international organizations (e.g. the U.N. system), and the restricted Bretton Wood system (especially the I.M.F. and the World Bank), military alliances (e.g. the NATO, SEATO, and CENTO) for the containing of military threats and upheavals. As nationalists overthrew colonialism, and established generally weak socialist regimes, the U.N. system itself became an important forum for challenging the U.S. and the unequal structures of the modern world. 

One may be tempted to suggest that the 1914-1945 era of 'chaos' was brought to an end by a devils bargain offering the much desired diplomatic recognition of the Soviet Union, in exchange for military alliance, its uncertain 'pacification,' and the establishment of a bipolar world instead of a unipolar one which has been the hallmark of hegemonic periods. The simultaneity of bipolarity in a hegemonic era is a theoretical contradiction in terms. Therefore, one is left to wonder whether the subsequent 1945-1967 era of economic expansion and material extravaganza was concurrent with a phase of transition. 

It has been noted that the most advanced Western countries established the most archaic regimes in their peripheries, creating historical wounds which do not heal easily. Colonial structures had historically been based on coerced and repressive regimes by metropolises in peripheries. The reputation of the U.S. as reactionary oppressor of the periphery during the Cold War era is well- founded. Together with the economic failings of the world-economy during the late 1960s, the increasing cooperation between the Soviet Union and the Third World, the oil crises, the defeat of the U.S. in Vietnam, the domestic crisis in the U.S. -- e.g. student protest and the Watergate scandal -- as well as the decline in economic competitiveness in regards to Germany and Japan, was taken by contemporaries as portents that the capitalist world was on its way to become a passing entity. The capitalist world system faced the global magnitude of its failings twice during ominous crises in the shortspan of the same century.

Since the 1980s the U.S. has been making its comeback. With the collapse of the Warshaw Pact and soon the Soviet Union itself, the international consensus it was able to mobilize during the first Gulf War by giving the U.N. system another lease on life, and the military weaponry it put to a display against Iraq, a vision of a single omnipotent world power had been brought into existence. In the face of the super-hegemony of the United States, what sense does any suggestion of the demise of the capitalist world and a possible transition towards world-empire make? 

Since the 1990s prophet-executioners of doom have become a disappearing breed. Following the reconsolidation of the U.S.-centered hegemonic coalition, its prophets--among whom Fukuyama--appear to be granting a prospect of eternity to the capitalist world. Hobsbawn is among the few offerinng the cautious hypothesis that the 20th century may be looked back upon as part of a long period of transition by future analyses. Despite capitalism's 'triumph' this paper ventures into contemplating whether the currently prevailing trends may be considered as indications of capitalism's successful restoration, or conversely as signs of its transition into another system. 

Conceptual tools are always in a never-ending process of development. Despite these uncertainties, the capitalist world-economy--which will be used interchangeably with the modern world-system, capitalism, and the global order--during the British and Ammerican hegemonies, will be understood here as being characterized by a single unequal worldwide interdependent division of labor, multiple state regimes, as well as multiple historical cultures. World-empires have been characterized by all of these, except that instead of having multiple states regimes, world-empires had just one polity, at least according to some theoretical models.

Our paper argues, that given the effective political weight of the U.S. hegemony which the U.S. enjoyed with the support of the traditional European core during the era of the single world power order, the multiplicity of state in the interstate structure became increasingly hollow. When Tony Blair functions as a supplementary foreign minister for the U.S., and a substantial part of the periphery and semi-periphery has to request approval for their national programs from hegemonic institutions, the I.M.F. and World Bank, sovereign states become increasingly provinces of metropolis Washington. With the decline of state sovereignty outside the 'Washington bloc,' the world-system has started to look increasingly like a world-empire American style. The so-called humanitarian intervention, the doctrine of intervention in alleged failed states suggests the same. Wallerstein has suggested that capitalist mechanisms of exploitation have been far more rewarding than world-empires with their huge bureaucracies were capable of. Nevertheless, a world-empire -- which neo-cons are now starting to contemplate -- remains far from being an already paved path. Economic and fiscal conservvation remain strong in U.S. politics. If the historically unjust economic world order is brought to its knees, it will not be it will not be -- as Schumpeter contemplated -- due to the failings of capitalism, but more so as a result of its success. What a historical perversion would it be, if anti-systemic movements were not to be the ones to fulfill their mission towards the unjust world order, but instead capitalism's primary beneficiary, missionary, and policeman. After having defeated all its challengers, the United States seems determined to seal the return of its ephemeral supremacy into the permanency of world-empire, giving a new twist to Perry Anderson's thesis -- somewhat liberally interpreted here -- that the outcome of struggle is solidified in the transformation of state structures. 

Decades long world wars, large revolutions and economic crises have not been unknown in modern history. A word of caution is therefore in place here. Dramatic as the events of the 20th century may appear, from a long world-historical perspective, great upheavals are not necessarily world shattering phenomena. Living during one of these upheavals, Kondratieff was one of those who ran into problems by arguing, that the crisis of capitalism during the 1930s which many took as an indication of its terminal stage, was just part of a cyclical and passing pattern of the modern world. And one can assert that the capitalist world's existence shall continue, essentially uncurtailed. This may be true. Nevertheless, these were crisis phenomena. And if a crisis is a challenge to those interested in maintaining the world-economy, one is tempted to conclude that they have been able to avert its demise. Crises and transitions are areas of conflict. Whatever follows from such possible transitions -- restoration of the old system or to an uncertain new era -- depends to a large extent on the outcome of such conflicts. Theere have been times in which the transition seemed to be heading towards a ‘socialist’ type of world order. It has been out-competed among others by an intermittent phase of international neo-liberalism. 

The last decades of the 20th century saw the rise of a single world power world structure. There is no counter-weight in sight, despite utterances of the need for a ‘counter-balance’ in France, Germany and Russia. Even the alleged civilizations, clashes between whom Huntington held to become paradigmatic in the post-Cold War era, do not make the slightest stirrings to assert multi-polarity. Given the determined foreign policy doctrine of the U.S. not to allow challengers or multi-lateral organizations to interfere with its self-assumed prerogatives as sole world power, we seem -- for now -- to be heading towards some sort of world-empire. But we are not at the end of the history of cyclical turmoil whhich sustains the appearance of a (long) transition.