Book Review: Friends, Washingtonians and Countrymen… By William Bowles

31 March 2004

“The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic” by Chalmers Johnson, Verso Books, 2004.

What an irony. For decades the left has been talking of the US as an empire, identifying the ring of military bases that surrounded the former Soviet Union and China, its destabilisation and overthrow of countries that defied US power; the Cold War and the nuclear arms race, also instigated by the US; its control of trade and energy; the rise of the military-industrial complex; its cultural imperialism.

But also for decades, such views of the US were vilified by those who saw such analyses as a thinly veiled defence of the Soviet Union. In a word, we were Red-baited. At best, it was a ‘plague on both houses’, the Soviet Empire on one side and the US on the other, both equally as bad.

But now there is no Soviet Empire, there’s no shortage of critics of US power, even from the right. I suppose I could be curmudgeonly and ask what planet were all these ‘critics’ living on for the past fifty-plus years? Okay, perhaps it’s better late than never or is it just too late? Which brings me to “The Sorrows of Empire” by Chalmers Johnson”, a book that describes the US as a imperialist empire, a country controlled by the arms industry, oil and a military culture that now dominates the government through an alliance of ‘neo-conservatives’ and the DoD. Chalmers’ proposition is that the United States is very much a latter-day Roman Empire although very different in form. He bases his proposition on the degree to which the country is now effectively run by the military, an assertion that is very much based on fact, especially since 9/11.

But I’ve got a problem with Chalmers Johnson’s new book, subtitled ‘Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic’. Now don’t get me wrong, “Sorrows” is chockfull of facts, so many that it’s as much a data mine as it is an analysis. Johnson does a fantastic job of documenting the rise of the Empire but there’s something missing from this catalogue of horrors. And many of the facts in “Sorrows” are not new, the difference being that before, they emanated from the ‘wrong’ mouths. Is this merely sour grapes on my part or is there more to it than merely a case of ‘I told you so’?

The problem is that Johnson fails to identify why? And he says so himself on a number of occasions. In the chapter titled “The Empire of Bases”, Chalmers gives us five reasons for the proliferation of US bases around the world (over 700 and possibly as many as 900, depending on how you count them):

  • “maintaining absolute military preponderance…”
  • “eavesdropping on the communications of citizens, allies, and enemies alike…”
  • “attempting to control as many sources of petroleum as possible, both to service America’s insatiable demand for fossil fuels and to use that control as a bargaining chip with even more oil-dependent regions…”
  • “providing work and income for the military-industrial complex…”
  • “and ensuring that members of the military and their families live comfortably…while serving abroad.”

But Chalmers goes on to say:

“No one of these goals or even all of them together, however, can entirely explain our expanding empire of bases.”

According to Chalmers the reason is:

“There is something else at work, which I believe is the post-Cold War discovery of our immense power, rationalized by the self-glorifying conclusion that because we have it we deserve to have it.”

Chalmers’ argument rests on the proposition that the entire enterprise is essentially driven by the Pentagon, that in order to justify its insatiable appetite for more ‘toys’ must perforce invent reasons to develop and then of course, find reasons to use them. and of course this also explains the need for hundreds of bases around the planet.

Yet the bulk of the book talks incessantly of “imperialism” and documents its innumerable expressions extending back to the Monroe Doctrine of the mid-19th century. So what is imperialism? Chalmers doesn’t tell us except in a roundabout kind of way. For example, “the United States is “the gyroscope of world order”” quoting Walter Russell Mead of the Council for Foreign Relations, who “is fearful that the American public, if left to its own preferences in a post-Cold War world, would demobilize as it has done in the past”.

Elsewhere, Chalmers says:

“It would be hard to deny that oil, Israel, and domestic politics all played crucial roles in the Bush administration’s war against Iraq, but [that the basic motivation is]…the inexorable pressures of imperialism and militarism”

Again, we’re not told what kind of animal imperialism is, for aside from the military-industrial complex and the oil conglomerates ‘ordinary capitalism’ doesn’t get a mention. Where are the sweatshops of Haiti, Vietnam or Uzbekistan (yes, jeans made in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are already on sale in London, I made the mistake of buying a pair as they were so cheap) in Chalmers’ equation of power?

There can be no doubt that the US is controlled by a coterie of ultra rightwing ideologues in league with the military/security establishment who work tirelessly on behalf of the arms and oil cartels, and Chalmers does an excellent job of documenting this aspect of US capitalism. But his analysis doesn’t extend beyond this, leaving one with the impression that if it wasn’t for oil and the military, there wouldn’t be any US imperialism.

Yet the history of US capitalism that Johnson does such a good job of documenting, charts the rise of US corporate capitalism but without actually naming it as such. It’s as if the components of US society that Chalmers’ describes so eloquently but in isolation, operate independently from each other.

And this is the flaw of “Sorrows” that nagged at me from the very beginning of the book to its end. Chalmers at one point in the chapter titled “Whatever happened to globalization?” describes the ‘neo-liberal’ economic agenda as “upside-down Marxism” and goes on to quote Peruvian diplomat and ambassador to the WTO, Oswaldo de Rivero:

“The ideological war between capitalism and communism during the second half of the twentieth century was not a conflict between totally different ideologies. It was, rather, a civil war between two extreme viewpoints of the same Western ideology: the search for happiness through the material progress disseminated by the Industrial Revolution.”
“The Myth of Development”, Zed Books, 2001.

So the entire trajectory of the 20the century was just a bunch of white men fooling the rest of the world? Aside from being arrogant nonsense, it’s also paternalistic nonsense, as it’s saying that those who led and took part in the liberation struggles of Africa, Asia and Latin America were on no more than a fools quest, misled by a bunch of Europeans and/or Americans: that they were incapable of making decisions without the ‘guiding hand’ of the great white father. That development (in the Rivero/Chalmers vision, it’s translated into ‘happiness’) was an illusion. So what’s left?

To a great degree, the Rivero quote explains why Johnson’s book has such a difficult job of explaining imperialism to the reader, for without the fundamental economic raison d’etre that powers all imperialisms, he is forced to fall back on ‘power for the sake of power’ or some unexplained ‘inexorableness’ (is there such a word?). And ultimately, in order to escape this dead-end, he is forced to rely, once more, on a ‘plague on all houses’ approach in order to ‘explain’ imperialism. So once more, what’s left?

“The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic” by Chalmers Johnson, Verso Books, 2004 and not cheap at 20 quid.

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