Review: After The Empire

Emmanuel Todd is a researcher at the French National Institute for Demographic Studies in Paris. His regard in intellectual circles springs from his book, The Final Fall: An Essay on the Decomposition of the Soviet Sphere, acclaimed for its prediction of the demise of the Soviet Union. More recently, he has produced a European best seller predicting a similar breakdown of the US “empire,” After the Empire: The Breakdown of the American Order.

Whether his book on the Soviet demise deserves acclaim, we’ll leave for another time or another author.

Undoubtedly, Todd intended this latest book to be provocative, coming at a time when associating the US with empire has become quite fashionable. Where identifying a US empire has formerly been the work of the left — mainly the Marxist left, mainstream writers of a conservative bent as well as their more liberal counterparts have recently discovered that the US behaves very much like a country with imperial aspirations. Some hail this development; still others view it with some trepidation. What makes Todd’s account audacious is his revelation that the empire is already in decline and destined for a fall. Interestingly, an empire is consigned to oblivion before its existence has even been revealed to jost of its citizens.

The dwindling supporters of the Bush Administration’s imperial adventures will not hesitate to dismiss Todd’s book as simply European anti-Americanism. This would be a mistake, as a serious read of the book reveals.

Todd is not anti-American, but, in fact, an admirer of the US empire: “What the world needs is not that America disappear but that it return to its true self — democratic, liberal, and productive.... the authentically imperial and generous America of the 1950’s....” Of course, he does not believe that the US can turn back the clock to this idyllic time of Cold War confrontation, domestic repression, and white privilege. Many of us are happy to leave those times behind.

The Empire Revealed

Todd, like jost mainstream commentators, does not mean what Marxists mean when they speak of modern “empire”. Marxists only occasionally make reference to “empire” and only in the context of an economic stage of capitalism identified by Lenin as Imperialism. For Marxists, Imperialism is an era of intense competition by giant combines organized around nation-states that pillage the less developed world for markets. This development leads to imperial alliances, tensions between dominant powers, and, often, war. This understanding of international behavior remains as useful today as it was in Lenin’s time.

The modern bourgeois model, on the other hand, takes its reference from the empires of antiquity, usually the Roman Empire. One school of historical thought views the Roman Empire as an enormous civilizing project, spreading its reach throughout the known world and bringing learning, culture, equality, and a democratic ideal to the ignorant masses. Marxists would agree with elements of this thinking, recognizing the economic and cultural advances that accompanied the dominance of the Roman legions. However, they would insist upon two crucial caveats: These advances were bought through the intense exploitation and oppression of the Empire’s citizens — the enslavement of much of the productive workforce. And, secondly, the social organization of antiquity was, in the narrow sense of advancing economic and cultural development, necessary for the moment. Without something like the age of empires, social life would have stagnated. For Marxists, this is a statement of fact and not a judgment of the moral or political values of that time — brutal exploitation is still brutal exploitation. 

Reviving the ancient notion of empire in today’s world requires some similarly worthy overriding good. Todd accepts this when he writes in his introduction: “The world has a dream, namely that the recognition by all nations, or aljost all, of the legitimate power of the United States would bring about a true empire of good in which the dominated would accept a central power and the dominant Americans would submit their authority to an idea of justice.”

Central to the idea of a just empire with Todd and other exponents of the new imperialism is the greater good of spreading democracy throughout the world. In this regard, he shares the same outlook of jost bourgeois politicians — including Bush, who see the “civilized” nations as bringing democracy to the unenlightened in the former Yugoslavia, Cuba, Venezuela, Iraq, Georgia, Ukraine, Syria, and other independent states. For the life of me, I can’t understand how they can advocate imposing a democracy. The idea of forcing democracy should seem to any rational person as contradictory. But what they mean, of course, is paternalistically bringing Euro-American formal, parliamentary democracy to the rest of the world (Japan, despite functioning as a one-party state, surprisingly counts as such a formal democracy) by influence, or in some cases, military force. They never mind that Anglo-European democracy is deeply flawed and in crisis. As with Rome, ruling elites dominate internal politics through power and wealth, while the empire’s center dominates the rest of the world.

For Todd a good, beneficent empire must possess overwhelming military force; it must also grant an equal status to the subjected people of the empire. Only by respecting and preserving what is best in the conquered nations can the imperial center claim legitimacy in Todd’s eyes. A successful empire universalizes its way of life, granting a kind of common citizenship. Yet Todd cynically notes that this universality is rather shallow: “The imperial power dynamic leads to a universal egalitarianism whose origin is not the liberty of all, but, rather, the common lot of their oppression.” So, we understand, it is the illusion of equality that holds an empire together and not its substance.

Exposing his naïveté regarding US history, Todd dates the US empire from the end of World War II, with its “positive” period extending to 1975. Presumably, Todd views the Cold War task of protecting the world from Communism as a commendable duty until that date. He is oblivious to the imperial expansion of the original nation across the North American continent throughout the nineteenth century. One would suppose, on his account, that this would not count as empire-building. Nor does he recognize the Monroe Doctrine as the behavior of an empire, claiming the right of intervention and the unilateral proclamation of a sphere of interest encompassing an entire continent in the southern hemisphere. The “protectorates” in the Philippines and the Pacific go unnoticed.

One can only stand in disbelieving awe before a view that paints the US as a benign democracy minding its own affairs in splendid isolation until the end of World War II. Todd’s research must have stopped after reading de Toqueville and his romantic paean to the wondrous American spirit of brotherhood and democracy.     

The Empire in Crisis

And then things went badly. After Vietnam, the American military might became a paper tiger. Even before that, Todd contends, The US military never faced a foe with equal resources or comparable weaponry. He correctly notes that the destruction of European fascism was accomplished primarily by the Soviet armed forces. To be a true empire, the US has to have the will and means to tackle any force in the world with the expectation of dominance. Instead, the US picked on small, weak nations, becoming — in his words — “the big little bully.” This, Todd assures us, is not the behavior of a true empire. I suppose we should be thankful for small favors.

In truth, the US possesses enormous military might, unparalleled in human history, with little reluctance to use it. However, the US ruling class does not use it to demonstrate to Todd its imperial qualifications. Empires have always been bullies, choosing the easiest foes to demonstrate the cost of deviation from imperial homage and tribute. Moreover, the might of an empire is always of little help in suppressing the liberation struggles of weaker countries. The determination of peoples to resist domination nearly always prevails against technological, material, and numerical superiority. The British learned this in India, the French in Algeria, and the US failed to learn this in Vietnam.

But the US falls short of meeting the requirements for sustaining empire on other counts as well, according to Todd. The US has also failed to insure universality within the Empire. Todd points to the persistent and pervasive racism in US society which feeds an ugly chauvinism throughout the rest of the empire. On this point, Todd is, of course, correct, though he goes to some lengths to show anthropological evidence of a unique Anglo-Saxon “differentialist” disposition to exclude the “others.” One would wonder if he would cling to this view in the face of the recent, intense insurrection of Arabic and African youth throughout France, a country supposedly inoculated against the “differentialist” disposition. Any visitor to either country would readily observe that minorities are “invisible people” in both cases.

After the Empire also faults the US for its unconditional support of Israel in the Middle East. Todd correctly sees this support as an attempt to maintain a reliable outpost in the Middle East, a mercenary force overseeing the largely Arabic populations of that part of the world.

On the economic front, Todd argues that the US fails critically because it serves as a net consumer for the rest of the world. Empires should be powerful economic engines; “True power is economic power, and that is what America lacks today”, he states in his preface. But this is a paradoxical failing since the classic empires were great consumers of the world’s wealth, extracting great bounty as tribute from the dominated subjects. While Todd seems to take the trade imbalance as a source of weakness, his argument suggests that the US predilection for consumption over production may well be a sign of imperial strength.

Turned on its head, this may be one of Todd’s strongest points. Classical economics struggles to explain why producers would reinvest their US dollars in low yield, devalued treasuries. Market logic would dictate that a radical trade imbalance tilted towards consumption would force the yields of US investment instruments up, given the necessity of attracting dollars to cover the cost of imports. But this is not happening.

We might — following Todd’s suggestive line of reason — view the flow of dollars back to the US as a kind of structural tribute, homage to the imperial dominance of the US in the world order. Just as ancient empires preferred the coin of the realm and relied upon the extravagant consumption of the empire’s center, today’s international producers and traders pay similar homage. At any rate, the asymmetry between consumption and production in contemporary capitalism, certainly suggests an imperial dominance as the source of this anomaly in market economics. Todd surely recognizes this when he notes that the great worldwide concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands, foretells a classic Keynesian crisis of underconsumption, thwarted only by the insatiable consumption of the US market. How can we explain why the US enjoys this privileged position apart from its imperial dominance?

Empire or Imperialism?

In the face of the outrageously aggressive behavior of the US since the demise of the Soviet Union, it would be surprising if there were not some recognition of the imperial flavor of this arrogance among the ranks of public intellectuals. Given the haughty triumphal posture assumed by ruling elites since European socialism’s fall, one would not expect them to approach these developments through the lens of Lenin’s theory of Imperialism. Instead, we have been offered a dose of “new” and celebrated theories of empire, from Hardt and Negri’s obtuse, confused account, Empire, to this offering from Emmanuel Todd.

There are many useful observations in Todd’s book: his critical discussion of the theories of many prominent US foreign policy experts, the role of the CIA in reshaping Eastern Europe, the dangers of US free market models to European democracy, for example.

But there are many bizarre, speculative, and weakly argued points as well. Todd’s free floating theory that higher literacy rates beget revolution which, in turn, produces lower birth rates is an example of taking a few suggestive instances to great, but unsure theoretical heights. Moreover, his demographic data is not beyond challenge from other sources. His anthropological claim that “The value of liberty is for certain systems, notably the French and Anglo-Saxon models, inscribed within the original family pattern” is a remarkably conceited piece of humbuggery. For unfathomable reasons, Todd makes two gratuitous references to US women as “castrating.” I would like to believe this may be an error in translation.

Despite his tone of confident analysis and smug prediction, Todd closes his 2004 afterword to the British paperback edition with these confused, unfocussed musings: “I am much less optimistic now. Although I still believe that capitalism is the only reasonable economic system, I have started wondering whether too much capitalism, too much individualism, does not in fact drive people and states crazy. This is an important historical question: the first triumph of rational homo economicus, during the nineteenth century, led directly to the madness of the first world war. There is no real contradiction between rationality and madness: too much rationality leads to madness, too much rationality is madness.”

Too much capitalism? Too much rationality? May we prescribe a quiet evening with V.I. Lenin’s Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism as a remedy for Todd’s overdose of today’s realities.

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