Sovereignty and Empire

By Gindin, Sam | Canadian Dimension, July-August 2003 | Go to article overview

Sovereignty and Empire


Gindin, Sam, Canadian Dimension


Moe Fishman, a surviving member of the American volunteers who went to Spain in the 1930s to fight fascism, recently addressed a reunion of fellow comrades. As The Economist (May 3, 2003) recounts the story, whenever he came to the word "globalization" in his talk, he stumbled and stuttered. He later explained that "it was easier when we called it 'imperialism."'

By the nineties, it had become all too easy to describe capitalism's internationalization in the sanitized speech of "globalization" rather than in the emotive language of "imperialism," which evoked allusions to power and identifications with oppression and an anti-capitalist tradition. For those outside the heart of the empire, the language of "imperialism" suggested a project of breaking away, while the language of "globalization" tended to foreclose the possibilities of any such expressions of democratic sovereignty. That a new generation is learning to say "imperialism" again is consequently clearly welcome.

Yet, if this is to lead to a corresponding movement of sustained resistance against imperialism and for democratic sovereignty, it will have to incorporate a deeper understanding of the nature and dynamics of global capitalism. For example, those of us in Canada sympathetic to a politics oriented toward sovereignty, and excited about its organizing potential, confront a number of specific questions and apparent contradictions: Since the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement wasn't imposed upon Canada, but was pleaded for by our elected government -- part of a long history of "dependency by invitation," isn't the issue how we've used our sovereignty, not its absence? In any case, if, as political economists (including many on the Left) increasingly assert, there are no longer national economies in the era of globalization, doesn't this imply that the national state must give way to an international site as the central location of political struggles? And, even if nation states do remain relevant actors, do we reall y want to take national state power? The anti-globalization movement, the source of the most recent energy and political creativity, is ambivalent here: it is obviously ready to lobby against the state, but it also includes a generation of activists suspicious of what they see as statism -- coming to power only to reproduce earlier forms of hierarchy and bureaucracy. This important section of the movement is consequently extremely skeptical of any politics centred on taking state power. Finally, and perhaps most important, how do we reconcile our universalist (and therefore internationalist) goals with a project that gives priority to the national?

At the centre of such questions is the challenge of understanding the nature of the American state, and the American empire that came in the wake of its planned and unplanned actions. Below, Leo Panitch and I offer six theses for understanding these crucial developments.

There are three purposes here. The first is to offer a framework for reinterpreting the most important post-war developments in global capitalism, which centrally involve the development of this empire. The second is to offer some thoughts on how we can connect this American empire to the issues raised by the use of the term imperialism." The third is to make the point that, for anyone in Canada committed to deepening and expanding democracy, it is absolutely essential to take on state power and to transform both the state and our relationship to the global economy.

Six Theses on the American Empire

Leo Panitch and I have been arguing that the most important characteristics of the American state, and the American empire that came in the wake of its planned and unplanned actions, can be explained in terms of six theses.

First, while the American state clearly represented American capital, its own interests demanded that it also take responsibility for representing all capital -- American and non-American. …

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