IMPERIALISM VERSUS EMPIRE

(Part 1)

Following a Democratic Party blockade, the Trump administration’s attempt to practice economic stimulus policy has failed. The tax reform bill was an acknowledgement by the U.S. presidency of a loss of competitiveness in the national economy, as well as an expression of a desire to restore it through a protectionist policy. This desire is based on the fact that the internationalization of capital, as a strategy of US super-imperialism, has deindustrialized the country and weakened the power of the US as a nation. This loss of power is currently problematic, following the new assertion of Russia as a military power and China as a potentially economically dominant nation. 

A POLITICAL PARADIGM SHIFT 

Tax reform, intended to reindustrialize the country, was blocked by the Democratic vote. President Trump’s rhetoric about leaving NATO, reducing US military interventions abroad, and his opposition to a new Cold War with Russia also meet the objective of refocusing on the US, in order to strengthen the competitiveness of the US economy. The recognition of the need to rebuild the country’s competitiveness implies the acceptance of the existence of competitors and rivals, and thus the recognition of a crisis in the imperial structure. 

Thus, the Trump administration’s stated desire is part of a global shift in political paradigm, a reversal of priorities that places great power rivalry at the forefront and subordinates to it the  » fight against terrorism. « This change in priority reflects a crisis in the imperial structure and thus a return to the primacy of war over the police function. The Democratic approach, on the other hand, remains in the imperial scheme and is characterized by the absence of consideration of the existence of competing economic powers and the denial of the presence of military powers capable of countering the US army. 

The member countries of the European Union, for their part, remain completely prisoners of the imperial policy of which they are the product. No other attitude seems conceivable than that advocating an ever deeper integration into the American Empire, a merger, as organized by the project of the great transatlantic market. In the absence of the existence of an external sovereignty of the EU, of a capacity for independent action at the international level, the only possible policy remains that of the fight against terrorism, that is to say, the complete abandonment not only of external sovereignty, but also of internal sovereignty, from the management of the populations to the intermediate structures of the Empire. 

At the European level, any political analysis is non-existent and leaves room for incomprehension and disarray. This translates into a narrow following of the Democratic Party and its policy of systematic opposition to the Trump administration, a policy that is not thought of as such, but as a moral act, only in the form of an indignation that can be reduced to the formula:  » Trump is cheating.  »

A TAX REFORM PROJECT DESIGNED TO BOOST THE US ECONOMY 

The tax reform bill, initiated since June 2016 by Republican lawmakers and carried by the Trump administration, called for sweeping changes in business tax collection. However, the essence of the Border Adjustment Tax has been dropped. It provided for an exemption for exports of goods and services from the United States and imposed a 20% tax on imports. Companies operating in the United States would have been exempted, but not those producing abroad. The mechanism is openly protectionist. 

The goal was to increase domestic activity and refocus U.S. investment at home. The zero-rating of domestic production was supposed to allow for a reindustrialization of the country, thanks in particular to the repatriation, taxed at a low level, of the 3.1 trillion dollars accumulated abroad by the subsidiaries of US multinationals. This project collided head-on with the process of international division of labor and was consistent with President Trump’s previous decisions to torpedo the Great Transatlantic Market and NAFTA. 

The « Border Adjustment Tax, » abandoned in mid-2017, gave way in early November to a bill considering taxing, at a rate of 20%, the inter-company imports of foreign multinationals and foreign subsidiaries of U.S. multinationals. This time, it was not a question of taxing all imports, but only the flows between units of the same group present in the United States(1). The goal was to discourage the importation of foreign-made intermediate goods and to encourage production on U.S. soil. This tax would have only raised $155 billion for the Treasury over a 10-year period, 10 times less than the Border Adjustment Tax. However, the objective was less in the tax revenues than in the incentive to produce in the USA. This project did not pass through the Chambers and was replaced by a classic tax law favoring high incomes. As in previous reforms, the capital repatriated, thanks to advantageous rates, here from 8% to 15.5%, will only be wealth transfers. Without an investment opportunity, they will again inflate the stock market bubble. 

A CRISIS OF THE EMPIRE 

Their virulent rejection of the Democratic opposition is in fact a displacement operation. It is not about the content of the law that was passed, but about the original tax reform project that had to be prevented at all costs, by practicing frontal opposition. The struggle between the Democrats and the majority of Republicans can be read as a conflict between two tendencies of American capitalism, between the one that promotes the globalization of capital and the one that advocates a revival of the industrial development of a country in economic decline. U.S. capital has been the driving force and the main political beneficiary of the internationalization of capital until now. Following the collapse of the USSR and the underdeveloped state of China, the USA was for 20 years the only superpower, a super-imperialism that organized the world to its benefit. 

This conjunctural situation has been theorized as a new stage of capitalism by Toni Negri, in Empire, a work in which he reads this new form of state, Empire, as the political structure of the world market(2). However, it soon became clear that the imperial structure was not only a horizontal axis, but above all a vertical reorganization of state power, giving criminal law a constitutive role(3). The latter is the constant dismantling of the public and private liberties guaranteed by the Constitution, and it replaces the latter by setting the rules for the transformation of the entire legal system. The primacy of criminal law remains relevant in the old continent, still organized around the  » fight against terrorism « . Thus, the place given to criminal law currently differs between the United States and Europe. At this level, the Trump presidency breaks with the policy followed for the past 20 years by the various US governments, whether Democrat or Republican, bringing back the political to the  » criminal state « .

ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT VS. « ABSOLUTE WAR » 

The emergence of China and the political reconstitution of Russia has broken the US economic and political omnipotence. The recording of this fact has led to internal opposition in the US as to what course of action to take: the rush to trade liberalization or protectionism. The problem is not new and was already posed more than a century ago by an Austrian economist, Rudolf Hilferding, who in his book Financial capital dating back to 1910(4)found that  » it was not the country of free trade, England, but the protectionist countries, Germany and the United States, that became the models of capitalist development .

At the European level, any political analysis is non-existent and leaves room for incomprehension and disarray. 

We have arrived at a similar situation. By 1910, the dominant imperialist country, England, was being beaten back by the rising economic powers. Today, it is the turn of the USA to face competition from other countries, mainly China. 

If Great Britain had given up being the dominant power, placing itself under the « protection » of the United States, this scenario is not appropriate in future relations between the United States and China, allied with Russia. This leaves two possibilities: an economic revival of the United States on a protectionist basis, as envisaged by some Republicans, or an increasingly open military conflict, which seems to be the option supported by the Democratic Party. 

The scenario would no longer be that of the limited wars of the Bush era, but rather that of the  » total war « , as theorized by the German theorist Carl Schmitt(5) or even the one of the  » absolute war « , war in accordance with his concept, developed by Clausewitz(6) to think the very notion of war. It is the abstract will to destroy the enemy, while the real war(7) is the struggle in its concrete realization. Currently, through the possible use of nuclear weapons,  » real war  » is becoming consistent with its concept. Thus,  » absolute war  » leaves its status of normative abstraction to become an actual possibility, a  » real abstraction « .

IMPERIALISM AGAINST EMPIRE 

Thus, the struggle, which has just taken place between a part of the Republicans and the Democrats, can be read as a conflict between US imperialism and US super-imperialism. From then on, the concepts developed at the beginning of the 20th century, due to the opposition between Lenin and Kautsky, find a new actuality. Kautsky considered that the 1914–18 war could be followed by a period of development of the capitalist system, characterized by the overcoming of contradictions between states and different imperialist groups, a period he characterized as  » ultra-imperialist « . He considered that  » from the world war between the great imperialist powers can be born an alliance between the greatest powers that will put an end to the arms race(8) « . Kautsky’s ultra-imperialism is reminiscent of Negri’s notion of Empire, but it would be an Empire without structural conflictuality, which is obviously not the case with T. Negri. 

History has disproved Kautsky’s thesis. The conflicts never stopped and a second world war took place. Since then, a balance of power between the two superpowers, the USA and the USSR, has prevented a rise to extremes in the various forms of war involving them. This balance will continue until the early 90s. Since then, following the collapse of the USSR and the state of underdevelopment of China, the USA has been for 20 years the only superpower, a super-imperialism that organized and destroyed the world according to its interests. 

The emergence of China and the reconstitution of Russia have broken the US economic and military omnipotence and, incidentally, have put in crisis the notion of Empire developed by T. Negri. 

The last war in Syria is an example of the stop put to the surge of US military power. By de-industrializing the country, US super-imperialism has also weakened the power of the US as a nation. The Trump administration’s initial plan was to do economic reconstruction. The new President’s rhetoric about leaving NATO, reducing American military intervention abroad, and his opposition to a new Cold War with Russia also meet this objective, which was broken by the Democratic victory. The consequence of their success is that if the USA gives up developing, the only objective will remain to prevent, by all means, the competitors and adversaries from doing so. This option can only be that of war, an option all the more dangerous as it leads to the  » absolute war  » theorized by Clausewitz. 

Jean-Claude Paye

Notes et références
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