Empire’s Regrets

The Pentagon (2008). Via Wikimedia Commons.

The Pentagon (2008). Via Wikimedia Commons.

There was a time, not that long ago, when America’s “business” sensibilities were seen as both the economic and ethical boon of American empire. George F. Kennan, one of the chief architects of the cold war American empire, saw in “the reputation of Americans for businesslike efficiency, sincerity and straightforwardness” a singular advantage in America’s effort to establish and maintain its global power. (I am quoting from Kennan’s notes for his Memoirs, archived at Princeton.) Indeed, for nearly all of the cold war architects of American empire, the “business” personality meant reliability, responsibility, power, and stability.

This personality is also the kind needed to build an empire. Empires want stability. Power is not enough. The Pax Romana of the ancient world was not an accident of the centralization of power in the emperor. It was its purpose and its justification. By the time of Octavian’s ascent to imperial rule as Augustus in 27 BCE, the Roman Republic, though esteemed then and now for its renowned constitution, had been in upheaval for well near a century, fraught with plots, assassinations, power plays, coups, and civil war. The emperor meant the empire could stabilize.

The American empire of the postwar and cold war periods was frequently characterized as a reluctant one. This was part of its “businesslike” ethic. Certainly, America’s ascent to world power after World War II was not intended to be a replication of the British colonial empire. It was to be more subtle, and, if possible, more invisible in its workings. It was not to be “colonial” in the way of nineteenth-century empires or America’s own past approach to its indigenous peoples. Rather, it was to work through a kind of triumvirate of distributed American military power, America-led financial institutions, and strategic alliances. This is, and was, American empire. And like all empires, it wants, on the whole, stability.

Within the empire of postwar and cold war America, technology was to be a means of order, or ordering. During the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, technology and technological innovation were inseparable from the empire: Big science, big industry, and a very big military-industrial complex drove technological innovation. There is no other way to make sense of the remarkable technological developments of the period—computers, the internet, satellites, missiles, and thermonuclear warheads—than in terms of the overwhelming imperative of the empire to enforce order onto the world, just as there was no other way to account for the empire’s penchant to perceive threats to order everywhere, from Laos to Guatemala to the Arctic.

But this “businesslike” empire was also an empire of capital, and of capitalism, both ideologically (as America confronted communism) and structurally (as private capital and public funding worked together to uphold empire). And capitalism is disruptive. As Americans learned in the 1930s, it was prone to destruction and reconstruction, ups and downs, booms and busts. If empire wants stability, capitalism favors instability.

From the mid-1940s until the early 1970s, American domestic and foreign policy was aimed at making both empire and capitalism work by having them work together. If Keynesianism was the logic, a “businesslike” approach to technological innovation was the lynchpin. A primary way the American empire harnessed capitalism was by harnessing science, technology, and industry—the sources of “innovation.” Bell Labs, IBM, Westinghouse, General Motors: Big Industry meant not only working-class jobs but the cooperation between capital and empire. This cooperation was crucial to empire’s power, for it meant capitalism’s disruptive logics could be tempered by empire’s need for order.

But as things turned out, capitalists began to undermine the cooperative logic of the empire. In the age of Reagan, a new kind of capitalism and a new kind of capitalist emerged under the auspices of innovation and deregulation. Entrepreneurial capitalism began to exploit the stable networks of capital, communications, and human movement the empire offered. If neoliberalism was the new logic, technology was the motor, including new techniques and technologies of finance capital. Finance, computers, the internet, automation, and a new Silicon Valley ethic of creative, disruptive innovation emerged as insurgents within the empire. And “business” took on a new, distinctly disruptive look, too.

The entrepreneurial insurgents of the 1980s and 90s created new markets, even as they destroyed old ones, especially labor markets. Tech and finance industries took new risks, risks freed of empire’s insistence on stability. These risks were money motivated, but they were also social, ambitiously aimed at reshaping the way humans live their lives (for the tech industry the “human” is always the subject, and for the finance industry humans are always objects).

And on the backs of these insurgents rode yet another kind of capitalist, the postmodern capitalist convinced that brand is value, image is economy, and money but a manipulable bit. Retail, development, entertainment, and service industries made brand identity a franchise industry, all the while using fraud, bankruptcy, lobbying, and the exploitation of legal and tax loopholes to create value, or perceived value.

Remarkably, given empire’s need for stability, these entrepreneurial and postmodern forms of capitalism became not only an economic ethic but a political one, as if the solution to every problem were to shake things up. We saw this, above all, in the penchant for deregulation in the 80s and 90s. But we also saw it in the mythologies that developed around Silicon Valley, innovation, and technology, and around what Donald Trump would brand “the art of the deal.” Still, from Reagan to the present, every presidential administration has tried to have it both ways, making room for capitalism’s disruptions while maintaining hold of a relatively stable American empire.

Now, the balance has shifted: The postmodern anarcho-capitalist, seen in the likes of Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, and Peter Thiel, is now vying for the reigns of the empire. This personality seeks to reorganize geopolitical power around the most elusive of categories—spirit, culture, and identity—while trying to create maximum space for the disruptions of capitalistic innovation. “Strength” and “weakness,” understood in quasi-romantic terms of spirit and culture, are supposed to organize the values of this would-be world power (which, because it eschews stability, would not be an empire), and state violence is to be used as a technique of purification (thus the ubiquity of “war” in the rhetoric of these anarcho-capitalists, a striking point of commonality with their surprise allies, conservative culture warriors). On the other hand, the old empire is striking back in the personalities of the new secretary of defense, James Mattis, and the new secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, both of whom seem to represent a vision of empire in which capital cooperates in exchange for relative world stability and in which “strength” is measured less in cultural and spiritual terms and more in terms of diplomatic alliances, military might, and economic hegemony.

Which vision will prevail is still unclear, but the current condition of uncertainty might partly explain the box-office success of Split, a horror film about a man suffering from multiple personality disorder. One might describe it as a parable for an empire in crises, in which we viewers are the kidnapped hostages.

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