A whole generation of activists has “grown up”conversant with the central
place of empire in human history. Children of the Cold War and the “Sixties”
generation realized that the United States was the latest of a multiplicity of
imperial powers which sought to dominate and control human beings, physical
space, natural resources, and human labor power. We learned from the Marxist
tradition, radical historians, scholar/activists with historical roots in
Africa, and revolutionaries from the Philippines and Vietnam to Southern
Africa, to Latin America. But we often concluded that imperialism was hegemonic;
that is it was all powerful, beyond challenge.
A “theory of imperialism” for the 21stcentury should include four interconnected variables that explain empire building and as well as responses to it. First, as an original motivation for empire, economic interests are primary. The most recent imperial power, the United States needed to secure customers for its products, outlets for manufacturing investment opportunities, an open door for financial speculation, and vital natural resources such as oil.
Second, the pursuit of military control parallels and supports the pursuit of economic domination. The United States, beginning in the 1890s, built a two-ocean navy to become a Pacific power, as well as institutionalizing its control of the Western Hemisphere. It crushed revolutionary ferment in the Philippines during the Spanish, Cuban, American War and began a program of military intervention in Central American and the Caribbean. The “Asian pivot” of the 21st century and continued opposition to the Cuban and Bolivarian revolutions reflect the one hundred year extension of the convergence of economics and militarism in U.S. foreign policy.
Third, as imperial nations flex their muscles on the world stage they need to rationalize exploitation and military brutality to convince others and their own citizens of the humanistic goals they wish to achieve. In short, ideology matters. In the U.S. case “manifest destiny” and the “city on the hill,” that is the dogma that the United States has a special mission as a beacon of hope for the world, have been embedded in the dominant national narrative of the country for 150 years.
However, what has often been missing from the leftwing theoretical calculus is an understanding of resistance. Latin American and African dependency theorists and “bottom-up” historians have argued for a long time that resistance must be part of the understanding of any theory of imperialism. In fact, the imperial system is directly related to the level of resistance the imperial power encounters.
Resistance generates more attempts at economic hegemony, political subversion, the application of military power, and patterns of “humanitarian interventionism” and diplomatic techniques, called“soft power,” to defuse it. But as recent events suggest resistance of various kinds is spreading throughout global society.
The impetus for adding resistance to any understanding of imperialism has many sources including Howard Zinn’s seminal history of popular movements in the United States, “The People’s History of the United States.” Zinn argued convincingly that in each period of American history ruling classes were challenged, shaped, weakened, and in a few cases defeated because of movements of indigenous people, workers, women, people of color, middle class progressives and others who stood up to challenge the status quo.
More recently, Vijay Prashad, author of “The Darker Nations,” compiled a narrative of post-World War II international relations that privileged the resistance from the Global South. World history was as much shaped by anti-colonial movements, the construction of the non-aligned movement, conferences and programs supporting liberation struggles and women’s rights, as it was by big power contestation. The Prashad book was subtitled “A People’s History of the Third World.”
The 21st century has witnessed a variety of forms of resistance to global hegemony and the perpetuation of neo-liberal globalization all across the face of the globe. First, various forms of systemic resistance have emerged. These often emphasize the reconfiguration of nation-states and their relationships that have long been ignored. The two largest economies in the world, China and India, have experienced economic growth rates well in excess of the industrial capitalist countries. China has developed a global export and investment program in Latin America and Africa that exceeds that of the United States and Europe.
In addition, the rising economic powers have begun a process of global institution building to rework the international economic institutions and rules of decision-making on the world stage. On March 26-27, 2013, the BRICS met in Durban, South Africa. While critical of BRICS shortcomings Patrick Bond, Senior Professor of Development Studies and Director of the University of KwaZulu-Natal Centre for Civil Society, in a collection of readings on the subject introduces BRICS with an emphasis on its potential:
In Durban, five heads of state meet to assure the rest of Africa that their countries’ corporations are better investors in infrastructure, mining, oil and agriculture than the traditional European and US multinationals. The Brazil-Russia-India-China-SA summit also includes 16 heads of state from Africa, including notorious tyrants. A new ‘BRICS bank’ will probably be launched. There will be more talk about monetary alternatives to the US dollar.
On the Latin American continent, most residents of the region are mourning the death of Hugo Chavez, the leader of the Bolivarian Revolution. Under Chavez’s leadership, inspiration, and support from oil revenues, Venezuela launched the latest round of state resistance to the colossus of the north, the United States.
Along with the world’s third largest trade bloc MERCOSUR (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, Venezuela and associate memberships including Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru), Latin Americans have participated in the construction of financial institutions and economic assistance programs to challenge the traditional hegemony of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization.
The Bolivarian Revolution also has stimulated political change based on various degrees of grassroots democratization, the construction of workers’ cooperatives, and a shift from neo-liberal economic policy to economic populism. With a growing web of participants, Bolivia, Ecuador, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and, of course, Cuba, the tragic loss of Chavez will not mean the end to the Bolivarian Revolution. It might lead to its deepening.
But the story of 21st century resistance is not just about countries, alliances, new economic institutions that mimic the old. Grassroots social movements have been spreading like wild fire all across the face of the globe. The story can begin in many places and at various times: the new social movements of the 1980s; the Zapatistas of the 1990s; the anti-globalization/anti-IMF campaigns going back to the 1960s and continuing off and on until the new century; or repeated mass mobilizations against a Free Trade Agreement for the Americas.
Since 2011, the world has been inspired by Arab Spring, workers’ mobilizations all across the industrial heartland of the United States, student strikes in Quebec, the state of California, and in Santiago, Chile. Beginning in 2001 mass organizations from around the world began to assemble in Porto Alegre, Brazil billing their meeting of some 10,000 strong, the World Social Forum. They did not wish to create a common political program. They wished to launch a global social movement where ideas are shared, issues and demands from the base of societies could be raised, and in general the neo-liberal global agenda reinforced at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland could be challenged.
The World Social Forum has been meeting annually ever since in Latin America, Asia, Africa, and the United States. Most recently, the last week in March, 2013, 50,000 people from 5,000 organizations in 127 countries from five continents met in Tunis, the site of the protest that sparked Arab Spring two years ago. Planners wanted to bring mass movements from the Middle East and North Africa into the collective narrative of this global mobilization.
Medea Benjamin, founder of Code Pink, reported that a Tunisian student, when asked whether the Social Forum movement should continue, answered in the affirmative. The student paid homage to the Tunisian street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, who committed suicide and launched Arab Spring. He declared that “for all those who have died struggling for justice, we must continue to learn from each other how to build a world that does not respond to the greed of dictators, bankers or corporations, but to the needs of simple people like Mohamed Bouazizi.”