Empire in the Age of Globalisation: US Hegemony and Neo-liberal Disorder
by ray kiely
London, Pluto Press, 2005. 224 pages
Hardback: UK £50.00, US $90.00. Paperback: UK £15.99, US $28.95
This book is part of the Pluto series, “Critical Introductions to World Politics”, edited by Alejandro Colás and Richard Saull, and is clearly aimed at challenging undergraduate students to think more critically about globalisation. Kiely’s challenge is broadly framed and essentially mixes a traditional Left–Marxist approach with the assorted populist prejudices of the anti-capitalist movement.
His core focus is a critique of globalisation theories that posit the workings of the world economy in conflict-free, teleological and agent-less terms. This perspective was often accompanied in the 1990s by a normative political viewpoint which today can be seen more readily as a one-sided and misleading liberal internationalist vision, and in its more extreme forms as a naive and possibly dangerous cosmopolitan optimism. Kiely’s critique of globalisation theory is a direct and largely empirical one which is likely to have immediate appeal to a student audience in the aftermath of the shift from Clinton to Bush and in particular to the post-9/11 neo-conservative, unilateralist, military adventurism of the “global war on terror” and the war and post-war situation in Iraq.
Kiely argues that globalisation theory is apologetic in its portrayal of market forces as free floating and agent-less. In fact, the trends towards liberalisation, especially of international finance, were driven by the needs of United States borrowing, underwritten by the dollar’s role as the leading world currency. Therefore, nation-states, especially the hegemonic US state, but also those of other leading world powers, have not been as marginalised as globalisation theorists suggest. The global economy is shaped in large part by conscious decision-making and therefore can be other than it is.
Kiely also argues that the globalisation of capital has been much exaggerated, that in fact capital tends to concentrate rather than to disperse evenly, and that, rather than globalisation creating a more egalitarian world, the global market (the combined and uneven development of capitalism) tends to reinforce and strengthen divisions between rich and poor.
Where globalisation theory seeks to deny or minimise the importance of agency and power, Kiely seeks to redress the balance, locating agency in US hegemony and power with market forces. In so doing, he emphasises the need to distinguish between globalisation as a real process of limited liberalisation of capital flows and globalisation as ideology and apologia.
Kiely does a reasonable job of critiquing the crudest forms of idealist globalisation theory. However, his alternative theorisation of empire, US hegemony and neo-liberalism will probably leave his students with as many questions as answers. This may be partly due to the intended nature of this book as a student introduction. Kiely covers a range of perspectives on a number of cultural, political and economic questions, draws out their pros and cons, and moves on without really providing much clarification.
For example, one issue he covers which will undoubtedly be of interest to student readers is the US-led war on Iraq. Was the war fought to assert the United States’ military hegemony? Yes and no, is Kiely’s answer. The war was also a political project (p. 80). The Bush administration has a genuine (but misplaced) belief that the extension of US principles of democracy and free enterprise will defeat terrorism and rogue states and lay the basis of a liberal peace under US leadership. Therefore, the war was driven by the United States’ geopolitical vision, not narrow economic interest in oil (pp. 80–2). But “having said that, oil is not irrelevant” (p. 82). On the other hand, one shouldn’t “downplay the nature of reactionary regimes in the developing world … indeed, Saddam’s regime was clearly one that had its own imperial ambitions … these came into conflict with the far more powerful US state” (p. 83). By the end of the section, Kiely has presented a range of views but not much in the way of a framework of analysis. This is symptomatic of the book as a whole. Kiely’s narrow focus on neo-liberalism and US hegemony ends up telling us little about the world today. At an abstract level, there is neo-liberalism and US hegemony and nothing has qualitatively changed since the 1970s, maybe even the 1940s. At a more concrete level, he finds it difficult to go beyond a rag-bag of descriptive material.
Perhaps the most worrying aspect of Kiely’s approach is not its crude Marxism but its even cruder appropriation of the populist prejudices of the anti-capitalist movement. His strongest criticism of globalisation as a process is that we live “in a world increasingly dominated by rationalisation, consumer capitalism and ‘growth fetishism’ ” (p. 120). He is sympathetic to the rejection of modernisation theory as a “conservative view” that sought to impose a Western perspective and that saw it as desirable for the Third World to “catch up” with the “advanced” countries. Kiely argues that this “catching-up” is neither necessarily possible nor even desirable (p. 146). He cites Gandhi on the dangers of development and argues that it is “unlikely that all societies could develop along similar lines to western societies, because the strain on global resources would be tremendous” (p. 146). Apparently, the “western obsession with economic growth” is problematic as it puts “humans above nature” and in its anthropocentricity holds that “nature is a resource to be plundered and used instrumentally for human development” (p. 146). This soulless “rationality” is condemned, along with the view that consumption is good: “does increasing consumption lead to an increase in happiness?”, Kiely asks (p. 149). He warns against a romantic and reactionary critique of capitalism, but in his hyping of the potential of the anti-globalisation “movement of movements” seems to want both to have his cake and eat it too.
Again, it is difficult to know if the “real” Kiely is being expressed in these pages, as the book seems to shift from Marx to anti-capitalist populism. However, the concluding pages show Kiely attempting to make a coherent whole by taking up Karl Polanyi’s concept of the “double movement” of the relationship between the market and social control, seeing government as a response to the socially destructive pressures of the market. Kiely suggests that the resurgence of neo-liberal capitalism since the 1970s “can be regarded as the first phase of a new double movement … the rise of the anti-globalisation movements can thus be seen as its second phase, constituting an attempt to reassert social control over the capitalist economy” (p. 179).