November 26, 2005

Enduring Dynamics

Thanksgiving weekend without the family has basically been time for reading a bunch of books I've been meaning to read. One is Anatol Lieven's excellent America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism, which tries to diagnose American foreign policy—always a fun game. In the introduction Lieven takes issue with those on "the Left" who lump Bush's foreign policy in with Bill Clinton's, seeing them both as "reflecting the enduring dynamics and requirements of an imperial version of American capitalism." To this he says:
This analysis is indeed partly true, but in emphasizing common goals, left-wing analysts have a tendency to lose sight of certain other highly important factors: the means used to achieve these ends; the difference between intelligent and stupid means; and the extent to which the choice of means is influenced by irrational sentiments which are irrelevant or even contrary to the goals pursued. Of the irrational sentiments which have contributed to wrecking intelligent capitalist strategies—not only today, but for most of modern history—the most important and dangerous is nationalism.
That seems right, and as someone who thinks that the foreign policies of both the Bush and Clinton administrations do reflect, in part, "the enduring dynamics and requirements of an imperial version of American capitalism," and have many things in common, I think it's worth trying to sketch this point out a bit.

I imagine the "left-wing" storyline Lieven's discussing would argue, more or less, that the "enduring dynamic" of American politics since 1979, both at home and abroad, has been class warfare. This story would start in the 1970s, when inflation endangered the share of national wealth reserved for the top 1 percent of Americans—a share which plunged from 35 percent in the 1960s down to under 20 percent in 1976. (Real wages, meanwhile, reached historic highs during the 1970s.) For a time, Lord Keynes' vision of the "euthanasia of the rentier" was perilously close to becoming a reality, and that just wouldn't do.

Luckily for the rentier, Paul Volcker came to the rescue in 1979, using the Fed to break inflation's back—along with many an American worker. And Ronald Reagan's parallel attack on labor and progressive taxation helped ensure that the upper classes would never again have to endure the trauma of the '70s. Thomas Edsall's 1985 book on the Volcker/Reagan backlash, The New Politics of Inequality, argues that these moves were partially the result of a concerted drive on the part of the upper classes. For example: "During the 1970s, business refined its ability to act as a class, submerging competitive instincts in favor of joint, cooperative action in the legislative arena." By the end of Reagan's term, that class had certainly restored itself to power—the top 1 percent owned 40 percent of the wealth once again. (A parallel restoration occurred under Thatcher in England.) While it's easy to get too conspiratorial here—presidents only have so much power, after all—there's surely something to Edsall's account.

Continuing the story: Bill Clinton's two terms saw "neoliberalism" go global, as they say. One leftist explanation for the '90s boom is that investors were doing stunningly well pillaging countries overseas. Gérard Duménil and Dominique Lévy have noted that U.S. holdings abroad skyrocketed in the '80s and '90s, and, at points during the Clinton era, American firms were making as much in profits overseas as they were at home. Then there was the shadier sort of pillaging described in Confessions of an Economic Hitman. Even the Ming Dynasty at its peak was never so efficient at exacting tribute from foreigners.

Not only that, but the prescriptions of the "Washington Consensus," as they say, minted new upper classes abroad—in Mexico and Russia, among others—and brought about a string of debt crises and devaluations in the '80s and '90s that seemed to do little more than redistribute wealth to the first world, as investors swooped in and bought up foreign assets at bargain prices. Eric Toussaint notes in Your Money or Your Life, since 1980, "fifty Marshall Plans (over $4.6 trillion) have been sent by the peoples at the Periphery to their creditors in the Center." Whether there are any redeeming features of this system is another debate. (I think there are.)

So far, so tedious. But within this "Leftist" view of the past 25 years—which, in part, I agree with—it's sometimes difficult to see how foreign policy conforms to the "enduring dynamic." Often it doesn't. In the Reagan years, foreign policy was motivated by a blend of Cold War concerns and pro-business intervention. That fits. But Bush I and Clinton are harder cases. It's not always obvious how their foreign policy moves benefited, say, business interests. The first Gulf War secured the Middle East oil supply, true, but James Mann's Rise of the Vulcans makes clear that that was hardly the only consideration. Kosovo and Bosnia, meanwhile, had a string of ulterior motives guiding intervention—some genuinely humanitarian—as did many of Clinton's foreign policy moves. Military power hasn't always advanced the neoliberal "agenda" as efficiently as leftists would expect. (Indeed, some of them—like Bosnia and Kosovo—did a lot of good, whatever their motives.)

In general, I'd agree with Andrew Bacevich that American foreign policy tends to be driven by a self-sustaining militarism, along with what Lieven sees as nationalism and the "American Creed," the idea that America's duty is to spread freedom and liberty around the world. The "requirements of an imperial version of American capitalism" gets a role too, but different presidents will chart very different courses, depending on ideology, specific events, their level of competence, etc. There's a lot of randomness involved, and those courses won't always follow the "demands of capital." Mark Engler recently pointed out that Bush's foreign policy, and the "war on terror," has been very bad for business, which seems intuitively true. The upper classes may have little to quarrel with when it comes to Republican rule, but the "liberal internationalism" of the Clinton years—with its focus on relentless globalization, undemocratic market institutions, stable alliances, and a vast empire of bases abroad—was arguably much better for business worldwide. Again, this was a function of competence, ideology, specific events, etc.

Now Lieven's very convincing when he argues that the current Bush's foreign policy has been mobilized, to a greater degree than his predecessor, by nationalism, which, in many cases, "wreck[s] intelligent capitalist strategies." It's reminiscent of the days prior to World War I, when the reigning pacifists were German and British business elites, who were overruled by inept politicians and nationalist sentiment.

But one thing Lieven might have noted is that, insofar as this "neoliberal revolution" over the past twenty years has led to increasing economic instability at home, stoking the fires of nationalism might be one of the few reliable ways that a politician like Bush can gain electoral support. Certainly liberal pundits who suggest that the Democratic Party must focus on foreign policy to win more elections believe this. In that case the tension between neoliberalism and nationalism might end up being an "enduring dynamic," with the Clinton years being a bit of an aberration. I can't really say. It's worth noting that the sort of leftist structural views discussed here (and by Lieven) often end up being much too rigid and quite wrong.

Continue reading "Enduring Dynamics"
-- Brad Plumer 10:55 PM || ||