Power is more powerful than profit

By Philip S. Golub

[This article published in: Le Monde diplomatique, 8/12/2005 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,,a0041.idx,12.]

At the end of the 19th century, the international economic order centered in the British Empire collapsed along with the European peace order that existed for many years since the 1815 Vienna Congress. This development was the result of an explosive mixture of nationalism and militarism. At the end, the ascent of a strong militarized German empire and the intensified rivalries between the imperialist powers overstrained and undermined Great Britain’s ability to prevail as the stabilizing center of this system. The principles of economic liberalism and free trade that dominated around the middle of the century lost significance since the 1880s and collapsed when the Wilhelmian Empire openly aspired to hegemony in Europe in 1914. Thus the first phase of western globalization ended under British auspices with the First World War – in a sea of blood.

In his famous book “The Great Transformation,” the European historian Karl Polanyi described this collapse of liberalism, the following rise of fascism and the eruption of the Second World War (1) According to his interpretation, the transnational capitalist cooperation of European “high finance” “preventing general wars” capitulated at the end to the political strategies of the nation states. “Power is more powerful than profit. Both spheres sought to be most closely intertwined. At the end, war dictated its laws on the economy.” Despite the intense economic integration attained by Europe in the second half of the 19th century, the mesh of mutual capitalist interdependence was torn and inundated by the rising flood of nationalism.

This nationalist flood that was the result of the destructive force of a “self-regulating market” reached its highest level in the fascism of the time between the wars. As a general phenomenon, the fascism that destroyed liberalism and socialism was a pathological, death-bringing way out “of the cul-de-sac in which liberal capitalism had fallen.” Polanyi also speaks of a “reform of the market economy at the expense of the destruction of all democratic institutions.” In other words, society took measures to protect itself from the “self-regulating market,” from an institution “that could not exist in the short-term without destroying the human and natural substance of society.” Intensely militarized states formed that standardized society behind the state and beyond it.

If history is not the eternalization of the same, Polanyi’s thesis contributes greatly in understanding the present crisis. The process of globalization that has occurred since the end of the 20th century, as standardization of the world economy according to the neoliberal model, is obviously exhausted. This is clear in the most varied symptoms: imperialist wars, conflicts of economic trade inside and outside the core capitalist areas, social unrest all over the world and growing inequalities within countries and between them. (2)

The disintegrating tendencies provoke two reactions. On the social plane, the social resistance expressed in the rise of a worldwide democratic movement and also in rightwing populism grew stronger. On the plane of state power, the most conspicuous reaction was the resurgence of nationalism in China, Russia, Japan and Europe (3) and elsewhere. In the United States, nationalism assumed the extreme form of imperialism.

This re-nationalization of world politics marks the end of the liberal epoch in the Cold War. Since the end of the 1980s, people generally assumed that the power of the public and private sector would shift on account of the genesis of a “global village” (that is, the condensation of space and time thanks to information technology) and the transnational organization of politics along with the creation of a worldwide horizontal production network. This must lead to the “disappearance of the modern territorial state as the decisive place of exercising world power.” (4)

Liberal democratic theoreticians developed the thesis: we have entered a post-modern epoch where the nation state sees itself threatened from below by new power structures of civil society and from above by autonomous globalized markets. Since the belligerent impulses of modern nation states can be tamed by a system of mutual dependence, this means for the grammar of world politics that forms of “soft power” gradually supersede the “hard power”.

The liberal-democratic credo has many defenders. The spectrum reaches from institutionalists who urged and predicted stronger cooperation between the states to “trade pacifists” who saw a long epoch of peace coming on the basis of deepening economic interdependence. Jurgen Habermas defended the idea that “a favorable power constellation” will form that will realize at the end the ancient project of the enlightenment – the Kantian eternal peace – and will frankly open up on the basis of a “cosmopolitan legal interpretation” through international law. (5)

In their analysis of the “transnationalization” of capital, the restructuring of the nation state and new forms of exercising global rule, neo-Marxist theoreticians pursued the question whether imperialism can still be regarded as a meaningful analytical category. Following the thesis of “ultra-imperialism” formulated by Karl Kautsky in 1914 according to which the imperialist powers could overcome their rivalries kindled by nation-state desires for monopoly and economic cartels by cooperation between the capitalist fractions. Some intellectuals maintained late-capitalism had already entered its post-imperialist phase. (6) The proof was seen in the formation of a capitalist class pursuing global interests and developing a collective consciousness that these interests reached far beyond territorially limited nation-state goals. Classical imperialism in which rival nation states intent on expansion and seeking a monopoly position is not an alternative any more in an interdependent world represented by supranational institutions reflecting the interests of this new class.

Around the turn of the millennium, Toni Negri and Michael Hardt tried to promote a slightly modified version of this hypothesis. In their book “Empire” (7), they declared the empire of our days is “a basically new form of rule” and not simply “a weak echo of modern imperialism.” The empire has cut off its umbilical chord to the nation state and is no longer territorially limited. Since there is no political center any more, the new global empire represents a geometrical structure of power- and rule relations that shape social life thanks to the globalized market on all planes. Unlike past European empires with their vertical and concentrated rule structures, power in the new globalized constellations is diffuse, decentralized and horizontal. This leads to new transnational forms of resistance through decentralized and diverse networks. The empire presents itself as a world empire without borders and without names.

All these theories – in different ways – started from an epochal change. The strategies of modern nation states aiming at increased power were superseded by a post-modern, post-national condition of globality. However at the moment when these ideas were formulated, strong forces began undermining fragile fundamentals of the liberal capitalist world order. These forces can be clearly identified today.

First and above all the United States under president George W. Bush strives for a global monopoly. This is an irony of history insofar as the US in the 1990s developed into the driving force and main profiteer of worldwide economic liberalization and the capitalist integration process. Globalization actually strengthens the autonomy of the US so far as the increasing mobility of information, capital, goods and services meant that the US government was free from restrictions while sharper restrictions were simultaneously imposed on all other actors. (8)

The US cultivation of a “robust nationalism” as Samuel Huntington described the new spirit in Washington represents a fundamental change in the grammar and future development of world politics. Naked imperialist policy now replaces liberal globalization. At the end of the 19th century, free trade expanded from its center London based on a political order and held together by transnational networks championing a peaceful Europe out of self-interest. (9) The globalization process of the ending 20th century was also based on the long-term US engagement for a system of institutionalized international cooperation and moderate exercise of worldwide rule. However unlike Great Britain, which lost control a hundred years ago, the US is now resolved to systematically undermine the existing world system.

This decision shows the priorities and interests of the national imperialist power bloc that arose in the late phase of the Cold War on the political right and came into power in 2000. The traditional alliance partners of the national bloc find themselves in the so-called security complex (the armament- and security branch) with threatened industrial branches relying on protectionism and the geo-political strategists of the “realistic school” (10). The right-wing bloc is explicitly delimited from the transnationally organized forces within US society oriented in a very cosmopolitan way and especially from the global corporations that depend on access to the markets and capital of other countries whose interests do not clearly coincide with those of the US as a territorial state. Like their precursors in the 10th century, these fractions are “capitalists of the open sea” in the sense of Ferdinand Brandel whose interests and whole existence depend on a network of cooperative transnational relations.

The interests of these narrow but influential cosmopolitan social strata were represented personally and politically in the Clinton administration. However the present power elite is grouped around the military-industrial complex, around the nationalist segment of the US economy that is autonomous and most decisive. This complex is merged with the state and by its nature promotes a maximum display of national power.

Both economic elites have a broad social base whose geographic distribution was clearly reflected in the results of the 2004 presidential election. The expanded social base of the liberal internationalists consists above all of urban academics on the American east coast and in California. In contrast, the main base of the nationalist and militarist camp is found in rural areas and among the white lower and lower-middle class in the so-called heartland of the US.

This sociological differentiation is reflected in different political strategies. The Clinton team tried to institutionally strengthen the importance of the Treasury department and develop the advantage of the US on “recently globalized” markets. On the other hand, the Bush administration from the start was intent on extending the “hard power” of the US and mobilizing US armed forces to build a strict world order and subject this order to the control of the US. Even before the 2000 election year, Condoleezza Rice made clear that the political forces behind Bush sought to be independent of an “illusionary international community”. The liberal maxim must be thrown overboard and a foreign policy turn carried out. The hesitant internationalism of the 1990s must be overcome and nationalism, power politics and war (11) emphasized.


The formation of a national imperialist bloc occurred in three great stages. First in the middle of the 1970s, some radical Cold Warriors unsuccessfully tried to undermine the détente between East and West because the international alliances had to be maintained. Every US attempt to gain a one-sided advantage at that time endangered the unity of the West that was already shaken by the Vietnam War.

The second stage was the “conservative revolution” in the Reagan era of the 1980s and the recent attempt to insure US superiority through military weaponry, offensive foreign policy and a unilateral trade policy. The third stage was the successful fusion of two political currents – the neo-conservative camp and provincial militarism supported by voters in the “Bible Belt”.

The result appeared in the 1994 congressional elections dominated by the so-called new right. This was followed by the republican campaign aimed at weakening if not dissolving the United Nations to expand the foreign policy autonomy of the US at the expense of all other countries. For example, the Congress with the support of the pentagon refused to pay Washington’s UN contribution. The Congress imposed one-sided economic sanctions against 35 UN member states. With their claim to extra-territorial authority, laws were passed that violated international law. The Congress refused to ratify important international conventions and agreements on arms limitations (like the 1997 Ottawa Convention prohibiting the production, sale and use of landmines and the treaty on prohibiting nuclear weapon tests). The chemical weapon treaty that the Congress ratified in 1997 was supplemented with exception clauses that made the whole convention essentially worthless. In the beginning of 2001, the Bush administration rejected the Kyoto protocol that president Clinton signed on the last day of his term in office. A UN proposal to control trade with light weapons was also rejected. Finally, the Bush administration blocked all the efforts to strengthen the bio-weapons convention through a protocol on control procedures and resolved the exodus of the US from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

This policy culminated in March 2003 in the Iraq war. Up to today, the Bush administration continues its unilateral policy – despite the obvious failure of its imperial adventure that the president himself described as a “catastrophic success” and an enormous domestic political legitimation crisis. In the meantime Washington repeatedly underlined its determination. The new striving for absolute and permanent military superiority appears very clearly in the Bush administration’s ambition to develop smaller precision nuclear weapons, so-called mini-nukes. The announcement of a “global strike” strategy can be expected soon. In this strategy the US has the capacity to “destroy command centers or missile bases anywhere in the world” from outer space.

Both efforts continue what was already formulated in September 2002 as the National Security Strategy. (13) However both efforts threaten global stability, the first by promoting the spread of nuclear weapons and the second by opening a new arms race in outer space. The Bush administration obviously calculates that China and Russia, future regional and global rivals, will be forced to enter in an arms race and earmark scarce resources from the civil economy or resign to the potential strategic superiority of the US. This could occur after a brief cooperation in the “worldwide anti-terror war”.

The aspiration for a monopoly position is obviously the exact opposite of interdependence. Since the US represents the center of the global capitalist system, its endeavors have global effects. Some of these effects are coming to light. These destructive effects will harm the world economy sooner or later. When structural imbalances within the international economic system are reflected in protectionist reactions, the economic competition will be expressed in the classical form of increasingly severe currency- and trade wars between rival countries and economic blocs. Then the formal and informal interweaving of international cooperation within the capitalist system established and strengthened in the 1980s and 1990s could no longer hold this system together. Since there is no supranational system that can reverse this disintegration process, we will slowly sink bank into a state of disorder.