Leo Panitch, The New Imperial State, reviewed 2000

Martin Shaw

Leo Panitch, The New Imperial State

reply to article in New Left Review 2, 2000

Leo Panitch’s ‘The New Imperial State’ is at once a welcome turn of Marxist theory towards the internationalized state, and disappointing in the limited nature of its advance. Although he rightly criticizes Peter Gowan for ‘concentrating almost exclusively on American strategy’, Panitch still places excessive emphasis on the renewal of American power. Thus he fails to adequately grasp its significance in relation to other trends, let alone to offer an adequate structural account of the contemporary Western or global state.

Panitch rightly concludes that, in analyzing Euro-American relations, ‘Those who focus on minor regional trade and currency rivalries can’t see the bombs for the bananas.’ But if this was a starting point, rather than a conclusion, he might have seen the need for rather more developed concepts than those supplied by Nicos Poulantzas’ account of ‘the penetration of European states by US imperialism.’ This is still (1) far too one-way (the same fault he found in Gowan) and (2) premised on the fundamental structural autonomy of the American state.

If we take seriously the centrality of military power, then we need to start from the basis that the principal form of the state in the West since 1945 has been the state-bloc. As a result of war, the old European and Japanese empires were defeated or bankrupt. Although it took several decades for the full consequences of this to work through, the subordination of Europe and Japan to America was structural. Panitch is right that the subsequent revival of Europe and Japan has not ended American dominance within the West. But what he fails to recognize fully is that after more than half a century, especially the last global decade, this dominance is exercized in a changed context.

Certainly, as Panitch says, ‘the process of globalization, far from dwarfing states, has been constituted through and by them.’ But the state power that constitutes globalization is a new kind of state power: an ever more integrated Western state-conglomerate, internally structured by multiple, overlapping (and often partially incoherent) forms of internationalization. This West is based on a complex web of military, economic and political organizations, both pan-Western and regional (especially but not only in Europe). It is supplemented in turn by the global layer of state institutions that increasingly incorporate all states, even the main non-Western powers. Thus China not only plays a part in the United Nations, but also seeks to join, and is (in principle) welcomed into, the World Trade Organization.

Little of this is captured by Poulantzas’ rather stale formula. Certainly there is American penetration of other Western states, and Americanization. But while linkages are far from symmetrical there is also reverse penetration. Moreover bilateral linkages of national entities do not adequately represent power relations. Internationalization (and the globalization that it partially represents) increasingly constitute even the most powerful nation-states. It was precisely incomplete American domination, and the relatively consensual nature of the Western in contrast to the Soviet bloc, that explained much of the success of the former compared to the latter.

Thus America is fundamentally constrained, as well as enabled, by its centrality to wider Western and global power networks – also by the larger world context of state power, in which not only major states like China or medium powers like Iraq but even warlords in Sierra Leone pose uncomfortable challenges. American bombs were central to the defeats of Iraq in 1991 and Serbia in 1999, but politically, in each case, it was necessary not only to mobilize the entire West but also to construct wider coalitions. Where the US has been more isolated, as in recent conflicts with Iraq, it has also been politically vulnerable.

American power promotes some kinds of internationalization – technological standardization and commercial law – but not others – carbon emission controls or an international criminal court. The latter type, powerfully stimulated by popular movements and non-governmental organizations, sits uncomfortably with US nationalism but is more congenial to European elites. This is why the US appears as a ‘rogue’ superpower: its neo-imperial hegemony and ideology are anachronistic in the face of the more progressive elements of internationalization – not to mention the democratic revolution in the non-Western world that is spurring them on.

Where does this leave ‘the new imperial state’? This formula begs two key questions. First, it is the major non-Western states – from Russia and China to Turkey and Indonesia – which are most obviously quasi-imperial in their internal structures. It is often where these states intensify semi-colonial oppression of minorities, as Serbia-Yugoslavia has done in Bosnia and Kosovo, that wars are triggered that stimulate the global projection of Western state power.

Second, if there is a dominant world empire it is Western, not simply American; and it is characterized, paradoxically, by ‘post-imperial’ institutions, by the increasing promotion of formal democracy, by internationalization. In short, this ’empire’ is almost certainly a more progressive form of state than its non-Western competitors, both major and minor, which are more coercively imperial, fully or semi-authoritarian if not openly genocidal. The ‘imperialism of human rights’ (as NLR has called it) contains all kinds of contradictions, but it is not obviously inferior to the imperialism of genocidal oppression.

For a relevant Marxist concept we might bypass Poulantzas’ ‘American penetration’ and look again at Karl Kautsky’s idea of ‘ultra-imperialism’. Kautsky argued that the First World War would end either with the intensification of inter-imperial rivalries that would produce a second war, or with their suppression and the formation of a single imperial centre. In the latter case, he argued, the moral authority of capitalism would (temporarily) be restored.

Kautsky was wrong on the process and timing of ultra-imperialism: the first war did lead to a second, and it was only through the latter that a pacified West emerged. Nevertheless, he was right in his appreciation of the political significance of the phenomenon he foresaw. The structural shift from imperial rivalry to a unified Western bloc has been a profound transformation. Only now that the rival Soviet bloc has disappeared can we see the full potential of an internationalized Western state, to create something like a global framework of state power in which most state centres are implicated. Popular democratic movements in the non-Western world cannot but appeal to the West, as the real power behind global institutions, for support against local oppressors. The democratic revolution – with the failure of Communism now clearly the main form of popular movement – and the democratic West talk much the same language and cannot avoid engaging with each other.

The United States has proved itself still the undisputed capital of the united West. The paradox is that its complacent nationalism (and resistance to more extensive international as well as social reform) renders it increasingly inadequate as the political centre of Western and global power. Clinton has barely managed the tensions, mobilizing a world coalition over Kosovo but lapsing into adventurism such as the bombing of Afghanistan and Sudan. A George W. Bush presidency would only intensify them, exposing America’s fragile hold on world leadership. Panitch is too impressed by America’s economic dynamism and reassertion of power to see the contradictions of its position. His account is in danger of feeding, rather than confronting, the illusions of American power.


This comment was submitted to New Left Review, but declined on the following grounds:

‘the pressure on our space is very acute, and – in the context of NATO’s overwhelming global predominance – the editorial board was not wholly convinced by your portrayal of the new democratic Western empire, nor by your argument that popular democratic movements in the non-Western world can do not better than appeal to the West for support against their local oppressors.’ (16.5.00)

Readers will note the simplifications of my arguments, and even more the conception of NLR’s editorial space as a counterpoint to ‘NATO’s overwhelming global predominance’. These rather revealing comments underline my earlier assessment of the editorial policy of the new NLR.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s