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Pox Americana

Pox Americana: Exposing the American Empire

Edited by John Bellamy Foster & Robert W McChesney

Pluto Press, 2005, £12.99

Reviewed by

Roy Farrar

MOST OF the essays in this book were prepared for the Imperialism Today conference held in Vermont, 3 May 2003, and published in a 2003 special issue of Monthly Review, New York. One quote reflects the main tone and theme of the book: "the term itself [imperialism] was branded as beyond the pale within polite establishment circles for most of the twentieth century… so effective was the Marxist theory of imperialism in stripping the veil away from global capitalist relations. In the last few years, however, ‘imperialism’ has once again become a rallying cry – for neo-conservatives and neo-liberals alike". (p18)

The 15 essays describe various aspects of US imperialism: the political agenda of the Bush administration, the war and occupation of Iraq, international relations, the erosion of domestic civil liberties arising from the so-called ‘war against terrorism’, the collusion of right-wing trade union leaders in supporting imperialist policies.

The economic and political phases of the post-second world war era are well researched: the cold war, the collapse of Stalinism in Russia and Eastern Europe, globalisation and so on. The authors outline the world changes following the collapse of Stalinism which will be familiar to many readers. As Harry Magdoff and Paul Sweezy wrote in a Monthly Review article titled Pox Americana, in 1991, in a ‘monopole’ world US imperialism felt able to ‘flex its muscles’, no longer constrained by the old cold war considerations: "…and the United States, the most powerful nation with unlimited means of coercion at its disposal, seems to be telling the others that this is a fate that must be accepted on pain of violent destruction". (p10) This triumphalism of the ‘new world order’ has, however, evaporated over the recent period.

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, in Grid of History: Cowboys and Indians, exposes with graphic detail the origin myth of the US republic: "At the onset of the US military invasion of Iraq, Senator Robert Byrd emotionally queried: ‘What is happening to this country?... When did we decide to risk undermining international order by adopting a radical and doctrinaire approach to using our awesome military might?’." (p31)

She challenges this naive viewpoint, pointing out that it is held not only by establishment politicians: "Many admirable US anti-imperialists have been making same point as Senator Byrd. An erasure of history is at the heart of some of the most anti-imperialist critiques of the Bush administration’s foreign policy. Continuity is hidden, and a small departure is exaggerated. From Gore Vidal… to Michael Moore, ‘lost democracy’ is a refrain". (p31)

Dunbar-Ortiz points to imperialist ambitions accompanying the outcome of the American war of independence of 1776: "the very origin of the United States is fundamentally imperialist, rather than a divergence from a well-intentioned path". (p39)

She quotes from Warren Zimmerman’s book, First Great Triumph (2002), in which the former US ambassador writes of the imperial aims of the Teddy Roosevelt administration: "Americans like to pretend that they have no imperial past. Yet they have shown expansionist tendencies since colonial days… Overland expansion, often at the expense of Mexicans and Indians, was a marked feature of American history right through the period of the Civil War, by which time the United States had reached its continental proportions. The war for American independence, which created most of the founding myths of the Republic, was itself a war for expansion… Thomas Jefferson nursed even grander plans for empire". (First Great Triumph, p17)

Pox Americana contributors note the ‘rediscovery’ of the Spanish-American War of 1898 and the occupation of the Philippines. John Bellamy Foster, Harry Magdoff and Robert W McChesney refer to Lenin’s pamphlet, Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism, in which Lenin noted that this episode marked the virtual end of ‘free-grabbing’ of territories and that imperialist policy from then on must be through a redivision of the planet amongst the great powers.

Pox Americana delivers a comprehensive exposure of US imperialism, but…! The concluding remarks of the essays on how to oppose imperialism may disappoint the reader – largely being on the lines of, "a broad coalition of the morally concerned…", "task for the anti-war and social justice movements…", "by way of critique of commodity fetishism". Samir Amin declares, in Confronting the Empire, that the US "is already treating the United Nations as the fascist states treated the League of Nations". And further: "The existence of those peoples that do not belong to the US master race can only be tolerated if they do not constitute a threat to the ambitions of those who consider themselves the masters of the planet". (p105) Despite his contribution continuing in this inflammatory vein – denouncing ‘Washington neo-Nazis’, etc – he amazingly concludes that the only hope lies with a section of US capitalism rejecting the Bush administration!

Where the US labour movement or working class are mentioned their role, it seems, is one of attaching itself to the general anti-war or global justice movement, perhaps even as equal partners! There are a couple of references to an "independent working-class view" and "the self-organisation of class conscious movements for radical transformation". But of what this ‘view’ and ‘transformation’ should be and how to reach them is not elaborated.

The volume is worth some study but one cannot help recall the old phrase of Karl Marx about philosophers explaining the world, the point being, however, to change it.


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