In the first part of this essay, I argued that the recent resurgence of the concepts of ‘empire’ and ‘imperialism’ is above all a consequence of the Bush Administration’s embrace of a new imperialist programme in the wake of 9/11—that of the neoconservative Project for a New American Century.footnote1 The paper sought to investigate the social, economic and political circumstances which prompted the adoption of that policy, and in particular its relation to the turbulence of the global economy since the 1970s. In dealing with these questions, I began by examining David Harvey’s interpretation of the relationship between imperialism and capitalist development in The New Imperialism, focusing specifically on Harvey’s concepts of ‘spatial fix’ and ‘accumulation by dispossession’ as means to analyse the Bush Administration’s present course.footnote2 I argued that, far from laying the foundations for a second ‘American Century’, the occupation of Iraq has jeopardized the credibility of us military might; it has further undermined the centrality of the United States and the dollar in the global political economy; and it has strengthened the tendency towards the emergence of China as an alternative to us leadership in the East Asian region and beyond. It would have been hard to imagine a more rapid and complete failure of the neo-conservative imperial project. In all likelihood, the neo-conservative bid for global supremacy will go down in history as one of the several ‘bubbles’ that punctuated the terminal crisis of us hegemony.footnote3
The bursting of this peculiar bubble has transformed but by no means done away with the world-historical circumstances that generated the Project for a New American Century. In this concluding part of the article, I will highlight these circumstances by using Harvey’s concepts of spatial fix and accumulation by dispossession in a longer perspective than he does. Within this optic, the new imperialism will appear as the outcome of a protracted historical process consisting of spatial fixes of increasing scale and scope, on the one hand, and on the other, of an American attempt to bring this process to an end through the formation of a us-centred world government. This attempt, I will argue, was integral to us hegemony from the start. Under George W. Bush, however, it has reached its limits and in all likelihood will cease to be the primary determinant of ongoing transformations of the global political economy.
As Harvey suggests, there is an interesting correspondence between Hannah Arendt’s theoretical observation in The Origins of Totalitarianism that ‘a never-ending accumulation of power [is] necessary for the protection of a never-ending accumulation of capital’, and my own empirical observation in The Long Twentieth Century that the expansion of world capitalism has been based on the emergence of ever more powerful leading capitalist organizations.footnote4 The correspondence, however, is not as ‘exact’ as he suggests. For Arendt’s observation refers to the accumulation of power and capital within states, whereas mine refers to the accumulation of power and capital in an evolving system of states. The difference is crucial in more than one respect.
Arendt draws our attention to the process whereby individual capitalist states tend to experience an accumulation of ‘superfluous money’ (that is, of more capital than can be profitably reinvested within their national boundaries) and a need to grow more powerful in order to be able to protect growing property. From this perspective, imperialism of the capitalist sort is a policy aimed both at finding profitable external outlets for surplus capital and at strengthening the state. My observation, in contrast, draws our attention to the process whereby increasingly powerful capitalist organizations have become the agency of the expansion of a system of accumulation and rule that from the start encompassed a multiplicity of states. From this perspective, imperialism of the capitalist sort is an aspect of the recurrent struggles through which capitalist states have used coercive means in the attempt to turn in their favour the spatial shifts entailed in the ‘endless’ accumulation of capital and power.footnote5
As Harvey underscores, finance capital backed by state power plays a crucial mediating role both in the production of space that is involved in the enlarged reproduction of capital and in the ‘cannibalistic practices and forced devaluations’ that constitute the essence of accumulation by dispossession. He is nonetheless vague about the world-historical coordinates of this role. Like Arendt, he seems to adhere to the view that finance capital has been an outgrowth of nineteenth-century industrial capitalism. While this may be true of capitalist development in some states, it is certainly not true of it on a world scale.
As Fernand Braudel has demonstrated, ‘finance capitalism’, or what we now call financialization, ‘was no newborn child of the 1900s.’ Rather,
in the past—in say Genoa or Amsterdam—following a wave of growth in commercial capitalism and the accumulation of capital on a scale beyond the normal channels for investment, finance capitalism was already in a position to take over and dominate, for a while at least, all the activities of the business world.footnote6