As if taking too literally the maxim that Minerva’s owl flies at twilight, it seems that the imperial nature of the American state is belatedly being acknowledged today only to announce its imminent demise—the ‘unravelling’ of us hegemony.footnote1 In these accounts, the military occupation of Iraq is often seen as a desperate attempt to re-impose a faltering us leadership by force of arms. What these analyses tend to ignore is the unique scope and scale of the us imperialist state, and the specific role it has played in the making of the world economy in the postwar period. An evaluation of the us’s continuing capacity to shape global capitalism in the 21st century therefore requires some theorization of the imperialist state itself.footnote2

Contemporary Marxian analyses of imperialism and its sanitized cousin, globalization, have consistently fallen short of an adequate theorization of the state. Most still rest on the assumption that the relationship of economy to state is that of base to superstructure—in which case, any elaborated theory of the state is largely unnecessary and certainly uninteresting. Other broadly leftist approaches to globalization have evaded the need for such a theorization by proclaiming the growing irrelevance of the nation-state. At one extreme, theorists of a transnational capitalist class postulate the formation of a transnational state to match the globality of capital; at the other, power is proclaimed to be decentred in a borderless world.footnote3 In both there is an underestimation of the extent to which states, rather than being the passive victims of globalization, have been its authors and enforcers. As a result, not only is capital’s dependence on many states insufficiently acknowledged, but the pre-eminent role of the American state in the making of global capitalism is marginalized.

In order to ground an appropriate conceptual framework for understanding imperialism and globalization today, we need to begin by theorizing the capitalist state along three dimensions. The first encompasses its relation to accumulation. The separation of the political from the economic within capitalism involves a distancing of the state from direct involvement in the organization of production, investment or appropriation of the surplus; but an active state is still required to maintain the juridical, regulatory and infrastructural framework through which these operate, as well as to police capital–labour relations, manage the macro-economy and act as lender of last resort. Capitalism could not exist unless states did these things; and states are impelled to do them, by virtue of their dependence on private accumulation for their own revenues and for the material foundations of their legitimacy.

The role of the state in this respect is not merely a reactive response to contradictions emanating from the process of accumulation. Capitalist states have developed sophisticated measures for promoting and orchestrating capital accumulation, and for anticipating and limiting future problems. It is in these terms that we should conceptualize the ‘relative autonomy’ of the capitalist state: not as being autonomous from capitalist classes or the economy, but rather in having capacities to act on behalf of the system as a whole (autonomy), while their dependence on the success of overall accumulation for their own legitimacy and reproduction nevertheless leaves those capacities bounded (relative). What requires historical investigation is the precise range and character of the capacities developed by any one state.

Such investigation is impossible without addressing a second dimension of the state: the form of political rule. Here, the separation of state from society within capitalism entails the constitutional distancing of political rule from the class structure. This also allows for the organization of class interests, and their representation vis-à-vis opposing classes and the state. One aspect of this is the establishment of the rule of law as a liberal political framework for property owners. Another, only fully asserting itself in the postwar period, is the establishment of liberal democracy as the modal form of the capitalist state.footnote4 What requires specific analysis here is the relative degree of the state’s autonomy: how do linkages between societal and state actors, and the balance of class forces, bear on the state’s legitimacy and shape its institutional capacities in relation to accumulation?

The third dimension, implicit in the first two, is the territorial and national form of the capitalist state. Capitalism evolved through the deepening of economic linkages within particular territorial spaces; indeed, its development was inseparable from the process through which various states constructed their borders and defined modern national identities within them. Yet if the densest relations were national, international linkages were never absent. We should not merely assume an irresolvable contradiction between the international space of accumulation and the national space of states; the latter have always been players on the international economic stage. Here, we need to investigate whether a state’s activity is consistent with extending the law of value and the rule of law internationally—and extending them, moreover, in ways that are mutually consistent with the actions of other states. This allows for examination of the tensions and synergies between the national–territorial form of the state and international capital accumulation, within the context of the economic, political and ideological relations between states.

With the separation of the economic from the political under capitalism, the age-old history of imperial political rule over extended territories and peoples takes on a new form; its analysis cannot be reduced simply to capital’s economic tendency to expand. Instead, if we retain the understanding of imperialism as a form of extended political rule, what is properly defined as capitalist imperialism pertains to the role played by capitalist states in the spatial extension of the law of value and of capitalist social relations. The historical interplay between the hierarchy of states and uneven capitalist development was earlier experienced, of course, through territorial expansion and colonialism. But pre-capitalist social forces played a large role in this, and international capitalist competition during the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries was accompanied by the exclusions inherent in formal imperial rule, and the tendency, under these conditions, to inter-imperial rivalry.