Continued from last post . . . The transition from the imperialism of conquest and sovereign control to the very different model of empire that dominates politics today, it starts with America.
This isn't going to be one of those posts decrying America as the seat of the new British Empire, the new conquerors. America isn’t out to conquer the world, like Britain was. The 2003 invasion of Iraq was an occupation, but they didn’t want to make Iraq literal American territory under Washington’s administration.
They definitely didn't want Iraqi citizens to be able to move to the continental United States as easily as a Hawaiian could move to Illinois. They didn’t even really want the oil.
Facing America's class conflicts – the violence of the union movement and corporate resistance to it, violent anarchist activism – Teddy Roosevelt conceived of an American empire of conquest. The violent energy of the people would be funnelled into conquering foreign lands.
But America never went down that route after Roosevelt’s Presidency. What really happened is way more complicated.
The roots of the weird new kind of empire that grew from the American model and American dominance over the world economy is rooted in America's constitution. The direct power of the people to create the state and the institutions of governance through their own work is directly written into the American constitution.
That's the American project: the people literally build the country. The people have fundamental sovereignty because they produce America.
It’s totally different from the European model of state sovereignty, which is about a state administration defining a territory and controlling all the people and processes within it. This kind of state subsumes the people within a homogeneous unity governed from the central administrative hub.
The sovereign body is complete, and each part of its machinery (each citizen, that is) moves as it’s ordered for the good of the whole and conformity to the national identity.
America works differently because, at its inception, it wasn’t complete. Ideally, the American project is never complete, and the work of Americans is to build America. In what Negri identifies as the first phase of the American project, this was the expansion of the frontier.
America had pretty much built itself in the original Thirteen Colonies, but the whole continent westward* was America-to-be. This national project of making America was the foundation of American democracy.
*And northward until the War of 1812 put a stop to that.
This was also the root of the profound pluralism that defines American ideals. European nation-states rooted their principles of unity in ethnic-national identity. A European state excluded you because of who you were.
This heritage, I think, is why European countries have so much trouble dealing with immigration. Their governments never involved a philosophical commitment to accepting difference, only consolidating homogeneous unity.
American identity, in its ideal, had no such obligation of cultural and ethnic unity.** To become an American, all you had to do was go there and sign on to the project of expansion, the project of building America with your labour and your life.
** Yes, I know what you’re all thinking, and I start dealing with that tomorrow.
The American ideal puts the productive power of people at the foundation of democracy, freedom, and politics itself. But what happens when the country is built?
This was the core political problem of the McKinley / Roosevelt / Wilson era, from the 1890s to the end of the 1910s. The frontier was finished. America had been built from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The same goes for the countries to the north and south. The Canadians and the Mexicans weren’t going anywhere, and there was nowhere left to build new America.
Negri's insight about this era is that the release valve of class conflict was choked off. If you lived in a well-established, urban part of eastern America with thick government and corporate institutions in the 1830s, you might find yourself a little squeezed. You might be able to find work, but there wasn’t much for you to build.
|My posts from last year on Emma Goldman's writings
tackle this problem of how the existence of institutions
squeeze our freedom.
Once institutions and corporate power reached everywhere on the continent, there was nowhere to escape. So America needed a new channel for all those productive energies of its people, if the people were to remain free, and not be consolidated inside a European-style administrative authority.
So what did they do? . . . To be continued