The empire has a new emperor

This paper examines the democratic process in the United States and in particular the much heralded election of Barack Obama as the “hope for the world” in light of systemic imperatives and contradictions. It is argued that the overwhelming preponderance of systemic contradictions reduces even a chief executive’s effectiveness as an agent of change aimed at “solving” specific problems resulting from systemic contradictions. That is the subjective capacity of a chief executive as an agent of change is limited and defined not only by laws, but by class interests in which the “state,” as represented by the President, must perform certain functions. Is the state as represented by the President capable of pursuing the interests of everyone (as it is assumed to be its role in a democracy) in light of systemic contradictions?

The electoral seasons in the United States are long, expensive and exhausting. From time to time the mundane and ordinary process produces a “surprise”, a “superstar” whose oratory reflects the tragedy of the life on the planet and it rides on the hope that the system is redeemable. Kennedy was the first President who was a Catholic and now Obama is the first African American President-elect. In both cases, the election of these two unique individuals was publicized as unusual and extraordinary in many respects. First were pronouncements reinforcing the old adage that in America anyone can grow up to be the president. Second the President has a “new approach” to address issues like race relations, foreign threats (now defined primarily as “political Islam,” “nuclear Iran,” and terrorism), and a decline in moral values. There is now also the idea that 21st century America is dramatically different than the previous era. Finally there is the resurgent belief that “rugged individualism” and competition can produce optimal results. Indeed the competition for the highest office in the land representing the state – the executive branch of the system, serves many functions with reproduction of the system and the “democratic process” as one of its main functions. Then there are the mechanisms of reaching and winning a particular office from the main rivals who also see the reproduction of the system as one of their main goals. But the mechanisms are not fixed across time; they are time and space dependent. A review of the elections of the past several decades (particularly with the advent of the Great Depression) suggests a variety of mechanisms employed by the contenders which often was repeated at the state and local levels.

In the 1930s, the economic dislocations caused by the Great Depression compelled the government to abandon the alleged laissez faire attitude of the previous administration in favor of albeit “reluctant” interventionist policies designed to boost the production base through aggregate demand stimulation. The state recognized the need to expand its role in the economy in order to rescue the system from certain disintegration. According to some, it had to adopt “quasi-revolutionary” measures to save the system and counter genuine revolution. Various social programs were designed and implemented for the purpose of boosting aggregate demand (helping the poor, the disabled and the elderly among others). Several preventive measures were instituted, and gradually the economy was revived. The context here however must be emphasized. During this period, the US economy was beginning to show signs of strength relative to all other economies including those of Europe. With the advent of WWII, the economic, military and political role of the United States became indispensible to saving global capitalism. In particular, the US and its allies began forging a new international monetary system (the Bretton Woods) and its military umbrella —NATO under the US leadership and control. The hegemonic role of the United States went beyond Europe to include all of the countries which were not in the Soviet Union’s orbit. These social formations, as newly independent post-colonial entities, were scenes of proxy wars and influence. As we entered the 1960s, the post colonial world was replaced by a world dominated by the multinational corporations and Western hegemony. The West continued to maintain its hegemony through internationalization of production and internationalization of investment which in turn were facilitated by the dominance of finance capital in the form of strong and universal currency. From the 1960s, capital’s strategy was the elimination of all obstacles to accumulation on a global scale. Imperialism, unequal exchange, commodity inflation, and intervention culminated in the rise of capital’s strategy for the containment of working class expectations and demand worldwide in the form of the vicious neo-liberalism of the 1980s and beyond. From the 1930s onward, state strategy for dealing with domestic and international issues reflected imperialistic designs abroad and at home. Globally, it has been the role of United States to remove any threat dealing with capital’s accumulation drive and domestically it has been a reflection of its external role and this is where the practice of social imperialism finds various manifestations. One of its manifestations has been a decrease in people’s ability to conceive of an alternative, even within the confines of capitalist framework. In both cases, from Roosevelt through Kennedy /Johnson to Reagan, Clinton and the G. W. Bush administration, the practice of imperialism and social imperialism has varied and for the most part has been used as a mechanism in dealing with systemic contradictions.

It is within the constraints of the systemic contradictions that the larger political order is formed. Presidents are in reality defined, and their administration is evaluated, within these bounds. Acknowledgment and critical analysis of systemic contradictions are taboo, and their resolution almost nil. Therefore the topic of my discussion will be the symptoms of the systemic contradictions and the limits of the distinctive character of an individual president to significantly alter the performance of his administration given the system’s constraints. Why people in the rest of the world were so interested in the outcome of U.S. presidential election stems from the fact that the U.S. as a world economic, political, and military power has been involved in most if not all of the world. The world is cognizant of this condition even though people in the U.S. may be oblivious to the global reach of their government. To a large extent the American people have considered the role of their government to be that of a liberal internationalist with periodic references to a divine mandate and mission.

To what extent may an individual influence social and political system, and what are the limits and dimensions of the influence? Methodological individualism is rooted theoretically in individual psychology and social psychology. It is by no means capable of addressing issues of interests in political economy, but rather is accustomed to looking at human agency as the key factor in the process of social structural reproduction. The danger here is that it may also slip into the ideology of Social Darwinism under the banners of meritocracy and survival of the fittest. Moreover, I wish to remind the reader that we must examine the role of the state in capitalist democracies with an economy dominated by the private sector and not merely at the state in totalitarian, absolutist, military and dictatorial regimes. It is in this context — capitalist democracies — that a discussion of the role of the state is warranted. Therefore I wish also to examine theories pertaining to the role of the state with reference to agency in capitalist societies. Current political events in the United States which have captured the world’s attention will be presented thereafter.

Ever since the concept of the state was developed, it has evolved both in form and function. These two aspects of the state have been discussed at length by philosophers, social scientists, and historians. Through various epochs, the role of state has evolved to reflect the necessity of maintaining control over a given geographic area and the extension of state power into geographic areas not yet included under their sovereignty. In any case, the question is: what and whose interest the state represents? Many ancient religions, and cultures the state was viewed as an instrument of the divine and the person at the helm a representative on earth. Yet brilliant thinkers outside of Europe in the 7th century developed complex theories of the state and politics liberated from theological dogma. Most notably Ibn Khaldoun elaborated a non-theological and evolutionary theory of societies and their histories. Differentiation, class conflict, structural imperatives and contradictions were essential features to which Khaldoun drew attention. To Khaldoun, the state arises out of conflict, and it is through conflict that societies move forward. The cyclical theory formulated by Khaldoun, pointed out specific mechanisms for the rise and fall of societies and civilizations. They rise and fall based on the degree of the sense of belonging or “ta’assoub” which people feel and experience. In his discussion of socio-economic and political development, “Al-Imran,” Khaldoun emphasized for the first time, that organic relationships existed among all aspects of human society. The link between economic well-being and political freedom is one of his main contributions. To Khaldoun, rising income and productive capacity served as the foundation for a strong sense of “assabiyah” (social solidarity) and also for the strength and popularity of leaders. The forces compelling society and history are not neutral, natural, theological, fixed, or blind; rather, they are reflection of social, physical, and structural conditions — the essence of Marxian historical materialism and conflict perspective.

Marx’s analysis of the state in the context of a critique of political economy transcended the debates that consumed classical as well as Enlightenment thinkers. For him the issue was not a theology of natural right versus the secular theory of civil right, nor human social contract versus religious authority. Rather, it was the rights of the larger society on one hand and the usurpation of those rights by the agents of the bourgeoisie who had captured the state on the other. Contrary to the moralists and the utopians of the 17th and 18th centuries, Marx felt that the transformation of state power in a stratified bourgeois society was to be achieved only through workforce revolution.

Marx and Engels (1848) and Lenin (1917) viewed the state as an instrument, an oppressive bureaucracy which perpetuates class division by representing the propertied class in general and the interests of the ruling class in particular. In essence Marx argued that the individuals occupying different offices and performing different functions in the state apparatus are merely employees serving the interest of the ruling class. The Marxian approach points to the limits of state apparatus within capitalism as well as its “repressive” role of the state that is the core of the argument. Marx’s elaboration on the function of state within capitalism in the period of the early industrial revolution was based on his historical observations of the role of the state which was also guided by his theoretical argument. Socio-economic and political reality during any historical period was the material basis of the idea of the role of the state. As European capitalism was further articulated (after entering the advanced industrial revolution) and began expanding beyond its immediate environment, it became more complex. With this, the necessity of a greater role for the political apparatus emerged. The state then had to be viewed in a different light than during the time Marx witnessed. For the Marxists, the relevance of Marx’s views on the state is undiminished (2). What has changed, they argue, is the manner in which the state secures its own legitimacy and ensures its own reproduction. Those who believe in the materialist philosophy ought to take it to its logical conclusion that the state (as a superstructure) changes as its base, the mode of production, changes. It is absolutely essential to consider the epochal characteristics (global capitalism in various historical periods and historical specificity) and the corresponding role of the state. It is the complexity and the changing technological and post-industrial society that calls for a reconsideration of the Marxist theory of state under conditions of modern imperialism, and particularly since a discussion of contradictions also remains an integral part of its theory of state exclusively.

The Marxist theory of the state has explicitly pointed out the contradictions within capitalism and the manner in which the social structure may or may not be able to change given its internal tensions. Any analysis of the role of the state within the capitalist system must address the built-in contradictions and the consequences of the contradictions as the system evolves. The contemporary globalized economy while exhibiting the basic contradictions stemming from the private sector dominance, by virtue of its global expansion exhibits greater contradictions in scope. It is within this complex context that the role of the national state becomes more problematic. If individuals elected to high offices do represent the interests of everyone and not just the interest of the dominant class, then how are the contradictions eliminated or reduced so as to allow executive agency to influence the structure? In the era of late capitalism the world is dominated by multinationals making further incursions into underdeveloped lands. The presence of imperialism on a much more sophisticated level accompanied by militarism does raise questions about the degree to which the state pursues the interest of the nation rather than solely the class in control of most of the resources.

A discussion of the economic and ideological foundations of American imperialism should be informed by the analyses of Joseph Schumpeter (1919; 1951) and Franz Neumann (1944) as theorists of social imperialism. Schumpeter viewed social imperialism as an imperialism in which the wealthiest property owners attempt to get the support of the working class for their imperialistic designs by way of major standard of living improvements for labor. Similarly, Franz Neumann viewed social imperialism as a strategy on the part of the governing classes to incorporate the working class into an imperialistic system. To Neumann (1944:153-5, cited in Berman), the actual strategy involves giving concessions to the masses through the expansion of material benefits to secure popular support for aggressive imperialistic policies. The practice of social imperialism both historically and contemporaneously has served to rally public support for a policy or policies which are often in conflict with what democracies are supposed to stand for.

Recently, however, in some of these countries the social benefits associated with what I would call the classic form of social imperialism have been replaced by a different set of mechanisms such as a politics of fear and an ideology of patriotism. “Exporting” democracy is a contemporary political slogan. With the aid of jingoistic media, war is waged against “non-democratic” regimes. It is in this context that the autonomy of the institutions of the political order in general and the role of the state in particular must be gauged and evaluated. Can the state be a guardian of the general economic interest rather than an instrument for domestic exploitation and global pillage? To this end five major system-structural dynamics and internal contradictions are presented before considering further the agency/structure debate.

Several major system-structural contradictions and dynamics are persistent and disempowering: private sector dominance, predatory competition, the organic composition of capital (outsourcing), interest peddling (lobbying), and the paradox of overproduction/ underconsumption. The first three are permanent features of capitalist economic contradiction, and the others vary in scope and duration. Private sector dominance, predatory competition and a reduction in the ratio of labor to capital (organic composition) are absolutely essential for capital accumulation to proceed. The unbridled and dominant private sector under the umbrella of laissez faire and market fundamentalism inevitably leads to predatory competition for the purpose of the further concentration of capital. Predatory competition, mergers, and takeovers are sanctioned by laws and supported by the ideology of Social Darwinism. Concentration alone cannot guarantee a higher profit rate; for greater profit margins to be realized the organic composition of capital must be changed. That is the drive toward greater profit by way of increasing surplus value (in differentiated and advanced capitalist systems) through increasing the constant portion of capital (machinery and technology) and decreasing variable portion of capital (payroll). Mechanization (increasing the constant portion of capital) inevitably is at the expense of the variable portion of capital – labor. This contradiction may or may not lead to larger conflicts between labor and capital and therefore, may or may not be observable. Capital then must in pursuit of higher profit rate or to prevent the tendency for the rate of profit to fall from becoming a reality — another contradiction.

The tendency for the rate of profit to fall causes the capitalist to resort to expansion of overseas markets through internationalization, globalization, and imperialism thus to increase the exploitation of labor in the imperial center as well as at the periphery. In the center the exploitation is realized through reduction in real wages and concessions; in the periphery the exploitation is accelerated through longer working hours under difficult conditions. Available data on income distribution and the control over wealth show a widening gap of an obscene proportion between the rich and the rest of the American society. Even if we ignore the problem caused by control of wealth by a small percentage of the population (including most of the government officials), reduction in income alone causes great social dislocation; lack of access to health care on the part of an estimated fifty million Americans and an estimated twenty million Americans (including children, the elderly and the disabled) not having enough food are examples of underconsumption problem. On the one hand, a loss of income on the part of the workers in the center (domestic consumers) leads to a reduction in income elsewhere. As the availability of profitable investment opportunities increase production abroad increases adding to the stock of available goods. These developments create the two facets of the third contradiction – the overproduction and underconsumption dilemma. Both facets are caused by the drive toward higher profits. However, the internationalization of production and globalization (imperialism) has been accompanied by a declining earning power in various centers of global capitalism and deepening economic depression. That is while the gain from globalization is privatized, the loss as illustrated by the recent crisis caused by variety of Ponzi schemes is socialized. Collateralization, predatory lending through the use of newly invented financial instruments and the debt trap are the building block of what is now called financialization. And financilaization is an attempt at making more profit through speculation on a global scale and for it to happen there must be a structure (with all of the necessary institutional support, rules, and regulations and a public which is either ignorant or apathetic) which allows such schemes.

In the face of these imposing contradictions the Democratic and the Republican parties have difficulty keeping the differences even in appearance, intact, yet variation within the confines of the system does exist. The very recent political campaign in the United States and the victory of Barack Obama as the 44th President has been presented as the hope of not only saving the global system, but humanity and the planet. The question however is to what extent Mr. Obama can negotiate structural contradictions and constraints and are there precedents that he can rely on? For now he has a cheering crowd, admirers and allies, but do they translate into sufficient support to overcome structural constraints?

President-elect Obama is taking charge at a time of more complex and entrenched structural contradictions. The reconciliation/elimination of these contradictions requires a high degree of autonomy in the agency/structure relationship. To what extent can agency influence the structure and to what extent does the structure mold and shape the individual? What then are the sources and the limits of change. To Gramsci, “Structure and super structure form an ‘historical bloc.’ That is to say the complex, contradictory and discordant ensemble of the superstructures is the reflection of the ensemble of the social relations of production” (Gramsci, cited in Joseph, 2008:113). Gramsci’s theory of hegemony and his study of industrialization shows how political blocs maintain and reproduce themselves. It recognizes that it is absolutely essential to have an alliance of managers/owners equipped with a unifying political ideology. Individuals are members of the ruling bloc not by accident, but by social location, yet a belief system guaranteeing an unwavering allegiance to the through a dose of social imperialism is necessitated by the degree and the scope of the economic crisis. Social imperialism at home and abroad must be effective in order to facilitate global imperialism aided by militarism and globalization. The ultimate goal is to serve the class whose aim is capital accumulation on a global scale while attempting to conceal the contradictions. The emphasis is on the reproduction of the mode of legitimation and excessive surplus appropriation rather than the interest of society at large.

To say that President-elect Obama can tackle the structural crises is to say that the crises are the result of policies adopted by certain individuals in political office rather than viewing the policies as systemic imperatives. This is not due to naiveté, but a convenient deflection from the imposing structure. It is in this context that one President calls himself the “war president” (Bush) and the other one for now speaks of dialogue. Both must be contextualized both in time and space. The overwhelming power of the American military, politics, and economics will not allow an individual such as Obama (even if he wanted to) to alter the fertile ground acquired through military conquest. No need to look at the composition of his cabinet to infer policy direction (4). Perhaps he will repent taking money from such as Exelon, a nuclear energy corporation (the fourth largest donor of almost $75, 000 to his campaign), giant agribusiness corporations such Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), and Aventine Renewable Energy which lobbied Obama to facilitate ethanol (E85) fuel production with billions of dollars in subsidies (Silverstein, 2006). And his name repeatedly appeared on the list of the recipients of money from now defunct financial institutions such as Goldman Sachs, AIG, and Fannie-Mae among others. As one Washington lobbyist put it, “big donors would not be helping out Obama if they did not see him as a player. The lobbyist added: What’s the dollar value of a starry-eyed idealist?” (Silverstein, 2006:40). What determines his future policy will be the complex reality in which he will have to operate. Militarism may be conducted with a new face but it will be every bit as deadly and brutal, even when it is erroneously perceived as carrying out a democratic “mandate.”

The mandate is the triumph of hope over despair, and the promotion of the belief that within the confines of the structure, it is possible to drastically alter the direction via social policy and that individual is an important player. How consoling that a person of color is now at the helm of a system which not too long ago did not allow mingling of people on the basis of their race in public places. The contemporary hope and the despair must be understood with this brutal and dehumanizing world of deprivation. And it is familiarity with this situation that some outside of the American context are expressing hope. Is Obama the voice of subaltern? Should he even be considered one? There is the Obama as the role model for the young of all ethnic groups particularly the African Americans whose population has always been an expendable group and has suffered many attempts at total decimation. Interestingly, these groups’ hope for the future is matched by the jubilation on the part of those “burdened” with the “white guilt.” It is a double-edged sword. The joy, the hope, the promise and the role model that could reinforce ideas of empowerment and agency, could remove any genuine struggle for system change.

The hope is that Obama’s presidency can heal racial wounds and narrow the social divide. But without any change in the economic structures generating the racial divide and prejudice, fundamental social change would be impossible. Even if the United States Senate and House of Representatives are of his party and receive support from even Republicans, the issues of class, power, and financial might are not going to remain indifferent. In the age of globalization American military and political power, along with the financial power of its multinationals, continue to decide the global agenda. Within a “democracy,” contradictions must be addressed and each person must ask how the system must behave, what are its aims and where should it be on the global stage. This has a long tradition in America where individuals are expected to be cognizant of the rights and the responsibilities of being a citizen.

The election is now over, and Obama got what he was seeking. The campaign slogans of “change” and “yes we can” are on the agenda. What does the Obama victory mean for America in light of systemic contradictions and massive economic dislocations? In light of the quagmire of Iraq he talks about a residual force remaining in Iraq — ending the war, but not the occupation. In Afghanistan and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict over occupied territories, Israel’s influence in the United States with regard to U.S. Middle East policy will be the biggest test of his independence from special interests(5). Many other issues will be major challenges: Europe and the supremacy of the Euro as a universal currency, Russia’s rise to greater influence, China’s contending role in face of its own contradictions (as the world’s factory and also susceptible to business cycles), India’s contradictory location vis-a-vis globalizing agents and structures and urgent social problems, etc. For now, Obama must talk about diplomacy (soft power) as the solution to international dispute. But in reality he has been using the threat of the military as a mechanism of settling international disputes as he has in the case of Iran. He has already gone against his promises by appointing individuals connected to various special interests groups. The challenge is for Mr. Obama to surprise us all and I hope he does. I hope he rejects militarism, imperialism, social imperialism, and irresponsible support for aggressive/expansionist and militaristic states in international relations. He should declare his independence from internal and external lobbyists (except those advocating the empowerment of the powerless) and provide incentives for socially responsible investments making markets and Wall street subservient to the public interest. He can make the extraordinary ordinary if look up and see a person of color at the helm of state, thereby breaking the monocultural monopoly. In other words, he could be the true voice of the subaltern. But it is going to be a presidency whose conduct and policies will reflect capitalism’s systemic imperatives, as did the presidencies from George Washington to George W. Bush. Like the others before him, he will ultimately be molded by the constraints, principles, and contradictions of social structure that he will not address.

Dr. Mehdi S. Shariati, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Economics/Sociology at Kansas City Kansas Community College.

Joseph, Jonathan (2008), “Hegemony and the Structure-Agency Problem in International Relations: A Scientific Realist Contribution” Review of International Studies, 34, 109-128.

Khaldoun, Ibn, (1969), Al Mughademah, Princeton University Press. New Jersy.

Marx, Karl and F. Engles, The Communist Manifesto, International Publishers, 1948

Marx, Karl, (1976), The German Ideology, Moscow. Progress Publishers.

Mosca, Gaetano (1939), The Ruling Class/ Edited and revised by Arthur Livingston. Hanah Kahn (trans). McGraw Hill, New York.

Multinational Monitor (2007), “Financialization and Its Discontents: How Wall street’s Political Triumph Led to Economic Crisis.” An Interview with Robert Kuttner. November/December 2007.

Neumann, Franz, (1944). Behemoth: The Structures and Practice of National Socialism. London, Gollancz.

Rosenthal, Erwin I.J., (1968), Political Thought in Medieval Islam: An Introductory Outline. Cambridge university press.

Schumpeter, Joseph (1951), Imperialism and Social Classes. Oxford: Balckwell.

Silverstein Ken, (2006). “Barack Obama Inc: The Birth of a Washington Machine.” Harper’s. Vol. 313, No. 1878. PP. 31-40.

Ta’assoub is from “asaab” –beloging, a concept which the 19th century European sociology incorporated into their theory of society and history (i.e., Durkhiem, Weber, among others). Non-European philosophers mostly from the Islamic regions left as much a foot print on the art of questioning as their European contemporaries. Shahab al din Suhrawardi, Al farabi, Ibn Sina,Ibn Rushd (Averros) were among the pioneers in discourse on political philosophy and the ideal state.

2) Marxists have attempted to demonstrate that the role of state within capitalism has evolved based on concrete reality. However, various approaches within Marxist tradition disagree on the extent of the change in the role of the state in capitalism. Following Lenin, Gramsci among others, two of the most widely discussed approaches within Marxism are “Instrumentalism” as theorized by Paul Sweezy (1939) and Ralph Miliband (1969) and Structuralism (theorized by Nicos Poulantzas 1973, 1976). Instrumentalists view the state primarily as an instrument in the hands of the elites, whereas structuralists view the state as a “mediating” force between “fractions” of the upper class.

3) I have discussed this issue in another paper on “socializing the cost of globalization, imperialism and militarism…..” (Symposia, 2007); “Globalization, Imperialism, Militarism, Social Imperialism and the U.S. National Debt” (, 2007)

4. His cabinet is made up of people from the Bush Administration, and the Clinton Administration. Among those who could influence policy direction are Rahm Israel Immanuel, Robert Gates, Dennis Ross, Hilary Clinton, among others. Non-cabinet positions such as Kevin Pollack (a pro-Israel advisor to Obama, and James Steinberg who wrote Obama’s speech delivered to AIPAC in June of 2008). In this speech Obama renewed the American covenant with Israel and as if stating his foreign policy for Iran, he singled out Iran as the “greatest” threat to peace.

Many thanks to my colleagues Charles Reitz and Stephen Spartan for their suggestions.

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