Ellen Meiksins Wood: Empire in the Age of Capital

Ellen Meiksins Wood (1942-2016) was one of the world's most influential historians and a Marxist thinker of profound importance. Her hugely innovative work, ranging from her analysis of free labour in Athenian democracy to her work on the Nairn-Anderson thesis was crucial to the emergence of the 'Political Marxist' approach to historical inquiry. 

In this interview, which originally appeared in Capital and its Discontents: Conversations with Radical Thinkers in a Time of Tumult, she discusses the specific characteristics of capitalism that distinguish it from other economic systems and the nature of imperialism in a capitalist context. It is reproduced with the kind permission of PM Press.

While empire long precedes capitalism, contemporary imperialism is inseparable from capitalism. What, then, are the distinguishing features of capitalism as an economic system, as you see it?

I think the essential characteristic is that all of the major economic actors are market dependent, dependent on the market to maintain and reproduce their conditions of life. This also means that the relationship between classes is mediated by the market, so that unlike precapitalist systems in which exploiting classes were able to extract surplus labor from exploited classes by means of superior coercive power, direct noneconomic coercion, in capitalism the compulsions are economic imperatives. So in a mature capitalist economy, the capitalist doesn’t need to have superior political, legal or military power over workers, the way a precapitalist landlord had to have power over peasants who had nonmarket access to land. Wage laborers have to sell their labor power to a capitalist simply in order to gain access to the means of their own life, their own labor, and so on. And of course the capitalist depends on the market for access to labor and to realize the profits the workers produce. Of course there’s a huge difference between propertyless workers and the owners of capital, which means a huge imbalance of class power. But capitalists are no less dependent on the market to maintain themselves and their capital. The whole capitalist system is operated by market imperatives, the compulsions of competition, profit-maximization, and capital accumulation.

Why don’t commerce or trade in goods constitute capitalism, as some might assume?

I make a distinction between market opportunities and market imperatives. And I think it’s only in capitalism that you have a system in which people are obliged, are compelled, to enter the market simply to guarantee their own existence and their own self-reproduction. There have been markets throughout history in which people have brought their surpluses to sell, but there’s never been a system before capitalism in which producers and appropriators both were absolutely dependent on the market for their most basic conditions of life and therefore compelled to follow the dictates of the market in order to sustain themselves.

You write that the exploitation that is a necessary part of capitalism is hidden in certain ways, unlike the coercion that characterized feudal societies where naked power was more apparent. How is exploitation under capitalism opaque?

The contrast that you just indicated, between capitalism and feudalism, is a useful one. If you think about what the relationship is between a feudal lord and a dependent peasant, it’s a very transparent relationship, which is even legally recognized as a relationship of inequality.

In capitalism, the capitalist and the laborer begin, on the face of it, as equals. They’re legally equal, and on top of that, the capitalist actually pays the workers instead of transparently extracting surpluses from them. In the case of feudalism, the peasant is obliged to do labor services or to transfer surpluses directly to the lord; whereas in capitalism, the relationship appears on the face of it to be the opposite, because the capitalist actually pays the worker up front before realizing profits from the worker’s labor in the market. So it takes some complicated calculation to figure out how it is that the worker’s surpluses are transferred to the capitalist and how it is that the capitalist derives a profit from the worker’s labor.

What are the main features of capitalist imperialism?

The main feature of capitalist imperialism is that it operates as much as possible via economic imperatives, instead of by direct colonial rule. I think that if you had talked about American imperialism before the invasion of Iraq, you would likely meet the objection that the United States doesn’t really possess colonies. But I actually think it remains true that it’s not a colonial power in the sense that we’ve traditionally understood it. I think the United States would still prefer to stay out of colonial entanglements and operate its domination through economic imperatives.

I think that the United States is actually the first, and so far the only, truly capitalist empire, which has exercised its domination largely by these economic imperatives, by making subordinate powers subject to economic compulsions emanating from the United States and from American capital.

So in the case of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, would you say then that it is an exception to this rule?

I think the mess that they made of it in Iraq, and the complete lack of planning for after the war, probably testifies to the fact that they hadn’t really intended it to be this way. They hadn’t intended to be an occupying power. What I think they hoped would happen was that they could decapitate the regime and just install some more compliant leadership and then allow American capital to insert itself comfortably into the Iraq economy and into the production of oil. The very fact that they made such a hash of it seems to me to confirm the point, rather than the reverse.

What is it about capitalism today that allows empire to exist and to flourish and to expand without the need for military colonialization?

When we were talking about the relationship between capital and labor, I talked about the ways in which capital can exercise its domination over labor, because workers are market dependent and obliged to enter the market, to sell their labor power, simply in order to gain access to the means of life and self-reproduction. In a way, an analogous thing has happened on the global plane, in which more and more parts of the world have been subjected to these market imperatives by making them dependent on entering the market. Capitalists have to pay workers up front before they realize profits from the workers’ work through the market just to gain access to the means of maintaining themselves. You only need to think about the conditions imposed by the IMF on developing economies, which are designed to make them more dependent on global markets and foreign capital. Or, for example, think about agricultural producers who have been forced into single cash crop production and increasingly forced to orient themselves towards the external market and export. The more they’ve been oriented in that way, the more susceptible they’ve became to the imposition of this kind of domination from the advanced capitalist countries.

Why wouldn’t smaller, poorer countries just try to stay independent of a global economy in which the winners are clearly the richer countries?

This is obviously the toughest question for anybody in these countries to answer. The extent to which economies can withdraw themselves from the global capitalist economy is obviously a matter of huge contention and, frankly, I can’t answer it myself. It’s really difficult now to imagine a world in which people could be independent and completely autonomous of the global market. But I think that what has happened is that increasingly, through the IMF and so on, these countries have more and more subjected themselves and allowed themselves to be drawn even more into this form of domination, more dependent on foreign capital and finance.

Take Brazil for example. The Brazilians in recent years have liked to talk about their independence or decoupling from the global economy, but in reality, even under the Workers’ Party, they’ve made themselves more dependent on international capital, and some economists far more expert than I am have raised questions about whether this has been wise or even necessary. You might think that an economy as big and potentially autonomous as this could have detached itself much more than it has been prepared to do. Whatever the press is now telling us about the Brazilian recovery from the current crisis, there’s ample evidence that they’ve suffered more from the recession than they needed to do or than they would have done had they not been following IMF principles and made themselves increasingly dependent on the global economy. But I really don’t feel qualified to comment on this with any confidence.

You distinguish empires of capital—capitalist imperialism—from at least two other kinds of imperialisms that have existed and to some extent flourished in the past for a time: empires of commerce and empires of property. You regard the Roman Empire and the Spanish Empire in Latin America as conforming to the latter. What defined these empires?

I selected these two forms of empire and distinguished them from the empire of capital because a focus on property and on commerce are something that we associate with capitalism. I wanted to show that it was possible, and historically did happen, that empires could be property-oriented or could be commercially oriented without being capitalist and without responding to the same capitalist imperatives.

The Roman Empire is probably the first really to be grounded in the acquisition of private property. The reason I called the Roman Empire an empire of property is because, first of all, it was responding to the interests of private propertied classes in ways quite different, for example, from empires like the Chinese, where private property was well developed but where the imperial state was a primary mode of appropriation for officeholders and the main source of great wealth. In the Roman Empire we’re talking about property in land as the principal source of power and the empire was constructed on that foundation. The republic that created this empire was basically an oligarchy of propertied classes and it was their interests that were being expressed in imperial expansion. And, in fact, although they created an imperial state, the imperial state never became the primary source of wealth for the ruling classes. Property was always the objective, the sole reliable source of wealth, while the imperial state served as an instrument of appropriation indirectly by protecting and expanding private property. The Roman Empire was basically one big land-grabbing operation.

All the ruling classes enriched themselves big time. They also, to some extent, used imperial land to pacify their own peasant armies, whom they had basically been expropriating at home. But they also effectively created local propertied classes in their colonial territories, even in places where aristocracies of property hadn’t existed before. So the empire was in a sense more a coalition of local landed aristocracies than an imperial state.

What empires of commerce, which are based on commerce and trading routes, stand out to you historically?

Probably the most commercialized empire that ever existed before capitalism was the early modern Dutch Empire. But you can also identify the Arab-Muslim Empire in these terms and, for example, the Venetian and other Italian commercial city-states. The principal reason that I call them noncapitalist is that their commercial success depended on their extra-economic powers, political, military, and so on. I have this complicated argument—and this is obviously very contentious and controversial—about how the Dutch economy, as commercialized as it was, was not driven by capitalist imperatives. It was above all a commercial power, but its commercial successes depended not really on competitive production. Although it did introduce quite a few innovations in production, its main successes had to do, for example, with its naval power, its navigational skills, its extra-economic command of trade routes and its imposition of de facto trade monopolies in various places.

So trade, which would involve buying low and selling high, is not a hallmark of capitalism, which involves a certain kind of competitive production to continually make products faster and better at less cost.

Right. One way of looking at it is to say that precapitalist commerce depends on fragmented markets. In other words, you buy in one market and sell in another and that’s why long-distance trade was the most wealth-creating form of commerce. Whereas an economy driven by truly capitalist imperatives is in effect an integrated market, ideally, in which all producers are subjected to the same competitive imperatives and have to adopt productive strategies to meet those imperatives.

In the case of the Dutch, for example, it’s certainly a case of dependence on commerce, in the sense that even Dutch farmers were obliged to enter the market for some of their basic inputs like grain. But the way they achieved their success was to command, for example, the Baltic grain trade and to import cheap grain from relatively low-cost producing areas, while the Dutch farmers themselves were able to move onto semi-luxury goods like dairy products and meat and so on. It was never a question of their competing with cheap low-cost producers. They actually benefited from low-cost production elsewhere. They were able to keep their output prices high and keep their costs low simply by their command of this vast trading system.

Let’s turn to the British Empire, which you regard as the first emerging instance of capitalist imperialism. How did capitalism emerge in England? What happened to production and agriculture there?

It wasn’t some single revolutionary moment that brought about capitalism, but what emerged in the English countryside was a distinctive network of agrarian relations in which tenants increasingly held their property on economic leases, not rents taxed by custom, for instance, but rents that varied according to the movements of economic forces. And you had landlords who became increasingly dependent for their wealth on the competitive productiveness of their tenant, rather than on their own superior force, their own coercive power to extract more surpluses. So you had a system in which both appropriators and producers had an interest in increasing the labor productivity, at first by innovative land use and then by technical means, and embarked on this project of what they called “improvement” to increase the productivity of agriculture.

Improvement, the idea of improving uncultivated or poorly cultivated land, was used to justify seizing the land of others, whether in England or Ireland or elsewhere. How did the philosopher John Locke, perhaps the most influential proponent of the concept of improvement, shape Western ideology about the value of property?

European imperialism was often justified by claiming that unoccupied land was available for appropriation—the so-called res nullius principle. This wasn’t an uncommon defense of colonial appropriation. But what happens with capitalism, which is absolutely distinctive, and what you get with the capitalist ideology to which Locke contributed so much, is that it isn’t simply a question of unoccupied land being available for appropriation. The argument now was that anything which was not being fruitfully and productively used, by the standards of English commercial agriculture, was itself subject to justifiable appropriation. So that applied, for example, to indigenous lands in the Americas where the indigenous people did not improve their land by the standards of English commercial agriculture and did not increase the exchange value of what they produced.

And that’s critical: the notion of exchange value is the really essential point. Locke is very explicit about this. He indulges in these calculations about how much of the land’s value derives from nature and how much from human labor, and in an improved economy, the value created by labor is maybe 99 percent or something like that. But it soon becomes clear that the essential point isn’t labor—the expenditure of effort—but the creation of exchange value; and the point then is that, no matter how much effort may have been expended by the indigenous peoples in America, they weren’t actually doing what needs to be done to establish their rights of property, because, in the absence of a well developed commercial economy, they weren’t creating value.

And so the production of exchange value becomes effectively the basis of property both domestically and abroad. Now this doesn’t mean that once somebody seizes a piece of land and renders it productive, somebody else can come along and claim it on the grounds that they’re going to be even more productive. Locke says that we establish a right to property when we mix our labor with something. But you have to follow the argument a bit further than that, because it isn’t just a question of our mixing our labor with something that gives us a right to property. What establishes property is adding to its commercial value by rendering it more productive.

That created a whole new justification for empire, although I have to say that Locke wasn’t the first one to think of it. There’s a fascinating document, which I refer to in my book, by one of the architects of British imperialism in Ireland, a lawyer named Sir John Davies, who decades earlier than Locke justified seizing Irish land by arguing that the Irish themselves were not really using the land because they weren’t improving the land. Not that they weren’t cultivating it, because they obviously were, so it wasn’t just a question of unoccupied or uncultivated land being open to appropriation. But they simply weren’t improving it, they weren’t increasing its exchange value sufficiently, so the English were entitled to claim it. And it became the objective of English imperialism in Ireland to transform Irish property relations in such a way that they could try to reproduce the effects of English agrarian capitalism—until of course Ireland itself threatened to become a competitor and then they started obstructing Irish development. But that’s another story.

How do you regard the British Empire in India in light of your contentions about territorial empire and the imperatives of British early capitalism?

The British were never able to transport their social property relations to their empire in the way that they tried to do in Ireland. In the case of India you had a prosperous highly developed economy operating on its own principles, which were not about to be transformed in a direction that would have suited the British. But the British did hope to be able to just derive great advantages from it as a commercial resource. And for a while they were capable of doing that, especially through the East India Company. But increasingly the state rather than the East India Company got drawn into the process, because to defend their commercial preeminence in India they were being increasingly drawn into military adventures to keep order and this meant being increasingly drawn into a territorial kind of empire. Partly this was because the East India Company itself wasn’t operating on what might be called capitalist principles. The East India Company had become a revenue-extracting instrument. People like Edmund Burke in England, who was quite critical of the way the empire was being conducted and of the East India Company, said that they simply weren’t operating on commercial principles.

So the state, ironically, was drawn into dominating the empire, not just to get its share of the revenues, but in order to get it to operate on commercial principles that would suit the British. And this produced a territorial imperative. The empire increasingly became what you might call a military dictatorship. And I would argue that in the long run this represented a contradiction.

There’s a lot of debate about the extent to which India was profitable for the British and I can’t possibly settle the question of whether it was profitable or more of a drag on British resources. But I do think that there was a fundamental contradiction between, on the one hand, the attempt just to derive commercial advantage from it, and, on the other hand, the increasingly territorial and military nature of the empire. So I could easily be persuaded that in the long run it really wasn’t as profitable as they would have liked it to be, even as profitable as it may have been for some individuals engaged in the empire. I think in the long run, a very persuasive argument could be made, and in fact has been made, that in the long run it was more of a drag than a benefit, precisely because of the cost of this kind of territorial empire. And that’s why I say that the American empire is the first truly capitalist empire, because the British were not able to pull it off. They weren’t able to govern their empire by economic means, whereas the Americans have come closer to doing that than anyone else has ever done.

In capitalist markets, where labor is exchanged in the market without any overt coercion, people are supposed to be free and equal. What impact did the identification of capitalism with freedom and equality have on the rationale for subordinating certain people as slaves?

The first point obviously is that even though capitalism is conventionally defined in terms of wage labor, that didn’t prevent it from making use of slave labor at certain moments in its history. There’s a lot to be said about how capitalism has exploited slavery and, conversely, how slavery was shaped by capitalist imperatives, which didn’t exist in earlier forms of slavery.

I think that it’s possible to argue that the extreme racism that was associated with slavery in the United States, an extreme kind of racism that didn’t exist in the same way in ancient slave societies, has to do partly with the fact that the ideology of capitalism, which argues that all human beings are contractual equals, found it difficult to deal with a situation in which people were transparently not legally equal. And so one justification for this anomaly was simply to write a whole section of people out of the human race. It was possible to say all humans are equal, but these people in effect were not human— or, in milder forms of so-called cultural racism, that they were perennial children, who could never rise to the level of adult responsibilities and rights.

As you just mentioned, one of capitalism's central characteristics is the prevalence of wage labor where non-economic forms of coercion are not necessary. How, then, should we understand systems of coercion under capitalism, such as apartheid in South Africa?

I should emphasize first that for me, as I said at the beginning of the interview, the defining characteristic of capitalism is the market dependence of the main economic actors. Of course wage labor is the market dependence of laboring classes taken to its ultimate and extreme conclusion. But market dependence, and the subjection of people to market imperatives, can happen—and historically has happened—short of the proletarianization of labor. Direct producers like those tenants on economic leases I talked about before were market dependent and compelled to respond to market imperatives. In fact, the emergence of a large force of dispossessed workers obliged to sell their labor power for a wage was historically the result rather than the cause of those market imperatives, as competitive pressures, and also land- lords responding to those pressures, forced many small producers off the land.

The second point I would emphasize is that, as I said about slavery, capitalism has made use of various kinds of dependent labor, in various ways. We have to make a distinction between, on the one hand, the basic conditions, the social property relations that create those market imperatives I keep talking about and, on the other hand, how those market imperatives can be imposed on various kinds of labor, not just capitalist wage labor. In the early days of capitalist development in the U.S., for instance, southern planters were inserted into a growing capitalist economy and a world market, and—though there’s still debate about this—they, at least for a time, successfully exploited slave labor in response to those economic imperatives. It would take too long here to consider how and why the employment of slave labor became less viable in the context of a capitalist economy, but the point is that capitalism could and did make use of it, as it can and does make use of other forms of extra-economic dependence and coercion. Capitalism wouldn’t be capitalism if the basic relations of market dependence didn’t prevail and impose their requirements on the economy in general; but this doesn’t mean that those imperatives can’t act on other forms of labor than wage labor or that various forms of extra-economic oppression—whatever happens to be available in any given historical context—can’t be exploited to respond to market imperatives.

Of course, wage labor has the distinct advantage that it doesn’t require constant extra-economic coercion, constant political or military oppression and vigilance. Economic compulsions are enough to make the workers sell their labor power for a wage and, in normal conditions, to keep on working and producing capital. So, whatever economic benefits capital can derive from forms of oppression like apartheid in the right historical conditions, those economic benefits can’t survive changing political conditions, like the powerful anti-apartheid resistance. And it’s no surprise that big capital in South Africa decided it wasn’t worth preserving the system.

In the twentieth century, and specifically after the Second World War, you suggest that capitalist imperialism emerged in a mature form.

Yes. I think that it was not before the end of the Second World War that it actually emerged in a mature form. What you get is a two-pronged strategy on the part of the Americans, which on the one hand establishes economic hegemony through the Bretton Woods system, in which the U.S. effectively set the conditions of economic development throughout the world, and on the other hand, the U.S. establishes itself as the overwhelming superior millitary power during the war, capped off by dropping the bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki towards the end of the war.

So you have this two-pronged strategy, which has effectively been pursued from then until now. So you might want to ask, what’s the connection between this economic hegemony and the military? If the United States is depending on economic hegemony in a way that an ideal capitalist imperialism should do, why does it need this massive military power? Well, it’s a curious thing. In earlier forms of imperialism, the purpose of military power was pretty obvious. If you were out to capture territory or to defeat imperial rivals, it’s clear why you needed an overwhelming military power. But if you’re trying to establish hegemony over the world by means of your economic power, then why is it necessary to have the most hugely superior dominant military power the world has ever known? I think that here we come to an important anomaly in the capitalist imperialism that we’ve been seeing.

I don’t think it’s just a matter of the U.S. building up its military power just to compensate for its declining economic power—though that’s certainly part of it. What I’ve been arguing is that capitalist imperialism operates by means of economic power, which is more or less separate from political, military, and legal power. In other words, unlike the feudal lord who depends on his military, legal, and political powers to extract surpluses from the peasant, the capitalist supposedly doesn’t. And that makes it possible for capitalist power to extend far beyond the reach of any political or legal or military power. But this doesn’t mean that capitalists don’t need the support of political and military powers to maintain the conditions of capital accumulation. The trouble is that there is a growing disparity between the global scope of capitalist economic power and the more local powers of administration and coercion that it still needs.

I simply don’t buy the argument that we’ve been getting from globaliza-tion theoreticians and from people like Hardt and Negri that the more global the economy becomes, the less relevant the nation-state is. I think the contrary is true. The global economy is being managed through the medium of the global state system. I think what’s really characteristic of globalization is the growing disparity between the global reach of capitalist economic domination and the persistence of the territorial state which it still needs, because capital needs an orderly, predictable legal and administrative apparatus more than any other social form has ever done.

We shouldn’t be fooled by capital’s constant whining about government interference and regulation. Capital accumulation, especially because the capitalist market itself is so anarchic, is a very demanding process that needs lots of legal, political, and administrative order, as long as it’s capital friendly; and in the foreseeable future, it’s impossible to imagine that this kind of close legal and administrative regulation is possible on a global scale. So I don’t foresee the day when capital will be able to organize the world without the aid of territorial states. But of course once you acknowledge that capital still needs this system of multiple states and that the political form of globalization isn’t a global state, but a global system of multiple states, you can see that it creates some real possibilities of instability.

In other words, you believe that these local states, these poorer countries where the U.S. is trying to exert its economic hegemony, aren’t necessarily going to remain loyal to its cause.

That’s right. The point is, though, the U.S. needs their states to organize an orderly global economy. The U.S. depends on them all to do that. And the capitalist power, the imperialist power, is constrained by that dependence. It can’t be going to war with every one of these powers or trying to coerce them by military means, because that would upset the whole climate for capital accumulation. So it has to find ways of imposing this coercion to keep these states in line without depriving them of their capacity for organizing the world for global capital. And this is a real problem for capital and a real weakness, I think, in the long run. It creates whole new spaces for opposition.

What I think has happened—especially under Bush, though the thinking behind it has forerunners as least as far back as Ronald Reagan—is that in dealing with this contradiction, the United States has adopted a military doctrine which justifies permanent war very often without any specific objectives, a kind of infinite war, a war without end, in purpose or in time. The Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and Perle crowd surrounding Bush actually devised a plan they themselves called “Operation Infinite War”; and for them one of the principal functions of war, as they understood it, was the so-called demonstration effect, where you show your massive military superiority without really seeking any particular objective in the way that old imperialist powers did with their military force. You’re not necessarily seeking a specific territory, but you want to create a cautionary atmosphere by means of this demonstration effect: shock and awe. I think that what happened in Iraq was not just a question of the most obvious impulse to control the oil supply. It was also just to shock and awe the world, not least Iran.

The U.S. doctrine of demonstrating enormous military capability and a willingness to use it, in order to deter efforts or any temptation to think about contesting or equaling U.S. military power—would you say that this is directed at both “rogue states” and industrialized states that have been longtime U.S. allies?

Absolutely, but the problem with capitalist competition is that it’s not like inter-imperialist rivalry of the traditional kind. I mean, if you’re fighting over trade routes, you go and you conquer your rival and the objective is pretty clear. But you don’t have that luxury in advanced capitalism because you need your competitors’ markets as much as you’re endangered by their competition. So you have to find a new way of controlling allies which doesn’t at the same time undermine your own economic power. It has been a long-standing policy of the United States to demonstrate that it is the overwhelming supreme military power which is hardly worth trying to challenge or even to match. And if the truth be told, other major capitalist states have generally ceded that supremacy to the U.S.—something you couldn’t imagine in old inter-imperialist rivalries.

Some commentators have argued that the doctrine of perpetual war represented a clear break from prior U.S. policy, that U.S. empire has taken a new turn. Is there any truth in such claims?

Well, it’s very tempting to say that it does represent a huge break because these people were so extreme, it’s hard to find any comparison in the recent past, not just in foreign policy but on the domestic level where they introduced restrictions on civil liberties in ways that were not only reminiscent of the Cold War but perhaps in some respects even worse. So on that front there obviously were certain discontinuities from the recent past, and the ostensible territorial occupation of Iraq does suggest that they were reverting to an older form of territorial imperialism, but I’ve already discussed why I don’t think that was their objective.

So despite the extent to which they took their doctrine to unmatched extremes, you can’t make sense out of what they were doing if you don’t consider what went before. For example, that two-pronged strategy that I talked about before, that’s been in place since the Second World War: on the one hand, economic domination, through the control of a global commercial and financial systems, and on the other hand, its absolutely overwhelming and unmatchable military power. There’s no way that Bush could have done what he did if those forms of dominance hadn’t been a longstanding objective, if the construction of this overwhelming military power hadn’t already been in place. I think that the logic of the American empire and the contradictions that I’ve been trying to explain that prevail in it are longstanding, at least since the Second World War. You might say that Bush followed it to its ultimate and irrational extremes, but it doesn’t make sense unless you see it against the background of what went before.

Where would you situate U.S. empire under Obama?

It’s a really tough question where we should situate Obama in relation to his predecessors. I have no doubt that he’s sincere in his more progressive rhetoric, as far as it goes, and he’s certainly not George Bush. But it’s not clear to me that his view of the world and the place of the U.S. in it marks as much of a break as he no doubt genuinely believes it is. We should probably listen to the alarm bells set off by his domestic economic policies and the extent to which they tread the Wall Street line or by the people in his administration who belong to that milieu. Or, for that matter, the healthcare reform fiasco and the ways it was driven by the interests of insurance companies; I don’t think that can be blamed entirely on Congress. So why should we be confident that Obama’s foreign policy and his attitude to war will represent a sharper break from his predecessors? Two wars don’t inspire much confidence. I’m sure he believes what he says about the doctrine of “just war,” which he invoked in his Nobel speech. The trouble is that this doctrine is notoriously flexible, and it’s been invoked for centuries by some pretty rapacious imperial powers.

One thing you could maybe say is that Bush was so beyond the pale that even this flexible doctrine wasn’t flexible enough for him. I mean, the doctrine of just war, in all its traditional versions, required some idea of finite ends and means and some proportionality between them, and it’s impossible to apply those principles to a doctrine of infinite war, war without limits in time or geography. How far Obama has moved away from this is hard to say, but at least he invokes those principles of ends and means, and he may have some sense of limits—maybe like Colin Powell did with his Powell Doctrine, alone in the Bush administration.

Obama has supposedly been strongly influenced by the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and what’s known as Christian realism, which acknowledges the tragedies of war but recognizes its occasional necessity. But one interesting thing about Obama is that he seems far less concerned than Niebuhr was about the arrogance, the hubris, of U.S. power, which Niebuhr explicitly warned against. If you’re going to argue that war is sometimes necessary to combat evil, a lot, of course, depends on what you think is evil, and there’s always been a temp- tation for U.S. presidents to think that what’s bad for the U.S.—or U.S. capital— is by definition evil. The other side of that coin has been to believe that what the U.S. regards as good should be imposed on everyone, everywhere. That kind of arrogant moralism can always be a dangerous thing, but, of course, it’s even more dangerous when a state has the military power to act on it. I’m not convinced that Obama has strayed very far from that course. He certainly isn’t about to give up the military supremacy of the U.S., any more than what’s left of its financial dominance; and he isn’t, after all, just acknowledging that its military dominance should make the U.S. state more, rather than less, cautious about using its power. I’m afraid he really buys into the view that the U.S. does and should lead the world and sometimes, even if reluctantly and conscious of the tragedy of war, impose its ideas of good and evil by military means.

I’d like to turn to the ways in which earlier Marxist thinkers have thought about imperialism and tried to describe its contours. You point out that we are now in a world of universal capitalism—that capitalism reaches all over the globe in a way that perhaps Marxist theoreticians might not have anticipated.

I wouldn’t say that Marx didn’t foresee the universalization of capitalism, but he actually never talked much about it. He gave us a vivid conception of its expansive qualities already in The Communist Manifesto. You get a sense of its incredible powers of expansion. But he himself was primarily interested in exploring the internal logic of the system. So in Capital he uses as his model the most advanced capitalist economy, Britain, and constructs a theory of the internal logic of capitalism.

But his successors did get more interested in the external relations of capitalism and the assumption that they all seemed to make was that capitalism never would become so universal. It required noncapitalist entities to exploit, and capitalist powers would engage in wars with their imperial rivals for control of those noncapitalist areas. But somehow you never get a theory which takes account of the universalization of capitalist imperatives as the dominant imperial form, and that’s where we are today.

Are the theories of Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg, which were written during the classic age of imperialism at the turn of the last century—at a time when capitalist social relations were incipient or had not taken hold in most of the world—still valid?

They’re obviously important to build on. I wouldn’t say that they’re lacking in validity. They’re just incomplete, you might say. They give us a very good account of the exploitative character of capitalist power and its need to extend its exploitation on a global scale. I don’t see how they could have at that stage envisaged a situation in which the capitalist imperatives are the principal mode of domination throughout the globe. This isn’t to say that prosperous capitalism exists everywhere—on the contrary—but the capitalist powers do exercise their domination by means of manipulating these economic imper- atives of capitalism and that’s become the dominant form of imperial domination. And we don’t really have a theory for that.

You write in Empire of Capital that this current form of imperial domination, while it may appear all-powerful to some, is potentially quite vulnerable. And the vulnerability stems to some degree from global capitalism operating through a system of multiple states.

One way of looking at it is to contrast my argument with the arguments made by Hardt and Negri. They suggest that we’re now in a situation where empire is everywhere and nowhere. “There is no place of empire” is how they put it, and they themselves tell you what the political implications of their arguments are. And if you think about it, it’s very politically disabling, because they say we don’t really have visible concentrations of capitalist power and visible targets, that’s effectively what they’re saying, because capitalist power is everywhere and nowhere. That means, they say, that you can’t really create an oppositional force in the form of a counter-power, and that’s why working class movements and socialist parties and so on are basically a total irrelevance. Now opposition can only take the form of some mystical force and transformation of subjectivities, or whatever it is, but a counter-power to visible concentrations of capitalist power is no longer a possibility, according to them.

Well, I’m arguing just the opposite. I’m saying that there are indeed visible concentrations of capitalist power, that the territorial state may be more than ever the point of concentration of capitalist power, that global capital needs the power of the state, and depends on this global system of multiple states.

And that means that, although obviously oppositional forces in the main imperial powers will be the most effective, nevertheless other territorial states have their own leverage too because the system is so dependent on them.

The reason I say that the state is perhaps more than ever the point of concentration of capitalist powers is because, if you think about it, global capital—capital itself—can’t organize globalization. It just can’t do it. It doesn’t do it and it depends on states to do it for them. So its dependence on this form of territorial and localized power is a vulnerability and it creates direct targets for opposition in a way that hasn’t existed for a very long time.

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