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"Imperialism and Democracy: White House or Liberty Square?", James Petras

"Imperialism and Democracy: White House or Liberty Square?", James Petras

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Published by Giuliano Valverde
The relation between imperialism and democracy has been debated and discussed over 2500 years, from fifth century Athens to Liberty Park in Manhattan. Contemporary critics of imperialism (and capitalism) claim to find a fundamental incompatibility, citing the growing police state measures accompanying colonial wars, from Clinton’s anti-terrorist laws, and Bush’s “Patriot Act” to Obama’s ordering the extrajudicial assassination of overseas US citizens.
The relation between imperialism and democracy has been debated and discussed over 2500 years, from fifth century Athens to Liberty Park in Manhattan. Contemporary critics of imperialism (and capitalism) claim to find a fundamental incompatibility, citing the growing police state measures accompanying colonial wars, from Clinton’s anti-terrorist laws, and Bush’s “Patriot Act” to Obama’s ordering the extrajudicial assassination of overseas US citizens.

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Published by: Giuliano Valverde on Oct 23, 2011
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Imperialism and Democracy:White House or Liberty Square?
 By James Petras
 – 
The relation betweenimperialism and democracy has been debated and discussed over 2500years, from fifth century Athens to Liberty Park in Manhattan.Contemporary critics of imperialism (and capitalism) claim to find afundamental incompatibility, citing the growing police state measuresaccompanying colonial wars, from C
linton‟s anti
-
terrorist laws, and Bush‟s“Patriot Act” to Obama‟s ordering the extrajudicial assassination of 
overseas US citizens.In the past, however, many theorists of imperialism of varying politicalpersuasion, ranging from Max Weber to Vladimir Lenin, argued thatimperialism unified the country, reduced internal class polarization andcreated privileged workers who actively supported and voted for imperialparties. A historical, comparative survey of the conditions under whichimperialism and democratic institutions converge or diverge can throwsome light on the challenges and choices faced by the burgeoningdemocratic movements erupting across the globe.
The Nineteenth Century
During the 19th century, European and US imperial expansion covered theworld. In tandem, democratic institutions took root, the franchise wasextended to the working class, competitive parties emerged, sociallegislation was passed, and the working class increased its representation inthe legislative chambers.Was the simultaneous growth of democracy and imperialism a spuriouscorrelation reflecting divergent and conflicting underlying forces, onefavoring overseas conquest and another promoting democratic politics? Infact, there was a great deal of overlap between pro-imperialist anddemocratic politics and not simply among the elites.Throughout the 19th and especially in the 20th century, important sectorsof the labor and social democratic parties and numerous prominent leftistsand revolutionary socialists, at one time or another combined support for
workers‟ demands and imperial expansion. None other than Karl Marx, in
his early journalistic writings in the New York Herald Tribune critically
 
supported the British conquest of India as a “modernizing force” breaki
ngdown feudal barriers, even as he supported (with criticism) the Europeanrevolutions of 1848.The ruling classes, the driving force of imperialism, were divided: Some
saw the democratic reforms, “citizenship”, as a means of raising mass
conscriptions for imperial wars; others feared that the democratic reformswould enhance social demands and undercut the accumulation of capitaland rule by the elite. Both were right: Along with greater popularparticipation came virulent modern nationalism, which fueled empirebuilding. At the same time mass access to democratic rights led toheightened class organizations, which threatened or challenged class rule.Within the ruling classes, democratic institutions were seen as an arena topeacefully resolve conflicts between competing sectoral elites. But oncethey took a mass character they were perceived as political threats.Imperial and class-based parties competed for voters among the newlyenfranchised urban workers and rural poor. In many cases, imperial and
class allegiances “co
-
existed” within the same individuals. The question of 
which of the two, imperialist or class consciousness would become
„operative‟ or „salient‟ was in part contingent on the success or failures of 
the larger competing political projects.In other words, when imperial expansion succeeded in easy conquestsresulting in lucrative colonies (especially settler colonies) democraticworkers embraced the empire. This was the case because empire enhancedtrade, namely profitable exports and cheap imports, while protecting localmarkets and manufacturers. These in turn expanded employment andwages for substantial sectors of the working class. As a result, labor andsocial democratic parties and trade unions did not oppose imperialism,indeed many supported it.In contrast, when imperialist wars led to prolonged bloody and costlyconflicts, the working class shifted from initial chauvinist enthusiasm to
disenchantment and opposition. Democratic demands to „end the war‟ led
to strikes challenging unequal sacrifice. Democratic and anti-imperialistsentiments tended to fuse.The conflict between democracy and imperialism became even moreapparent in the case of an imperial defeat and military occupation. Both thedefeat of France in the German-French war of 1870-71 and the Germandefeat in the Frist World War led to massive democratic socialist uprisings(the Paris Comune of 1871 and the German revolution of 1918) attacking
 
militarism, ruling class domination and the entire imperial capitalistinstitutional framework.
The Imperialism and Democracy Debate and „History from Below‟
 
Historians, especially practioners of the fashionable “history from below”,
exaggerated the democratic values and struggles of the working class andunderstated the prolonged and deep felt support among important sectors
for successful imperial expansion and conquest. The notion of „inherent‟ or „instinctual‟ class solidarity is belied by the active role of workers in
imperial conquest as soldiers, overseas settlers, merchant mariners andoverseers. Imperial collaborators and empire loyalists were numerousamong English and French workers and, especially later, within the USlabor movement.The theoretical point is that the pre-eminence of democratic over imperialconsciousness and action among workers is contingent on the practicalmaterial outcomes of imperial policies and democratic struggles.
Workers and Imperialism
Empire building makes demands on workers to produce more for less inorder to export and invest profitably in colonized regions. This led tocapital-labor conflict, especially in the initial phase of imperial expansion.As imperial rulers consolidated their control over the colonized countriesthey intensified exploitation of markets, labor and resources. Imperialexports destroyed local competitors. Profits rose, wages increased andworkers turned from initial opposition toward imperialism to demanding ashare of the increasing income of the export oriented manufacturers. Laborleaders and trade unio
nists approved of the policies of „imperial preference‟, which protected local industries from competition and
privileged monopoly control of colonial markets. They did so becauseimperial policies protected jobs and raised living standards.Workers who were active in social struggles, blacklisted or jailed,voluntarily moved or were exiled to colonized countries. Once settledoverseas, they were given privileged access to better paying jobs asoverseers, skilled employees or promoted to managerial positions. Imperialbased militant workers, once overseas, became colonial collaborators.Many encouraged former workmates, relatives and friends to join them as
successful settlers or contract workers. The „domestication‟ of workers and
the reconciliation of democratic and imperialist sentiments was a cause andconsequent of successful imperialism.

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