A sensible question
George W Bush was uncharacteristically perceptive when he asked why ‘they’ hate ‘America’, following the events of 11 September. Hate of the hegemonic power of the day is not unusual as Britain’s history demonstrates. The intensity of the hate nowadays is impressive, but then the ‘weapons’ at America’s disposal, economic and political as well as military, are enormous in comparison to those that were available to past ‘most hated’ powers. There is also a new dimension to this tradition. Hegemonic power is exercised today by a few corporate giants who dominate not only the economic arena but also most aspects of political life. Equally important, they control the media that helped in the past to keep political and capitalist excesses under some control.
The answer to Bush, as argued below, is simple. Foreigners (Muslims and others) do not hate America or the Americans. They hate the corporate powers that masquerade as ‘the USA’ and seek under that banner to dominate whole nations in the name of ‘freedom and democracy’.
Hegemony: many benefits and inevitable costs
A country attains the status of a hegemon when it acquires military, political and economic power that exceeds those of other leading countries combined. The process takes a long time to come to fruition, the country enjoys several decades at the top, and then it begins a slow process of decline. The benefits, however, last a very long time after hegemony has been surrendered. Whatever its past policies might have been, a hegemonic power favours openness in international trade. It advocates, particularly to other nations, low or no tariffs on trade and no subsidies to domestic industries. Clearly, such a strategy would be to the hegemon’s benefit.
Immanuel Wallerstein lists three instances of Western hegemony: the ‘Dutch’ United Provinces (mid-seventeenth century), Britain (mid-nineteenth century), and the USA (mid-twentieth century). He, and other authors such as Paul Kennedy, contend that US hegemony reached its zenith back in the 1960s. Moreover, most analysts agree that hegemonic powers become highly aggressive and unstable when they are on their way down. This was evident in the case of Britain, and it is now also unmistakeable in the way ‘America’ behaves.
Britain achieved the status of a hegemon after the Industrial Revolution when it was able to out-produce and out-gun all other contenders. Britain introduced the Gold Standard to which currencies of other countries were linked. The aim was to have a stable ‘global currency’ that would encourage open and unhindered international trade. The Bank of England set the exchange rate for foreign currencies and a country that stepped out of line exposed itself to commercial, political, and military sanctions. The Gold standard was launched in 1816, but the USA became a member only in 1873. The Standard was suspended in World War I and that was virtually the end for that means of global regulation.
Hegemony brought many benefits to Britain. Even now it is the fourth largest economy in the world although its role as hegemonic power was over before the turn of the twentieth century. But hegemony brought its own burdens as well. A hegemonic power has to invest a great deal of money and effort in ‘policing’ the world. Part of the cost is a loss in popularity. Britain’s highhanded policies were heartily disliked by the rest of the world; not least by the USA and Germany. These countries were not very different from today’s developing countries. Alexander Hamilton, the first US Secretary of the Treasury summed up the feeling in his Report on Manufacture which he submitted to Congress in 1791. That report expressed precisely the same views that are now prevalent in some parts of the world: openness is good but we need time to adjust and to be able to compete on a level playing field. For instance, he argued that the domestic market is of fundamental importance to a nation’s economy. He also advocated protection and subsidy for fledgling local industries. In fact he disputed all the policies now being force-fed to the developing world by the USA.
Fredrich List advanced similar views at that time on behalf of Germany. Interestingly, Britain fought its own wars against ‘terrorists’ and ‘insurgents’; mainly those who challenged its actions as a hegemonic power!
Transformations on the way to economic development
Economic development does not happen overnight. It took Britain well over a century to become a leading economic power. The same is evident in the case of other countries in Europe as elsewhere. Equally, economic development does not proceed in isolation from other social and political transformations.
The process of change is elaborate, complex, and lengthy, but above all else it is not planned. Economic development does indeed change society in radical ways, and vice versa. The feudal system in Europe disappeared in the lead to the Industrial Revolution. Change in the role of women in society, the significance of the institution of marriage, and the place of the family unit in the structure of society are other examples amongst many. Marx thought highly of capitalism, as an essential step to communism, because it destroys social and political traditions that might stand in the way of economic growth.
It is impossible to disentangle the different strands of subtle but persistent change. People need many decades to accommodate to the new conditions. More to the point, they might well decide to modify or even reject some or all parts of the package. Here lies the crux of the present conflict between ‘America’ and those who ‘hate it’. The fact that this truism is not expressed openly by Bush and his cabal, and the corporate and media powers they serve, is predictable, and perfectly understandable. Instead, people’s attention is diverted by talk of ‘hate’, ‘terrorism’, frequent announcements of fearful threats and countermeasures such as armed air marshals on civilian flights. And there is always the popular bogeyman of ‘Islamic fundamentalism’!
Why is there so much ‘hate’ nowadays?
Up to World War II America was isolationist. The war changed that. America’s mainland suffered no damage and its industries blossomed in response to the needs of war. America emerged from the war as the latest hegemonic power.
During the 1950s and 1960s, the USA, not unexpectedly, was content to exercise a benign form of hegemony. It was on the way up. It set out to help Europe and Japan to reconstruct their shattered economies. The period, now known as the Golden Age, was characterised by easy profits and unusually high economic growth rates of about 5 percent per year.
However, from the mid-1960s onwards life became more difficult. Europe and Japan emerged as formidable competitors. The costs of hegemony were also punishing. After World War II, the USA set up and funded the World Bank, the IMF, and GATT (now the World Trade Organisation). They were the US chosen means to regulate the global system. America also kept about one million soldiers abroad to police the world.
Growth and profits were more difficult to generate than during the exceptional circumstances of the Golden Age. Growth went back to its long-term trend of about 1-2 percent, but that was not acceptable any more. Action was needed to create new commercial opportunities. Geographic expansion, now recognised as globalisation, was thought to be the only answer. Countries had to be converted, euphemistically described as structural adjustment, to a strict form of capitalism known as neo-liberalism.
Western corporations were in a hurry, and the process of conversion was undertaken, therefore, on shock-therapy principles. The emergency, the corporations and the governments they controlled decided, was too pressing for the target nations to be given sufficient time to undergo the lengthy social and political transformations that accompanied such epic changes in the past. The other, more radical, question as to whether these nations wanted to go down that road in the first instance was not considered relevant. The needs of the American dominated multinational corporations were, and are, given priority over all else.
Globalisation was accompanied by a merger between the political and corporate sectors within the leading powers. State power had to take backseat in a globalised world in which political borders had become relatively unimportant. This is now causing much concern. The ‘revolving door’ syndrome has become a common feature within the leading economies: a few individuals move effortlessly between the two domains. This is seen most starkly in the present Bush administration in the USA.
The exercise of hegemonic power has shifted from a recognised state, as in the case of Britain for instance, to an amorphous group of vast corporations that control production as well as the media. Their leading actors and nominees also form the governments in the leading countries. And the World Bank, IMF, and the World Trade Organisation act as their global enforcers. By the turn of the twenty-first century this had become the dominant global model.
In the circumstances, it should cause no surprise that there is much anger aimed at the USA. That country is seen as proxy for the faceless groups that are wreaking havoc with the lives of billions of people throughout the world. However, populations in the advanced economies are no exception. They have seen welfare concessions, that they had won after much struggle in the past, rolled back and progressively reduced. Ordinary people are not only untouched but actually harmed it seems by economic growth in countries such a Britain. Naturally, the situation in infinitely worse for people in weaker political economies. They know they are under attack but there is little that they could do about it. It would not be unreasonable for them to turn Bush’s question round to ask why ‘America’ hates them so much!
The rest is history!
What is left for the disadvantaged people to do? Sadly, terrorism and suicide bombing seem for some to be the obvious answer. ‘Patterns of Global Terrorism’ reports published by the US State Department suggest that the link between global business and international terrorism is strong. Reports going back to the early-1980s are available on www.state.gov. (See also Terrorism on this website.) These reports demonstrate that ‘business’ is, and has been for some time, the primary target for terrorists. They also show that the ‘Islamic’ angle is less significant than the public are led to believe: Latin America is of greater importance. The reports establish beyond doubt that America and the Americans are not the ultimate subject of hate painted by Bush and his supporters.
It is more accurate to say that the corporate fiefdoms (including the weapons industry) that now comprise the world global ‘commercial republic’ are, for good reason, the target of much hate and unhappiness. It is of interest to recall here President Dwight Eisenhower’s warning in his farewell speech about the dangers posed by the “Military Industrial Complex”. The signs have been there all along! Inevitably, American interests feature prominently in the global corporate sector, and hence the deliberate confusion about ‘America’ has succeeded and endured.