How Long do Empires Last? By William Bowles

26 April 2003

Barbarism is right on time
A good friend of mine in the US, not long after 911 wrote me and said, ‘It’s either socialism or barbarism’. Now I’m not sure what her timescale was but she was spot on, about the barbarism bit anyway. Methinks the socialism part is some way off however.

Of course, in modern times, there’s no real parallel for the invasion of Iraq, we have to go back to Suez for an out and out land grab, although the US have had quite a few ‘practice’ runs (Grenada and Panama come to mind). But one thing troubles me about the analysis of the US political class in the current context and that’s the idea that somehow, installed somewhere in the White House there’s a cabal of neo-conservatives, beavering away at taking over the world. If this were true, it would amount to a coup d’etat and nothing could be further from the truth. After all, this is what the Cold War was all about, hence US global ambitions are at least as old, over fifty years.

And is it just me or are the liberal pundits of the western democracies so naïve that they haven’t been aware of US imperialist intentions all of these long years? Of course not, because for most of us, anti-communism has masked the essential reasons for the struggle.

The Empire strikes back
We read all kinds of references to the ‘American empire’ in the mass media over here (in the UK) but one gets the impression that it’s all said slightly tongue in cheek (my feeling is to rephrase it a little and call it tongue between the cheeks), because that’s what it amounts to, a great deal of arse licking on the part of the ‘chattering classes’ who are too afraid to call it what it is, imperialism, because that would mean unpacking what is really going on. It’s much easier to reduce everything to simple black and white issues, ‘Saddam is an evil tyrant’ etc. But what if you say, ‘George Bush leads a country bent on taking over the world for US big business’? Whoa, hold on there! Now you’re letting your ‘opinions’ show. And as the saying goes, opinions are like arseholes, everyone’s got one.

By contrast, the theorists have no such reluctance even if it is the ‘new kind of imperialism’ they’re describing:

‘What is needed then is a new kind of imperialism, one acceptable to a world of human rights and cosmopolitan values. We can already discern its outline: an imperialism which, like all imperialism, aims to bring order and organisation but which rests today on the voluntary principle.’ Robert Cooper, ‘The New Liberal Imperialism’

I like the bit about ‘order’. What like Mussolini made the trains run on time? Or Hitler’s ‘order’? Or indeed like the British Empire of old which brought ‘order’ to the ‘natives’ lives? And of course, articles in the Guardian – where I first came across the invidious ‘opinions’ of Robert Cooper as presented by another ‘theorist’ of the new imperialists, Robert Kagan – has no problem giving them a two-page spread.

And what of ‘cosmopolitan values’? How about a few rounds of cluster bombs on Piccadilly Circus during rush hour? Is that cosmopolitan enough for you? It’ll definitely level (if you’ll excuse the pun) the field. But of course I forgot, ‘cosmopolitan values’ are only for white folks.

Hand-wringing is good for the soul
The trouble of course with both the chatterers and those they chatter about (Cooper et al) is that they think nobody else is watching or has the power to reason for themselves. Reading between the lines was something I learned to do years ago. Critical thinking is something that these university brainwashed (sorry, educated) apes think they have a monopoly over.

It’s the smugness that pisses me off and why, when I read Robert Fisk’s hand-wringing apologies for the terror we visit on the unfortunate inhabitants of Iraq(or a dozen other countries I can think of), I get so angry. It’s all so easy isn’t it, to divorce the actions from the reasons and adopt a ‘moral’ position without ever get one’s hands dirty. So maybe it should be a little more hand washing (after getting them dirty of course) and a little less hand wringing?

Moreover, whether it’s the Fisks or the Gung Ho’s of the journalistic world that are preaching at us about ‘Western values’, we must never lose sight of the fact that they make a living off the business of ‘bringing order’ to those ‘less fortunate’ than ourselves.

News versus information
Can you spot the difference? I’ve been involved in electronic journalism since I got my first computer (a Commodore 64) back in 1979 I think it was and from the getgo, I was struck by the fact that all that separated the ‘pros’ from the ‘amateurs’ was firstly, that the commercial media had the stamp of ‘official’ on it and because of this stamp, was somehow more credible than any kind of ‘un-official’ ‘news’ was (unless it was Soviet Samizdat of course). And although I started creating online journals long before the web came along (my first attempt was in 1983 with a Bulletin Board System called New York On-line which ran until 1992), I was struck by the potential for creating sources of information that didn’t originate from either corporate or state sources and the power of the Internet to disseminate it.

Naively, I thought the IT revolution would enable us to challenge the hegemony of the corporate world and indeed, in some senses, it has. However, it’s not so simple for in spite of a Website like the Info Clearinghouse (and many others of course) to paraphrase the Man, it’s one thing to describe the world, and quite another to change it.

In any case, I’ve wandered off the topic a bit as I think the issue of news versus information in relation to the horrors of the past weeks is central to the issue of challenging the status quo.

What is news?
Essentially, news is what the dominant culture says it is. And this is a trap that even the ‘alternate’ press falls into, by assuming that the lead story is in fact, the story. In other words regardless of truth or otherwise, by accepting that the ‘news’ is indeed the information we need, we allow them to dictate to us what it is we end up reading and regarding as what’s important in our lives. It’s also what they ask us about when they conduct surveys to get their ‘received opinion’ which in turn, reinforces the perception that what we’ve just read in the newspaper, is indeed ‘the news.’

If it’s Saddam and not the Halliburton Corp that leads, then we’ll never get worked up about corporate control of events and how much it impacts on all our lives. Just look at the stunning piece of news and information on on the Halliburton corporation and just how central corporate power is to the direction of foreign and of course, domestic policy.

The connections that flow from that single piece of journalism are immense, embracing race, class and power, from the mainly poor, black and latino people who are recruited to do the fighting for the imperialists, to the imperative to wage war in order to make lots of money out of it and how one corporation shapes policy in order to rationalise going to war in the first place! Now this is news!

And it’s why we’ll never see a cover on Time or Newsweek which over a picture of Dick Cheney says:

‘Halliburton– the corporation the US went to war for’ with a sub that runs, ‘Halliburton, the corporation Dick Cheney ran between serving Bush Sr. as Secretary of Defense and mentoring Bush Jr. as Vice President, is uniquely adapted to permanent, global warfare.’

(Thanks to

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