THE WASHİNGTON Post columnist Charles Krauthammer argues (in the speech he delivered at the American Enterprise Institute’s annual dinner where he received the Irving Kristol Award, February 10, 2004) that American “empire” cannot be defined as an empire for its differences with all other preceding empires including the Roman and the British. He argues that Americans don’t want to stay the places they occupy. As soon as they invade a place (e.g. Iraq), argues Krauthammer, they immediately look for an “exit strategy” which he believes is what makes American domination non-imperial.
The question, then, is what made Americans “enter” the place in the first place? Why does empire enter a place from which it seeks a strategy to exit? What does it achieve at the end? The difference on which Krauthammer bases his justification of American empire is indeed important. It does not make American empire a non-empire but a new empire. Here is why.
Old colonial empire itself “settles” and settles others as well. It wants to have control to generate power. Hence, its reliance on territory, raw material and other resources. It looks for stability. New colonial empire, on the contrary, “settles” (often temporarily) to unsettle others. It seeks to open up to continue the existing control it has over “others.” It is de-territorial or rather post-territorial. It not only needs resources but also ideas/culture. It attempts to secure the free and structuring flow of capital.
New empire operates under new conditions: Systemic integration, increased dominance of finance capital. It heavily relies on the hegemony of ideas and beliefs. It needs ideas to dominate as much as it used to need weapons and economic power. Culture outflanks the status of a residual segment of domination and becomes the main target of imperial domination. Behind this change lie the increasing value of “trust,” “belief” and other non-material generators of “value.”
Islam: Fluid Colony
Empire finds resistance to its further expansion and consolidation in the form of ideas, beliefs. Its hegemony is challenged not by corresponding economic or military powers but by the challenges to its basic operating assumptions (e.g., homo-economicus, self-interest, consumption). Empire works in a subtle way and converts all cultures and religions in the territories it expands into. Empire, which is historical culmination of capitalism in the form of a pure hegemonized American political power, has successfully converted and castrated religions and cultures of Europe and most of Asia. It has been disruptive and subjugative in places like Africa. The collapse of Soviet empire has removed the political shield behind which already weakened religio-cultural elements now seem to be defenseless. Their revival is interrupted with triumphant advent of imperial culture itself. China is currently in the process of cultural conversion to capitalism despite its political desire to remain autonomous. Today, empire has achieved a global reach and map of its domination overlaps with almost all cultural zones except for one: The zone of Islam.
Islam is the only surviving and vibrant “culture” over which empire has yet to achieve domination. This is strikingly different from a territorial argument. Almost all Muslim territories which are mostly organized in the forms of (authoritarian, at times dictatorial) nation-states are under conspicuous control of empire (with the exception of Iran whose relative autonomy vis-à-vis empire accounts for its infantile democracy). Empire is less interested in territorial control and more in non-territorial resources. Then what is this new imperial capital, so to say, that empire is after?
What empire wants is not democracy. This however does not mean that empire will never want democracy. Indeed, democracy in and of itself is seldom relevant to the demands of the empire. What empire wants is spherical ACCESS. If that access is going to be provided by a collaborating dictator the imperial desire will take the form of stability. If the dictator (no matter if he was set up initially by empire) blocks the access then the desire will take the form of need for democracy and hence “liberation/occupation” of that place.
Once empire consolidates its territorial domination in the form of instant accessibility of all cultural zones and political organizations (states) it might gradually rely on two things. The first one is its seductive power in the form of consumption culture and promises of pleasure which her list of delivery will never coincide with that of those of the recipients of the promises. The second one is criminalization of resistant “culture” and identities. Hence, Islam and fundamentalism or “war on terrorism.”
This war, empire declares, has no end and no particular location. Beyond rhetorical aspect of such formulations lies a serious recognition and thus description of the new colonial target. The war against this new colonial target might crystallize in the form of territorial occupations but its scope is never reducible to any place and, for the moment, any time. The enemy is everywhere and nowhere. It is not only deterritorialized but also disembodied. It might have been a text but it no longer needs printed paper. The enemy is an idea. It is fluid.
At the very time that empire achieves global reach, its colony becomes fluid. Empire’s desire and attempts to “arrest” the last colonial target remain partially successful. The colony is on the run/flow and although it congeals around certain communities or territorial locations it maintains its ability to hide and flow. Its fluidity makes state borders and military capabilities relatively obsolete. The enemy is not outside the state, it is also inside. That is what makes (territorial) domination insufficient.
Empire needs to color, objectify and thus make visible the enemy. It has to rework certain labels and engage in surgical operations to delineate its colony against which it is at war. It feels insecure for the culture it criminalizes lurks behind every territory, language and culture. It remains an unoccupiable territory. However, against this “last resistance,” ironically enough, domination seems “futile.”