Perry Anderson

The Logic of Power

Not in our nameAt the height of the Cold War, in 1974, Franz Schurmann, a respected Professor of Sociology and History at the University of California at Berkeley, and author of the already classic “Ideology and Organization in Communist China”, wrote “The Logic of World Power“. This masterly dissection of US Foreign policy, of the role of the imperial presidency, and of the significance of the nuclear arms race, remains to this day one of the most cogent analyses of the Cold War viewed from a US perspective.
The book subtitle was, aptly: “An Inquiry into the Origins, Currents, and Contradictions of World Politics”.

In his forward, Schurmann explains that he started writing the book in 1965, “when American planes began the bombing of North Vietnam.” He died in 2010, having had the time to see to the end the Vietnam tragedy and what Giovanni Arrighi would later consider “the signal crisis of US hegemony”. However his starting point was the observation that “since the end of World War II, the prime mover on the world scene has been the United States of America.”
Forty years later, in September-October 2013, the New Left Review, arguably one of the few remaining independent observers of world politics left in the English speaking media, published a two part study by Perry Anderson, “American Foreign Policy and it’s Thinkers.” In 2009 Mr Anderson gave us “The New Old World“, an unforgiving account of the origins and evolution of the European Union and its undemocratic institutions. “The New Old World” is indispensable reading for anyone who wishes to understand European current politics, and the logic of the US – European conundrum.
This new study will equally become a must read, not only for students of US Foreign Policy history, but for whoever wishes to follow up on Schurmann’ magisterial analysis, forty years later.
For the US are still the prime mover, despite all the disasters, despite the illusions of generations of prophets of doom and gloom for America’s role in the world. What was the logic of world power then, still is. Now, as then, the genesis of the new world order has US foreign policy as it’s midwife: in 1970, it was the onset of the final struggle with the USSR, the collapse of Keynesian political economies, and, soon, the rise of capitalist China, under the cloak of communism; today it is the seemingly unstoppable spread of neoliberal austerity policies in all western economies, on a backdrop of ever closer violent uprisings and local conflicts, and, still, the spectrum of conflict with China.
Schurmann wrote: “What began to wane in the late 1960s, clearly in relation to the Vietnam war, was the American Empire.” And indeed this relative decline has continued (as seen in the “longue durée”), but the reality of our world is that the logic of power is unchanged. Anderson shows that the fundamental logic of the Cold War had little to do with a “soviet threat” (for the USSR was at the end of WWII an exhausted and ruined country, contrary to the US who had hugely benefitted from the war and had been untouched by it), but rather the continuation of a bid for sustained US political and military dominance, unchallenged at the end of World War II, and with it, an economic order far remote from the official “free-world” propaganda.

Anderson observes on what was to follow, on the conclusion of the Cold War:
“In the Cold War, triumph was in the end complete. But the empire created to win it did not dissolve back into the liberal ecumenism out of whose ideological vision it had emerged. The institutions and acquisitions, ideologies and reflexes bequeathed by the battle against communism now constituted a massive historical complex with its own dynamics, no longer needed to be driven by the threat from the Soviet Union. Special forces in over a hundred countries round the world; a military budget larger than that of all other major powers combined; tentacular apparatuses of infiltration, espionage and surveillance; ramifying national security personnel; and last but not least, an intellectual establishment devoted to revising, amplifying and updating the tasks of grand strategy, of a higher quality and productivity than any counterpart concerned with domestic affairs – how could all this be expected to shrink once again to the slender maxims of 1945?”

It did not and it won’t. Despite the disappearance of the USSR, despite many localised conflicts and their costs, the logic is unchanged.
Reflecting on the dilemma, under Nixon, of US policies over Vietnam in 1970, Schurmann wrote: “but the nuclear chess game was not compatible with either popular sovereignty or parliamentary rule. As it was, the President preferred to appeal to the bottom over the middle. He spoke to what he felt was the majority’s opposition to any American defeat, appealing to their nationalism… Like any President, he had to go to his constituencies when he faced a great crisis within his bureaucratic ranks and ask for their support.”

God bless America.

Image: Ilka Hartmann Photography


The New Old World


I have just received my copy of Perry Anderson‘s The New Old World and I look forward to this week-end read. The book is the subject of a symposium in the last issue of the New Left Review (NLR73). After reading the four articles in the review I felt a compulsion to read the book. The Union’s current crisis – and its monetary collateral – is the most significant issue for Europe, understood to include both Union’s members and non-members, such as Turkey. Of course there are other issues of at least equal importance, such the Arab counter-revolution, or the continuing saga of capital markets vs democratically elected governments. All of those are essentially components of what Wolfgang Streeck described  as “The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism” in NLR 71.

The Markets vs Voters question has of course been typified by developments in Greece and Italy, where elected administrations – however fragile or controversial – have been displaced by decree by the massed ranks of the European Central Bank, the IMF and the (unelected) European Commission, under active supervision from the Federal Government of Germany. Those developments fall clearly within Streeck’s definition of “democratic capitalism” as “a political economy ruled by two conflicting principles, or regimes, of resource allocation: one operating according to marginal productivity, or what is revealed as merit by a “free play of market forces”, and the other based on social needs or entitlement, as certified by the collective choices of democratic politics.”

A writer in the symposium, Alain Supiot in Under Eastern Eyes, comments that “it was not until the fall of Communism that ultra-liberal ideology, despite its political successes in the US and UK and its adoption by international financial institutions, began to have a significant impact on the social systems of solidarity established after the War in Western Europe”. Supiot blames a “revolt of the elites” for the damage, and particularly for the ascent of the “communist market economy”. According to this interpreattion “the elites of all countries can now get astronomically rich – which was impossible under communism – without a thought  for the fate of the middle and working classes, which was impossible under the political  or social democracy of welfare states.”

Jan-Werner Müller – in Beyond Militant Democracy – disagrees, pointing out that “rather than contrasting those glory days (the  30-year “golden-age” of post-war capitalism) with our (supposed) sordid post-democratic condition, we ought to understand that European elites in the late 1940s and 1950s opted for a highly restrictive understanding of democracy – and that the EU, from the start, operated on this basis.”

A Final Victory

I was very moved by reading Jennifer A. Homans’ account of her husband Tony Judt’s last days in the NYRB. I will read Thinking the Twentieth Century. There are several reasons, all personal rather than intellectual, first Tony and I were of the same generation, and I shared his understanding of the issues of the post-war period (our half century), Palestine, Europe, growing social inequity, Europe, the rise of Hayekian tyrannies… Second, I do not share the views of writers such as Dylan Riley (A Cooler Look) as far as their “assessment” of Tony’s work and intellectual courage is concerned.

To Write or Not to Write

I have to admit that fictional endeavours, as well as other social activities, such as marriage, have kept me away from this “travel and political” blog. However this is Spring, and I will renew with this corner of my garden. For those readers so inclined my writing blog is here.

Related articles