The foundational values, interests and institutions of the (Anglo-)US liberal international order, with due respect for important but not fundamental recalibrations and corrections along the way, are the sources of its current crises or at least challenges. The mentalities and power structures of the LIO’s leaders are constructed by hierarchical, imperial and racial–civilizational ways of thinking, albeit in most cases subliminally embedded to the point of being unconscious deep structures themselves.The American white Anglo-Saxon Protestant (Wasp) establishment built and maintained the liberal order in a ‘competitively cooperative’ alliance with their British counterparts, whose own imperial and racial mentalities were hardly in conflict with those of their American cousins.
Whatever changes occurred or were forced on US elites over time, those underlying and mainly subliminal values have remained significant in decision-making, including when nurturing new states and powers such as South Korea and China.
As a result, liberal internationalism as a ‘theory’ or approach to world order, eliding and skirting matters of hierarchy, race and class just as it does in its outline understandings of American democracy, misses a critical part of the picture—of the dynamics of international power as well as the dynamics of domestic power.
Because of that elision, that failure to see, it is a legitimating ideology of the American ruling elite. The LIO is better understood as a system of hierarchy and inequality, and as what Persaud calls a ‘racio-civilizational’ phenomenon. What does that mean? It means that this system and its leaders cannot yet comprehend an order that encompasses on the basis of something approaching equality the broad mass of people—citizens—at home, let alone the non-western peoples of the global South, or even their elites. The tweet from Donald Tusk quoted above is revealing and instructive because it was addressed to President Trump in simple and stark terms, worth repeating here: ‘Euro-Atlanticism means the free world cooperating to prevent post-West world order’—so, please ‘do not touch’.
International alliances of elites, including those of the emerging powers such as China, are in large part attempts to manage and channel change to prevent radical power shifts, to sustain a world order that serves elites and masses, in West and East, in starkly unequal ways. A Gramscian–Kautskyian synthesis combines consideration of domestic and international class-based imperial hegemonies and offers a good explanation of the existing order.
However, it also offers a way out, in theory, and provides ways to assess the likelihood of avenues towards egalitarianism being taken by ruling elites. The prognosis is not positive at present, although the bases of ways forward appear to be coming into view as political strife and electoral shocks challenge the status quo.
The possibilities for peaceful coexistence depend on the promotion of multilateralism and credible organisations, and instances of global governance and regional governance. The US has never been committed to multilateralism. Joseph Nye articulates the most liberal version of multilateralism based on a plea for the US to look after its ‘soft power’, essentially referring to the manner in which it projects its power in the global community.
Multilateralism needs to be based on acceptance of diverse systemic approaches to development—peaceful coexistence between divergent national capitalisms in Dani Rodrik’s Polanyian terms. Somewhat paradoxically, the route to establishing a more multilateral international community lies through the reinforcement of both national states and regional instances of governance. Silver and Arrighi, in discussing the crises of our times compared to those of the past, draw attention to Polanyi’s understanding of sovereign state power as a precondition for “the effective self-protection of society”.
This is an insight that often appears lost on today’s anti-capitalist movement, in its critique of states and idealisation of ‘civil society’. The Bush NSS should provide pause to theorists of ‘globalisation’ – both those who see processes of international integration in overwhelmingly benign terms, like Tony Giddens, as well as those, like Hardt and Negri who see these processes as giving birth to an amorphous supranational capital where the nation state is an artefact and transnational corporations are pre-eminent.
Hardt and Negri’s ideas about ‘empire’ have more resonance in the anti- capitalist movement. They assume that there is no longer a role for international law—the product of mediation between nation states – but rather, imperial law reigns. For much of the world, however, capitalism has only begun to sink its roots. International law is in its infancy and by seeing it as passé, one is only catering to the power of the strongest centres of capital—the richest countries and particularly, today, the United States. The commanding position of the US can, and needs to, be checked by other nation-states and groups of nation-states.
It is not ‘global society networked’ that can challenge amorphous Empire, but determined, strategically led, political communities that can carve out the room for citizens to improve their lives and step into the modern world. Hardt and Negri disarm people by throwing to the wind the nation-state as an instrument of development and empowerment.
What we saw reflected in the Bush NSS is the declaration of ‘empire’, but one which is firmly rooted in a still modernist era of nation states, an era that for the time being is characterised by the overwhelmingly dominant position of a single superpower. This moment in international history is distinct from both the nineteenth-century era of competing ‘great powers’ and much of the twentieth century, which saw a facing off of two emergent superpowers, the US and the USSR.
Whether or not the position of US pre-eminence, so boldly articulated in the unilateralist philosophy of the NSS, will be long or short-lived remains an open question. It depends on the extent to which, on the one hand, the European nation-states can further their economic integration and develop an effective European security establishment; and, on the other hand, the People’s Republic of China can continue its rapid economic development and the modernisation of its security establishment without succumbing to the disintegrative pressures that economic development under an authoritarian political regime may foster.
In other words, the possibilities for the evolution of a truly ‘multi-polar’ world, with an enlarged Western Europe and China within Asia, able to check and counterbalance US supremacy, remains an open issue. In the short-term, the face-off between multilateralists and unilateralists in the US is the most hopeful site for an immediate challenge to the prevailing imperialist posture. In the medium term, it may well be the nations of the South that offer an alternative route in a time of crisis.
The Iron Law of Oligarchy is a political theory, first developed by the anarcho-syndicalist (later Mussolini-supporting fascist) German sociologist Robert Michels (Political Economy and Statistics Professors at the University of Basel) in his 1915 book Political Parties. The book is public domain. Archive.org has a copy in various formats:
The Iron Law of Oligarchy describes an interesting and convincing dynamics of large organizations such as political parties: as an organization grows and get older there is a strong trend toward crystallization its own “party nomenklatura” — unaccountable to rank-and-file members party elite. Michels calls this unaccountable part of political party leadership an oligarchy.
The term is synonymous with the concept of “nomenklatura“, derived from the Russian history as a semi-official term used to define unaccountable high tier Communist Party and top management executives of Soviet industry, as well as their extended families and partners.
The process of crystallization of “nomenklatura” in large organizations, parties and government agencies (such as the State Department, CIA, etc) is an objective self-reinforcing process. It inevitably starts even within the most democratically oriented leadership of the political organizations. As the party grows, members soon become divided into an elite (or more correctly a set of elites, or party oligarchs, with their own set of distinctive and private interests) and the rank-and-file members, whose labour and resources are exploited by the elite.
That does not mean that rank-and-file members can’t revolt against Party elite as we saw with Sanders followers within the Democratic Party and Trump followers within the Republican Party in 2016 presidential elections. But such revolts are rare and usually successfully squashed. Even if successful, the deviation from the law is temporary in nature, and the process just repeats itself on a new level as the new elite becomes more and more detached from rank-and-file members who secured its ascendance to political Olympus.
The first condition precipitating the drift to such an oligarchical system is, ironically, success in recruiting new members to the organization’s cause. As organizations grow, the ability of members to participate equally in organizational decisions decline, both because it is hard to find a place and time for all members to assemble, and because decision-making is significantly slowed — not infrequently to a standstill — as the number of decision-makers increases.
The usual response to such problems is the creation of “leadership” – delegation of responsibility to a relatively small subset of members for formulating and recommending lines of action and policies. This is the first and enviable step of creation “native” oligarchy within the political organization. The second step is “bureaucratization” of the organization. By this point, leadership no longer represents the interests of the rank-and-file party members.
Although some members can see the writing on the wall and may attempt to maintain democratic control (for example, via limits on the terms in the office), a number of forces weaken any attempts to reverse this process.
Effective administration requires both hard-to-gain, specialized knowledge of well-hidden aspects of the organization (“administrative secrets”) and scarce organizing talents, such as the ability to manage interpersonal relations, suppress dissent, and to conduct logistical planning.
Only a few people naturally have (or can acquire) such capabilities, and some of them happen to be in a right time at the right place to be promoted to the top. Those talents provide leverage, which limits the ability of rank-and-file members to challenge leaders’ recommendations or decisions, and to replace the current leadership, who gradually escape the control of rank-and-file members and start controlling them.
Power in large organizations, based on democratic principle, is ruled by the elected leadership, such as parties, trade unions gradually tend to concentrate at the top with the same leaders elected again and again. Moreover, once elected leaders acquire vested interests in maintaining their positions within the organization, especially due to the fact that with a growing number of members the complexity leads to the creation of full-time administrative positions.
“As time passes the current elite ages, stagnate, lost the grip with reality, and other faction of the party elite can depose them and seize the power. Nothing is permanent under the Sun. In any case the rue of single person is limited by human longevity and rarely exceed 40 years (e.g. coming to power at 35, holding onto it until 75).”