Jim Barrett, Review of Francis Shor’s "Dying Empire: U.S. Imperialism and Global Resistance" (London and New York: Routledge, 2010)
[Jim Barrett is Professor of History and African American Studies at the University of Illinois]
The American empire may be in decline, but it is creating a lot of problems here and around the world as it recedes. Fran Shor, Professor of History at Wayne State University, accomplishes several objectives in this brief study of the problem. He analyzes the bases of contemporary American imperialism, places its decline in a broad historical perspective, and, perhaps most usefully, documents the popular opposition to this declining empire in its various forms over the past thirty years or so. Shor writes as both an historian and as a participant in many of those movements of opposition. Mixing postcolonial theory and cultural criticism with participant observation, he illuminates some corners of this story that seldom see the light of day.
Shor’s overview of contemporary American imperialism as a system, particularly its racialized and gendered dimensions, is useful in itself. A historical chapter traces the persistent notion of an American Century down to present day policy-making. Having taken one century already, we seem anxious to have another. Succeeding chapters analyze the ideological, military, economic, and cultural bases of the contemporary system.
But the book’s greatest strength is Shor’s critical narratives of a series of social movements, including several of which he was a part—Witness for Peace during the proxy wars in Central America, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Nuclear Freeze movement of the eighties, Habitat for Humanity, and more recently, the struggles of the World Social Forum and its local offshoots against the World Trade Organization’s plans for us. Thus, the book is in large part a view from within the anti-imperialist movement. It turns out that globalization has produced a wide range of such movements based on what the author calls “counter-hegemonic discourses”, even as it has yoked the world’s workers and citizens to an increasingly powerful, transnational neo-liberal world order.
The chapter on imperial culture, which includes a clever interpretation of popular culture as a metaphor for contemporary policy, sometimes stretches its metaphors a bit thin. It is possible, as Shor argues, that the popularity of “The Sopranos” television series is explained by the fact that it mimics the masculinist characteristics of the contemporary security state, but other explanations spring to mind. One is the studied complexity of the lead characters’ personalities and their relationships with one another which seem to suggest that gangsters are not that different from the rest of us. One problem with cultural studies is that the cultural products it chooses to dissect, whatever they may be, might mean what the interpreter suggests, or maybe not. Who knows?
Shor is on firmer ground when he argues that one explanation for the apparent distraction of the citizenry from the disastrous consequences of our imperial adventures lies in the fact that we find ourselves surrounded by ideological and cultural “enclosures” that prevent us from stepping back to see what is actually happening. One example might be our racialized conceptions of colonial peoples, another, a technological culture that insulates the individual in a cocoon of noise and ether space. With all the new communications technology, it seems more and more difficult to communicate meaningfully with those in our lives—let alone with the human objects of these policies who struggle on a world away from us.
A final chapter raises a question too often ignored in debates about what is being done in our names and why: “Is Another World Possible?” Can oppositional culture and the efforts of local activists create global change? Shor considers the question at the level of both the social imagination and practical organizing. In the first case he considers Marge Piercy’s novel Woman on the Edge of Time (1976) and Father Gustavo Gutierrez’s self-consciously utopian Liberation Theology text, The Power of the Poor (1984).
In the case of organizing for a new future, he tells the story of the World Social Forum and solidarity groups in support of the Zappatistas and the international campaign against sweatshops. Of the two texts, Gutierrez’s was by far the more important, reflecting the perspective of peasants in “Christian base communities” throughout Central America and other parts of the southern hemisphere. In terms of the social movements, “thinking (and talking) globally” has often turned out to be easier than “acting locally.” More often than even this book might suggest, effective organizing remains the province of local activists and groups—the community offshoots of international ventures like the World Social Forum, or campus campaigns against the production of licensed university apparel under sweatshop conditions. The communications technology of such organizing certainly has changed with the spread of Internet services, but too often a blog discussion is confused with direct action efforts to change policy. There are many reasons why the peace movement has remained relatively weak despite two wars and the threat of a third, but one reason has certainly been that too many local activists remain glued to their laptops.
Shor concedes that Dying Empire is polemical and indeed at times it reads more like a political manifesto than a study of American policy. On the other hand, there is a lot to argue with in contemporary policy. It often appears to be going nowhere and, at the same time, dragging the rest of the world down with it. In helping us to overcome what one critic has termed “knowledgeable ignorance” of our contemporary world and our place in it, as a society and system, but also as individuals with responsibilities to one another and to other people around the world, Dying Empire helps us to better understand where we stand and how we might begin to move forward.
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