Are Empire and Democracy Compatible?   (August 21, 2009)

The status quo claims Empire "supports" democracy. But what if Empire is intrinsically incompatible with democracy?

Let's take a quick look at the American Empire.

I use the word "Empire" because to avoid it would be artifice. What word other than Empire describes a nation with a commercial, diplomatic and military presence in most of the planet's nations?

I use the term without ideological spin: for the purposes of this analysis, it is not a structure to deny, deplore or glorify but one which must be carefully described as a unique and thus key context of all global issues, even those which on the surface appear to have little connection to military matters.

It is important to preface any discussion of Empire by noting that those serving their nation honorably in the U.S. Armed Forces are not always well-served by their civilian leadership. The reason citizens serve is to defend the nation, which is the Constitutionally mandated, legitimate purpose of the Armed Forces.

Yet we must not blind ourselves to the reality that the military can also be deployed to serve illegitimate purposes which are presented ("sold") as legitimate to the American public and servicemembers. The citizens who take the oath of service are sworn to uphold the Constitution and to obey their civilian leadership's orders. If the civilian leadership is pursuing agendas other than true national defense--for instance, a commercial and diplomatic Empire--then the U.S. military can be ordered to pursue missions which have little or nothing to do with national defense and everything to do with protecting and extending the interests of the Power Elites which dominate the civilian leadership of the nation.

Those who serve in the U.S. Armed Forces at mid-rank levels of responsibility are aware of the U.S. military's global reach. The average citizen might not know that the U.S. maintains bases in 63 countries and has personnel stationed in approximately 150 nations.

The entire world has been divided into six military zones (Africa was recently set up with its own command), with separate U.S. commands which each control extensive communications, intelligence, war-gaming and planning resources.

These facilities include a total of 845,441 different buildings and equipments. The underlying land surface is of the order of 30 million acres. According to Gelman, who examined 2005 official Pentagon data, the US is thought to own a total of 737 bases in foreign lands. Adding to the bases inside U.S. territory, the total land area occupied by US military bases domestically within the US and internationally is of the order of 2,202,735 hectares, which makes the Pentagon one of the largest landowners worldwide (Gelman, J., 2007).

Approximately 369,000 active duty personnel out of a total of 1.4 million serve overseas. Many U.S. military postings are small (a few hundred personnel) and are not combat missions but peacekeeping, medical/logistics, intelligence, support of alliances such as NATO, etc.

The U.S. also maintains Reserve forces (National Guard, etc.) of which about 145,000 are on active duty, and employs an unknown but substantial number of civilian employees (contractors) overseas as well.

Though the Intelligence Community (C.I.A., N.S.A., N.R.O.-National Reconnaissance Office, etc.) and the Pentagon (D.I.A., Naval Intelligence, etc.) have some overlapping functions and hence some rivalries, in the larger context the Armed Forces and the Intelligence Community should be viewed as pieces of a truly global Empire which is under the control of the civilian government of the U.S.

No other nation or even alliance has an equivalent global reach. In effect, every region and every nation in the world is a "point of interest," as the U.S. has interests-- commercial, diplomatic and "soft power"--in every nation larger than a small city.

If the U.S. influence were limited to a global military system, it would not be much of an Empire. But the Pentagon and Intelligence forces are merely one branch of a much larger structure which includes a vast diplomatic network--equally as impressive as the military reach--and pervasive commercial interests, of which Coca-Cola, McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken are simply the most visible.

Many American commercial interests are hidden from view behind limited partnerships, wholly owned local corporations, joint ventures and the like; financial and banking interests are similarly cloaked. There is also some overlap of military and corporate interests, as U.S. weapons systems are lucratively sold to foreign governments for commercial, diplomatic and military gain.

U.S.-based global corporations receive the majority of their profits from overseas operations; thus the commercial importance of maintaining a neoliberal capitalist-centric world of open trade and finance--the U.S. Empire--should not be underestimated.

One mechanism of influence and control used by corporations worldwide is interlocking directorships, in which certain influential people serve on numerous corporate boards, in effect knitting various interests and strategies into a network.

The U.S. Empire can profitably be viewed in this same light. American interests need not own operations outright; the Empire's structure is not one of coercion (except when persuasion and subterfuge fail) but of interlocking interests.

Although it tends to raise ideological hackles, it would be remiss not to observe that the U.S. Intelligence Community is not entirely a passive network; on occasion it has engineered coups, uprisings, protests, etc. and retains the capability to do so--at the command of the civilian government of the U.S.

Oil and empire are both global, and both are intertwined. What's the point of constructing an empire if it cannot secure global energy supplies for the home nation? If all wealth is in effect stored energy, as I contend, then the only real wealth other than food and water is energy.

To the degree a crisis anywhere on the planet affects oil, or any other critical interest of the U.S., then the U.S. Empire will act as a potentially decisive negative or positive feedback, regardless of the location.

Since the middle class is the foundation of the State (by paying the taxes and providing political support for the status quo), then questions of democracy, markets and empire directly affect the squeezing of the middle class.

While this discussion may seem far afield from practical responses to the intersecting crises we face, it is actually of paramount importance. For if the American State/Empire over-reaches globally, and the Plutocracy over-reaches domestically, then the middle class must either respond in its own defense or collapse beneath rising taxes.

The State and ruling Elites will defend the status quo very robustly and perseverently, overriding or simply ignoring middle class attempts to limit its power.

Thus it is not at all clear that democracy and Empire, that is, geopolitical hegemony, are compatible. Nor is it clear that centralized State planning (socialism) and democracy are compatible, either (please see The Road to Serfdom by F. A. Hayek).

Why? Socialism always contains the potential for "the tyranny of the many" which concerned many of the United States' Founding Fathers. If 51% of the citizenry are receiving benefits or "free" services from the government, they can essentially dominate the minority productive class via the ballot box.

Put another way: the percentage of people who will gladly accept free money or services is virtually 100%, while the percentage of those willing to risk their time and capital for productive enterprise is considerably less than 100%. Thus the less-productive benefactors of government largesse can extract ever-higher taxes from the remaining productive members of the society, until the productive members either collapse into penury as in the late Roman Empire, or they opt out of supporting the unsustainable burdens imposed on them by the tyranny of the State's more numerous benefactors.

In his book Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy , economist Joseph Schumpeter argued that capitalism collapses from within as democratic majorities vote for the creation of a welfare state. This so burdens entrepreneurship that the capitalist infrastructure which supports the State and its dependents collapse.

Ironically, perhaps, the structure of Empire remains the same regardless of the ruling ideology: neoliberal Capitalist or Socialist (democratic or autocratic) or totalitarian: a small ruling Elite benefits enormously from the Empire, and bestows sufficient benefits on the home nation's citizenry to buy their passive complicity.

In all cases, the Empire is managed by a centralized-State Elite which is untouched by any feedback/influence instigated by the citizenry.

Democracy is thus ontologically at odds with Empire; democracy can exist in the home nation of the Empire but the citizenry do not control the Empire managed in their name. Secrecy, subterfuge and propaganda are thus essential elements in legitimizing the Empire in the eyes of the domestic citizenry and in gaining their compliance/support.

The forces drawing outsized benefits from the Empire have the wealth and influence (concentrations of power) to dictate the State's global decisions. In any Empire, the citizenry effectively have no say over the policies of their State; propaganda is deployed to stir up patriotism when the rubber-stamp of popular approval is deemed necessary.

Congress no longer declares war, as dictated by the U.S. Constitution; it empowers an Imperial Executive branch with open-ended "resolutions" while the citizenry are pummelled into submission with endless propaganda.

Another way of understanding this dynamic is to analyze the cost-benefit of Empire. U.S.-based global corporations receive the majority of their profits from overseas operations. In recent years, U.S. corporate profits were about $1.4 trillion, so we can estimate that close to $1 trillion of that profit was generated overseas. (Note that overseas production greatly increases corporate profits on goods sold in the domestic market.)

Given that the U.S. Empire works to keep cheap oil, commodities, manufactured goods and labor flowing to the domestic economy, we might also estimate that the Empire funnels at least $1 trillion in direct financial benefits to the domestic economy.

The Pentagon budget is approximately $650 billion a year, or roughly equal to the Social Security budget. The core Defense budget is about $515 billion for fiscal 2009, with another $70 billion for the Global War on Terror (GWOT) and additional funds for Veterans and active wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

According to the U.S. Department of Defense, these funds include providing world-class health care for 9.2 million eligible Service members, families, and retirees and maintaining 545,000 facilities at 5,300 sites in the U.S. and around the globe. Source:

Other highlights include $389 million to establish a new U.S. Africa Command, and $184 billion for weapons systems procurement, research and development. That is a staggering sum which is divided up amongst a handful of large defense contractors, all of whom have facilities spread over the U.S. so the largesse can benefit all 535 members of Congress. These elected officials view the Defense budget as a stupendous opportunity to bring jobs to their district even if the Services do not want the weapons being procured.

Given the large number of citizens benefitting from this spending (9 million active and retired personnel and their families, millions more working in weapons R&D and manufacture, the Veterans Administration, the civilian Pentagon workforce, etc.) and the enormous profits to be made from supplying the Pentagon, we can safely state that the Elites controlling these sums have asymmetric stakes in the game (a topic covered in depth in Survival+) and thus tremendous incentives to support the Empire's status quo.

From the point of view of those benefitting from the Empire's direct maintenance costs, then $650 billion appears to be returning $2 trillion in direct benefits: $1 trillion in corporate America's overseas profits and another $1 trillion "discount price for global empires" in commodities and manufactured goods: a healthy return on investment. (Recall that the U.S. dollar is simply paper we print yet it has the magical property of being tradable for oil and other tangible goods. I consider that the "discount price for global empires.")

Critics ask what else might be funded if the Pentagon budget was slashed from Empire levels to nuclear deterrence and self-defense levels (say, $300 billion less than the current $650 billion); but social spending (or deficit reduction) would not benefit the State and corporate Elites extracting huge benefits from the Empire and thus they will defend their Imperial share of the national income at all costs.

Democracy has little role in the Empire's spending or policies until such time as the cost-benefit falls to the point that the Empire costs more to maintain than it reaps for the Elites and brings home to the domestic populace. Until then, the populace has significant incentives (defense jobs, cheap oil, commodities and manufactured goods) to remain passive and those Elites and dependents benefitting from the Empire have every incentive to actively support the status quo.

Excerpted from Survival+: Structuring Prosperity for Yourself and the Nation.

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