Infinite War
Ellen Meiksins Wood (2002)

When the US (and Britain) failed to launch a massive attack on Afghanistan within days of the September 11 atrocities, there was almost universal surprise, whether tinged with disappointment or relief.  People had come to expect, as a matter of course, an immediate and massive high-tech assault, which would spare the lives and limbs of US forces while inflicting much 'collateral damage'. 

But this time, we were told, the White House 'moderates' had won, at least for a time, if only because the exigencies of preserving the coalition against terrorism counselled caution, or because winter was too near, or because the Taliban might simply implode without a fight.  Any attack --and there might be none at all-- would be 'measured' and 'proportionate'.  Optimists hoped that Bush had learned the virtues of multilateralism.  Pessimists feared the worst was still to come.  But critics and supporters were united in their wonder at the temperance displayed by the world's only superpower.

Then the bombing started.  The massive high-tech assault, with all the collateral damage, proceeded as before.  Still, hopes were voiced that the strikes would be carefully targetted and 'proportionate' and that the campaign would be short.  In the meantime, the US told the UN that it reserves the right to keep its options open for possible strikes on targets other than Afghanistan.  As the Taliban regime in Afghanistan collapses, we can assume that, at some not too distant point, the US will declare its mission accomplished (irrespective of what happens on the ground).  But we seem even further away from the end of the 'war against terrorism' than we were at the start.

Yet it is not to soon to say that the standards by which we have been judging this new war, for or against, are now outdated.  In recent years, the US and its allies, notably Britain, have been redefining war and the criteria by which we judge it.  The new doctrine of war that seems to be emerging is a necessary corollary to a new form of empire.

War Without End

 Immediately after the September 11 atrocities, President Bush announced that his purpose was to rid the world of evil.  At that moment, the 'war against terrorism' was being called 'Operation Infinite Justice'.  Some time later, Prime Minister Blair told the Labour Party Conference that the present campaign should be part of a larger project of 'reordering our world'.  Nothing that was said before or after did much to clarify or narrow these grandiose ambitions.  Sympathetic observers were no less at a loss than critics to explain precisely what the objective of the first military round would be: to capture Osama bin Laden, to destroy al-Qaida's training camps (by then surely empty), or to overthrow the Taliban, with or without installing a new government, to say nothing of further objectives, such as attacks on Iraq to complete the job left unfinished by George Bush Senior.

In the face of these uncertainties, the tendency has been to assume either that the White House is simply divided between hawks and doves, or that the administration is simply confused, with no real idea what to do; and there is a strong temptation to think that Blair is suffering from almost pathological delusions of grandeur, which have the advantage of deflecting scrutiny from his failures at home.  No doubt there is something to be said for all these interpretations.  But we need to take more seriously the significance of Bush and Blair's grand design.

If we discount the overblown self-righteous rhetoric, there remains a new military doctrine, which, while making the most extravagant moral claims, nonetheless departs from centuries of discourse on 'just war'.  The just war tradition has always been notoriously elastic and infinitely capable of adjustment to the varying interests of dominant classes, encompassing everything up to and including the most aggressive and predatory imperial adventures.  So throughout the changing character of war and imperialism, ideologies of justification have been able to remain within certain conceptual limits and to operate with certain basic principles.  The new doctrine, while invoking the traditions of just war, has for the first time in centuries found those principles insufficiently flexible and has effectively discarded them.  Just as earlier adjustments were made to fit changing contexts and requirements, the current rupture also has its specific historical context and bespeaks particular class needs.

The doctrine of 'just war', throughout its permutations, enunciates a few basic requirements for going to war: there must be a just cause; war must be declared by a proper authority and with the right intention, and after other means have been exhausted; there must be a reasonable chance of achieving the desired end, and the means must be proportionate to that end.  In a moment, we shall look at some of the ingenious ways in which those apparently stringent requirements have been made compatible with the most aggressive wars of commercial rivalry and imperial expansion.  But let us first note how the current doctrine operates within those constraints and how it departs from them.

Every US war claims a just cause, a proper authority, and right intentions, while insisting that there is no other way.  Those claims are, of course, more than a little debatable.  But the point here is simply that justifications of US military campaigns, however contestable they may be, up to this point remain within the limits of just war argumentation.  The rupture occurs most clearly in the other two conditions: that there must be a reasonable chance of achieving the goals of any military action, and that the means must be proportionate.

There are two senses in which the new doctrine of war, most recently enunciated by Bush and Blair, violates the first of these two principles.  It is, needless to say, clear that no military action could possibly rid the world of Bush's 'evil-doers'.  For that matter, the 'war against terrorism' can hardly be said to have a reasonable chance of ending terrorism.  If anything, it stands a better chance of aggravating terrorist violence.  Nor can military action, with or without humanitarian admixtures, reorder the world in the way outlined by Blair.

But it is just as clear that the new doctrine departs from the principle of achievable goals in ways inconceivable to any earlier proponents of the just war doctrine.  This particular principle was directed against futile and self-destructive adventures by forces lacking the means to achieve their ends and more likely to make their own conditions worse.  The present case has to do with the world's most powerful military force, the most powerful the world has ever known, which could confidently expect to achieve any reasonable military goal.  So a new principle is being established here: it could simply mean that military action can after all be justified without any hope of achieving its aim, but it would probably be more accurate to say that military action now requires no specific aim at all.

Such a principle naturally affects the means-ends calculus too.  We are accustomed to criticizing the US and its allies for undertaking actions which in their massively destructive means are unsuited to their professed ends.  But we may now be compelled to discard the principle of proportionality altogether --not simply because we are being asked to accept 'disproportionate' means but because, in the absence of specific ends, no such calculus is relevant at all.  There is a new principle of war without end, either in purpose or in time.

The 'war against terrorism' is not the first instance of the new doctrine.  It certainly has roots in the Cold War.  Even the 'war on drugs', insofar as it undoubtedly has a military component (whether directly conducted by the US or, with its assistance, by, say, Colombian forces), has had something of this flavour.  The campaign against Iraq too has been going on without apparent end.  But the most important step in establishing the new doctrine has been the notion of 'humanitarian war'.  And it is certainly in this connection that the constraints of old just war principles were first most explicitly discarded.

It is by now a well-known story that, in their conflict over war in the Balkans, the former US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, then Ambassador to the UN, challenged the current Secretary of State, Colin Powell, then head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, over his objection to military intervention in Bosnia.  Underlying his objection was the so-called 'Powell Doctrine', a military doctrine in the old just war tradition, requiring that military action have clear and finite ends, adequate means, and exit strategies.  'What's the point of having this superb military that you've always been talking about,' Albright angrily protested, 'if we can't use it?'  What Albright was challenging was certainly not a doctrine opposed to any military action ever.  Powell, as a military man, was hardly advocating pacifism.  Where they parted company was precisely at the point that traditional doctrines of just war require specific and finite achievable ends and commensurate means.

But if Madeleine Albright represents a milestone in the development of this new docrtine, it has long been a pattern in the US for political figures to depart from the old one.  When Henry Kissinger advocated the unpredictable use of military force, he, like Albright, had in mind the use of force for political purposes far more diffuse and inchoate than the achievement of some specific military goal, as did others throughout the Cold War.  To be sure, he was not particularly given to just war arguments and was generally quite open about his adherence to the opposing principles of amoral raison d'etat.  But other political leaders, in support of the same policies, have had no difficulty invoking the justice of war.  Today, when Colin Powell himself is Secretary of State, he is being challenged by non-military politicians such as Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and probably Cheney, together with Bush advisers such as Richard Perle, whose views are even more clearly antithetical to the old just war principles of ends and means.  They have, according to reports, devised a plan called 'Operation Infinite War', which calls for an open-ended war with no limits of time or geography. 1  And there we have it: infinite war --not necessarily continuous war but war indefinite in its duration, objectives, means and spatial reach.


Just War and Empire


To situate this new doctrine in its specific historical context requires some consideration of what went before.  In particular, we are interested in how theorists have negotiated the constraints of just war theory to make it compatible with aggressive and expansionist wars, especially in the early years of European colonialism, when the foundations for future imperialist ideologies were laid down.  Considering the current innovations in military doctrine against that background will help to illuminate the ways in which they correspond to the latest phase of Western imperialism, just as earlier phases called forth their own specific ideological adjustments.

Arguments about the legitimacy of war no doubt have a much longer history than the just war tradition.  The Romans, for instance, raised questions about the legitimacy of war, and some, like Cicero, appeared to demand fairly strict conditions --for instance, that only a war in self-defence can be legitimate.  Yet, at the same time, these apparently stringent limitations were from the start made compatible with war in pursuit of imperial power and glory --no less by a republican like Cicero than by later defenders of the Empire.  And from the start, the Romans were inclined to invoke a kind of global, human society on whose behalf they were engaging in their wars of expansion, to civilize the world by imposing the Pax Romana.  That notion of a global society required little modification to serve the purposes of later Christians bent on their own brand of civilizing mission, as the Roman Empire gave way to the Universal Church.

It is certainly true that Christian theology also produced trenchant critiques of imperial expansion and raised far-reaching questions about the legitimacy of war.  But it is testimony to the remarkable flexibility of this moral discourse that, for instance, in the most expansionist early European imperial power, Spain, a theology critical of the Spanish empire in the Americas could be mobilized no less in its defence. 2

                      Early justifications of the empire, especially at a time when the Spanish sovereign was also Holy Roman Emperor, presented it as something like a mission on behalf of the Christian world order, based on donation from the pope in the form of papal Bulls.  But the difficult relationship between the Spanish monarchy and the papacy made this an awkward defence.  To make matters worse, the available theological arguments against the claims of the papacy, which worked in favour of the monarchy, tended also to argue against the Spanish conquest.  Theologians of the Salamanca School argued that the pope, though he was the spiritual leader of Christendom, had no temporal authority over the world, nor did the pope have authority of any kind over non-Christians.  This meant not only that there was no such thing as a universal temporal empire but also that Spain could not rely on a papal donation and claim legitimacy for its conquest on the grounds that it was bringing Christianity to infidels, or even that it was punishing the savages for violations of natural law.

These arguments, whether they were motivated by humanitarian revulsion at imperial atrocities or simply defending the monarchy against the papacy, challenged the right to impose Spanish domination on the Americas.  Yet a justification of empire emerged from the very same theological tradition.  Having accepted that the old arguments based on the universal temporal authority of the church and the papacy would not serve, the new justification relied instead on the 'just war'.  Colonialism might not be justified on the grounds of papal authority, but there were various legitimate reasons for waging war --to defend the 'innocent' or, much more broadly, to promote the values of 'civilized' (i.e. European) life.  Just as a republic could go to war in self-defence, war could be waged on behalf of a universal 'human republic' threatened by behaviour that violated its particular standards of peace and good order. Any conquest resulting from a just war could establish legitimate domination.  The principle of war in self-defence could thus embrace anything including universal conquest, not to mention slavery.

The Spanish, unlike other European empires, were unambiguously explicit that what they were justifying was indeed conquest.  They were obliged to do so, given the nature and object of their empire.  By far their main interest was the extraction of silver and gold from South American mines.  Their conquest was certainly genocidal; but faced with a dense, well organized, and technologically fairly advanced indigenous population, they seem to have had more to gain from conquering and ruling than completely exterminating that population, requiring a labour force more than they needed empty territory.  Even their agricultural plantations, in the encomienda system, made use of servile indigenous labour.

Other European empires, without access to massive wealth from mines, had different ambitions and hence different ideological needs.  The French and the English made much of the differences between their empires and the Spanish, denying (with scant respect for historical truth) their role as conquerors and emphasizing (with somewhat greater veracity) the agricultural and commercial nature of their colonies.  We shall return to the English case in a moment, to explore some significant ideological innovations associated with it.  But the most striking example of theoretical opportunism in response to specific imperial needs is provided by the Dutch, in the person of Hugo Grotius.

The Dutch more than any other Europeans constructed a commercial empire, in which colonial conquest and settlement were a secondary, or auxiliary, concern.  Yet in the pursuit of commercial supremacy, the Dutch were no less given to aggressive military violence than their rivals.  In the early years of the Dutch Republic, as it was coming into its golden age, military expenditures accounted for a greater proportion of the Republic's exceptionally high tax revenues than did any other activity, and the Dutch engaged in some notorious acts of aggression. 3   Nor did they abandon military means of gaining commercial advantage as the economy continued to rise and then fall --up to and including the Dutch role in England's Glorious Revolution.  Whatever the English may have thought about their 'bloodless' revolution, the Dutch conceived it as an invasion, carried out with support not only by the state but by the Amsterdam stock exchange, for purely commercial reasons in an effort to counter the commercial rivalry of France.

The Dutch produced an ideology to match their 'extra-economic' means of establishing commercial supremacy.  The case of Grotius is particularly important and revealing because he is commonly credited with founding international law, and his work is generally presented as a theory of limitations on war.  Yet that work is striking for its ideological opportunism, transparently constructed to defend the very particular practices of the Dutch in their quest for commercial domination in the early seventeenth century.  To build his case, he not only produced a theory of war and peace but laid a foundation for transforming theories of politics and property in general. 4   If Grotius is indeed the founder of international law, we may have to admit that international law in its inception had as much to do with advocating as limiting war, and as much to do with profit as with justice.

Without formally violating the limits of the just war tradition, Grotius was able, as Richard Tuck has persuasively shown, to justify not only wars of self-defence, however broadly conceived, but even the most aggressive wars pursued for no other reason than commercial profit.  Without departing from the requirement that a war can be just only if conducted by a proper authority, he was also able to defend aggressive action not just by sovereign states but by private trading companies.

In fact, the very principles commonly cited as central to his restrictions on war can have, and were intended to have, the opposite effect.  Grotius, like other theorists of the seventeenth century, is credited with something like a conception of the state of nature, according to which individuals possess natural rights prior to, and independent of, civil society.  At the same time, states, which can have no powers that individuals do not already have in nature, must, he argued, like individuals be governed by the same moral principles.  Although this is generally taken to place strict conditions on the rightful pursuit of war, this conception, with all its wide-ranging implications for political theory in general, was first elaborated by Grotius, at a time when the Dutch were embarking on commercial expansion in the Indies, in order to defend aggressive military action, not just by states but by private traders --action such as the seizure of Portuguese ships-- on the grounds that individuals, like and even before states, have the right to punish those who wrong them.  Grotius, as Tuck puts it, 'made this remarkable claim, that there is no significant moral difference between individuals and states, and that both may use violence in the same way and for the same ends.' 5

                      But violence in pursuit of commercial advantage, whether by states or private traders, does not, on the face of it, look like self-defence.  So Grotius went further, effectively constructing a whole political theory on the principle that self-preservation is the first and most fundamental law of nature, and then defining self-preservation in the most capacious way.  First, it means that individuals and states are permitted, perhaps even obliged, to acquire for themselves 'those things which are useful for life'.  Although they may not, in the process, injure others who have not injured them, their own self-preservation comes first.

Grotius's notion of injury turns out to be very broadly permissive, while the moral principles to which individuals and states are both subject are minimal.  The notion of some kind of international society bound together by certain common rules is regarded as one of Grotius's major contributions to international law and a peaceful world order.  But his argument had far less to do with what individuals or states owe one another than the right they have to punish each other in pursuit of self-interest, not only in defending themselves against attack but 'proactively', as it were, in purely commercial rivalries.  'Grotius,' concludes Tuck, 'endorsed for a state the most far-reaching set of rights to make war which were available in the contemporary repertoire.' 6

                      This included not only a very wide-ranging international right of punishment but also, as Grotius adjusted his theories to the changing needs of the Dutch commercial empire, a right to appropriate territory.  To buttress that right, Grotius was obliged to develop a theory of property --and here, his ideological opportunism is particularly striking.

In the first instance, his main concern in constructing his theory of property was to argue for the freedom of the seas, to challenge the right of commercial rivals like the Portuguese to claim ownership of the seas and monopolize trade routes.  We can only have a proprietary right, he maintained, to things we can individually consume or transform.  The sea cannot be property, because, like air, it cannot be occupied or used in this way and is therefore a common possession.  Furthermore, what could not become private property, he argued (contrary to traditional conceptions of political jurisdiction), could not, by the same token, be the public property of the state either, since both private and public ownership come about in the same way.  No state jurisdiction was possible where the kind of control implied by property was even in principle impossible.

It is not difficult to see how military intervention might be justified on these grounds against those whose only wrong had been to assert a hitherto accepted right of state jurisdiction over neighbouring waters or the right to regulate certain fishing grounds and trade routes.  Nor, of course, did this principle preclude the de facto monopolization of trade that the Dutch were aiming for in  certain places, where they simply coerced local populations into trade, while aggressively repelling their European rivals.

At this point, Grotius was, in a sense, more concerned with what is not property than what is.  For the purposes of defending Dutch commercial practices, and in particular, the actions of the East India Company, it was enough to insist on the freedom of the seas and the right to pursue commercial interests aggressively.  But, as Tuck points out, a shift in Dutch commercial policy, especially in the face of competition from the English and the French, meant that Dutch trading companies became more interested in colonial settlement than they had been before, if only to facilitate trade.  Grotius duly mobilized his earlier theory of property to encompass this requirement too.

Having argued that something could become property only if it could be individually consumed or transformed, which might be true of land but not the sea, he now elaborated the other side of that argument: if usable things were left unused, there was no property in them, and hence people could appropriate land left unused by others.  Land left waste or barren --i.e. uncultivated-- was not property and could be claimed by those able and willing to cultivate it.  Grotius's argument had clear affinities with the Roman law principle of res nullius, which decreed that any 'empty thing' such as unoccupied land was common property until it was put to use --in the case of land, especially agricultural use.  This would become a common justification for European colonization. 7

                      Grotius argued that no local authority could legitimately prevent free passage or the occupation of unused land, and any attempt to do so could legitimately be challenged by military means.  Nevertheless, since land, unlike the sea, was in principle capable of transformation into property, it was also susceptible to political jurisdiction.  Grotius never denied that indigenous authorities retained their general jurisdiction over the land --something that Dutch trading companies effectively accepted by seeking the approval of these local authorities and even paying them for taking land out of their jurisdiction.


Toward an Ideology of Capitalist Imperialism


Although such principles of colonial appropriation sufficed for the Dutch, whose main interest was in commercial supremacy, it would not suffice for other imperial powers, or one in particular.  A much less equivocal right of appropriation by colonial settlers would be required by the English as they developed their own very specific pattern of colonization.  The English, late starters in the competition for overseas hegemony, began to rely more on white settler colonies than its rivals ever did.  This pattern began in Ireland, and the Irish model was soon adapted to new colonies elsewhere.

What is significant about this model from our point of view is that it was accompanied by a very distinctive ideological strategy, which, while it shared certain assumptions with England's European rivals, introduced innovations that reflected a very specifically English experience.  It is significant that this ideological strategy did not take the form of a theory of international relations or a doctrine of war and peace.  The first major theoretical contribution of the English to the justification of modern imperialism was a theory of private property.

In the late sixteenth century, the English adopted a policy of colonization in Ireland more aggressive than ever before.  The object was not simply to impose the state's hegemony but also, and more particularly, to resettle Irish lands with English and Scottish colonists.  This meant not only a coercive process of expropriation but also an attempt to transform Irish property relations, on the model of English commercial agriculture.

This was, in a sense, an instant transition from feudal to capitalist modes of imperialism.  Old strategies for dominating the Irish --by means, for instance, of English lordship-- were being replaced by attempts (successful or not) to absorb Ireland into the English economy, even when, or because, direct political domination had failed.  Not only would English and Scots settlers import the principles of English commercial agriculture but even Irish chieftains would --and did-- emulate them, often taking English and Scots tenants.  What direct coercion had failed to do, economic imperatives might accomplish --even if this strategy revealed a contradiction which would always plague capitalist imperialism: having sought to impose these new imperatives on Ireland, the imperial power was then obliged to thwart the development of Ireland when it threatened to become a commercial rival, as it did in the seventeenth century.

But this new imperial strategy required its own ideological defences.  Since Irish land could hardly be said to be unoccupied, or even uncultivated, this project clearly required something more than the ideological supports provided by the doctrine of res nullius, even in the aggressively colonialist form advocated by Grotius.

We can see the beginnings of a new argument for colonization in the words of Sir John Davies, one of the architects of English imperialism in Ireland.  In a letter to the Earl of Salisbury in 1610 about the Ulster plantation, he explains the legal arguments in favour of expropriating the Irish and transferring their property to English and Scots settlers. The argument that stands out for our purposes here is that 'half their land doth now lie waste, by reason whereof that which is habited is not improved to half the value; but when the undertakers [the settlers] are planted among them..., and that land shall be fully stocked and manured, 500 acres will be of better value than 5000 are now.'  It is already clear in this passage that occupancy is no longer the relevant issue.  Nor, for that matter, is waste alone. Occupied land, even cultivated land, can be appropriated if the occupants are failing to use it productively enough.  The criterion is no longer waste or usage in the traditional sense but relative value.

The argument outlined by Sir John Davies in rudimentary form was clearly rooted in the domestic experience of English agriculture, in which considerations of 'improvement' and relative value belonged to the everyday consciousness of commercial landlords, as did arguments in favour of enclosure at home strikingly similar to the case for colonial expropriation.  Similarly, when William Petty, often called the father of classical political economy, later elaborated a labour theory of value for the very practical imperialist purpose of surveying the value of land in Ireland for redistribution to Cromwell's army, in his capacity as Cromwell's Surveyor General, he brought to bear the experience of English agrarian capitalism.

But the argument already hinted at by John Davies in Ireland found its most systematic development later in the century, in the work of John Locke --though there is no need to assume any direct influence, since such arguments were in the air of England's developing agrarian capitalism.  Locke's theory of property justifies at one and the same time the practices of colonialists in the Americas and capitalist landlords at home, interests combined perfectly in the person of Locke's mentor, the first Earl of Shaftesbury.

Commentators have pointed out that Locke introduced an important innovation into the res nullius principle by justifying colonial appropriation of unused land without the consent of any local sovereign, and that he provided settlers with an argument that justified their actions on the basis of natural law, without any reference to civil authority. 8   In that respect, he went even further than Grotius, with his equivocal recognition of local authority.  Locke did have a precursor in Thomas More (a critic of enclosure who was himself an encloser), who in his Utopia suggested a similar principle about the colonial occupation of unused land without the permission of local inhabitants.  But there is something even more distinctive in Locke's argument, which owes less to pan-European legal and philosophical traditions than to the specific experience of England, and to its domestic property relations even before its colonial ventures.

Like Grotius, Locke associates property with use and transformation.  But his argument is not simply that things can become property when, and only when, they are used and transformed.  The point is rather that the right of property derives from the creation of value.  His famous labour theory of property in Chapter Five of his Second Treatise of Government, according to which we acquire property in something when we 'mix' our labour with it, is full of complexities (including the question of whose labour, since the master is entitled to property derived from his servant's labour), which there is no space to explore here.  But one thing that is emphatically clear is that the creation of value is the basis of property.  Labour establishes a right of property because it is labour that 'puts the difference of value on every thing.' (#40)  And the value in question is not 'intrinsic' but exchange value.

This implies not only that mere occupancy is not enough to establish property rights, or even that hunting-gathering cannot establish the right of property while agriculture can, but also that insufficiently productive and profitable agriculture, by the standards of English agrarian capitalism, effectively constitutes waste.  Land in America is open to colonization because an acre of land in 'unimproved' America, Locke argues (in a manner reminiscent of Davies in Ireland) which may be as naturally fertile as an acre in England, and have the same 'intrinsick' (sic) value, is not worth 1/1000 of the English acre, if we calculate 'all the Profit an Indian received from it were it valued and sold here.' (#43)

Locke thus goes beyond even Grotius in asserting the primacy of private property over political jurisdiction in the colonies.  In fact, political jurisdiction at either end of the colonial relationship is conspicuously absent.  For Grotius, writing on behalf of the Dutch commercial empire, in which the principal issue was commercial rivalry among trading nations vying for supremacy in international commerce, it really was a question of 'international relations', including the issue of war and peace among states.  Although the Dutch certainly introduced innovations in their own domestic production, the kind of commercial supremacy they enjoyed depended in large part on 'extra-economic' advantages, superior shipping and sophisticated commercial practices, the command of sea routes, de facto if not always de jure trading monopolies, and far-flung trading posts. 9   All of these advantages were, in one way or another, bound up with questions of war, peace, military might and diplomacy.  Even when, as the Dutch supplemented their earlier policies of imposing trade on local powers, in the Indies and elsewhere, with outright colonial settlement, so that Grotius was obliged to extend his argument to encompass colonial appropriation, he never gave up his original conceptual framework, just as the Dutch never gave up their primary concern with trade and commercial supremacy.

Early modern England, no less than other commercial powers, engaged in the same international rivalries.  English theorists could also draw on older theories of just war, for example, to justify slavery --as Locke did himself-- by arguing that captives taken in a just war could legitimately be enslaved.  But there was already something new going on, and we find its best early expression in Locke.  Here, we find the beginnings of a conception of empire rooted in capitalist principles, in pursuit of profit derived not simply from exchange but from the creation of value in competitive production.  This is a conception of empire that is not simply about establishing imperial rule or even commercial supremacy but about extending the logic and the imperatives of the domestic economy and drawing others into its orbit.  Although capitalist imperialism would never dispense with more traditional means of justifying imperial expansion, it had now added wholly new weapons to the ideological arsenal.


Globalization and War


The 'second', and more properly 'British', Empire, whose crown jewel was India, produced its own ideological requirements.  To justify imperial domination of a strong commercial power like India with complex political institutions, where the land was very much and insurmountably occupied, and where the issue was neither simply trade nor colonial settlement but domination of one major power by another, demanded arguments other than those deployed in colonizing the New World.  Much of the old ideological repertoire could be adapted to suit this new conquest, but some adjustments had to be made.  In particular, a modernization, so to speak, of the old universal society argument was called upon to bear the ideological weight of the new empire.  Where the old version invoked certain universal principles of civilized order to justify imperial wars, that theme was now modified by more recent conceptions of progress.  India could then be depicted as enjoying benign British tutelage, at least until its political and economic development had caught up with the imperial guardian.

But if the new empire had different ideological requirements than the old, the theoretical innovations that had buttressed the first British empire, in Ireland and America, remained in some respects more prescient about the future shape of capitalist imperialism.  This is true not, of course, in the sense that colonial settlement was to be the dominant form of capitalist imperialism.  But in other ways, the ideological weapons forged to defend the Irish and American models were more specifically capitalist than other available theories.  It is here that we begin to find a conception of empire not as conquest or even military domination and political jurisdiction, but as purely economic hegemony.

John Locke, again, best reflects this new conception of empire, in the sense that his theory of colonial appropriation by-passes altogether the question of political jurisdiction or the right of one political power to dominate another.  In his theory of property, we can observe imperialism becoming a directly economic relationship, even if that relationship required brutal force to implant it.  That kind of relationship could be justified not by the right to rule but by the right, indeed the obligation, to produce exchange value.

Capitalist imperialism eventually became almost entirely a matter of economic domination, in which market imperatives, manipulated by the dominant capitalist powers, were made to do the work no longer done by imperial states or colonial settlers.  It is a distinctive and essential characteristic of capitalist imperialism that its economic reach far exceeds its direct political and military grasp.  It can rely on the economic imperatives of 'the market' to do much of its imperial work.  This sharply differentiates it from earlier forms of imperialism, which depended directly on such extra-economic powers, whether territorial empires which could reach only as far as the capacity of their direct coercive powers to impose their rule, or commercial empires whose advantages depended, for example, on domination of the seas.

Once subordinate powers are made vulnerable to economic imperatives and the 'laws' of the market, direct rule by imperial states is no longer required to impose the will of capital.  But here we encounter a paradox, or, better still, a fundamental contradiction of capitalism.  Market imperatives may reach far beyond the power of any single state, but these imperatives themselves must be enforced by coercive extra-economic power.  Neither the imposition of economic imperatives, nor the everyday social order demanded by capital accumulation and the operations of the market, can be achieved without the help of coercive powers much more local and territorially limited than the economic reach of capital.

That is why, paradoxically, the more purely economic empire has become, the more the nation state has proliferated.  Not only imperial powers but subordinate states have proved necessary to the rule of global capital.  It has, in fact, been a major strategy of capitalist imperialism even to create local states to act as conduits for capitalist imperatives.

Globalization has not transcended this need.  The 'globalized' world is more than ever a world of nation states.  In fact, the new imperialism we call globalization, precisely because it depends on a wide-ranging economic hegemony that reaches far beyond any state's territorial boundaries or political dominion, is a form of imperialism more dependent than any other on a system of multiple states.

Subordinate states that act at the behest of global capital may be more effective than the old colonial settlers who once carried capitalist imperatives throughout the world, but they also pose great risks.  In particular, they are subject to their own internal pressures and oppositional forces, and their own coercive powers can fall into the wrong hands, which may oppose the will of imperial capital.  In this globalized world, where the nation state is supposed to be dying, the irony is that, because the new imperialism depends more than ever on a system of multiple states, it matters to capital more than ever who commands those local states and how.  For instance, popular struggles for truly democratic states, for a transformation in the balance of class forces in the state, with international solidarity among such democratic national struggles, might present a greater challenge to imperial power than ever before.

At any rate, the imperial power has acted to ensure against any risk of losing its hold on the global state system.  However unlikely or distant that prospect may seem, the US has been ready to anticipate it by using its one most unambiguous advantage, its overwhelming military power --if only because it can do so more or less with impunity.

But if military force remains an indispensable tool of the new imperialism, its nature and objectives must be different from its application in old colonial empires.  The old forms of colonial imperialism required outright conquest, together with theories of war and peace to justify it.  Early capitalist imperialism, while no less dependent on coercive force to take control of colonial territory, seemed able to dispense with a political defence of colonization and to incorporate the justification of colonial settlement into a theory of property.  Globalization, the economic imperialism of capital taken to its logical conclusion, has, paradoxically, required a new doctrine of extra-economic, and especially military, coercion.

The practical and doctrinal difficulties posed by this new situation are obvious.  If local states will guard the economy, who will guard the guardians?  It is impossible for any single state power, even the massive military force of the US, to impose itself every day, everywhere, throughout the global system.  Nor can any conceivable collective force impose the will of global capital all the time on a multitude of subordinate states, or maintain the predictable order required by capital's daily transactions.  It is not easy to identify the role of military force in defending a borderless empire and establishing imperial control over a global economy, instead of sovereignty over a clearly bounded territory.

Since even US military power cannot be everywhere at once (it has never even aspired to more than two local wars at a time), the only option is to demonstrate, by frequent displays of military force, that it can go anywhere at any time, and do great damage.  This is not to say that war will be constant.  'Operation Infinite War' is apparently intended to produce something more like Hobbes's 'state of war': 'the nature of war,' he writes in the Leviathan, 'consisteth not in actual fighting, but in the known disposition thereto during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary.'  It is this endless possibility of war that imperial capital needs to sustain its hegemony over the global system of multiple states.

Hobbes understood what the new imperialists know: that power rests to a great extent on psychology and especially fear.  As the right-wing commentator, Charles Krauthammer has recently said in the Washington Post, 'The elementary truth that seems to elude the experts again and again --Gulf war, Afghan war, next war-- is that power is its own reward.  Victory changes everything, psychology above all.  The psychology in the region is now one of fear and deep respect for American power.  Now is the time to use it to deter, defeat or destroy the other regimes....', above all, Iraq.  So, while power produces fear, fear produces more power; and the purpose of a war like the one in Afghanistan is to create a psychological climate, as much as anything else, a purpose more easily served by attacking adversaries who can be defeated with relative ease (and where, perhaps, the outcome matters relatively little to the imperial power), and then moving on to bigger game, fortified by universal fear.

This does not necessarily mean that the US, as global capital's ultimate coercive power, will wage war for no reason at all, just for the purpose of display.  There are likely to be more finite goals, as in Afghanistan, though even here, the objectives probably have more to do with trying out new modes of war and, above all, creating a political climate for the open-ended 'war against terrorism' --even more than, say, ensuring access to the huge oil and gas reserves of Central Asia, which many commentators have suggested is the purpose of the war.

But whatever specific objectives such wars may have, there is always something more.  The larger purpose is to shape the political environment in a complex system of multiple states.  In some cases, particularly in subordinate states, the object is exemplary terror, pour encourager les autres.  In advanced capitalist states, the political environment is shaped in other ways, by their implication in imperial alliances. 10   But in all cases, the overriding objective is to demonstrate US hegemony.

Such purposes help to explain why there has developed a pattern of resort to military action by the US in situations ill-suited to military solutions, why massive military action is anything but a last resort, and why the connection between means and ends in these military ventures is typically so tenuous.  An endless empire which has no boundaries, even no territory, requires war without end.  An invisible empire requires infinite war, and a new doctrine of war to justify it.



1.  On 30 September, The Observer in London carried a special report by Ed Vulliamy, 'Inside the Pentagon'.  Here are the highlights of the piece: 

'As war begins in Afghanistan, so does the assault on the White House - to win the ear and signed orders of the military's Commander in Chief, President George W. Bush, for what Pentagon hawks call "Operation Infinite War"....'

The Observer has learnt that two detailed proposals for warfare without limit were presented to the President this week by his Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, both of which were temporarily put aside but remain on hold.

'They were drawn up by his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz....

the plans argue for open-ended war without constraint either of time or geography....

'...the Pentagon militants prefer to speak of "revolving alliances", which look like a Venn diagram, with an overlapping centre and only certain countries coming within the US orbit for different sectors and periods of an unending war. The only countries in the middle of the diagrammatic rose, where all the circles overlap, are the US, Britain and Turkey.

'Officials say that in a war without precedent, the rules have to be made up as it develops, and that the so-called "Powell Doctrine" arguing that there should be no military intervention without "clear and achievable" political goals is "irrelevant"....' 

2. For an illuminating discussion of Spanish imperialist ideology, in contrast to that of Britain and France, see Anthony Pagden, Lords of All the World: Ideologies of Empire in Spain, Britain and France c. 1500-1800 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995. 

3. On Dutch military expenditures during this period, see Jan de Vries and A. van der Woude, The First Modern Economic: Success, Failure, and Perseverance of the Dutch Economy, 1500-1815 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 100-102. 

4. For a provocative, and persuasive, interpretation of Grotius, see Richard Tuck, The Rights of War and Peace: Political Thought and the International Order from Grotius to Kant (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999). 

5. Tuck p.. 85. 

6. Tuck p. 108. 

7. Pagden has a useful discussion of this principle and its use particularly by the English and, to a lesser degree, the French, and the reasons for its absence in Spanish imperial ideology.  See pp. 77 passim.  The principle was obviously more useful in cases where imperialism took the form of settler colonies which displaced local populations and was of little use to the Spanish, with their empire of explicit conquest. 

8. It is striking that histories of early modern European political thought, such as those by Pagden and Tuck, as well as James Tully whose work has revealed much about the imperial implications of Locke's theory of property, seem to have a blind spot when it comes to theoretical innovations related to the specific experience of English capitalism.  It will be argued in what follows that Locke differentiates himself from his European predecessors and Continental contemporaries more than any of these histories allow, in ways that are directly related to the distinctive historical experience of England and English imperialism. 

9. This argument about the Dutch Republic's reliance on 'extra-economic' advantages is elaborated in my 'The Question of Market Dependence, Journal of Agrarian Change Vol. 2 No. 1, January 2002. 

10. See Peter Gowan (The Global Gamble - Verso) on US efforts to shape the political environment in allied capitalist powers.