Three Legs of Needed Social Change: US Empire, US Capitalism, and Global Climate Change


Traditional projections by US politicians, when talking about the United States in a global context, is that the US is seen by other countries as the “Shining City on the Hill” or as “the indispensible nation,” or in other congratulatory terms.[i]  

Whether this was ever true to not, these congratulatory terms have given way to more critical understandings of this country’s role and activities in the world.

Accompanying this more critical understanding, there has been a growing awareness of the worsening social conditions in the country (see Greenhouse, 2008), and the escalating recognition of the need for qualitative social change in the United States (see Scipes, 2009; Hedges, and Sacco, 2012).[ii] 

Nonetheless, once activists begin to engage in addressing the worsening social conditions in this country, one of the key questions they will face is this: how do we understand the level of change that is necessary?

This is a question that bedevils most of progressive activities in this country. Those that are aware of the increasing social problems in this country generally concentrate only on domestic issues, and do not incorporate them into a global analysis. Many who are aware of US foreign policy issues do not connect them to environmental issues. And many who are aware of environmental issues do not recognize that these are caused by the continuing, required, expansion of capitalism.  In short, many implicitly argue “my analysis, my analysis” to the exclusion of everyone else’s, and so we keep competing among ourselves, while the powers that be laugh at our stupidity.

In this article, the literature developed to date on these issues is considered, and it is argued that the current field is too limited. Ultimately, my argument is that we need to engage in three overlapping but not conflated issues, explicated below, and not just one or two of them.


Literature Review:  Introduction

Much of the literature on macro-level (i.e., broad-based) social change has focused on policy related to three areas: US foreign relations, the economic situation at home, and, to a much less extent, albeit increasingly, the environment. Generally, these three policy areas have been approached individually or, at best, by looking at two of these three areas in combination.

This paper argues that focusing on one or even two of these respective areas, while necessary, is not sufficient:  to adequately understand the necessary social change for the well-being of people of the US (and, implicitly, for the well-being of people across the planet), it is herein argued the necessity to combine all three areas of interest into a unified whole.[iii] The argument herein is that each of the individual areas has sufficient weaknesses that can only be overcome by combining with the other areas.

To make this argument, literature in each of these areas is examined for strengths and limitations. By doing this, it is demonstrated that a combined approach surpasses understandings developed by more limited approaches.

Theoretically, this work is guided by the work of Jan Nederveen Pieterse in his 1989 book, Empire and Emancipation:  Power and Liberation on a World Scale, especially as interpreted by Kim Scipes (see especially Scipes, 2010a: xxv-xxix; 2010b: 467-469).

Quickly, Nederveen Pieterse’s approach rejects the work done under the aegis of World Systems Theory or WST (for a theoretical dismemberment of WST, see Nederveen Pieterse, 1989:  29-45), and replaces it with a model incorporating both politics and economics, with dominance taking place between political communities. This allows one to incorporate the traditional Marxist understanding of imperialism (Lenin, 1916), of one nation state dominating another, but yet transcend it by including analyses of one nation-state dominating other political communities (which allows consideration of indigenous peoples, as well as communities such as the Kurds, whose population is encompassed in four different Middle Eastern countries), as well as extending analysis of imperialism both above and below traditional nation-state relations (Scipes, 2010b: 467-469).

Yet this work does not incorporate the issue of global climate change into the discussion. As far as known, Nederveen Pieterse has not addressed climate change, and which has only been done at a tentative level by Scipes (1984, 2009). In short, while building on their work, this effort seeks to extend it.

To do this, focus herein will be on three subjects:  US Empire, US Capitalism[iv] and Global Climate Change. However, to continue, discussion must first focus on single explanations, and then on double ones.


Literature Review:  Single Explanations

US Empire. Critique of US foreign policy, with some attention as to its subsequent “blowback” on the United States itself, has been gaining steam over the past 20 or so years (see, among many others, Blum, 2000; Chomsky, 2003; Cox, ed., 2012; Engelhardt, 2010; Enloe, 2000; Fox Piven, 2004; Grandin, 2007; Johnson, 2000, 2010; McCoy, 2009; Nederveen Pieterse, 1989; Scipes, 2010a, b; Stone and Kuznick, 2012; Turse, 2012, 2013). Basically, the argument is that the United States’ social order extends globally, and that to understand it, we must examine it accordingly. Doing this, we see the US has an Empire:  not like the Roman Empire based on territorial expansion, but rather based on political economic domination by the US of political communities around the world.

Scipes (2010a, b), following Nederveen Pieterse, not only argues that the US has a global empire, but that the level of domination is specifically not limited to that of the nation state. For example, he extends it to a sub-national level, in this case, that of the leaders of the US labor movement, the AFL-CIO. Thus, his extension—laid out most clearly in his 2010b article—takes the study of American institutions outside of the “traditional” foreign policy realm (see also Cox and Bass, 2012).

The strength of recognizing that the US has an empire is that we have a more complete understanding of US Government activities around the world; we recognize that the US Government, under both Democratic and Republican governments, has a larger purpose than just engagement with the rest of the world; it is to maintain and extend US hegemony over the other political communities of the world for the benefit of the United States government itself and corporate capital in general, which is predominantly US owned, but to a smaller and smaller extent over time. And that the US Government will unleash all-but-unlimited violence to get its way (see especially Turse, 2013).

However, while providing a totally superior level of clarity about US foreign relations, a recognition of Empire alone usually leaves us with little understanding of the economic base of the Empire—which provides the material resources for Empire—and with even less understanding of Global Climate Change. Focus on the Empire tends to capture well US efforts to dominate the world, but little else. Nonetheless, it is essential that the scope of the US social order (i.e., the global US Empire) be included, because diversion of resources to enable the Empire to exist affects US capitalism itself as well as diverts resources away from addressing social problems such as Global Climate Change.


US Capitalism. For those who read outside of the mainstream, it has long been recognized that Marxist analysis has provided the greatest critique of our capitalist economic system. Marxism has long been dismissed by “serious” American thinkers, however, who have seen it as an ideology unworthy of consideration. Nonetheless, for those who do not listen to the serious thinkers, and who examine Marxist writings on their own, it becomes obvious that Marx and his followers have a very compelling critique of capitalism as an economic system.[v]  

The most extensive effort in the United States over the past 60+ years to develop Marxism has been the work of people of and/or who are associated with the journal, Monthly Review. The heart of their argument has been developed to fit the modern American experience by Nobel economic prize winner, Paul Sweezy, and his co-author, Paul Baran, in their 1966 classic, Monopoly Capitalism. Others, writing since, have worked to extend the critique even further.

Their analysis shows that there is a flaw at the heart of any capitalist economic system, and that is the contradiction between the production of use-values and exchange-values, and the affects on those who produce them (i.e., the workers) by having their labor alienated from them and then expropriated to create surplus value and, hence, profit. Part of this profit is subsequently appropriated by the state apparatus, and used to ensure domination over working people, ensuring future surplus and (hopefully, for capitalists) profits.

During the stage of monopoly capitalism—recognizing oligarchic control over vast sectors of the economy—which results in increasing surplus, the economic system is caught in a contradiction; because this surplus must be absorbed by investment opportunities, which generate even more surplus, it becomes more and more difficult to utilize the surplus rationally (Baran and Sweezy, 1966). Yet investment opportunities in industry are becoming less and less advisable in the United States because there is over capacity in the industrial sector; however, when there is investment, it is in capital-intensive production instead of labor-intensive production, meaning even greater production while creating fewer jobs than in the past. It is this “absorption” problem, according to Foster and Magdoff (2009), that has led to the explosion of “financialization,” which has led to great indebtedness and ultimately the crisis of 2008-09. But Foster and Magdoff (2009: 20-21) write, “There is no possibility that the enormous surplus capital that has fed the financial explosion can be absorbed by productive investment under the present system at this stage in its history and with the existing structure of inequality.”

There are two “angles” from which the crisis can be seen. Capitalism is an economic system that requires continuous growth, and this comes at the direct expense of the environment. According to Foster and Clark:

          This ceaseless drive for the amassing of greater and greater wealth, requiring more and more consumption of energy and resources, and generating more waste, constitutes “the absolute general law of environmental degradation under capitalism.”  Today the scale of the human economy has become so large that its everyday activities, such as carbon dioxide emissions and freshwater use, now threaten the fundamental biochemical processes of the planet” (Foster and Clark, 2012: 6-7).



Further, the capitalist economic system is irrational and cannot provide jobs for all who want to work, much less at good wages and benefits (however defined); recognizing this, however, requires we must incorporate an analysis of US capitalism into our over approach:  if the system cannot provide jobs for everyone who wants to work, here and abroad, then its reason for continued existence becomes more and more untenable.

Yet there is also a political problem for the Empire. As the “1 percent” have overwhelmed the US political system—not only through lobbying and related activities, but now with unlimited campaign contributions thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizen United decision in 2010—and it has become more and more obvious that the government (especially at the Federal level) has become a tool for the rich to use against the “99 percent,” there is less and less willingness by the 99 percent to support US foreign policy over time. Concurrently, with the decreasing ability of the economic system to provide jobs for Americans, there is increasing demand for social services. Yet the cost of Empire has soared so tremendously over the past 32 years—US national debt has grown from $ .9 trillion to over $16.4 trillion in just this period, with over $10 trillion going to fund the military (without including costs for nuclear weapons or military veterans’ benefits)[vi]—that politicians suggest that these social service programs be seriously cut back so as to enable the continued expansion of the war machine (aka US Empire):  something here has to give, because the US cannot fund both the Empire and take care of Americans; it can do one, perhaps, but it definitely cannot do both.

And we haven’t even gotten to Global Climate Change….


Global Climate Change (hereafter, GCC). Attention on GCC properly focuses on the environment, but it overwhelmingly ignores the role of US capitalism, and almost never addresses the US Empire.