By Colin Foster
Workers' Liberty forums in London, Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield over recent weeks on "The USA as hyperpower" have produced lively discussions around questions on the shape of the modern world raised by the current drive for war in Iraq.
Today's US "hyperpower" is fundamentally structural power within a world of more-or-less free trade, different from the old colonial empires of the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century and their more-or-less organised trade blocs.
As the home of the dollar, the basic currency of world trade and financial reserves worldwide; as the home of the world's prime credit markets; as the possessor of the world's largest single home market, the USA has great power.
The US government is the most powerful voice in IMF, the World Bank, the WTO, the G8, etc. The USA's military hyperpower positions it as the "globocop" which polices the state fabric of the world market, doing it in its own way and at its own tempo.
How does this fit in with the concept of "imperialism"? That has been one of the most frequent questions in the discussions.
If we understand "imperialism" in the sense of the late 19th and early 20th centuries - the competitive drive by a few big advanced capitalist powers not only to seize colonies but also to organise them into more-or-less integrated "empires" - then it was replaced by a further stage of capitalist development after World War Two. However, that usage would be pedantry. The word "imperialism" long ago came to cover other forms of the general tendency within capitalism for uneven development and for the stronger, richer centres of capital to squeeze, dominate and plunder the weaker.
Today we have an "imperialism of free trade", based on politically independent states which organise and structure their countries' economies in order to gain position in the world market, and lynchpinned by one particular state, the USA.
One important difference between this and the old "high imperialism" is that conflicts between smaller powers and bigger ones today more often have the character of smaller capitals fighting bigger capitals for relative advantage than that of oppressed peoples fighting colonial rulers for national independence. While socialists side with oppressed nations fighting for independence - even under bourgeois leadership - we do not side with small capital against big.
To look to the battles of smaller, "paleo-imperialist" centres - Iraq or Serbia, say - against the USA to bring progress is false. However, the modern world system does produce a potent force for progress. It unifies the world as never before, and expands the wage-working class as never before.
When Karl Marx wrote "workers of the world, unite" in 1848, the wage-working class scarcely existed outside a few countries of Western Europe. Today Asia has more trade unionists than Europe. The material possibilities of communication and linking-up between organised workers in different countries are much greater.
In, and against, the world united under US hyperpower, we can fight, not for a "multipolar" world of many openly-clashing regional capitalist powers, but for a world united by the working class. Campaigns like "No Sweat" are vital to make the necessary links.
Other analyses of the modern world system point to different political conclusions. Toni Negri and Michael Hardt, in their best-selling book Empire, see the world as a "smooth space" in which the power of states has withered. That analysis has led Hardt to appeal to the forces of "Empire" - transnational corporations, international banks, and so on - to stop the USA conducting its war on Iraq, which he sees as a strange throwback.
Books such as John Pilger's Hidden Agendas, and many left-wing pamphlets, see what is happening today as the colonial or semi-colonial "reconquest" by the USA of the ex-colonial world, so that socialists should side with pretty much anyone who clashes with the USA.
John Rees, Alex Callinicos and others in the SWP, at least in their more theoretical writings, propose a different view. They say that the end of the Cold War, by unfreezing alignments, opened up a period of a "new imperialism" in which the USA is battling it out for hegemony with the other larger capitalist powers. Thus proxy wars: over Kosova in 1999 the USA was essentially combatting the European Union, not Serbia; over Afghanistan in 2001 the USA was essentially combatting Russia and the EU, not the Taliban. However, from the claim that big-power rivalries define "imperialism" today as essentially akin to that of 100 years ago, they draw political conclusions similar to those of the simple "US-empire" theorists.