The Second Empire, or The Eighteenth Brumaire of George W. Bush

Michael Hardt


We seem doomed to historical repetition. In fact, there is a surplus of ghosts from the past wandering through our current scene. The difficulty is to cast out the false specters and see which great historical events and figures are really being repeated today.

In some respects, the Iraq war and the current global mission of the US government seem to repeat the old European imperialist projects. The present efforts not only to impose new regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq but also more generally to remake the political landscape of the Middle East and even "reshape the global environment" are conceived and presented using the old terms of the civilizing mission of European powers. President Bush might imagine himself donning the cloak of the great noble imperialists, educating the savages and bringing civilization to the world. We must have the courage to help them, he says, and they will thank us later. Or, in a more venal vein, the efforts to control the vast oil fields in Iraq and the Middle East certainly recall numerous imperialist wars to accumulate wealth, such as the British attempts a century ago in the Boer War to gain control of the great South African gold mines - blood for gold yesterday, blood for oil today.

Despite these resemblances, however, the old imperialisms do not help us understand what is central in our contemporary situation. These comparisons are really just ill fitting clothes that hide what is going on underneath. The real historical repetition is much closer to home. The United States is now repeating the Gulf War of 1991, certainly, but that is really merely an element in a much more important historical repetition: the coup d'Etat within the global system - a new 18eme Brumaire, this time a repetition of father and son, not uncle and nephew. By coup d'Etat here I mean a usurpation of power within the ruling order by the unilateral, monarchical element and the corresponding subordination of the multilateral, aristocratic forces.

The coup d'Etat of Bush father was conceived at the time as the creation of a new world order. Soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the bi-polar cold war order, the first Gulf War helped establish the terms of the new global power structure. The United States, as the sole remaining superpower, would take precedence over all other powers, but it would not rule the world alone. The US role in the first Empire navigated a path that combined superiority and collaboration. The United States would exercise monarchical powers, especially in military matters, but within simultaneously collaborate in a broad global power system constituted by a network of powers of varying capacities and forms, including the other dominant nation-states, particularly Europe and Japan, along with major capitalist corporations, supranational organizations such as the UN, the World Bank, and the IMF, and numerous others. The essential feature of the first Empire, once again, is that the monarchical superiority of the United States did not contradict or obstruct the participation of the various aristocratic forces in the global power system.

The coup d'Etat of Bush son, which often goes under the name of unilateralism, takes one step further in the concentration of global power in the hands of the monarchical United States. What is abundantly clear in the new US doctrine of pre-emptive strikes and global political restructuring is that the United States is attempting to subordinate radically all aristocratic powers. The United States believes it can rule the world alone or, rather, with merely the aid of passive vassals. Other powers are thus advised to support it and follow its lead, not so much because they are necessary but really for their own good, because failure to follow the US lead will weaken them further and ultimately make them irrelevant.

While Bush son plays the young Bonaparte, then, the United Nations and the European nation-states, particularly France and Germany, find themselves in the position of the 19th century French bourgeois parliamentary parties, insisting on multilateralism against the unilateralism of the Emperor. This is the real historical repetition. In fact, the struggle between the United States and the United Nations, the US efforts to divide and weaken Europe, and the conflicts within NATO are much closer to the essential core of the current developments than even the war on Iraq. This is where the hierarchy of the second Empire - new world order 2 - is being worked out today.

Every historical repetition, however, comes with a difference, and it is not merely that the first event has the weight of a tragic creative transformation whereas the second presents a grotesque masquerade. The coup d'Etat of Bush son resembles that of the father in that both of them seek to concentrate greater power in the hands of the United States. In the first Empire, however, the monarchical role of the United States in the new world order was balanced by a broad aristocratic participation in a network of numerous different powers. Today this dual nature of Empire - US superiority plus broad collaboration - seems to have broken down completely. On one side, a united Europe, the United Nations, and other multilateral powers threaten to pose an effective alternative to the United States and undermine its global superiority. (One should not underestimate the threat posed by the Euro to the global monetary monopoly of the dollar.) On the other side, Bush the son's second Empire attempts to separate the United States from all other powers and render collaboration unnecessary. From both sides we can see that the concord of monarchic and aristocratic ruling powers of the first Empire has been shattered, and seems today increasingly impossible.

In response to the coup d'Etat and the formation of the second Empire in 19th century France, when the forces of revolution seemed at the lowest point, Marx sought reasons for optimism. He did not advocate, of course, taking the side of the multilateralist bourgeois parties against the unilateralist Emperor. Rather he saw the conflicts among the ruling powers as a passage through purgatory, in which the seemingly inexistent revolutionary forces were merely tunneling underground, hidden from view, waiting for the right time to spring forth. We too have no intention of taking sides with any of the forces struggling for power at the pinnacle of the global hierarchy - the United States, Europe, the United Nations, Blair, Chirac, etc. Today, however, different from Marx's time, the forces of revolution are working in full view. They matured during the first Empire and enter into the second with growing powers. This is perhaps the most important difference, a difference that may free us from the tragic cycle of historical repetition.

Published in Global Magazine