Thursday, 27 August 2009

“The Roots of Contemporary Imperialism”, by Valerio Volpi (University of America Press)


The Founding Fathers, the US Constitution and 200 Years of “Corporate Dictatorship”

Valerio Volpi’s intended aim with this book is to link the constitutional structure of the United States with the installation of the prerequisites for the rise of corporate supremacy. He hopes to show how this corporate supremacy has allowed big business to replace representative institutions ever since the birth of the Republic, shaping US public policy across the board – from environmental policy to the US’s many foreign interventions – regardless of the party in charge (of the White House or the Houses of Congress).

According to Volpi, the Constitution, from the very beginning, was meant to protect the propertied class and its interests:

“big business’s sovereignty and the U.S. Constitution are part of an organic whole, and the latter can be considered as ‘the new nation’s first successful attempt to rig the rules of government and democratic participation in favor of elites’.”

Also, on the method of government put into place by the Constitution:

“checks and balances were intended not so much to protect the powers and prerogatives of each constitutional branch of government, as to keep the people at bay while perpetuating the domination of the moneyed elite.”

Volpi does a very good job of explaining this and outlining his position, before showing how the land-owning class of the Founding Fathers has now been replaced, by first war profiteers, and now the monied business or corporate class, “consisting mostly of white, elderly Protestant graduate males, with a salary of $100,000 a year or more, that is, today’s replica of the Founding Fathers”.

Much of the book is about how corporations and business interests have taken over the wheels of governance – not through buying office, but through buying officials (according to the author, few ultra-rich Americans see the point in running for office, when they can just buy those who do). Many will see the book merely as an anti-corporate rant (not to mention anti-politics, and some might even think it’s anti-American) – which isn’t hard when you have a long description of the “elite consensus” that makes businessmen come across as only one degree removed from the Devil. Volpi has, however, put far more into his arguments and positions than people like John Pilger (who, let’s be honest, only has one story) and Noam Chomsky (who, as a linguist, doesn’t really have any business discussing politics or international relations – see Halper & Clarke’s The Silence of the Rational Centre, 2006, Ch.5). The author doesn’t look just at businesses or rich Americans, rather he looks at the whole of American politics and society: the role of the Supreme Court, the Constitution, the media (briefly), the elections money-culture, and so forth.

Volpi’s style is assured and he is clearly very confident in his thesis, which is both a boon and a hindrance to the impact of the book. At times, clear statements of fact are given greater force by the way he writes directly to the point. At other times, Volpi’s position, though stated with some evidence, comes across as stretched – conclusions are grander or more shocking than would appear to most others. In this way, he is somewhat like the aforementioned Chomsky (an oft-cited source for the book), which is a pity.

Overall, this is a very interesting book, and a relatively easy read. Volpi’s approach to the subject is unblinkered, lacking the mythologised preconceptions of the Founding Fathers and the Revolutionary period that is all-too-common in books written by or for Americans – he discusses the academic consensus that says John Locke’s influence was considerable, while offering other possibilities (e.g. Machiavelli – one I agree with). Volpi, in fact, paints a distinctly dark picture of early American life, complete with all its biases and bigotries: to be female, Black or a Native American was a guarantee to suffering. Equally, the author is not star-struck by Obama, spending considerable time discussing the new president’s election’s corporate ties. While it sometimes feels as though Volpi wishes to knock down America (not sure if this is his intention, but it comes across a bit like it was written by what a Republican would call an “America basher” or “European America hater”), on the whole the author provides some valuable input into the current state of corporate dominance in the United States.

The one thing that is disappointing, given that this was his PhD thesis as well, is the evidence of balance in his argument. This is very focused on one thing (corporate influence cannot be a good thing), which seems to make him sometimes lose focus on the title of his thesis. For example, the penultimate chapter, “Corporations and World Domination”, has little-to-nothing to do with “World Domination” – it’s exclusively US-centric, which is disappointing; I was hoping for more on business’s impact on US foreign policy (which might have actually strengthened the overall argument). Volpi does make up for some of this shortfall by providing extensive factual evidence, providing lots of data (usually financial in some form or another) to support his arguments or at least complete the picture.

Not everyone will agree with his portrayal of America, of course (some will loudly oppose it, bemoaning conspiracy-theorists, etc.), but I would recommend it as a well-sourced, well-written opinion on US corporatism. I was not wholly convinced by his argument, but there was plenty in the book that made me rethink some things or at least look at certain issues from a new direction – which, ultimately, is what a book like this should do.

The evidence he presents in the chapter about the Founding Fathers is particularly interesting and eye-opening (and refreshing), and is certainly one of the book’s main strengths. The lack of an international focus is disappointing, but for a negative view of the role of corporations, business and money in general in America and its politics, the book is a good place to start.

A “radical” approach to US politics and history, The Roots of Contemporary Imperialism is worth a look.

If you’re looking for a more scholarly Noam Chomsky or Greg Palast, then I think this book is for you.

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