Empire at home

Contribution to the International Conference for Human Rights and Peace in the Philippines

Quezon City, Philippines
19 July 2013

PANEL 1. Economic, political and social crisis globally and in the Philippines, and implications on peace and human rights in the Philippines

California State University, Monterey Bay

Empire is in the details

Despite so many books on US Empire, there is little focus on how people in the United States see the connection between their nation, power, and the rest of the world. Catherine Lutz argues in “Empire is in the Details” that we have to understand the cultural effects of Empire at home and its entangled relationship to Empire abroad, this linked to geopolitical macro analysis.1

American anti-militarist feminist Cynthia Enloe tells us to have a feminist curiosity, to connect IR analysis of “hard power” (geopolitical, nation-state based analysis) to the margin – women, youth – in places where hard power intersects with their ‘soft’ inconsequential power (this is not Joseph Nye’s the soft power of diplomacy). Enloe does this brilliantly in Nimo’s War, Emma’s War where she juxtaposes stories of Iraqi women with American women in the military.2 She uses their stories to refract gender and geopolitics– how the conflict spills into a beauty salon in Baghdad or the changed life of the wife of a disabled US soldier.

I teach Global Studies at CSU Monterey Bay to children of Mexican migrant agricultural laborers in the remnants of Fort Ord. We still drive by crumbling barracks, our department’s offices are in the former ordinance building, so we confront history and transitions of US militarism, Mexican transnational labor, and the new impact of globalization in every classroom. Empire shows up everywhere at “home”.

This is my job – to help Gen X, Y, Z connect the dots between their lives and the lives of others elsewhere in the context of global power asymmetries. This is not the world of their grandparents, and hardly the world of their parents, some of whom are still working in the fields as they head to college. They have lived out in a different way the notion of globalization as the increasing the velocity of the diffusion of ideas, goods, information, capital and people. They know that we are all inextricably connected -distant events can be significant elsewhere, and local events can have global consequences. 3

They experience the world as polycentric. They travel over the border in many ways – phones, secret bodies, and Skype. But their political consciousness is different than the activists of my generation, maybe disempowered, maybe just different. They live in a world of information overload and willed ignorance.

Some of our students visited and participated in the Occupy sites in San Francisco or Oakland. They helped to “occupy” affluent Monterey. They latched onto the meme “we are the 99%”. They spoke of being already entrapped in thousands of dollars of student debt. Working two jobs to stay in school. Some living at home, but most were also ambivalent; wanted to succeed, felt they had no power to change anything and didn’t relate to the mechanisms of change available to them. These are the working class citizens or green card holders of the Empire.

Let me turn for a moment to their 21st century US Empire in an era of globalization.

They live in a US Empire slogged in debt, losing its wars (some students are vets from Iraq and Afghanistan), a nation now in overreach, and leaking secrets all over the place while it tries to gather more. While America is still a singular superpower, its economic, military and political dominance has also been perforated with interlocking dependencies, the myth of a Westphalian sovereignty, where rulers had power over their states, was a fiction in the first place, as any “post colonial state” knows.

Manuel Castells would say in the last thirty years of globalization, the world of nation-states (space of places) has been replaced by a world of networks (space of flows).4 Networks have no centre, consisting of nodes and linkages. He argues that this “network society” of global capital structured around financial and information flows are a brand of capitalism unlike its predecessors. Castell’s notion of network state is a response to political challenges of globalization, for which the European Union is a good example. Just one economic crisis affects the whole.

This modern state-centered political system is under considerable stress. As Susan Strange argues, the global economy affects state power – the state is in retreat.5 Thus states areless effective on security, economic stability, law enforcing — matters that the market has never been able to provide. States must also seek to manage and control new technologies and technical systems that skirt borders.

They are unable to effectively manage within their borders increasingly cross-territorial problems such as computer viruses, drugs, human trafficking, terrorism, and the bird flu.

Human rights and peace regimes have also dramatically changed in what they mean and the institutions that monitor, support, and fund their practices. Since 1945, there is an increase in multilayered global and regional governance. International government organizations have increased: from 37 to 300 within 70 years. In 1907 there were 371 International NGOs; by 2000 there were 26,000. Furthermore, there is increased legitimacy of international law (ICC) and human rights, but also new forms of humanitarian – and militarized – intervention.

Empire of Surveillance

The US military has globalized in new ways since September 11th 2001. “National Security” has, since the Cold War, become the overarching interest with which the U.S. approaches the world. The 21st century’s “war on terror” broadened to cover covert operations, rendition, surveillance, and drone missiles.

In the last decade, new layers of security, secrecy, and cyber capability suggest a new kind of arms race disproportionate to the threats of terrorism. The U.S. intelligence community’s bloat has been staggering. As Dana Priest writes,

The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work. 6

American military is taking on humanitarian action while policing is more militarized.The Washington Post documents some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies that work on counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence. Almost one million people hold top-secret security clearances, and as we well know from Edward Snowden, not all are comfortable with what they monitor.

Empire of Ignorance

Let me return to my students again.

In my feminism-militarism class, students must fill in a map of the Middle East, to identify Afghanistan and the seven countries bordering Iraq. Few know where to find the two current wars that will cost the U.S. alone an estimated $3-4 trillion.We talk about the history of Iraq, its women’s movement, we distinguish between Sunni – Shia, the relationship of pilgrimages sites in Iraq to the Shia of Iran. We try to unpack the Orientalist notion of barbarian irrational Other and turn the mirror on ourselves through Abu Ghraib.

They have not seen the world carved up into US Military Commands like the sections of an orange. Or, even though they are going to college on a former military base, and likely live near one, realize that there are 4,135 military installations in the US, at least 800 globally. Most do not know that U.S. spends more money on its military than the next 17 countries combined – 48% of the global pie.

How can this be possible, this will to ignorance in such a space of information flow and militarism? This ignorance is not my students alone, it belongs to all of us, it is institutionally useful. Lutz argues that this “will to ignorance” is produced by 65 years of the national security state. Furthermore, the empire’s redistribution of wealth has made possible an “anesthesia of affluence.”7 Spivak calls non-innocent ignorance or “sanctioned ignorance.”8

There is, as Bruckner so eloquently argues, a dangerous “temptation of innocence” when entitled societies feel victimized.9 Monika Sturken states that, “the disavowal of the United States as an empire has allowed for the nation’s dominant self-image as perennially innocent.”10 She maintains that Americans are “tourists” of their own history. As Tourists of History, Americans are detached from their/our own complicity in America’s imperial violence elsewhere. They (we) respond to domestic terrorism at the WTC and the Oklahoma Federal Building, the recent bombing in Boston with an increased culture of paranoia and fear,11 and turn to a frenzied need for consumer comfort, a “complex relationship of mourning and consumerism and the economic networks that emerge around historical events, including events of trauma.”12

This is absence of the messy, horrific implications of military violence in American social imaginary is what Slavoj Zizek a Slovenian philosopher would call American fantasia, the inability to grasp the REAL.13 Zizek reflects on the increased virtualization of our daily lives in advanced capitalist states. America’s utilitarian de-spiritualized universe de-materializes “real life” and transforms it into fantasy. In his early Welcome to the Desert of the Real, he flipped the standard logic that the “real” crashed into American society when the World Trade Center collapsed. Instead, America woke up to its fantasy — third world horrors as spectral now at home.

This capitalist fantasia breeds paranoia. Sturken notes an increase of security systems in houses. More recently, we are alerted to an increase in gun purchases, what has been called a “civilian armaments boom”. All this is evident in the case of Trayvon Martin, African American teenager, who was shot by George Zimmerman in “self defense”. Zimmerman was recently acquitted due to “stand your ground” laws of Florida.

These are stories we tell that link the domestic to its international logic: two men in a gated community awash with foreclosed homes whose stories link us to matrix of militarism, paranoia, perforated rights, and divided rage. It’s a case in which we see the logics of national security (stand your ground as pre-emptive strike), fear of hooded invaders, killed as they resist arrest, because of this “civilian armaments boom”. The Empire abroad is the mirror image of the Empire at home.


When we consider Empire in the details and connect it to its superstructures, the inconsistencies of our analysis is more evident, and the messy lives of “the people” and their dignity is honored. As an anthropologist, Lutz is arguing that more ethnographies should

listen both to those who benefit and those who suffer in the imperial relationship; to develop comparisons of the United States with other empires – btw capitalism and commodification, to consider its malleability, weaknesses and self-images.6

But the ISMs have already done this – meet people whose lives are contorted by structural, political and physical violence. Ask how these intimate localities can be set in – empirical tales of empire.

As Hardt and Negri remind us,“…truth will not make us free, but taking control of the production of truth will.”


  1. American Ethnologist Vol. 33, No. 4, pp. 593–611, p 587.
  2. Cynthia Enloe, Nimo’s War, Emma’s War: Making Feminist Sense of the Iraq War, University of California Press, 2010)
  3. Anthony Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991).
  4. See Manuel Castells’ Information Age trilogy: The Rise of the Network Society, The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture Vol. I. (Cambridge, MA; Oxford, UK: Blackwell. Second edition 2000); The Power of Identity, The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture Vol. II. (Cambridge, MA; Oxford, UK: Blackwell. Second edition 2004); End of Millennium, The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture Vol. III. (Cambridge, MA; Oxford, UK: Blackwell. Second edition 2000). See also his latest Aftermath: the cultures of the economic crisis. (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press 2012)
  5. Susan Strange, The Retreat of the State?. The Diffusion of Power in the World Economy, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).
  6. Dana Priest, Top Secret America, Washington Post, July 19, 2010
  7. Lutz, Ibid. p 587
  8. Gayatri Spivak notes this sanctioned ignorance is a result of the “epistemic violence” of imperialism which obfuscates the Western dominance which brought about what she calls “the worlding of the West as the world” in which Western interests are naturalized as global concerns. Spivak, The Postcolonial Critic: Interviews, strategies, dialogues. (New York & London: Routledge, 1990). She goes on to say that American exceptionalism and Eurocentrism are ideologies that place their citizens as the centre of the world, who must citizens must ‘help the rest’ and that “people from other parts of the world are not fully global” Spivak, A Conversation with Gayatri Chakavorty Spivak: politics and the imagination, interview by Jenny Sharpe, Signs” Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 28(2) 609-24.
  9. Pascal Bruckner, The Temptation of Innocence – Living in the Age of Entitlement. (New York: Algora Publishing, 2000).
  10. Marita Sturken, Tourists of history: memory, kitsch, and consumerism from Oklahoma City to Ground Zero. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), 7
  11. Barry Glassner, The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things. (New York: Basic Books, 2000).
  12. Sturken, 4.
  13. Slavoj Zizek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real: Five Essays on September 11 and Related Dates. (New York & London: Verso, 2002).

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