Resistance in the Liberal Empire

In conceiving a liberal empire we are dealing with inherent contradictions. The premise of liberalism is that of spontaneous emergence through the mechanism of an invisible hand (or series of invisible hands) that concatenate various social actors into an array of competitive and cooperative games. “Invisible hand mechanisms of balance, competition, and emergent system-level goods were at the heart of the liberal project”[1]. Through these mechanisms should emerge a social order that both expresses individual autonomy and induces obedience to higher goals related to the general welfare, and thus emerges the contradiction.

This has been premised as a battle between two different systemic priorities, the political versus the economic. However, the economic is a political logic in its own right, prizing the subject of the individual will within the bounds of the marketplace and the competitive political system as the ends of systemic prioritisation. “Liberalism in one of its typical dilemmas of intellect and economics has attempted to transform the enemy from the viewpoint of economics into a competitor and from the intellectual point into a debating adversary”[2]. But it does more than this. Liberalism disembodies the friend-enemy distinction that Schmitt defines as the ultimate political logic. Whereas in the concrete reality of the political “only the actual participants can correctly recognize, understand, and judge the concrete situation and settle the extreme case of conflict”[3], the liberal deification of the individual fragments the distinction itself, creating multiple enemies that are obfuscated and sublimated.

Laclau’s analysis of mass psychology’s treatment of crowds, mobs and publics[4] demonstrates this fragmentation of the distinction. Starting from the position of the individual as a central politico-economic actor, the enemy becomes the undefined mass itself, whether in the form of gangs of rioters, the criminal sub-population, the organised mob or the revolutionary vanguard, what these heterogeneous actors represent is the return of the barbarian at the gates and the very mechanisms of disorder that the sublimated individual of liberalism cannot acquiesce to. But the liberal contradiction returns, as the very capacity of individuals to organise itself portends the emergence of these undefined masses, as the complexity of individual action allows for both individuality as represented in the marketplace (of goods or ideas) and collective action through the organisation of the party or the compulsion of the mob.

Vermeule notes this contradiction as that between individual actions and collective goods which can only find its solution in the construction of a “liberal fideism” that systematises a belief “that the invisible hand will produce its beneficial results sooner or later, in some immanentized eschatological future”[5]. Such a belief structure is reliant on pre-liberal social capital to maintain social bonds that allow for collective action as well as an ideological totalisation that can incorporate oppositional systems into its milieu. To square the circle, liberalism’s invisible hand must become increasingly visible so as to construct the social order and belief structure necessary for its expansion. Thus enters the liberal empire.

What this empire does is emplace the political surreptitiously back into liberalism’s governing logic. The construction and planning of marketplaces, adversarial political systems and a rules-based order is the background through which the spontaneous dynamics of individual action can emerge. In the geopolitical sphere, an international infrastructure of agencies and institutions have been built since 1945 to encompass the Western world and, since 1990 and the fall of the Soviet Union, the world generally. These encapsulate core liberal concepts such as human rights, trade liberalisation, international financial regulation and specific definitions of national sovereignty. On the last point, sovereignty is now increasingly granted relative to certain obligations “such as not sponsoring/harboring terrorists, pursuing weapons of mass destruction (WMD), or committing atrocities”[6] as well as following general rules of the game, such as respecting the commercial rights of shipping companies, transnational corporations and NGOs. Of course, what defines these ambiguous obligations isn’t decided through an international demos but arbitrarily ruled upon by the prevailing power within this international infrastructure (usually the United States).

These rights and obligations are constructed through the prism of the political, framing themselves in opposition to an undefined (and undefinable) enemy. Much as liberal ideology opposes the rational individual to the unthinking crowd, liberal geopolitics opposes a rules-based order to alternative mechanisms of international organisation, such as “regional blocs, trade conflict, and strategic rivalry”[7] that attempt to redefine these rules or entrench different frameworks of understanding. The friend-enemy distinction becomes an undefined mess, as what opposes liberalism is not a clear set of structures or ideologies but a void through which the interests of the powerful within liberal institutions and nations can castigate their enemies.

An expansionary impetus emerges from this, particularly after the fall of bipolarity in the 1990s, with institutions like NATO, the EU and the WTO quickly expanding into new markets and codifying international obligations within Eastern Europe, Africa and South America. “Nato began as a way of protecting western Europeans from themselves and from the Soviet Union, but in the 90s it became a forward operating vehicle for democracy, human rights and capital”[8]. Everything that was an enemy is now a friend, and enemies themselves are porous, always subject to the inverted political distinction of liberal imperialism. Even the capacity to define the exception becomes overdetermined beyond definition. The exception is no longer codified in the emergency or the crisis. The liberal order itself absorbs crisis as an opportunity for expansion, whether in the privatisation of war as institutions (particularly the American military-industrial complex) use mercenary groups and terrorist outfits to either expand chaos (thus limiting the potential for new political orders to emerge) or maintain control over peripheral territory, or in the climate emergency as international institutions use this as a method to expand control over energy consumption and create new means of capital investment.

America as the unipolar world power is at the forefront of this liberal empire. Yet America in this sense is not the American nation or the American people, but a manifestation of the empire itself, with American elites being ideologically cosmopolitan and internationalist, with the managerial elite Francis describes[9] having greater affinities with counterparts in international institutions thus composing a unified bureaucratic-managerial class with shared interests, educational backgrounds and work patterns.

When Ikenberry suggests America isn’t an empire[10] he is correct if we separate out the United States of America as a nation-state from America as a liquid cultural construct, what Berardi calls an “anthropological dimension in which the post-territorial model of power is grounded”[11]. This is an ideological empire that expands beyond its original demographic limits. The American cultural empire is contemptuous of its national population, as is reflected in the way political elites look down on flyover country and “deplorables” as backward reactionaries. The post-territorial aspect sees territory as a series of porous membranes to be perforated by increasing levels of military aid, trade negotiation and market liberalisation. The enemy is anyone opposed to this, whether domestic or international and no matter their heterogeneous ideological affinities.

Liquidity of identity is also reflected in the geopolitical landscape, as liquid war that “tends towards the destruction of singular cultures and everything capable of resisting globalization”[12] becomes the dominant modus operandi of liberal expansion. It also heightens the contradictions of liberalism itself, as the capacity for autonomy of any actant is increasingly curtailed by the imperatives of cultural-economic homogenisation and a political schizophrenia that lashes out at any perceived enemy and fails to recognise any alternatives to its rule, becoming self-destructive as crises that it tried to absorb evolve beyond its control.

Yet this does not break the deadlock of imperial dominance. While American dominance may wane, the logic of empire is maintained as liberalism is able to adapt and metastasise its governing parameters to encompass varied ideological strata, maintaining a wider framing of constitutional rights, trade liberalisation and regulatory alignment within potentially authoritarian regimes. “At present, America is under great pressure as it seeks to maintain its world empire, the pressure coming especially from Russian resistance and Chinese competition.  But we must acknowledge that this competition is a competition occurring within the system of world empire”[13]. Resistance is quickly curtailed as the wider “world empire” totalises political logics, fragmenting and dislocating any potential opposition through sublimation or outright destruction.

One of the key contours of both resistance and acquiescence to this imperium is energy independence and control of resources. Pipeline infrastructure is a defining geography of modern conflict, delineating alliances and enemies but also producing an ambiguity as viscous as the oil it is based on. America’s, Russia’s and China’s search for energy independence coincides with their attempts at unipolarity and control of the periphery. The world empire of America, as Shigong describes it, is crumbling but there is no ultimate contender for a new world power. Russia is militarily and economically too weak and China still struggles with its sovereign control over Hong Kong and Taiwan. The prospects of either taking the American mantle appear slim. But then the viscosity of imperial expansion and implosion suggests a likelier multipolarity, with peripheries the scenes of liquid war and practical lawlessness. The Middle East and Ukraine are examples.

Alongside the flows of finance (both licit and illicit) that striate the globe, energy and resources will inform the new geopolitics, particularly as climate change accelerates refugee movements and requires a wide variety of energy inputs in both the West and the BRICS to be secured for the purposes of agricultural productivity, plastics production and maintaining current energy consumption. The geography of a tripartite or wider multipolar world of powers (America, the EU, Russia, India, China being the most likely candidates for this title) define the contours of imperial expansion while opening up spaces that are void-like at the periphery – spaces both for resistance to imperialism but also for the dumping of imperial detritus. Conceiving of either unipolarity or multipolarity ensnares opposition within the boundaries of the empire itself, allowing for its expansion across all ideological manifolds.

The invasion of Ukraine should be taken in this context i.e. the expansion of a liberal empire encompassing Ukraine, Georgia, the Baltic countries and others surrounding Russia not for the purpose of Russian isolationism but for the expansion of ideological imperialism. Western-backed figures like Zelensky have done little to curb corruption in Ukraine[14], showing how hollow the term democracy is in relation to the countries supported by the liberal empire. Democracy does not mean accountability or popular control, but the freedom of a transnational business class to escape the significations and accountability of its home population. The aim of many oligarchs in Russia and Ukraine has been precisely this.

When constructing a new world order as the liberal empire aims at, the production of a logistical quasi-sovereignty is foremost. This means seeing territory as logistical space, with transnational elites as the primary vector for investments and political lobbying that diminishes the national character and popular sovereignty of a country. While we may talk of Ukrainian nationalism as a force of will, the eastern half has much greater divided loyalties[15] and the national elite of Ukraine is nothing more than parasites sucking off the state. The history of Ukrainian politics in the post-Soviet era has been from one corrupt regime to another, no matter their allegiance to the West or Russia. Political control is firmly in the hands of natural gas companies, utilities and press barons. This is not a nationality, but a patchwork imitation of the kind of managerial elite successfully entrenched across Western nations.

The dedication to things like human rights and self-determination do not extend to populations or nationalities that are not conducive to liberal interests. South Ossetia, Donetsk, Palestine. Independence meets its limit when facing ideological opposition. Similarly, human rights are figments to be toyed with. The human rights of the thousands killed by Ukrainian shelling and atrocities committed by nationalist battalions are ignored and termed “Russian propaganda”. The escalatory rhetoric of the Zelensky regime[16] is now seen as protecting the Ukrainian national interest. Historically, where terrorist groups or authoritarian powers have been conducive to liberal imperial interest, they are backed. The Contras, the Salvadoran and Brazilian death squads, Duvalier in Haiti, Egypt’s Mubarak or various other terrorist groups and paramilitaries.

However, the Russian invasion itself shows the limits of multipolarity, as Russian irredentism cannot openly recognise national interests outside its sphere, reflecting the imperial logics mentioned. In many ways the invasion shows a desperation for control on the part of Putin, who through hubris and the desire for the construction of a Russian bloc of power has potentially overplayed his hand[17] in invading Ukraine and expecting a quick victory in Kiev. A long-term view suggests the potential for a Ukrainian neutral zone with Ukrainian nationalism concentrated in the West and Russian interests concentrated in the East and North. Russia does not have the economic resources or military clout to occupy Ukraine permanently, and its military operations both predating the invasion and during the invasion demonstrate this as they have mirrored the logistical military and sovereign tactics of the liberal empire, relying on mercenary groups (Hezbollah in Syria and the Wagner Group internationally) and elite capture to influence countries within their sphere (as by backing Yanukovych in Ukraine or supporting separatist movements in Georgia and the Donbass region). China has used similar tactics in the way it has co-opted the support of elites in Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore and Thailand, infiltrating national structures to promote their power bloc. This is the continuation of the policies of the managerial class as Francis describes them, with emphasis on co-optation and social engineering rather than strong coercive force and mass mobilisation.

In such a context, the emergence of what Mearsheimer calls “great-power politics”[18] is only half correct. The emergence of China, Russia and India as increasingly ethnically or nationally-driven civilisations who are aiming to carve out their own blocs is a response to imperial liquefaction that America as cultural empire represents. They oppose the inscription of a transnational elite cut off from any national or ethnic origins, seeing such as the emergence of a post-bourgeois logistical internationalism that sees maps as fluid markers requiring greater liberalisation (itself a codeword for national destruction and infiltration). But they also extend their own transnational interests through the same logistical flows as established liberal powers, re-establishing imperial logics through their national vectors rather than carving out spaces of true autonomy.

Localised versions of this conflict have played out in Hong Kong with arguments concerning the national security law and the lines between PMC control and Hong Kong’s legal autonomy codified in the Basic Law. China sees Hong Kong’s lack of security apparatus as a vulnerability exploitable by foreign powers who can use Hong Kong’s lax regulatory climate and open economy as a method of gaining an independent foothold in the mainland. Politics here must come above legal constraints. Opponents of the national security law see this as an arbitrary expansion of political power over legal codes[19]. However, such a “clash of civilisations” appears to be window-dressing, as the emerging hegemons mirror the juridical and political structures of the liberal empire, metastasising liberal ideology into universal economic norms and cultural commitments.

The growth of a Chinese imperium distinct from its liberal cousin has shown affinities with logistical sovereignty as a governing model that is amenable to the liberal empire. The expansion of the Belt & Road Initiative through the construction of transportation and trade infrastructure shows a logistical character to China’s global governance. This possibly represents a post-liberal logistics, with the Chinese state apparatus as the imperial centre rather than the a-centred liberal empire. However, it may also represent the emergence of a new transnational class informed by the same logics of the liberal empire, of international profiteering and the encompassment of national sovereignties and distinct geographic distributions under a homogeneous international legalism stratified by Chinese commercial and industrial interests.

Any resistance to the machinations of logistical sovereignty and its expression through liberal imperialism must look to exploiting its interstices. At the geopolitical level, this means playing off the prevailing “great powers” against each other[20], aiming toward equilibrium which then allow for the cultivation of independent financial and security spaces. At the local level, this means removing transactions and activities outside the view of technological complexes, producing shadow sovereignties and illegal flows to match legal restrictions and regulations. In other words, complexifying the political space and working within the fragmentation of the friend-enemy distinction through the production of distinct infrastructural power that can both add onto existing global infrastructure while maintaining independence through built-in redundancies and breakages. Such breakages begin to formulate structures outside the purview of the liberal empire working toward the void itself, exploiting conflict to grow and harden new sovereignties and heterotopias with their own governing logics.

At the deeper level, this is resistance through the contingency of the event within the wider void, whether in the populist political logic described by Laclau as the breakdown of the ontic front by an equivalential chain of overlapping and particularistic demands that formulates a distinct public, creating both a battleground and an army in the process, or post-ontic revolutionary violence described by Zizek as representing the breakdown of the event into open contingency itself, presenting a matrix of possibilities beyond the unitary dynamics of the battlespace.

Laclau describes the political and the establishment of a community as an “empty fullness”[21], as a delineation between the universality of the people and the particularity of their demands, through which equivalential chains emerge that concretise demands, both pushing against the sovereign as that that defines the exception by introducing its own definitions of and solutions to crises and opening the void itself, exposing the transitory nature of the sovereign’s universal claim to power by constituting a people in opposition to it. In a similar vein, Zizek’s description of “divine violence”[22] as the imposition of a people’s violence, an inhuman terror that goes through the sovereign exception itself is a post-ontic constitutive event, one that both opens up but also prescribes the nature of the political moment. Between Laclau and Zizek we can see a violence constitutive of and constituted by the void itself, both emerging from empire while also producing opposition outside of its governing logic, both in populist chains of demands that make a people and in a popular violence that refracts the exception across the political terrain into the mass/mob itself.

However, these evental patterns are themselves contingent, with the capacity to grow and maintain political power itself cyclical and reliant upon the constant updating of equivalential chains to incorporate new demands. The devolution of Latin American populism into kleptocracy and the failures of left-populism through Corbyn or right-populism through Trump show the limited horizons of populist triumph without the development of infrastructural power (“the capacity of the state to actually penetrate civil society, and to implement logistically political decisions throughout the realm”[23]). While Latin American populists were able to wield the state and develop autonomous groups that could further their aims, thus increasing the potential strength of equivalential chains, they were unable to maintain this independence vis-à-vis the liberal empire, still maintaining reliance through oil trading and limited economic diversification, and were unable to concretely open equivalential chains when new demands were encountered, thus severing the link between leader and people (particularly in the relations of Evo Morales with indigenous Bolivians and the Maduro regime’s handling of the Venezuelan economic crisis). Trump and Corbyn were even less successful, with neither opening up autonomous spaces of political and economic activity that could challenge parliamentary/legislative ossification nor penetrate the networks of the state to better connect institutions to the people or implement any form of deinstitutionalisation.

At a wider level, the cyclicality of political power as a defining element of populist or revolutionary logics emerges from antagonistic forces of abstraction versus concreteness. The liberal empire as an ideological affect and a concatenating force is largely abstract, as on-the-ground operations (whether military or economic) bear little resemblance to theoretical exposition. Market forces are never truly free and a rules-based international order is arbitrary and reliant upon particular power dynamics i.e. a unitary hegemon.

The brutal and/or populistic tactics/acts of groups and publics looking to create autonomous spaces or wield infrastructural power must aim at both co-optation but also deinstitutionalisation, violently destroying and inverting the infrastructures of liberalism. However, much as capital is an autonomous economic force that can co-opt and interchange its ideological dynamics to route around and through institutional deadlocks, liberal imperialism is a force that can easily shed abstract principles and adapt to emerging concrete realities. Thus the constant factor of struggle will remain as forces of will (whether the willing of abstract forces or concrete ones) fight for dominance and positional advantage. This very factor of struggle defines the infinite play of political and populist logics as defined by Laclau or of violent revolution as defined by Zizek, a play between elite forces, alter-elites and the popular mass conceived through contingency. Resistance to empire will be forged in the voids opened up by these dynamics.


[1] https://americanaffairsjournal.org/2019/02/liberalism-and-the-invisible-hand/

[2] Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political

[3] Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political

[4] Ernesto Laclau, On Populist Reason

[5] https://americanaffairsjournal.org/2019/02/liberalism-and-the-invisible-hand/

[6] https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/0163660X.2016.1170477

[7] https://academic.oup.com/irap/article/5/2/133/2357368

[8] https://www.theguardian.com/news/2022/may/05/nato-returns-to-centre-stage-ukraine-invasion-russia-putin

[9] Samuel T. Francis, Leviathan & Its Enemies

[10] https://academic.oup.com/irap/article/5/2/133/2357368

[11] Franco Berardi, Futurability: The Age of Impotence and the Horizon of Possibility

[12] Pepe Escobar, Globalistan: How the Globalized World is Dissolving Into Liquid War

[13] https://www.readingthechinadream.com/jiang-shigong-empire-and-world-order.html

[14] https://eurasianet.org/a-brief-history-of-corruption-in-ukraine-the-dawn-of-the-zelensky-era

[15] https://www.unz.com/akarlin/41-of-ukrainians-agree-they-and-russians-are-one-people/

[16] https://original.antiwar.com/Ted_Snider/2022/04/25/why-russia-went-to-war-now/

[17] https://unherd.com/2022/02/vladimir-putins-reckless-gamble/

[18] https://www.newyorker.com/news/q-and-a/why-john-mearsheimer-blames-the-us-for-the-crisis-in-ukraine

[19] http://researchblog.law.hku.hk/2020/04/a-strained-interpretation-of-basic-law.html

[20] https://forceindia.net/guest-column/towards-bi-multipolarity/

[21] Ernesto Laclau, On Populist Reason

[22] Slavoj Zizek, In Defense of Lost Causes

[23] Michael Mann, The Autonomous Power of the State

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