As I review some of the major arguments surrounding the place of American empire in US history, I keep finding myself thinking how familiar so much of it all looks . . . and feels.
Historian Diane Kunz puts it this way:
At the height of its expansion, the British Empire covered a fourth of the globe. Just as important, the pound sterling was the global currency, providing a gold standard that linked the entire world with the London money markets. The twentieth century’s political, economic, and military confrontations sundered those connections. Only in the decade since the end of the Cold War has the globalization taken for granted at the turn of the last century reemerged. We are not in a brave new place economically, but rather starting the twenty-first century just where our predecessors began one hundred years ago. Then, the secretive Bank of England dominated international exchange; now it is the Federal Reserve Board and the World Trade Organization (WTO) that have the labels ‘inscrutable and secretive’ attached to them. The United States has succeeded to all of Britain’s power and more.
Now some, like Fareed Zakaria especially, will argue that the US is on the outs. But, overall, the nation still holds a lot of power in the world system. Some of those roots involve the constant pursuit of “cheap labor” that continues today.
Walter LaFeber, in his canonical 1963 work The New Empire, argues that America’s “expansionist” policies were a direct result from the maturation of industrialization. Business and the capitalist economy needed new markets and this meant foreign ones. They would be backed up by a new navy and military power that would easily take away Spain’s former colonies in 1898 (and influence most of the Western Hemisphere). As much as one might like to quibble with the details or stance of some of LaFeber’s points, it is hard to counter this general thesis.
LaFeber also incorporates early labor and immigration policies into his argument. He highlights that Secretary of State Seward (1861-1869) advocated importing “cheap labor” and created the 1868 treaty with China to bring in “unskilled” workers. This was, LaFeber argues, part of his plan for American expansion (e.g. imperialism). Does any of this sound familiar? It should.
First, LaFeber’s argument connects well by Jefferson Cowie’s small book Capital Moves. Cowie argues that the “globalization” we usually associate only with NAFTA and the like actually begins as early as the 1920s as RCA moved from town to town in search of new un-unionized locales. RCA would find cheap labor for a time, until that city’s workers organized. These workers were quickly left stranded as the corporation simply packed up its capital and moved to another locale, eventually ending up just south of border in Juárez, Mexico. The expansionist nature of capitalism drove RCA, as an individual corporation, to locate foreign labor markets where it could find more fruitful exploitation. Cowie, however, does not connect his argument to a longer view of the pursuit of cheap labor which might incorporate LaFeber.
Secondly, the role of “cheap labor” in American empire is perhaps best symbolized by migrating Mexican labor. There is too much history in this area to trace out here in this post, but the Bracero Program, enacted during WWII is the best example. And yet, this program simply institutionalized—legitimized—the migration of cheap, unprotected labor across national boundaries (it was already happening and would continue to happen after the program). Noted historian Mae Ngai discusses the employment of Mexican migrant laborers since the 1920s as a form of “internal colonialism” in her book Impossible Subjects. Like Filipinos, African Americans, and other marginalized groups within the nation-state, these Mexican workers were excluded from full citizenship, pushed to the “margins of law and nation.”
It seems only one short step to connect this notion with the “slave market” which Tom Sugrue highlights. These “informal labor markets” of unemployed black men, hanging out on street corners visibly hardened the color line for whites as they drove by Detroit’s (in)famous 8-mile road. Today, these markets are most commonly associated with Latino workers, hoping to get a day’s pay performing landscaping or construction.
Such examples buttress the arguments of John Lewis Gaddis and Charles S. Maier. Gaddis points out that actions and policies enacted in colonies flow back into the metropole. Likewise, Maier argues that imperialism abroad stabilizes the home front while reifying inequality geographically. Despite The New Empire being somewhat US-centric, I think LaFeber would agree. A central point of his work is that policymakers (mostly presidents, secretaries of state, and businessmen) feared class unrest at home (as strikes and violence reached unprecedented levels in the later decades of the 1800s). Expansion abroad would quell this by unifying the nation and providing jobs both in the navy and in revitalized industry. The “expansionism” (as LaFeber is overly fond of terming it) of American economic and militaristic might has clearly held implications not only abroad, but at home as well.
Thus, “empire” takes on layered, informal meanings. It is defined by several parameters (each with their own complexities): geographic, (traditionally) political, racial/ethnic, national, gendered, and economic.
It is not a sort of black and white distinction as some apologists, or what E.J. Hobsbawn terms “cheerful historians,” would like to argue…