The Empire Isn’t a Thing, It’s a Concept

In my daily falling-down-the-rabbit-hole-style perusing of the internet, I randomly rediscovered this great article by Alexander Cockburn (RIP) on the worst of 9/11 conspiracy theory. It’s an excellent take on how the focus on bizarrely minute details are harmful distractions from the world’s actual conspiracies, which unfold in front of us all the time. It notes the impossibility of such a conspiracy in specifics — yes, high-grade steel melts! — and through proven examples of official incompetence. Great stuff! But what if — it suddenly occurred to me — some hypothetical reader were to cite it as evidence of the ineptness of the empire? It’d be incredibly, almost purposely dumb, right?

Motivated by this Jeremy Scahill tweet, Kevin Dooley pointed out the flaws in the argument that the ruling classes just go around the world screwing up their foreign policy and are therefore stupid (and hypocritical!), causing “problems with their right hand that they try (and often fail) to solve with their left.”

Now, if one were to cite the very real failures of specific military or bureaucratic operations as evidence that the entire system of rule is fatally self-contradictory, one might be missing the point. Let’s say we weren’t to summarily dismiss the “Sideshow Bob stepping on a rake forever” example as illustrative of imperial action. Should the rake be seen as representing the individual operations of the empire, which can sometimes or even often be said to have failed? No, the rake has to be meant as the overall goals of the empire, or what even is the analysis? Humans fuck up? Tell me more.

When the rake hits face, is the face America/The West? No. It’s whoever is killed and impoverished. Oops! Bush fucked up Iraq! That rake really smacked him right in his smug face, huh, retired in his luxurious ranch sitting on millions of dollars. Or… maybe the face is the Iraqi people, over a million of whom didn’t even live to see Bush’s “fuck up”? Keep in mind that even when Bob smoothly sidesteps the rake and snatches it up in his hands in a single motion — a foreign policy objective was successfully completed — what the face actually must represent is still smashed.

Because “foreign policy” is evil and hurts people, in case that needs further explication.

This dissection does seem labored. Maybe we should just dismiss the rake-face angle as too goofy to engage.

One example I can see my hypothetical know-it-all picking out of Cockburn’s piece is the WMD controversy. They couldn’t even work out planting Saddam’s WMDs! Some all-knowing conspiracy, guys. Well sure, there were far too many people that would have to be involved in such a plot to actually carry it out. Better to realize that hey, they literally did not even need to find the WMD to “get away with” the invasion, as we have seen. So why even bother trying to manufacture it? As Cockburn showed, this is all a distraction from the real, successful, open conspiracy to destroy Iraq for power and profit.

We might as well say the subprime/foreclosure crisis was a disaster for the Fed, regulatory agencies, and the big banks. They created a bubble! Oops for sure man.

Fuckups don’t call into question the fundamental function of the system, which is to protect those at the top at literally all — every single ever — costs. I say function and not purpose because the system doesn’t require a purposeful unifying conspiracy, just like humanity didn’t need to be created by God. We’re here, you’ll have to work back from that. We don’t have an alternate reality. Humans exist. The upper classes rule.

“The Empire” isn’t a hivemind or even necessarily a purposeful entity, it’s shorthand for a concept, for what happens naturally in the system we have. That the various ruling factions don’t necessarily even directly communicate or aren’t privy to all the details of the system doesn’t change the true fact that the benefits accrue to them.

The “Ineptitude, Sloth, Distraction & Resentment” Cockburn cited are not a fault in the system, as behold — there it is, functioning, funneling the wealth created by the labor and ingenuity of the world’s billions ever-upward into the hands of criminal scum. We have the system we have, and we just have to gaze upon it to see it doesn’t require flawless execution to function as it does. To err is human, so error is obviously built into any human system.

This is why we can look at all the terrible “disasters” in recent foreign policy and yet see that there is no danger that military funding will be cut, that war contracting will be reduced, that war finance will take a hit, that weapons manufacturers will lose business, that politics itself will be delegitimized in the eyes of the vast majority of imperial subjects.

I know this seems like a silly strawman, and maybe it is. Nobody intelligent would actually imply that anti-imperialists think the empire is a perfect conspiracy with a staff of millions. In any event, it’s useful to talk through it even just for our own edification. Keep those analytical skills sharp! Just don’t poke your eye out.


  1. Tarzie · November 5, 2014

    because the system doesn’t require purposeful conspiracy

    Oh bullshit.


    • Sassy Sourstein · November 5, 2014

      I changed that to “purposeful unifying conspiracy.” Empire is made up of a bunch of interlocking smaller-scale conspiracies both secret and open.


  2. Gil Gamesh (@OuchoSparks) · November 5, 2014

    Clear and cogent.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Jan · November 5, 2014

    That Cockburn piece is one the silliest things I’ve read in a while.


    • pops · November 6, 2014

      not so thoughtful, but o so provocative.


  4. MacCruiskeen · November 16, 2014

    Tuesday, September 26, 2006
    Suffering Cockburn: 9/11 and the Left’s Collective Unconsciousness

    Two weeks ago, Alexander Cockburn collapsed into a pile of rubble. Today, that pile is still steaming: […]


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