Who’s Actually in Power in the Empire

This map, from Multipolarista, shows how ‘western’ countries, in repeated UN votes last month, have consistently refused to condemn sanctions as human rights violations, opposed the principle of a democratic and equitable world order, opposed the promotion of human rights and cultural diversity, and opposed restrictions on the use of mercenaries. These votes are not just symbolic, meaningless rhetorical statements of principle. The lockstep ‘no’ votes illustrate precisely the map of Empire, including its Sub-Imperial Powers (in red) versus non-Empire nations committed to multipolarity and the international rule of law (in green). These are the battle lines in the struggle to control the planet’s political power structure and its remaining resources, as our civilization slides into global chaos and collapse.

Billmon at Moon of Alabama recently reposted a review by Arnaud Bertrand of a new short book by Clinton Fernandez, an Australian professor and former intelligence officer. The book is called Sub-Imperial Power and it attempts to explain the position and role of countries like Australia, Canada, Japan, Israel, and Germany in the current political order. The UK is a bit of a special case Sub-Imperial Power, as the sort of ‘lieutenant’ in the order.

In the book, Clinton acknowledges that the US is the current Imperial Power in the world, struggling to obstruct attempts by many countries (and, by its mandate, the UN) to establish a multipolar world in the face of the Empire’s growing and increasingly belligerent hegemony (political, economic and military dominance). Sub-Imperial Powers, he asserts, are not the vassals or client-states we imagine, but rather they have struck a bargain with the Imperial Power to enforce the Imperial Power’s rule in their geographic region, in return for political, economic and military favours (including “security”).

This makes considerable sense to me, as a Canadian with a typical fear-respect relationship with our southern neighbours. American corporations own the majority of Canadian public companies, and with that, substantial control over our economy, our natural resources, and much of our land and infrastructure.

Like many Canadians, I have always felt a combination of anxiety and resentment about this dependence, which always struck me as a devil’s bargain. When the US runs low on oil and water, which it will soon enough, it will have no hesitation in taking Canada’s, not by military force (though that remains a background threat), but by simply using its economic control to move resources it already effectively owns, south, as a ‘business decision’, without even asking permission. For example, US regulators actually control a number of critical Canadian dams, for the purpose of regulating cross-border water flow in the best interests of Americans. This control was quietly negotiated in return for — of course — cash. Like the cash that bought them control of Canada’s oil & gas industry.

It will do the same to Australia to access its mineral needs and to second the Australian military forces (recently equipped with US-standard planes and other war equipment) for its planned war against China. Sub-Imperial Powers do what they’re told, by the Empire’s boss, until they’re no longer needed or useful, or misbehave, and they are then summarily ‘terminated’.

What do Canadians actually get in terms of concessions and “security” in return for our dependence and subservience? Basically, we don’t get invaded by the US, as they’ve invaded and destroyed so many other countries that didn’t toe the line. Both major Canadian parties have toadied to the US consistently for the past 75 years. We (Canada’s government and mainstream media) quickly supported the Empire’s decision to fight a proxy war, through NATO, in Ukraine, and have been unflagging in our support for continuing that insane war. We (Canada’s government and mainstream media) likewise condemned Hamas for its attack on Israel (like Canada, Israel is a Sub-Imperial Power), and have enthusiastically supported Netanyahu’s retributive siege, genocide and ethnic cleansing of Palestine.

When you’re just a junior partner, you don’t argue with the boss. And you don’t criticize other Sub-Imperial Powers. Only the boss is allowed to do that.

It’s quite a revelation, when you’ve been scoffing at the gutlessness of Canadian ‘leaders’ to criticize the US for half a century, to realize that our ‘leaders’ have been conditioned, indoctrinated, and carefully ‘taught’ by their administrations to never openly challenge or criticize what the massive, ruthless, temperamental nuclear power next door commands. They’ll remind you of what happened to Gough Whitlam in Australia, or Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, or Salvador Allende in Chile, or dozens of other critics of the Empire.

But the real eye-opener of Clinton’s book IMO is that, if you really want to understand why the Empire and its governments are acting the way they are, even when those actions seem totally out of step with most citizens’ opinions, despite massive and systematic propaganda programs, you need to look beyond the state and government to the corpocracy that actually rules it. That is where the real power lies. That is who is actually making the decisions.

I know this is not a new idea, but it’s the first time I’ve seen it articulated so well, and used to help make much more sense of seemingly utterly illogical western government decisions.

The argument is that the US government, which is always portrayed as the bogeyman in international interventionist political and military actions and as a stooge for domestic corporate campaign donors, is actually, for all its staggering arrogance and hubris, just the ‘executive front’ for the US (Empire’s) corporate interests. Above the President, the corpocracy is pulling all the strings, telling the President what to say. Telling him what policies and programs to approve and veto. Writing many of the laws for him, especially on deregulation. Telling him what wars to launch and what governments to sanction, blockade, and overthrow. Telling him what countries and pipelines to bomb and giving him (barring a few intrepid investigative reporters) plausible deniability. Telling him which elected members of his party to shut up, on threat of primarying or defeating them in the next election.

Why doesn’t he object? Because he’s a good Company man. The Company, and on a larger scale the Corpocracy, speaks with one voice, through its President and Chair. It brooks no messy public dissent among its members. The President is mostly a figure head, preferably with good hair, who convincingly announces the Executive Committee’s consensus, even if he fervently disagrees with it.

So what is this corpocracy (my term, not Clinton’s)? It is absolutely not a secretive all-powerful group. Corpocracy is government by and in the interests of collective moneyed interests whose goals are entrenched in their corporate charters, and those goals are always to maximize growth and profit of the collective, the “shareholders”. Not in order to be mean and miserly and greedy, but to acquire as much wealth a possible and distribute it, not immorally but amorally, to its members. As Joel Bakan argues in The Corporation, corporations (and corpocracies) behave in inherently pathological ways, and they do so by design.

Indrajit Samarajiva has argued that the corporation was the first form of AI, and remains its dominant form. It has a life of its own, and through intensive lobbying and other ‘means’ it now has all the rights and privileges of ‘personhood’. And unlike messy democracies, it arrives at its consensus on how to amass and distribute wealth and profit (and the spoils of war) not on a one-person-one-vote basis, but on a one-investor-dollar-one-vote basis. It is unapologetically undemocratic. We invented it because it’s efficient.

It’s so efficient that the corpocracy — the large set of corporate oligopolies that now collectively dominate every significant industry in the Empire’s economy — has now amassed power that is vastly greater than that of any political group or party, to the point that it can and does now control all political parties with any chance of being elected to govern. And while campaign contributions play a role in this, what plays a far greater role is the ability of this collective to condition the leaders, administrators, and parties to believe that their in-group — the political and economic elite groomed to lead and run things and make important decisions — knows better than the citizenry what is best for the world, and that a corpocratic-style loyalty to this in-group and to behaviours and practices that have emerged in corporate culture over five centuries is what is needed to prevent chaos and tyranny from prevailing.

Biden recently put it this way: “American leadership is what holds the world together”. And Blinken followed it up in case that wasn’t clear enough: “The world doesn’t organize itself. When we’re not engaged, when we don’t lead, then one of two things happens: either some other country tries to take our place, but probably not in a way that advances our interests and values, or no one does, and then you get chaos.”

So if you want to understand why the US government does things that the citizens absolutely don’t like or want, this is the reason — the government doesn’t actually report to the citizens, if it ever did, and the citizens can easily be propagandized to fight among themselves when they threaten corporate interests anyway. And in the process, the befuddled citizens can be brought around to the “correct” ways of thinking (eg that China is now the principal enemy of Empire and an existential threat to “our” security) with sufficient propaganda and conditioning. And they’re right about that — Modern media are astonishingly effective at propagandizing and conditioning the beliefs and “values” of a largely ignorant, distracted and disinterested citizenry that lacks even basic critical thinking skills.

The government actually reports to the corpocracy, which now has far more power than the government, and the corpocracy’s power is growing as the US government sinks deeper into technical bankruptcy and as public resources become increasingly privatized, to the point government can finally be, as was infamously said by an arch-neocon, “drowned in a bathtub”.

But the corpocracy doesn’t actually want to run government, a messy, unpalatable and unprofitable business. Instead, having a crypto-democratic government doing the corpocracy’s bidding has its PR advantages, and so it will be tolerated unless one of the Tweedle parties puts forward a Bernie Sanders or some other figure who threatens to misbehave. The American Empire is not an empire of a government and its people. It is an empire of corporate interests, for whom the government and the people are just pawns to be manipulated.

I wrote an article a while ago, suggesting that once a corporate oligopoly has subdued all its competitors, it then turns on the remaining ‘enemies’ it can’t control — first, the government, that sometimes dares to offer services that could be run profitably by the oligopoly; second, foreign competitors (which have to be bought cheaply, or discredited and crushed à la Huawei or TikTok); and finally, the customers, who sometimes misbehave and complain about prices, service, or the shoddy quality of products, but whom a sufficiently large army of expensive corporate lawyers can subdue and silence without too much difficulty.

The corpocracy collectively operates the same way. It seeks to privatize (or dismantle or deregulate) just about everything governments do, because that maximizes its profit and growth. It seeks to dismantle foreign governments it doesn’t control and divide up those countries’ resources among its own members, and develop them for profit to be repatriated to the Empire. And it seeks to stifle political and other dissent among the citizens (its ostensible “customers”) and condition them (us) all to be obedient little consumers, mindful of what their advertising and PR and other forms of propaganda (through the mainstream and social media that they completely control) tells us is true, and tells us to do.

This is absolutely not a conspiracy theory. There is no secret cabal ‘controlling’ the corpocracy. It’s simply the effect of millions of shareholders independently doing what they’re incented and conditioned to do — buy up and shut down all competition, form oligopolies, and use their immense economic (and hence political) power to advance their own (profit and control) interests, all over the world.

This is not coordinated. The corpocracy is the complex, unorganized expression of the collective (conditioned) will of millions of shareholders and ‘stakeholders’, using the undemocratic leverage of wealth and power to do what they have been conditioned to believe is the right thing to do, and what the corporations that aggregate that wealth and power are absolutely compelled by their corporate charters to do. No one and no group is in charge of it. The corpocracy is simply a very effective vehicle for conditioning large numbers of people — within the oligopoly corporations, within the governments and administrations they have effectively indoctrinated over generations, and among the populace at large.

And perhaps what is most amazing is that while the corpocracy is conditioning all of us, we are in turn conditioning it, each in our own little ways. Sometimes, like in ending the Vietnam War, that conditioning can take some surprising turns. But mostly it is pretty sclerotic — like any mechanistic, uncontrolled behemoth, the larger a corporation or corpocracy gets, the less innovative and resilient it becomes, and the less able to change course.

This driving of the Empire’s political and economic decision-making by the preferences of the corpocracy, rather than the will of its citizens, is one of two overarching, complex political realities that, I think, currently dominate the precarious state of our contemporary political reality. Now I want to say a bit about the second overarching reality, which is the longing for people everywhere for stability and security in an increasingly insecure, precarious, collapsing world, and our propensity to be easily and totally conditioned in what we believe by our peer group and by the information we are exposed to.

Aurélien has written extensively on this subject, but one of his essential arguments, which he reiterates again in his most recent post, is that most people will support whatever political power group offers them the most security and stability in their lives, whether that is a democratically elected government (or a corpocracy masquerading as one), a populist or military dictatorship, a theocracy, an organized crime syndicate, or a street gang. Most people are, understandably, suspicious of large and opaque power structures of all kinds, and more aware of how much they are lied to by those in power than many would like to admit, but they will take what they can get.

In addition to that, their political sensitivities, fears, and hatreds, are conditioned over generations and centuries by the relentless stories (often, stories of outrage) that they have been saturated with for their entire lives. Part of human nature is the natural desire to belong to a group (humans don’t fare well in the wild outside of the protection of community), and belonging means adapting your worldview and “values” to those of the group.

So, trying to put this all together: What is driving our current human ‘political’ behaviour and its underlying power structure in these times of global polycrisis seems to be a complex mix of three things:

  1. In the dominant western Empire, actual power to make political decisions has been de facto transferred from ostensibly democratic political leaders and parties to an uncoordinated corpocracy that has very different “values” and priorities to those of the Empire’s citizens.
  2. In these increasingly precarious times, most people are willing to pledge allegiance to whatever political group offers them the most security and stability, even though they don’t really trust any group to represent their interests.
  3. Centuries of conditioning have propagated fear and hate in the majority of people who have lived struggling lives throughout most of the world, and that fear and hate inevitably expresses itself in various forms of violence against the perceived Others who they have come to believe threaten their security and stability.

Applying these three political ‘drivers’, can we make sense of some of the seemingly senseless things going on in our world? Let’s see:

Please note that the thinking in the bullet points below is absolutely not my perspective on these issues. I’m trying to understand and reflect the thinking and feelings that might underlie decisions that have been made that I otherwise cannot make sense of, especially the thinking of corporate interests using their power and influence to affect government decisions. [December 1 edit]
  • Trump, and other populist sociopaths in many countries: Many citizens of most countries, if you believe the surveys, believe their government doesn’t represent them, and nostalgically want to a return to simpler times when there was apparent order and homogeneity of beliefs, so they vote for whoever offers to throw out the current government (and the immigrant ‘Others’ they hold largely responsible) and make their lives easier/better. They’re right that the government doesn’t represent them. But having never studied history, most don’t realize that populists do not (and in fact usually cannot) represent their interests either. The result is often civil war, in the back rooms of power and possibly in the streets.
  • Biden & co’s bloodthirstiness for war against Russia, China, and any of the other non-Empire countries that are seen to threaten the Empire: A good Company Man speaks for the corpocracy. The corpocracy wants to control Russia’s (and other countries’) resources, especially now that the Empire’s are running short, and it wants to control China’s manufacturing industries (having offshored its own capacity to the point it no longer knows how to make anything of value itself except munitions — oops!). So, in their minds, those Other countries’ governments need to be labelled as enemies to allow the corpocracy’s Empire to dismantle them and take over economically — a simple, sound business decision to deal with pesky ‘competitors’ through ‘liquidation’. And the hegemony of the corpocracy’s Empire depends on the continuation of the exorbitant privilege of the US dollar as the world’s reserve currency, to command all nations to settle accounts in Empire money, and to be able to uniquely print unlimited amounts of Empire money without consequence. So, in their minds, any country that threatens that privilege must likewise be neutralized.
  • America’s incapacity to provide basic universal health care for its citizens: To do this makes some sense in the long run — healthier, happier citizens are likely going to buy more stuff. But corporations and corpocracies are designed to think only about the short-run, the next year at most. Universal health care would cost money and require the raising of taxes, and make citizens less dependent on the corpocracy as well as hurting its bottom line. Not acceptable to corporate interests.
  • The 2008 financial collapse and bailout: Well, the corpocracy doesn’t care if citizens go bankrupt, but they can’t allow their corporate members to go bankrupt, even as a result of their own stupidity. Their thinking: “Tell the President what to do. He knows what will happen if he disobeys.”
  • Canada’s obsequious obedience to the US, despite its history as a neutral, peace-loving country: The Empire’s thinking: “You’re a junior partner in this organization, Canada. But play your cards right, and do what you’re told, and we’ll make space for you here in the corpocracy’s Empire. Lots of money in it for you if you do. Lots of grief for you if you don’t.”
  • The Ukraine War: The Empire’s thinking: “Hmmm. Great opportunity to destabilize Russia and get access to their natural resources, and eliminate one of our biggest competitors. Should have finished the job in 1991 when we had the chance! Get rid of that Ukrainian government (2014), put in our own guy, and have him abolish the pro-Russian political parties, remove Russian as an official language, hire some Russophobes to bomb the Donbas, and apply to join NATO. That will get Russia to invade, and then we can use the Ukrainians to fight the war for us. Great opportunity to sell the corpocracy’s arms to the Ukrainians, and we won’t have to risk a single Empire body to get the Russians to overthrow their government, so we can then move in. Ukraine? Meh; it’s a hopelessly corrupt, failed state and not worth anything to us.”
  • The War in Palestine: The Empire’s thinking: “Israel is a Sub-Imperial Power in our Empire. The Empire has always had Israel’s unconditional support, and they’ll do whatever we say. The least we can do is give them our unconditional support in return. After all, they’re our permanent aircraft carrier in the midst of those oil-rich Arab states who we just can’t manage to destroy or coerce into joining the Empire. So they’re committing genocide? Probably not terribly wise to do so so overtly, and it’s a dubious strategy in any case. But we need them, to help prevent the Arabs’ oil from falling out of our grasp. So hold your nose, don’t look, and don’t tell the Empire’s citizens what’s really going on. The Israelis have been abusing the Palestinians since we put them in charge of that department of Empire 75 years ago, and there’s no money in it for us to intervene. Not our problem to solve. Get HR and PR to deal with the fallout. It’ll blow over. Bad timing though, damn it.”

Of course this is a huge oversimplification of a set of massively complex political challenges. But it does seem to explain a lot.

And, once again, I’m not saying that the Empire (or the corpocracy) is ‘evil’. Their behaviour is pathological, for sure, but in our precarious, horrifically overpopulated, collapsing civilization some form of mental illness is inevitably present everywhere, in all of us. Some of the countries in green in the chart above have long histories of pathological behaviour themselves, and in some cases it is ongoing. All I’m saying is that human behaviour is entirely conditioned, and hugely driven by fear, and what it has led to in the world we find ourselves dealing with today can largely be explained by understanding that conditioning. Not condoning, understanding. There are no good guys and bad guys.

And the rise to power of the corpocracy as the driving force and muscle behind the power of the current western Empire, unintended as it most surely was, is also understandable. We thought it was for the best. Many of us still think it is.

But if the growing battle between the Empire (the red countries in the chart) and the Other countries (in green), leads us into WW3, you won’t see me taking sides. I’m just chronicling collapse, as best I can, telling it as I see it.

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10 Responses to Who’s Actually in Power in the Empire

  1. Joe Clarkson says:

    But we need them, to help prevent the Arabs’ oil from falling out of our grasp.

    Just one of many non-sensical assertions in this post. US support for Israel (which I have long opposed) has never helped our relations with Arabs and their oil. One of the biggest economic calamities in US history was caused by the Arab oil embargo, which was caused by US support for Israel during the Yom Kippur war. To say that US-Israeli relations are based on “permanent aircraft carrier” access to Arab oil makes no sense at all. The US would have had far better relations with Arab nations if the US had forced Israel to become a secular democracy that included all Palestinians as equal citizens.

    And to say that NATO “(got) Russia to invade” so as to acquire Russian oil and gas also makes no sense in light of the fact that, pre-invasion, NATO countries had lots of Russian oil and gas and now they have access to very little. When the purported motivations of “empire” are exactly the opposite of results, there’s some serious explaining to do. Wouldn’t the nature of the “conditioning” be far better explained by looking at actual events that occured? In this case, it makes more sense to say that NATO got Russia to invade Ukraine so that it could wean itself off Russian oil and gas.

    What’s also curious is that the implication from these examples you’ve given is that the “empire” has agency and motivations that guide its actions. I would think that, for someone who does not think agency exists, all examinations of historical and current events would be purely descriptive. Here’s what happened, period.

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Yikes. I guess I should have ‘set up’ the arguments in the final bullet points in this post more clearly. These are NOT my opinions on these issues. They’re my attempt to explain the thinking that might be going on in the heads of those whose decisions otherwise seem to make no sense. Perhaps if I’d put these all in quotation marks this would have been clearer. *sigh* Sometimes the articles I put the most work into turn out to be the muddiest. I might be better off writing shorter articles instead of trying to make grand arguments with too broad a sweep.

    There have been US “advisors” who have admitted the purpose of provoking the Russians into attacking Ukraine was to destabilize and bring down the Russian government, so that the Empire could steal all their resources — not just to get the oil and gas into Empire “friendly” hands, but also to access all the mineral resources some of which the US needs to offset its dependence on other “unfriendly” nations. My point, which I clearly did not make well, is that when you look at political decisions as ultimately being business decisions by the corporate interests pulling the strings of governments, they do tend to make a lot more sense.

  3. Vera says:

    “it makes more sense to say that NATO got Russia to invade Ukraine so that it could wean itself off Russian oil and gas.”

    Joe, that would make sense if it indeed happened. But as it is, Russian oil and gas is getting to Europe, except through expensive roundabout routes. In Czechia, they are talking about the discovery that the Russian supplies were cut off for only 6 months, and now are surreptitiously used again.

    And in the long run, the West has always wanted to plunder Russia. Nothing new here.

  4. Brutus says:

    Insofar as your (1) summary of a (2) blog post on a (3) review of a (4) book goes, the basic power dynamic is plausible enough. So sure, slap a few new names on old ideas and analyze them ad nauseum. Whether it’s the hegemon, the Sub-Imperials, the military-industrial complex, the corpocracy, warmed-over Marxism, or simply pathological (end-stage) capitalism, the outlines have been clear for some decades already even if the full picture is gaining clarity and resolution. As with most of your overlong posts, I stopped reading about halfway through. (Considering breaking them into parts.) Short of aggregation, I’ve never quite understood why a few bizarro winners of the game (famous names withheld) continue to play and don’t simply fade into obscurity and enjoy their lucre. Turns out, as with professional sports, one season bleeds into the next and championships won count for nothing at the outset of the next season. Gotta keep playing. In terms of human psychology, I’ve heard it said that the new currency is fame. Infamy does just as well.

  5. nobody in particular says:

    Great post, Dave.

  6. Zoltan Jorovic says:

    As all-encompassing theories to explain the world go it has its merits. The problem, as with all such theories, is that the human world is a complex of interconnected systems. There is no one explanatory theory for the whole, because much of what we see are emergent phenomena which arise from the systems and their interactions. So, while the corpocracy is a useful idea, it doesn’t adequately explain any of the issues you have selected. That is not because it is wrong, but that like any one idea, it cannot by itself explain what is the continually changing output of an ongoing series of countless interactions. These happen on may levels, from individual, to international, and involve from one person to entire populations, on different time and spatial scales. Much of what happens is chaotic in that it involves dynamic systems that are inherently unpredictable, being highly sensitive to initial conditions , which are continually changing and influencing each other.

    In a nutshell, it’s an interesting theory of little predictive value. You can use it to explain past events, with a lot of simplification and some energetic us a of a metaphorical jemmy, but I challenge you to use it to predict future events better than pure guesswork.

    If we start with the premise that people’s actions are driven by their interests, then corporate interests push them to try to manipulate or control governments so that they either further these interests, or at least, do not hinder them. But corporate interests often conflict. So a corpocracy must be a multiheaded hydra of a beast, with the heads often as interested in biting each other as in seizing their prey.

  7. Dave Pollard says:

    Agreed, Zoltan. I would say that “an interesting theory of little predictive value” is as much as one can ever really hope to come up with in trying to understand why the world is how it is. I’ll settle for that any day.

    But although it’s just another theory, I’d say that while corporations do fight among each other, corpocracies tend to support and cooperate with each other, since they find that lucrative, as they find fighting their ‘common enemies’ — governments and regulators, foreign competitors, and ultimately unruly customers — more lucrative than fighting among each other.

  8. Theresa says:

    I’ve been thinking about this word, corpocracy. World Leaders used to dress in ornate uniforms and various forms of formal dress codes. It now seems that most dress in business suits. Communists, war leaders and others tend to dress as military leaders: Zelenskyy in the current casual military garb that servicemen wear, for example. It was curious how Netanyahu ditched his suits for black shirts/trousers for awhile (made me think of Mussolini). The Hamas media spokesmen still wear western jackets. Putin is always seen in a suit (when not bare chested). I don’t know what all this means, some of it is just about changing fashions, but when it comes to world leaders – especially those at war – the message is not about personal taste but more about who owns them who they belong to or with. The blue business suit and tie is surely always a sign or nod to the “corpocracy”.

  9. Theresa says:

    Btw, while it’s off topic, belongs under a different post, I just wanted to say I enjoyed your descriptions of the local Coquitlam coffee shop and how people dressed. The place sure has changed since I have been there when it was all suburban casual.

  10. Dave Pollard says:

    Fascinating observation about leaders’ “fashions” indicating who/what they “belong” to. Makes me think about Mao jackets, Pierre Trudeau’s capes and flowers, and the very phrase “conservative dress”.

    Thanks for the kind comment on my month-end posts. Coquitlam is still pretty casual during the day, but some of us (not me) “clean up well” in the evenings. Much to do with cultural behaviours around paying visits to friends — dressing up and bringing a gift etc. Some nice traditions here.

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