Book Review: Dilemmas of Domination by Walden Bello

DILEMMAS OF DOMINATION: The Unmaking of the American Empire by Walden Bello Metropolitan Books, 2005, 272 pages, $25.00

When students ask me to define globalization, henceforth I will direct them to Walden Bello's Dilemmas of Domination. In this well-organized and clear presentation about this enigmatic concept, Bello defines U.S. empire and globalization as inseparable. From the clear-eyed perspective of the margins of empire (he is Filipino), Bello sees that these forces have deeply negative implications for both Third World people and those of the United States.

The “e” word remains unmentionable in the U.S. political vocabulary, but Bello argues that the empire has begun to unravel precipitously, with consequences Americans can no longer afford to ignore. The invasion and occupation of Iraq has forced the U.S. military to overextend itself, thus making empire into the proverbial elephant in the American living room. This invisible beast in all of its forms has helped induce immense budget deficits and national debts. By crossing the Rubicon into Iraq, Bush has also exacerbated a growing economic crisis based on overproduction. Indeed, Bello argues, the U.S. imperial project that has dominated six decades of global economics, politics, and war, has begun a dangerous descent.

This analysis pairs well with Chalmers Johnson's Sorrows of Empire. Whereas Johnson argues from the perspective of a U.S. scholar seeing empire as destroying the republic, Bello focuses on how U.S. domination has become the major obstacle for Third World development.

Bello offers data galore as an antidote to those who have presented globalization as the necessary medicine that will cure underdevelopment. Contrary to Thomas Friedman's apologia for the new order of corporate wealth, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, Bello shows that multinational corporate giants destroy economic harmony and obstruct genuine communication between people. Backed with ample evidence, he contends that a few hundred giant conglomerates designed this world business system and, with help from the U.S. government, seek to acquire ever more of the world's wealth and labor power.

Simultaneously, Bush strategists seek to establish “full-spectrum dominance,” a concept that led them into thinking the U.S. military possessed infinite elasticity. Instead, they find themselves in a quagmire in Iraq and Afghanistan. The military overextension goes hand in hand with what Bello calls “a crisis of political legitimacy.”

By bombing civilians and employing routine torture and other dubious techniques, the Bush Administration has lost not only the “hearts and minds” of the Islamic world, but has called into question among Americans the legitimacy of the U.S. political elite. Bello looks beyond Bush's declining approval ratings to a larger public understanding of the “transparent corporate domination of the political system as well as widespread restrictions on the civil liberties of citizens.”

Yet millions of Third World people continue to try to enter the United States and millions more see its commercial aesthetic as attractive. Bello does not directly address how these facts coincide with the loss of legitimacy, but he implies that economic crisis will deflate the U.S. as a job market and an appealing culture. He points to the “widening gap between the growing productive potential ... and the capacity ... to purchase its output.”  That is, to maximize profits, in a capitalist economy companies try to maximize output and minimize wages. So where will the buyers for these multiplying products come from?

As the U.S. economy slides, institutions like the U.S.-backed IMF, WTO, and World Bank also lose legitimacy. Bello says that these world financial giants, which claim to offer development models for the Third World, have instead “delivered severe instability.” Instead of helping poor countries to advance, these financial despots have “disciplined and re-subordinated the developing countries in the interests of the United States and other center economies.”

The U.S. and other developed economies have grown as a result, but the number of people living in poverty has dramatically increased as well from 130 million in 1980 to 180 million in 1990.

For this and other reasons, Bello sees the collapse of U.S. empire as a blessing and an opportunity. He wants empire to fail, for the Third World's sake as well as for America's. The collapse of American empire is “a precondition for the reemergence of a democratic republic. That was the American promise before it was hijacked by imperial democracy.”

This scholar-activist has written a manifesto on how globalization works and fails—and on the crying need to change it. His activism joins his analysis in calling for more action, more protest, more politics to bring down the imperial structure. He calls on readers to abandon their identities as consumers and become citizen-actors to help guide the world toward a reasonable and just way of producing and distributing wealth.


Reviewer Saul Landau's latest book is The Business Of America: How Consumers Have Replaced Citizens. He is an Institute for Policy Studies fellow and teaches at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.
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