Conservative Socialism: On Vidal’s Anti-Imperialism

Readers of The Fourth Estate will know that in The Work-Standard (2nd Ed.), specific entries are devoted to the subject of the “American Empire.” The great question posited therein is the problem of properly defining the precise boundaries with regard to the Union of these United States. Any discussion of the “American Empire” on the World Wide Web (WWW) will come away with at least four interpretations:

  • “The Union is the Empire”: An idea that originated among certain Anti-Federalists, their definition differing from the other interpretations. They consistently defined it as a centralized Federal government whose jurisdiction encompasses the entire Union. The powers of the States would then be subordinated, if not outright suppressed, by the Federal government, reducing them to mere provincial authorities. This interpretation is covered extensively in the research paper “Empire or Liberty: The Antifederalists and Foreign Policy, 1787-1788.”
  • “Rules-Based International Order”:  John Ikenberry is the foremost proponent of the idea that the American Empire is defined purely by the world order that America created after 1945. Here, it refers to the intergovernmental organizations, international agreements and treaties, and institutions that America helped create. No central authority, not even the US, is capable of exerting formal control over it. Ikenberry provided a good general rundown of the “Rules-Based International Order” in his 2018 paper “Why the Liberal World Order will Survive.”
  • “The Union leads the Empire”: This interpretation is the most common view subscribed by Americans and non-Americans alike on the “Political Left.” The Union, while not the Empire itself, has guided its development throughout the 20th century and continues to lead it. Adherents will often point to the worldwide military presence of the US and the ability of the US foreign policy to engage unilaterally on its own terms, from economic sanctions to outright military invasion. Interestingly, there is a similar variation of this idea among certain Americans on the “Political Right” who think that the collapse of the Empire means the destruction of the Union itself. Those who adhere to that view are inclined toward supporting Secessionism.   
  • “The Union has no Empire”: Another interpretation is to claim that there is no Empire to speak of in the current century. The US may have had its own a colonial empire during the height of the European colonial empires around the turn of the 20th century, but it was dissolved after 1945.   

All four points can be summarized into two questions:

  • Are the Empire and the Union the same entity or are they two distinct entities?
  • Is the Union controlling the Empire or is the Empire controlling the Union?

The Work-Standard argues that the Empire exists as an entity separate from the Union insofar as the Empire and Union are two opposing political conceptions of these United States. In essence, due to the Union being controlled by the Democratic-Republican Party, the Jeffersonians are able to realize the Empire not only as a geopolitical concept but also as a metaphysical one. The geopolitical and metaphysical dimensions are interchangeably referred to throughout as the “Liberal International Economic Order (LIEO)” and the “Empire of Liberty,” with both terms referring to the same entity that is the American Empire. The latter term, Empire of Liberty, is derived from the political concept of the same name as described by Thomas Jefferson.

When Jefferson created his Empire of Liberty concept, as far back as the American Revolutionary War, he at first defined it in terms of an America expanding its initial boundaries without any definitive limits or ends. The Empire of Liberty’s hegemony is best understood in Liberal Capitalist terms: the monopolization of economic and military power by a United States controlled by the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republican Party. This monopolization occurred over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries in four stages.

  1. Create a hegemony over North America by expanding the Union beyond the Mississippi.
  2. Expand the hegemony to include North and South Americas as the Western Hemisphere.
  3. With the Americas under the Empire of Liberty’s dominion, proceed across the Atlantic and the Pacific to include the outermost fringes of the Eurasian landmass.
  4. Wrestle control from Europe and Asia’s great powers to seize the entire Eurasian landmass.    

Much of American history is a documentation of the Empire of Liberty’s expansionism, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the direction of US foreign policy. The Jeffersonian interpretation of US foreign policy often fluctuates between Internationalism on the one hand and Isolationism on the other. Internationalism will promote the flourishing of the Empire of Liberty around the world, the Isolationism ensuring that the Jeffersonians have free reign over all world affairs whilst remaining in control of the Union.      

Applied in actual practice as in history, the Empire of Liberty essentially becomes an international world order of Liberal Capitalist regimes beholden to the Jeffersonians. The Jeffersonians want no conceivable rival to challenge them and the Empire of Liberty in the economic and military realms. Any Eurasian great power wielding comparable economic and military firepower to match the Jeffersonians, like the Soviet Union, Germany, Japan, People’s Republic of China, is deemed as a potential enemy that must be isolated and subjugated for stepping out of line.

Of course, The Work-Standard is correct in arguing that the Empire of Liberty had a brief moment when it went unrivaled and unchallenged. It was only during the 1990s, prior to the 9/11 attacks, that the Jeffersonians could had free reign over their world order. The decades since then has seen the Empire of Liberty come under attack from a multitude of angles. The least obvious is the fact that the Empire of Liberty is just starting to become overstretched and draining on the American people, even by Liberal Capitalist standards. The costs of trying to maintain the Empire of Liberty have led to the rampant moral decline, the breakdown in institutional norms among the State and Federal governments, a growing National Debt and enduring trade deficits commensurate with a depreciating US Dollar, and the growing inability to enact even the most basic of domestic policies. The same is likewise for the rise of political polarization, the destruction of communities, the constant social isolation and alienation, and the growing distrust among Americans toward each other and the Federal government.

Upon writing The Work-Standard, this Author was hard-pressed to find anyone in US history who was arriving at similar, albeit not identical, conclusions. The closest who has ever come to matching The Work-Standard’s descriptions of the Empire of Liberty was Gore Vidal. Vidal, for those who do not know, was one of 20th century America’s literary writers. He was more well-known for his written works and public intellectualism than his actual political views. His Anti-Imperialism, which has proven to be valuable to the Federalist tradition, is distinguishable from the Isolationist tendencies of his grandfather.

If there are any disagreements that this Author may have with Vidal, they are only superficial details like the precise timing of when or how the Empire of Liberty became fully realized and which historical figures were the least supportive of the Empire of Liberty. Such differences do not detract from the idea of Vidal being in the Federalist tradition, however. On the contrary, those differences actually serve as bitter reminders that all Americans are in one way or another complicit to the Empire of Liberty’s perpetuation.

The central theme in much of Vidal’s fictional and non-fictional works is the importance of knowing the Empire of Liberty and comprehending the consequences of its perpetuation. Vidal stressed that the direction of US foreign policy throughout US history has been geared toward building the Empire of Liberty. Every successful advancement in the Empire of Liberty’s expansion has led to a loss of inward freedom for the average American.

What does this loss of inward freedom entail? A sense of inner independence, of being deviating from the commonly-held notions about America and its place in the world, is unfortunately absent within the average American. Most people in the US do not stop and question the Jeffersonians, oppose the Democratic-Republican Party, confront the dangers of the Empire of Liberty, or be willing to transcend the Left-Right Political Spectrum. And unlike Vidal, whose opposition to the Empire of Liberty is bound by a sense of attachment to the Union, most people today are detached from any legacy that would compel them to care about the Union and its future. This is a problem afflicting Americans from all walks of life, deterring any serious opposition to the Democratic-Republican Party and its policies.

Many questions were raised by Vidal, each one requiring an answer on their own. Such questions are so vast in their implications that entire blog posts on The Fourth Estate can be devoted to them. They pose significant questions for anyone aligned with the Federalist tradition who have any serious interest in serving the Union.

How does one differentiate the Union from the Empire of Liberty, especially in political-economic practice? Why serve the Union if doing so might also result in benefiting the Democratic-Republican Party? How many wealthy Americans are willing to subordinate their own interests to that of the Union? Does opposition to the Empire of Liberty make one “un-American?” Is there a conception of US foreign policy that does not involve furthering the Empire of Liberty?

Not once did Vidal propose an alternate conception of America, one where the Union is free from the Empire of Liberty. It is a shame because he never had a chance to do so. His efforts were more focused on trying to expose the Empire of Liberty to a broader audience than to confront it. Such opposition deserves to be carried out by a future generation of Americans in this century.     

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