America’s Primitive Turn: Capital and the “War on Terror” in Post-9/11 America

By Jaafar Aksikas

Issue 1.2 | December 28, 2010

Paul Smith. Primitive America: The Ideology of Capitalist Democracy. University of Minnesota Press, 2007. 176 pp.

The field of contemporary cultural studies, especially with its importation into the American academy, often assumes a scepticism toward the uses of Marxist political economy and of Marxist approaches to culture, including more robust, non-reductive Marxist approaches and models, where cultural phenomena and cultural forms are understood within the context of their social totality—economic, political, and cultural.  Paul Smith is one of the very few cultural studies scholars writing today who does not share this scepticism in the least and the result, in the case of his latest book Primitive America, is a provocative, original, and unorthodox critique of contemporary American capital and culture.

Primitive America is divided into two parts. The first part interrogates the very notion of the primitive and deals with issues such as the history of primitive accumulation, commodity fetishism, the narcissistic inflection of the American subject, and the production of extreme Americanism.  The second part seeks to delineate some of the symptoms of the primitive at the current conjuncture and deals with, among other things, the state of the law in relation to the Constitution, human rights, and the nature of US imperialism.  For the purposes of this brief review, I will only deal with some of these issues, paying particular attention to Smith’s analysis of US imperialism today. 

In this brief intervention, Smith seeks to make sense of the seemingly unprecedented and ‘peculiar’ reaction to the 9/11 terrorist attacks in America.  For him, this rather extreme reaction has always been latent in the cultural habits and practices of the American republic and its conditions of possibility can be located in the ‘constitutive’ dialectic and contradiction between the progressive, dynamic, and modern elements in the culture on the one hand, and its reactionary, archaic, and primitive elements, on the other.  Borrowing from anthropology and from Claude Lévi-Strauss in particular, Smith presents this as a dialectic between the “hot” and “cold”, between the ‘primitive’ and the progressive elements in American society and culture, where the hot refers to “the dynamic and progressive aspects of a society dedicated to growth and productivity, marked by mobility, invention, innovation, and optimism—in short a super-charged modernity” and the cold refers to the “rigid social forms and archaic beliefs, fundamentalism(s) of all kinds, racism, xenophobia, anti-intellectualism, cultural atavism, and ignorance—in short, the primitive” (xi).  However, it is important to realize, Smith adds, that the hot and cold forces are not equally empowered or enabled; and that what America is experiencing at the current historical conjuncture is “the renewed ascendancy of the primitive” itself” (xi), “a new and improved brand of extreme Americanism” (2).        

But while Smith sees this structural contradiction between the hot and cold, between the progressive and primitive, between the super-modern and fundamentalist as constitutive of the whole culture and its subjects and seeks to  “contemplate that contradiction as it is played out in the structure of this exceptional culture” (xi), he also insists that this dialectic is itself fundamentally driven and authorized by America’s almost complete and unquestioned devotion to the processes of commodification and capital accumulation.

Smith’s attempt to examine the dialectic of subject and structure remains a necessary task for understanding contemporary American culture, and one of the merits of Primitive America lies in its insistence on the need to ground any analysis of the constitution and production of subjects and subjectivities in the very conditions of global capitalism itself. Smith writes: 

One of the fundamental building blocks of America’s extreme capitalism is what I have called elsewhere, and will discuss a little later, the “subject of value”—a subject whose belief in and acceptance of the principle of equality is required, even in the face of contradictory empirical evidence.  This subject of value in capitalism operates from the base of a self-interested rationality, is convinced of the existence and efficacy of equality, and accepts the principle of private property in all realms of social and cultural life (11). 

Smith’s discussion of subjectivity draws heavily on his earlier work, namely Millennial Dreams, and for those familiar with that work, there is actually little new here.          

What I find most interesting in this intervention, however, is Smith’s original and insightful take on the 9/11 terrorist attacks and his claims about imperialism and globalization today, with reference to the work of Samir Amin and Michel Aglietta.  Smith acknowledges that 9/11 is inescapable (both as a fact of life and object of study), but he also insists that Primitive America is not (I think Smith means is not just) about 9/11, nor does it debate the rights and wrongs of the Bush administration’s response to the attacks.  While it is true that the issues that Smith addresses here are broader than the actions, policies and ideologies of the Bush administrations, and while the book has more to say about the violence that the 9/11 attacks provoked and about “the long war” on terror, it also provides a unique take on the attacks themselves. For Smith, the 9/11 attacks are best understood as a protest against globalization and global capitalism, a protest that derives not “from envy or covetousness, or from a generalized lack of intelligence or understanding, or from any irreconcilable cultural difference or antagonism, and still less from any condition of pure evil,” but rather “from a sense of injustice, a sense of being ignored, marginalized, disenfranchized, and undifferentiated” (7) and from America’s inability to live up to its ideals and to the image it presents of itself in the rest of the world.   

Perhaps the most interesting section of the book is Smith’s analysis of imperialism.  In a fully post-modern, globalized world, and until very recently, there has always seemed to be a certain general agreement, a certain implicit consensus—especially among people on the right—about the anachronism and futility of continuing to talk about empire and imperialism.  It looked like—in a manner rather typical and characteristic of postmodernism—talk of imperialism was underplayed, downplayed, and even displaced by something new, with what the older Bush called “a new world order,” and with what came to be known as “globalization.”  The central premise of such “post-modern consensus” (and Smith blames the Marxist left for its complicity in this) is that empire and imperialism are categories of nineteenth-century European conditions, and are no longer relevant to our situation today. Even when people addressed contemporary imperialisms directly (and those who dared were few), they were treated as “residual, alien” elements of a past that is no longer with us, no longer part of the “brave new world” we inhabit.  Writing in the mid-1990s, one American observer notes:

Of the various notions about imperialism circulating today in the United States, the dominant one is that it no longer exists.  Imperialism is not recognized as a legitimate concept, certainly not in regard to the United States.  One may speak of “Soviet imperialism” or “nineteenth-century British imperialism” but not of US imperialism.  A graduate student in political science at most universities in this country would not be granted the opportunity to research US imperialism on the grounds that such an undertaking would not be scholarly (Parenti 2-3).

He goes on to say that, “In this country people who talk of US imperialism are usually judged to be mouthing ideological blather” (3).

And yet, and in the midst of all these moves and movements to repress a concept, and with it, history itself, we have begun in the last few years (especially after the 9/11 attacks) to witness phenomena of a very different order, phenomena that suggest the return to and the re-establishment of “empire” and “imperialism” as legitimate theoretical and historical categories, rather than their wholesale liquidation.  Moreover, imperialism has become a widespread topic of public discussion, not only among the left that has historically developed critiques of it, but among the neo-conservatives who are now in the business of appropriating it and legitimizing it. 

While the hijacking and appropriation of the word imperialism by the right might seem surprising, there are in fact several reasons why this is happening now, Smith argues, and “the more generally unapologetic rhetoric and brazen confidence of the neoconservative ideologues gathered in the Bush administrations” is only one of these. More importantly, Smith blames the left, and the Marxist left in particular, for abandoning the critique of imperialism altogether, as if the latter “were a dead letter” and points out that “Marxist theories of imperialism appeared exhausted or dormant, and little work has been done to revivify them” in the light of contemporary Marxism’s self-consuming preoccupation with dependency theory and the post-colonial situation (58). 

For Smith, the first step towards renewing Marxist theories of imperialism is to trace the connection between imperialism and globalization and to take seriously the idea that globalization has probably been nothing other than “the continuation of imperialism by other means” (59).  This requires at the very least the rejection of the idea that globalization represents a complete rupture with previous forms of capitalist relations and the insistence—along with Samir Amin—that globalization constitutes “an ideological discourse used to legitimize the strategies of the imperialist capital and dominates the current phase” and that “the form of globalization depends…on the class struggle” (60).  

A few years ago, a book appeared which has reopened the debate over empire and imperialism with such renewed passion and such undeniable power that even Smith’s short reflection on imperialism can hardly avoid trying to come to terms with it.  The book to which I refer is Empire by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. The central thesis of Hardt and Negri in Empire is that imperialism as we knew it has reached its end because it is a specifically early modern device for the exploitation of human labour, and that today capital does not need imperialism to reproduce itself.  The authors go even further to suggest that imperialism, which was very useful to the expansion of capital for more than four centuries, has actually now become an obstacle for global capitalism. Smith looks at the book’s central claims and concludes—rightly—that “the American response to the vicious antiglobalization protest that we now refer to as 9/11 has arguably given the lie to the kinds of claims that Hardt and Negri make at the beginning of their book, where they italicize the proposition that “[t]he United States does not, and indeed no nation-state can today, form the centre of an imperialist project.  Imperialism is over” (61). 

What Hardt and Negri also fail to see is that the move from imperialism to their new “Empire” leaves the basic structure of the wage relation untouched, and it is this fundamental structure that the interstate imperialist system seeks to impose across the globe.  Smith concludes that:

[T]oday’s capitalism is thus an interstate political mechanism for the general extension of capital’s wage relation across a global space, and it seems less and less like a classic colonial enterprise.  In that sense, the opportunistic subjugation of Iraq is no doubt a symptom of imperialist desire, or more exactly a demonstration of it.  But the desire and the actuality of imperialism in the twenty-first century is best understood as something larger than any individual action of the United States, in Iraq or elsewhere.  Indeed, the notion of “American imperialism” is almost pleonastic, since the United States, as a central player in this system for the expansion of capitalist production, is always already imperialist by dint of the nature of that system (66).       

Smith takes Johan Huizinga’s claim that “every political or cultural question in America is [also necessarily] an economic one” very seriously, and thus departs from mainstream media and intellectual discussions and debates that tend to have a narrow, reductive view of the economic, where the latter is reduced to the technical realm of economic management, without any consideration of its relationship to the processes of politics and culture.  Even the oppositional liberal discourses that have tried to come to terms with the attacks of 9/11 and their aftermath are unable to deal with America’s absolute devotion to capitalism and to the regime of capital accumulation that drives the whole society and culture. 

In the concluding chapter of the book, Smith reads Judith Butler’s recent book Precarious Life: The Power and Mourning of Violence as symptomatic of the kind of liberal critiques that remain at the level of ideology and subjectivity, and are unable to investigate the material conditions that produce these very ideologies and subjects.  Butler, for example, has very little to say “about American imperialism, or media power, or any of the material factors that inflect contemporary ideologies…[or] about any material form of subjectivity (120).   And nor does the American liberal critique, which, for Smith, among other things, ignores history and political economy (even when it claims to engage them) and suffers from a crippling “creeping universalism” that assumes that everyone shares the same (in this case American) assumptions and perceptions.  Smith’s critique of Butler is not unrelated to the critique he develops earlier in the book of Christopher Lash’s work (and of much work in cultural studies): the concentration on the epiphenomenal features of culture and subjectivity and invoking “capitalism,” if at all, only as an afterthought.  What this kind of work fails to acknowledge, according to Smith, is that any robust understanding of culture and subjectivity requires, in the words of Eric Fromm, “exact knowledge of the economic, social, and political situation” (27).

The originality of Primitive America—despite its rather schematic nature—lies in its ability to not only take the political-economic (and with it the cultural) seriously, but also to make the connections between the production of meanings and subjectivities and the production of commodities, as well as examine the processes of determination amongst and between different levels of production. Smith rejects the notion of autonomy (relative or not), and insists that cultural phenomena, far from being autonomous, are caught in what he calls in Millennial Dreams: “a logic of totality (a totality considered, of course, in all of its contradictions)” (2). According to this logic, the significance of social phenomena—be they ideological, political, economic, or cultural—cannot be properly assessed outside a dialectical understanding of its place in society as a whole.  In this way, whatever seems unprecedented and unique about the American response to 9/11 becomes more or less understandable in the light of what Smith calls “the fundamental structuring of that [American] culture—with all its reigning ideologies and mythographies—in its primitive devotion to the processes of capital” (124). Contemporary cultural studies, with its almost one-dimensional focus on critical interpretation, has marginalized the place and role of political economy and, more specifically, Marxism. Smith’s Primitive America offers a timely reminder that a more robust and useful cultural studies needs to pay more attention to both.


Works Cited

Butler, Judith. Precarious Life: The Power and Mourning of Violence. London: Verso, 2004. Print.

Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri.  Empire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000. Print.

Parenti, Paul. Against Empire. San Francisco: City Lights Publishers, 1995. Print.

Smith, Paul. Millennial Dreams: Contemporary Culture and Capital in the North.  London: Verso, 1997. Print.

Jaafar Aksikas is Associate Professor of Cultural Studies at Columbia College Chicago. He is the author of Arab Modernities (2009) and the general editor of Cultural Landscapes: A Cultural Studies Journal.