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The Imperial Visit

David Ritter - 27th May 2011

It was the week when the Emperor came to London and the Great Hall of Westminster was packed to hear his address. A row of three ex Prime Ministers plus the incumbent, were joined by the Lord Chancellor, the Speaker of the House of Commons, various lords and ladies, and the membership of the House of Commons. Even Forrest Gump was there (or given the number of D-Day references in the speech, perhaps it was Captain John H. Miller?). Before the event, the twitterverse had been all aflutter among those who had the hottest ticket in town. Barack Obama might have been Prince Edward, circa 1927 as the vicarious spirit of I've danced with a man, who's danced with a girl, who's danced with the Prince of Wales seized those with even the scantiest of connections to the visit of the Emperor.

As I’ve noted previously and elsewhere, it does not require a fevered radical imagination to interpret American influence as imperial in nature, with Washington at the apex of a vast complex of global power. And to be clear, casting the US in an imperial light is not to reach a normative conclusion about the uses to which that power is put for good and ill, but simply to make an assessment of its scale and functioning. Nor is admiration of many things ‘American’ inconsistent with an analytical assessment that the US bears many of the characteristics of an imperial polity. It might also be added, that while Emperor Obama is an incalculably better man than his predecessor, the imperial nature of the office remains unaltered. The adoration that Obama met in London this week can be read as an expression of the dynamic of empire just as profoundly as the widespread global detestation of George W. Bush.

Obama’s address to Westminster was characteristically elevating. From a critical perspective there was no doubt that dispute could be had with elements of the content, yet only the hardest of hearts could not be touched by the oratory.  Nevertheless, it was also difficult not to hear the echoes that followed the Emperor’s words. In many ways, the United States is an increasingly hollowed out country. Spending more on its military than the rest of the world combined; paying more per capita than any other developed country on earth yet with the worst health outcomes; paying off a vast foreign debt and suffering from a stark and widening economic gap between the super rich and the poor. From the destitute halls of Detroit’s vanished prosperity and broken down dignity, to the clogged penitentiaries of California, the Imperial heartland is in trouble.

In order to restore his country, the Emperor must take on the narrow business interests which dominate the politics of Washington. This will require more than charm, elegance and reasonableness: you can’t conciliate the most powerful vested interests that the world has ever seen in to surrendering their chokehold. As others have observed, the Emperor might well turn to one of his most illustrious antecedents for inspiration. In announcing the Second New Deal in 1936, President F.D. Roosevelt said:

We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace--business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering. They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob. Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me--and I welcome their hatred.

Let us hope that the present Emperor has the heart and the will to do what is now again necessary: to take on the old enemies – business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering – and for good and essential measure, take on the fossil fuel lobby and the climate change deniers too. The fate of the Empire depends on it.