American Empire and/or American Oligarchy

In a recent post titled “Are We An Oligarchy?”, I asked, “Are we an oligarchy?”  I probably should have asked, “Should my post titles be less obvious?”
My answer was “Yes” to the oligarchy question. I’m still waiting for elite  political scientists who specialize in oligarchic studies to weigh in definitively on the subject.
In this post, I ask, “Are we [is the U.S.] and empire?”  Two imagined answers from the peanut gallery come to mind: 1) Duh. Of course we’re an empire, you moron.  2) Duh. Of course we’re not an empire, you moron. We’re just a republic with a large military, and we help spread freedom around the globe; that’s all.
Fleeing the peanut gallery and taking a brief lexical detour, let’s note that “empire” springs from the Latin “imperium,” which derives from “imperare,” which can be translated as “to command.”  “Empire” seems to have entered printed English language in the early 14th century, according tot he OED online.  According to the more pedestrian but still useful dictionary. com, here are some definitions of “empire”:
1. a group of nations or peoples ruled over by an emperor, empress, or other powerful sovereign or government: usually a territory of greater extent than a kingdom, as the former British Empire, french Empire, Russian Empire, Byzantine Empire, or Roman Empire.

a government under an emperor or empress.

(often initial capital letter) the historical period during which a nation is under such a government: a history of the second French empire.

supreme power in governing; imperial power; sovereignty: Austria’s failure of empire in central Europe.
Perhaps you see the definitional problem I see. Strictly speaking, to be an empire, a nation has to rule over another nation (or similarly significant large cultural entity).  So there’s that.  Then there’s this:
Depending upon the definition of military “base,” the U.S. has somewhere between 700 and 1,000 military bases around the globe, although a good portion of these should, perhaps, be called mere “installations.”  A variety of sources seem to like 700+ as a ballpark figure (there’s a pun in there with base and ball that we’ll ignore).  To get some idea of the scope of our military presence, just look at the list of major military bases on via this link:  list of bases.
Of course, to have a base in a place is not necessarily to rule over that place.  At the same time, to operate a base is to have some significant leverage over the place occupied, and in many cases military presence or occupation = political control = a kind of rule = empire.  The U.S. has in fact occupied Germany, Japan, and Viet Nam; the Philippines; and Puerto Rico (a short list). It now occupies Iraq and Afghanistan.
No doubt you recall the mischief in Central America, whereby the U.S. toppled a regime to help out the United Fruit Company.  Christopher Hitchens certainly recalls the U.S. role in “regime-change” in Chile.  (He has wanted to get Kissinger in court.) And we all know the extent to which “regime-change” is part of our political dialogue.
I’m not one to change a definition simply because it doesn’t suit my argument, but we might at least consider how the U.S. may have redefined “empire” or “imperial presence”  by deploying so many bases without  literally ruling.  Also, there is the globalization of our industrial, financial, and commercial presences–not to mention all that spying we do.    When I taught in Sweden in 1994, several Swedish academics noted the sheer volume of American entertainment “product” on Swedish cable TV.  Swedes, they tended not to lament but rather merely to observe, and they observed that the effect of so much product on a nation of about 8 million might be enormous with regard to behavior, language, and commerce.  Is this a form of imperialism even though it’s not a form of ruling?  This is not a rhetorical question.
Oh, one more thing, before the post reaches its frayed conclusion: extreme political and personal opposites Gore Vidal and Pat Buchanan agree that the U.S. moved from republic to empire long ago.
I think I’ve batted around “empire” lexically, culturally, rhetorically, and politically quite enough.  As I wait for experts in Oligarchic Studies to weigh in on my earlier question, I shall maintain a double-watch and look for signs of experts in Imperial Studies in the virtual harbor.
But in my amateurish, innocuous opinion, yes, the U.S. is governed by an oligarchy, and yes, the U.S. is, most definitely, and empire.  Ignore my opinion (I often do); what say you?

2 Responses to “American Empire and/or American Oligarchy”

  1. David Macadam Says:

    You might be interested in my blog about American Political families and their hold on the levers of power and finance. Its at It comes with cartoons and family trees so its not too stodgy (I hope)


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