How Empire Operates: An Interview with Laleh Khalili

Empire Operating

Viewpoint: How do you understand imperialism? Is it still a useful concept? What analytical frameworks do you see as most adequate for understanding relations of force at the international level? 

Laleh Khalili: I suppose most crudely I understand modern imperialism as the will to make the world safe for the movement of capital (dominated especially by capitalists based in the United States and its allied states), by force of arms if necessary. Although we hear a lot about capital having no home state, I do still think that there are forms of imperial power emanating from North Atlantic, and the United States more specifically, that places like China still have a ways to go to match. The legal infrastructures necessary for business, rules of trade and accounting, frameworks for commerce and investment, and pathways of finance are largely defined by institutions established in the North Atlantic. These institutions are defended through courts of arbitration, punitive financial measures, and various other forms of hegemonic control. But in the last instance, the United States has never been hesitant about the use of force where it has seen its broader interests – and the interests of capital – endangered.

I think what is also noteworthy about U.S. imperialism is the extent to which it is not interested in holding territory, except in so far as it needs bases for the projection of its military power, and for logistical pre-positioning necessary for rapid response to challenges to its domination. In fact, a lot of the time, and especially since the withdrawal from Iraq in 2009, the United States prefers its forces to remain invisible. To this end, it builds bases in unreachable places such as Diego Garcia Island in the Indian Ocean – which it acquired through a dodgy deal from Britain in the 1970s and after Britain evicted all its inhabitants. The United States also takes advantage of offers by friendly regimes in Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America to house its forces within their bases. These are cloaked by vast apparatuses of security and secrecy, by pliant and grateful client regimes.

VP: How do we avoid a simplistic notion of imperialism as synonymous with the “foreign policy” of particular nation-states?

LK: It is important to recognize that imperialism as a dispositif includes structures of economic extraction and exploitation; asymmetric forms of capital accumulation; modalities of military control; and entire legal and administrative apparatuses that ensure the subjugation or exploitation of some in the globe by others. Imperialism also comes with shifting discourses that act as an alibi and spur for these larger processes: at one time the discourses of scientific racism; today discourses of chaos, or lack of democracy or some such.

VP: How has your work on logistics influenced your conception of imperialism? We’ve witnessed significant shifts in both the technical infrastructure of war and the mobility of military materials and weapons across borders, not to mention the fraught relationship between contemporary capital accumulation, reactions to globalization from the both the right and left, and corresponding effects on class composition and labor struggles. 

LK: It has made me intensely aware of how coercion and the spheres of political economy are not the only milieus in which the empire operates. What is fascinating is the incorporation of all corners of the globe into the sphere of capital. Very often this incorporation happens through either wars waged by the United States and its allies, but increasingly and especially since the end of Bretton Woods regime, instruments of trade and finance are used to tie the corners of the world into capitalist regimes of production and control ever more tightly. But just as importantly, now capital travels not only from London or New York or the North Atlantic, but also from Singapore and Dubai and Hong Kong and Shanghai.

What is still imperial – and this becomes clear again and again – is that the rules of the game are still defined in Washington, D.C. and the North Atlantic. What I mean are factors we think about – multi- and bilateral treaties, international legal arrangements, rule of trade and commerce – but also things we don’t often think about: standards of accounting; processes of corporate arbitration; the calculation that goes into purchase of insurance; the definition and ascription of copyright; and so on.

And beyond that, of course, the force of finance and gun continue to be crucial. Whether or not the election of Trump foretells the beginning of decline of the United States (which I really don’t believe at all), the United States continues to be the biggest military force in the world, and still willing to project force. The pathways through which returns on investment travel, the circuits of capital and finance, still point primarily to the North Atlantic region, even if we increasingly see Asia- and Africa-based capital travelling these circuits.

VP: How might we trace the long construction of an international legal apparatus, which enforces the free flow of commodities, through these maritime spaces and trade? 

LK: Here were are dealing less imperialism per se than the legacy of colonialism. As historians of the Indian Ocean have shown us, before the Portuguese arrived there, no rulers of the region had tried to assert sovereignty over the seas. The Portuguese began the practice of requiring permits from merchant ships on the deep ocean. The British perfect the concept of “sea lanes” as spaces for the assertion of their control over Asian trade and in competition with other European powers. In a sense, imperialism in the maritime spaces has been least veiled when it has had to do with strategic footholds of various empires in places like Aden, or Hormuz, or Diego Garcia, or the Horn of Africa. But perhaps the most relevant bit of the response would be to point out that the very idea of international law emerges out of the Dutch attempt to control maritime spaces in Indian Ocean at the moment when capitalism as a set of social and political relations is emerging full force in the northwest corner of Europe. Hugo Grotius’s central thesis in his Mare Liberum, written in response to intra-European skirmishes in the Indian Ocean, is that the sea has to be a “free” space for trade. But of course what this terminology means is that European imperial powers have to agree to some form of power equilibrium in which the maritime spaces can be used freely by European powers so that they can freely extract the resource of Asia and accumulate capital on the back of the exploitation of Indian Ocean peoples and resources.

VP: In studying the colonial antecedents of free trade, how do you see these afterlives of the colonial encounter in contemporary logistics and free trade as recasting our understanding of colonialism, which was so derided by globalization and free market advocates as a frequently unprofitable enterprise? Your historical research would seem to suggest that colonialism was the often costly and economically disadvantageous constitution of capitalist social relations on a worldwide scale.

LK: It was certainly costly, but I am not sure about economically (or otherwise) disadvantageous. It is important to recognize that the calculus of cost-benefit analysis was never really the only factor (or even a factor) in the processes of colonization. Colonization was as much about finding new places for investment of surplus capital, for new natural resources to replace domestically depleted or non-existent resources, for finding new markets, and on and on. But it really was also about strategic domination and a political supremacy that generated prestige and power at home and abroad, built on the bones and ruins of colonized lives, societies, and economies.

VP: You’ve done some recent research on European and North American managers in marine finance, global insurance, resource management, legal counsel, auditors, etc. In your argument, this “cosmopolitan cohort” is indispensable in allowing the conditions of possibility for the (relatively) frictionless movement of capital across different parts of the world. Does this group, whose personnel moves between the global North and South, the interstitial places that they occupy between distant geographies, the state and the market, constitute an identifiable layer of the ruling class? More pointedly, does this stratum of managers form a shared antagonist for social struggles in various parts of the world? 

LK: I hesitate to generalize too much about this middle group of managers in toto, partially because increasingly they also include technical and finance experts from the Global South (especially India). In many instance, the European experts remind one of the former colonial civil servants who found serving in the colonies a form of social mobility. Certainly, many of the British port managers and the like I met in the Gulf came from working class backgrounds in the UK. The finance and insurance experts on the other hand especially when they are in the higher ranks do form a recognizable and more-or-less coherent managerial class, and whether or not they are conscious of their ideological and functional role in global movements and accumulation of capital, they certainly act as effective cogs in this immense machine.

VP: One takeaway from your investigation of the parastatal complex is that there has been a massive expansion of the modes, spaces, and agents of contemporary imperialism and transnational power relations. In the wake of the Obama presidency, what is the status of the parastatal complex? 

LK: A parastatal complex primarily refers to an interrelated body of corporate and government agencies whose mandate and boundaries become intermixed or blurred. Tim Mitchell’s superb 1991 article, “The Limits of the State,” cites ARAMCO as a parastatal institution par excellence. Mitchell argues that ARAMCO’s ownership is blurred, as it is owned both by governments and private investors; the company projects foreign policy and has influenced domestic policy in both Saudi Arabia and the United States, and the company is geographically and operationally dispersed.

Within the security world, the relationship existing between corporations like Palantir or Blackwater with government agencies creates a kind of parastatal complex. In these firms, employees are often former military, intelligence, or security officers. The remit of these firms is provision of auxiliary or proxy services to the U.S. government agencies. Where the work of one stops it is often difficult to determine where the job of the other begins.

This vast interrelated complex of private and public institutions co-imbricated with one another and engaged in security work, logistics work, and global carceral work has in fact been long in operation. I would argue that in fact what has changed across time has been the distribution of boundary-marking and the process of naming things as public or private, sovereign or not.

For example, we see the security firm G4S involved in policing borders in Europe, contract work in prisons in Israel, and other security work worldwide. Blackwater, which provided mercenary services, has undergone a number of transformations and name changes and has emerged as a “force protection” service, providing security services to government agencies. The previous owner and CEO of Blackwater now resides in Abu Dhabi and provides logistical security services to Chinese state and private investors in East Africa. Private firms worldwide, companies with recognizable names like DHL, provide logistical services to the U.S. military, and probably to other militaries too. U.S. prison services and various police departments have extensive relationships with their counterparts worldwide. Counterterrorism training is now a globalized phenomenon, and both military and police forces engage in collaborative counterterrorism and intelligence-sharing operations across borders.

These complexes, these institutions, often become normalized, institutionalized, and consolidated through the daily work of the corporations and bureaucracies involved. There may be some changes in policy at the top, but as we have seen, the institutions – especially those involved in security – continue to operate across the borders without much change across time. So, in a sense, I don’t see the post-Obama era as a particular moment of rupture. Not just yet anyway.

VP: There was a recent exchange in Viewpoint and other venues between Jasper Bernes and Alberto Toscano on logistics, the value-form, capitalist social relations, and the state. 1 It has been suggested that conflicts around these logistical chokepoints the container port, or the nodes in the Walmart distribution chain are either assaults on capitalist power or immediate challenges to value-in-motion. Given your work on the constitution and development of maritime infrastructure across the Persian Gulf, does either position sound convincing? Could these chokepoints, as central elements of the logistical architecture, act as possible levers in re-constituting international solidarity and coordination? Might disparate struggles within and against this infrastructure indicate ways in which we can articulate common strategic reference points at a global level?

LK: I loved the Toscano-Bernes exchange and found it incredibly productive to think with. Deborah Cowen’s incredible work in the Deadly Life of Logistics has also shown the extent to which logistics is as much about containment as it is about conveying goods, and that ways of breaking through these strategies of containment – through labor mobilization for example – are crucial for understanding forms of dissent and struggle emerging in the 21st century. That said, in the Gulf in particular it becomes clear that the possibility of a kind of mobilization that effectively challenges value-in-motion still depends on old-school structures for mobilizing workers, and in the absence of unions or more equitable labor laws, the basic ability of these workers to resist deportation after a protest is massively hampered. Global coordination can provide avenues for global solidarities (for example by Oakland dockworkers who refuse to unload Israeli boats, or by South African dockers who strike in support of struggling European dockers). At the same time, constant innovations in technologies of economic governance not only help the process of capital accumulation but also forestal forms of mobilization: ports that are far away from cities; both land-side and ship-board automation; flags of convenience; bifurcated work contracts aboard ships which see massive disparity between wages and time off between crew and officers; and so on. It is a mutually constitutive process: new forms of work bring new forms of protest bring new forms of containment bring new forms of mobilization bring new forms of work.


1 In sequence, see Alberto Toscano, “Logistics and Opposition,” Mute, August 9, 2011; Jasper Bernes, “Logistics, Counterlogistics, and the Communist Prospect,” Endnotes 3 (2013); Alberto Toscano, “Lineaments of the Logistical State,” Viewpoint Magazine 4 (2014); Joshua Clover and Jasper Bernes, “The Ends of the State,” Viewpoint Magazine 4 (2014). See also Deborah Cowen, “Disrupting Distribution: Subversion, the Social Factory, and the ‘State’ of Supply Chains,” Viewpoint Magazine 4 (2014).

Author of the article

is a professor of Middle East politics at SOAS. She is the author of Heroes and Martyrs of Palestine: The Politics of National Commemoration (Cambridge 2007) and Time in the Shadows: Confinement in Counterinsurgencies (Stanford 2013), the editor of Modern Arab Politics (Routledge 2008) and co-editor (with Jillian Schwedler) of Policing and Prisons in the Middle East: Formations of Coercion (Hurst/Oxford 2010).