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Empire of Capital [Hardcover]

Ellen Meiksins Wood
4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

June 17 2003
In this era of globalization, we hear a great deal about a new imperialism and its chief enforcer, the United States. Today, with the US promising an endless war against terrorism and promoting a policy of preemptive defense, this notion seems more plausible than ever.

But what does imperialism mean in the absence of colonial conquest and direct imperial rule? In this lucid and lively book Ellen Meiksins Wood explores the new imperialism against the contrasting background of older forms, from ancient Rome, through medieval Europe, the Arab Muslim world, the Spanish conquests, and the Dutch commercial empire. Tracing the birth of a capitalist imperialism back to the English domination of Ireland, Wood follows its development through the British Empire in America and India.

The book brings into sharp relief the nature of today’s new capitalist empire, in which the political reach of imperial power cannot match its economic hegemony, and the global economy is administered not by a global state but by a system of multiple local states, policed by the most disproportionately powerful military force the world has ever known and enforced according to a new military doctrine of war without end, in purpose or time.

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Readers who make it past the musty jargon of academic Marxism that announces itself in the introduction will proceed to a thought-provoking genealogy of empires throughout history. Wood, a professor at York University in Toronto and an orthodox economic determinist, argues that the source of an empire's wealth drives its military, administrative and ideological practices. She distinguishes between the Roman "empire of property," a land-based system that stimulated unending territorial conquest; the Arab, Venetian and Dutch "empires of commerce," dedicated to the protection of trade routes and market dominance; and the British "empire of capital," marked by the imposition of market imperatives on conquered territories. The book culminates with a study of what Wood describes as the "new imperialism we call globalization." Challenging those critics of globalization who emphasize the role of corporations and international institutions like the World Bank, Wood says that the capitalist system is more than ever reliant on nation-states to maintain order, with the United States acting as the great imperial enforcer. Wood believes that the inevitable end of a system of universal capitalism is a system of universal war, which is how she sees the new doctrine put forth by the Bush administration in the name of fighting terrorism. Wood's dense analysis would have benefited from more historical evidence and engagement with alternative theories. The connections she draws between economic and imperial systems are intriguing but incomplete explanations of geopolitical dynamics. A worthwhile study for leftist academics, Wood's book is not written to appeal to a broader audience.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Review

“The most compelling account yet of imperialism in its current phase—how it came into being, how it operates, how it differs from earlier forms.”—Robert Brenner

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Most helpful customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Empire of Capital April 22 2004
Format:Hardcover
Marketed as a critique of American imperialism, this book offers fragments. Part comparative history of empires, part treatise on political economy, part analysis of globalization, and part polemic against the Bush administration's war on terrorism, the parts do not add up to a coherent whole. Using odd categories, Wood (York Univ., Canada) compares "empires of property" and "empires of commerce" with the British colonial empire, originating in Ireland. She asserts throughout the book that the coercive power of state always undergirds economic relations, a familiar theme to students of hegemony. Toward the end, she turns abruptly to the issue of globalization, arguing that antiglobalists are not radical enough: they oppose "capital's global reach rather than ... the capitalist system itself." The final chapter asserts that the Bush doctrine attempts to protect global capitalist interests. The war against Afghanistan "was undertaken with an eye to the huge oil and gas reserves of Central Asia." The war against Iraq, impending at the time of publication, was to control oil. Like many in the Marxist tradition, Wood reduces political or security concerns to economic ones. The analysis is unconvincing and adds little to previous knowledge.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Timely Response March 15 2004
Format:Hardcover
To quote from p. 5 of the book:
" The argument here is not that of capital in conditions of 'globalization' has escaped the control of the state and made the territorial state increasingly irrelevant. On the contrary, my argument is that the state is more essential than ever to capital, even, or especially, in its global form. The political form of globalization is not a global state but a system of multiple states, and the new imperialism takes its specific shape from the complex and contradictory relationship between capital's expansive economic power and the more limited reach of the extra-economic force that sustains it."
In a nutshell, this is the book's thesis, and it addresses the timely question of what form globalization will ultimately take. Against the de-centered, monolithically global state of the sort detailed in Hardt & Negri's fashionable work *Empire*, Wood argues that the only possible outcome is a multi-state system, presumably like the one already in place. For that reason alone her book is worth the read, given the wide popularity of H&N's thesis. Of the two perspectives, Wood's is certainly on firmer empirical ground. As currently experienced, globalization is very much a product of a multi-state system, led by American capital and the state's capacity to maintain financial and military hegemony. (In fact, much of current middle-east policy can be understood from that strategic standpoint.) On the other hand, H & N's fluid leviathan appears more visionary than contemporary, more theoretical than factual, and more the result of shrewd extrapolation and darkly compelling fantasy than of historical necessity.
Nonetheless, Wood at times goes too far in her insistance on a multi-state alternative.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Amazing book July 22 2003
By A Customer
Format:Hardcover
This is a wonderful book that deserves to be read widely. It works its way through the history of empires and seeks to establish what is distinctive about the present 'Empire of Capital'. For Wood, the current form of imperialism is not simply a new US imperialism, but she manages in a glorious way to show the contradictions that result from the universalization of capitalism (which creates a new type of world market imperialism) on the one hand, and the pursuit of global domination by the US on the other. This book, grounded in real historical understanding, offers so much more if you want to understand the nature of the present than the currently popular discussions of empire and imperialism by ideologues like Max Boot, Niall Ferguson and Robert Kagan.
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Format:Hardcover
Wood is one of a rare breed--a jargon-free Marxist academic. In this short, thoughtful book, she discusses the political and economic basis of "empire" through history. The point is, of course, to better understand the nature of 21st century American imperialism. She achieves that goal. One word of caution--an understanding of Marxism, if not an acceptance of it, is probably a necessary starting point.
Was this review helpful to you?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.2 out of 5 stars  4 reviews
23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Amazing book July 22 2003
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This is a wonderful book that deserves to be read widely. It works its way through the history of empires and seeks to establish what is distinctive about the present 'Empire of Capital'. For Wood, the current form of imperialism is not simply a new US imperialism, but she manages in a glorious way to show the contradictions that result from the universalization of capitalism (which creates a new type of world market imperialism) on the one hand, and the pursuit of global domination by the US on the other. This book, grounded in real historical understanding, offers so much more if you want to understand the nature of the present than the currently popular discussions of empire and imperialism by ideologues like Max Boot, Niall Ferguson and Robert Kagan.
19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Timely Response March 15 2004
By Douglas Doepke - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
To quote from p. 5 of the book:
" The argument here is not that of capital in conditions of `globalization' has escaped the control of the state and made the territorial state increasingly irrelevant. On the contrary, my argument is that the state is more essential than ever to capital, even, or especially, in its global form. The political form of globalization is not a global state but a system of multiple states, and the new imperialism takes its specific shape from the complex and contradictory relationship between capital's expansive economic power and the more limited reach of the extra-economic force that sustains it."

In a nutshell, this is the book's thesis, and it addresses the timely question of what form globalization will ultimately take. Against the de-centered, monolithically global state of the sort detailed in Hardt & Negri's fashionable work *Empire*, Wood argues that the only possible outcome is a multi-state system, presumably like the one already in place. For that reason alone her book is worth the read, given the wide popularity of H&N's thesis. Of the two perspectives, Wood's is certainly on firmer empirical ground. As currently experienced, globalization is very much a product of a multi-state system, led by American capital and the state's capacity to maintain financial and military hegemony. (In fact, much of current middle-east policy can be understood from that strategic standpoint.) On the other hand, H & N's fluid leviathan appears more visionary than contemporary, more theoretical than factual, and more the result of shrewd extrapolation and darkly compelling fantasy than of historical necessity.

Nonetheless, Wood at times goes too far in her insistance on a multi-state alternative. "Yet global capitalism without a system of multiple territorial statesis all but inconceivable." (p.24). Now whatever the shortcomings of Hardt & Negri's book, it appears that despite Wood's assertion, this is precisely what H & N succeed in conceptualizing. Their deterritorialized empire is predicated precisely on the rise of a complex, etherialized framework of international capitalist controls, supra-national in scope and monolithic in nature. In short, it is the emergence of a single, invisible empire of capital, beyond the confines of nation-state, and operating on post-modern cultural and political trends. It's possible to argue the likelihood of this scenario or, given the contradictions of capital, how long it could last, but as an alternative to a multi-state system, it is scarcely inconceivable.

Overall, Wood's slender volume remains deceptively accessible, with none of the heavy weather of Hardt & Negri, and, despite the thematic association, is quite useful apart from the latter. Her brief history of imperialism is informative, with a revealing emphasis on Locke, and I especially like her observations on the role of corporations in the modern world of capital; anti-corporate activists should take heed. And though I think she fails in showing the necessity of multi-state globalization, she does succeed in putting the focus of empire back where it belongs -- on the global role of state-sponsored capital, particularly that of American capital. For that alone, she's owed a debt of thanks.
19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Useful, interesting Marxist history of imperialism July 2 2003
By Michael Engel - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Wood is one of a rare breed--a jargon-free Marxist academic. In this short, thoughtful book, she discusses the political and economic basis of "empire" through history. The point is, of course, to better understand the nature of 21st century American imperialism. She achieves that goal. One word of caution--an understanding of Marxism, if not an acceptance of it, is probably a necessary starting point.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The Bush Doctrine in Capitalist Context April 6 2007
By not me - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
"Empire of Capital" is a thoughtful but very slender book on a huge topic -- the history and typology of imperialisms. Written from a Marxist perspective, most of the book deals with relatively esoteric subjects such as the economic origins of Roman imperialism or the efforts by pre-capitalist Holland to monopolize international trade. There's even a sub-chapter on Hugo Grotius! Many readers will skim over these chapters to focus on the last chapter, which deals with the Bush Administration and modern American foreign policy.

Wood's thesis is that American foreign policy protects the interests of global capital in a world of multiple states, each of which has to supply a legal and political framework in which capital can flourish. Our need to dominate and influence the domestic institutions of sovereign states around the globe -- including our allies in Europe and Japan -- explains the presposterous size of the U.S. military and our propensity to leap into foreign entanglements that have no clear connection to U.S. interests. Washington uses "military theater" as a means to show the world who's boss and to deter other countries from building up enough military power to challenge U.S. hegemony.

Like many Marxists, Wood is on to something. The U.S. government does want to create a world of democratic capitalist states. It opens up foreign markets, funds opposition parties in "transitional" countries, and pursues "regime change" (also known as "transformational diplomacy") in countries such as Venezuela or Zimbabwe whose domestic politics and economic policies displease us. For more than 50 years, Washington has believed that the U.S. national interest depends on the domestic behavior of foreign states, not just their international behavior. The reasons why we reject traditional norms of sovereignty and non-interference are complex, but obviously include the belief that unimpeded flows of capital are good for U.S. corporations and the capitalist global economy.

But -- again like many Marxists -- Wood neglects important non-economic factors that also drive American policy. She writes as if domestic politics, traditional geopolitics, democratic values, concern about terrorism, and sheer hubris do not shape policy in important ways. She never analyzes the motivations of real policymakers, or acknowledges how fun and satisfying it is to be a 30-something Republican working on the NSC staff and playing kingmaker in foreign countries. Bizarrely, she doesn't even acknowledge that the invasion of Afghanistan was a response to 9/11 -- she proposes instead that it was nothing more than a ruse to insert U.S. forces into oil- and natural gas-rich Central Asia. If she has evidence for this, she never presents it. In fact, the U.S. closed its bases in Uzbekistan in 2005 rather than abandon criticism of that country's human rights record -- thus exploding Wood's theory about the origins of the war. Facts are awkward things.

Seeing Wood misconstrue something as simple and well-known as Afghanistan makes it hard to take on faith her sweeping generalizations about more distant phenomena such as Roman imperialism. As a political scientist, she may be more at home weaving grand theories than weighing historial evidence. At the end of the day, "Empire of Capital" is too sketchy and abstract to be fully persuasive. Lacking a detailed analysis of the global economy or the dynamics of U.S. policy, the book ends up only suggesting, not validating, a framework for interpreting imperialism in the 21st century. Other Marxists must now fill in the details and show that the framework is fruitful.

Readers interested in pursuing these themes should read Andrew Bacevich's superb "American Empire," which has a far surer grasp of American diplomatic history.
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