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 frac­tion, a 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 dock-work­ers 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).