The War at Home: The Domestic Costs of Bush's Militarism, by Frances Fox Piven

reviewed by
Geoffrey Kurtz



mperialism used to be a theory; today, it is a rhetoric. The word shadows us wherever we go: on placards at anti-war demonstrations, sprinkled through the pages of left publications, and sprouting up in one conversation after another. Few seem to have noticed that the word has left behind the precise meanings it had several decades ago; it seems to have become more a token of radicalism than a tool of critical analysis. The question needs to be asked: Is the concept of imperialism useful today? In taking account of what she calls “the domestic political dynamics that accompanied America’s unilateral turn toward preemptive war,” Frances Fox Piven addresses this question.

For J.A. Hobson and Vladimir Lenin—the authors of the classic works on imperialism—the term denoted a global pattern of intertwined economic and political domination by a few wealthy nations.[1] For Hobson, imperialism was a policy sought by certain “parasitical” sectors of capital. Because they needed new sites for exporting surplus, these capitalists wanted their governments to acquire and defend colonies. Lenin argued, to the contrary, that imperialism was not an optional policy but a structural necessity within the new finance-dominated form of capitalism. The debate between proponents of the two theories, correlated as it is with the conflict between reformist and revolutionary socialisms, has obscured what the theories have in common. However, their similarity may, today, be more important than their differences. Hobson and Lenin agreed that capital’s needs beyond the borders of its home countries drove colonialism, which in turn brought wars. International economics and international politics were joined by a tight bond—in Lenin’s view, inevitably, and in Hobson’s, for as long as pro-colonialist sectors of capital were able to shape policy to their own liking. For both theories, thus, the globalizing interests of capital drove colonialism and war-making.

Piven quietly sets aside the idea that capital’s push for colonial expansion is the central cause of international conflict today. She writes:

Explanations focusing on imperialism assume the main reason for war in Iraq was to shore up American domination abroad. I argue that another reason for war was to shore up America’s rulers at home….[W]ith the political lift gained by war-making, the Bush regime was also able to push rapidly ahead with its right wing domestic policy agenda [of] extracting wealth from the American people.

To say there is “another reason for war” is to make an amendment that collapses the old theories of imperialism. The story Piven tells is one in which—at least in the case of President George W. Bush’s war in Iraq—elites seek war because militarist policies facilitate capital’s power at home. In Piven’s account, the new American colonialism is simply the price of war, not the structural imperative behind it. If Piven is right, the link between war and the interests of capital is far more indirect and circumstantial than Hobson’s and Lenin’s theories of imperialism would have us expect. Capitalism and colonialism, rather than forming a seamless whole, happen to coincide for the United States at the moment, and there is no particular reason to expect they will do so regularly or for long at a time.

Piven notes that war “always has a home front.” Wars have consequences for those whose countries fight them, even when the wars are abroad, and war’s domestic constituents and opponents contend with each other about those consequences. In this book, she traces the domestic political consequences of the war in Iraq: those that we can see already, as well as others, vastly different, that might emerge in the near or nearish future.

The immediate consequence of the Iraq war for American politics, Piven argues, has been a swelling of nationalism and authority-worship centered on the person of President Bush, an “emotional fervor” that “smoothed the way for huge advances in the domestic neo-conservative agenda.” If we can presume that Bush and his advisors anticipated this upswing in their level of popular support—which seems reasonable—then we can see the Iraq war as a domestic “power strategy” on the part of the administration and its allies, a move that has aided the administration’s base of the haves and have-mores in their mission of “extracting wealth from the American people,” Piven writes.

Note that for Piven the relevant attribute of capital in this context is not its drive for foreign markets or resources, but its more fundamental need to secure its power in relation to its domestic working class, the better to generate profits. In any contemporary advanced capitalist country, this means rolling back the achievements of social democratic, liberal, and labor movements. The familiar neo-conservative agenda follows: cutting taxes on profits and on the income and assets of the wealthy, undercutting social welfare programs both fiscally and politically, providing tax-funded giveaways to corporations, and deregulating industries. The bulk of Piven’s book is a careful—even exhausting—recounting of the Bush administration’s pursuit of this agenda.

Piven recounts Bush’s massive tax cuts, along with deregulatory and corporate-welfare policies targeting not only the energy industry—Bush’s closest corporate ally—but also the mass media, the pharmaceutical industry, gun makers, and sugar growers. She notes the administration’s feeble response to the unprecedented corporate scandals of the past four years, as well as the increased trend toward the capital-friendly abuse of science. The heart of her story, however, is the administration’s social policy assault on the working class and the poor. Contemporary business elites in the US, she notes, have three primary policy goals: reducing or even reversing redistribution of wealth, opening up new areas for profiteering (such as social service provision), and weakening the buffers that protect workers from labor market forces. This is the context in which Piven places the Bush administration’s attacks on labor rights and social welfare programs. The damage Bush has done, or is poised to do, is stunning: Medicaid funding limitations, for-profit privatization of social services, drastic cuts to low-income housing subsidies, barriers to Earned Income Tax Credit applications, new restrictions on eligibility for public assistance, rollbacks of workplace safety and organizing rights, a proposed “guest worker” program that resembles indentured servitude without the payoff of citizenship at the end, and continuation of the longstanding right-wing strategy of stigmatizing welfare recipients by ensuring that only the most socially marginal groups are eligible for certain high-profile programs. Bush has even skimped on funding for his signature social policy initiative: testing-centered education reform. Lurking in the wings is an even more radical assault on what Piven, elsewhere, has called the American social compact, as Bush’s advisors prepare strategies for privatizing Medicare and Social Security—the programs that represent the most important gestures the American government has ever made toward a universalistic welfare state.

At times, reading the book’s middle chapters feels like plowing through a box of index note cards: fact after fact after fact, at first infuriating, then dizzying, then numbing. When you read these chapters (which you should), be careful. Distracted readers might fail to notice that through these patient details, Piven has captured something crucial for anyone who seeks to understand this administration’s policy success. The audaciousness of the Bush regime’s program lies not only in its extent, but also in its stealth. There have been no loud proclamations of a new policy paradigm, no history-making neo-conservative broadcasts equivalent to Franklin Roosevelt’s call for a “second Bill of Rights” or Lyndon Johnson’s declaration of an “unconditional war on poverty.” Instead, Piven observes, the Bush administration has announced policy shifts at times unlikely to get press attention, said one thing and done another, chipped steadily at the welfare state rather than blasting it suddenly.

The Bush regime’s quiet persistence in demolishing social welfare programs—as well as what Piven calls the “crusading harshness” that seems to be its animating spirit—is perhaps best illustrated by an example that, Piven comments, represents the administration at its most “gratuitously mean-spirited”:

           In his 2003 State of Union message, the president boasted of a new $450 million program for mentoring the children of prisoners. His budget proposals shortly afterwards allocated $150 million, and also eliminated a number of other programs that reached those same children, with the result that there was an overall reduction of $39 million. And…the 2004 budget proposed to reduce other after-school services for children by $400 million.

Who are these guys?

The Bush regime’s power rests on the continued unity of the various Republican constituencies: “evangelists, antitax groups, pro-business interests, libertarians, antilabor groups, and gun enthusiasts” along with the “military-industrial establishment.” The bond that unites Pentagon and military-industry elites, corporate interests, and the grassroots footsoldiers of the right, Piven proposes, is the ideological clarity delivered by neo-conservative thinkers. The neo-conservative intellectuals, from their posts in the think tanks and publications allied with the Republican Party—and, now, from within the Bush administration—have promulgated a ready-made justification for the militarist foreign policy that, in turn, provides the political cover for the right’s domestic agenda and electoral success. Pentagon pragmatists and bottom-line capitalists might not share the neo-cons’ confidence in preemptive attacks or their enthusiasm for the military introduction of liberal democracy to the Arab world, but this does not matter. Policies need public rationales, and if the case for war in Iraq prepared by the likes of Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz had not existed, someone would have had to invent it.

Neo-conservative ideology has not only helped to hold together the Republican base, Piven writes. It has also “recast the president and his party as the anointed saviors of America at war.” In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, Bush’s combination of religious rhetoric, military bravado, and appeals to Americans’ latent hunger for authority has proven powerful. This mix of themes has taken President Bush from being a weak and flailing executive to being re-elected with more votes than any other candidate for President has ever received.

The catch, for President Bush and his constituents, is that their use of the Iraq war to underpin a pro-capital policy offensive may generate its own collapse. Bush’s simultaneous pursuit of war and new benefits for elites, Piven writes, “violates the lessons of history.”  Wars, she notes, tend to become less popular with the fading of the nationalistic fervor they spark at first, and political elites find they must compensate for this somehow. Thus, working-class and left movements have often won major political and economic concessions from elites during or immediately following wars. The voting franchise was expanded in Britain towards the end of World War I and in the US, for 18-20 year olds, during the Vietnam War. World War II saw 90 percent tax rates on the rich in the US and, after the war, the construction of Britain’s modern welfare state and the introduction of generous veterans’ benefits in the US. Bush’s attacks on the general welfare and on civil liberties contradict this pattern. As US support for the war declines, Piven suggests, Bush may yet be forced to make policy concessions or even to face domestic regime change. Nationalism may be war’s immediate consequence, but discontent follows soon after, and discontent has political consequences of its own.

Statisticians may question whether Piven’s examples indicate a significant correlation between war and rights-expansions, but this would be missing her point. Piven’s argument is not that wars automatically lead to greater political and economic rights for working people, but that wars create political openings for those who would push for such rights. Piven’s analysis of the 2004 presidential election campaign as a tug-of-war between Americans’ desire for greater economic equality and their enthusiasm for military nationalism rings true. That war beat economics on November 2, however, does not mean it will continue to do so. While stronger Republican control of Congress and a perpetually complacent mass media make it no more likely than before that the administration’s actions will be subject to intense formal scrutiny, it nevertheless becomes increasingly hard for anyone to ignore the failure of Bush’s foreign policy. Iraq becomes bloodier by the day, and an Iran-like constitutional theocracy now is among the best foreseeable scenarios there. Still, Bush’s “war president” glow has not yet dimmed enough to bring about his defeat. While cultural conservatism played a significant role in the 2004 election, evidence is mounting that Bush’s image as a strong commander in chief mattered more.[2] Many voters chose Bush because they still saw the Iraq war as the decision of a bold leader, and as part of a larger “war on terrorism” crucial to American security. Prospects for regime change at home—or at least for squeezing some concessions from the Bush administration—seem to rest on whether and when economic discontent can overcome wartime nationalistic support for the President.

The questions that emerge from Piven’s argument, thus, begin with: Who will raise demands for economic equality? Piven underlines the notion that left movements “cannot flourish without Democrats in power,” since movements’ capacity for shaking up the status quo is muted when the governing party feels free to ignore them. But this is an argument about the conditions under which left movements can win major victories—not about the conditions under which they can orient themselves and begin to grow. Piven implies that left movements in the US must continue to press their economic demands and must continue to link those demands to electoral politics, aiming at an end to the current Republican regime. As she aptly notes, there are “no promises for our political future.” Still, Piven makes an important contribution to post-election left strategies by pointing out the gap between Bush’s wartime policies and the historical precedents, and by identifying this gap as the administration’s greatest area of vulnerability.

Piven’s other contribution in this book is to question how closely international politics and capital’s global interests are intertwined. By making a strong argument for the central importance of domestic politics in shaping the Iraq war, she refutes the idea that either of the classic theories of imperialism might be sufficient to explain that war—and leaves open the possibility that they may not be useful at all. If the old theories of imperialism no longer have purchase in explaining war, perhaps we should dispense with both the theory and rhetoric of anti-imperialism. Thinking past old theories of imperialism would force people on the left to re-examine when and why we are anti-war, as well as what we want to do about wars we oppose. Since Hobson’s and Lenin’s theories of imperialism saw a link between globalized capitalism and war, they implied an anti-war politics that had socialism at its heart and a socialist politics that was necessarily anti-war. In contrast, Piven’s alternative to anti-imperialist theory suggests a connection between anti-war movements and the politics of economic equality as contingent as that between war and capitalist interests, one that has to do with the relationships of both to domestic social policy, not with direct causal ties between international economic and political dynamics. A left that takes Piven’s arguments to heart will recognize that opposing wars like that in Iraq entails fighting “the war at home.”

An American left that emphasizes domestic needs over foreign entanglements, of course, risks turning toward isolationism. To move in that direction would be a betrayal of humanist values and is, I am sure, far from what Piven herself has in mind. If Piven’s argument is right, however, the internationalism contemporary anti-war and anti-colonialist movements need can not be predicated on anti-imperialism. When ideas about structural imperatives have been discredited, what do we have left but raw principles? As much as we need a domestic politics that seeks to advance what Karl Marx called “the political economy of the working class,” perhaps we need a left foreign policy that owes less to Hobson and Lenin—and Marx—and more to Immanuel Kant and Thomas Paine.


[1] J.A. Hobson, Imperialism, A Study (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1967) ;Vladimir Lenin, “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism,” in The Lenin Anthology, edited by Robert C. Tucker (New York: W.W. Norton, 1975).

[2] See, for example: Steve Rosenthal, “So We Lost Ohio. The Question is, Why?” The Washington Post (December 5, 2004), p. B3.


Geoffrey Kurtz is a frequent contributor to Logos and is a doctoral student in Political Science at Rutgers.