BRICS, sub-imperialism and unequal ecological exchange

January 9, 2024
large area of forest logged and bulldozed
Taking account of ecologically exploitative global value chains is vital, given the overlapping environmental crises affecting us all. Photo: Green Left

Patrick Bond is a Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the University of Johannesburg, as well as a political economist and author of BRICS: An Anti-Capitalist Critique. In part 2 of this interview with Green Left’s Federico Fuentes, he discusses some of the limitations in Vladimir Lenin’s views on imperialism and the need to incorporate the concept of "unequal ecological exchange" into any analysis of this defining feature of modern capitalism.

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How much of Lenin’s book on imperialism remains relevant today and what elements, if any, have been superseded by subsequent developments?

Lenin’s core description involves five features of an integrated world capitalist system in that particular conjuncture, which showed sufficient maturity to work in tandem: concentration of capital and production; finance capital fusing industrial, landed and mercantile capital under the domination of banks; export of capital; monopolies and cartels that operated across borders; and the division of the world among the biggest capitalist powers.

In various ways, all these tendencies are evident today. But at least two flaws stand out.

First, bear in mind the 1929 rebuttal by the first Frankfurt School economist, Henryk Grossman, to an idea of Lenin and, before him, Rudolf Hilferding: the all-encompassing “finance capital”.

The term finance capital reflected the sector’s power — of which Lenin and Hilferding provided many examples — but not its vulnerabilities and contradictions, as Grossman presciently argued just before the 1929‒31 world financial meltdown in his book, The Law of Accumulation and Breakdown of the Capitalist System: A study in Marxian crisis theory.

Second, Lenin’s framing assumed that internecine battles between corporates — backed by states representing their interests — would define the imperialist stage of capitalism, in contrast to an earlier understanding elaborated by Rosa Luxemburg in 1913.

For her, due to the “ceaseless flow of capital from one branch of production to another, and finally in the periodic and cyclical swings of reproduction between overproduction and crisis ... the accumulation of capital is a kind of metabolism between capitalist economy and those pre-capitalist methods of production without which it cannot go on and which, in this light, it corrodes and assimilates.”

The stress in Luxemburg’s analysis is on how imperialism follows from capitalist power, confronting society, nature and early states: “non-capitalist relations provide a fertile soil for capitalism; more strictly: capital feeds on the ruins of such relations, and although this non-capitalist milieu is indispensable for accumulation, the latter proceeds at the cost of this medium nevertheless, by eating it up.”

Lenin considered such arguments to be “rubbish” and wrote off Luxemburg’s book as a “shocking muddle”. But the subsequent century proved that even during a period of relatively non-competitive Western imperialism dominated by a sole military superpower, more extreme forms of accumulation by dispossession — as David Harvey has renamed such capitalist/non-capitalist thievery — are often the recourse capitalism takes when needing to temporarily displace its contradictions.

Casualised labour, welfare-state austerity, privatisation and the wider reach of the extractive industries into what Marx called the “free gifts of nature” are obvious manifestations.

Two other responses to crisis, crucial ever since the first circuits of capital emerged, are what Harvey termed the “spatial fix” — the geographical shift of capital to more profitable sites — and the “temporal fix” — in which the ability to displace capital over time relies on ever more sophisticated financial systems, so as to pay later but consume now, to mop up the glutted markets.

The result is a “new imperialism”, more dependent than ever upon shifting, stalling and stealing in order to displace capital that over-accumulates in exposed economic spaces and sectors, rather than face full-fledged devalorisation of the 1930’s Great Depression type.

That means it is vital to comprehend which reforms, either proposed or underway, will allow that displacement of overaccumulated capital to continue, and hence facilitate imperialism’s revitalisation, and which stand in the way.

Most of the discussion on imperialism today focuses on unequal exchange as a means of transferring surplus value from exploited to imperialist countries. In your writings you raise the concept of “unequal ecological exchange”. Could you explain what you mean by this?

This is vital, given the extent to which exploitative global value chains and overlapping ecological crises threaten us all.

Samir Amin described too many accounts of imperialism that ignore depletion of non-renewable resources in a scathing manner in his 2010 book, Law of Worldwide Value: “capitalist accumulation is founded on the destruction of the bases of all wealth: human beings and their natural environment. It took a wait lasting a century and a half until our environmentalists rediscovered that reality, now become blindingly clear. It is true that historical Marxisms had largely passed an eraser over the analyses advanced by Marx on this subject and taken the point of view of the bourgeoisie — equated to an atemporal ‘rational’ point of view — in regard to the exploitation of natural resources.”

Even someone I admire for his rigorous critique of profit movements, Michael Roberts, succumbs to the ecological eraser when he argues — in his recent Green Left interview — that there is “sustained transfer of surplus value in the form of profit, rent and interest from the periphery” but without fully addressing the transfer of depleted natural wealth and the impact of pollution, especially carbon dioxide emissions.

So, while he mentions “the extraction of natural resources” as one of the transfers from South to North, his value chain analysis neglects the role of sub-imperial extractive industries and fossil fuels.

In turn, because Roberts neglects the way depleted wealth is facilitated by BRICS extractivism, the calculations he makes about the shifting of Southern “surpluses” to the North are no better than a bourgeois economist’s GDP calculation, in which a positive income account in an economy reliant on commodity extraction would ideally be corrected for depleted non-renewable resources, local pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and unpaid social reproduction of labour.

By not taking this into account, Roberts dismisses our critique. But there is actually quite strong empirical evidence for three layers of return on investments in imperial, sub-imperial and peripheral economies, even without incorporating natural resources. If Roberts does not find empirical evidence for transfers from resource-rich poor countries to sub-imperial middle-men extractors and manufacturers in the global value chain, it is partly because he “passed the eraser” over all these kinds of unequal ecological exchanges.

That allows him to call the resulting analysis of sub-imperial contributions to uneven and combined development “weak”, and to term China “not a capitalist economy” — even though African economies are objectively shrinking in size due to minerals and fossil fuel depletion led by Chinese mining and oil companies.

Given all this, what could 21st century anti-imperialist internationalism look like?

The 1987 banning of ozone-destroying CFCs and the 2002 medicines fund could be models for internationalism. Both, firstly, fused activist and state capacities, and, secondly, addressed at the global scale what were and are indeed global crises.

The Montreal Protocol saved us from a growing hole in the ozone layer. That also saved the planet from what NASA suggests would have been a potential 0.5⁰C of additional warming by 2100.

Such a ban on the main sources of carbon dioxide and methane, without emissions-trading loopholes, is what the UN should have been aiming for in Dubai, but did not due to the adverse balance of forces.

The second example, the advent of a UN Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, followed a waiver on Intellectual Property for generic anti-retroviral medicines within the WTO in 2001.

At the time, more than 40 million people were living with HIV. That fund’s management, in a self-congratulatory yet justified manner, describes on its website what was “an act of extraordinary global solidarity and leadership … to fight what were then the deadliest infectious diseases confronting humanity”, resulting in US$60 billion donated by rich countries, “saving 59 million lives and reducing the combined death rate from the three diseases by more than half”.

Those are two internationalist approaches to global public goods, within and against the logic of multilateral institutions, which any ecosocialist must consider victories.

Other specific battles have inspiring lessons — such as South Africa’s anti-Apartheid struggle, and projects such as the Chiapas Zapatistas autonomous municipalities, Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement (MST) farm occupations or Rojava grassroots, feminist, democratic socialists — have provided prefigurative sites.

And we have seen countless other acts of anti-imperialist internationalism, such as recent widespread Palestine solidarity protests, while globally-coordinated climate activism has sometimes shown great promise.

The two primary movements of late 2023 — climate and Palestine solidarity— must win some far more profound victories in the coming months, as a step towards reconstructing our forces against both imperialism and also now sub-imperialism.

[Read the full interview at]

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