How modern imperialism turned nature and care into the new gold

February 20, 2024
woman's face, child's face
Housework, child rearing, schooling and a host of other activities help produce new generations of workers. Image: Green Left. Inset: Nancy Fraser. Photo:

Nancy Fraser is the author of, among other works, Cannibal Capitalism: How Our System Is Devouring Democracy, Care, and the Planet — and What We Can Do About It. Fraser spoke with Green Left’s Federico Fuentes about the need to incorporate natural wealth and care work within our understanding of modern imperialism. This is the first of a two-part series.

* * *

Over the past century, the term imperialism has been used to define different situations and, at times, been replaced by concepts such as globalisation and hegemony. Does the concept of imperialism remain valid and, if so, how do you define it?

The term imperialism remains essential and I oppose replacing it with the other concepts.

Globalisation, for example, is a buzzword. If by globalisation we simply mean the end of national economies and industrial policies, and the rise of neoliberalisation and elite capitalist powers shifting to a so-called free trade agenda, then that is fine. But imperialism refers to something else.

Hegemony is an important concept in geopolitics. Generally speaking, it refers to the role an imperialist power (or bloc of powers) plays in organising the global space to facilitate imperialist extraction. But this refers to the political organisation of the global space. Again, this is different from imperialism — the concepts of hegemony and imperialism go together, but they are not the same.

So, I am strongly in favour of retaining the term imperialism, even though I think we have to understand it better. Imperialism, in strictly economic terms, is about the transfer or extraction of value by certain powers from certain regions that are treated as hinterlands.

But we can no longer just talk about extraction of economic value in the form of mineral wealth or surplus value. We also have to talk about extraction of ecological wealth and capacities for care from the periphery to capitalist core countries.

Discussions on the left regarding imperialism often refer to Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin’s book on the subject. How much of his book remains relevant today and what elements, if any, have been superseded by subsequent developments?

Lenin’s analysis of imperialism was an extremely powerful intervention at the time. But the concept of imperialism has been enriched since then. I also see some issues with his original concept.

Lenin specifically associated imperialism with financialisation. We are certainly living in a time of tremendous financialisation. But I would not say financialisation per se defines imperialism.

Imperialism is about the transfers of both capitalised forms of wealth and what we could define as not yet fully capitalised forms of value, such as nature and care.

Lenin also believed imperialism represented the last stage of capitalism. “Last stage” evokes Rosa Luxemburg’s idea that, at some point, capitalism will encompass everything and there will no longer be anything outside it. At that point, capitalism will no longer be able to expand and will cease to exist.

Yet imperialism today involves both the incorporation of new forms of societal value into capitalist circuits of reproduction as well as expulsions. It includes for example, the expulsion of billions of people from the official economy into informal grey zones, from which capital syphons wealth.

Another difference is that the geography of value transfers no longer fits neatly onto the old First World/Third World map, with the Second World somewhere else. New geographical and political patterns, with new dimensions of wealth transfers, have emerged.

For example, we have the deindustrialisation of the old core through the movement of manufacturing to so-called BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) countries.

We have old colonial masters, such as Portugal, that have become dependent member states of the European Union, having to do whatever the Troika (International Monetary Fund, European Commission, and European Central Bank) tells them.

And for the first time, significant populations in the Global North find themselves in a situation similar to those in the old periphery.

There is a new form of imperialism that no longer has a clean geography of colonialists over here and colonised over there — it is more complicated. Yet, despite these changes, imperialism remains the best term to refer to all this.

You have referred to transfers of ecological wealth and capacities of care. Could you explain how these transfers occur?

Let me start with the care economy, or what feminists called social reproductive labour.

Social reproductive labour refers to the specific subset of activities that sustain daily replenishment and generational replacement of human beings who are the bearers of labour power.

These activities have historically been associated with women (although men have always performed some activities). And, historically, much of this activity (though not all of it) has occurred outside the circuits of the formal economy of capitalist societies.

In fact, capitalism is unique in sharply separating waged work from social reproductive labour. Yet the latter is necessary for the existence of waged work, the accumulation of surplus value and the functioning of capitalism.

Wage labour could not exist in the absence of housework, child rearing, schooling, affective care and a host of other activities that help produce new generations of workers and replenish existing ones.

Historically, capital took for granted that there would always be a steady supply of labour power. But the conditions of early industrialisation were so destabilising that family conditions became basically impossible in many big industrialising cities of the capitalist core. That made the issue of social reproduction a political one.

Later, wealthy countries with access to sufficient tax revenues created welfare states that assumed some public responsibility for social reproduction. But with neoliberalisation came disinvestment in social reproduction.

Given women’s broadscale entry into paid work, the question became who was going to take care of the household, the children, the aged, the neighbourhood — all that so-called women’s work.

One strategy to fill the “care deficit” in wealthy countries was importing cheap care work from poor countries. Freeing up women’s wage labour in rich countries required commodifying social reproductive work.

The result was a flood of migrant women workers to perform this paid care work. Governments in poor countries, desperate for hard currency, actively promoted this emigration for the sake of remittances.

But this meant migrants had to transfer their own social reproductive work onto other, still poorer caregivers, who in turn had to do the same, and on and on. What we got was a bumping down of the care deficit from richer to poorer families, from the Global North to the Global South.

This has become so widespread that it has been theorised as a new dimension of imperialism — what feminists call “global care chains”, which is a play on the more familiar term global commodity chains.

It is also why Arlie Russell Hochschild refers to love having become the new gold — instead of exporting mineral wealth, countries are now exporting this newly monetised commodity.

Much of the same applies to natural wealth. Much like social reproductive work, capital has always treated nature as something that can be freely or cheaply appropriated for capital accumulation.

Whether it is silver, cotton, tobacco, sugar or cocoa, transfers of natural wealth were crucial to the rise of capitalism, even during the early stages of so-called mercantile or slave capitalism.

Later, industrialisation in Europe, North America and Japan depended upon extractivism in the periphery: Manchester’s factories hummed due to the massive import of natural wealth from the American south and colonised regions.

The export of natural wealth has existed for a long time. But it has taken on a new dimension today due to the climate crisis.It is more apparent than ever that the issue is not just exporting natural wealth to the capitalist core but also exporting waste and the fallout of climate change to the periphery.

We can no longer think of imperialism as taking good stuff from over there and using it here; we also have to think of dumping the bad stuff resulting from the seemingly good stuff over there.

Of course, the idea that the fallout of climate breakdown can forever be exported elsewhere is an illusion, because the climate system is global. But it is communities over there who are currently bearing a hugely disproportionate share of the global environmental load.

That is why ecological imperialism is such an important and useful category, as are theories of ecological load displacement and unequal ecological exchange.

None of this obviates the older focus on economic value extraction, but it shows that too much Marxian analysis of imperialism unwittingly took on board the capitalist understanding of wealth and missed these other dimensions.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.