The rise of the modern imperial system

November 1, 2023
Detail from a map of the British Empire by Walter Crane (1886). Source: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Marxist economist Claudio Katz is the author of various books on contemporary capitalism and imperialism. Here he speaks to Green Left’s Federico Fuentes about the realities of imperialism today. This is the first in a two-part series.

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Is the concept of imperialism still relevant today? And, if so, how do you define imperialism?

We need to acknowledge that imperialism plays a decisive role in the functioning of capitalism and yet, at the same time, is not the same thing as capitalism. Imperialism cannot be equated with capitalism: the latter is the prevailing mode of production while the former is an instrument that ensures the survival of that system.

Capitalism has always featured colonial or imperial modalities, and used varying forms of oppression to exert its dominance. Modern imperialism is part of this continuum.

It is not a stage in capitalism, like 19th century liberalism or postwar state interventionism. Nor is it a form of state management, like Keynesianism or neoliberalism. These distinctions are important in order to contextualise what we are trying to define.

Imperialism ensures that capitalism works in three ways: In the economic sphere, it is a mechanism by which capitalists in core countries expropriate resources from periphery countries. In the geopolitical sphere, it is a mechanism for settling rivalries between competing powers over market dominance. And in the political sphere, it is a mechanism that safeguards the oppressors’ interests.

To understand imperialism, we need to consider all three aspects. This means, first and foremost, distancing ourselves from the liberal approach that divorces the question of imperialist power from its capitalist roots.

But we must also take distance from our own traditional Marxist approach, which tends to look at imperialism in purely economic terms while overlooking political and geopolitical dimensions.

You have just published The Imperial System in Crisis. What do you mean by imperial system?

I use this concept to specify the distinctiveness of modern imperialism.

The imperial system differs, first and foremost, from the traditional indistinct concept of an empire. Many scholars have used the term to describe different powers throughout history that acted in similar ways to control subjugated countries.

Such a generic definition is inadequate if we want to reach meaningful conclusions. It disregards the fact that there have been various types of empires, each different from the other due to being based on different modes of production.

The imperial system also differs from the more contemporary model of informal empire that emerged during the consolidation of capitalism between 1830 and 1870. The use of force was only a complementary aspect of British supremacy under this model.

The concept of imperial system emphasises that modern imperialism is a coercive structure underpinned by a network of military bases used to wage a wide variety of hybrid wars. The US does not act alone when invading; rather it acts as the head of this vast systemic network.

Finally, the concept of imperial system is different to the classical imperialism that Vladimir Lenin studied in the early 20th century, when great powers competed against each other in world wars.

Those seeking to simply apply Lenin’s model to today see the end of globalisation as recreating tensions and scenarios that closely resemble World War I. In contrast, I point out that there are substantial differences between then and now.

The most obvious is the absence of any wars between big capitalist powers since the mid-20th century. The presence of nuclear weapons poses the obvious threat that any generalised war could end humanity.

Moreover, there is no existing rivalry between equal powers. Instead, there is a global power that safeguards the entire system through the military power of the Pentagon.

Attempts to study contemporary situations using Lenin’s criteria ultimately lead to forced categorisations, especially regarding the status of Russia or China.

Given this, what is the imperial system?

The imperial system emerged in the second half of the 20th century. All the institutions and instruments that, in one form or another, exist today emerged in that period.

The imperial system has a hierarchy. The US heads this system and operates as the custodian of capitalism, a role delegated to it by allied powers.

The US stands atop a pyramidal structure that has rules regarding membership, coexistence and exclusion. Every region or nation that is part of this system has an assigned position within this structure. This determines the intensity of conflicts.

Differences between the US and Europe are of a completely different nature to disagreements with China and Russia, because the latter involve powers outside the imperial system.

Europe is the US’ main partner within the system, though several European powers reserve a high degree of operational autonomy from Washington. As a result, they hold the status of alter-imperial power.

France, for example, pursues its own imperialist policy towards its former African colonies. However, it typically asks permission, allies with or seeks advice from the US before taking any significant international steps.

Other partners operate at a different level within the system. This is the case with Israel, Australia and Canada. Their interests are intertwined with US interests and they carry out specific co-imperial roles in different regions of the world.

What relative weight do the mechanisms of imperialist exploitation have within this imperial system, as compared to the past?

These mechanisms are an essential aspect of the system because the primary objective of this structure is to extract profits from subjugated periphery countries. This exploitation is possible because certain powers exercise control over other countries.

The economics of imperialism was extensively studied in the 1960s and 1970s. There were various discussions on the dynamics of uneven exchange and the various methods employed to drain value from the periphery to the core.

Several researchers highlighted how more capital-intensive economies absorb surplus value from more dependent economies. This principle explains the objective economic logic of imperialism.

But it is evident that there are various mechanisms by which resources are transferred from the periphery to the core.

There are productive mechanisms, such as the maquilas and export processing zones set up in periphery nations; there is the unequal exchange that occurs when manufacturing or high-tech services are traded for basic commodities; and there are financial mechanisms of transfer such as external debt.

The transfer of resources from the periphery to the core occurs along multiple routes. Several authors have explored how these processes differ to those of the past century. They present several promising paths of investigations, but that nevertheless require some comments.

For example, we need to be more precise when defining actors. We should use caution when referring to the Global South: who belongs to this conglomerate of nations, and who belongs to the opposite pole, the Global North? Does the latter include all core nations and the former all periphery nations?

If so, where does China fit in? If we place China in the South, it becomes very difficult to explain how value transfers operate today.

My approach also seeks to highlight the unique characteristics of intermediate economies. There is a monumental gap separating Brazil from Haiti, Turkey from Yemen and India from Mali. Recognising this is key to noting the varying means by which value is drained, retained or absorbed within the dynamics of capitalist accumulation.

I also see the idea of globalised production, where surplus value is exclusively generated in the South and confiscated by the North, as too simplistic. This view disregards the fact that surplus value is generated worldwide.

What distinguishes the core from the periphery is not the generation of surplus value, but who benefits most from the value expropriated from workers. Exploitation of labour power occurs everywhere; the difference lies in the greater capacity that capitalists in the core have to profit from it.

The concept of super-exploitation must also be used carefully, and not simply applied to periphery economies. This method of remunerating labour power below its value exists in the most impoverished sectors of all economies.

I also think we should be careful with these issues and controversies. It is important to not lose sight of the forest while discussing each tree. The main issues regarding the theory of imperialism can not be resolved in the economic sphere. Studying super-exploitation, the law of value or financialisation will not, for example, provide us with clarity on China’s current status.

[Read an extended version of this interview at]

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