Rising powers in a world of ‘diminished dependency’

October 23, 2023
Uncle Sam Bear Dragon
'Despite uneven development and the emergence of new centres of gravity in global accumulation, this [imperialist] club has not seen its membership significantly enlarged.' Image: Green Left

In the second part of our interview, Argentine Marxist economist Esteban Mercatante talks to Green Left’s Federico Fuentes about the rise of China and Russia and why neither can be said to have joined the club of imperialist nations. Read Part I here.

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Have any nation-states passed from being non-imperialist to imperialist?

I believe there is a certain fluidity in terms of the intermediate strata within the international hierarchy.

We have countries that until recently were very poor and marginal in the global division of labour who, through integrating into value chains as links in manufacturing or suppliers of important raw materials, have achieved a different dynamic. We also have states capable of playing an important geopolitical role.

As a result, there have been some shifts in what world system theorists define as the semi-periphery, and others, following  Mauro Marini , call sub-imperialisms, but which I prefer to define as a state of dependencia atenuada (diminished dependency).

The reason we can talk about a diminished (or attenuated) dependency is the greater capacity — always in relative terms compared to dependent countries — of these states to defend the interests of sections of the national capitalist class and promote them beyond the country’s borders, albeit generally within their immediate periphery.

This partly converts these formations into participants in the plunder of other dependent countries — although, again, within certain limits and without implying they cease to be subject to imperialist pressure and plunder.

These intermediate formations do not necessarily operate as a “buffer” against the contradictions of the world capitalist system. On the contrary, their intermediate position can be a source of instabilities, converting them into weak links. Their relationship with imperialist countries can lean towards being either cooperative or antagonistic.

As to the select club of imperialist countries, it is difficult to find significant changes in its membership. To consider a country as imperialist, I think we have to consider if it meets a series of conditions.

To begin with, a relatively diversified economic base, with at least some highly developed sectors in comparison with the rest of the world, and the ability to more or less compete in international processes of accumulation. There are several countries with companies that manage to do this on a regional scale, but not beyond.

Second, they need the capacity to project power over other states, through their ability to translate their economic and financial weight, as well as their military resources and other weapons of “soft power”, into tools of pressure and subordination.

What is remarkable is that, despite uneven development and the emergence of new centres of gravity in global accumulation, this club has not seen its membership significantly enlarged.

The one country that I do see as consolidating its position as an imperialist power, and which I have defined as “imperialism under construction”, is China. I say “under construction” for several reasons.

First, because of its formidable uneven development, which makes it the second largest economy in the world while still having a GDP per capita barely 20% higher than that of a “developing” country such as Argentina. This is the result of very heterogeneous internal development, which combines areas of high productivity with others that lag far behind.

Moreover, it does not yet have a considerable international military presence, unlike the US and its allies through NATO.

China is in a very contradictory situation, because it is hard to imagine China “settling in” as just one more among the other great powers. Its rise has upset the international equilibrium, and everything points towards a direct clash with the US and its allies.

This means that, ultimately, China will either consolidate itself as the new main power or suffer defeat and, once again, find itself in a position of deeper subordination. I see any in-between scenario as very difficult.

Do you see Russia as occupying a similar role within the global imperialist system?

Russia and China share a common historical trajectory: both countries experienced revolutions that broke their ties with imperialism and, subsequently, underwent capitalist restoration.

But the conditions in which this restoration took place in each country were very different. The regime’s collapse, the looting carried out by oligarchs, and imperialist exploitation of former Soviet Union satellite states created a situation in Russia that cannot be compared with China.

Another commonality is that both states have powerful militaries, a nuclear arsenal and extensive territory, which in the past decade have not just remained outside the US’ security alliance system, but in confrontation with it. For US strategists, the two fall into the same category of “revisionist” states.

But the place each occupies in the world today is very different. All countries maintain large-scale trade relations with China, which is a lender and investor the world over. By the same measures, Russia’s role is irrelevant.

Where Putin’s regime has been much bolder is with its geopolitical interventions, not just in Eastern Europe but also in the Middle East, as we saw in Syria. By invading Ukraine, it has become the first state this century to start a full-scale war in Europe.

But there is a clear imbalance between Russia’s military and geopolitical deployments and its economic base.

The fact that Russia’s first-rate military capabilities far outstrips the place its economy occupies within the capitalist system; that it is a country that stands outside — and is forced to confront — imperialist power structures; and the ascendancy that this gives it over certain countries in its immediate vicinity or further afield that view Russia as a relative counterweight to imperialism convert it into a case of extremely diminished dependency.

This has not occurred in the economic sphere, where its subordination is clearer. This transitory category accounts for a somewhat fluid and dynamic situation.

What can you tell us of the role played by another BRICS member — Brazil — in South America?

Brazil’s situation is one of unstable leadership. The flimsy foundations of its autonomy from imperialism have become apparent ever since 2013, when the crisis that engulfed Dilma Rouseff’s government began, along with the Lava Jato judicial operation in which judges directly linked to Washington operated against the PT (Workers Party).

Subsequently, Jair Bolsonaro headed a Washington-aligned government that undermined Brazil’s regional leadership.

This contrasts with Lula, who made great efforts to expand Brazil’s influence in the region, even if this could never translate into genuine regional integration given the ongoing features of dependency under the post-neoliberal governments.

Brazilian companies increased their investments, while always reproducing the same plundering traits of imperialist multinationals.

More generally, Brazil’s leadership in the region has always been contested. For example, it never managed to obtain Argentina’s support for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council; Argentina, together with Mexico, prefers a rotating seat for the countries of the region.

What is your position on the concept of multipolarity? Can initiatives like BRICS offer a progressive alternative for the Global South?

I do not see any basis to argue that the rise of China as a pole within the international system will impose limits on Western imperialist impulses and generate a more favourable scenario for oppressed peoples.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, along with the way in which the Chinese state oppresses minorities within its borders, are clear signs that they in no way play a progressive role, even if they stand in opposition to the US and its allies.

This illusion can only be maintained by ignoring the growing role that China has been playing in the institutions that underpin global capitalism.

For example, in terms of quota and voting rights, China is the third largest country within the IMF, an institution that defends creditor countries against debtor countries by imposing draconian adjustments on the latter. The same goes for the World Bank and similar organisations.

China is committed to building alternative multilateral organisations, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), while fighting for influence within existing ones.

China is clearly the most powerful player within BRICS, although it is forced to negotiate with others who do not always share Beijing’s view on global governance. India and South Africa, for example, have a much closer relationship with the US than with either China or Russia.

The recent incorporations of countries, including Argentina, may represent a relative advance for China. But it also exacerbates the bloc’s heterogeneity, given other new members such as Saudi Arabia clearly remain subordinated to the US. This means that the alliance is still weak.

It is important to be clear that, despite the potential challenge this bloc could pose to the big imperialist powers, it is no ally of oppressed peoples. BRICS does not represent any kind of “benign” hegemonic alternative within the international order.

We need to break with imperialism and its financial institutions, such as the IMF, but not via integration based on subordination to alternative blocs promoted by rising powers that similarly carry out economic plunder.

[The full interview can be read at links.org.au.]

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