Samir Amin – 1931-2018: A vital radical thinker who challenged dispossession

Issue 
Samir Amin, one of the world’s greatest radical thinkers, passed away on August 12.

Egyptian-French Marxist academic Samir Amin passed away aged 86 on August 12. The man who introduced the concept of “Eurocentrism” was one of the world’s greatest radical thinkers.

Amin was a “creative Marxist” who went from Communist activism in Gamal Abdul Nasser’s Egypt in the late 1950s, to advising African socialist leaders like the Tanzanian anti-colonial activist Julius Nyerere to being a leading figure in this century’s World Social Forum, which brought together social movements and struggles from around the world.

Amin’s ideas were formed in the heady ferment of the 1950s and ’60s, when pan-Africanists like Kwamah Nkrumah ran Ghana and Nyerere governed Tanzania. Nasser was transforming the Middle East from Amin’s native Egypt and liberation movements thrived from South Africa to Algeria.

Africa looked very different before the International Monetary Fund (IMF) destroyed what progress had been made towards emancipation and LiveAid created a popular conception of a continent of famine and fecklessness.

Yet Amin’s ideas have continued to shine out, denouncing the inhumanity of contemporary capitalism and empire. But he also harshly critiqued movements from political Islam to Eurocentric Marxism and its marginalisation of the truly dispossessed.

Global power

Amin believed that world capitalism – a rule of oligopolies based in the rich world – maintains its hold through five monopolies: control of technology, access to natural resources, finance, the global media, and the means of mass destruction.

Only by overturning these monopolies can real progress be made.

This raises particular challenges for those of us in the global North because any change we promote must challenge the privileges of the North vis-à-vis the South. Our internationalism cannot be expressed through a type of humanitarian approach to the global South – that countries in the South need our “help to develop”.

For Amin, international solidarity must be based on an explicitly anti-imperialist perspective. Anything else will fail to challenge those monopolies that keep the powerful powerful.

Amin saw the world divided into the “centre” and the “peripheries”. The role of peripheries, those countries we call the global South, is to supply the centres in the global North with the means of developing in ways that stop the South from developing.

Most obviously, the exploitation of Africa’s minerals on terms of trade starkly favourable to the centre will never allow African liberation, only continual exploitation.

This flies in the face of so much “development thinking”, which would have you believe that Africa’s problems come from not being properly integrated into the global economy. Amin believed that, in fact, Africa’s problem stem from it being too integrated in “the wrong way”.

Sweatshop labour now takes place across the periphery, but it has not challenged the power of those in the North because of their control of finance, natural resources, the military and the other monopolies.

In fact, it has enhanced their power by reducing wages and destroying a manufacturing sector that had become a power base for unionised workers.

Amin was also concerned at environmental activism that becomes a debate about how countries of the centre manage their control of the world’s resources, rather than challenging that control. It is vital that Northern activists challenge the means through which the ruling class in their own society exerts control over the rest of the world.

De-linking

The theory for which Amin is most famous is “de-linking”.

De-linking means countries of the periphery withdrawing from their exploitative integration in the global economy. In a sense it is de-globalisation, but it is not a form of economic isolation. Rather, it means not engaging in economic relationships from a point of weakness.

Amin argues that countries of the global South should develop their economy through various forms of state intervention, control of money flowing in and out of their financial sectors and promoting trading with other global South countries.

Countries must nationalise financial sectors, strongly regulate natural resources, “de-link” internal prices from the world market, and free themselves from control by international institutions like the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Whatever problems come with nationalised industries, it is the only possible basis for a genuinely socially-controlled economy.

Amin did not believe that the “rise” of China, India and other emerging economies has in any way broken the power of the oligopolies. That power has only become more concentrated. But there have been important changes.

Imperialist powers have realised competition between themselves is not helpful and have created a sort of collective imperialism which is expressed through institutions like the WTO and IMF.

Capitalism is experiencing a profound long-term crisis to which Amin believes it has no solution, short of political barbarism. He describes this form of capitalism as “senile”.

This crisis is characterised by an increased dependence on finance, which means less and less money is being made from productive activities. It is a far more direct means of stealing wealth from the majority of the world.

The accompanying form of politics means that democracy has been reduced to a farce in which people are spectators in an elite drama.

Capitalism needs an ongoing process of dispossession so it can accumulate and expand. Capitalism could not have developed without the European conquest of the world, and the resources that provided. It also provided a safety valve for many of those dispossessed in Europe, with mass emigration to the “new world”.

Dispossession

As much as the dispossessed in the global South might aspire to the lives of those in advanced capitalist countries, it is not possible. Nor can traditional Marxists be correct when they say capitalism is a necessary stage on the path to socialism – a view Amin called Eurocentric.

Industry cannot incorporate more than a small fraction of humanity, but it requires the resources humanity depends upon. So the only way that capitalism can advance is through the creation of a “slum planet” – a sort of “global apartheid”.

Amin believed the dispossession of the peasantry across the peripheral countries would be the central issue of the 21st century.

This is one reason why Amin saw the role of the peasantry in the South – almost half of humanity after all – as key to determining the future. The strength of movements around food sovereignty, against land grabbing and supporting the rights of indigenous peoples, supports this theory.

For Amin, the existence of the peasantry presents capitalism with an insurmountable challenge.

Amin believes the road to socialism depends on reversing this trend of dispossession. This means, at national and regional levels, protecting local agricultural production, ensuring countries have food sovereignty and de-linking internal prices from world commodity markets.

This would stop the dispossession of peasants and their exodus into the towns.

Only such a revolution in the way the land is seen, treated and accessed can lay the basis for a new society. This also means ditching the idea of “growth” as it is spoken about today and by which all world economies are judged, which really benefits only a minority of the world population. The rest of humanity is abandoned.

Long road to socialism

Amin rejected the idea of a “24-hour revolution” – a single insurrectionary act that ushers in a period of socialism. He accepted there may well be a need to use private, even international capital, to diversify economies in the South. The important thing is control.

Amin’s underlying view was that the formation of democracy must go beyond a narrow political project, and that peasants – and especially women – through collective organisations, might be better placed than Western individualists to define a really progressive vision of democracy.

Perhaps Amin’s central thesis is somewhat obvious, but it’s often forgotten: a true revolution must be based on those being dispossessed and impoverished.

But he also argued against any assumption that any thinking emerging from the South will lack “enlightenment”, or that a lack of enlightenment should be excused.

He believed the Enlightenment was humanity’s first step towards democracy, liberating us from the idea that God created our activity. He has caused controversy in his utter rejection of political Islam.

This ideology obscures the real nature of society, including by playing into the idea that the world consists of different cultural groups in conflict with each other. This idea helps the centre control the peripheries.

He did not limit his critique to Islam either, launching similar criticism on political Hinduism practiced by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in India and political Buddhism, expressed through the Dalai Lama.

Creative Marxism

Amin decribed himself as a “creative Marxist” – “to begin from Marx but not to end with him”. This means to incorporate all manner of critical ways of thinking, even ones “which were wrongly considered to be ‘alien’ by the dogmas of the historical Marxism of the past.”

These views are surely more relevant today than when Amin started writing. A creative Marxism takes proper account of the perspectives and aspirations of the truly dispossessed in the world, breaks out of historical dogmas and rejects attempts to hold together a broken model.

[Abridged from Red Pepper.]