Transnationals, imperialist expropriation and fighting 'cannibal capitalism'

March 11, 2024
It is a built-in structural tendency of capitalist society to cannibalise nature, care, the wealth of subjugated peoples, and the energies and creativity of all working people. Graphic: Green Left. Inset: Nancy Fraser

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 regarding the role of expropriation and transnationals in modern imperialism, and the challenges facing anti-imperialists and anti-capitalists. Read part 1 of the interview here.

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Alongside exploitation you refer to the concept of expropriation when analysing imperialism. Could you explain what you mean by this?

The classical Marxist definition of exploitation refers to a situation of paid labour, where labour is sold in the labour market and the worker receives compensation for their necessary labour time but not their surplus labour time. Exploitation refers to the gap between the amount of value the worker produces and the amount they are compensated for their necessary labour time.

In contrast, expropriation, when talking about labour, refers to labour that is not even compensated for its necessary labour time. Prior to industrialisation, capital accumulation mainly occurred through the exploitation of unfree labour that was violently and brutally confiscated.

Expropriation can also refer to the violent confiscation of land, animals and other forms of wealth. So, when I talk about expropriation, I am talking about the seizure of wealth — whether in the form of labour, land or other assets — that has been violently incorporated into circuits of capital accumulation.

Moreover, expropriation of labour is not just about extracting more value; it is also about status and hierarchy, and the fact that this labour is subjected to forms of coercion, violence, humiliation, etc, that are of a different order.

Expropriation works not just as an economic mechanism of extraction, but through the political mechanism of coercion.

Even in a country such as the United States, workers of colour are subjected to forced prison labour, police harassment, assault and even murder, as well as other forms of status denigration and humiliation. These are not unrelated to capital accumulation.

Far from being confined to the system’s beginnings, expropriation is a built-in feature of capitalist society, just like exploitation. The system cannot accumulate without expropriation. Moreover, capital has a deep-seated interest in confiscating labour and natural wealth to raise profits.

That is why expropriation underlies exploitation.

How do mechanisms of imperialist expropriation and exploitation operate today compared to the past?

Expropriation and exploitation have contributed to accumulation throughout the different phases of capitalist development, but in different ways.

For example, in financialised capitalism, debt has become a tremendously important mechanism of imperial extraction.

It is used by global financial institutions to pressure states to slash social spending, enforce austerity and generally collude with investors in extracting value.

Debt is also used to dispossess peasants in the Global South for corporate land grabs aimed at cornering supplies of energy, water, arable land and “carbon offsets”.

And debt is crucial to accumulation in the core. For example, precarious service workers in the gig economy whose wages fall below the socially necessary costs of reproduction are forced to depend on expanded consumer credit.

At every level and in every region, debt is driving major new waves of expropriation. This has led to new, hybrid forms of expropriation and exploitation.

For example, we have nominally free wage workers living in post-colonial countries so heavily burdened by sovereign debt that a huge amount of their labour goes to debt servicing.

Something similar is occurring in wealthy regions: with the tremendous rise of consumer debt under neoliberalisation, workers who used to be merely exploited are now subject to forms of financial expropriation.

These hybrid forms are blurring the old sharp division between enslaved Black expropriated workers and free exploited white workers. Now it is much muddier. That does not mean we do not have imperialism anymore; it is just more complicated to map these relations.

The original imperialist powers built their wealth and military might on colonial conquest and expropriation of pre-capitalist societies. Have any new imperialist powers emerged since?

Leaving open the issue as to whether “actually existing” socialist states could have been defined as imperialist — which is a complicated question — there is no doubt in my mind that some post-Communist states are imperialist. The poster child for this is China.

I believe imperialism is the right term to use to describe the extractivism China is practising in Africa. This is true even if China is not carrying this out in the same way that US or European corporations did; in China’s case, we are not dealing with conquest and direct colonial exploitation.

How then should we understand the growing US-China rivalry in light of this and the fact that the two economies are more integrated than ever? And how do you view current dynamics within global capitalism?

There is a lot of testing of the US going on. Militarily, the US remains very powerful, although it is not the only state with nuclear weapons. Economically, it is a mixed bag. And morally, its credibility is very weakened.

As for Israel’s current war on Gaza, as an American Jew, I have to say that I am outraged that the US has not helped stop this by simply turning off the spigot. Israel is a country where the US has a lot of leverage. But that is not the case everywhere.

For example, we have the rise of China as a great economic power trying to figure out exactly when and how to assert itself on the global political stage. This is still a work in progress: China is hovering on the brink, flexing a lot of muscle but still deciding whether, when, and how to step out.

We also have Russia, which is very much a declining power with a rather weak hand, but one that [Russian president Vladimir] Putin — whatever else we might think of him — has played rather well. Russia punches well above its weight in world politics, with influence not just in bordering countries but in Syria, Africa and elsewhere.

And we have China, Russia, Turkey, Iran and some other countries starting to form a block against the US. Meanwhile, the European Union is basically non-functional as a serious political player on the geopolitical level for all kinds of reasons such as internal divisions and the structure of the union.

As you said, the economies of China and the US are very integrated. That puts a break on things. But there are also wildcards in the mix, such as the looming possibility of a Trump presidency.

Whatever happens, we are in for a very rocky ride. There are reasons to be very worried by the absence of any stable hegemony. The US is out of control and does not know what it is doing. This could lead it to do some very stupid things. These are dangerous times.

Do you see possibilities for building bridges between anti-imperialist struggles? What could 21st century anti-imperialism and anti-capitalist internationalism look like?

There are possibilities, but how likely they are to be realised is another question.

As I said, we are living in dangerous times. We could at any moment slide into some kind of horrific nuclear or world war. We face planetary meltdown due to the ecological crisis. And there is tremendous precarity and insecurity in terms of livelihood, even in wealthy parts of the world.

Under these extreme conditions of crisis, in which normal certainties have broken down, many people are willing to reconsider what is politically feasible.

This has opened space for those left-wing forces willing to think through the kind of new alliances we need for these times. But we have also seen the rise of right-wing — and in some cases proto-fascists or at least authoritarian — populists.

We have no other option but to fight for a new anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist internationalism — one that is feminist, anti-racist, democratic and green. All these adjectives point to legitimate existential concerns of people in motion.

What gives me a little bit of hope is the fact that at the root of all these issues are not discrete, separate problems. Instead, they are all traceable to the same source, which I call “cannibal capitalism”.

It is a built-in structural tendency of capitalist society to cannibalise nature, care, the wealth of subjugated peoples, and the energies and creativity of all working people. If we can get more people to understand these links, then broader alliances will begin to make sense.

Somehow, we have to figure out how to put all these things together, without ranking oppressions. Because, ultimately, none of these distinct movements are powerful enough to make the kind of change we need on their own.

[Read the full interview at]

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