Understanding imperialism’s new phase

January 15, 2024
Container ship and port
The globalisation of production has led to greater fragmentation of the working class. Photo: pigphoto

Pedro Fuentes is a leader of the Socialist Left Movement (MES), a tendency within Brazil’s Socialism and Freedom Party (PSOL). He spoke to Green Left’s Federico Fuentes about imperialism’s new phase, ecological crisis and international solidarity. This is part one of a two-part interview. Read Part 2 here.

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Does the concept of imperialism remain valid?

I think [Vladimir] Lenin and [Rudolf] Hilferding’s definition of imperialism remains valid. Imperialism is still a higher phase of capitalism. But we now have to speak about a new phase or period of imperialism.

Its essence remains the same, but the contradictions that Lenin and Hilferding outlined — concentration and globalisation of capital, etc — have become more acute with the financialisation of the economy.

New elements, provoked by imperialism and its monopolisation of the means of production, have also emerged, above all in the field of extractivism and energy exploration.

These have triggered what is now commonly referred to as an ecological crisis, leading us towards a climate and environmental catastrophe. This is a new feature of this phase of imperialism.

[Karl] Marx did write about humanity’s destructive relationship with nature. But the relationship between the means of production and human life on this planet has developed in such a way that it has been profoundly altered.

Lenin said the means of production had developed in such a way that they had paved the way for socialism, but that the relations of production had to be changed for production to function for society as a whole.

Today, we must not only change the relations of production but also the relationship between people and the productive forces that has brought about this ecological crisis.

Within this new phase, are there also new mechanisms of imperialist exploitation?

One form of value transfer that has been occurring for a long time, but was not previously characterised as such, is dispossession, or what [US Marxist writer] David Harvey called “accumulation by dispossession”. Harvey said this was counterposed to or, better said, complemented accumulation by expanded reproduction.

Accumulation by dispossession, for Harvey, represented a contemporary revival, in modified form, of primitive capitalist accumulation. It is based on the expropriation of territories and capitalist control over collective forms of property (such as nature, water) as a means of increasing accumulation.

This new phase also incorporates the information revolution and artificial intelligence. These new technologies have allowed for greater and faster interactions for imperialism, for its capitals, its economic movements and, at the same time, greater realisation of fictitious surplus value through the financialisation of capital.

Alongside this, the globalisation of production has led to greater fragmentation of the working class and the creation of a world reserve army of labour.

What there has not been, in my opinion, is a revolution in the productive forces that could enable a leap towards a new phase in world production and expanded capitalist reproduction.

When compared to other technologies that initiated long phases of growth, such as steam, electricity and automation, I do not see the information revolution as representing a similar advance in the forces of production. This is because it comes at the same time as an advance in the destructive forces of production over nature.

Do the original imperialist powers remain the only imperialist powers, or have any nation-states gone from non-imperialist to imperialist?

Yes, there are states that are in a phase of new imperialism, or what we could call neo-imperialisms.

First, we have the emergence of China with the restoration of capitalism, or more accurately state capitalism. China has developed imperialist relationships not only over the peoples it has colonised within or on its borders, such as the Uighurs or Mongols, but through the expansion of its finance capital throughout the Third World.

In Latin America, Chinese investments compete with the United States and the European Union for first place. In the past two decades, China has heavily invested in factories, for example, setting up what will be the biggest electric car factory in Brazil.

China has also heavily invested in mining in many Latin American countries. One recent important mining conflict was against a gold and copper mine in Panama that was owned by Canadian and Chinese capital.

In Peru, Chinese capital is the largest player in mining extraction. In Argentina, it has a strong presence in the countryside. And let’s not even talk about China’s presence in Venezuela through its predatory loans.

Chinese imperialism is not messing around. China is not carrying out internationalist solidarity. It is an imperialism directly extracting surplus value from underdeveloped countries and carrying out neo-colonial plunder in terms of raw materials, mining, etc.

Russia is also a neo-imperialism, but one that is not so new in one sense: Russia was an imperialism in the time of the tsars and also had an imperialist character over the nationalities it oppressed in the Stalinist era.

Today, with the restoration of capitalism, it is also an imperialism — even more so under [Vladimir] Putin.

Russia’s direct aggression against Ukraine is an imperialist aggression: there is no other name for it.

Russia’s policy in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia is an imperialist policy: it allowed a genocide against the Armenians and did nothing to defend the right of the inhabitants of the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave.

Russia also has mercenaries and investments in Africa.

Let’s not fool ourselves, Russia is trying to expand. It obviously does not have the strength of US imperialism, but that does not take away its neo-imperialist character.

Do you see any possibility of building bridges between anti-imperialist struggles, bearing in mind that struggles confront different powers and may seek support from rival powers, as is the case with Ukraine? What should anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist internationalism look like in the 21st century?

We had an important experience of anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist internationalism, which was the World Social Forum (WSF). Out of this emerged a coordinating body that organised the most important global demonstration against the invasion of Iraq.

But the experience of the WSF ended in stagnation; it became institutionalised because the first [Luiz Inácio] Lula [da Silva] government absorbed a large part of its leadership.

Ukraine was also an important step, although it led to divisions within the global left. We, as anti-imperialists, stand for Russia’s defeat, for an end to the aggression and for Ukraine to recover its territories, regardless of its government.

And it is obvious that in a war, Ukraine needs weapons. That is why we do not oppose the delivery of arms to Ukraine — it would be a tragedy if arms were not sent to them, as that would mean Russia wins.

It is quite another thing to support the rearmament being pushed by European powers, which are using the Ukraine war as a pretext for arming themselves. Or to support NATO, which is a sinister, imperialist organisation. We are against NATO.

But as long as Ukraine needs military support, we understand and accept this. This is no reason to stop supporting the peoples’ struggle for their self-determination, or to stop supporting their more left-wing sectors and trade unions.

That is why we reached out to [Ukrainian] trade unions and [Ukrainian socialist organisation] Social Movement, to help the comrades keep socialist politics alive inside Ukraine. Our main task is to support the socialist left in Ukraine, not to denounce NATO.

But with Ukraine, we saw the emergence of campist sectors who view any fight against the US — no matter who is waging it — as progressive. So, they stand with Russia, they stand with China. Campism is a competitor we must defeat in this process of building a new anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist internationalism.

Some argue that Russia’s defeat will be a victory for the United States...

I do not see it as being a victory for the US; in essence, it will be a victory for the Ukrainian people. And a victory for the Ukrainian people will infect the struggle against imperialism all over the world — including the struggle against US imperialism.

Today, Palestine is the struggle that opens up the most possibilities for international solidarity and struggle against the global right and the establishment because the entire world establishment supports Israel.

There have been big mobilisations. I do not know how this process will develop, as it has not yet finished. But we have to push for it to continue, and to develop both it and all other possibilities for solidarity that serve to unite.

[Read the full interview at links.org.au.]

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