US-China relations: Rivalry or ‘antagonistic cooperation’?

September 25, 2023
factory workers
'Antagonistic cooperation' accounts for how tensions between capitalist states can exist, while all continue to maintain the same global process of capital accumulation. Graphic: Green Left

Promise Li is a socialist from Hong Kong currently based in Los Angeles, and a member of US socialist organisations Tempest and Solidarity. Below he discusses how economic interdependence across rivaling geopolitical blocs shapes inter-imperialist tensions today, with Green Left’s Federico Fuentes.

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How do you define imperialism? How much of Vladimir Lenin’s writings on the subject remain relevant and what elements have been superseded?

The concept of imperialism, especially as theorised by classical Marxists, is definitely still useful for us today — but we need to update and calibrate their analyses to contemporary conditions.

Lenin’s observation that a “characteristic feature of imperialism is finance capital” rings true, perhaps even more so today than in his times with the massive expansion of finance capital.

More importantly, global imperialism remains a volatile formation — not a “peaceful cooperation” between capitalists, as Karl Kautsky ventured — featuring a “rivalry between several great powers in the striving for hegemony,” as Lenin described.

Lenin said that “the briefest possible definition of imperialism” is “the monopoly stage of capitalism”. If this represents an advanced stage of capitalism that began in his time, then we are currently living through the advanced stages of this advanced stage.

Monopolies have only grown larger and more all-consuming. Capitalists are finding even more intricate ways of merging and associating with each other, from multilateral institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to “universal owners” such as BlackRock and Vanguard, which own majority shares in state-led or public-private partnerships associated with countries in supposedly rivalling geopolitical blocs.

Lenin also describes how “the monopolies, which have grown out of free competition, do not eliminate the latter, but exist above it and alongside it, and thereby give rise to a number of very acute, intense antagonisms, frictions and conflicts”. This contradiction between monopolies and competition has only grown more intense with the rise of multipolarity.

So, this rise of a new era of inter-imperialist rivalry is far from linear, nor does it clearly disrupt the imperial hegemony of Western capital.

Here, I think, we do not pay enough attention to other classical Marxist theories of imperialism beyond Lenin.

Though crude, Rosa Luxemburg’s formulation of imperialism correctly understands imperialism as a “political expression of the process of the accumulation of capital in its competitive struggle over the unspoiled remainder of the non-capitalist world environment”.

She sees imperialism as a way to describe not simply the characteristics of distinct imperialist powers, but the very logic of how the capitalist world economy develops — by aiming toward the development of new actors in facilitating a global process of capital accumulation.

Nicholai Bukharin expanded on this by identifying a dialectical feature in the capitalist world system, which is both “an internationalisation of capital” and “a process of ‘nationalising’ capital”.

Luxemburg and Bukharin’s focus on imperialism as a unified global process (though one rife with internal tensions) allows us to understand the new rise of national economic blocs, geopolitical tensions and forms of industrial nationalism that have emerged within a world economy that is more interdependent than ever.

Pronouncements about the decline of neoliberalism are premature: what we see today is really just a reconfiguration of different state capitals that are integrally connected through financialisation. New industrial policies and nationalisms merely dictate new terms in which globalisation persists.

Working-class people, especially in the global South, continue to be exploited. New alliances and rivalries may shuffle around the relations between different bourgeoisie in the global South and traditional imperialists, but the core structure of global imperialism remains highly durable.

Lenin and Bukharin’s conception of inter-imperialist rivalry continues to be relevant. But unlike World War I, economic interdependence even across geopolitical blocs — reinforced by new multilateral financial organisms — establishes new terms through which inter-imperialist rivalry takes shape.

The persistence of traditional Western imperial claims (evidenced by France’s response to developments in Niger) and renewed revanchist claims by rising imperialist powers confirm another key feature of imperialism that Lenin (building on [Austrian Marxist] Rudolf Hilferding) identified: among the myriad social antagonisms intensified by imperialism, a key one is “the intensification of national oppression”.

Rohini Hensman underscores the persistence of “ethnic chauvinism” today, which Lenin highlighted as a fundamental characteristic of not just the ruling bloc but also workers, and even socialists, in the oppressing nation.

Just as importantly, as Lenin emphasised in his writings on national self-determination, the fact that certain oppressing nations are subordinate to stronger imperialist powers in the world system does not erase the legitimacy of national liberation movements against those nations.

With the rise of new imperialist and advanced capitalist countries outside of the Western bloc, we must remember how Lenin underscored the right of nations to self-determination, even those caught between imperialist powers, and refused to dogmatically delegitimise national liberation movements just because they are weaponised by other imperialist actors.

We must update our analyses to account for old and rising imperialists to most effectually empower revolutionary movements not just in one locale, but for many living through vastly different political legacies — from the bureaucratic capitalism of formerly “actually-existing socialist states” to the horrors of neoliberal shock therapy under “liberal democracies”.

In general terms, how would you understand the current dynamics at play within the global imperialist system?

I want to revive a term first coined by German Marxist August Thalheimer, and expanded by Austrian-Brazilian Marxist Erich (Erico) Sachs and other members of the Brazilian Marxist collective Política Operária (POLOP), that adequately describes the global imperialist system today: “antagonistic cooperation”.

The term was used by Thalheimer, following Bukharin’s analysis, to account for how sharp and even violent tensions between capitalist states can exist, while all continue to maintain the same global process of capital accumulation.

As POLOP’s 1967 program describes, antagonistic cooperation illustrates “a cooperation aimed at the conservation of the system and which has its basis in the very process of centralisation of capital, and which does not eliminate the antagonisms inherent in the imperialist world”.

POLOP theorists went beyond Thalheimer to specify that such an impulse to preserve capitalist social relations can characterise ruling classes that express an “anti-imperialist” foreign policy.

Anti-imperialist sentiments among the people can force these bourgeoisies toward this position, but in turn, “this nationalism, often taken advantage of by the native bourgeoisies, serves as pressure on the imperialist powers to improve the terms of their economic relations [which ensured] the continuity of imperialist exploitation was assured after the withdrawal of the colonial armies”.

This perfectly describes the actions of BRICS+ countries today. Growing rivalries between different states do not cancel out interdependence. BRICS has missed countless opportunities to break free of Western economic hegemony in practice, despite its anti-imperialist rhetoric.

The New Development Bank, touted by some as an alternative to Western banking institutions for the global South, recently formalised its partnership with the World Bank.

[Patrick] Bond observes that China has increased and consolidated the third-highest voting power in the IMF, even gaining some at the expense of global South countries such as Nigeria and Venezuela.

Public-private partnerships and institutional investors represent ways Saudi Arabia, China, Brazil, etc. develop new nodes of accumulation — and perpetuate existing ones in collaboration with the West.

US-China rivalry has led to some strategic decoupling of industries, just as many commodities are merely being re-routed through third parties.

The horrific Russian invasion of Ukraine supposedly introduced a new era of Western isolation of Russian capital through sanctions, but the Caspian Pipeline Consortium — which sees Chevron executives working alongside sanctioned Russian companies — continues uninterrupted.

Growing tensions between China and India are one example of how potentially irreconcilable contradictions exist within the BRICS+ bloc too. As Tithi Bhattacharya writes, “the new Cold War allegiances are made of a looser fabric. They tend to be less absolute; they are partial, and subject to ongoing push-and-pull.”

The US remains the dominant imperialist power in the world, though the left often overlooks how its supposed rivals actually help maintain its power, just as they challenge aspects of it to get a share of the pie for themselves.

The interests of different national capitalists also do not often neatly align: major US and German CEOs eagerly accepted Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang’s invitation for meetings and deeper collaboration, just as the US’s House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) further fuelled anti-China policies.

Any proper analysis of the global imperialist system today must consider such contradictions and fluidity between imperialist powers. Syrian writer Yassin al-Haj Saleh recently called this “liquid imperialism”, in the context of the US and Russia’s shared interest in maintaining Bashar al-Assad’s rule in Syria.

Such new concepts get us closer to understanding the world system today, more than straightforward US unipolarity or traditional inter-imperialist rivalry without qualifications, but still more analyses are needed.

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