Why imperialism remains relevant to understanding 21st century capitalism

September 18, 2023
soldiers factory
Since the 1970s there has been a major shift of capitalist value production from the old imperialist metropolises to the Global South. Graphic: Green Left

Austrian Marxist Michael Pröbsting is the author of The Great Robbery of the South and Anti-Imperialism in the Age of Great Power Rivalry. Below he discusses his views on imperialism in the 21st century with Green Left’s Federico Fuentes.

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In general terms, how do you understand the current dynamics at play within global capitalism?

One has to understand the current developments in their historical context, which means the combination and interaction of several trends.

The United States’ hegemonic role within the capitalist world was the result of the outcome of World War II, where other imperialist powers were either defeated (Germany and Japan) or became allies in a subordinate position (Britain and France). Washington’s domination was reinforced by the fact that all imperialist states had no alternative but to accept US leadership to wage their Cold War against the Stalinist states.

When the latter collapsed and became capitalist in 1989–91, the collective enemy disappeared, but US hegemony — particularly in the military and financial realm — remained. This provided Washington with a unique opportunity where it could play, to a certain degree and only for a limited period, the role of a global hegemon.

However, before I continue to discuss the US’ role, we need to place the above-mentioned developments within the greater context of the evolution of the capitalist world economy.

As is well-known, the period of the post-war “Long Boom” ended in the late 1960s and early ’70s. This opened an era in which world capitalism was increasingly characterised by a long-term tendency towards stagnation.

This tendency towards stagnation had various consequences. It pushed monopoly capital to search for new areas for profitable investment. One crucial result of this process has been a major shift of capitalist value production from the old imperialist metropolises (North America, Western Europe, Japan, Australia) to the so-called Global South and ex-Stalinist states.

In the early 2010s, about three-quarters of all wage labourers lived outside of the Western imperialist countries. If we just take the industrial working class, which creates the vast bulk of capitalist value, this share is even larger — about 85.3% (or more than 617 million). Most of these industrial workers are living in Asia. Today, this share is most likely even larger than a decade ago.

This “shift to the South” and, in particular “shift to Asia”, is a profound development with many consequences. Among these are the following:

First, such a “shift to the South” has massively undermined the hegemony of Western powers since these no longer create the bulk of capitalist value.

Second, and related to this, some semi-colonial countries in the South — the so-called “emerging markets” — have strengthened their global position, albeit this is a highly contradictory process. Generally, these countries have ultimately remained in a dependent, subordinate position given foreign capital continues to play a dominant role in their economies.

Third, such a shift played a crucial role in creating the basis for a rapid process of capital accumulation in China that, ultimately, resulted in its formation as an imperialist Great Power.

Fourth, because of these developments, Western powers — and, most importantly, the US as their hegemon — have been pushed to intensify their political and military interventions in the South to ensure that globalisation serves Western interests.

However, such a desire by imperialist powers to “defend” their global interests is not limited to the US or Western powers. It also pushes new Great Powers, such as Russia and China, to intervene more actively in world politics.

The drive by imperialist powers to increasingly intervene abroad has intensified even more since 2019, when the beginning of the Great Depression opened a new era of crises and catastrophes.

How do you define imperialism today?

It is true that the category “imperialism” has been used in different contexts and with different meanings. In fact, this is not a new development. Even the very term imperialism was originally invented by non-Marxist writers in the late 19th century to describe the politics of expanding colonial empires such as Britain.

However, for Marxists the term imperialism has a scientific meaning that is associated with Vladimir Lenin’s analysis of monopoly capitalism at the beginning of the 20th century.

In my view, it is the duty of Marxists to defend this, as well as other concepts, if they remain valid. At the same time, this does not mean that we should not further develop the theory of imperialism (or other Marxist concepts) in order to integrate and explain new developments.

Given this, how much of Lenin’s analysis remains relevant today and what elements have been superseded by subsequent developments?

Lenin’s theory of imperialism remains highly relevant to understanding capitalism in the 21st century.

To summarise the essence of Lenin’s theory in a sentence, I would say that it characterises imperialism as a specific historic stage of capitalism in which a small number of monopolies and Great Powers politically dominate and economically super-exploit the rest of the world.

Most of the features that Lenin outlined remain in place, such as the domination of monopolies and a few Great Powers, the relevance of capital export and finance capital (as a fusion of industrial and financial/money capital), and the geopolitical struggle between the Great Powers for spheres of influence.

However, this does not mean that nothing has changed since Lenin’s time. The Cold War between the West and the Stalinist states temporarily, and to a certain degree, pushed the rivalry between the imperialist Great Powers into the background.

Furthermore, in the first half of the 20th century, large parts of the South were colonies directly ruled by imperialist powers. However, in the past 50-60 years, only a few colonies remain, while most countries of the Global South are capitalist semi-colonies. Hence, imperialist domination in the political sense is much more indirect.

Another important difference — maybe the most important one — between imperialism in Lenin’s times and today is the above-mentioned shift of capitalist value production to the South.

In the past, the dominant world powers simultaneously produced the bulk of capitalist value. This is no longer true with regard to the old imperialist powers of the West.

Such a shift to the South has also had important implications for the forms of imperialist super-exploitation. Certain forms of super-exploitation have become much more important than they were 100 years ago.

The most important forms of value transfer from the South to the North are via capital export as productive investment, via capital export as money capital (loans, currency reserves, speculation etc.), via unequal exchange and via migration.

The last one is particularly interesting since migration from countries of the South to Northern metropolises existed to a much lesser degree in Lenin’s time. Migration represents a unique form of value transfer from the South to the North.

In this case, capital in the imperialist metropolises uses various forms of national oppression via which they gain from low wages for migrant workers (below the value of their labour force); from no or only limited costs for their education, since migrants are often educated in their home country; and from having to pay either no or reduced costs for the migrants’ pension and social security.

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