Imperialism then and now

October 23, 2023
Uncle Sam
'Imperialism is characterised by the existence of several competing powers vying for spheres of power ... [where] asymmetry in economic and military capacity determines the weight each country has.' Image: Green Left

Argentine Marxist economist Esteban Mercatante talks to Green Left’s Federico Fuentes about the ongoing relevance of imperialism for understanding the world we live in.

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What value remains in the concept of imperialism and how do you define imperialism?

It is fair to say that debates on the meaning of imperialism began from the very moment in which the theories we call classic were first formulated.

Among the Marxists — Rudolf Hilferding, Rosa Luxemburg, Vladimir Lenin, Nikolai Bukharin, Karl Kautsky — there was agreement that imperialist warmongering responded to transformations occurring within capitalism since the end of the 19th century.

But they did not agree on what the main determinants were to explain this, nor whether this represented an irreversible epochal change or if the conditions that had led to the clashes would gradually be overcome (as Kautsky believed).

After World War II, debates and criticisms of the theory of imperialism intensified. What I have argued in my book, Imperialism in Times of World Disorder, and numerous articles is the ongoing relevance of this theory, which I believe remains valid on a number of levels.

First, in terms of the global hierarchy and division between countries that dominate and those that are subordinate and plundered. The capitalist world system continues to be characterised by a hierarchy of countries, even if this is no longer based on relations of formal subordination.

Rather it occurs within the framework of a system of states that recognises the formal sovereignty of all territories, minus a few exceptions. But behind this equality of states in terms of sovereignty, the asymmetry in economic and military capacity determines the weight each country has to influence the rest and the role it plays within global governance mechanisms.

If economic asymmetries are at the root of unequal development and polarisation, then these are reinforced through the rules imposed by the most powerful countries. These rules are made to best suit the interests of the powerful and allow its capital to enrich itself at the expense of the rest. In this sense, the distinction between oppressor and oppressed states remains relevant.

Second, imperialism is characterised by the existence of several competing powers vying for spheres of power.

This does not mean that the situation is always dominated by rivalry; there may be periods when coordination, cooperation or, at least, coexistence prevails. But there is no “empire”, no sole power that dominates unchallenged with the remaining powers reduced to vassals.

Conditions can be created for a period of time — even a prolonged one — in which the interests of different powers converge and conflicts are mitigated. However inevitable shifts in countries’ relative strength resulting from uneven development lead, sooner or later, to conflict.

United States leadership over the other powerful capitalist states in the post-war period was not based on a qualitative change in conditions. Rather it was based on the great asymmetry of power that emerged in its favour after WWII, and, initially, the impact of the Cold War on political alignments.

Third, imperialism is the result of structural transformations within capitalism and its complete domination over a world economy subjected to the law of value.

Imperialism is not simply a “policy” of a section of the bourgeoisie. Rather, it arises from the contradictions that capitalism internationalised when it came to dominate the whole planet.

Fourth, imperialism was defined by Lenin as “reaction all along the line”. If, in Lenin’s time, imperialism was the leading force imposing capitalist relations of production where they did not yet dominate, a century later this statement is even more true.

Any upsurge in struggle by working class and popular sectors that risks placing the political regime of any dependent country in crisis has to confront both the local ruling class and its repressive state forces, as well as imperialist intervention through military, economic and financial means.

Finally, the fifth point regarding imperialism’s relevance is the implications it has on class structures within oppressed countries. In Lenin’s time, the position of the bourgeoisies of the oppressed countries vis-à-vis imperialism was given an algebraic character, to be determined case by case.

The experience of struggle against imperialist oppression in the 1920s demonstrated that the bourgeoisie is an ally of imperialism when it comes to sustaining its oppression, not a potential ally in the struggle against it.

This has only become more the case. The bourgeoisies of dependent countries are more than ever bound by a thousand ties to imperialism and have no interest in attacking the conditions of dependency.

Having said all that, a basic presupposition of my research is that the category of imperialism, like that of capitalism, must be considered in its historic context.

The theory of imperialism today has to take into account all the strategic changes that have occurred since Lenin’s time. To mention just a few: the shift in the centre of world capitalist power from Europe to North America; the US’ creation of a whole system of governance that allowed it to consolidate its domination, and in particular the role of NATO; the reformulation of these instruments after the collapse of the Soviet Union; the so-called “globalisation” of the past few decades; the post-9/11 period, with the deployment of the Project for a New American Century and subsequent military quagmires; Lehman Brothers and the Great Recession; and, finally, the emergence of China as a challenger.

What elements of Lenin’s analysis do you see as having been superseded by subsequent developments?

The aspects of Lenin's book that have been “superseded”, if we want to use this term, have to do with new historical conditions.

Lenin developed his study to explain the roots of the imperialist war, why imperialism led to the degeneration of social-democratic reformism, and to provide solid ground for his position of revolutionary defeatism. He explained why the war was going to lead to revolution and why revolutionary socialists needed an according strategy.

Today we must account for those tendencies pointing towards new large-scale confrontations between powers. Within this framework, we should draw conclusions relating to a preparatory period towards sharper clashes between revolution and counter-revolution in the near future.

But I see many features with deep ongoing relevance.

What relative weight do the mechanisms of imperialist exploitation have today, as compared to the past?

The internationalisation of production in recent decades has altered the relative importance of different mechanisms of appropriation and transfer of value.

The plundering through finance or mechanisms of unequal exchange that characterise trade still exists. However the expansion of internationalised production chains has given greater relevance to the way transnationals, due to their role in organising these chains, appropriate the major portion of the value that is produced at different links along the global chain.

Global value chains have deepened transnationalised capital’s exploitation of labour power beyond the borders of the country where its parent company is located. This is regardless of whether this is carried out through the offshoring of its own subsidiaries or through outsourcing to other companies (what the literature refers to as “arm's length” production).

What is remarkable is how plunder and exploitation are intertwined, both in the “peripheries” and in the “centre” itself.

The internationalisation of production has allowed for the large-scale deployment of what former Morgan Stanley analyst Stephen Roach called “global value arbitrage”. Transnational corporations are pushing as hard as ever to pit labour from different parts of the world against each other.

Therein lies a potential to forge deeper unity between the exploited in imperialist and dependent countries. But until this happens, capital will continue to profit from internationalisation.

We can add to this policies offering more flexible labour conditions, lower taxes, less environmental regulations, etc in order to attract investment. This “race to the bottom” to compete for investment — with ruinous consequences for countries that give up so much for so little in return — has been very profitable for transnational corporations.

Finally, an issue that has always been central to imperialist plunder, but which has become even more relevant today, is environmental devastation. The industrialisation of dependent countries has led to environmental damage generated by manufacturing, while extractivist patterns of natural resource extraction continue to deepen.

This has left an environmental footprint that affects quality of life, damages biodiversity and, in many cases, has displaced small farmers or entire communities that are not integrated into the market.

[The full interview can be read at]

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