Imperialism is real. The core economies use financial, political and military means to enforce asymmetric economic relationships between the global north and the global south to maximize profit. Imperialism has long been identified by the left as a dynamic in world capitalism– however a coherent political economy has yet to emerge. This notes, which are heuristical and not academic, are my attempt to bring some coherence to the political economy of imperialism. Much of this discussion will be based off ideas I explored in previous posts – mainly, that capitalism is a global, nonlinear and complex system, with emergent properties that arise from the non-intuitive coupling of different parts of the system. Therefore, linear approaches to imperialism, e.g. core economies’ wealth is proportional to the plunder and rape of the peripheries, or in the opposite case, that imperialism simply doesn’t exist, contrast to the spirit of this article. These vulgar approaches to imperialism also lead to questionable political conclusions, as I will show in the following paragraphs.
Some leftists, especially those outside the marxist tradition, either identify imperialism merely through the military adventures of the global hegemon – The United States – and its allies, or don’t even talk about it. Their silence then suggests that the only class and power dynamics that matter are national – within the sovereignty of the nation-state. In this simplistic picture, the rich and politicians hoard a national GDP that they refuse to redistribute to the hard working american or canadian workers. This is the picture of mainstream social democracy. This limited view of class exploitation and wealth redistribution, where the relevant economic agents lie within the nation’s borders, can devolve in some cases to national chauvinism – with slogans such as “british jobs for british workers”.
The opposite argument, which is equally vulgar, simplifies the core-periphery relationship by posing a unidirectional flow of value from the periphery to the core, implying that the global north’s wealth is a function of the global south’s pauperization. Some of them, such as the followers of J. Sakai, argue that most of the white working class is in the core economies is a “labor aristocracy”, and therefore exists in a parasitical relationship with the periphery (and oppressed minorities). In its more extreme variants, this argument implies that white workers are not exploited at all, and are just beneficiaries of imperialism. Often the political implications of these arguments boil down to a moralism or orientalism – “revolutionary consciousness” as a function of the degree of pauperization faced by a demographic, and a fetishization of the armed peasant movements that bubble up in faraway peripheries, such as the ones in India, Nepal, or Peru.
In order to to correct the vulgar models of imperialism (and capitalism) as delineated above, I will sketch a more complex picture. Imperialism emerges from the nonlinear and complex coupling of all the workers of the world. A global division of labour arises that sustains the world-hierarchy of states. The production of an airplane in a factory in Seattle couples agents that exist thousands of miles from each other: a child worker collecting cobalt with his bare hands in a Congolese mine, the Engineer credentialed by some prestigious american or european university, the unionized wielder that owns a mortgaged house in some american suburb, a bolt produced in a Mexican firm with lax safety regulations. The core economies enforce the smooth functioning of this global assembly line through financial and military means. Predatory loans, NAFTA, the World Bank, and the IMF, are some parts of this imperialist machinery. This imperialism creates feed-back effects in the global south, retarding the progress of certain parts of peripheral society, while accelerating the development of its profitable parts. Furthermore, the business cycle is displaced downward into the peripheries through the intensification of imperialist policies that extract a surplus. This surplus then is used to dampen the economic crises in the global north. Due to the secular trend of diminishing rate of profit experienced by the core economies since the 70s, imperialism intensifies in order to keep producing even more marginal returns. Imperialism is necessary to maintain the competitive edge of core economies, since a refusal to engage in predation will lead to the competitor states gaining the upper hand. Because social democracy is based on capitalist growth, rather the restructuring of society to serve human needs – it can only be maintained through the intensification of imperialism. In other words, the social-democrat that sees its task as merely the redistribution of the national GDP to its compatriot citizen-workers is either a chauvinist or an idiot.
However, the other extreme side of the debate, which sees the global north’s wealth as merely proportional to the exploitation of the periphery is also vulgar. A large bulk of the global north’s economic growth is based in capital intensive industries and the transformation of society into a productive, well-oiled machinery. Advances in science and technology due to centuries of capitalist competition leads to machinery and logistical apparatus that produce more fuel, cars, and computers per unit of labor time. In other words, a second of labor in the core is worth more than a second of peripheral labor, due to the accumulated and enormous mass of dead labour in the form of technology, institutions, and capital, which younger capitalist countries lack. Furthermore, capitalism in the core economies has domesticated society into an aggregate of cogs and springs that produce value: the well maintained roads that transport workers and commodities across firms, the rule of law that cracks down on criminality and enforces business as usual, the social peace supported by economic growth. This domestication of an amorphous human mass into well defined workers, capitalists, and technocrats contrasts to the chaos of peripheral societies, where kinship ties, fealty and honor, criminality, and fragmented institutions hamper the dominion of capital. This two properties of the system – domestication, and technological innovation, are tightly coupled, and feed off each other, causing much faster economic growth in the global north than in the peripheries. Therefore, the global north isn’t simply wealthier because of imperialism, but it legitimately produces more value per unit of labor time.
The complexity of imperialism raises some important political points. First, social-democracy, which is designed to coexist with the global market, can only be sustained by imperialism, simply because refusing imperial mechanisms would make the social democratic state less competitive. Furthermore, if the secular trend of diminishing rate of profit continues in the core economies, the returns from imperialism will decrease, as the purchasing power of workers and firms in the periphery lowers due to imperial policies, making the whole social democratic project unsustainable in the long run. Finally, The global coupling of the division of labour implies that socialism cannot be simply sustained in one country – simply because a sole country cannot develop the whole intricate division of labor necessary to sustain a modern society within a small, isolated geographic area. Thus, the fevered dreams of building socialism in an isolated third world country are empty – such socialism will be based on the export of raw resources, never unshackling it from imperialism. Greece, Venezuela, and arguably the old USSR, are testament to the bankruptcy of anti-capitalism in one country.
The existence of imperialism and the global coupling of all the workers of the world, require international socialist organization with transnational material ties – ties that don’t just reduce to the lip-service that we see in current anti-capitalist movements. Today’s socialists have the almost unsurmountable task of finding the complex nodes of the global assembly network in order to disrupt them. Finally, by uncovering the global couplings of the division of labor, socialists can begin dreaming about a global, socialist society that eschews unbounded growth in favor of human needs.