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The Contemporary Contours of Imperialism

School Begins from Puck Magazine 1-25-1899)

Caricature showing Uncle Sam lecturing four children labelled Philippines (who appears similar to Philippine leader Emilio Aguinaldo), Hawaii, Porto[sic] Rico and Cuba in front of children holding books labelled with various U.S. states. Originally published on p. 8-9 of the January 25, 1899 issue of Puck magazine. Caption:School Begins. Uncle Sam (to his new class in Civilization): "Now, children, you've got to learn these lessons whether you want to or not! But just take a look at the class ahead of you, and remember that, in a little while, you will feel as glad to be here as they are!" Blackboard: The consent of the governed is a good thing in theory, but very rare in fact / England has governed her colonies whether they consented or not. By not waiting for their consent she has greatly advanced the world's civilization / The U.S. must govern its new territories with or without their consent until they can govern themselves. Poster:The Confederated States refused their consent to be governed; But the Union was preserved without their consent. By Louis Dalrymple. This image is available from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs divisionunder the digital ID ppmsca.28668.

Chirashree Das Gupta is a political economist and associate professor at the Centre for the Study of Law and Governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Sunanda Sen and Maria Cristina Marcuzzo, eds., The Changing Face of Imperialism: Colonialism to Contemporary Capitalism (New York: Routledge, 2018), 338 pages, $145, hardcover.

Situated largely within the Marxist debates on imperialism—but addressing the liberal formulations too—The Changing Face of Imperialism: Colonialism to Contemporary Capitalism is an important intervention regarding the material basis of imperialism and its three-hundred-year-old history of unequal power relations. The book consists of an introduction by the editors, Sunanda Sen and Maria Cristina Marcuzzo, followed by fourteen chapters arranged thematically. Five chapters are devoted to exploring the conceptual basis of imperialism, three to analyses of patterns of contemporary imperialism, another three chapters to the relationship between imperialism and colonial control, and the last three to the link between contemporary capitalism and the Indian economy.

The book broadly addresses five issues: (1) the nature of finance capital and the novel yet familiar processes of value extraction; (2) the world of capital; (3) global production networks and labor regimes; (4) the institutional system of nation-states in the new global order; and (5) the nature of integration from colonial regimes to now.

The discussions on finance capital are hinged on the differences between the John Hobson-Rudolf Hilferding-V. I. Lenin thesis and the notions of contemporary imperialism advanced by Prabhat Patnaik and Satyaki Roy. Patnaik, Roy, and Noemi Levi Orlik all analyze the implication of the political hegemony of the dollar and the rentier accumulation that characterizes this regime of primary accumulation of finance capital. Anjan Chakrabarti, Roy, John Smith, and Byasdeb Dasgupta locate the specificities of value-extraction processes in the structure and nature of global production networks and contemporary labor regimes. However, Chakrabarti and Dasgupta veer toward an analysis of contemporary imperialism that bases the labor process in informality and dualism. Surajit Mazumdar argues that the discussion on the nature of the integration of countries like India into the global circuit of capital has been on subordinate terms and has led to a premature deindustrialization in the case of India. Subhanil Chowdhury demonstrates the ambiguities of the definition of foreign direct investment and the lack of maneuvering space for the bourgeoisies of India and China. Amiya Bagchi, Sen, Gerald Epstein, and Utsa Patnaik address the possibilities and limits of the nation-state in an imperialist international order. In doing so, the focus is on both the relationship between the metropolitan working class and the metropolitan ruling classes, as well as the relationship between the metropolitan working class and the working class of the periphery. This creates room for the debate on decoupling to be addressed in fresh ways. It also points to the possibilities and limits of South-South and North-South solidarities.

In the opening essay, titled “Imperialism, the ‘Old’ and the ‘New’: Departures and Continuities,” Roy provides a critical overview of the major Marxian theories and debates on imperialism. Among all the debates, he argues, the most contentious has been that on the role of the nation-state. He concludes that “oppressors of the world at various levels are far more integrated and interdependent than ever before but the complex network of hierarchies that characterize the current phase of capitalist domination is always potent with fissures and ruptures that might not have a national character as it used to be earlier” (34). He argues that, in the sphere of distribution, conflicts today are more apparent in terms of class than between nations.

Smith, in his essay “Marx’s Capital and the Global Crisis,” provides a value theory of contemporary imperialism that reinforces Roy’s argument but moves it from the sphere of distribution to the sphere of creation of value. He contends that neoliberal globalization is solely dependent on the global labor arbitrage “arising from the higher degree of exploitation prevalent in export-oriented industries in low wage nations” (56). According to Smith, this superexploitation is based on the third form of surplus-value increase in Marx’s exposition, whereby capitalists outsource production and push “the wage of the worker down below the value of his labour power,” effectively capturing additional value from low-wage countries (52). This form of value capture is distinct from the more familiar increases in absolute and relative surplus value, and is the defining feature of the neoliberal era. Thus, national solutions based on xenophobia that intensify this form of value capture are unworkable. Struggles to abolish national racial hierarchies and tremendous disparities, based on the principle of equality of all working people, are the only way forward for Smith.

In “Reflections on Contemporary Imperialism,” Prabhat Patnaik focuses on the contemporary phase of imperialism as the hegemony of international finance capital, which is distinct from the finance capital of the early twentieth century that was the subject of Lenin’s analysis as well as Karl Kautsky’s thesis of “internationally united finance capital.” Finance capital requires an unrestricted arena of operations, globally leading to a muting of interimperialist rivalry. But while finance capital is international, the state remains a nation-state: “The state must willy-nilly bow to the wishes of finance capital” and, to justify this change, “the interests of finance are increasingly passed off as being synonymous with the interests of society” (65, my italics). This hegemony of finance capital has thrown up new contradictions, the most significant of which is a reduction in the share of wages in total world output. Neoliberalism has created a “tendency towards overproduction engendering inequalities in world income distribution” (70). It undermines the capacity of the state to play a role in demand management and saddles it with acute current account deficits. The crisis manifests primarily as a crisis of aggregate demand in the first world, with unemployment and unutilized capacities. In addition to these conditions, which also prevail in the third world, the third world sees an impoverishment of peasants and petty producers through a process of primitive accumulation. But this latter difference is important as the class alliances in the struggle against imperialism shift.

In his essay “The Particularity of Imperialism in the Stage of Neoliberal Globalization and Global Capitalism: A Dialogue between Nikolai Bukharin and Aimé Césaire,” Chakrabarti attempts to synthesize Bukharin’s concept of the colonial “outside in a spatial sense,” with imperialism as a policy of conquest, along with Césaire’s outside, that is, the “perspective of/from the ‘Negro’ location” (78). The argument is that these two perspectives are synthesized to formulate a theory of the outside, which the author calls world of the third. This outside is not only a product of imperialism, driven by the nation-state—what is called external imperialism—but also of “domestically induced policy of conquest of world of the third carried out at the behest of global capital” (79). This is achieved in the contemporary period with reforms of domestic neoliberal policies, along with alliances with the political and business establishments of other nation-states, such as the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations countries. The policy of conquest involves both repressive and ideological apparatuses of the ruling dispensation, which “help tie global capital to all corners of the globe.” Thus, imperialism cannot be ended without ending capitalism. Anti-imperialism should be a work that encompasses both the so-called external and internal in world of the third.

Based on a wide array of data, Chowdhury, in his chapter “Is Imperialism a Relevant Concept in Today’s World?,” argues that much of the developing countries’ rising share of world gross domestic product is from a small set of BRICS countries, the most significant being China and India. Moreover, this growth has not led to any significant rise in workers’ wages in developing countries, even though capitalists in these countries have amassed huge amounts of wealth. Thus, the third world continues to exist but new aspiring capitalists from these countries are “staking their claim in the global capitalist order” (113). Despite the huge current account deficit of the United States, dollar hegemony continues, backed by U.S. military might and arms trade, as well as the country’s strict control over the oil-producing regions of the world through war. Thus, imperialism remains ever-relevant to understanding the current conjuncture.

The second part of the book focuses on patterns of contemporary imperialism with two essays on Latin America and one on the United States. Orlik argues that, aside from wage depression, financialization and neomercantilism have been the new modes of surplus appropriation in Latin America in the age of neoliberalism. There is, of course, a pecking order in the appropriation of this surplus: the United States at the top, followed by other developed countries that control technology, then developing countries with external current account surpluses and high investment spending, and, at the bottom, the Latin American and Caribbean economies that adopted neomercantilism but failed to achieve external surpluses and were forced to liberalize their financial markets. Bagchi examines the political economy of hope and fear, both of which signify Latin America. Since most of the left-wing regimes in Latin America depend on revenue from oil and gas to maintain their social-democratic programs, any decline in prices of these commodities creates disaffection, which is then manipulated by the United States to destabilize left-wing regimes, as was done in Brazil and Venezuela. Thus, argues Bagchi, the only way to be an “effective buffer” against U.S. imperial interference is to become less dependent on nonrenewable resources (168). Gerald Epstein dwells on the peculiarities of the United States as the leader of imperialist nations, a point also addressed by Radhika Desai in her book Geopolitical Economy (London: Pluto, 2013). Epstein argues that in the period between 1985 and 2000, the U.S. working class did not gain from imperialism. On the contrary, it suffered huge material losses by bearing the cost of military power and wars, not to mention from wage compression reflected in consumption shares.

The world of capital and its outside is addressed in the section on imperialism and the colonial context. Essays by Sen and Utsa Patnaik establish the twin nature of unrequited transfers from colonial India that financed the proliferation of the British empire—from the unrequited exports of labor from India to the unrequited trade surplus under British colonialism. Sabyasachi Bhattacharya argues that “standardization of labour regulations through an international legal/normative regime was one of the means” of overcoming the wage-cost differentials that the colonialists faced due to higher wages in the metropole (261). But this regulatory regime covered a miniscule part of the Indian labor force and left the bulk outside its ambit, thus proliferating the wage-cost differential.

The last section of the book explores the relationship between contemporary capitalism and the Indian economy. The penetration of finance, insurance, and real estate is an important aspect of this relationship, as demonstrated empirically by Sukanya Bose and Abhishek Kumar. Dasgupta elucidates the modalities of global capitalism today that thrives on “ensuring greater control of labour through flexible labour regime world over” (308). Neoliberal flexible labor rules are imposed on distant lands by contemporary imperialism through the aegis of multilateral institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Mazumdar presents a detailed study of the nature of India’s integration into the global market and demonstrates, through a range of empirical evidence, that the “underlying and entrenched vulnerabilities and dependencies inherent in the nature of Indian integration also circumscribes its capacity to play an autonomous leading role on the global stage, whether as a partner or as a rival of advanced capitalisms” (327).

The book’s unique analytical edge lies in the distinctively collaborative, intellectual, and political enterprise it presents between scholars of the North and the South. And despite the heterogeneity of its component sections and chapters, the book contains a central, running thread. The penetration of finance as an autonomous sphere of accumulation is the sine qua non of imperialism in contemporary times. This has had several manifestations—the most significant of which has been worsening income distribution. But what comes out most significantly is the continued flow of unrequited transfers. The colonial triangular trade, home charges, taxation, and rent, along with labor and commodity exports, were different ways in which this unrequited transfer was perpetuated by the colonial regime in different periods of history. Contemporary imperialism has shifted to direct value capture—that is, pure exploitation and superexploitation—through global production networks and global value chains. To do this, the nation-state is invaluable in maintaining the uneven world through borders, not only for cross-border rentier capital flows but also to ensure conditions of global labor arbitrage for the purpose of value capture. It also ensures that no autonomous development is possible for so-called emerging economies. Thus, the nation-state is the sole entity that maintains all social conditions and institutions that capital requires for its daily operations within the imperialist structure.

These arguments open up the question of the main site of resistance to imperialism. Prabhat Patnaik argues that the nation-state, for all of its institutional specificities of maintaining the class order, remains the main site of resistance to imperialism, while Chakrabarti locates resistance in the conjuncture of both negritude and class. Smith focuses on the emergent North-South solidarities as the site of resistance. Mazumdar emphasizes the need to develop popular struggles that will alter the balance of class forces—the bulwark of contemporary imperialism.

The Changing Face of Imperialism, rich in its intellectual offerings, raises further questions. For example, what is the relationship between contemporary imperialism and the rise of neofascism across the world in the last three to four decades? How does imperialism constitute the institutional conditions of social reproduction that, in turn, constitute the reproduction of the contemporary capitalist system? These and many other questions are not addressed, but the book is a useful point of entry or departure for finding ways and means of resisting contemporary imperialism.

2019, Volume 71, Issue 02 (June 2019)
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