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Anti-imperialism and anti-capitalism, inextricably bound together (The Dialectics of Dependency reviewed in ‘Counterfire’)

The Dialectics of Dependency
By Ruy Mauro Marini
Coedited by Amanda Latimer and Jaime Osorio.
Translated by Amanda Latimer
228 pages / Paper $26.00 / 9781583679821

Reviewed by Orlando Hill for Counterfire

There has been a lot of talk among sectors on the left of the concept of hyper-imperialism: a new stage of imperialism where the main contradiction is between the global north and the global south. The ruling class (the bourgeoisie) in the south is seen as the victim of the global north. In this muddled context, I found reading the Dialectics of Dependency, an analysis based on Marxism and a thorough reading of Lenin, sobering.

Ruy Mauro Marini (1932-1997) began his intellectual journey as a Law student at the University of Brazil (today the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro) at a time of heated debate over how to develop Latin America and free it from economic dependency. He was initially drawn to the Communist position of nationalism and development. According to this view, Latin America could only break from its dependency through a bourgeois democratic revolution. A slightly different view was defended by the UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America and Caribbean (CEPAL). Latin America’s dependency was seen as an internal structural problem. Development could be achieved through a programme of import substitution.

In 1958, Marini left Brazil for Paris to study sociology on a grant from the French government. Over the next year and a half, he completed his political formation by encountering people from across the globe and studying Marx, Hegel and particularly Lenin. Later when reflecting on his time in Paris he wrote:

‘The theories of development so in vogue in the United States and in European centres were revealed to me as what they really were: an instrument of mystification and domestication of the oppressed peoples of the Third World and a weapon with which imperialism sought to confront the problems created in the postwar period by decolonization’ (p.32)

Before leaving for France, Marini had entered in contact with Brazilian militants with whom he would form the Revolutionary Marxist Organisation – Worker Politics (better known as POLOP). This was the first organisation of the revolutionary left to emerge in Brazil and would challenge the Communist Party’s reformist strategy of an alliance between the national bourgeoisie and the working classes. POLOP recognised that Brazil was already a ‘mature capitalist country and not a semicolonial one as per the PCB [Communist Party] thesis’ (p.36). The anti-imperialist struggle had to be simultaneously anti-capitalist.

Development orthodoxy

It was from this context that the dialectics of dependency theory emerged. The hegemonic view at the time, defended by the PCB, saw Latin America as undergoing a precapitalist stage – with feudal-style relationships in the countryside – that prevented the development of the productive forces. The strategy formulated by the so-called orthodox Marxists was to unite with the national bourgeoise so as to break from the straitjacket of the pre-capitalist mode of production and develop the forces of production. This approach resulted in what Marini described as a deviation in which the concrete fact is substituted for the abstract concept, ‘the dynamic of the processes under study is poured into a formal mould incapable of reconstructing it at a level of exposition; and in which the relation between the concrete and the abstract is broken giving rise to empirical descriptions that run parallel to the theoretical discourse without merging with it’ (p.114).

In 1964, reality came crashing into the ‘theoretical discourse’ when the Brazilian bourgeoise funded and supported, with the backing of American imperialism, a coup against the democratically elected government of João Goulart and installed a military dictatorship that lasted two decades. The orthodox analysis of Brazil’s dependency left the PCB ill-prepared to offer any sort of resistance. Unfortunately, the view that the road to breaking with dependency by developing capitalism is still predominant in some sections of the left.

One of the first decrees issued by the military dismissed academics from the University of Brasilia, a centre for progressive thinking at the time. Marini was one of the lecturers. He fled to Rio, but was arrested and tortured. He was released in December 1964 and remained underground, until finally being granted asylum in Mexico.

During his time in Mexico, he was involved in the 1968 mass movement. In October the Mexican police opened fire on a student protest. The government blamed foreign agitators – including Marini – for turning ‘good Mexican youth against their own country’ (p.53). Marini’s time in Mexico became untenable and once again he went into exile, this time to Chile.

In Chile, he joined the Left Revolutionary Movement (MIR) in which he remained a life-long member. It was in the four brief years in Chile that he wrote most of his most celebrated works, among them the Dialectics of Dependency.

Marini described the work as an introduction to the laws of dependent capitalism. He hoped to develop a debate on the left. He argued that Latin American dependency could not be understood as a result of a pre-capitalist stage in its development. Rather than pre-capitalism, Latin America had a ‘sui generis capitalism that only makes sense if we examine it from the perspective of the system as a whole, both at the national and, mainly, at the international level’ (p.114).

Imperialist relations

Latin America, forged in the heat of commercial expansion in the sixteenth century, developed in close connection with the dynamics of international capital. Capitalism could not have developed in Europe if it were not for the precious metals and exotic goods exported from Latin America, first as commodities and then as means of payment. This expansion of commodities enabled the expansion of banking capital which financed the development of the manufacturing system. Later in the nineteenth century, Latin America’s export of food allowed the value of labour in Europe to depreciate. As a consequence, the relative surplus value gained by Western capitalists increased, as the time it took to recover the initial investment of the worker’s wage fell.

The ability to increase relative surplus value by the industrialised centre compared to peripheric countries created an unequal exchange. To compensate for the loss of income, the disadvantaged nations resorted to a greater exploitation of labour. Workers have been denied the possibility of consuming what is necessary to replenish their labour power. In Marxist terms, workers are forced to sell their labour power below its value. Marini termed this as the super-exploitation of labour. He understood that this phenomenon was not exclusive to peripheral countries. It is a universal tendency for capitalists to bypass the law of value and attempt to remunerate workers below their value. However, it is fundamental for the domestic bourgeoisie of peripheral countries. Super-exploitation creates a situation where surplus value cannot be realised in the domestic market. Workers are not seen as consumers as they are in developed countries. ‘The reproduction of super-exploitation in successive periods hinders the transition from absolute to relative surplus value in underdeveloped countries, thereby reproducing the pattern of dependent capitalism’ (p.64).

Another important concept in Marini’s theory is that of sub-imperialism. He wanted to counter the prevailing line that that blames coups in Latin America on US imperialism alone. Imperialism cannot be seen as a foreign body. This discourse erases the interests, actions, and culpability of the domestic bourgeoisie. Large fractions of industrial and finance capital and sections of the petit bourgeoisie played a crucial role in the 1964 coup. And would once again play the same role in overthrowing Dilma Rousseff.

After the second world war, the US assumed hegemony in the imperialist bloc. The increase in surplus capital in the US which could not be absorbed by the domestic market was exported to Latin America (particularly Brazil) in the form of foreign direct investment (FDI). This increased the integration of the domestic bourgeoisie with imperialism. ‘What we have, in reality, is the evolution of the Brazilian bourgeoisie toward the conscious acceptance of its integration with North American imperialism, an evolution resulting from the very logic of the economic and political dynamics of Brazil’ (p.45). Sub-imperialism works by opening up ‘regional markets for Brazilian industrial exports (including the products of a growing military-industrial complex) in a way that complements the expansion of U.S. multinationals rather than directly competing with them’ (p.46).

Imperialism is not a body foreign to the economic life of dependent countries. The domestic bourgeoisie have a contradictory relationship with US imperialism. On one hand they benefit from it, but there are tensions. Fundamental is that breaking with dependency means breaking with capitalism.

The Dialectics of Dependency: Ruy Mauro Marini

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