Understanding Imperialism of this Epoch

The New Imperial Challenge


Socialist Register 2004

Monthly Review Press

Pages 280

The 2004 volume of the socialist register is titled “The New Imperial Challenge”. It was planned before September 11 th, 2001 and reflects the theoretical debates amongst the left on the present phase of imperialism. The chapters pertain to debates on imperialism, economic underpinnings of the present imperialism, US energy strategy, ecological imperialism, NGOs, human rights, and US militarism. Several of the contributors are familiar names like Gregory Albo, Noam Chomsky, Leo Panitch, Aijaz Ahmed, and John Bellamy Foster.

Some of the key characteristics of the current imperialist epoch are: a) the dominance of large MNCs and their comprador ‘national’ allies that operate internationalised production networks and vie for international markets b) the state as an important instrument of capital c) finance capital’s dominance of production d) the presence of a single dominant imperial power in economic, political and military terms e) capital’s continued unfettered exploitation of nature driving the world towards an environmental crisis f) the strengthening of worldwide resistance against the vagaries of capital and consequent exploitation. The chapters in the socialist register address several of these issues.

The first article by Panitch and Gindin on “Global Capitalism and American Empire” discusses several theses of imperialism. It contends that capitalist imperialism needs to be understood as an extension of the theory of the capitalist state as opposed to the theory of economic stages or crises. Therefore, they argue, Lenin’s Imperialism is not as relevant in the analysis of ‘new’ imperialism since it is based on economic stages of capitalism. On the contrary, Lenin’s Imperialism is not merely an analysis based on economic stages but rather is a profound Marxist analysis of ‘imperialism of the times’. Lenin wrote “… in its economic essence imperialism is monopoly capitalism…. We must take special note of the … principal manifestations of monopoly capitalism, which are characteristics of the epoch we are examining.” 1 It is not possible to address this criticism at length here but it suffices to say that Lenin’s work has been de-contextualised from the times and the debates that it emerged from, thus, in turn, misinterpreting the work.

Harvey’s chapter “The New Imperialism,” which is based on a book by the same name, has also criticised Lenin for depicting imperialism as the last stage of capitalism. This incorrect attribution to Lenin of being deterministic is baseless. As an avowed historical materialist, Lenin wrote about his book, “From all that has been said in this book on the economic essence of imperialism, it follows that we must define it as capitalism in transition…” 2 Harvey’s analysis is primarily focused on the crises of over-accumulation, expressed as the surplus of capital and labour power that has necessitated geographical expansion. The chapter’s over-emphasis on over-accumulation does not clarify the role that other manifestations of capital play in the ‘new’ imperialism.

Nevertheless, both these chapters have some interesting bits of information. The inter- and intra- MNC transactions now constitute two thirds of foreign trade. This shows the dominance and monopoly power of the MNCs in the world. Panitch and Gindin assert that “the unconcealed imperial face… pertains to the increasing difficulties of managing a truly global informal empire – a problem that goes well beyond any change from (US) administration to administration.” 3 They are also optimistic that the unconcealed nature of the empire might broaden the mass appeal of the anti-imperialist struggles.

Ahmed, in his chapter, has avoided the phrase “New Imperialism” to substitute it with “ Imperialism Of Our Time.” The chapter gives a brief description of the history of colonialism and the present and past US administration’s role in expanding the empire. It agrees with Panitch and Gindin that it is the structural imperative of the current composition of global capital itself and not the ‘preference’ of a particular administration of pursuing a policy of a ‘formal’ vs. ‘informal’ empire.

In the chapter on “The Old and New Economics of Imperialism” Albo discusses the dimensions of new imperialism, some of which are competition through states, ‘internationalisation’ of foreign capital and contradictions in inter-capital relations. The US net debtor position because of its cumulative current account deficits since the 1970s is $ 2.7 trillion for 2002. Its deficit for 2002 alone is $ 450-500 billion, which is about 5% of the GDP. In order to balance these and other imbalances the US needs to import capital at about $ 2.7 billion a day! The dependence on foreign money to finance these excesses has increased at a rapid pace and hence its economic vulnerability.

Based on articles from Frontline and Znet, Chomsky has a chapter on “The Truths and Myths about the Invasion of Iraq”. Comparing the resistance before/during the Vietnam and recent Iraq invasions, the chapter notes that the protests started after millions of Vietnamese had been driven to concentration camps while the massive Iraq protests started well before the invasion. In the recent protests, the ‘counter demonstrators’ are conspicuous by their absence. The article also notes that US ruling elite has realised the public’s lack of tolerance for aggression and violence, the ‘Vietnam Syndrome’, thus most US imperial interventions are either clandestine and/or short.

In a related chapter on “Blood for Oil: The Bush Cheney Energy Strategy,” Klare discusses how petroleum, which accounts for two-fifths of total energy supply, is the most critical resource for the US. The anxiety levels of US planners have soared as petroleum imports have crossed the 50% mark first time in US history. The necessity to ensure stable long-term energy supplies has important implications on US foreign policy. The geographic regions that are major suppliers of oil are the Persian Gulf, Caspian Sea basin, West coast of Africa, and Latin America. As is well known the gulf region has about 65% of the world petroleum reserves. The Caspian Sea basin, which consists of several states formerly part of the Soviet Union, has the potential of becoming the second largest source of untapped reserves. The West African countries of Angola and Nigeria are important sources of petroleum and their production is slated to double under US pressure. Thus the total ‘assistance’ to Angola and Nigeria has increased sharply to $300 million. They will also receive surplus arms under the Pentagon’s Excess Defense Articles (EDA) program and, interestingly enough, other oil producing African countries will qualify too. Venezuela, Columbia, and Mexico, have been the focus of US’s Latin American foreign policy. Not coincidently they are the major oil suppliers, and especially Columbia and Venezuela have anti-imperialist movements that can pose a threat. Therefore, major financing of the Andean initiative has been instrumental in promoting covert and overt operations in the region. Since the American military strategy is shaped by the energy policy and the emphasis is on well-equipped and versatile forces, named ‘power projection’ forces, which could be sent to distant regions to protect vital installations.

A few of the chapters in the socialist register are very disappointing. The two that especially stand out are the articles by Saul and Aysha. It is also not clear how these two chapters complement the other chapters in the register. The article by Aysha could have become an important article if it had addressed in-depth the cultural aspect of the imperial challenge. The chapter on “Human Rights as Swords of Empire” cannot even qualify as a Marxist writing. As the authors ask the left to develop “a more nuanced analysis of international institutions, global political public spheres and cosmopolitan principles like human rights” there is hardly any analysis of imperial institutions such as Ford Foundation and Human Rights Watch or continuing violation of human rights in Iraq, Venezuela, Haiti and Columbia, to name a few. The chapter reminds one of the Hardt and Negri genre of writing. The chapter on “NGO Dilemmas” is equally disappointing. Wallace provides some interesting data on British NGOs but the chapter does not analyse the explicit and implicit link between NGOs and various institutions of imperialism. Similarly, although, it provides data on NGOs’ dependence on the institutions of the state and on creation of ‘multinational and monopoly’ NGOs, it does not provide an in depth analysis.

Sutcliff’s “Crossing Borders in the New Imperialism” is on geographical migration of people in the world. Some facts illustrate the ironies of this era of globalisation e.g. although only about 3 % of the population lives in countries that is not the country of their birth while capital ‘migrates’ around the world uncontrolled and, on an average, 20% of people’s consumption is imported. Sutcliff thinks that the struggle for socialism in the advanced capitalist countries is inevitably linked with the struggle for immigrant rights there and equality worldwide.

One of the best chapters in the register is by Foster and Clark on “Ecological Imperialism: The Curse of Capitalism”. This chapter borrows heavily from Foster’s previous work ‘Marx and Ecology’. It emphasizes that further work within Marxist theory should be conducted on ecological materialist analysis of capitalism. Ecological imperialism includes the environmental pillage of countries and peoples to the global ‘metabolic rift,’ which characterises the relation of capitalism and environment and constrains capitalist development itself. Drawing interesting parallels between British colonialism and US imperialism and their common historic quest for resources, the article discusses the ‘Nitrate Wars’ in the context of present “Oil Wars”.

In early nineteenth century England, industrialised agriculture had robbed the soil of nutrients and thus colonial quest for Nitrate began. As the agriculturists wanted nitrate fertilizers to compensate for lost nutrients, a world wide search led to the nitrate fields of Peru and Bolivia. When the Peruvian government, in 1875, imposed a state monopoly on nitrate zones, expropriating the holdings of largely British investors, the Nitrate Wars began. With British built navy and French-trained army, Chile was able to capture for Britain the nitrate rich regions of Bolivia and Peru. Then, US Secretary of State said that this was an “… English war on Peru… there was never anything played out so boldly in the world as when they came to divide the loots and the spoils.” The irony of nitrate and oil! Currently this contradiction is exacerbated by the need of rich countries’, i.e. 25% of the population, appetite for 75% of world resources. Wars and global warming are just two major consequences of this voracious appetite that might threaten the very existence of the human species. In order to establish harmonious relation with the environment, they conclude that the real curse to be exorcised is capitalism itself.

Capitalism voracious and unquenchable appetite for more – more profits, more natural resources, more consumption, more pollution, more military, more oppression – at the expense of less – less wages, less food, less water, less health, less quality education, less security – for most of the population is driving the world towards an impending disaster. Unless, of course, most of the people can stop this imperial juggernaut. The socialist register 2004 is an addition to debates on imperialism. It is not only important to study imperialism but also to study resistance and hopefully in the next few issues we will have more debates on how to resist imperialism. Imperialism is not only a juggernaut but also a paper tiger. People have to resist and ensure that the paper tiger is laid to rest soon.

– PB

  1. V. I. Lenin, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, Leftword Books, 2000, page 146.
  2. V. I. Lenin, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, Leftword Books, 2000, page 149.
  3. The New Imperial Challenge, Socialist Register 2004, Monthly Review Press, Pg. 30.