By V Upadhyay
What is imperialism, specifically in today’s context and in the framework of Marxist political economy? Many Marxist thinkers associate imperialism with capitalism. However, ‘the Marxist theory of Imperialism’ does not have much to do with Marx.
Marx had written extensively on colonial exploitation in reference to India, Ireland and China. But most of his writings were in the form of comments in response to contemporary events and, thus, were not part of the core of his theoretical analysis focused on the historical development of capitalism.
Borrowed from Lenin
The Marxist theory of imperialism largely comes from Lenin’s writings. Lenin’s book Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916) has been the most influential work in this field. The book’s central theme is: Imperialism is the monopoly stage of capitalism. According to Lenin, ‘capitalism’s transition to the stage of monopoly capitalism, to finance capital, is connected with the intensification of the struggle for the partitioning of the world.’
There have been many works on the subject of imperialism in recent years that link imperialism with the working of capitalism at the global stage. Global capitalism’s international transactions of trade and investment, at least in theory, entail two-way exchange (ie, these involve a quid pro quo). These exchanges are always unequal in capitalism. Extraction of surplus is made possible only because of the unequal nature of the capitalistic exchanges.
However, basing the analysis of imperialism primarily on the global capitalistic relations of trade and investment invariably leads to very weak hypotheses, and at times, to absurd propositions. David Harvey, an internationally recognised theorist, suggests that Western countries are now being exploited by some Eastern countries. He writes, “The historical draining of wealth from East to West for more than two centuries has….been largely reversed over the last thirty years.”
When theorists of imperialism associate imperialism with capitalism, the extraction of surplus and loot, and plunder of the Global South by the Western countries by various means other than the usual market-based methods are marginalised in their analysis. These direct, non-market forms of draining wealth from the Global South are referred to as ‘territorial’ or ‘gratis’ (one-way transfer).
Lenin did not analyse the impact colonisation had on the colonies. In that sense, it was not a work on colonialism per se. But any evaluation of Lenin’s work has to take into account the historical developments taking place in the early part of the 20th century. Lenin’s writings during that period should be seen in the context of the politics of the Second International, an organisation of socialist and labour parties. Most national parties that composed the International supported their respective nations’ role in World War I. Lenin’s Bolshevik faction was the only major centre of opposition to the war.
Samir Amin, who wrote on imperialism for several decades, defines imperialism in the present context as having two components – economic and political (referring to interventions and pre-emptive wars). Although Amin includes the political dimension in his framework, the focus of his analysis remains on the economic aspects.
The foregoing analysis shows that the linking of imperialism with capitalism is deeply problematic. This framework may have served a purpose in the past but it is incapable of understanding the horrifying reality of today where imperialist aggression poses a threat to life itself on the planet. There is thus a need to look at these two phenomena – capitalism and imperialism – as interlinked yet different, and independent of each other.
The most significant aspect of the geopolitical reality today is that imperialism is becoming increasingly aggressive. The general environment of insecurity created by the hegemonic powers is the reason why the vast majority of global population is unable to choose paths of living of their own choice.
A new definition of imperialism is required in today’s context. Most importantly, imperialism needs to be analytically differentiated from capitalism. Imperialism today needs to be conceptualised in terms of gratis plus the threats that imperialist countries pose to the rest of the world or even to the planet itself.
Dimensions of Imperialism
The dimensions in which imperialism today manifests itself are: colonial, climate change, dangerous technologies, and economic. The issues of trade and migration, which are commonly interpreted through the lens of imperialism, are better understood as matters related to national sovereignty and global capitalism.
After the Second World War, most of the colonies gained independence from direct Western occupation. With the dissolution of the Soviet bloc around 1990, the phase of Western hegemony (unipolarity) started with the US becoming the ‘sole’ superpower. During the early phase of unipolarity, the Western imperialist powers (particularly the US) generally refrained from pursuing colonial conquests in Third World countries.
In the beginning of the 21st century, however, Western colonial conquests restarted. The West did not want the window of opportunity provided by the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union to pass. In the early years of the new century, the West resorted to war in Afghanistan and Iraq as a means to maintain its control over global resources (especially petroleum). Later, Libya and Syria became the target of Western aggression. Many countries in West Asia, Middle East and North Africa are facing full-scale war that are interlinked. In all these wars, there is a direct and heavy involvement of Western powers.
Fear of (imminent) war is gripping many nations, small and large. This fear has created a situation where acceleration of war-preparedness efforts can be witnessed everywhere. There is a renewed arms race based on technological sophistication. The size of the United States’ defence budget is more than $700 billion. The US spends more on defence than China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, India, France, United Kingdom and Japan combined. The US is always fighting concurrent wars in many countries.
The climate change phenomenon has acquired life-threating dimensions. Excessive consumption of natural resources, especially of fossil fuels, over a very long period in the West is the major source of our environmental ills. The US and the European countries have historically been the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases.
Scientists say global average temperature must not increase more than 2 degrees Celsius compared with pre-industrial levels. But global average temperature has already recorded an increase of more than 1 degree Celsius. 17 of the 18 warmest years since modern record-keeping began in the late 19th Century have occurred in the 21st century.
New developments in the areas of warfare technology, biotechnology, artificial intelligence (AI) and surveillance technology, governed by laws of capital accumulation with link to high S&T and pursuit of economic growth, threaten the very survival of life on the planet. These are thus imperialist in character. Major nuclear powers are now engaged in efforts to modernise their arsenals. New anti-missile technologies and the plans to build low yield nuclear weapons are disturbing the equilibrium that has existed in the post-World War II period.
There is now increasing use of AI in the development of harmful technologies such as advance weapons/warfare technology and surveillance technology. Unregulated and uncontrolled progress in AI could in the future pose an existential threat to the human race. Biotechnology produces genetic modification of existing organism or leads to creation of new ones. Genetically engineered biological agents pose serious risks to the human race. Advancement in biotechnology could lead to modification of humans, altering the very meaning of humanity. Intentional or unintentional release of engineered virus or use of biological weapons could cause damage to existing ecosystems in unforeseen ways.
One major pillar of America’s imperial power is its currency, the dollar. Dollar’s present strength is a legacy of the colonial era. Displacing the British pound, the US dollar has been the world’s most dominant reserve currency since World War II. Most governments and institutions hold their foreign exchange reserves largely in dollars (in the form of US Treasury bills).
In international trade transactions/payments and international investments, the US dollar is the most used currency. This makes America a great financial superpower. Due to a high degree of acceptability of its currency, America continues to exercise enormous control on global economic matters without much challenge from any quarter, at least, yet. The dollar’s continuing dominance in global trade and financial transactions gives the US tremendous power to hurt its adversaries, as well as those countries that refuse to follow its dictates, through actions such as economic sanctions.
Excluded: Trade and Migration
The world has been witnessing a trade war in recent years which is intensifying by the day. The US is engaged in a multi-front trade confrontation with several countries. The main target of US protectionist measures is, however, China whose economic rise the US desperately wants to stop. The US has imposed tariffs on almost all Chinese imports. Not only that, the US government is planning to put restrictions on Chinese investments in ‘sensitive’ US industries.
But protectionist policies, particularly tariffs, hurt not only the targeted countries but also the countries that impose them. Tariff imposition by one country leads to retaliation by its trading partners. Once a country adopts protectionist policies, it soon turns into a ‘war of each against all.’ The anti-trade policies/measures need to be seen from the perspectives of globalisation, global capitalism, and sovereign national policies.
The political landscape in the US and Europe is now witnessing increasing domination of xenophobic ideology. There are widespread anti-immigration sentiments openly espoused not only by extreme right populist fringe groups but also most mainstream, traditional political parties. Anti-immigrant sentiment now cuts across the old left-right political divide.
The US and European Union are taking steps that seek to severely restrict/control immigration. While migration issues, like tariffs and other anti-trade measures, need to be seen from the perspectives of globalisation and sovereign national policies, the case of war refugees is, however, different as it has colonial/imperialist dimensions.
(The author is SK Dey Chair Professor, Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi, and Co-Editor of Global Political Economy: A Critique of Contemporary Capitalism, Aakar Books, Delhi, 2021)
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