Saturday, March 25, 2006

Imperialism and globalisation

Heavyweight Marxist theory alert. Consider what follows as the blogging equivalent of a full-length weekend newspaper supplement think piece. I'm happy to take on any hardcore Trot headbangers out there who fancy a Lenin quotefest on this one. Normal people may well have better things to do with their spare time.

As is always the case with theory, there are implications for praxis. I believe the SWP's mistaken understanding of imperialism in the current period has led the largest organisation on the British left to dump the self-emancipation of the working class as the organising principle of its politics.

That's how come Socialist Worker can end up carrying without criticism articles upholding al Qa'eda politics as 'the new anti-imperialist ideology'. And anti-imperialism just has to be a good thing, doesn't it, comrades?

How should the revolutionary left make sense of world politics today? Does the end of formal empires equal the end of imperialism? Or is US occupation of Iraq the rebirth of direct colonialism?

And does globalisation today represent something qualitatively different to the ‘globalisation’ of 100 years ago? Questions such as these are currently at the forefront of current debates in radical international political economy.

Many of our top theoreticians take a ‘back to the Leninist future, stance, making the case that we are now entering a period comparable to 1880-1914. And we all know how that particular movie ends.

This camp includes writers such as Alex Callinicos in The New Mandarins of American Power, Alan Freeman and Boris Kagarlitsky in The Politics of Empire: Globalisation in Crisis and writers around the US Marxist journal Monthly Review, in a volume called Imperialism Now.

By contrast, other writers believe that much has changed over the intervening decades, and attempt to theorise it in a more-or-less Marxist fashion. Particularly interesting here are Michael Hart and Toni Negri in Empire, Leo Panitch and Colin Leys in The New Imperial Challenge: Socialist Register 2004 and David Harvey in The New Imperialism.

And what if all aof them re wrong? If the neoliberal permanent revolution brings world peace and prosperity to all - as proponents insist it can - then capitalism is only beginning. The socialist project is definitively over.

Mutatis mutandis, the Marxist tradition retains much explicatory value. But there is still a job of work to be done in understanding the latest trends. Globalisation is a complex phenomenon, not entirely without progressive aspects. One might with justification describe it as a new stage of capitalism. And it is at least the second new stage since Lenin famously declared imperialism to be the culmination of capitalist development.

After the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the take-off in globalisation in the years that followed, writers in the British SWP tradition - led by Callinicos and Chris Harman - initially predicted the rise of what they called ‘the New Imperialism’.

They maintained that ‘the West’ had been frozen into a more or less cohesive unit by the Cold War. With the demise of the USSR, it would unfreeze, initiating a dangerous period of intensified inter-imperialist rivalry.

Many on both right and left would now either regard this picture as over-simplified, or just not recognise it at all. For liberals and neoliberals, all is essentially well. The odd rogue state here and there might be kept in line, by force if need be. But developed countries are increasingly interdependent, and have too much to lose by going to war. Interestingly, Callinicos has partially backpedalled, particularly following his recent polemic with Panitch and Gindin.

For Hardt and Negri - popular thinkers in the anticapitalist movement - the Leninist concept of imperialism is no longer applicable. Competition between nation-states has given way to a single power, namely ‘Empire‘. Empire, they argue, is ‘post-colonial, post-imperialist‘. As they see it, ‘in this smooth space of Empire, there is no place of power - it is everywhere and nowhere’.

Harvey draws explicit parallels between Marx’s famous account of the primitive accumulation of capital in England and the mass privatisations across the third world, which he dubs ‘accumulation by dispossession’. This represents ‘the heart of contemporary imperialist practice’ since the economic crisis of the 1970s, and is the primary contradiction that must be confronted by the antiglobalisation movement.

For Harvey, the working classes in the advanced capitalist countries made the mistake of supporting imperialism to prop up their own privileges. Thus classical class struggle will not represent the main form of fightback within civil society. That role is now played by resistance to the destruction of habitats, bio-piracy and expulsions from the land.

Panitch and Gindin have attempted consistently to theorise globalisation in Marxist categories, to my mind producing what is at the very least a credible framework for further debate. In their polemic with Callinicos, they summarise their position thus:

‘Our argument is that there was a fundamental transformation in capitalist imperialism in the last half century along the following lines: (a) the closest linkages among capitalist states were now between the American state and the other states of the West, rather than with the South as in the old imperial era; (b) the internationalisation of capital was fundamentally different in the second half of the twentieth century than in the nineteenth and early twentieth, based as it now was on foreign direct investment and the multinational corporation; (c) the interpenetration of production and finance in the contemporary era dissolved the coherence of the old national bourgeoisies that was the basis of the earlier inter-imperial rivalries; (d) what Marx in the Grundrisse called “many capitals” came to depend on many states; and (e) the internationalisation of the state reflected this in terms of the responsibilities states took on for managing the contradictions and crises of global capitalism, while still trying to make their territorial spaces attractive as sites of accumulation for foreign as well as domestic bourgeoisies.’

As Callinicos puts it, Panitch and Gindin believe that the historic achievement of the US state after world war two was the construction of a ‘transnational economic and geopolitical space that unified the entire advanced capitalist world under US leadership’.

Through the ‘partial dissociation of economic and geopolitical competition’ - a notion that Callinicos as an over-reverent Bukharinite clearly has difficulty with - economic rivalry no longer has the same inherent potential for military confrontation.

In addition, Panitch and Gindin argue the economic crisis of the 1970s was resolved through a neoliberal revolution that broke the power of organised labour, reconstituting capitalist dynamism under US hegemony. The result was, in a word, globalisation.

The parallels with Kautskyite notions of ultraimperialism - the idea that rival imperialist powers could form some sort of cartel to exploit the rest of the world, which has been considered heresy ever since it emerged - are obvious. Yet the model appears to me to have greater explanatory power than SWP-style flat earth Leninism.

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