Robert Biel

Magnus Bernhardsen magnus.bernhardsen at
Mon Apr 22 09:53:03 MDT 2002

This is a contribution from Robert Biel to the opening of the International
League of People's Struggle in Zutphen, the Netherlands 2001.

The new page for ILPS is, this is form the old one at

Magnus B

Issues of Continuity and Change within Imperialism

Robert Biel

More than a century ago, the term imperialism was openly used by a number
of great industrial powers determined to subordinate and exploit the rest
of the world.

Around 1900, the left began to point out that imperialism is not just a
policy, but a product of powerful forces within capitalist economy and
society, driven by the big corporations and financial interests in their
drive to accumulate capital.

The key to understanding these forces is to view accumulation (i.e. the
expansion of capital) as a world process.

Conventionally, development is supposed to happen at a national level, with
a country's economy expanding in a self-sustaining way.  But in reality the
global circuits which pump capital and goods round the world system sweep
through the economies of the South.

Different parts of the South may suffer this in different ways, according
to the law of uneven development.  In some case this means that capital
can't fix itself locally, so development occurs in a distorted form. Or in
other cases there may be rapid industrial growth in the South, but is still
not really self-sustaining, it still needs a continued impulse
(capital-flows or markets, for example) from outside, and if the impulse
dries up, so will the development.  A third possibility is that value is
actually siphoned out of the country and feeds the growth of the centre.

Not only does the global system prevent coherent development at a local
level, but even the global level itself is very unstable.  Firstly, it
depends on continually plundering non-renewable resources from the
ecosystem.  Secondly, the established areas of the capitalist system like
industry aren't enough to guarantee accumulation, so the system is always
looking for new areas of life - food, culture, leisure, sport - to turn
into commodities.  Thirdly, it exhausts human labour: the flexible economy
gives people less income when they actually need more to pay for all the
services which increasingly become part of the profit system.  This burden
falls particularly heavily on women.

We need to understand how today's world system relates to the early
imperialist period which was analysed, nearly a century ago, by people like
Lenin.  Two things are important: Firstly, continuity: the concept of
imperialism is still valid, and many essential features from that early
period are still present; and secondly, the differences: there are some
areas where old-style imperialism had to change, and eventually was able to

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