thinking out loud

Ed George edgeorge at
Thu Jul 25 09:07:53 MDT 2002

Mark: first of all, as I said before, I thought your post was really
very thought-provoking and useful. It has seemed to me before that we
need to have this kind of 'through what stage are we passing' discussion
a little more often than we do. So though I might add caveats to what
you say and criticise certain aspects, please treat this as another
piece of thinking out loud.

First, some questions regarding China. Accepted the enormous size of its
economy, and rapidity of its growth, but are we not talking here about
something analogous with the first period of Soviet industrialisation?
Does this not have something akin to primitive accumulation? Can the
Chinese economy match, say, the US economy in terms of quality and
efficiency? And instead of going round the house comparing what has
'made in China' stamped on the bottom compared with 'made in the USA',
would it not be more useful (if less practical) comparing the proportion
of US-based capital with China-based capital in the household items? I
don't know the answers to these questions, which is why I am asking

Secondly. Can I quibble about some of your periodisation? If you are
talking about Kipling as representative of the attitudes of the period
of unquestioned British global supremacy then I think your timing is
out. The heyday of British international economic dominance runs from
something like 1846 to 1873: the period of laissez-faire and economic
liberalism par excellence. The characteristic feature of this period of
British dominance was free trade empire founded on British economic
supremacy. But precisely through its leading economic position Britain
itself was responsible - through the mechanism of the export of capital
goods and economic technique - for the fostering of a process of
industrialisation in a number of key countries. Once they had taken what
they needed from Britain, these countries - in particular Germany and
the United States - began to outstrip Britain in terms of economic
performance. It is this period of decline, manifest from the 'great
depression' of 1873 and onwards - and not the golden age of Pax
Britannica that had preceded it - that produced the symbols and
ideological paraphernalia of 'Empire' in its classical and familiar form
(including in the form represented by Kipling). The key period of
British imperial dominance thus occurs in the third quarter of the
nineteenth century; by the last quarter of the century what happened was
summarised by Eric Hobsbawm in his Industry and Empire when he said that
Britain 'exchanged the informal empire over most of the underdeveloped
world for the formal empire of a quarter of it.' The point is that the
development of the British Empire in this form - and the triumphalist
imperial demagogy accompanying it - was a symbol not of the strength of
the British economy, but rather of its relative weakness.

Now, if we want to periodise there are lots of ways of doing it, but one
of them is by Kondratieff cycles. I'm not the biggest fan of doing this
(I'll explain why in a moment), but it does throw up some interesting
things. If you plot the last four Kondratieff cycles, then, although the
exact dates will vary according to taste), it is generally agreed that
the four will run something like this:

I      1780 -- A -- 1815 -- B -- 1840

II     1840 -- A -- 1875 -- B -- 1895

III    1895 -- A -- 1918 -- B -- 1945

IV     1945 -- A -- 1970 -- B --  ?

(A represents the 'upswing' phase and B the 'downswing')

Thus we are currently in the B (declining) phase of the fourth such
cycle, and should be coming to the end of it. What will the next one
look like? On the strength of previous cycles, the interesting thing to
note is that in the next cycle we should not necessarily expect to have
a global hegemonic power. The A-phase of the second cycle roughly
corresponds to the predominance of British imperialism, and, as I have
argued above, its B-phase to that imperialism's relative decline. But
the third cycle is not characterised by the exercise of global hegemony,
but precisely by its absence. If there is an interregnum in the
twentieth century, it is not to be found in the middle part of the
century but in the inter-war period: this interregnum was closed by
World War Two (which essentially completed the unfinished business of
World War One), which sealed both the absolute decline of the British
Empire and the temporary elimination of Germany (and Japan) as a
candidate for global hegemonic power. The period opened up after World
War Two saw the consolidation of US global hegemony, the principal
feature of the fourth cycle.

So if we are looking forward to the replacement of US hegemony by a
hegemony with an Asian - maybe Chinese - centre (and this is a
reasonable projection), why would it necessarily occur in the next long
wave cycle, rather than in the one after? And this has important
consequences. For if we see another long wave cycle along this pattern
(and the if is a big one), on the strength of a Kondratieff approach
(which, of course, may not necessarily be valid) we can expect not a
cycle like the last one but of the one before; that is to say, a period
like the 1890s to the early 1920s, rather than like 1945 to 1970.

Of course, the problem with analyses of this sort is that they are by
their very nature undialectical, meaning ahistorical. By looking at the
surface statistical features - and painting history as an endlessly
repeating cyclical process (and Marxists have to be vehement in dealing
with the nonsensical idea that history 'repeats itself') - the
Kondratieff cycle process can't take account of things like the phases
of development of the global capitalist mode of production, the rise of
imperialism (in the Leninist sense), etc. So while the first cycle deals
with the British industrial revolution, and the second kicks off with
the 'railway boom' of the 1840s and the consolidation and fall of
British international economic dominance, the third precisely
corresponds to the emergence of the imperialist system proper. So the
passage from British  to US global hegemony is not a simple passage from
one hegemonic power to the next, but a shift in global hegemony
accompanied by fundamental shifts in the operation of the capitalist
mode of production itself. British hegemony was founded on the fact that
it was the first and for a long time the only industrial power; that of
the US founded on the fact that it was the biggest power in a now
capitalist world and within an existing imperialist system.

What I am trying to say is that the US is not just the latest hegemonic
power after many but the first true imperialist hegemonic power. And
what that might suggest is that it could be the last. What would be
necessary to (1) provoke a new Kondratieff 'upswing' and (2) achieve a
shift in global hegemony? For the first, I don't know, and I'm not going
to speculate, and I'm reluctant to do so for the second other than to
say that on the strength of what I am saying above what will be
necessary will be another interregnum: a more or less extended period of
absence of global hegemony (as we saw in the first half of the twentieth
century). And we know what happened then. Not only two world wars, but -
for the first time in human history - mass proletarian revolutionary
upheaval in the capitalist heartlands. And that I think is the kind of
period into which we are moving. So whatever salvation there may be for
global capitalism at the end of this particular period of crises, we are
not going for the time being to move into a post-1945 period but a
post-1900 one. This of course poses the threat of world war (by which I
mean war between imperialist powers in the imperialist heartlands
themselves). It is not so much that such wars are necessary to achieve a
shift in global hegemony (even if - and I am questioning it - such a
shift is possible), but that the relative absence of hegemony prompts
such wars. But the absence of hegemony also prompts the possibility of
revolutionary openings (and I apologise if this sounds a bit
'Eurocentric', but I think it is true) where they really count: in the
imperialist metropolis. 'Wars and revolutions' tend to go together: not
in the Bukharinist sense that revolution is a by-product of world war,
but the other way around. Historically, world war has been a by-product
of completed revolutionary breakthroughs. In good part, it was the fear
of revolution that lead the capitalist powers to war in both 1914 and
1939, and as you quite rightly raise the dangers of armageddon, this
perspective poses the central necessity of revolution as sharply as
ever. For socialism or barbarism it might well be.

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