[Marxism] Imperialism as "anachronism"

Jurriaan Bendien andromeda246 at hetnet.nl
Mon Aug 2 20:31:31 MDT 2004

Ernest Mandel once remarked:

"Slave owners who are prepared to kill thousands of slaves, because they
were disobedient or in revolt (or even as a deterrent against disobedience
or revolts) are not so dumb to believe, that they could survive without
slave labour. They act in this way, because they are convinced, that through
this murder, hundreds of thousands of other slaves will continue to perform
their work, while this would not be the case, or less so, if the
disobedience or revolts would escalate and spread." (from
"Marx, Engels and the problem of the double moral standard in class
society" - my translation from the Flemish).

I think this kind of insight captures the essence of imperialist aggression,
and the maintenance of class rule by force. The same principle applied for
example in the case of the British miner's strike in 1984. Over 200 miners
were jailed, but during the strike, some 20,000 people were injured or
hospitalised; to defeat the National Union of Mineworkers cost an
extraordinary amount of police repression and money - £6 billion according
to some estimates. Obviously this wasn't simply about economics - the
"modernisation" of the coal industry really resulted in its economic
marginalisation - it was about class power.

The historic decline of the national liberation movements and their
corruption, plus their inability to consolidate national gains or implement
modernisation strategies other than through cooperation and trade with the
imperialist powers, created a resurgence of the imperialist idea, in the
guise of "liberal imperialism", with the positive meaning of intervening in
other countries with a "civilising mission".

This trend, mediated by numerous NGOs and quasi-governmental organisations
and thinktanks, is accompanied by the rejection of the utility of the
concept of imperialism, as being inimical to progress. The argument then is,
that this concept gets in the way of fostering better international
relations, that are conducive to promoting mutually beneficial trade; thus,
we should not look backwards, but look forward and forget about past
grievances, because that cannot help people now.

According to that new view, modern-day anti-imperialists are, like trade
unionists, just anachronistic "troublemakers", who stand in the way of human
progress within a brave new world of globalisation. After all, isn't it
better if corporations provide employment, technologies, facilities and
infrastructural development, that wouldn't occur at all, without foreign
investment and foreign interventions ? Quite.

Leaving aside the question of whether past grievances can really be
forgotten, the real issue however concerns on what basis the foreign
interventions occur - do they have the support of the majority of the
populations involved ? Are they negotiated bilaterally by representative
governments, or are they forced on those populations ? What tangible
benefits accrue to the working population ? Why is mobility of capital
freed, while (international) mobility of labor is restricted ? When
everything that doesn't make a profit is closed down, does that really make
things better for people ?

Once we examine these questions in more detail, we can only reach the
conclusion that "liberal imperialism" really isn't so "liberal", and that it
promotes modernisation strategies consistent with the interests of those who
aim to unify the world market on their terms, never mind the interests of
the local populations. But that just means, the assertion of a dogma which
says that progress can only occur through greater market integration, in
which "all will gain".

This is a platitude. Obviously people would not trade, if they didn't think
they would gain something by it. But the point is that they may be forced to
trade, and trade on unfavourable terms, such that the trading gain of some
is dwarfed by the gain of the others, and the benefits of an increase in
trade do not necessarily accrue to the whole working population. "The
market" doesn't exist, this is a neoliberal fiction. There exists many
different kinds of markets, some beneficial to most people, some benefiting
only some.

The whole tenor of "globalisation" rhetoric suggests that there cannot be
anymore "national development strategies" in the age of internationally
deregulated money and capital markets and privatisation programmes. But if
those deregulated markets and privatisation programmes have exascerbated
socio-economic inequality, infrastructural problems and mass poverty, even
if they have benefited the wealthy and a stratum of their middleclass
supporters, all you can really conclude is that a national territorial
strategy is required, to redress the social problems caused by greater
integration in the capitalist world market.

Whereupon the learned Francis Fukuyama waxes about "state building". But
what this really suggests, that in the future there might well be a bigger
resurgence of nationalist populism or nationalist radicalism, in which it is
important to identify the class content of that nationalism. Because the
ambiguity is that, paradoxically, national resistance to liberal imperialism
appears as "reactionary" and "anti-progress", i.e. that it is an
"anti-imperialism of fools" resisting change.

That ambiguity however disappears, as soon as dogma is abandoned, and a more
specific analysis is made, which reveals what really is progress, and what
is really reactionary, and what the interests of social classes really are.
That's the intellectual challenge for us, really, and we should not get too
obsessed with the actual languages used, but rather probe the phenomena
objectively occurring.

The founding premiss of such an analysis is that imperialism is rooted in
the process of the accumulation of private capital itself, i.e. predicated
on market expansion and competition, in a world hierarchy of nations,
parties and classes. This takes the argument one step beyond Lenin;
imperialism is not simply the "highest stage" of capitalist development, but
is part of the very essence of capitalism, as a system which can only
survive through a competitive battle for its own growth.

To put it bluntly, capitalism cannot exist without imperialism. But, by the
same token, nations are not essential to imperialism; what is essential is
effective territorial control. The ever astute Zbigniew Brzezinski captured
the new thinking quite well: "And what is sovereignity in this day and age ?
Sovereignity is a concept, but it's a relative concept. If there was a
provisional government of Iraq, we could give it symbolic sovereignity and
it would help it to gain legitimacy, thereby reducing the need for an
assertive occupation." This creates a complex dialectic of class forces and
national forces, to which I hope to return some other time with specific
examples to elucidate clearly the pattern involved.


More information about the Marxism mailing list