[Marxism] Forwarded from Anthony (reply to Julio Huato)

Julio Huato juliohuato at hotmail.com
Fri Jun 11 10:58:59 MDT 2004


The idea of "imperialist privilege" is based on the notion that "monopolies" 
get systematic super-profits, over and above those that would result from 
the normal profit rate.  Monopoly capitalism or "imperialism" is supposed to 
change essentially the laws of competition and price formation under 
capitalism.  Some of these ideas can be traced back to Engels, Hobson, 
Hilferding, Lenin, Bukharin, etc.

Until early in the 20th century, most prominent Marxists assumed that the 
disparities between the rich and poor countries in the world were due mainly 
to their different degrees of capitalist development.  The list includes 
Rosa Luxembourg and Lenin, as it is obvious in their works.  The different 
"initial conditions" that resulted from colonial and domestic plunder, 
capitalist slavery, industrial protection, and prevarication would only give 
an advantage to countries that had conditions of capitalist production.  
Theft, in and by itself, was not a reliable (sustainable) economic engine.  
As I said before, stealing a car doesn't make the thief a Toyota engineer.

Rather recently in the Marxist tradition, after WW2, the theory of 
imperialism attributed to Lenin (partly in contradiction to what Lenin 
himself wrote in, say, his pamphlet on imperialism) was casually "enriched" 
with the notion that the main source of "imperialist super-profits" is the 
imperialist exploitation of the Third World gained favor.  This is a 
drastically upgraded version of Lenin's notion of the "workers aristocracy" 
(not to mention Engels' passing remark on English trade-unionism benefiting 
from colonialism).

In this view, the monopolies based on the rich countries super-exploit the 
Third World, and out the super-profits they make, they afford to grant their 
workers (and more so their workers' aristocracy) a bribe in the form of 
higher wages and standards of living.  In this view, the differences in the 
degree of capitalist development are hardwired, reproduced and even expanded 
by the imperialist exploitation of the Third World.  The old ideas of 
Russian populism -- and their political strategies -- were thus 
rehabilitated by the Marxists in the late 20th century.

This is the argument underlying the idea of the supposed "imperialist 
privilege" of workers in the rich capitalist countries.  And IMO, it is a 
flawed argument.  I don't deny that there are phenomena that appear to be 
consistent with these views, but there is contrary evidence that cannot be 
accommodated in this interpretation.  On the other hand, alternative 
interpretations -- say, along the lines of classical Marxism -- seem to 
explain the phenomena reasonably well.  I cannot address in this posting 
this huge argument.  It is too big to chew in a few postings, but with time 
we could get more into its guts (there must be in the archives a few 
postings where I tackle some of these issues, but admittedly not 
systematically or rigorously).  In any case, that's the basis of my 
questions and doubts about what you state categorically.

You question my argument about the need to derive "imperialist privilege" 
from the laws of competition.  I stand by that.  You reply:

>My suggestion is, study what really happened, and is happening, rather than 
>Robinson Crusoe economics. Then you won't need to envision, you will see it 
>plane as day.

My suggestion is, pay more attention to the hidden assumptions and the logic 
of an argument, and avoid cheap shots at Robinson Crusoe economics.

To show that wage differences between auto workers in China, Mexico, and the 
U.S. amount to "imperialist privilege," I say, you need to do a careful 
analysis and separate other factors.  You reject this approach:

>No Julio, I don't have to do any of that to show privilege. I just need to 
>walk into a working class neighborhood in Bogotá, and compare it to the 
>neighborhood of a similar group of workers in Chicago. My definition of 
>privilege is simpler, and less complicated than yours. If two people do the 
>same thing, but one gets more because of who they are, and where they live, 
>than someone else does because of who they are and where they live, the 
>first person is privileged.
>This is all the is required to convince most of the people in the world 
>that the US – and its working class - is privileged.
>However, there is a small minority that doesn't see the obvious.

If the appearance of phenomena coincided with the essence, we would need no 
brains.  You cannot get around the logic of the argument by a casual 
comparison of standards of living.  That may sound very radical, but it is a 
dubious way to prove the argument.  Casual empiricism is not a sound basis 
for the kind of Olympic, categorical assertions that you make.

Ultimately, Anthony, the issue is not to persuade a worker in Colombia that 
U.S. workers are accomplices of imperialism, spoiled by crumbs of 
imperialist exploitation.  The issue is to understand the tendencies of this 
world we live in so that we can change it for the better.  That requires 
that we question the appearances.

I asked:

>"Can you suggest a mechanism by which "US imperialists" would go "out of 
>their way to maintain the privileges" of U.S. workers? By "mechanism" I 
>mean, how specifically could capitalist competition (in the way it imposes 
>itself on the individual capitalists and then aggregates) lead to this 

You replied:

>The simple answer to your question is: the state. The mechanism which the 
>imperialists use, and which all ruling classes everywhere have always used, 
>to redistribute surplus value against the 'laws of the market' (capitalist 
>competition) is the state.

And then you go on to list the historical policies that accomplished this, 
in your opinion.  The question is then, why can't the capitalist states in 
the Third World implement similar policies and grant their workers similar 
"privileges"?  Thus, the argument boils down to the point mentioned 
previously: what are the main sources of the wealth disparities between the 
rich and poor capitalist countries?  Taking a long view, are we witnessing 
the expanded reproduction of imperialism and imperialist privilege or their 

You make a few good points, but don't trace the consequences:

>Take machines per worker. This is rapidly rising all over the world, but 
>whereas a country like China or Colombia doesn't have the problem of all 
>those old inefficient machines clogging up the factories, the USA does. In 
>fact, the USA has this problem worse than any other country. Labor 
>productivity is rising so fast in China that measuring it is a problem.
However, wages are not rising so fast.

I know that comparisons of productivity (indices of physical output per hour 
of work) between Mexican and U.S. auto workers give the U.S. a large 
advantage.  And yes, Mexican factories were built (in the 1960s and 1970s) 
and largely rebuilt (in the 1990s) with upgraded machinery, but not all the 
equipment and productive tradition that Detroit or Southern U.S. factories 
have were imported.  And there are many reasons for that.

Let's follow the logic: Why would workers with similar skill accept lower 
wages in Mexico or Colombia than those paid to workers in the U.S.?  I 
guess, because if you were a capitalist, you'd hire a worker only to the 
extent the profits that worker helps you make are not less than the profits 
you sacrifice by paying her a wage.  If the output per hour of a worker in 
Mexico or Colombia is similar to the output per hour in Michigan or South 
Carolina, then capitalists would be inclined to hire more Mexican or 
Colombian workers -- after all labor power in Mexico or Colombia is cheaper. 
  As a result, you'd expect that each of those shiny, upgraded machines 
installed in Mexico, Colombia, or China would be coupled with comparatively 
more workers than in Detroit or North Carolina.  You say watch what actually 
happens, and I say, you too: Go and check the statistics.  This is exactly 
the case, at least between Mexico and the U.S.: Mexico's "capital-labor 
ratio" in auto making is a fraction of the U.S.' "capital-labor ratio."

But let's continue: Why would car makers in the Detroit or Spartanburg 
accept to pay higher wages to workers when they can hire workers who take a 
lower pay?  Aren't they trying to expand their profits?  The answer is, 
because their respective local labor-, inputs-, and car markets are 
partially disjoint by legal obstacles and other "transaction" costs (moving, 
migrating, transporting, language and "cultural" differences, etc.).

What's the nature of these "transaction" costs?  Are they the necessary 
result of imperialism?  If they are, and imperialism is capitalism in its 
current form, then we'd expect these costs to rise so that imperialist 
privileges are reproduced and expanded.  And what do we observe?  We observe 
capitalists switching their factories down to the South (with modern 
machinery and what not) and workers in the South earning higher wages as a 
result.  The tendency belies the argument of "imperialist privilege."

>Class struggle is a key issue. The working class in the United states has 
>been – at several different moments – extremely militant and combative. 
>But, the ruling class was able to compromise, because it could expand. If 
>you look at each moment of intense class struggle in the USA historically, 
>you will find that it was followed immediately by a new social compromise 
>and a new phase of imperialist expansion.

See my point above about pinning down the main source of this ability to 
expand and compromise with the workers.  "Imperialist privilege" or more 
mundane capitalist competition mangled with contrary influences that arise 
from "anachronistic social and political relations."  As Lou Palsen 
suggested, different answers lead to different political strategies.

Let me now respond to your personal remarks.

>Don’t use your sophistication to brow beat me or anyone else on this list.

My apologies if I come across this way.

>That unfortunate bullshit has already made many enemies for you and your 

This doesn't move me much.  I try to present my ideas honestly and to the 
best of my ability.  Others make their own choices.  I suspect that, even if 
my personal style is inappropriate, a lot of the opposition to my ideas 
comes from the discomfort the ideas themselves generate among some people.  
But I'll watch my words.

>If you really, in your heart, are on the side of the working class and the 
>oppressed, cut out the intellectualism – the false intellectuality of your 
>discourse if you like - and get down to brass tacks. In other words, cut 
>out the bullshit.

Hmm... I'd like to thank you for this advice, but it really sounds excessive 
to me.  It sounds like an annoyed admonition motivated by my questioning 
your categorical statements on "imperialist privilege."  "Intellectualism" 
or "false intellectuality" is fully unintended.  Whether what I say is 
"bullshit" or not is to be proved, not presumed.

>What I mean concretely is this. If you offer a challenge to someone on a 
>complex issue, give your own answer and analysis first. This is a sign of 

Not necessarily.  We don't always have ready answers to our own questions.  
I frankly have doubts.  I can only conjecture on the basis of my own 
personal experience.

>If you don’t do this, it is a sign of bad faith, intellectual browbeating, 
>the bourgeois professor putting the ignorant worker in their place.

I disagree.  There was no bad faith in the doubts and questions I posed to 
you.  And aren't you a professor as well?  Does that discredit you?

My final personal comment is this: I appreciate your postings -- they are 
very informative.  Keep that up.

All the best,


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