[Marxism] Forwarded from Anthony (imperialist privilege)
juliohuato at hotmail.com
Mon Jun 14 09:58:42 MDT 2004
Anthony has written a substantial reply. This is my response.
My argument extends to deal with the questions raised in Suresh's
interesting posting. I'll try to deal with the issues without polemical
excess. I'll also introduce as clearly as I can an additional argument that
may or may not be known to people on this list, but that is common knowledge
among economists. I don't mean to show any "sophistication" by this, but to
confront an interesting piece of the evidence.
In his previous reply, Anthony implied that I was acting on bad faith,
because I didn't offer an alternative explanation of the U.S. workers'
"imperialist privilege." Attending to his remark, I focused my response on
what I view as the key issue in this discussion: the competitive mechanism
that generates and appropriates originally the funds that feed "imperialist
privilege." Any notion of "imperialist privilege" presupposes necessarily a
main underlying mechanism of this sort.
There's no way around this: either there are systematic super-profits to
expand or at least replicate imperialism (and these super-profits can only
be generated by systematically violating normal capitalist price formation),
or normal profits prevail and imperialism cannot be expanded or replicated
anew in a systematic fashion. The idea is to understand the tendencies of
capitalism today and over the long term, because the workers' struggle is
over the long haul. And even in shorter historical periods (say, within a
human lifetime), the political implications of one or another understanding
can be decisive, as I hope it becomes clear in the discussion.
So I wasn't switching the discussion away from anything. I admitted that I
didn't have a full coherent explanation of "imperialist privilege"
alternative to monopoly super-profits. Since I couldn't give the
alternative explanation requested, I thought I could at least do what I did:
to show that the usual monopoly super-profits explanation (explicitly or
*implicitly* assumed) is problematic. Anthony didn't like the way I framed
my doubts initially and he thought I was putting him down. Most likely, I
was just in a rush trying to raise my doubts to his assertions, and I
Anyway, the issue of the revolutionary potential of the U.S. workers is
important enough. I have serious doubts that such potential has been
irreparably damaged by "imperialist privilege." To be sure, privilege
exists, but I doubt it has the systemic character that Anthony and others
attribute to it. The usual theory of "imperialist privilege" is not
compelling to me. I try to be open to good argument, and I would change my
mind if Anthony or some else persuaded me. But so far they haven't.
So, allow me to repeat myself: To show that the U.S. workers are bribed by
imperialism and thus crippled as a revolutionary force, we need a mechanism.
As I said, this mechanism needs to be derived from the laws of capitalist
competition. The main piece of such mechanism must necessarily be the way
the funds to bribe the workers are originated and appropriated. Whether the
capitalists pay a premium to workers' wages directly or tax themselves
through the state to transfer value to workers indirectly, such value needs
to be appropriated first by the capitalists. How does that happen?
Anthony says that monopoly super-profits are not the only, or more
plausible, explanation for the source of "imperialist privilege." He says
that normal profits suffice. He then provides an interesting and detailed
historical description of two stages of U.S. imperialism: "pre-capitalist
imperialism" and "capitalist imperialism." In both cases, the argument is
that workers get to share the benefits. In his view, neither of the two
stages requires essentially the existence of monopoly rents. I'll try to
show that this cannot get us around the question of super-profits and their
In an interesting parallel posting, Suresh suggests that U.S. military
dominance, U.S. control of international financial organizations (e.g., the
IMF), or the position of the USD in the world market could be alternative
sources of such privilege. They are indeed, but they leave the ultimate
source of privilege unexplained. Basically, Suresh suggests explanations
that assume U.S. imperialist superiority and that these forms of superiority
(economic, financial, monetary) reproduce themselves somehow.
Suresh (and Anthony in his description of the second stage of U.S.
imperialism) also alludes to the evolution of commodity prices, as a
possible source of imperialist privilege. In this case, the connection with
world-market price formation is direct. If the world-market prices of the
stuff poor countries produce and export tend to go down systematically
relative to the world-market prices of the stuff rich countries produce and
export, what is then the source of this systematic asymmetry in price
formation in the world markets?
I could refer to empirical evidence regarding the trends of relative prices.
But the main problem with Suresh's, and Anthony's, replies to my question
is that they really don't get to escape the dilemma. Implicitly, Anthony
(categorically) and Suresh (as a tentative suggestion) offer what I call an
"initial conditions" explanation of the sources of "imperialist privilege,"
which really doesn't explain but ignores the issue or assumes it resolved.
In fact, not long ago, Louis Proyect supplied a similar -- and more explicit
-- formulation along the same lines. I replied to Louis and got no
satisfactory answers to the questions I raised.
It is a historical fact that early in modern history, the "West" (Western
Europe and its settler colonial off-shots) got ahead of the rest of the
world. Such initial advantage was associated with centuries of colonialism,
slavery, plunder, prevarication, outright theft. We are all familiar with
Marx's analysis of primitive accumulation. And I'm sure that with the
advances of modern historiography, Marx's analysis can be duly revisited and
complemented. The importance of this factor (what I call the "initial
conditions") undoubtedly plays some part in explaining the current
disparities in capitalist development in the world. But in the early 21st
century, this explanation is very likely to be insufficient.
We are all familiar with Marx's theory of accumulation. To show that, as a
rule, the real source of accumulated capital is not the result of the
diligent work and saving virtue of mythical small capitalists who made it
big, Marx demonstrates that accumulated wealth, which exists in the form of
use values, disappears forever when those use values are used, consumed, or
wasted. After a few cycles of consumption, even large amounts of wealth
accumulated by an individual or community are depleted, and with it their
value... unless there's capitalist production in place to preserve their
It is no chance event that Marx's analysis of primitive accumulation was
preceded by the description of capitalist accumulation proper, which relies
on capitalist production proper, which is based on the laws of commodity
production, which assumes the respect of basic rules of voluntary and lawful
exchange. IMO, the *main* point of Marx's theory of primitive accumulation
is not to provide a denunciation of the bloody historical birth of bourgeois
society in Europe. The main point is to show that the real dirty secret of
bourgeois societies is regular capitalist accumulation. Furthermore, that
if colonial plunder, slavery, and abuse were taken to the extreme, it was
because of the hidden engine of regular capitalist production and
Anthony talks about pre-capitalist imperialism. I have no contention with
that idea. As much as we think of imperialism as a novel phenomenon in late
19th century Europe and North-America, there's nothing new or modern about
the use of state or freelance power, extra-economic compulsion, military
threats and aggression to accumulate wealth. All ancient modes of
production (including much of the early history of capitalism) were based on
extra-economic exploitation. But the history of capitalism is something
else. What Smith, Ricardo, and more clearly Marx found was that the
distinctive dynamism of bourgeois societies was related to an apparently
trivial fact: the distinct *form* of labor exploitation that prevailed in
them. Not forced labor, but free labor exchanged in the market. And the
distinct *form* of accumulation. Not appropriation by force or by
extra-economic coercion, but by the reinvestment of the proceeds of
exploiting free labor. The essential difference (and Marx emphasized this)
is the generalization of market relations to the point labor power itself
becomes universally a commodity. That subtle difference in *form* amounts
to a dramatically different set of social relations of production and life.
Without capitalist accumulation proper, the spoils of primitive accumulation
(say, the forceful appropriation of large territories or precious metals)
would have meant little or would have evaporated over a limited period of
time. They would have provided a one-time boost to accumulation but then
their effect would have dwindled. The case of Spain or Portugal, countries
that held a huge early edge in colonial times (they took over at least as
much land as other colonial powers) and lost it rather quickly, is
illustrative of this problem. The transformation of small landholdings in
the U.S. into capital proper would have been unthinkable without the engine
of capitalist production and accumulation proper, both in farming and in
Only capitalist production can preserve the value of existing wealth by
using up the wealth productively and replacing it with new wealth. The
wealth that is used as constant capital (means of production) disappears
when the means of production are utilized and worn, or when they decay.
Their value would disappear as well were it not for the effect of fresh
Note the crucial importance of capitalist exploitation proper. Not only is
the main source of profits the exploitation of fresh labor (surplus value).
The mere preservation of old constant capital (which may be initially the
result of outright theft) is only possibly by capitalist exploitation
proper. Fresh labor makes the value of the means of production "reappear"
as a portion of the value of the new product (if and only if such labor is
socially necessary, etc.). Labor not only adds new value to the new product
(surplus value); it also allows for the old value to "reappear" as an
element of the new product's value. Without value-adding fresh labor, the
old value would evaporate. Without continuously renewed capitalist
exploitation proper the wheels of capital accumulation lose momentum and
(In response to a point made by Jurriaan, let me add here that, regardless
of whether we can hold for very long memories of the injuries humans have
inflicted on each other -- and we should --, the key thing is that our
ability to straighten things out, our ability to eliminate exploitation and
oppression altogether, doesn't depend on the size or character of those
injuries, but on what we can do now and will be able to do in the future.)
In this view, to the extent the West has retained for centuries its early
economic advantage over the rest of the world, the dirty secret cannot be
the "initial conditions," or the inertia created by such initial conditions.
Of course, the rich take advantage of their superior position to abuse the
poor. But abuse in and by itself can only go so far in explaining how
superiority is replicated and expanded. Again, there is some "positive
feedback" flowing from the initial conditions. You can use your initial
advantage as a lever to gain extra advantage, etc. But without some
"fundamentals," that'd be like creating an imperialist bubble, a house of
cards. At some point, you still need a mechanism that expands or at least
replicates the advantage.
I don't see a way around this. If we argue that the ultimate source of
today's "imperialist privilege" is the initial advantage the West gained
early on, then we need to show that the West had (and has) a way to expand
or at least replicate this advantage, which contradicts the idea that the
initial advantage is the ultimate source of privilege. The crucial element
here is the way in which an advantage is expanded or at least replicated. I
can be miles ahead of you in a race, but if I don't continue moving ahead,
you'll catch up with me at some point. I need to run if I'm to maintain my
initial advantage, and run faster than you if I am to enhance it. Of
course, if you're stuck and cannot run either, then I'll have it easier.
But then the issue is the reasons why you are stuck.
The theory of monopoly super-profits may be flawed, but at least it takes up
the problem head on. It is an argument to show that the expansion or
replication of the West's superiority is inherent to modern capitalism, and
that it is stable, systematic. Of course, such theory requires abandoning
Marx's theory of price formation, but dogma is no argument. At least it
offers a theory of how the West has a way to expand or reproduce its
superiority over the rest of the world within the confines of capitalism.
If the way the U.S. and Europe reproduce their superiority through the
regular mechanisms of capitalist competition, then they have the perks of
being the richest and most powerful, plus some super-profits (e.g, those
derived from technological superiority, which the U.S. and the West
certainly hold in many areas), plus normal profits. This can only go so
far. In a capitalist competitive environment, these advantages are
vulnerable, inherently unstable. This means, that within the confines of
capitalism and through the methods of capitalism, capitals in China, India,
Russia, southeastern Asia, etc., even Latin America or Africa -- if they
make the right moves -- can erode the initial superiority of Western
This usually angers some Marxists. "How dare you question the idea that the
only possible way to eliminate imperialism is by eliminating capitalism?
Don't you know that imperialism follows necessarily from the laws of motion
of modern capitalism? Are you trying to give ammunition to Third-Way
politicians? Are you saying that in a reasonable period of time Africans
can access an average standard of living comparable to that in the rich
countries, without the rest of the world becoming communist first? That's
impossible! You're an apologist of imperialism. Etc."
Such reply would miss the point. We need to trace the logical consequences
of our arguments. It doesn't matter what conclusion may be convenient for
us propagandistically. What matters is whether the argument holds water,
factually and logically. I don't think that imperialism can ever be
eliminated *completely* without eliminating capitalism. That doesn't follow
necessarily from the argument. But which form of accumulation prevails
(outright theft or market-validated theft) is crucial to grasp the
tendencies of the social order we're trying to overthrow. I don't know
whether capitalism will ever develop in Africa or Latin America to levels
comparable to those in Europe, the U.S., or Canada; but that's not the
issue. The issue is whether, in modern capitalism, imperialist abuse tends
to be the dominant mechanism of exploitation at the expense of "normal"
capitalist exploitation based on economic compulsion. We need to know in
which direction the society we're trying to overthrow is going. We don't
need lies or faulty argument to make good propaganda.
The other important implication of this argument is that, although
temporarily a nation may hold an edge over the others and try to leverage it
by imperialistic means, such strategic choice clashes necessarily with the
requirements of capitalist accumulation proper. That may well be the case
of the U.S. right now. It should be clear to people familiar with Marx's
intellectual tradition that imperialism and regular capitalist accumulation
cannot coexist comfortably. There is an ongoing antagonism between them.
It is an internecine conflict, but that doesn't make it less important to
the workers' movement.
This posting is already too long, but if there's any interest, I'll be glad
to flesh out this a bit more with ideas that are relevant to the current
juncture in the U.S. Suffice it to say that most clear-headed
representatives of the bourgeoisie in the U.S. are keenly aware of this
conflict. One last thing: I said above I'd introduce an additional argument
familiar among economists but may be not well known among Marxists. I'll
have to do that in a separate posting. In that or some other posting I'll
also try to comment on some of the detailed points made by Anthony on the
U.S. recent history. Sorry for being so verbose. To make arguments more
concise, I would need more editing time.
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