[Marxism] Review of Samir Amin's Obsolescent Capitalism

Lajany Otum lajany_otum at yahoo.co.uk
Sun Nov 5 20:23:20 MST 2006

Socialism or Barbarism's new order   Obsolescent Capitalism: Contemporary Politics and Global Disorder
     Samir Amin
     2003, Zed Books
     208 pages 

Reviewed by John Paul

It is well over a year since George W. Bush put on a jaunty flight suit and under a banner reading ``MISSION ACCOMPLISHED’’ triumphantly declared the end of major combat operations after his 2003 invasion of Iraq – and the killing continues. More than 100,000 US soldiers are hunkered down in armed enclaves near all Iraq's major cities, held at bay by a ragtag army. Roadside bombs kill occupiers and civilians alike. Iraqi police are daily targets and the US marines talk of "occupying and pacifying" cities that are hotbeds of resistance, in an eerie reminiscence of a south east Asian war a generation earlier, where villages were destroyed to save them and one Colin Powell secured his rapid rise to the Pentagon when he took part in the official cover-up of a massacre of civilians in a remote hamlet called Mai Lai.

The thin veil of liberation has been thrown away, exposing the reality of occupation, suppression and torture. Popular movements pressing for democracy in Iraq have been swept aside by a US military aware and terrified that a free election will produce a regime that is inimical to the US and unwilling to accept the continued presence of western soldiers in the living room of the Islamic world.

Meanwhile back in Washington, three books by White House insiders have opened a window on an administration ruled by a narrow circle of neoconservatives with the express aim of extending US influence and maintaining a military presence in the gulf. In Western Europe the movements that drew millions to march in protest against the war are largely silenced. British Prime Minister Tony Blair has weathered the outrage of a people who opposed the war before it began and then rallied around the flag once the first bombs fell. Only in Spain, where massive outrage at the war and its attendant polarisation of the world into western and Islamic poles, did people topple a conservative government and win their demand for the withdrawal of troops.
The events in the first half of 2004 underscore the introduction to Samir Amin’s new book, Obsolescent Capitalism, where he bluntly says:
"Democracy is either marking time or in retreat: it is everywhere under threat."
The book, published after September 11, 2001 and before the invasion of Iraq, tries to provide a theoretical underpinning to explain why Bush and Blair risked discontent at home through a long and bloody occupation of Iraq. Be warned though. This book is not light reading.

Amid bookshops filled with best-sellers exposing Bush’s war on working people in America and a plethora of  texts raging against the system, from Michael Moore’s Stupid White Men to George Monbiot’s The Age of Consent, a Manifesto for a New World Order, Amin tries to look below the surface. While others are content to describe in the vaguest terms the corporate takeover of America or the rise of the neo-cons, Amin turns to good old historical materialism and Marxism to find the motive forces, the underlying pressures that pushed the world to war.

Amin argues that a crisis in capitalist production is behind the drive by the US to expand its influence through military force. This new take on a well used Marxist tool leads him to argue that much of the history of the past century was in fact one dominated by war and crisis. The economic optimism of the early part of the 20th century was soon replaced by the despondency, bloodshed and horror of two world wars followed by another half century of cold war that was scarcely less bloody.

To be sure, the period after the Second World War was one of economic boom, led by the rise of social democracies in a shattered Europe, development in the Third World and rapid growth of the Soviet economy.

Amin argues that "the dual defeat of fascism and old-style colonialism had created a conjuncture in which it was possible for popular classes and nations subject to capitalist expansion to impose ways of regulating the accumulation of capital" – in other words for a brief period until the mid 1970s, a self-confident working class was able to impose some order on capitalism and demand a fairer share of the wealth of society.

That brief summer of contentment came to an end because of the inability to completely control a system based on "unmediated short-term interests" – the greed of those who provide capital and their need to earn returns on their investments. By 1968 there was too much capital sloshing around the world and not enough profitable places in which to invest. Investment and growth rates began to decline and inequality rose. The way out of this crisis for those who owned capital was to change the rules of the game, to chip away at the foundations of the welfare states established a generation earlier; to reduce the share of wealth going to working people and diverting it to the profits of the owners of capital. The last quarter of the century was "catastrophic for the working classes and peripheral nations" while creating new billionaires championing the cause of globalisation. Still, they could only defer the crisis of falling profits and economic stagnation, not solve it.

Amin asks the chicken-egg-question of American hegemony, namely whether its political and military power stems from its military power – or whether in fact political and economic power come from the barrel of a gun. He then argues that a close analysis of the US economy reveals that it is far weaker than one would imagine and is propped up by a "parasitism" that allows the world’s superpower to suck capital from the rest of the world. The only way it can do that is through exerting its will over the rest of the world.

In a bid to maintain corporate profits the US has since 1991 embarked on a "project for world hegemony" that has allowed it to pry open markets in developing countries for its products and open new investment opportunities for its capital. That project has been underpinned by a military expansion that allows it to impose its will as the world’s remaining superpower:

 "Is it not strange that Bush Senior’s first war was to control the Gulf (supposedly threatened by Iraq) and that Bush Junior’s first war openly aimed to wrest control of Central Asia from post-Soviet Russia – and was also a war for oil,’’ Amin asks rhetorically in reference to the US invasion of Afghanistan.
 Even so, Amin argues, the economic crisis facing capitalism can’t be solved by what he calls the "militarisation of globalisation and that in fact continued efforts by the US will push the world to a state of permanent disorder. Two possibilities emerge from this. The first is a long transition to socialism, while the second is "catastrophe and the suicide of humanity". The argument, which echoes the "socialism or barbarism" espoused by the pre-second world war German socialist Rosa Luxemburg, leads Amin to the conclusion that a new left needs to be built that builds solidarity between working people in both the developed and undeveloped world, the north and south.

 This movement should, he says, concentrate first on rebuilding a multipolar world to dismantle US hegemony and press for social reforms. It is at this point that Amin throws the door open to dialogue on the exact form of both the social movements that will press for change and for the nature of change that should be achieved. He uses the term "post-capitalist society" and then qualifies it by saying immediately that it’s a deliberately imprecise term – that while he would tend to call it communist, there is no reason to dismiss any other humanist visions of society. In the end, Amin concludes with what is really a plea, rather than a blueprint – a cry, not a plan, that calls for maximum unity on the left to rally all political forces, ideological currents and social movements.
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