March 29, 2015

The Concept of Imperialism

Prabhat Patnaik

THERE is a view even in Left circles in the advanced capitalist countries that imperialism as a conceptual category has lost its relevance in the era of globalisation. On the one hand, the big bourgeoisies in third world countries like India, are themselves so deeply integrated into the project of “globalisation” that their contradictions with metropolitan capital are much more muted today than they used to be earlier; in the period immediately following decolonisation, for instance, third world bourgeoisies had cordoned off the national market through protectionist barriers against metropolitan goods and had insulated their economies from international financial flows; but today they happily pursue neo-liberal policies. On the other hand, the workers in the advanced capitalist countries are now pushed into the same predicament as the workers in the third world countries, where increases in labour productivity are not matched by any increases in real wages for them, which was not the case earlier: Joseph Stiglitz for instance estimates that the real wage rate of the average American male worker today is no higher than it was in 1968, and is possibly a little lower.


Hence, the division of the word into two dissimilar geographical segments, one of which dominates the other, thwarting even the ambitions of the latter’s bourgeoisie, and whose working population too experiences improving living standards in contrast to that of the latter, no longer obtains. Since, according to this view, such a division is characteristic of the phenomenon of imperialism, its disappearance renders the concept itself obsolete.


There is of course much theoretical diversity among those who question the meaningfulness of the concept of imperialism. While some would confine the term imperialism only to the pre-decolonisation phase, when this division of the world into two dissimilar and unequal segments, with one dominating the other, was palpable, others would accept its relevance even in the post-decolonisation phase, ie, even in the phase of third world dirigisme. True, political control had come to an end with decolonisation, but they would recognise in the attempt of the leading capitalist power of the epoch, the United States, to “roll back” third world dirigisme (to borrow John Foster Dulles’ term used in a different but similar context), and to negate third world attempts to acquire control over its markets and natural resources, a clear imperialist project.


The whole series of attempts to overthrow progressive third world governments that came into office in the period of decolonisation, from Cheddi Jagan of Guyana to Mossadegh of Iran, to Arbenz of Guatemala, to Soekarno of Indonesia, to Allende of Chile, not to mention the horrendous wars imposed upon countries like Korea and Vietnam that were embarking on a socialist trajectory of development, would according to them testify to the realty of imperialism.


But now, they would argue, the world has become altogether different. There are no doubt horrendous wars still, which have been imposed in the more recent period on a number of countries by the leading capitalist power, the United States, of which the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are obvious examples; but these differ from the earlier wars, since they have been waged against fundamentalist forces or against dictatorial regimes, largely  for political reasons that are supposedly not directly related to economic calculations; and such wars have often also got some local support from people belonging to the war-theatres themselves.


And since the economic regimes over much of the third world which are pursuing neo-liberal policies, are doing so not as “puppets of imperialism”, but usually under the aegis of popularly-elected governments, and have even achieved in many instances substantial rates of growth, exceeding what even the leading capitalist countries themselves have achieved, to link such regimes and their policies to “imperialism” is clearly unwarranted. The current epoch in other words, in contrast not just to the colonial period but even to the post-colonial dirigiste period, cannot be deemed to be falling within the era of imperialism.




The basic problem with this entire argument however is that its perception of imperialism is wrong. The term “imperialism” is linked neither to the behaviour of the third world bourgeoisie nor to the condition of the working class in the metropolis. In fact in the 1920s itself there was a view advanced by many leading theorists at the Communist International that imperialism was beginning to “accommodate” the third world bourgeoisie. This view was called the “decolonisation” thesis, which of course meant not the end of colonialism or imperialism, but only a change in the position of the bourgeoisie of third world countries vis-à-vis imperialism. The point here is not whether the “decolonisation” thesis was valid or not; the point is simply that a change in the position of the bourgeoisie towards it does not entail, and has never been thought to entail, an end of imperialism.


Likewise, the idea that imperialism is associated with diverging fortunes of the working classes in the metropolis and the periphery does not constitute a defining characteristic of imperialism.  This perception is held by the “unequal exchange” theorists, but not by Lenin who only saw a  thin stratum of “labour aristocracy” as benefiting from imperialism but not the working class of the metropolis as a whole. Hence the concept of imperialism has never in an essential sense been associated either with any divergence of working class fortunes or with any “exclusion” of the third world bourgeoisie. The argument that the stagnation in first world real wages or the integration of the third world bourgeoisie into the corpus of international finance capital negates the concept of imperialism, is therefore without any basis.


Put differently, imperialism entails the suppression, the necessary suppression, of the third world peoples, the working masses, through the operation of metropolitan capitalism. How the third world bourgeoisie fares in the process, and how the fortunes of the first world workers move under imperialism, are not germane to the definition of imperialism.


This suppression of the working people of the third world by metropolitan capital is not some clandestine conspiracy; it is a part of the very modus operandi of capitalism. It is wrong therefore to identify imperialism only with cases where military coups are engineered, or where military intervention by advanced capitalist countries or their leader, the United States, are carried out. Imperialism, even though it may, on occasions, give rise to such intervention, or to “gunboat diplomacy”, is not identical with “gunboat diplomacy”. So, the fact that no coup d’etats at the behest of some multinational corporations like the Union Miniere (which was active in the Congo) or the United Fruit Company (which was active in Guatemala) or the ITT (which was active in Chile) can be cited in more recent times to match the depredations of such corporations in the 50s and the 60s, is not an argument against the concept of imperialism. Imperialism is not some itch for staging coups; it is the very mode of existence of capitalism.




It comprises in the contemporary context the entire set of arrangements that ensure the unhindered and unchallenged operation of international finance capital. Such operation, it is obvious, includes inter alia the appropriation of the resources of the entire world by international finance capital, but it also means much more than this. Even if international capital controlled the entire mineral and other natural resources of the world, if there is a substantial increase in the purchasing power in the hands of the working people, especially in the third world, then their demands upon these resources will increase, resulting in a rise in the prices of such resources. Such a price rise however would jeopardise the financial system of the capitalist world.


Hence it is not enough that resources should be in the hands of international capital; it must in addition be the case that the working peoples of the third world countries are excluded from making any demands upon them. This is ensured by neo-liberalism through precipitating unemployment and real wage cuts on third world workers, through enforcing real income cuts on third world peasants and petty producers, and through imposing fiscal conservatism and “austerity” on nation-States so that they are in no position to make “transfer payments” in favour of the working population, but on the contrary must bring about an increase in the prices of a range of essential services including health and education.


Intrinsic therefore to neo-liberalism, which is a key feature of contemporary imperialism, is an impoverishment of the working people of the third world. It is ironical to hear in public debates in India the claim that the pursuit of neo-liberalism, by bringing about an acceleration in the growth rate of the economy, will help in the alleviation of poverty: neo-liberalism and its associated policies are an instrument in the hands of international finance capital to keep down the incomes and the purchasing power in the hands of the working people. “Austerity” as Noam Chomsky has observed is an unleashing of class war. To expect neo-liberalism to improve the conditions of the working people when its objective is to do the very opposite is extraordinarily naïve.


Imperialism’s ire against the post-decolonisation dirigiste  regimes is explicable not just by the fact that they were attempting to secure “national” control over their mineral and other resources, but also because, given their origins in the anti-colonial struggle and the commitments made to the people during that struggle, they were, no matter in how small a measure, seeking to effect some improvement in the living conditions of the people. And imperialism’s basic weapon against such regimes, apart from outright military intervention, was the unleashing of religious fundamentalism, ethnic strife and other such reprehensible means for dividing the people. Even while staging a military coup against Mossadegh in Iran, it had used the help of Ayatollah Kashani; more recently in Iraq it has used Shia fundamentalism to whip up support for the toppling of Saddam Hussein. In Afghanistan it used an Islamic fundamentalist coalition against the PDPA government and the Soviet Union.


And when some of these fundamentalist forces, like Frankenstein’s monster, begin to create problems for imperialism itself, its response invariably is to seek out newer fundamentalist forces. The IS about which one hears so much these days was itself encouraged by the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as a means of checking Shia fundamentalism, which had also been encouraged by the same American administration.


Imperialism in short sniffs out all the fault-lines of a third world society and deliberately splits the people along those lines. This is a tactic which British imperialism had used widely during its heyday, including in Malaya (as it then was) to defeat the post-war revolutionary upsurge, by promoting and exploiting the ethnic contradictions between the Malays and the Chinese. And American imperialism is using the same tactic now.


As a result, contemporary imperialism causes in the third world not only an immiserisation of the working population but also a process of social disintegration.