Empire of Capital ELLEN MEIKSINS WOOD The New Imperialism DAVID HARVEY Reviewed by Spyros Sakellaropoulos and Panagiotis Sotiris

1. Introduction

During the 1990’s “globalization” emerged as the most convenient term to describe world affairs. However, during the last years the notion of imperialism is making a theoretical comeback and is no longer considered outdated. The main reason for this change has been the escalation of direct US military intervention abroad, beginning with the war in Afghanistan and reaching a climax with the invasion and military occupation of Iraq. Policy makers and think tanks had already been talking about a new form of liberal imperialism that would deal with "failed" or "rogue" states and other global problems (Cooper 2002; Wolf 2001). In the more extreme case of the American neo-conservatives, there is open talk of a benevolent American empire (Kagan 1998; Boot 2001; Donnelly 2002) that will protect free markets and western values. On the other hand, there are also many left-wing intellectuals1 and activists who are again using the word ‘imperialism’, both as an analytical tool and to define a political target.

Within this framework, a new and refreshed Marxist theoretical discussion on imperialism remains a necessity. After all, it was Marxism (the classical theories of Imperialism formulated by Lenin, Bukharin and Luxemburg) that shaped the very notion of Imperialism. It is our opinion that it was the ideological and political retreat of the 1980's and 1990's that led many Marxists and radical theorists to embrace the concept of globalization — a concept developed and shaped outside the limits of Marxism.

In this paper we will be dealing with two new books, published in the last months of 2003, which have undertaken the task to renew the Marxist theory of Imperialism: Empire of Capital by Ellen Meiksins Wood and the New Imperialism by David Harvey.

2. Presentation of the books and their theoretical frameworks.

a) Ellen Meiksins Wood, 2003, Empire of Capital, London and New York: Verso

Ellen Meiksins Wood has written a book in which she attempts to illustrate how power is expanded beyond territorial limits in different modes of production since antiquity. She describes different economic systems and concludes that they are all marked by a tendency for internationalization. However, she does not believe that this internationalization of power is similar to Imperialism. In fact there are different versions of colonization based on the use of extra-economic power and coercion, with important structural differences both among them and in comparison to capitalist imperialism. The aim of the book is to distinguish those differences and to illustrate the specific form of capitalist colonization as a consequence of the emergence of the capitalist mode of production in Britain and the subsequent evolution from capitalist colonization to the fully developed post-WWII capitalist imperialism. This evolution leads to the transformation of various forms of pre-capitalist colonization to capitalist colonization which is based on economic competition, the market and the domination of economic imperatives. Finally, modern capitalist imperialism, which is based not on colonial empires but on the existence of sovereign territorial states, is the result of the internationalization of capital and state intervention that support this internationalization, aiming not at territorial expansion, but at economic domination on a global scale.

Wood’s book is based on an elaboration of her whole theoretical approach concerning the emergence of capitalism (Wood 1991). Her approach is in many ways similar to the one proposed by Robert Brenner (Brenner 1976; Brenner 1977; Brenner 1982). Her main argument is that capitalism must be strictly defined, as a set of specifically capitalist social-productive relations that lead to production for a competitive market, with the market share conditioned by increased labour productivity. Commodification of labour power and constant pressure from the market made possible the exploitation of workers (extraction of surplus value) with the use of economic means alone. This is in sharp contrast to pre-capitalist modes of production, especially feudalism, where the use of extra-economic coercion was necessary for the extraction of surplus labour. According to this theoretical schema capitalism should not be confused either with trade or the market in general, nor should we look for its origins in the development of craftsmanship and commerce in Medieval Europe. For the true origins of capitalism one should look to the development of capitalist social-productive relations in early Modern English agriculture. During this period agricultural production became subject to the imperatives of competition; the result was the emergence, for the first time, of a social form where both appropriators and producers were market-dependent in historically unprecedented ways. Between 1540 and 1650 land surveyors begun to calculate the landed rents beyond their supposed ‘ real ’ value, keeping in mind the new reality of the competitive market and that market was formed, for the first time, within a really integrated national market. In this way tenants as well as landholders depended on the rising productivity and competitiveness of the tenants . The final result was, not only the ‘ invasion ’ of market competition but also mass-scale land dispossession, which created the conditions for the emergence of wage-labour and capitalist industrial production.

This sharp distinction between capitalism and other modes of production leads Wood to an equally sharp distinction between pre-capitalist empires and capitalist imperialism. According to her narrative about pre-capitalist empires (which include the Chinese, Roman, Spanish, Arabian, Venetian and Dutch empires) had, despite their differences, one thing in common: the importance of extra-economic force instead of a purely economic imperative. In the cases of the Roman, Chinese and Spanish Empires political power (military force) helped to secure territorial gains that made possible the expansion of agricultural production and the extraction of surplus labour (mainly in the form of serf labour and other forms of forced labour); thus we can talk about an empire of property. In the Empire of Commerce (which includes the Arab / Muslim Empire, the Venetian Empire and the Dutch Republic) extra-economic force was used to control trade rather than territory. From this point of view even the Dutch commercial Empire had more to do with pre-capitalist forms of international trade, in which commodity exchange did not result to the constant pressure for productivity rises that are consistent with the capitalist market. From this point of view the British Empire was not just an evolution of former empires; based on the emergence of the capitalist mode of production it was the first that introduced a new form of capitalist imperialism. The important mutation which marks the transition form the pro - capitalist modes of production to the capitalist mode of production is the dissociation of economic power from extra-economic power, in a way that makes capitalist economic power predominant in comparison to political and military force.

According to this point of view the British agrarian capitalism was the first purely capitalist form of commodity production. It was the transition from “commercial conceptions of profit – the profits of unequal exchange, ‘buying cheap and selling dear’– to capitalist profit, the profit derived from competitive production, from the increased productivity enabled by improvement” (p. 84-5). That begins with the law of the enclosures in the 16 th century, when the rising demand for wool pushed the British landlords to vindicate the enclosure of pasturages. It was the beginning of the creation of large scale enterprises , of the unification of the land and of turning large segments of the rural population into proletarians . Relations of production take the form of the triad organization of production : there were the landlords who were living on rents , the capitalist tenant farmers on profits and the farm laborers on wages . The second phase, that of the extended enclosure , is related both to the rise of demand — created by the increase of the population — and to the growth of the exportation of woolen fabrics.

Because of the domestic development of agrarian production the British Empire could fuel its activities in the colonies of America. Contrary to other forms of colonization the British quite early laid more emphasis on the production of marketable crops (such as tobacco or sugar), using slave labour to compensate for the absence of a free labour force. Other areas, such as the mid-Atlantic region, remained for a period of time outside the orbit of capitalist development and only after the American Revolution were the small and middle farmers forced to produce for the market, due to the increasing pressure from state governments, land merchants and speculators. In India, at a first stage, the East India Company, under the aid of the British Imperial State, succeeded in establishing mainly non-capitalistic property relations “that would ensure a reliable source of revenue” (p. 111). However, at the end of the 18th century a growing number of English capitalists began investing in India. This transformed the Imperial State from “an instrument of private appropriation into an apparatus of public administration” (p. 114).

Wood extends her earlier (Wood 1991) emphasis on the importance of non-capitalist political and ideological forms and imperatives for the development of continental European capitalism. Contrary to the emergence of British agrarian capitalism “from below”, Wood paints a picture of continental capitalism and imperialism as a creation “from above”, from political and military imperatives. This is what distinguished German Imperialist ambitions from British capitalist imperialism, and German industrial interests in territorial expansion from a capitalist logic of accumulation. The final result of World War I was the fragmentation of the great imperial powers and the empowerment of the US. World War II was the “last major war among capitalist powers to be driven by a quest for outright territorial expansion in pursuit of economic goals” (Empire of Capital, p. 128). The new form of imperialism, with the full dominance of the US Imperialism, is “governed by economic imperatives and a system of multiple states” (p. 130).

After the end of the Cold war and the collapse of the so-called socialist states a new global reality emerged — called by some globalization. According to Wood ‘globalization’ is not the right term because in that case we would have a truly integrated economy with “some common social average of labour productivity and costs” (p. 136). In fact what is true is a global economy, which is administrated by a global system of multiple states and local sovereignties (p. 139). And this means that the state retains its function and importance. The new imperialism has the unprecedented characteristic that its aim is not territorial expansion but military action without end. In essence, military presence aims at reminding the world of US power and of their capacity to spread fear. This is a low risk form of imperialism and a much more profitable one since it permits the US to command the world economy without the dangers of a colonial expansion.

b) David Harvey, 2003, The New Imperialism, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Harvey ’s attempt is to clarify the content of the ‘new imperialism’, the version of imperialism created by the US after the crisis of 1973. According his point of view Imperialism went through 3 phases: a) the bourgeois phase (1870-1945) b) the phase of American hegemony (1945-1970) and c) the phase of neo-liberal hegemony (1970-2000). His position is that this new imperialism is based on two pillars. The first concerns the use, on behalf of the State, of a set of political, military and diplomatic strategies and the second the development of economic power within an open space. Capital exports take place in space as well as in time, via huge investments marked by long- range profitability and via the creation of new products, new markets and news systems of production. It is also the combination of the two pillars that creates different forms of accumulation.

The originality of Harvey’s analysis is that he succeeds, on the one hand, to highlight the correlation between American hegemony and neo-liberal strategy and, on the other hand, to underline the correlation between different historical phases of imperialist development and different accumulation regimes.

Based on that approach, when Harvey shifts his focus to recent events, he presents a well-argued analytical schema to explain the war against Iraq. First of all, there is the need for oil. Many oil fields have reached their productive limit and the most productive are and will be, for the next 50 years, the ones located in the Middle East. Secondly, the defeat of the Democratic ticket in the 2000 presidential election and the events of 9/11 resulted in a remarkable change in the policy-making of the White House: neo-conservatism displaced neo-liberalism and coercion replaced consent. This made the war against Iraq even more possible — let alone the fact that American and British oil companies had been excluded from Iraq, in contrast to French, Chinese and Russian corporations.

According to Harvey a positive outcome in the war will help the imperialist states to overcome the economic crisis, by reducing the cost of production and by providing themselves with a possible outlet for excessive capital. Harvey accepts Brenner’s position about the continuous crisis of capitalist overproduction since the 1970’s (Brenner 1998; Brenner 2002). Since then many efforts have been made to counterbalance the effects of the crisis, but have had no effect.

However, the shift from consent to coercion signifies the declining orbit of US rpower. After the end of World War II, the US based their hegemony on four factors: industry, finance, cultural production and military power. Over-accumulation crisis created many problems in the American economy and undermined the dollar’s role in global finance. The growing US deficits led to a permanent dependency on foreign capital. The central banks of Japan, Taiwan and China are actually covering this deficit and the only alternative solution would be the US government issuing new dollars and paying off the debt by those under-valued dollars. However, this would lead to a significant rise in the rate of inflation and consequently it would aggravate more the position of the dollar as a global currency, as the unique global reserve currency.

Harvey ’s position is that facing this situation the US has been searching around the globe to find new spatio-temporal fixes for excess capital. The notion of spatio-temporal fixes was introduced by Harvey in Limits to Capital (Harvey 1982) to describe the way invested capital must be localized, requiring a specific physical form (buildings, machinery etc.) at a specific period; thus they are both a way to deal with the overproduction of capital and the mechanism that gives capitalism its regional dimension. Harvey goes on to develop a complex theory of spatial-temporal fixes as a means to counter overproduction, through investments that change the building environment: new productive facilities, grand-scale public works and big construction projects. This tendency is not limited within the boundaries of the nation-state, but also takes place on the international level, being one of the main driving forces for the internationalization of capital.

According to Harvey after the collapse of the Soviet Union the main American strategy was that of neo-liberal imperialism. The US Treasury Department and the FED lead the way to a worldwide effort to open up markets and international institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, strengthened the position of American finance capital and imposed policies of austerity on less developed countries.

Especially for less developed countries and regions this was a particularly aggressive strategy with waves of privatizations that destroyed traditional forms of production and social solidarity and created conditions similar to what Marx describes as “primitive accumulation”. This is what Harvey describes as “accumulation by dispossession”. This process identifies a strategy aiming to counterbalance the problem of “over-accumulation”. Accumulation by dispossession releases a set of assets in a very low cost. The over-accumulated capital is characterized by the capacity to seize these assets transforming them for profitable use. These policies of privatization (telecommunications, transportation, social housing etc.) created new spaces of profitability for the over-accumulated capital. The most important point is that this process is the result of the political refusal to adopt a reform of welfare state policies. In this sense, accumulation by dispossession leads not only to privatizations but also to periodic bouts of predatory asset devaluation in many places of the world.

The violence of this process creates two kinds of resistance: not only “classical” left-wing reactions to accumulation by dispossession that nevertheless are not hostile to modernizing tendencies, but also struggles to maintain traditional forms of community and solidarity against capitalist modernization as such.

But there was an inner contradiction to neo-liberal imperialism: the decline in American manufacturing meant that this whole emphasis on a violent form of finance capitalism was in fact some sort of recycling of finance capitalism that could not keep generating income for too long. Not only was neo-liberal imperialism inherently volatile — Harvey describes it as a way to orchestrate volatility and credit and liquidity crises (p. 185) —, but also it was based on the actual decline of American manufacturing and the emergence of sub-imperialist competitors.

In this light neo-conservative stress on military power and interventionism was a sort of reaction to the economic competition from rival capitalist countries, an effort to counterbalance the economic advancement of the other developed capitalist economies (Western Europe, Japan and South-east Asian economies), through the use of military and political force. This means a new balance between the territorial and capitalist logic of power. It is also important that neo-conservatism is not only a foreign policy agenda; it is also a turn towards more authoritarian rule at home, and a more conservative ideological agenda

According to Harvey American imperialism is going to continue this policy as long as the problem of over-accumulation remains and there is no other way to absorb excess capital. The only solution is the emergence of a sort of a global New Deal. This means a reorientation of the economic and social policy, the implementation of some sort of redistributive Keynesianism. For the people of the Left the issue is whether they are determined to follow a more “moderate” road towards the amelioration of the current situation or denounce it as some sort of reformism. Harvey chooses the first solution fearing that the New Imperialism can create much more disasters than in the past.

3. Merits, problems and contradictions of each book

a) Wood’s Book

Wood has made a remarkable endeavour to explore the different forms of empire during the last 2000 years and to illustrate the common points and the differences between them. From this point of view her work offers to the reader an important amount of information on social and historical events.

It is also a very useful criticism and rebuttal of the world system theory and/or its variation, world systems theory. According to Andre Gunder Frank and Barry Gills the emergence of trade as a form of economic activity drove humanity to a unique world system of production during the last 5000 years (Frank 1990; Gills and Frank 1990; Frank and Gills 2000). On the antipode of this thesis Immanuel Wallerstein stated that there is not one world system but many world systems, which succeeded one another. From the 16 th century onwards the discovery of new territories unified the world into a global system, that of the capitalist mode of production, replacing the older system of the Great Empires, based on the globalization of trade and immigration, thus creating a new world division of labour (Wallerstein 1974; 1974a; 1991; 1999).

Wood, from her part, is very critical of these positions, in both variations. She claims that the emergence of capitalism cannot be explained by territorial expansion or the development of trade, but rather by the emergence of a totally new mode of production based on the rise of labour productivity: accumulation, commodification, profit maximization, competition, those are the characteristics of the new social system. And if there is a dividing line to be sought, this is not between Centre and Periphery, but rather between the Imperialist States and the rest of the world. Wood is correct in her analysis and avoids a simplified description of social phenomena, preferring a detailed examination of social relations.

The basic problem with Wood’s treatment of imperialism mainly lies in her whole concept of capitalism (not just in this book but in all her work — i.e. Wood 1991; Wood 1995). We have already noted that Wood shares with Brenner the whole schema of agrarian capitalism according to which the development of capitalism is not synonymous with trade in commodities or the development of markets, but was based on the emergence of a market-oriented form of agrarian production, performed by capitalist farmers employing wage labour and aiming at maximizing profits through higher productivity. In the capitalist market the exchange of commodities has nothing to do with custom or other forms of non-capitalist economic rationality, and acts as a constant pressure for productivity rises and an economy of necessary labour time. Wood in a way reminds Polanyi’s pioneering work (Polanyi 1957) that insisted on differentiating commodity-exchange in general (various historical forms of trade and commerce) and the emergence of the modern capitalist market.

As a theory of the emergence of capitalist economic forms and capitalist social relations of production it has many merits, and demonstrates the necessary discontinuities between different modes of production. As a general theory of history it has many problems. Wood’s approach is basically an essentialist one. She treats capitalist social relations (in the form of a market oriented and productivity concerned economy of necessary labour time) as the essence of capitalism, a causal nucleus from which all political and ideological forms stem. If England is the birthplace of agrarian and —later — industrial capitalism, then only English political forms and systems of ideological representation are the original and proper political and ideological forms for the development of capitalism; since they maintain the necessary relation with the essence of capitalist social relation, they “express” them. Wood claims that elements that are generally considered to be constitutive of European capitalism, such as the emergence of centralized state power or “bourgeois” culture, are in reality non- or pre- capitalist forms that cannot be considered part of the emergence of modern capitalism, since they do not share the essential relation with some pure form of capitalist (and not just commodity) production.

If we choose such an essentialist approach and wish to maintain — at all times and at all theoretical cost — this relation between an essence and its expressions, then Wood is right. If, on the other hand, we understand the emergence of capitalism as a complex material relation, then we cannot accept this reading. British agrarian capitalism was indeed the first purely capitalist form of commodity production. Centralized state power of the absolutist state was not a direct response to capitalist social relations. The same goes for ‘bourgeois’ mentality and culture that had more to do with the development of European cities as administrative centres. It is also true that the complex banking processes developed especially by Italian Bankers had more to do with risk taking and handling of foreign trade costs than with their demand to obtain some part of the total capitalistically extracted surplus value. But history is not a succession of essences and their expressions. History is a succession of different modes of production, each representing an articulation not just of economic political and ideological forms, but also of historically specific elements. In this sense, in order for the capitalist economic forms to become dominant the emergence of capitalist mode of production was necessary. This meant that an ‘encounter’ (to use the expression Louis Althusser uses to describe in an non-historicist way the articulation between different elements [Althusser 1982; Althusser 1994a]) had to take place between English agrarian capitalism, British parliamentary decision making, Italian banking practices, French centralized power and later republicanism, and Continental bourgeois culture. In other words, nothing was predetermined to occur. The process of transition from feudalism to capitalism presented a lot of discontinuities and asynchronies. There were regions which, in a first stage, were in the vanguard in what concerns the development of capitalist development, such as the Italian cities and the Netherlands, but, in a second phase, other regions overcame them like Britain.

The second important point of the book concerns Wood’s criticism of the notion of globalization. The writer is very cautious about accepting its theoretical usefulness. Contrary to the claim that globalization offers to States only a secondary role within the global economy and reinforces the role of supranational organizations as regulators of market forces, Wood juxtaposes the thesis that we live in a world “that consists not of imperial masters and colonial subjects but of an international system in which both imperial and subordinate powers are more or less sovereign states” (Empire of Capital p. 152).

However this position remains contradictory. It is not very clear whether Wood thinks that globalization exists — even if it is globalization with the Nation-States keeping their predominant role. We lay particular emphasis on this point because we think that a genuine renewal of the Marxist theory of imperialism requires a theoretical negation of the very notion or globalization. If there is neither global capital (a global capitalist power block) nor a global proletariat, then there is no globalization in the strict sense of a unified global system of social relations. It is true that capital as such is governed by a tendency towards endless and unfettered accumulation, it acts as a blind social force, a sort of societal drive (in the Freudian sense), an as such knows of no borders (in the same way that during the 19 th century it knew of no limits to the exploitation of child labour even if this meant the prospective destruction of the available labour power). But this is only capital in its most simple and abstract form as self-valorised value. The notion of the capitalist mode of production is a much more complex theoretical abstraction of economic, political and ideological practices, structures and institutions which make possible the reproduction of capitalist social relations. Following Althusser (Althusser et al. 1965) we do not identify the mode of production with economic forms, but with a structured articulation of economic, ideological and political relations and forms.

The reproduction of capitalist social-productive relations requires the emergence of the capitalist mode of production and its reproduction in specific social formations . There is no ‘inner logic’ of the nation state as an expression of the ‘essence’ of capitalism. It was the necessary result of the uneven development of the capitalist mode of production in a space — both natural and social — that was already fragmented. The nation-state was the concrete political form that proved to be the most effective, in contrast to others that were also tried, like the colonial corporation (for example the Dutch East India Company or the English East India Company), the empire, the colonial empire, the city-state, the network of commercial cities (Balibar – Wallerstein 1990: 122).

If we accept this (that is, if we do not accept some sort of classical world system theory [for example Wallerstein 1974]) then an alternative periodization would be possible only if we could point to a specific turning point that marks the possibility of a global social formation, or at least of a transnational social formation , that is if we could theorize the reproduction of the capitalist mode of production in a global scale. This should include a theory of the formation of a transnational power block and the specific forms of transnational class struggle (including the formation of a possible transnational popular alliance). All other arguments in favour of ‘globalization’ either in the form of the tendency of capital to transcend national barriers or in the form of increased communication and cultural exchange, simply miss the point. And the same goes for any ‘eclectic’ theoretical approach which attempts to bring together globalization, the continuing importance of nation-states and current forms of imperialism.

In other terms, the issue is not whether there is room for state intervention, but the way we theorize the international system. And since no-one has suggested a plausible turning point we must insist on the notion of imperialism and the imperialist chain as the best way to theorize the international system. This is the form of capitalism we have known until now, not as a conglomeration of states, but as a multilevel (economical, political and military) articulation of social formations formations, with relations of uneven development and uneven interdependence. The term ‘multilevel’ is used in order to make clear that we are not talking about a pyramid, with the economically advanced countries in the highest positions and the economically backward ones in the lowest. For a country (or a social formation) to be ranked in the imperialistic chain, not only the entirety of its political and military power but also its level of economic development must be taken into account. Which of the two elements has more weight depends in each case on the evolution of class struggle at an international level as well as at a local level2 . In other words, what appears to be decisive in relations among states in the chain is uneven development3 , leading to different, hierarchically unequal positions.

b) Harvey’s book

Undoubtedly, Harvey has written a very interesting book. Some of its most important merits are the way he describes capital flows, his emphasis on the importance of financial crises and his detailed description of the strategy of the new Imperialism — especially in what concerns the priorities that have shaped current American policy.

Another quality of the book is its insistence on the notion of Imperialism instead of the notion of ‘globalization’ or that of ‘postmodernity’4. On the contrary, Harvey, as he clarifies in the first paragraph of the first chapter of New Imperialism, claims that his intention is to examine the role of a 'new' imperialism from the perspective of the longue durée. This signifies the necessity for a coherent well-argued schema based on the basic principles of historical materialism and not on the ‘postmodernist’ literature or mainstream globalization theories

However, there are certain contradictions in his effort. First of all, his use of the term “global capitalism” is rather confusing: what is the difference between globalization and global capitalism? His whole emphasis on the decline of American manufacturing and the transfer of productive facilities towards regions with cheap labour force is only one part of the picture: the US made 11.3% of the world exports in 1990 and 12.5% in 2001 (WTO 2001), and its participation to the world domestic product varied between 25.9% in 1992 and 32.4% in 2001 (UNCTAD 2004a).

In addition, there is a problem with the sharp distinction he draws between neo-liberal and neo-conservative strategies. We do not want to underestimate the differences, but one should not take factional divisions in the American political elite as strategic divergences. It is true that the neo-conservative unilateralist approach marked a turning point, but it still falls well within the limits of the political and military interventionism that has characterized US foreign policy after 1989. The international consensus about the war against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia during the 1990’s, or the effort for its ‘humanitarian legitimization’, cannot hide the fact that it was an aggressive imperialist war (Johnstone 2000).

Another important contradiction is that, although he describes capitalist crises as overacccumulation crises, he tends (following Brenner5 ) towards an overproduction theory of capitalist crisis. Instead of focusing on the complex contradictions (and class antagonisms) that result in a crisis of accumulation, in the inability to maintain profitability and necessary levels of exploitation, overproduction theories tend to focus on production capacity surpluses. But the main problem facing capitalists is not some “lack of opportunities”, but first of all the class struggle and its consequences in terms of the capacity of capital to exploit the workforce in the level dictated by the necessity of the “natural” development of the capitalist process of production.

More generally we can say that the problem with overproduction theories is twofold: On a more general level they can lead to a theory of capitalism’s inherent inability to reproduce its social relations, being prone to productive stagnation and eventually self-destruction. It is a form of theoretical and political wishful thinking: They suggest that it is inevitable that capitalism will perish because of its inherent contradictions, especially its inability to allocate productive resources in a rational way, and thus the unpredictable outcome of the class antagonism becomes less important. On a more specific level, emphasis on overproduction does not take into consideration the fact that overproduction (in the form of unused or underused productive capacity and/or unsold commodities) is a manifestation of capitalist crisis, an expression or a result of the contradictions of capitalist accumulation and not its essence6 .

In many ways Harvey’s position is reminiscent of Luxemburg’s theory of imperialist expansion. It is well known that Luxemburg’s theory of capitalist accumulation (Luxemburg 1951) remains one of the most well-argued examples of the under-consumption thesis and a strong theoretical defence of capitalism’s inherent inability to reproduce itself (a position contrary to Marx’s own reproductive schemata in volume 2 of Capital) and of its subsequent need to constantly expand itself towards its non-capitalist periphery. The very fact of capitalism’s survival negates the hypothesis that when the entire non-capitalist periphery is used up then we are up for the self-destruction of capitalism. Of course Harvey knows very well that this did not happen, even though capitalism triumphed over most of the globe. That is why his emphasis is not on non-capitalist countries but upon underdeveloped areas, non-commercialized activities or economic sectors, and the building environment, as forms of a never-ending cycle of devaluation and new development.

And it is no surprise that Harvey’s political proposal is some form of ‘global Keynesianism’. Keynes was obsessed with the problem of overproduction / under-consumption and the need for the state to actively counter these tendencies. The problem is that if we really take a look on what the Keynesian revolution was about, not as theory, but as a concrete path of capitalist accumulation, we shall see that the post-second world war state intervention was much more than just state financing of productive outlets for idle capitals; it was a whole set of means and measures to enhance productivity and develop counter-tendencies to the tendency of the profit rate to fall.

4. Imperialism revisited

When dealing with the theory of imperialism one cannot avoid talking about classical theories of imperialism and especially Lenin’s theoretical intervention. There are two possible readings of Lenin’s theory of Imperialism. One is to consider it a Marxist interpretation of classical theories of colonial empire-building, either those that related imperialism to an overabundance of capital in tandem with growing social instability, or those that laid more emphasis on imperialism as an expression of certain fractions of the ruling block that had to gain from overseas expansion and military build up (Hobson 1902). According to such a view Lenin presents a theory of irremediable capitalist stagnation and overproduction which can only be temporarily dealt with by means of colonization, the latter providing not only the necessary outlet for idle capital but also a means of social pacification, since it makes possible the creation of a labour aristocracy. We must note that apologists of imperialism and colonial empire-building, for example Cecil Rhodes or ‘Fabian Imperialists’, such as George Bernard Shaw, used a similar justification: economic development in the metropolises had reached its peak and was being threatened by over-production and social unrest since under-consumption forbade a policy of income redistribution. Later on it was Hanna Arendt that reproduced this schema in her Imperialism (Arendt 2002). The run for new colonies inevitably leads to competition between perspective imperial powers and finally to inter-imperialist rivalry and war, the inevitability of imperialist wars.

A superficial reading of Lenin’s pamphlet in imperialism ( Lenin 1982) certainly provides a basis for such an interpretation . But we believe that a second reading is possible, which would open a whole different way of theorizing not only colonialism, but also the way by which the emergence of the capitalist mode of production radically transformed the shape of the globe. According to such a reading Lenin’s theory of imperialism revolutionizes the theory of the international system, and gives imperialism a wholly different meaning than simple empire building. Especially important in this sense are Lenin’s efforts to think of the international system as a complex unity of economic, social and political contradictions, as a hierarchy of national social formations, engaged non only in economic competition, but also in political and military antagonism, generally what is known as the theory of the imperialist chain and its weakest link. Lenin’s emphasis on uneven development as a characteristic of modern imperialism (Lenin 1915: 342), his insistence on competition, his description of the antagonisms in the world scene in the introductory speech at the Second Congress of the Communist International (Lenin 1920a), are some examples. This second tendency was also based on Lenin’s reformulation of the notion of revolutionary crisis as the condensation of contradictions in all instances of the social whole, a condensation that is always national-specific and original (Lenin 1917a; Lenin 1920)7.

From this point of view the most important point in Lenin’s approach is that social relations take analytical priority over inter-state relations. States’ behaviour on the international plane is conditioned by their social structure and the balance of power in the class struggle. Imperialism is not the outcome of a simple drive towards territorial expansion, but the result of a specific stage in the development of capitalist accumulation (relative surplus value as the predominant form of surplus extraction, real subjugation of labour to capital, concentration and centralization of capital) and of the contradictions that arise out of its class antagonistic nature. The internationalization of capital is not an expression of capitalist stagnation, but an aggressive tendency that results on the expanded reproduction of capitalism, the consolidation of the ruling block, and the hegemony of capitalism against non-capitalist modes of production.

This emphasis on class relations and antagonisms also marks a sharp position between Lenin’s theory of imperialism and proponents of American expansionism in the form “economic imperialism” as a solution for the over-abundance of capital, such as Charles Conant (1898). Lenin’s intervention goes far beyond Conant’s emphasis on the exportation of these idle capitals (as opposed to the social and political difficulty of wealth distribution and the unavailability of domestic productive outlets). The fundamental issue for Lenin was not capital exports as such, but capital exports as part of a broader tendency: the expansion of capitalist social relations on a global scale, the political and military conflicts that followed this expansion — as an expression of the inherently violent character of this process — and the resulting challenges for the revolutionary movement.

Uneven development is the necessary outcome of the complex history of the emergence and domination of capitalism in different parts of the world, resulting to the creation of antagonistic total social capitals. Competition between capitals in the international plane is necessarily state-mediated, the state’s role being to guarantee the interest of the capitalists as a whole — and this leads to inter-imperialist rivalry and war8. For all these reasons we claim that first of all Imperialism is a political strategy. In this sense, after Lenin’s theoretical intervention9 ‘imperialism’ undergoes a profound semantical change: It loses whatever references it kept to empire-building and becomes something different, i.e. the specifically capitalist tendency to the internationalization of capital, the expansion of capitalist productive relations all over the globe and the political (and military) strategies (and antagonisms) that make possible the enlarged reproduction of these tendencies. This dissociation of imperialism from empires (formal and informal) makes it possible to understand why capitalist imperialism arises in its fullest form only after WWII, when the sovereign territorial state becomes the norm of the international system. That is why the Marxist notion of imperialism is non-commensurable to traditional notions of ‘imperialism’. Traditional notions simply refer to political phenomena (such as state aggressions and rivalries), and / or are limited to certain economic practises (such as capital exports). The Marxist notion of imperialism, in order to explain the above phenomena, deals with profound mutation of social relations and power struggles in the international plane as a result of the hegemony of the capitalist mode of production. And that is why Marxist anti-imperialism, as a political position, is not about some more ‘humane’ management of international relations and capital flows; it is about the struggle for the overthrow of capitalist relations of exploitation and oppression.

This emphasis on social relations also helps us answer the question of hierarchy in the international system. Class struggle within the borders of each social formation determines its position in the hierarchy of the imperialist chain. The form of social alliances, the stage of capitalist development, the level of capitalist productivity, its military and political force, as well as its ideological influence, can reinforce or undermine the international power of a capitalist social formation. This means that a social formation’s rank in the imperialist chain is not based only on its level of economic development but also on the entirety of its political and military power. The relative weight of the political or the economic sphere depends in each case on the evolution of class struggle (Poulantzas 1979a: 24).

According to this reading the imperialist chain does not constitute an agglomeration of states but a contradictory articulation of social formations, conditioned by the competition of the private capitals, national capitals, states (as collective capitalists), as well as blocs of States. These blocs are alliances formed under the direction of a hegemonic power that has the economic supremacy as well as the military capacity to secure the specific interests of these formations.

We have already noted that capital as such, as a “blind” tendency towards unfettered accumulation, knows no borders. On the contrary, capitalist social relations require borders and can be reproduced only within the social, political and ideological conditions of specific capitalist social formations, in the form of territorial sovereign nation-states. The capitalist mode of production cannot be reproduced without the nation-state, which is not an “essential” political form but basically the result of an historical process that ended with its emergence. The development of capitalism is an uneven process, subject to various determinations and different forms and rhythms in the class struggle. This leads to a fragmentation into different national territories.

The internationalization of capital, its tendency to transcend national borders, is not unmediated, in the same way that exploitation cannot be reproduced by purely economic means. If political power and ideological hegemony are necessary conditions for the reproduction of capitalist social relations, the same goes for the internationalization of capital: some form of political intervention (and ideological legitimization) is necessary for it. This is a general feature, a structural necessity; the specific form of this political and ideological guarantee is subject to historical contingencies, and this can explain the move from imperialism in the form of rival colonial empires to the more ‘modern’ imperialism of a hierarchy of imperialist formations, with the US in the hegemonic role of politically and militarily guaranteeing the global collective capitalist interest.

The fact that we insist on the notion of imperialism, rather than on that of globalization, does not mean that we do not realize the changes that have taken place during the last decades, the most important among them being the lowering of barriers to international trade and capital movements, the abolition of protective mechanisms and national currency fluctuations, the role of organizations such as the WTO and the formation of zones of economic integration, such as the European Union. The internationalization of capital has become an aggressive political strategy against workers’ rights in the name of ‘survival in a more competitive international environment’.

This observation allows us to understand the basic framework of the contemporary function of the imperialistic chain: The victorious outcome of the antagonistic conflict with the Soviet Bloc, the fact that the American economy —despite being challenged by Japan or Germany — remained stronger, either owing to their greater productivity gains or to the importance of American finance and financial institutions, along with the inability of any other state to politically or militarily challenge the US, testify to the dimensions of their comparative advantage as a hegemonic power. In this way the US emerge as the only power capable to accomplish a strategy of historical scope: to secure the long-term interest of the whole capitalist world. Naturally, there are contradictions in this strategy: the US version of the global collective capitalist interest might not coincide with the actual interest of their allies / competitors and this can lead to inter-imperialist rivalries. The point is that it would be wrong to place our hopes either in an administration change within the US or in a potential ‘anti-American’ international block. True hope lies in the possibility that anger against imperialism can be transformed to a more permanent and radical challenge to its very foundations: capitalist social relations.


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1 Apart from the two recent books that are being reviewed in this paper, Socialist Register 2004 and Socialist Register 2005 contribute to this renewed interest in the notion of Imperialism. See also Barrow (2005) and Duménil and Lévy (2004).

2 According to Poulantzas “The concrete form and the degree of the strength of politics within each national formation, depend on its ‘historical’ position as a link in the chain: this depends in turn of the uneven development of the chain and on its mode of existence with each link. Through this break with economism, we at the same time discover the position of the other links in the chain, be they weaker or stronger. Not just the relative economic situation of a country (in relation to others), but the particular nature of the ensemble of the social formation, helps determine the allocation of this position, and any changes in it, such changes being determinant for the conjuncture” (Poulantzas 1979a: 24).

3 Poulantzas position is that “uneven development…is the constutive form of the reproduction of the capitalist mode of production in the imperialist stage in its relations with other modes of production and social formations” (Poulantzas 1979: 49- 50).

4 From one point of view, it is somehow strange that the writer of The condition of Postmodernity ( Harvey 1990) does not use this term (postmodernity) almost at all in The New Imperialism.

5 For criticism of Brenner’s theory of capitalist crisis see Callinicos 1999; Carchendi 1999; Fine, Lapavitsas and Milonakis 1999 .

6 According to Marx “The so- called plethora of capital always applies essentially to a plethora of the capital for which the fall in the rate of profit is not compensated through the mass of profit…or to a plethora which places capitals incapable of action on their own and the disposal of the managers of the large enterprises in the form of credit. This plethora of capital arises from the same causes and those which call forth relative over- population, and is, therefore, a phenomenon supplementing the latter…Overproduction of capital, not of individual commodities- although over-production of capital always includes over-production of commodities- is therefore simply over-accumulation of capital” (Marx 1894: c3: 172) and some pages later “the rate of profit decreases in proportion to the mounting accumulation of capital and the correspondingly increasing productivity of social labour, which is expressed precisely in the relative and progressive decrease of the variable as compared to the constant portion of capital” (Marx 1894: c3: 272). It is obvious that falling demand does not create over-accumulation but it is emanated from the over-accumulation. Over-accumulation is the ‘cause’. See also Ioakeimoglou (2000).

7 For a reading of classical theories of imperialism see Milios (1988: 11-46).

8 In this sense, the difference between Kautsky’s vision of ultra-imperialism (Kautsky 1914) and Lenin’s emphasis on inter-imperialist antagonism and war is primarily analytical, and concerns Lenin’s insistence that uneven development and antagonism are essential characteristics of the imperialist chain whereas forms of inter-imperialist cooperation are mainly contingent outcomes of particular conjunctures.

9 And the way his position were further developed by important Marxist scholars such as Poulantzas (1979).