Globalisation. For week 6 of "Marxism and Imperialism"

Submitted by martin on 17 June, 2003 - 8:10

From Workers' Liberty 2/3. TODAY, WORLD markets - not just markets in goods and services, but, as important, credit markets - create vast and increasing inequalities. They convey the choicest fruits of the world's labour to the billionaires in the global centres of finance. They are regulated by the IMF, the WTO, the World Bank - international institutions dominated by the ruling classes centred in those "global cities".

At every stage of market haggling - who gets contracts, where investment is sited and on what terms, which trade barriers remain (as they do, lower than in the past, but still there, including around the most ruthlessly "free-trading" states, like the USA), who gets loans on what terms, how debt will be repaid - economic, political, diplomatic and military might skews the scales.

Historically, inside each state, capitalist classes tend to use market mechanisms rather than the politico-personal dependence through which exploitation is organised in feudal, tribute-paying, and slave systems. But they need much larger establishments of police, standing armies, and state bureaucrats than the previous exploiting classes. So also today the world order is policed by larger military machines than the old imperialism of giant colonial empires was, outside world war.

Yet the core exploitative mechanisms are those embedded in free trade itself.

In his speech On The Question Of Free Trade, Marx explained: "What is free trade under the present condition of society? It is freedom of capital...

Gentlemen! Do not allow yourselves to be deluded by the abstract word freedom.

Whose freedom? It is not the freedom of one individual in relation to another, but the freedom of capital to crush the worker...

We have shown what sort of brotherhood free trade begets between the different classes of one and the same nation. The brotherhood which free trade would establish between the nations of the earth would hardly be more fraternal.

To call cosmopolitan exploitation universal brotherhood is an idea that could only be engendered in the brain of the bourgeoisie. All the destructive phenomena which unlimited competition gives rise to within one country are reproduced in more gigantic proportions on the world market...

If the free traders cannot understand how one nation can grow rich at the expense of another, we need not wonder, since these same gentlemen also refuse to understand how within one country one class can enrich itself at the expense of another".

Vast pauperisation, abrupt destruction of social safeguards, arrogant domination by a few billionaires - that is the world capitalist system today, as destructive as the old colonial empires, and maybe in a more widespread and drastic way.

Yet it also generates vast potentials for subversion. The wage-working class, defined as those who sell their labour-power to capital and are exploited by capital, together with the children and retired people of that class, is probably a bigger proportion of the world's population than ever before - about one third1.

Although the reshaping of the world after the big crises of 1974-5 and 1979-80 was carried through by ruling classes thirsty for revenge against the labour movements which had scared them in the late 1960s and in the 1970s - with privatisations, welfare cuts, anti-union laws - there are possibly more workers in independent trade unions worldwide today than ever before in history.

There has been an enormous cheapening and speeding-up of freight, transport and communications. This is the era of mass international air travel, mass international telephone communication, and the Internet. Speedy and regular international communications used to be the preserve of the well-off. Now they are available to labour movements and workers.

To try to make capital less multifarious, more rigidly channeled is hopeless. To try to force world trade back into its old mould, to bemoan the speeding-up of global interchanges, or to try to return the new working classes to peasant production, is to turn our back on the subversive possibilities in the new order. The path of battle for which it creates the basis, and which can effectively point beyond it to a better future, is workers'control, the political economy of the working class, the establishment of worldwide social standards and rights by international working-class action, and the struggle for worldwide socialist revolution, and global democracy.

Every right of national self-determination, every other broad democratic right, is an important stepping stone for that battle.

If, however, we misidentify the mechanisms of capitalist market exploitation as merely operations of privilege secured by political and military means; if we shut our eyes to, or misunderstand, what is new about the modern imperialism of free trade; if we interpret it as just a slightly different form of the old imperialism of colonial empires - then we will go wrong.

To rid a nation of colonial rule is a step forward. To withdraw a national economy from the world market is a step backwards.

Cuba is kept largely outside the circuits of global trade and capital flows; but that is its curse, not its boon. We demand the end of the US blockade!

Marx himself, back in 1848, followed his critique of free trade with a warning.

"Do not imagine, gentlemen, that in criticising freedom of trade we have the least intention of defending the system of protection". Where tariffs and trade restrictions served rational capitalist purposes, explained Marx, they were only a means for a government to help local capitalists develop sufficient scale to enter the world market. Otherwise, they were conservative measures, in contrast to which free trade, by pushing forward the contradictions of capitalist production, would hasten the social revolution.

UNTIL RECENT decades, many or most of the less-developed countries were feudalistic regimes, colonies, semi-colonies (sometimes, the colonial or semi-colonial rule imposed because the big power most interested could not secure a reliable pro-capitalist government otherwise); in the later 20th century, Stalinist states or "substitutionist" state-capitalist regimes where bureaucratic or military elites, driven by competition and emulation with other powers, set up structures to foster a national industrial base and private capital under their wing. The pattern of world trade was one of raw materials being exported from less capitalistically developed countries to the metropolis in Western Europe or the USA, most of manufacturing industry being based in the metropolis, and manufactured goods being exported back to the less capitalistically developed countries.

That pattern has pretty much broken down. All but the very poorest states have more bourgeois ruling-class substance behind them. They are integrated into the world market. Manufactured goods predominate in world trade, and in the exports of less capitalistically developed countries. The biggest exporter of bulk raw materials is the USA, the most developed country. We have a world made up mostly of bourgeois states integrated into the world market in complex and multiple ways. They include substantial sectors integrated into production networks stretching over several countries.

The USA is the world's only superpower; but this is a world of politically independent capitalist states, and of international structures (UN, IMF, WTO, EU, G8, NATO) gaining more clout than before. States, far from fading away, act vigorously to reshape and adapt economies, but with world markets in view rather than self-complete national plans. Money-capital flies round the world faster than ever, international investment and contracting-out increase, and many more countries have become significantly industrialised, but the world becomes more unequal, not more uniform.

Colonialism became, in general, too costly and risky for the big powers in the decades after World War Two, as the colonies became more urban, educated and industrial. In a world of "universalised" capitalism, they know that trying to impose governor-generals is an expensive, risky and fragile method of providing assistance to their corporations in the world market. So long as there are capitalist states in every country, or at least in every economically important country, with a sufficient bourgeois class basis to ensure a minimum of regularity in functioning by capitalist criteria, then that assistance can be ensured much more cheaply and reliably by market forces and para-market forces (haggling over trade concessions and contracts, bargaining over credit, bribery - at the limit, economic sanctions).

US "globocop" war or military action is the back-up. Since 1991 it has been used mostly to police the state fabric of the world - to maintain a smooth network of capitalist states covering the earth's surface, with gaps and "holes" only on the margins. The military philosophy has been to apply intense heat to weld shut any seams coming apart.

It is brutal. It is conservative. It is arrogant. It is cynical. But to be anti-USA is not necessarily a certificate of positive virtue. The USA's adversary may well be a "sub-imperialist" or "paleo-imperialist" power, one whose drive is for a more localised and primitive form of imperialism rather than for national or human liberation.

Capital now has many substantial centres. Some states, far from superpowers, are nevertheless dominant centres for a particular region - India, Brazil, Mexico, Nigeria for example. This regional hegemonism has been called "sub-imperialism".

By "paleo-imperialism" I mean attempts by smaller powers to offset their weak position on the larger canvass of the world economy by small-scale regional conquests - Iraq in Kuwait, Serbia in Kosova, Argentina (1982) in the Falklands... The prefix "paleo" signifies an earlier or previous form of something; thus "paleolithic" pertains to the earlier Stone Age, and "neolithic" to the later Stone Age. Such conquests may be condoned or endorsed by the big powers: Indonesia in East Timor, Turkey in Cyprus, Morocco in the Western Sahara, Serbia in Kosova until 1999. Or they may bring the smaller power into conflict with bigger powers.

But paleo-imperialism does not cease to be reactionary when it comes into conflict with a bigger power, any more than a small capitalist exploiter is converted into a philanthropist by a competitive tussle with a big corporation.

The US is the world's biggest military power by a long way. When it wages wars, it reckons to profit in prestige and influence. Victories in those wars feed the arrogance of US power. But the world is not a US empire. Why ever should the European Union and Japan support the USA in its wars of 1991, 1999, and 2001 if those wars were fundamentally, essentially, centrally about making the world the USA's as against theirs?

There is a network of cartels between the big-power governments (G8, WTO, IMF, etc.) which has served, more or less, to regulate the "imperialism of free trade", and the USA has the loudest voice in those cartels. But repeated conflicts within them - for example, the recent conflict over steel tariffs between the USA and the EU - show that these cartels do not form a single compact centre, and that they are not solely US-run.

The facts contradict the idea that the EU and Japan are just "semi-colonies" of the USA (an idea which would have Marxists in Britain, France or Australia campaigning for "national liberation" from the USA). They also do not fit with the notion that there is really just one single global big-capitalist class of which the US state is the main "executive committee" while the EU and Japanese states are only sub-committees.

If there were a global big-capitalist class, a big chunk of it would consist of capitals firmly based in Japan and the EU, and a significant chunk of capitals rooted in former colonies or semi-colonies. Of the 500 top public companies in the world, 205 are headquartered in the USA, but 148 in Europe, 92 in Japan, and some 28 in poorer countries (South Korea, Brazil, India, China, Mexico, etc)2.

And the USA has a huge mountain of debt to foreign capitalists, $2.2 trillion in early 2002 and growing rapidly. It cannot carry on this way for ever.

According to one estimate by Goldman Sachs, at the present rate, by 2006 the USA will be borrowing new money abroad just to pay the interest on the debt it will already have. The debt will "run away", unsustainably.

The "empire" that US "globo-cop" action enforces is that of big capital, not of the USA. Big capital is not a state, and it is not identical with the USA. We do not support smaller capital against big capital in the way that we support the rights of smaller nations against big powers.

We do not support bigger capital either! Even if we can surmise that a particular US "globocop" action may - if all goes well, if there are no hidden hitches - bring some improvement on balance, we give no credit in advance to big-capitalist power. We seek to educate and mobilise the working class as an independent - which necessarily means, oppositional - force. Our basic stance is one enounced by Trotsky: "We are not a government party; we are the party of irreconcilable opposition... Our tasks... we realise not through the medium of bourgeois governments... but exclusively through the education of the masses through agitation, through explaining to the workers what they should defend and what they should overthrow."

Imperialism old and new

WHY NOT just call the current world structure "global capitalism"? Why talk about the imperialism of free trade? It is global capitalism. To call it global capitalism is to convey or imply most of the essentials about it. And it is certainly misleading to suggest that the world today is structured in the same way as the species of "imperialism" that Lenin wrote about in his famous pamphlet of 1916. However, it is equally misleading to say that the world is no longer imperialist in a more general sense.

From about the 1880s, the big capitalist powers'acquisition of colonial possessions - which had been going on, one way or another, for centuries - moved into a new gear. There was a concerted rush to divide up almost the whole world between the big empires.

In that rush many territories were seized primarily for political-strategic reasons, but overall there was an increase in the export of capital to the colonies, systematically developing infrastructure and raw-materials industries there to supply factories in the metropolis, and opening up wider markets there. (Before, imperial powers had often been content to limit themselves to plunder and only marginal trade in their colonies).

In England, especially, the advocates and enthusiasts of that drive to carve up and exploit the world called it "imperialism". At first Marxists used different terms, like "world policy", but in time "imperialism" became common usage.

The Marxist writers, from Karl Kautsky when still a revolutionary through Rosa Luxemburg, Rudolf Hilferding, Nikolai Bukharin and Vladimir Lenin, argued that the "imperialist" drive was linked to underlying economic trends towards "monopoly capital" and "finance capital".

Capitalist industries were becoming dominated by a few huge corporations in each country, which bolstered their position by securing protective tariffs and made price-fixing and market-fixing deals among themselves, rather than by lots of small competing enterprises. Increasingly, high finance was central in each national complex of capital, but also ranged wider and wider internationally.

The high finance and industrial cartels of the different richer countries drove out internationally in search of opportunities for investment, of markets for manufactured goods, and of sources of raw materials. Vast new areas were opened up to capitalism, or at least the beginnings of capitalism. Earlier in the 19th century, the industrial and empire-establishing pioneer, Britain, had been able to range wide through free trade, but it was now seeing its industry fast outstripped by Germany and the USA. France, Japan, the Netherlands, even Italy, Belgium and Russia, were anxious not to be shut out of the feast. The division and redivision of the world could not but develop through the building and jostling of rival empires.

The Marxists'answer to those economic trends was not to be simplistically "anti-monopoly" or "anti-finance", but to argue that the working class must drive forward, through the new phase of capitalism, developing the contradictions within that phase, towards socialism. Today, too, working-class anti-imperialism means combining consistent democracy (the right of nations to selfdetermination) and a struggle for workers'control and workers'power.

The Marxists differed on details, but all argued that the economic trends underpinned the "imperialist" drive, the growth of militarism in the same period, and thus the course towards World War One.

After World War One, the modes and patterns of 1880s-1914 "high" imperialism continued. In some respects they were intensified. The world became more sharply divided into trade blocs - empires or spheres of influence. The pattern reached paroxysm in World War Two. Germany, stripped of its colonies and some of its territory, and subjected to crippling reparations after World War One, drove for revenge against the old, fat empires and spheres of influence. For a while it transformed almost all of continental Europe into an empire ruled from Berlin.

That paroxysm brought the self-destruction of the old patterns. From World War Two the USA emerged hyper-powerful; the USSR, a second superpower, although a more brittle one, which needed tight political control in order to keep its sphere of domination; the big old colonial powers, Britain, France, the Netherlands, Japan, exhausted and indebted; and the peoples of the colonies, aroused and more confident.

The world was divided into two camps, one led by the USA, one led by the USSR. Within the camp led by the USA, the great empires of "high" imperialism - British, French, Dutch and Japanese - were broken down by colonial liberation struggles or by calculated retreat. The USA, cautiously but definitely, supported that process. It did not want the USSR to be able to stand as the champion of freedom for the colonies of the big old empires; and a world of free trade was the best and most robust terrain for its big corporations to flourish. In Western Europe, the USA encouraged a process in which the different nation-states gradually linked together into a "Common Market" (1957), a "single market" (1987), a single currency (2002), and, by now, in the European Union, the distinct beginnings of a federal European super-state.

The achievement of independence by the former colonies was followed - very unevenly, but in some countries very spectacularly - by the rise of autonomous capitalist industry there, especially from the 1960s.

The other camp was dominated by what Leon Trotsky called the USSR autocracy's drive "to expand its power, its prestige, its revenues" through extended political domination, in other words, Russian Stalinist imperialism. Some of the states within it nevertheless saw fast development of industry and an industrial working class. From the 1970s, some of them increased their links with the world market. The acids which thus spread through the Stalinist sphere combined with the settling-down of autocratic rule into a system of corrupt and gridlocked inertia, the rise of a qualified middle class, and working-class and national revolt, to prepare the conditions for the collapse back into bourgeois world-market capitalism, in 1989-91, of the whole apparently-ironclad hulk.

The USA and the international institutions it led proved strong enough to integrate Russia and China as subordinate partners into those institutions, and to extend worldwide the structures of domination-by-the-strongest-through-policing-freeish-trade already established in the western bloc.

Two conclusions

TO TRY to put the word "imperialism" back into the box of signifying only the particular phase of "high imperialism" (late 19th century, first part of the 20th century) is futile, since the process of its meaning being broadened has already taken place, many decades ago. Some would-be Marxists who prided themselves on their devotion to old texts may have thought that by calling the USA "imperialist" in the 1960s they were asserting that the world was in all essentials the same as in 1916, but that was their private illusion, not shared by the majority of those many who used the word "imperialist".

The always-greedy domination of the world by big capital is also, and inseparably, the always-greedy domination of the world by particular centres, cities, states - hence imperialist in the broad sense. As capital develops, it outgrows the nation-states, greedily takes the whole world as its arena, and at the same time becomes more closely tied up with and reliant on those states. Capitalist development is uneven: more-developed areas attract more new investment by virtue of their greater markets, better infrastructure, more qualified workforces, and centralisation of revenues. Capitalist "free trade" is not the impersonal, automatic process of orthodox economic textbooks. To repeat a point made earlier, at every stage of market haggling economic, political, diplomatic and military might skews the scales.

That does not mean that the independence of the colonies has changed things only formally - that the flags have changed, but that the essential relations are the same. The colonial liberation struggles were not wasted effort. India's policy is no longer dictated from London, or Algeria's from Paris. Economic independence is impossible in an interconnected capitalist world, but political independence is possible, and worthwhile.

Moreover, political independence had economic consequences. Some former colonies now have their own multinational corporations, international banks and economic spheres of influence, not to mention universities, airlines, stock exchanges. Their exports are mainly manufactured goods, not, as they used to be, bulk raw materials. They have vast tracts of poverty and misery - but those are the product of capitalist development, not of stasis.

Two main political conclusions follow. One, that the working class should push forward through capitalist globalisation - basing itself on the class contradictions within the process, fighting the class struggle within the process, aiming towards its own socialist and democratic "globalisation" - rather than trying to back out of globalisation, halt it, or maintain national or local barriers. Two, that in the conflicts between US hyper-imperialism and local "subimperialisms" or "paleo-imperialisms", we take an independent working-class stance - we place ourselves in the "Third Camp".