Background: Imperialism yesterday and today 6

Submitted by martin on 16 June, 2003 - 11:51

From Workers' Liberty 63

Imperialism yesterday and today 6

Levelling and uneven development

There were great world empires before capitalism. But capitalism was the first social system to create an integrated world economy - a world knitted together by a dense network of international trade. Also, capitalism has a drive towards expansion which far exceeds that of any previous economy.
In Imperial China, in Mughal India, in ancient Egypt or in early medieval Europe, economic advance meant only an increase in the luxury and religious or military display of the ruling class. It was thus inherently limited. Capitalism, too, features ruling class luxury and military display. But these are not fundamental. As against "the old view, in which the human being appears as the aim of production", in the modern world, as Karl Marx put it, "production appears as the aim of mankind and wealth as the aim of production".
By making everything measurable against money, capitalism creates a form of wealth - capital, constantly turning from money into production and back again - which by its very nature seeks unlimited expansion and drives forward productivity. Pre-capitalist wealth was fixed in land, slaves, palaces, temples. Capitalist wealth is mobile, in the form of money. It constantly seeks expansion, by being invested and reinvested and yet again reinvested in production, each time seeking the most profitable enterprise.
Capitalism spreads. Before the capitalist era, feudal economies in Europe and Japan coexisted for centuries with systems where a bureaucratic central state owned all the land. Capitalism has spread all over the world.
Capitalism has a tendency to even out inequalities - to spread development to underdeveloped areas. It also has a counter-tendency, in many ways more powerful, to increase inequality between areas. There are three main reasons:
First: capitalism can and does mesh other modes of production into its own web. As Marx put it: "as soon as peoples whose production still moves within the lower forms of slave labour, the corvee, etc. are drawn into a world market dominated by the capitalist mode of production... the civilised horrors of over-work are grafted onto the barbaric horrors of slavery, serfdom, etc."
This happened particularly in the colonies. Politically, "the late-Victorians had to find their allies more and more among Indian princes, Egyptian pashas or African paramount chiefs" (Robinson, Gallagher and Denny et al). The imperialists not only allowed older modes of production to continue, often they bolstered them (or modified versions of them) in order to bolster the classes that were their allies in the colonies. The colonial or semi-colonial regime becomes "a political machinery for exploiting peasant economy for capitalist purposes - the real function, this, of all Oriental states in the period of capitalist imperialism" (Rosa Luxemburg).
Second: capitalist success breeds capitalist success. New capitalist investment in an area requires, and is encouraged by, good communications (road, rail, air, sea, telecoms, mail), nearby markets, ample supplies of trained and healthy labour, and easy access to sub-contractors, suppliers, repair people, and experts to consult. Thus, an area where capitalism is already highly developed will always tend to have advantages over one where it is not.
The advantages can be offset by other factors - cheaper labour, or easier access to raw materials, or lower overheads, in areas where capitalism is less developed - but they are sufficient to maintain great unevenness in capitalist development, often great unevenness even within a single state.
But - third - capitalism does not develop in a world without frontiers. It develops in different countries. The state builds communications, educates labour, organises markets, fixes tariffs and makes, promotes, subsidises - or obstructs - investment.
An independent capitalist state promotes the development of its own capitalist class. A colony suffers from the rule of a state serving the interests of another capitalist class. The colonial rulers may even - as in India - openly discriminate against colonial industry in order to protect the markets of imperial capital. Even if they do not, both nervousness about the political effects of widespread education and business development, and racist prejudice, inhibit all they do to promote development.
Even after independence, the legacy of colonialism usually obstructs development. The ex-colonies are usually small, weak units in a competitive capitalist world dominated by rich states and giant multinationals. Their currencies, for example, are not accepted in international trade; they have to buy most of the technology they need for expanding production from richer countries; they suffer chronically from balance of payments problems (shortage of foreign exchange).
Thus capitalism makes possible both unprecedented material advance and terrible inhumanity and inequality under the cloak of the impersonal laws of the market economy.