Empire of Capital

Submitted by on 4 September, 2003 - 12:00

Empire of Capital by Ellen Meiksins Wood (Verso)

"Imperialism", wrote J A Hobson a century ago, "is the word on everybody's lips". A century later, when capitalism is again in the ascendant, and the US has fought three wars in five years, the word is once more on everybody's lips.

But "imperialism" is an essentially contested concept, with many different meanings and ambiguities. That's why this new book by Ellen Meiksins Wood is so valuable. It provides a coherent account of capitalist imperialism to explain the period we are living in.

Imperialism old and new

Wood distinguishes between different forms of imperialism in history. She argues that capitalist imperialism is different from older forms, such as the territorial empires of ancient Rome and the Spanish conquistadors, or the commercial empires of the Arab Muslims and the Dutch. Old colonial empires dominated territory and subjected peoples by means of "extra-economic" coercion-by military conquest and, often, direct political rule.

Capitalist imperialism on the other hand exercises its rule primarily by economic means, by the force of the market, using weapons such as debt and structural adjustment programmes (eg, of the IMF). Capitalist imperialism originated with the development of capitalism in England, but came to fruition after 1945 under US hegemony.

Wood is critical of recent attempts to theorise imperialism. She believes classical Marxist accounts by Kautsky, Hilferding, Luxemburg, Lenin and Bukharin were "profoundly illuminating" about the age they were living in-a world divided into imperial powers and colonies. They accurately predicted that the rivalry between these powers over markets and colonies would lead to war in 1914-18 and again in 1939-45. But these theories "belong to a time when capitalism was very far from a truly global economic system".

The period after 1945 looks very different. The US emerged from World War Two as the strongest economic and military power, and took command of a new imperialism governed by economic imperatives and administered by a system of multiple states. Capitalism spread across the globe (or at least two-thirds of it), and developed rapidly in parts of the "third world". An international system of more or less sovereign states developed, in place of the old empires and colonies. For the first time in the history of modern nation states, the world's major powers did not engage in direct geopolitical and military rivalry. Such rivalry, she argues, was "effectively displaced by competition in the capitalist manner".

The main axis of military and geopolitical conflict after 1945 ran between the capitalist powers and the USSR-until the Cold War ended with Russia drawn into the capitalist world. We now live in a world where capitalism is pretty much universal.

Capitalism and imperialism

Wood argues that to understand the specific, capitalist form of imperialism in the modern world, it is necessary to understand the nature of capitalism. Following the views of Robert Brenner, she insists that capitalism emerged first in the very specific historical conditions of the English countryside in the 16th century. The difference between capitalism and other class societies is rooted in the form of exploitation, which gives rise to a unique relationship between the economic and the political.

Wood says: "In every class society, where one class appropriates the surplus labour of another, there are two related but distinct 'moments' of class exploitation: the appropriation of surplus labour and the coercive power that enforces it. In non-capitalist societies, these tended to be more or less united. The separation of economic and political spheres in capitalism has meant that these two moments have been effectively divided between private enterprises (or public enterprises operating on the same principles) and the public power of the state."

Capitalism is a system in which all economic actors depend upon the market for their most basic needs. It is a system in which class relations between producers and appropriators, and, specifically, the relation between capitalists and wage labourers, are mediated by the market. In capitalism, the market dependence of both appropriators and producers means that they are subject to the imperatives of competition, accumulation and increasing labour productivity; and the whole system, in which competitive production is a fundamental condition of existence, is driven by these imperatives.

What distinguishes capitalist exploitation from earlier class societies is the "dull compulsion of economic relations", as Marx put it in Capital, Volume 1, rather than the use of "extra-economic" power. One of the most important consequences of the detachment of economic power from direct coercion is that the economic hegemony of capital can extend far beyond the limits of direct political domination. "Capitalism is distinctive among all social forms precisely in its capacity to extend its dominion by purely economic means."

However Wood is clear that capitalism cannot dispense with the state. The state is vital to the existence of the system, playing an essential role in creating and reproducing the conditions necessary for this kind of economic domination.

Nor does Wood neglect the importance of ideology. She discusses the development of an ideology of imperialism, starting with Thomas More's revival of the Roman concept of colonia to designate the settlement of foreign land. William Petty, in his capacity as Cromwell's surveyor general in Ireland, and John Locke, with his conception of "improvement" (i.e., productivity) as the basis of property ownership, both provided early justifications for imperialism.

So the root of capitalist imperialism is the same market imperatives, the same unique mode of capitalist exploitation, coupled with the development of a system of multiple nation states. Of course this new form of imperialism did not emerge fully formed. One paradox, looking at the history of British imperialism in Ireland, America and India, is that we find a drive to impose capitalist imperatives alongside the age-old commercial and territorial forms of extra-economic coercion.

But territorial colonisation was not the primary means of the spread of market imperatives and capitalist social relations. Instead, these imperatives spread through the economic and military rivalry between the existing European states, under pressure from Britain's earlier development of agrarian capitalism. Wood argues that the state-led development of capitalism in France and Germany was a response to these external compulsions, both market pressures and geo-political rivalries.

Imperialism today

Wood argues that after 1945 the purpose of military power shifted decisively away from the relatively well-defined goals of territorial expansion and inter-imperialist rivalry to the open-ended objective of policing the world in the interests of capital. This military pattern, and the needs that it served, did not change with the collapse of the USSR.

She argues that the Bush doctrine is directly descended from strategies born in the Cold War. Although the new principle of "infinite war" departs from centuries of discourse on "just wars", it answers to the particular needs of the new imperialism-to deal with the contradictions of global capitalism. What has changed is not the underlying principles of US military doctrine so much as the conditions in which they operate-the overwhelming US military supremacy and a world of (near) universal capitalist relations.

This emphasis on economic imperatives, backed by selective use of military power, does not blind Wood to other possible developments in the present period. She warns that in the Middle East, the new imperialism may revert to old forms. "Like the British in India, when commercial imperialism gave way to direct imperial rule, the US may be finding that empire creates its own territorial imperative."

In short, the new imperialism is riven with contradictions. The key contradiction is identified as "a growing gulf between the global economic reach of capital and the local powers it needs to sustain it". Whilst the military doctrine of the Bush regime is an attempt to fill the gap, Wood says that US military intervention is "inevitably generating growing anti-imperial hostility throughout the world". And in the disparity between global economic power and its local political supports, Wood argues there is an expanding space for opposition.

Wood's book provides an overarching framework with which to understand modern capitalist imperialism. Much of the historical detail remains to be filled out, as does the discussion of other theories. The book does not discuss the imperialism of the USSR, yet the emergence of the Stalinist bloc marked another difference with the classical theories of imperialism. In reality, Stalinist imperialism was much like the old-style, pre-capitalist empire building, based on direct conquest and colonial rule.

The way in which economic imperatives such as debt actually work needs to be theorised and much more needs to be said on international labour solidarity and on the new possibilities for working class anti-imperialism, the only progressive answer to the new empire. However Wood has laid the foundations for a coherent Marxist theory of imperialism.

Score: 9/10
Reviewer: Paul Hampton

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