Geopolitical Economy: After US Hegemony, Globalisation and Empire by Radhika Desai is a wretched apology for some of the worst regimes on the planet, dressed up as critique of political economy.
It demonstrates how the language and words of the classical Marxist tradition can be absconded and transformed into a world view subservient to the ruling classes of certain powerful, and ultimately imperialist or sub-imperialist states.
Desai takes the idea of uneven and combined development (U&CD), which she attributes to the Bolsheviks rather than specifically Trotsky, and turns it into a means of celebrating the rise of every rival to the US. It is a facile anti-Americanism – an “anyone-but the US” account of global politics – which has nothing to say to the American working class or indeed the working class of other “contender” states. The book conflates insights from classical Marxism such as U&CD and theories of imperialism with later Stalinist excrescences. The result is a series of apparently radically counter-intuitive claims that explain little and confuse much.
Desai makes three central arguments:
1) The materiality of nations means the world is made up of multiple states, signifying the end of single power hegemony.
2) The hegemony achieved by British imperialism in the mid-19th century is unrepeatable; and the US has never been hegemonic
3) “Globalisation” and “empire” are merely failed ideologies to justify US intervention, not theories of how the global order is.
The first argument is a species of methodological nationalism – elevating nation identity and national forms above more universal connections such as class or indeed the real material processes of global capitalism. Thus where Marx emphasised the progressive work of capitalism in creating threads that bind peoples and communities across the globe, as well as generating interdependent working classes, Desai’s framework is firmly rooted in national states. This methodological statism abstracts states from capitalist social relations of production, leading to a weak, reformist conception of politics in the conclusion, whereby the working class mainly looks to influence progressive states to act for its interests. This is far from the self-liberation of the working class. It also offers no critique of those states, such as China and to a lesser extent Russia, where even organising for working class politics is confounded by state repression.
Desai juxtaposes “multipolarity” (which she clearly favours) to “cosmopolitanism”. This leads to utterly scandalous arguments. For example Desai states that in the post-war period, the USSR was responsible for decolonisation and the development of newly industrialised countries, and even the growth of welfare states in the advanced capitalist states. This is pure Stalinist apologetics. It leaves out entirely the efforts of oppressed peoples to liberate themselves, and the role of the working class in fighting for its own improvements. It also radically misrepresents capitalism, dismissing the active agency of capital and its constant reproduction of its own gravediggers.
The attack on cosmopolitanism from a nationalist vantage point is ruinous. Cosmopolitanism has long been an integral trait of authentic Marxism. Marx and Engels subsumed the best elements of bourgeois cosmopolitanism: the philosophical sense of world citizenship; the institutional element of global self-government; the juridical idea of universal rights; and the economic interdependence of needs. Marxism fuses these conceptions into proletarian internationalism, the practical solidarity between workers globally that is necessary for working-class self-emancipation.
Of course the free-trade cosmopolitanism of Marx and Engels’ time, and the latter-day neoliberal cosmopolitanism, which are ideological articulations of the free movement of capital, are not carried out in the interest of working class people. However Marxists have rightly argued that the development of the world market and a capitalist mode of production across the globe is progressive, not least because it creates the material foundations for socialism.
There is also an underlying poison to polemics against cosmopolitanism that needs to be lanced. In the 1940s the Stalinist ruling class in the USSR launched an attack on cosmopolitanism. It was part of their drive against the emerging cold war and a blast at US imperial hegemony. It was explicitly chauvinistic, harking back to the Russian “Motherland”, with more than a whiff of anti-semitism. Unfortunately, recent events in Syria and Ukraine have shown a residual Russian apologist tendency on the left, particularly among those who don the mask of “multipolarity”.
None of this is to deny the materiality of nations. The class struggle takes place on national terrain, as well as at international, regional and local scales. National self-determination, in the sense of democratic political self-government remains a vital issue for many peoples, although again the one-sidedness of much of the left is evident: contrast campaigns for Palestinian self-determination with those on the rights of Kurdish people; US intervention in Iraq is rightly opposed, but Russian and Chinese oppression of national minorities receives almost no comment.
Desai’s second argument – the flat denial of US hegemony in the current world – completely misreads international relations since 1945. The book is dominated (ironically as the author points out) by a stinging critique of the US, but absolutely no assessment of other “contender” states. The reasoning is very shallow, implying that the economic recovery of Europe and Japan from the 1950s represented a return to the pre-1914 rivalries that led to world war, rather than a US-led reconstruction of global capitalism, in which the capitalist classes as well as the “rival” economies were integrated and interpenetrated to a significant extent.
Even a superficial familiarity with the real relation of forces shows that the US retains overwhelming hegemony in military, economic, technological and cultural matters. The US state had around 400 military bases in the 1960s, while today it has over 700. Militarily, the US outspends all its possible rivals put together, never mind has allies, alliances, nuclear and cyber capability, and other advantages. Economically, the top three or four firms in technological hardware and equipment, software and computers, aerospace/military, and oil equipment and services are American, as are most top global firms in healthcare equipment and global financial services. The US was still producing more manufactured goods and receiving more foreign investment in 2007 than all the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) combined.
It is a step forward that Desai recognises combined development in the current world and fluidity in the hierarchy of states. This is an improvement on the rigid core-periphery model derived from the dependency and world systems theories, which imported third world nationalism into Marxism in the 1960s and 1970s. The book’s recognition of capitalist development in former colonies is also correct. But nowhere does Desai discuss the idea of “sub-imperialism”, a category to describe regional powers such as Iran, Iraq, and Israel, Brazil, Argentina and Mexico, South Africa, Nigeria and other states. Such analysis has proven invaluable for understanding both changes in the world economy as well as numerous wars in recent decades. Desai doesn’t discuss sub-imperialism or the inter-relations between actual capitalist states because it would undermine the facile multipolar thesis she defends.
Similarly, the third argument made, that “globalisation” and “empire” were merely failed ideologies to rationalise US foreign policy, elides more than it clarifies. Of course many apologists for the US state used these constructs as ideology. But others, including critics, have understood globalisation as part of the continuing internationalisation of capital, as well as the way capitalist states have ensured the reproduction and extension of capitalist social relations of production. Similarly, the idea of an informal US empire captures something of the structured hierarchy of states in the current global order. These terms sum up real processes in the real world that are not merely ideological constructs, and grasp important elements of an ever-changing reality.
Desai sneers at the anti-capitalist movement for accepting globalisation while seeking to change its form. But this was one of the virtues of the social forums, in which demands around working class solidarity were raised by pushing through actually-existing tendencies in the world economy. Of course some of the mobilisations were soiled by a heady mix of negative sloganeering (another world is possible, but not much detail on what that meant or who would bring it about) and anti-organisation movementism. But they also created dialogue on the left and some telling mass activity in protest at capitalist classes and their governments.
Actually, Desai’s book masks an implicit advocacy of the BRICS. All of these states have increased their importance in the world economy and geopolity in recent decades. But they are not an homogenous bloc, nor do they all obviously share common interests or even juxtapose themselves with the US. Worse, Desai’s embrace of these states becomes effective promotion of their governments, silence on the fate of the peoples who live under them, and the extinction of the solidarity that needs to be developed between workers there and in other states.