The term imperialism stems from the Latin word imperium, which describes several countries ruled by a single authority. The New or Modern Imperialism emerged in the late 19th century, and became a central object of Marxist studies. It was linked to the division of the world into industrialised, dominating nation-states on the one hand, and colonial, dependent and exploited countries on the other. Imperialism contributed to the rising inequalities between different parts of the world, and to the intensified rivalry between imperialist states, ending in World Wars. Marx did not use the term 'imperialism' in its modern sense. Yet, hardly any other concept has been so closely connected to Marxism. The reason is the evident relationship between capitalism and modern imperialism. Marxists have treated imperialism as more or less inherently linked to the process of capital accumulation.
When non-Marxists have engaged in the study of contemporary imperialism, one of their incentives has been to refute Marxist explanations of imperialism. This has been done in one of two ways, either by defining imperialism as a purely political concept, or by describing imperialism as a throwback to precapitalist habits. An example of a pure political theory of imperialism is that of Hans J Morgenthau. He defined imperialism as "a policy that aims at the overthrow of status quo" (Morgenthau 1960, 45), which meant that national liberation movements could become 'imperialist', whereas the consolidation and defence of US hegemony was 'anti-imperialist' by definition. The most famous example of treating imperialism as an irrational atavistic throwback to precapitalist behaviour, was put forward by Joseph Schumpeter in 1919. According to him imperialisms would wither away with the entrenchment of bourgeois institutions and values. "... capitalism is by nature anti-imperialist." (Schumpeter 1951, 96)
Marxist theories of imperialism came in two separate waves. The first was linked to the period around the First World War. These theories aimed at explaining colonial expansion and the rivalry between the great powers. The second wave emerged at the time of the Vietnam War. These were theories of a centre – the USA and its 'First World' allies – dominating and exploiting a periphery – the 'Third World'. The first wave focused on the antagonistic relations between the imperialist powers, the second on the relations between rich and poor countries. Today we can discern a third wave of Marxist theories of imperialism. They try to come to grips with a situation when global capitalism has become completely dominant, tending towards 'Empire' in the classical sense of the term.
Also among Marxists there has been important differences as to how modern imperialism should be defined and how the relationship between capitalism and imperialism should be conceived. Authors who place themselves in the Marxist tradition have supported five different positions.
One possibility is to define imperialism as "the domination of one country by another in order to economically exploit the dominated" (Szymanski 1981, p.5). Such a definition has the advantage of making a clear distinction between capitalism and imperialism, and the exact relationship between them is left open; e.g. capitalism that is defective in some sense, or special capitalist interests, may lead to imperialist actions.
Imperialism has been seen as the expansion of capitalist relations of production to pre- or non-capitalist parts of the world. In this conception the history of capitalist development can be divided into different stages of expansionary activity: 1) the stage of creating national economies, 2) the stage of colonialism and spheres of influence, and 3) the stage of international capitalist integration, today often called globalisation. (MacEwan 1972)
What has been called "the classical Marxist theory of imperialism" (Brewer 1990) regard imperialism as the "last" or "highest" stage of capitalist development. According to this conception there is no distinction between modern imperialism and monopoly or late capitalism. I shall call this view "Leninist".
A conception, that became increasingly prevalent in the 1970s, is to see imperialism as a (capitalist) system characterised by a spatial dichotomy between core and periphery. This view is that of radical dependency theory and of the World-Systems approach. According to it capitalism has always been imperialist; a handful of core countries have dominated and exploited the weak peripheral countries of the capitalist world economy. Only the forms of imperialism have changed over time. A candid variant of this position is that of Herb Addo, who described imperialism as "the permanent stage of capitalism".
A fifth view sees imperialism as a pioneer or midwife of capitalism. It has been most strongly expressed by Bill Warren, but can also be found in passages by Marx.
Although Marx did not treat imperialism directly (he only used the term to designate the personal rule of Napoleon III) several parts of his works have been used in the formulation of theories of imperialism. In his analysis of capitalism he stressed the expansive force of capital subjugating and transforming all kinds of pre-capitalist modes of production. Although imperialism in the modern sense was not a necessary consequence of capitalism, capital would use all possibilities available to expand and accumulate. In Marx's theory of primitive accumulation and in his description of the establishment of capitalism in Europe, what has later been seen as imperialism played a very crucial role. "The sudden expansion of the world-market, the multiplication of circulating commodities, the competitive zeal of the European nations to possess themselves of the products of Asia and the treasures of America, and the colonial system – all contributed materially toward destroying the feudal fetters of production." (Capital vol. III, chapter 19, Kemp p.19) Thus, for Marx the expansion of the world markets and the uneven development at the world level were closely linked – both as causes and consequences – to the development of capitalism.
A central theme in Marx's analysis was the transformation of merchant capital into industrial capital. In his writings on the British rule in India, "merchant capital and its allies exploit and destroy without transforming, industrial capital destroys but at the same time transforms." (Brewer, p.50) This theme was deepened in the theory of development and underdevelopment elaborated by Geoffrey Kay (1975). It was also the starting point for the iconoclastic views presented by Bill Warren in Imperialism: Pioneer of Capitalism. According to Warren Marx's essentially progressive interpretation of imperialism was "sacrificed to the requirements of bourgeois anti-imperialist propaganda and, indirectly, to what were thought to be the security requirements of the encircled Soviet state" (Warren 1980, p. 8). The progressive character of capitalism, attributed to it by Marx, should, according Warren, determine the progressiveness of imperialism. Not the other way around: the character of imperialism determining the reactionary character of capitalism (Ibid. p.47).
Writing in the 1890s Engels directly addressed himself to the phenomenon of imperial expansion. In order to overcome the contradiction between productive and consumptive capacity the European powers expanded overseas in search of fresh markets. To Engels this was a way of temporarily staving off crisis, but afterwards making them more acute. In 1894 he remarked: "Here is a splendid irony of history. China is the only country left for capitalist production to conquer, and once it does so it will have deprived itself of the possibility of surviving in its own home." (Quoted in Mommsen 1980, p.33)
The first wave around the First World War included the Leninist theory of imperialism, elaborated by Hilferding, Bukharin and Lenin. It also included the important contribution by Rosa Luxemburg, who analysed imperialism in terms of Marx's theory of accumulation.
The mark of the Leninist theory of imperialism is the focus on the transformation of liberal capitalism into monopoly capitalism. Imperialism was seen as the ideology and practice of the large monopolies and as an inevitable stage in the development of capitalism.
The British radical democrat J A Hobson, who wrote in abhorrence of the Boer War, first developed this contrast between liberal and imperialist capitalism. He saw imperialism as an effort to expand markets and to export capital abroad in order to overcome the underconsumptionist tendencies at home. Underconsumption was an effect of the growing monopoly power of the big firms. Thus imperialism was a policy favoured by the large corporations, which manifested itself in aggressive nationalism, colonialism and militarism.
"It is not industrial progress that demands the opening up of new markets and areas of investment, but mal-distribution of consuming power which prevents the absorption of commodities and capital within the country. The over-saving which is the economic root of Imperialism is found... to consist of rents, monopoly profits, and other unearned or excessive elements of income." (Hobson 1961, p.85)
Hobson believed that underconsumption could be overcome by redistributing income from monopoly profits to wages and welfare. A democratic and social capitalism would not spend resources on militarism and colonialism. "Imperialism is a deprived choice of national life, imposed by self-seeking interests which appeal to the lusts of quantitative acquisitiveness and of forceful domination surviving in a nation from early centuries of animal struggle for existence." (Ibid. p.368)
The first genuinely Marxist theory of imperialism was presented by Rudolf Hilferding. In Das Finanzkapital (1910) imperialism was not treated as a marginal phenomenon, but as a necessary accompaniment of capitalism at a stage when free trade was replaced by cartels, and when finance capital overtook industrial capital as the dominating form. The ideology and practice of finance capital was opposite to that of liberalism.
"Finance capital seeks domination, not freedom: it has no interest in the independence of the individual capitalist, but requires subjection. It abhors the anarchy of competition and demands organisation, admittedly so that competition can be resumed at a higher level. ... It needs the state to guarantee its home markets by customs and tariff policies and to conquer foreign markets... Finally it needs a powerful state to assert its financial interests abroad and exert political pressure on smaller states to secure better terms of delivery and favourable commercial treaties. The state must be able to intervene anywhere in the world, so that the whole world can provide outlets for its finance capital. Altogether finance capital needs a state that is strong enough to pursue an expansionist policy and acquire new colonies." (Hilferding 1910, p.456)
What was to become the standard Marxist theory of imperialism was elaborated by V I Lenin and N I Bukharin. Bukharin's work Imperialism and World Economy was finished by 1915, but published in Russian only after the October Revolution. Lenin wrote an appreciative introduction and borrowed heavily from Bukharin's book in his own, much more famous pamphlet, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, written in 1916 and published in 1917.
Bukharin analysed two contradictory tendencies, the process of internationalisation and that of nationalisation. Together these two processes meant that capitalism had entered a new phase, that of imperialism. The anarchic structure of the world economy found its expression in world economic crisis and in wars. The process of concentration and centralisation had developed to the point where each national economy had virtually become "one gigantic combined enterprise under the tutelage of the financial kings and the capitalist state." (Boukharine 1967, p.67) The competition between the capitalist firms had been supplanted by the rivalry between the capitalist state powers. The national chauvinism, which sprang out of these rivalries, also affected the working classes in the imperialist countries. However, in the long run the world proletariat would abolish the national fetters laid upon the internationalised productive forces.
The style of Lenin's work was different from that of Hilferding and Bukharin. It was designed to educate the working class movement and make its members conscious both of the nature of the epoch and of the causes of what he regarded as the betrayal of the major part of its leaders. "Besides taking its place as a major document of twentieth-century Marxism it more and more over the years acquired the character of revelation to the growing liberation movement... In the less developed areas its theoretical role may be compared with that of The Communist Manifesto or Capital in the advanced countries." (Kemp 1967, p.67)
For Lenin imperialism was a new stage in the development of the world capitalist economy. A correct definition would, according to him, include the following five essential features:
(1) The concentration of production and capital, has developed to such a high stage, that it has created monopolies which played a decisive role in economic life.
(2) The merging of bank capital with industrial capital, and the creation on the basis of this 'finance capital', a financial oligarchy.
(3) The export of capital, as distinguished from the export of commodities, has become of particularly great importance.
(4) International monopoly combines of capitalists are formed which divided up the world.
(5) The territorial division of the world by the greatest capitalist powers is completed.
In Lenin's view imperialism was – no longer – a policy choice. Capitalism could not be restored to its liberal stage by redistributing the monopoly profits in a manner suggested by Hobson. The monopoly profits were necessary responses to the development of the productive forces and to the pressures on the general rate of profit. However, a very important aspect of Lenin's theory, was the use of part of the monopoly profits for 'bribing' – through higher wages and social welfare benefits – a part of the workers in the imperialist nations. Thus a 'labour aristocracy', who tended towards nationalist chauvinism, was formed as a shield against the revolutionary workers movement.
'Social-imperialism', as an attempt to instil patriotism, in place of international proletarian solidarity, first made its appearance under Bismarck in Germany. An even more explicit exponent of social-imperialism was the Tariff Reform League led by Joseph Chamberlain in Britain (Semmel 1960). The concept of social-imperialism was later used to analyse fascism in continental Europe, and by Maoists in order to scorn Soviet imperialism.
One of the targets of Lenin's pamphlet was Karl Kautsky, who had conceived of imperialism as the annexation of agrarian regions by advanced capitalist countries, and as a policy choice, which could be discarded. Kautsky also put forward the idea of a trend towards 'ultra-imperialism', towards "a union of the imperialisms of the whole world and not the struggles among them, a phase of 'the joint exploitation of the world by internationally united finance capital'" (quoted in Lenin/Arrighi 1978 p.12-13). Lenin described ultra-imperialism as a 'lifeless abstraction', which could only serve to divert the attention from the depths of the contradictions and the struggles among the imperialist states.
To Rosa Luxemburg the relation between capitalism and imperialism differed from the Leninist theory of imperialism. In Die Akkumulation des Kapitals – Ein Beitrag zur ökonomischen Erklärung des Imperialismus (1910) she saw imperialism as a permanent component of capitalism. Capitalism had from its very beginning been imperialist, and it could not be otherwise, since it depended on non-capitalist markets for its continued expansion.
Luxemburg used Marx's schemes of simple and enlarged reproduction to analyse the conditions for realisation of surplus value and sustained capitalist accumulation. Accumulation depended on the availability of raw materials and labour power, and already this tended towards imperialist expansion. However, the crucial reason for the inherently imperialist character of capitalism was its dependence on new markets for its products. Luxemburg's central thesis was that it is the invasion of primitive non-capitalist economies by capitalism that keeps the system going. The historical illustrations of how cheap mass-produced consumption goods had displaced the old hand production of the village communities, and how capital gains were made by acquiring possessions of land and other natural resources, add up to a terrifying description of imperialist expansion, domination and exploitation. She saw the effects of capitalist subjugation in terms of destruction and poverty in a manner that makes her a predecessor of the second wave of Marxist theories of imperialism.
Luxemburg's use of the schemes of reproduction to explain the necessity of imperialism was widely criticised by Marxists accepting the Leninist standpoint. Bukharin saw her theory as "the simple reproduction of a simple logical error" (quoted in Sweezy 1942, p.105). Paul Sweezy dismissed the distinction between 'capitalist' and 'non-capitalist' consumers as irrelevant. "If the dilemma were a real one it would prove more than she bargained for: it would demonstrate, not the approaching breakdown of capitalism, but the impossibility of capitalism." (Sweezy p.105) The postkeynesian female economist, Joan Robinson, however, defended Luxemburg. "Investment can take place in an ever-accumulating stock of capital only if the capitalists are assured of an ever-expanding market for the goods which the capital will produce." Robinson saw the 'solutions' discussed by Luxemburg – the struggle against the natural and peasant economies, imperialism and militarism – as straightforward applications of this reading of capitalism (Robinson 1951, p.21). It was, however, not Luxemburg's particular theory of imperialism, but her view of imperialism, as an international system of unequal interdependence, being essential for the successful operation of capitalism in the metropolis, that survived the Leninist view of imperialism.
The October revolution, the socio-economic tribulations of the 1920s and 1930s, and especially the rise of fascism, prompted Marxists to deepen the Leninist view of imperialism. Eugen Varga, responsible for the Institute of World Economy in Moscow, developed a theory of a 'general crisis' of capitalism, caused both by the internal contradictions of imperialism and by the growing power of the anti-imperialist forces. In order to stave off this general crisis imperialism reacted and transformed in different ways. It encouraged fascist tendencies and developed into state monopoly capitalism, manifested by increased activity of the state in economic affairs.
The link between imperialism and fascism was seen as a double one. First, fascism was instrumental in breaking the independent organisations of the working class, ultimately in the interest of Big Business. Secondly, it "organized the nation both spiritually by intensive propaganda and practically by military preparations and authoritarian centralization for an ambitious campaign of territorial expansion." (Dobb 1940, 259)
After the Second World War Varga predicted that conscious planning would replace the anarchy of the market, giving the state a larger degree of autonomy. He was denounced for elevating state capitalist tendencies into a new crisis-free stage of capitalist development. He recanted and later developed a conception of three stages of the general crisis of capitalism. This view became dominant within the communist parties. However, when – despite the dissolution of the colonial empires – capitalism recovered in the 1950s and 1960s, the tenability of the theory was gradually weakened.
In 1959 John Strachey, a very influential British Marxist of the 1930s, published The End of Empire. 'The new revisionist' argued that the 'Hobson-Lenin' theory of imperialism had been rendered irrelevant by the substantial growth in real wages in the metropolitan capitalist countries. The old imperial powers no longer profited from the colonies, and Western Germany, with no overseas possessions, had recovered most rapidly from the war. "Exactly contrary to popular prejudice, a nation is likely to-day to be strong or weak in inverse ratio to her imperial possessions" (Strachey 1959, 194). Strachey, who defined imperialism as "the imposition of the power of one nation on another, with the intention of ruling the subjected nation for an indefinite period" (Ibid. 292), analysed the possibilities of an American or a Russian imperialism. He saw the two major communist states of Russia and China as important barriers to the development of American imperialism – in combination with the American anti-imperialist tradition and the "relative immaturity of the American economy for empire (sic)" (Ibid. 291). Russia itself, however, had clearly become an imperialist power, suppressing and exploiting the peoples of Eastern Europe. However, because of its low level of economic development, Strachey considered Russia to be 'unsuited' to imperialism (Ibid. 304). "An end of the imperialist epoch is then both possible and a precondition of our survival" (Ibid. 309).
In 1978, at the time of culmination of the second wave of Marxist theories of imperialism, Giovanni Arrighi published a book, The Geometry of Imperialism, subtitled "The Limits of Hobson's Paradigm". Arrighi situated Hobson's view of imperialism in a grid consisting of different dimensions: nationalism and colonialism versus internationalism and 'free-trade imperialism'; hierarchical order of states, guaranteeing universal peace, versus anarchy in international state relations, tending towards universal war; and finance capitalism versus multinational capitalism. Whereas Hobson's model of imperialism was constructed as a combination of nationalism, interstate anarchy and dominance of financial capital, the world of the second wave of Marxist theories of imperialism was characterised by the opposites: internationalism, a hierarchical order of states, and multinational corporations. Thus the model of imperialism acclaimed by the Leninist tradition had been displaced by a very different one, characterised by an informal empire of free trade and free enterprise, and upheld through US hegemony – a 'Pax Americana'.
The second wave of Marxist theories of imperialism was associated with the rise of the 'New Left' in the 1960s and 1970s. A precursor of this new approach was Paul Baran, whose work The Political Economy of Growth analysed both the industrialised and underdeveloped economies of the modern world, and especially the relations between them. The work inspired studies of contemporary monopoly capital, especially US capitalism, and lay ground to the radical dependency and world-system theories. Baran was to the second wave of theories of imperialism what Hobson had been to the first.
It was the European conquest and plundering of the rest of the globe that generated the great divide between core and periphery that persists to this day. Baran highlighted the differing ways in which India and Japan were incorporated into the world capitalist economy. The failure of development is not the result of original backwardness or a lack of capitalism. The real difficulty lies in the existence of an imperialist structure of power in the world economy, which places the underdeveloped countries in a situation of dependency. Development can only be achieved by socialist-oriented revolutions aimed at delinking the peripheral countries from the capitalist world economy. Baran's message also inspired Third World revolutionary movements, beginning with the Cuban revolution in 1959.
Baran, however, did not elaborate a definition or theory of imperialism. In his presentation imperialism seems to be an inherent part of capitalism, which changes as world capitalism develops. Baran referred to Hobson, Lenin, Hilferding and Luxemburg without any trace of disagreement.
In Monopoly Capital (1966) Baran and Sweezy analysed American militarism and imperialism. They stressed the need of the American oligarchy for a large and growing military machine in order to "contain, compress, and eventually destroy the rival world socialist system" (p. 191). This machine was also needed to support "'allies' and clients willing to adjust their laws and policies to the requirements of American Big Business" (p. 201). The military build-up, furthermore, contributed to the absorption of the growing economic surplus. (Baran and Sweezy criticised the classical Marxist explanations in terms of a falling rate of profit.) Whereas massive government spending on education and welfare tends to undermine the position of the oligarchy, the opposite is true for military spending. "... militarization fosters all the reactionary and irrational forces in society... Blind respect is engendered for authority; attitudes of docility and conformity are taught and enforced; dissent is treated as unpatriotic or even treasonable. In such an atmosphere, the oligarchy feels that its moral authority and material position are secure." (p.209)
An even more systematic analysis of the 'new imperialism', and especially of the American Empire, in Marxist economic terms was that presented by Harry Magdoff in The Age of Imperialism 1968. To Magdoff the urge to dominate, the need to control its environment and eliminate risks is integral to business. "Imperialism is not a matter of choice for a capitalist society; it is the way of life of such a society." (Magdoff 1968, p.26) The most obvious requirement was to gain control over as much raw materials as possible – "wherever these raw materials may be, including new sources." (Ibid. p.35) Magdoff described the strong US dependence on imports of raw materials, especially strategic industrial materials, the rapid rise in direct foreign investments, the role of the international financial network and of international aid, as well as the significance of military spending for the leading US companies.
In several articles, from the beginning of the 1970s, Stephen Hymer presented an even more penetrating analysis of the rise of multinational corporations and the internationalisation of capital from a Marxian perspective. Hymer analysed the nature of hierarchy and control in the world economy and pointed to the interlocked system of world capitalism. Multinational firms were able to substitute for the market, and to unify their interests when threatened by growing competition or by the working class. He saw the historical development of the multinational corporations as a transformation into a new world economic order, dominated by them. Hymer suggested that a New Imperial System was set up the multinationals by centralising decision making in a few centres and creating a division of labour between nations that corresponded to the division of labour between various levels of the corporate hierarchy. A parallel, although more formal Marxian model of accumulation in the world market, was elaborated by the Christian Palloix, who studied the different ways particular European nations had chosen to foster the growth of selected industries in response to the new world situation. The concept of 'a new international division of labour' and its effects on the workers in both industrialised and Third World countries was further developed by Fröbel et al.
In analogy with Lenin's enumeration of essential features of imperialism, lists of the main features of contemporary imperialism were presented. James O'Connor pointed out the following:
(1) The integration of the world capitalist economy into the structures of the giant United States-based multinational corporations; and the acceleration of technological change under the auspices of these corporations.
(2) The abandonment of the 'free' international market and the substitution of administered prices in commodity trade and investment; the determination of profit margins in the internal accounting schemes by the multinational corporations.
(3) The active participation of state capital in international investment; and a global foreign policy which corresponds to the global interests and perspective of the multinational corporation.
(4) The consolidation of an international ruling class constituted on the basis of ownership and control of the multinational corporations, and the concomitant decline of national rivalries initiated by the national power elites in the advanced capitalist countries; and the internationalisation of the world capital market by the World Bank and other agencies of the international ruling class.
(5) The intensification of all of the tendencies arising from the threat of world socialism to the world capitalist system. (O'Connor 1970, 121)
A central concept related to the second-wave studies of imperialism was neo-colonialism. The term had become part of the popular terminology of the people of Asia, Africa and Latin America. Kwame Nkrumah wrote a book Neo-Colonialism, the Last Stage of Imperialism in 1965, and Marxists of all shades used and developed the term. A good introduction to the concept was written by Jack Woddis, who described it as a strategy, which had become predominant in a particular new phase of imperialism. "This phase is one in which imperialism is faced with the emergence of a powerful socialist camp, an unprecedently powerful national liberation movement... and a strong working class and democratic movement in the industrialised capitalist countries." (Woddis 1968, 50) Through neo-colonialism the leading capitalist powers strove to nourish capitalism in the new states, to foster a class with which it could co-operate, and to halt the drift towards national self-reliance and socialism.
The most novel second-wave theories, which also made the largest political impact, were the approaches of dependency theory (Frank, Sunkel, Furtado, Cardoso, Amin, Szentes, Rodney, Senghaas) and world-system analysis (Wallerstein, Arrighi). Closely linked to these were the new theories of unequal exchange (Emmanuel). In all these approaches, however, the capitalist world system – not imperialism per se – was the focus of attention.
In these approaches capitalism was described as a relatively stable system of metropolis-satellite relations of domination and exploitation. Capitalism and imperialism, therefore, became difficult to distinguish. "The connection between imperialism and world capitalism is so close, imperialism is so much an intimate part of world capitalism that capitalism cannot exist without imperialism. We may in fact see the two phenomena as synonymous" (Addo 1985, 14). It is understandable that this tendency to make world capitalism a structurally fixed system, characterised by a spatial dichotomy, and to equate it with imperialism led Frank to later claim the emptiness of concepts like 'development', 'capitalism' and 'dependence'. These – as well as 'underdevelopment' – were central concepts of the radical dependency theory. "They were all derived only from European/Western ethnocentrism, which was propagated around the world ... as part and parcel of Western colonialism and cultural imperialism." (Frank 1998, 336)
Already after the failure to establish a New International Economic Order, the unsuccessful efforts to achieve economic self-reliance and non-capitalist development, and the withering away of 'Third Worldism', there was a growing need for fresh approaches to the understanding of imperialism. This need was made more intense by the collapse of the Soviet system and the end of the Cold War. The constitution of a neo-liberal global capitalism, the Gulf War, the East Asian crisis and the financial panic of '98, as well as the concern for the global ecology, have all contributed to a rethinking of the theories of imperialism at the turn of the millennium. The history of imperialism and underdevelopment has been rewritten; the understanding of the periphery as a buffer for stability in the centre has been deepened; the relationship between nationalism – especially American – and globalism has been elucidated.
The studies comparing American imperialism with the earlier Dutch and British empires has deepened our understanding of the relationships between capital accumulation and imperialism. The history of world capitalist development told by Giovanni Arrighi in The Long Twentieth Century is one of long secular cycles. During the phase of expansion there are promising ways of investing money in profitable enterprises. This phase is gradually superseded by a stagnant phase, in which capitalists try to transform their fixed property into more liquid assets, which leads to financial speculation on a global scale. What distinguishes the 'system cycles of accumulation' is the character of the driving investments and of the hegemonic centres. The home base of the dominant capitalist group has grown gradually. From a network of almost non-territorial Genovese capital, hegemony was transferred to the United Provinces, then to the United Kingdom, and finally to a continental power, the United States. The analysis enables a comparison of different world capitalist regimes of accumulation and domination as well as an assessment of the American hegemony at the turn of the millennium.
A path-breaking deepening of our understanding of how and why European expansion was so successful is provided by Alfred W. Crosby in Ecological Imperialism. Europeans, with their plants and animals, incurred a biological shock on the local cultures, rendering them more vulnerable to diseases and famines. Crosby's analysis by focusing on the ecological component has completed earlier materialist theories of imperialism.
A most fascinating study of the culminating point of British liberal imperialism is Late Victorian Holocausts by Mike Davis. He tells the truly global story of the El Nińo related famines in India, China, Brazil and Ethiopia and how climatic turbulence and the working of world capitalism contributed to 'the making of the Third World'. This is an original account of how capitalist powers used the vagaries of the climate to create underdevelopment in the late nineteenth century. "Millions died, not outside the 'modern world system', but in the very process of being forcibly incorporated into its economic and political structures. They died in the golden age of Liberal Capitalism; indeed were murdered... by the theological application of the sacred principles of Smith, Bentham and Mill." (Davis 2001, 9)
A masterly study of accumulation, imperialism and uneven development is Prabath Patnaik's Accumulation and Stability under Capitalism. He combines the insights of postkeynesian theories of growth and distribution with unequal exchange theories in order to provide a fresh view of the functioning and resilience of the capitalist system. The existence of a periphery provides a buffer that allows relatively crisis-free and non-inflationary growth in the capitalist core. Capitalism in the advanced countries manages to stabilise itself because the wage claims of one section of the labour force, which it employs indirectly, are compressible. This section consists of the primary commodity producers of the outlying regions and the compressibility of their wages arises because of the vast labour reserves, which surrounds it. "If this section was located within the metropolitan centre themselves and produced the same commodities, the same result regarding output-cum-price stability should logically hold. But this would jeopardise social stability within the metropolis, apart from the fact that some of these commodities could not be produced within the metropolis itself." (Patnaik 1997, 9) Patnaik calls the complex system with a spatial dichotomy but economic unity 'imperialism'.
"Since the system performs well at the core, it appears that this is an inherent property of the system. If in the outlying regions there is misery, unemployment and social turmoil, it appears as if all this is because of the insufficient development of capitalism there, for who would deny that at the core the system performs reasonably well? Its ideological triumph consists in the illusion that it creates, including among its victims, that its success at the core is replicable everywhere." (Ibid. p.182)
Ecological economists have also raised the question of whether the experience of the advanced capitalist countries is replicable in the South. The sustainability of the rich countries depends, not only on the imports of non-renewable resources, such as oil, but also on the imports of services of bio-productive land from poor countries. An in-depth study of Costa Rica shows how a country, where production of agricultural crops for exports – coffee, bananas, sugar – has contributed to substantial soil loss, and how present land use practices are not sustainable (Hall ed. 2000). 'Ecological imperialism' means that environmental costs of Northern material requirements are mainly suffered by Southern exporting countries. Despite their big 'ecological footprints' the rich nations can preserve their ecological capital at the expense of the poor. They may even uphold the illusion that becoming richer is the central solution to ecological degradation, and blame the poor countries because they do not sustain their ecological capital. (Muridan & Martinez-Alier 2001, Andersson & Lindroth 2001)
The constitution of a neo-liberal world order under the leadership of the United States has been the focus of recent Marxist inspired studies. In Dark Victory Walden Bello et al reveals the strategy of global economic rollback unleashed by the United States to reassert Northern domination and corporate control. Lower barriers to imports, removal of restrictions on foreign investments, privatisation of state owned activities, reductions in social welfare spending, devaluations and wage cuts – all conditions of structural adjustment loans from the North – have had disastrous consequences for the poor of the world.
The establishment and the use by the United States of the 'Dollar-Wall Street Regime' to promote its national interests in the world economy has been analysed in detail in The Global Gamble by Peter Gowan. DWSR is characterized by a dialectical relationship between private international financial actors and US government dollar policy. It started with the unilateral US withdrawal from the Bretton Woods system in 1971, and gradually developed into a sophisticated way of imposing internal economic and political reforms on countries, which did not subscribe to the Anglo-American version of liberal capitalism. Stephen Gill also describes this establishment of a 'new constitutionalism of disciplinary neo-liberalism'. "Public policy has been redefined in such a way that governments seek to prove their credibility, and the consistency of their policies according to the degree to which they inspire the confidence of investors... New political and constitutional initiatives in the sphere of money and finance are linked to the imposition of macroeconomic and microeconomic discipline in ways that are intended to underpin the power of capital in the state and civil society." (Gill 2000, 4) Kees Van Der Pijl has studied the formation of transnational classes and especially the making of an Atlantic ruling class.
In the book Empire Hardt and Negri present a theoretical and prophetic synthesis – a political manifesto – for the new millennium. They see imperialism as the necessary outcome of the modern nation-centred project. The limits of this project have been reached and Empire is superseding imperialism. "Imperialism is over. No nation will be world leader in the way modern European nations were." Empire rules over the entire 'civilized' world. No territorial boundaries limit its reign. Empire presents its rule as a regime with no temporal boundaries, as the end of history. The object of its rule is social life in its entirety, and it is dedicated to a perpetual and universal peace. (Hardt & Negri 2000, p.xiv-xv) However, in Empire violence and corruption is everywhere. Opposed to this violence and corruption stands "the absolute constitution of labor and cooperation, the earthly city of the multitude." (Ibid. p.396)
Whether we live in an epoch of such an all-embracing Empire, or whether inter-imperialist rivalries between the US, EU and Japan/China will prevail in the post-Cold War era is a crucial question. The second-wave theories tend to incline us towards the first option, whereas the first-wave theories point into the opposite direction. It can be argued that the contemporary situation bears significant parallels with the dynamics of the international system at the end of the 19th century. According to Gowan the key units for analysis in both cases are the lead country (UK/USA), the core competitors (Germany/EU and Japan), the new growth centres (USA/East Asia), the dependent support regions (the British Empire/the countries of the South, especially Latin America), and organised labour (weak in both periods). However, there are also important differences between the two epochs. One striking difference is that "the internationalisation in the earlier period took place in a context of extraordinary stability of the international monetary and financial system of the core, unlike the chaos of the Dollar-Wall Street Regime." (Gowan 1999, p.72)
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