Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Brenner and Harvey on Imperialism

For as long as I've been politically aware, I've been against Washington's wars and occupations abroad. The 2003 invasion of Iraq was a formative moment for me and I can still recall being overwhelmed and deeply distressed by the run-up to war (I was in high school at the time). I started out "neutral", but quickly realized that all of the best "arguments" for intervention were either disingenuous or wildly implausible. Shortly thereafter I began reading Chomsky's voluminous writings on US foreign policy, which got me thinking critically about the parallels between the Vietnam war and Iraq/Afghanistan. Since then, I've been a stalwart skeptic about the possibility of Washington doing anything that doesn't further interests of the 1% at home while dominating the 99% abroad. I've never looked back.

But it has only occurred to me in the last couple of months that I have generally lacked a theoretical framework to make sense of international affairs. Of course, I think of myself as a Marxist, so I had basic premises to begin thinking critically: e.g. that economic competition among nation economies leads to geopolitical/military competition as well, that the Marxist theory of the state in capitalism helps us to understand the institutional basis for foreign policy decisions, that expansion and the conquest of foreign markets is an inbuilt feature of global economic competition, etc. But these general premises are nothing like a theoretical framework.

So, in the last couple of months I've been trying to read contemporary theoretical approaches to imperialism that build on the basic arguments advanced by Lenin, Bukharin and Luxemburg in the early 20th century. I just finished Harvey's 2005 book The New Imperialism and I've been looking at various reviews of the book's argument to aim my critical evaluation of it. Robert Brenner's review essay from Historical Materialism is probably the best assessment I've seen thus far. In this post I just want to share some of what I've taken away from these two figures writings on imperialism. I'm now looking at Callinicos's Imperialism and Global Political Economy, Mészáros's Socialism or Barbarism and some other assorted writings on imperialism from Monthly Review folks (esp. stuff on the "development of underdevelopment" thesis). I have also meant to read Richard Seymour's book on "humanitarian intervention" for some time as well. (Note: if you have other suggestions about theoretical works on imperialism, please let me know in the comments!) At some point, I want to write a post trying to synthesize all of this information into some sort of overall critical assessment. But as this point I neither understand the lay of the land, nor do I have anything like strong views about the relative merits of competing theories. With that said, let's take a look at what Harvey and Brenner have to say.


One of the great things about Harvey's work--and Marxist scholarship in general--is its historical breadth. Harvey's main argument is that imperialism assumes a "new" form after the neoliberal turn of the early 1970s. He carves up the terrain here as follows. Classical imperialism includes the phase between 1884-1945. This period is marked by expansion, territorial conquest, colonial domination, and, of course, inter-imperialist rivalry and competition which produces two world wars in close succession. The postwar era, however, represents a new conjuncture marked by superpower rivalries which, after the profound global crisis of profitability in the early 70s, leads to a new form of imperialism that finally comes into its own after the fall of the USSR and the triumph of market fundamentalism in the early 90s. Harvey's basic goal in the book is to give a Marxist account of the military interventions lead by Bush I and II in the 90s and early 00s.

To do this, Harvey introduces a distinction between two different "logics" at work in contemporary imperialism. The first is the "territorial logic of power", which, says Harvey, represents a (putative) tendency for states to expand and acquire control of more territory and power. This logic is set in motion by state officials who have an interest in the expansion of the power and influence of the state apparatus over which the rule. The second logic is the "capitalist logic of power", which grows out of the global economic processes driving capital accumulation. This logic is set in motion by capitalist firms which aim to further their interests in the global arena.

Now, with this distinction Harvey is clearly on to something important. As Brenner points out, Harvey is clearly correct that there is a danger here in too mechanistically deriving imperialist foreign policy from the short-term imperatives of capital accumulation. As Harvey puts it, we cannot understand Vietnam or the invasion of Iraq "solely in terms of the immediate requirements of capital accumulation."

But while agreeing on this point, Brenner dissents from Harvey's bifurcation of the global arena into a logic of territorial expansion, on the one hand, and a logic of capital accumulation on the other. As Brenner puts it:

"Individual agents of capital operating in a field of many capitals have an overriding interest in reinvesting their surpluses [and, thus, in expansion], because their survival in competition depends upon it. As a consequence, the logic of capital accumulation is readily grasped as a tendency... for the expansion of the global scope of the system. But it would be hard to argue that individual states operating in a field of many states face a parallel constraint and therefore have a corresponding interest qua states in territorial expansion. As a consequence, the "accumulation of control over territory as an end in itself" which Harvey introduces as the expression of the logic of territorial states, lacks a raison d'etre and there seems little empirical warrant for it."

Moreover, as Brenner explains, it is doubtful that Harvey would want to say that:

"the US State Department, or the CIA, or even the Department of Defense have an interest qua foreign-policy bureaucracies in pursuing overseas expansion... they do not themselves make the foreign policy, but serve the foreign policy-makers. On the other hand, is there any reason to believe that the officials who actually do make foreign policy--the President, Secretary of State, National Security Advisor, Secretary of Defense, and so on--constitute a group with a distinct interest deriving from their social positions in the state, an interest leading in the direction of a...specifically expansionist foreign policy?" 

This seems to me exactly right. As an aside: something analogous is surely true of the hysterics from right-wingers who interpret the Federal Reserve as a purely self-serving "root of all evil"--as if the Fed had any interests separate from the interests of the capitalist class whom it serves! I really do mean this purely as an aside--I don't intend to equate anything Harvey says with the nonsense pedaled by the confused supporters of Ron Paul.

It seems to me that Harvey would be sympathetic to Brenner's remarks given that he puts forward a classic Marxist account of the state, according to which "the state, in both domestic and overseas policy, is dependent upon capital, because those who govern (whoever they might be) will tend to find that the realization of their own interests (whatever they are) depends on the promotion of capitalist profits and capital accumulation, as the latter are the sine qua non for economic growth and financial solvency, and thus for stability domestically and strength internationally."


Still, having said all of this, Brenner (correctly in my view) does concede that there is a sense in which there sometimes arises a "significant gap between a state's foreign policy and the needs of capital [overall]." The root of this divergence emerges from the historical lineages of the modern nation state system. As Brenner puts it, "the nature of capital itself--the social relationships among capitals and between capital and labor--cannot account for this form of state." The reason why is that the multiple-state global system emerged "against the background of a system of multiple feudal states, and, in the course of its development, transformed the component states of that system into capitalist states but failed to alter the multi-state character of the resulting international system."

For Brenner, it is likely that one global state would better serve the interests of capital accumulation on a global scale than a system of competing nation states tied to particular capitalist formations. But, he argues in a characteristically "political Marxist" fashion, history is not merely the unfolding of the logic of capital accumulation, it is also, at the same time, the unfolding of social conflict, struggles that erupt in an uneven and combined global constellation. There is something to this when one thinks of the enormous destruction and hits to accumulation caused by inter-imperialist wars like WWI. However, I'm not so sure we should quickly concede this point to Brenner. We need to also be clear that capital also benefits in certain ways from the competition among states--the threats of capital flight and the so-called "race to the bottom" on taxation among states are important examples. Moreover, the destruction of surplus value represented by the World Wars needs to be taken into account--although I tend to chafe against these claims inasmuch as they seem to me a touch too "functionalist" and therefore too dissociated from the interests of the ruling class and state agents involved.

Still, Brenner points to an important point about historical materialism as a theory. That is, historical materialism does not claim that everything today is explained by capitalism pure and simple. Rather, it offers us a dialectical way of understanding the uneven and combined developmental paths--inflected by social struggles and geographical contingency--that led to the present global conjuncture. This necessarily requires us to look to the ways in which elements of pre-capitalist social formations persist and continue to structure some of the elements of the global capitalist system.


Both Brenner and Harvey see the current global slump as a kind of "long downturn" in which the deep economic crisis of the 1970s has yet to be solved. I am agnostic about whether they are right about this--I will say, however, that I read David McNally's Global Slump and thought his arguments were very convincing. Still--whatever the differences between Harvey and Brenner--the basic point they're making here is compelling enough: the basic contradictions of capitalism that produced the 1970s slump have not been resolved and are at the heart of the global economic crisis today.

The connection between economic slump and imperialism is an important one. For Harvey, as for Luxemburg and others, the "classic" phase of imperialism arose out of a deep economic crisis in the late 1840s, which was followed by huge "state infrastructural expenditures [which] detonated the great wave of capital expansion of the third quarter of the nineteenth century." This lead to a huge over-accumulation of capital and, thereby, necessitated expansion in order to pry open and create new markets outside of Europe. The colonial scramble for Africa--which Harvey calls the "spatio-temporal fix" aiming to redress the economic problems plaguing European powers--must be understood in this light. This form of imperialism, Harvey argues, persists from 1884-1945.

Something similar, he claims, is at work in the "new imperialism", which begins around 1973 with the onset of global economic crisis. For Harvey, this crisis came about through over-accumulation and, like in the 1870s, made it rational to seek a "spatio-temporal fix" for the economic woes of the core capitalist states.

This seems to me an interesting argument and it is likely a very fecund basis on which to understand imperialism during the "neoliberal" period of capitalist development from 1973 to the present crisis. But what about 1945-1973? How do we make sense of that period?


On this point, I find Brenner's argument more convincing. For Brenner, Harvey gives short shrift to the "almost permanent (Washington-lead) interventionism, across boom and downturn, in the developing world" during the Cold War." Harvey himself is aware of the atrocities committed by the US during this epoch, but he doesn't theoretically incorporate them into this basic framework.

Harvey argues that Chomsky, Pilger, Blum and others tend to overemphasize the militaristic imperialism of this era, leading them to generally ignore "softer" forms of imperialism involving degrees of consent and cooperation from states subordinate to Washington. But--and here I also agree with Brenner--Harvey errs in understanding this distinction--between "hard" and "soft" imperialism--as a temporal one. In reality, it has to be understood geographically, since the "soft" approach was generally favored for advanced industrial nations whereas direct domination or militarism was favored for the poorer countries in the global South. Washington intervened all over the global South from 1945 through the 1980s to brutally destroy not only the Left--in all of its forms--but even moderate nationalist movements that merely sought independence from the domination of the US. While the policies deemed appropriate for the South differed from those of the North, it remains true that both approaches should be viewed as two sides of the same coin. Both represent different forms of imperialist domination--thus, their class content remains the same even if they differ in structure.


What about Iraq? How does the theory of imperialism explain it? Brenner and Harvey are sharply at odds with one another here. For Harvey, the basic point is this: "whoever controls the Middle East controls the global oil spigot and whoever controls the global oil spigot controls the global economy." Thus, for Harvey, the US moves to intervene in the Middle East after 9/11 to gain control of oil to counter US economic decline. As Harvey describes it: "what better way for the US to ward off that competition and secure its own hegemonic condition than to control the price, conditions, and distribution for the key economic resource upon which its competitors rely?".

Superficially, I'm inclined to agree that Harvey is basically correct. But Brenner's criticisms are formidable here. Brenner expresses skepticism about the "it's all about oil" argument because, he claims, it is implausible to think that the world oil corporations would allow themselves to be regulated by Washington's military apparatus. He adds to this skepticism that Washington could, even if it wanted to, control the prices or distribution of oil--even OPEC couldn't do that from 1980-2000. Finally, Brenner finds it implausible that other states would allow themselves to be so blatantly screwed by the US when it concerns such a vital resource for the global economy.

Brenner's skepticism is well placed in certain respects. But I think he misses the mark here. First of all, I find his objection about regulation of the oil industry to be a non-sequitur. Washington's intervention in Iraq need not be interpreted as a kind of regulatory move in order to be seen as a power-play to secure access to oil. As Brenner himself points out by way of criticizing Harvey, it is implausible to think that the state has separate interests that totally diverge from the interests of capital. Thus, Washington's foray into Iraq can be seen as a way to open up access to oil resources to multinationals by removing obstacles in their way--such as a recalcitrant regime like Hussein's that still favored some form of nationalization.

A recent NLR article on Afghanistan bears this out. Washington's intervention is not to be read as serving the interests of Washington qua state apparatus. Rather, the Iraq War should be read as a move that furthers the geopolitical interests of the ruling class in the US as well as more specific economic interests--in particular, by opening up investment and control opportunities for US-based oil firms. How this brushes against the grain of neoliberalism is beyond me--I don't see Brenner's point here.

But something about what he's saying is important. A crude "Washington wants to control the spigot" view sounds to me too realist and not Marxist enough. To be sure, Harvey veers too close to such a view by emphasizing a stand-alone "logic of territorial expansion". But Brenner overcompensates by excoriating the "its about oil" argument in the way that he does.


pauly said...

One extremely useful overview is Anthony Brewer - Marxist Theories of Imperialism

t said...

Thanks for the recommendation. Just took a look at the google-books preview and it looks excellent. I think I'm going to pick up a copy at my earliest convenience. It would be nice if there were a similar book synthesizing and adjudicating the diversity of Marxist interpretations of the global crisis. I don't have any particular expertise in global political economy, so I have difficulty, sometimes, figuring out where exactly Harvey, Brenner, McNally, Panitch, Harman, Wolff, etc. are disagreeing and where they agree.

pauly said...

Yeah, a synthetic piece on theories of the current crisis would be wonderful. Joseph Choonara gives a brief breakdown of them here, but rushes through them rather quickly, and also can be quite sectarian when it comes to those who diverge from Harman: http://www.isj.org.uk/?id=557

Also, regarding Brenner and the state system, Neil Davidson's article "The Necessity of Multiple Nation States for Capital" (Rethinking Marxism 24.1) is quite good, and takes a very different approach to the question from Callinicos.

t said...

I saw the Choonara piece and was disappointed with how sectarian it was. I thought McNally's response was apt. I'm going to check out the Davidson article on the mutiple state system. I thought Brenner's historical argument was interesting, but I wasn't convinced by his argument that, other things equal, it would be better for capital to have one global state rather than multiple nation states.

meltr said...

I've always enjoyed John Rees' work and suggest his "Imperialism and Resistance".

Great blog BTW!

t said...

Thanks for the recommendation and I'm glad you're enjoying the blog!

Sheldon said...

Whoa! T! You were only in high school in 2003? Your wisdom and intellectual maturity are very sharp in my opinion. Keep up the good work.

gluelicker said...

Don't forget the late Peter Gowan, whose perspective is similar to (but not the same as) Panitch's.


The below, I feel, is one of the best quasi-Marxist analyses of the disposition of the US Empire, and there is a latent (if not fully fleshed out) theory of capitalist geopolitics contained within. This is a criminally overlooked essay!


Juan G said...

Check out Marxist (pseudo-Stalinist) Professor James Petras's stuff

Also, I've found good anti-imperialist theorists coming from Latin american countries like Mexico, Argentina and Brazil - their intellectuals are rightly interested cuz their countries are affected by American/European imperalism lol. Check out this stuff, it's in spanish mostly but these arent: Claudio Katz http://katz.lahaine.org/?cat=7

Also, I second Sheldon's comment, you're pretty good at your writing for being so young! ;00

t said...

I try to read Claudio Katz's stuff pretty regularly--I think he's terrific. He writes really clearly (and accessibly) about global political economy without sacrificing rigor. I haven't seen anything new from him in a couple of months, however. The last thing I read was "El ajedrez global de la crisis".

bob mcmanus said...


Louis Proyect on Banaji vs Brenner and Eurocentrism. I loved the Banaji.

You could search Proyect's blog for other critiques of Brenner, he has other posts. Henry Heller. Jim Blaut.

foreignersview said...

First of all, great post!

Second, I thought I'd make a comment on the distinction between soft and hard power. I think more important than the distinction between 'developed' and 'poor' nations is the presence or absence of a local ruling class willing to collaborate. The reason why soft power was more common in industrialized nations is because the interests of the indigenous ruling classes of capitalist nations are broadly aligned, so it is not necessary to directly intervene to keep them in check.

In poorer countries, the experience is more varied because they are at various stages of development--all capitalist economies looked broadly the same (before China at least), while proto-capitalist economies can be extremely different from each other.

In cases where there was a local ruling class just as interested in suppressing the local left as the West, such as Paraguay, South Africa, Indonesia, etc., direct military intervention was never necessary because they could trust that the local strongmen would roughly do what was in Washington's interest, provided sufficient material support.

In cases where the local ruling class was more divided, e.g. Cuba, Vietnam, Iran, etc., 'harder' forms of intervention were often necessary.

When given the choice, I think any country would prefer soft hegemony over direct intervention. They only do the second when the first is not possible.

Misaki said...

Even by the end of 2004, most conservatives were still deluded about WMD, Al-Qaeda/Iraq connection, world support for the war, etc...

How to prevent unnecessary wars in the future: