Sunday, March 4, 2012

What is Imperialism?

"Imperialism" is a concept that is used often enough on the Left, but what exactly does it mean? There is no doubt that it has, like many other political concepts (e.g. freedom), been cheapened by frequent misuse. Still, if one doesn't need a complete theory of imperialism to know that what Washington has done in Iraq is clearly wrong, there is a lot to be gained from clarifying the basic contours of this important political idea.

In what follows I'm going to move through the basics of Lenin's account of imperialism in Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. I'm simply going to strip his approach down to its barest elements. I wont offer any analysis of the context in which Lenin was intervening, nor will I illustrate the operations of his approach by considering concrete examples of imperialism. My aim is to do no more than to put us in a position to put forward a clear, succinct statement of what imperialism is.


As Lenin describes it,
"Private property based on the labor of the small proprietor, free competition, democracy, i.e. all the catchwords with which the capitalists and their press deceive the workers and the peasants—are things of the past. Capitalism has grown into a world system of colonial oppression and of the financial strangulation of the overwhelming majority of the people of the world by a handful of "advanced" countries. And this "booty" is shared between two or three powerful marauders armed to the teeth (America, Great Britain, Japan), who involve the whole world in their war over the sharing of their booty."
This is a convenient starting point for our discussion of imperialism. Riffing off of what Lenin says above, we can say that imperialism refers to the division (and constant re-division) of the globe by the strongest and most powerful nations. Imperialism, therefore, involves the domination and exploitation of weaker nation-states by the more powerful ones. By "domination" we mean nothing more than a relationship in which the dominant nation exercises power/control over a weaker nation in such a way that it can interfere in its affairs on an arbitrary basis. Importantly, interference can take many forms: colonial rule, direct military coercion, "financial strangulation", explicit or implicit threats of punishment, or manipulation/agenda-fixing. Domination too comes in many forms: direct colonization, semi-colonization, debt peonage, client regimes, and so forth. By "exploitation" we mean any process whereby the dominant state extracts profit from the subjugated nation.

Broadly speaking, then, imperialism refers to the competitive struggle among stronger nations to dominate and exploit the weaker nations. But what do we mean by "stronger" and "weaker" nations? And what forces lead the "stronger" nations to struggle among one another to divide (and redivide) the globe to increase their spheres of influence and control?

In fact, this competitive struggle is not simply a struggle among nation states. It is always also a struggle among big capitalist firms for the profits to be had from the global economy. "Strength", then, has something to do with a nation state's connection to concentrations of economic power. Lenin's account here is excellent:
The capitalists divide the world, not out of any particular malice, but because the degree of economic concentration which has been reached forces them to adopt this method in order to get profits. And they divide it in proportion to "capital", in proportion to "strength", because there cannot be any other system of division under commodity production and capitalism. But strength varies with the degree of economic and political development.
What this and the earlier block quote make clear is that imperialism is rooted in the structure of the global economy. It is not, as liberals would have it, one particular school of foreign policy which, in principle, could be set aside if only the "right candidate" were elected. Lenin correctly derides the hope that imperialism could be done away with through such superficial changes as a mere "pious wish." Neither is imperialism, again, as some liberals would describe it, a purely war-mongering or purely nationalist phenomenon adopted only by right-wing politicians. And neither is imperialism always overtly aggressive or always connected to saber-rattling from heads of state and military generals (although, to be sure, it often involves its fair share of saber-rattling and aggression).

Imperialism is nothing more than a rather basic feature of global capitalism. As long as we have global capitalism, we'll have imperialism.

Of course, this is not to deny that the particular foreign policy strategies of certain states change over time, that some periods are punctuated by acute military conflict while others aren't, etc.. But these changes are only changes in the forms that imperialism takes. It's basic class content—and the object of the competitive struggle—remains the same as there is a global capitalist economy. As Lenin puts it:
...the forms of the struggle may and do constantly change in accordance with varying, relatively particular, and temporary causes, but the essence of the struggle, its class content, cannot change while classes exist... it is in the interests of the bourgeoisie... to obscure the class content of the present struggle and emphasize this or that form of the struggle...
But what is the nature of this class content? And what is it about capitalism as such that generates this kind of competitive struggle for control over the conditions for accumulation?


The first thing we'll need to say is that capitalism has developed historically in such a way that it has become a global economic system. Capitalism is not a discrete feature of this or that nation, it is an international set of economic relations through which various nation-states—as well as non-state actors such as multi-national corporate firms—compete for control of raw materials, exploitable labor, markets for goods, investment opportunities to absorb surplus value—in short for all of the conditions necessary to accumulate profit.

Just as capitalism breeds ruthless competition for profit among various firms in a single country, it also engenders competition at a global level as well. This competition, in turn, is what fuels, for example, colonial oppression and financial strangulation of half the world's population by the wealthy industrial countries.

Intense global economic competition is not a 21st century development. Although we're often taught that "globalization" is a relatively new phenomenon, Marx and others argued that, as early as the mid 1800s, capitalism was already well on its way to becoming a global economic system. Take, for example, the following quotation from the Communist Manifesto (written in 1848):
The feudal system of industry, in which industrial production was monopolized by closed guilds, now no longer suffices for the growing wants of the new markets... Modern industry has established the world market... [which] has given an immense development to commerce, to navigation, to communication by land... The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country... All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose... products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations...
Marx is discussing how the internal development of capitalism leads it to expand and grow into a world system. This expansionary process isn't incidental—it is a fundamental aspect of capitalism. But what exactly is it about the internal development of capitalism that leads to this globalizing development?

For Lenin, the key mechanisms driving this process are: 1) the concentration of production and capital to such a degree that massive corporations—monopolies, trusts, syndicates, etc.—come to play a dominant, decisive role in economic life, and 2) the growth of "finance capital" through the merging of big banks with industrial firms. These two developments make possible a third process, namely, 3) a big increase in the international export of capital (as opposed to the mere export of ready-made commodities). This, in turn, creates 4) the formation of international capitalist monopolies which is what drives 5) the territorial division (and constant re-division) of the whole world among the strongest capitalist powers.

Lenin identifies 1-5 above as the "essential features of imperialism". These processes are all rooted in the workings of the capitalist economic system. This is what grounds Lenin's claim that "imperialism is capitalism in that stage of development in which the dominance of monopolies and finance capital has acquired pronounced importance; in which the export of capital has acquired pronounced importance; in which the division of the world among among the international trusts has begun; in which the division of all territories of the globe among the great capitalist powers has been completed."

Still, this is all highly schematic. We need to look a little closer at 1-5 so that we can see how the argument is supposed to work.


The concentration of capital in the hands of a shrinking number of ever larger firms is a driving force behind imperialism. Lenin's writings on imperialism date from 1916, but it is obvious that this process of concentration has accelerated greatly over the course of the last 100 years.

What happens is that the "natural" inner-workings of "free market" capitalism give rise to concentration and monopoly. Concentration is therefore not some corruption of "pure" capitalism, but an inevitable outgrowth of "free competition". This is rather intuitive if we just think for a moment about how capitalism works. Firms are privately owned and controlled and the owners are forced, by competition in the marketplace, to maximize profit. What's more, competition forces capitalists not just to maximize profit, but to reinvest a portion of yesterday's profit into expanded production for tomorrow. Those firms that don't expand and grow—other things being equal—will be run out of business through competition by those firms that do. This process, in which losers drop out or get purchased by the winners, creates an internal tendency toward concentration.

What's more, as a profit-driven system, individual firms are not motivated to preserve an overall system of "free competition" among equals. They are motivated only to maximize their own profits. But profits for any individual firm are not maximized by competition. Competition increases risk and uncertainty and, among other things, can undermine the individual market power of any particular firm. Thus, from a purely profit-seeking perspective
—which is the only perspective that matters in this contextcapitalist firms have an interest in reducing competition and moving toward concentration. Besides mergers, take-overs, bankruptcies and all the rest, concentration can occur through informal agreements struck between big firms in which they decide not to compete among one another for certain markets (e.g. "you can have this market, we'll have this other one, and this will make our power in each of our spheres of market influence nearly absolute"). This is akin to mobsters dividing up turf and pieces of "action". It makes sense from the perspective of each, but it is also an inherently unstable agreement (think of the threat of sudden betrayal or back-stabbing in every gangster movie you've ever seen). Because such agreements are struck for merely profit-seeking self-interested reasons, any shift in the balance of power can lead one of the parties to break the previous agreement and try to grab more "turf".

This instability arises from the fact that capitalism is a highly uneven system marked by profound contradictions. We have been considering how there is a tendency toward concentration, but it is worth pointing out that this is only one tendency in the complex web of uneven, contradictory forces that constitute global capitalism. Lenin emphasizes the fact that our theories are likely to miss the mark if they fail to capture these "profound and radical contradictions", as between "the gigantic operations of finance capital and the "honest" trade in the free market...between cartels and trusts, on the one hand, and non-cartelized industry, on the other." Competition and struggle among various groupings tends to upset the stability of large concentrations, causing fractures, splits, internal conflicts, outright confrontation and the like.

Still, it remains true that capitalism, if left unchecked, tends toward the concentration of production in the hands of a shrinking number of large firms. But this is only part of the story. Capitalism doesn't simply encourage concentration within any particular industry. It also tends toward concentration across industries and even across national boundaries. As capitalism develops, industrial capital and finance capital merge together as the forces who own and control banks and financial institutions become bound up with those who own and control industry.


Thus, a key feature of contemporary capitalism—as opposed to early capitalism—is the "coalescence or merging of banking with industry." But, importantly, this development is not uniform or linear. It is uneven and spasmodic. In certain areas this development is advanced, others less so.

In the places where this development is furthest along, a problem arises, the problem of a "superabundance of capital" accumulated within the rich countries. Accumulation in the rich countries occurs so rapidly that the amount of surplus available far outstrips the profitable investment opportunities within the national borders of the rich nation. Capitalism becomes, so to speak, "over ripe" in the core advanced industrial nations. This drives the owners of this abundance of capital to scour the earth looking for places to absorb it profitably.

In earlier epochs of capitalism, manufacturing in the advanced industrial nations grows to an extent that industrialists start searching the globe for new markets to flood with the commodities they manufacture at home. They search the globe because they produce more commodities than they can profitable sell at home. But the growing concentration of capital and the merging industry and finance means that an overabundance of capital develops. This drives a sharp increase in the export of capital abroad. As Lenin puts it, "the necessity for exporting capital arises from the fact that in a few countries capitalism has become over-ripe and capital cannot find "profitable" investment" at home.

Why should finance capitalists with masses of surplus capital on their hands want to look abroad for profitable investments? Aside from the fact, already mentioned, that there are no such profitable investment opportunities within the "over ripe" core capitalist nations, capitalists stand to gain considerably from establishing "sphere of influence" abroad: they gain access to sources of cheap raw materials and more easily exploitable labor, places where surplus capital can be exported and absorbed, opportunities for deals, concessions and monopolist profits from loans and the like, as well as new markets to flood (or "dump") large quantities of goods at cut-rate prices (thereby wiping out any local competition and creating relations of dependence). We could go on. But we note that this isn't just an attractive way to increase profits. It is necessary for the expansion and continuing viability of capitalism as an economic system, because when capital becomes over-accumulated in the core countries it must find profitable investment opportunities or else the system stagnates and decays as profits decline.

This quest to find places to absorb surplus capital, however, is not a peaceful, harmonious process of "free trade". In reality, it creates an international competitive struggle for the control of foreign economic territory. This, in turn, drives the territorial division (and re-division) of the globe among the most powerful core capitalist countries which creates a state of affairs in which swaths of the globe come under the domination and exploitation of more powerful states.


Of course, by the time capitalism reaches this stage, the globe has already been divided into spheres of colonial domination or semi-colonial influence. By 1900, for example, nine-tenths of Africa had already been seized and occupied by European powers. Thus, contemporary imperialism is not about acquiring and dividing up previously "unoccupied" territories. Rather it is about the re-division of the world. As Lenin describes it,
"The colonial policy of capitalist countries has completed the seizure of the unoccupied territories on our planet. For the first time the world is complete divided up, so that in the future only redivision is possible; territories can only pass from one "owner" to another, instead of passing as unowned territory to an "owner"."
If earlier epochs of colonialism were about a mad dash to "acquire" lands hitherto unexploited by core capitalist nations, contemporary imperialism is a competitive struggle among the core nations to re-divide territories in a way more favorable to the strongest nations at any particular time. As the balance of power shifts (as a result, largely, of economic shifts), the previous configurations become unstable and more powerful elements are emboldened to contest previously stable spheres of influence. "Stability" always favors the strongest grouping at any point in time. When Washington, then, calls for "stability" in the Middle East, they are calling for no more than the preservation of the existing configuration of influence and power which they enjoy. Any instability favors other forces—whether it is anti-imperialist forces from below or other imperialist elements—and introduces the possibility of re-dividing the terrain in a different way.


But what about violent conflict and war? Isn't war really about the "national interest", glory, honor, religion, "our way of life" and all the rest? Or isn't war really just an expression of the "inherently violent" character of human beings?

Modern war has little to do with national pride, glory, religion, honor or any of it. This is mostly window-dressing. This is how you try to drum up support for imperialism among social groups who have no direct interest in imperialist wars for the 1%. And neither is modern war an expression of some timeless impulse toward violence. The vast majority of human history has been peaceful and cooperative rather than destructive and violent. Violence and war are products of the interests of elites in class societies—that is, societies in which a minority ruling class stands over and above the toiling majority.

Modern warfare is about profit. It is about securing all of the conditions necessary for ruling classes to accumulate, which means fighting among imperial powers to secure "spheres of influence".

War and violent conflict in the international arena are merely particular forms that imperialist rivalry and competition can assume in certain conditions. As I say above, "peace" and stability don't entail a decline in imperialism whatsoever; they merely indicate the temporary stability of a certain configuration of power (both economic and military). And, what's more, beneath the surface of such superficial stability there are often subterranean forms of conflict, less severe than direct military confrontation, that involve tension and struggle nonetheless. Imperialism is not simply visible when military conflicts arise. It is manifest in virtually all of the major economic and political actions occurring at the global level.


Let's close by examining two objections to this idea of imperialism. The hope is that this will further sharpen our highly schematic and brief overview of the concept.

The first was articulated by Kautsky in the early 1900s, but it is a favorite argument of the likes of Thomas L. Friedman and others. It goes as follows. Since capitalism is growing and expanding to such an extent that economic power is becoming more and more concentrated, huge regions of the globe that were hitherto independent are now hugely inter-dependent. This dense web of interdependence means that war will be unlikely because too expensive. Friedman once predicted that no two nations with a McDonalds would ever go to war with one another (this has, of course, been proven false many times over, but set that to one side for the moment). Although Friedman might not like to put it in such terms, his argument is that wars will cease under capitalism when economic power becomes so concentrated and intermeshed that it is more profitable for the global ruling class to join together and jointly exploit the rest of the world.

Lenin offers a trenchant critique of this argument in his text. Readers of Friedman would do well to consider it. Lenin's reply is that this view mistakes particular forms of imperialism for its basic class content. Huge international cartels only reveal the object of the imperialist struggle, that is, they only show us what it is that all the various imperialist players are fighting to win. It's the imperialist Lombardi trophy, so to speak, that we come to see when we observe huge multi-national cartels whose influence covers entire regions of the globe. Such configurations do not portend a decline in imperialism, on the contrary, they show us the basic motivation to play the imperialist game in the first place. And, as we know, it is unlikely that any one grouping will be able to hold on to the trophy forever. Sooner or later, internal fractures, economic stagnation within, shifts in the balance of power without, etc. will dislodge the stability of the configuration and the contradictions and unevenness of the world economy gives rise to conflicts.

Again, to repeat, imperialism is not a specific foreign policy preferred by certain groups and rejected by others. It is a structural feature of the global capitalist economy. Different capitalist groupings compete—utilizing the national governments which serve their interests—with one another in the global economy. They compete for control of raw materials, labor, markets for goods, that is, for "spheres of influence" which equip them with the necessary conditions for continued accumulation. The "stronger" nations, or group of nations, win larger spheres of influence—and "strength" is strongly correlated to level of economic and political development. And, inevitably, this economic struggle and competition gives rise to military struggle and competition. The two go hand in hand.

The final objection we shall consider is the following. Since imperialism is the result of concentration, what's needed is not an overthrow of the global capitalist order, but a re-introduction of the sort of "free competition" characteristic of econ 101 textbooks. This would create parity and would encourage non-violent trade interactions that would better everyone. As we know, trade always benefits the trading parties (otherwise they wouldn't engage in the transaction), so emphasizing genuine "honest" competition and "free trade" would undermine the material conditions which give rise to imperialism. To this end, we should oppose all tariffs and forms of protectionism and seek to create a maximally open, maximally "free" global market where violent conflict would be minimized.

This is frequently heard argument these days. But Lenin already refuted it in 1916. The first thing we'll say is that the opposition between "free trade" and "protectionism" is facile, abstract and highly misleading. It has nothing to do with the realities of global capitalism.

First of all, global capitalism is a highly uneven, contradictory constellation of different economic forces. In this context, one size does not fit all, not even among all of the imperialist powers. In certain circumstances, it befits one imperialist power to endorse "free trade" precisely because it undermines the influence or power of another imperialist power who, for this very reason, opposes "free trade" and opts for protections and tariffs. But the former, who pushes "free trade" in this particular circumstance, is likely to oppose "free trade" in all sorts of other instances where it makes more sense—from the imperialist point of view—to have protections, tarriffs, and all the rest.

Second, the period of high concentration, monopolies, syndicates, international cartels, etc. is one that precisely grew out of "free competition". Capitalist competition, as we saw above, naturally leads to concentration. To call for a return to "free competition" as an answer to imperialism is a mere "pious wish" that has no material basis in reality.

To pose the question as a tension between "free trade" and protectionism is to entirely misunderstand what's going on in the world. As Lenin puts it:
It is known...that the cartels add finance capital have a system peculiar to themselves, that of “exporting goods at cut-rate prices”, or “dumping”, as the English call it: within a given country the cartel sells its goods at high monopoly prices, but sells them abroad at a much lower price to undercut the competitor, to enlarge its own production to the utmost, etc. If Germany’s trade with the British colonies is developing more rapidly than Great Britain’s, it only proves that German imperialism is younger, stronger and better organised than British imperialism, is superior to it; but it by no means proves the “superiority” of free trade, for it is not a fight between free trade and protection and colonial dependence, but between two rival imperialisms, two monopolies, two groups of finance capital. The superiority of German imperialism over British imperialism is more potent than the wall of colonial frontiers or of protective tariffs: to use this as an “argument” in favour of free trade and “peaceful democracy” is banal, it means forgetting the essential features and characteristics of imperialism, substituting petty-bourgeois reformism for Marxism.
Lenin is exactly right here. The opposition is between two rival imperialisms, not between some abstract choice between "free trade" or protection. There is no neutral vessel standing above rival imperialisms who, impartially, aims to decide whether to push for universal "free trade" or universal protection. Rather, the global arena is nothing more than blocs of powerful capitalist nations (and their spheres of influence) who push for liberalization of trade or protection as needed. They have no principled preference for one or the other. Their only preference is for ever increasing control and power, because increased domination of spheres of influence means increased exploitation. All of this, of course, means an increase in accumulation, the basic driving force of the global economy.

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