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How rich countries dominate in the twenty-first century
Author: Sam King

"Over a hundred years since the beginning of modern imperialism, the former colonial world is still prevented from joining the club of imperialist powers. The gap between rich and poor countries is not narrowing but growing. China is usually presented as challenging the dominance of the United States and other rich countries. However, imperialist domination over the most sophisticated aspects of the labour process gives the rich countries and their corporations control over the global labour process as a whole – including in China. Third World producers are forced to specialise in the opposite types of work – in relatively simple and low-end labour, for which major price markups and large profits are rarely possible. This is the kernel of unequal exchange in world trade. The imperialist system develops two types of capital – monopoly and non-monopoly capital – and two types of societies – rich, monopoly, imperialist societies and poor, non-monopoly, ‘Third World’ societies. China’s ascendance to become the most powerful Third World country in no way threatens to topple continuing imperialist dominance. Most contemporary Marxist writing has not been focused on global income polarisation and imperialist exploitation of the poor countries. For this reason, it has been unable to explain how exactly the same countries continuously reproduce their dominance. However, the actual conditions of the neoliberal world economy have made explicit how this happens through the labour process itself. In doing so it has also shown how Marx’s labour theory of value can be concretely applied to the conditions of monopoly capital today.

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Sam King

Contrary to celebrations of China’s ‘rise’ or ‘the rise of the rest’, imperialism of the rich countries is alive and well. China does not threaten the global dominance of the imperialist states and it cannot within the global capitalist system. In contemporary capitalism, domination over the most sophisticated parts within the overall labour process would be the only path to ‘catch up’ with the rich societies. However, imperialist monopoly capital dominates the highest aspects of the labour process, so that other, ‘non-monopoly’ capital must specialise in low-end and ordinary labour. This kernel within the international division of labour leads to the development of two poles – a pole of high-end labour and its opposite, a pole of low-end, ordinary labour. Capitalist producers and countries are divided on this basis into rich, monopoly and poor, non-monopoly capitals and countries. For large non-monopoly societies – that is, large ‘Third World’ states – the path to ‘catch-up’ is closed. The nature of Chinese and other Third World participation in the global division of labour does not prepare them to challenge imperialist monopoly. China’s rapid expansion of production has profoundly reshaped the world economy, however, this does not indicate China is catching up with imperialist countries. China has caught up with the other large Third World economies, like Brazil and Mexico, but these occupy an intermediate position within the international division of labour. They have a high level of development compared to poorer Third World societies, but far below that of the imperialist core societies.

in Imperialism and the development myth
Sam King

The ‘neoliberal period’, from around 1980, saw wide-scale and rapid development of the productive forces across what used to be known as the ‘Third World’. This led to widespread expectations and perceptions that many regions were catching up to the development level of the rich countries. However, the income statistics tell a very story. Not only is the Third World not catching up with the income of the rich countries, it is falling further behind. That is the case for almost all of the so-called developing countries individually and also for them as a whole – including China. Besides the Cold War exceptional cases of South Korea and Taiwan, no Third World nations have either joined the small club of rich countries or even come close to doing so. The rich countries today form almost entirely the same club that has dominated the world economy for over a hundred years. Not only is the gap between the richest and poorest societies growing, today almost every country in the world, including 98.5 per cent of the global population, are concentrated in states that are either rich or poor – but mostly poor. There are no large, truly ‘middle-income’ countries. This polarisation of the whole world into rich and poor countries increased throughout the neoliberal period and the relationship between the two groups remains unchanged.

in Imperialism and the development myth
Sam King
in Imperialism and the development myth
Sam King

The ‘neoliberal period’ was not the scene of widespread anti-imperialist mass movements like those of the post-Second World War era. One result of this has been a collapse in anti-imperialist writing inside the imperialist countries since around 1980. While Marxist scholars focused on the domestic class struggle or other issues, they mostly did not openly claim imperialism had ended. Rather, they renounced Lenin’s theory of imperialism but did not replace it, and produced few new works. Lenin’s work was rejected mostly without being discussed or even read. Rather, for decades, it was repeatedly dismissed by almost all First World Marxist scholars, usually with simple reference to other contemporary scholars, often using clear caricatures and demonstrable misinterpretation, or was just ignored. Rejecting Lenin was spearheaded by Bill Warren, whose 1980 book Imperialism: Pioneer of Capitalism argued the poor countries were catching up to the rich ones. Warren is the only modern Marxist scholar to elaborate a rejection of Lenin. His analysis also pioneered (among Marxists) the now typically neoliberal idea that expanding capitalist production (GDP growth) leads countries towards breaking the chains of imperialist oppression. Warren was an open supporter of imperialism – arguing it brings development to the Third World – so few contemporary Marxists endorse his work. However, the overwhelming majority (including Harvey and Callinicos) adopt his economic analysis: GDP growth equals development and means poor countries are breaking imperialism’s grip (or becoming imperialist themselves). Warren thought Brazil, Zaire and Colombia were catching up. Today’s Marxists believe it is China.

in Imperialism and the development myth
Sam King

Influential Marxist work written inside the rich, imperialist countries this century either ignores the enormous and growing global polarisation between rich and poor countries or acknowledges it only weakly and partially. No major work adequately explains how this fundamental global social divide is maintained and reproduced. Harvey’s theoretical framework of ‘accumulation by dispossession’ allowed him to move from The New Imperialism (2003) to arguing by 2014 that there is no imperialism. The Monthly Review tendency, by contrast, argues that imperialism and the global rich–poor divide is a centrally important problem. However, contemporary Monthly Review writers such as Bellamy Foster cannot demonstrate how this situation is maintained – that is, how the imperialist countries maintain their dominance. Researchers influenced by world-systems theory have developed empirical evidence about how contemporary imperialist economic domination works. This contributed to an upturn in new Marxist work from around 2011attempting to explain the global divide. Among the most important, and most ambitious of these works is John Smith’s Imperialism in the Twenty First Century (2016). Smith’s explanation of how surplus value is transferred from poor to rich countries is shown to repeat core arguments of Arghiri Emmanuel’s Unequal Exchange (1972) and Samir Amin. However, Smith’s work does not explain how rich countries reproduce their dominance. The common weakness is that no work explains imperialist domination through analysis of the global labour process itself. That is why none can demonstrate how imperialism can keep dominating.

in Imperialism and the development myth
Sam King

It is the overwhelming view, among mainstream commentators, that China is rising in a way that is somehow imperialist or ultimately will challenge the monopoly on wealth and power of the existing rich countries. Similarly, most First World Marxist writing sees China as either a ‘new imperial power’ or developing in that direction. However, there is no well-known Marxist attempt to detail or analyse how they believe such a historically unprecedented transition could occur and how China has supposedly transformed from being the largest Third World country to a new imperialist power. The most common argument given amounts to reviving Warren’s position: that all capitalist economic growth (GDP growth) leads to advanced capitalism. In that view, a lot of economic growth – as has occurred in China – would bring about very advanced capitalism, and therefore capitalist imperialism. Conflating the spread of capitalist commodity production with the idea of building an advanced economy (or a new imperialist country) is the principal contemporary manifestation of Marxist adaption to capitalist economic doctrine as articulated in Warren’s Imperialism: Pioneer of Capitalism (1980). Against this view, China experts like Ho-fung Hung, Sean Starrs and Peter Noland are far more cautious and articulate fundamentally different views of China’s development and prospects.

in Imperialism and the development myth
Sam King

The substantial posse of Marxist writers and academic specialists who have for decades declared Lenin’s Imperialism as wrong and antiquated could be expected to have unearthed and popularised countless errors and misjudgements from the book. Yet no such list appears to exist. In place of one, various caricatures of ideas that do not actually appear in Lenin’s book Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism keep getting repeated. Two common caricatures are that Lenin viewed colonialism as a necessary form of imperialist domination and that Imperialism is overly fixated on the ‘export of capital’ (that is, foreign investment). The first is supposed to show that Lenin’s work is irrelevant now that colonialism is over. The second was supposed to show the same. Even though foreign investment has now bounced back, the label still sticks. However, Lenin emphatically rejected the idea that export of capital is the central question in understanding imperialism. This is evident both from the text of Imperialism itself and also from arguments Lenin made in the Bolshevik party and elsewhere about how to understand imperialism. Similarly, Lenin explicitly argues both in Imperialism and elsewhere – such as against Bukharin – that colonialism is not a necessary feature of imperialist domination. On this question Lenin makes a whole series of insightful observations on national independence, national struggle and anti-colonialism that were later proven correct by the national liberation movements and political independence after the Second World War.

in Imperialism and the development myth
Sam King

It is often assumed that in describing imperialism as ‘the highest stage of capitalism’, Lenin thought the system would imminently collapse. Alternatively, he is believed to have viewed the specific forms of imperialist rule in his own time – like colonialism or inter-imperialist war – as essential, permanent characteristics of imperialism. Starting from these caricatures, the dramatic changes that have taken place since Lenin’s time are assumed to so thoroughly rebuke his ‘highest stage’ that no further evidence is needed to reject his theory entirely. It is further assumed that the concept of capitalism’s highest stage is Lenin’s own. In fact, it is in Marx’s Capital, volume 3. The concept does not mean capitalism has stopped developing. Rather, with the advent of joint stock companies (later ‘trusts’ and today multinational corporations), private property had become the property of associated owners – that is, social property, but still privately owned. The only possible further development (and that able to resolve the contradiction of now collective private property) was, Marx argued, establishment of ‘the property of associated producers, as outright social property’ – socialism. Imperialism showed that Marx’s concept had come fully into being. It further demonstrated that the convergence of industrial with banking capital brought about the formation of monopoly finance capital as the unified capitalist form encompassing large businesses in all areas. On the basis of Marx and Lenin’s concepts it is possible to critique the contemporary Marxian ‘financialisation’ analyses, which falsely separates the financial sector and businesses from the rest of capital.

in Imperialism and the development myth
Sam King

There is no recent critique of Lenin’s views on monopoly, even though Lenin put it at the very core of his analysis. Lenin’s views are inaccurately associated with various contemporary ideas that separate monopoly from the labour process and view it as reducing competition. Lenin argued competition is not diminished by monopoly but intensified, even if carried out in a changed form. He viewed monopoly not as superseding market competition but – because imperialism must remain capitalist – inevitably revolving around capitalist production of commodities for the market. In Lenin’s concept the various competing monopolist groups can and must draw a greater range of social forces into this competition – especially the capitalist state. Though the forms of involvement ultimately remain subservient to commodity production. Monopoly competition is, for Lenin, a monopolistic version of the most essential aspect of pre-monopoly capitalist competition – commodity production. This is fought most crucially in the sphere of production itself and especially by raising labour productivity. The formation of monopolies, Lenin observed, is also bound to the emergence of non-monopoly capital, which is subservient to and exploited by the monopolies. While Lenin does not make this link, his concept of non-monopoly capital is connected to and explains another aspect of his theory – the monopoly of the imperialist countries over the rest of the world. Combining all these aspects of Lenin’s theory we have the embryo of a theory that explains the forms monopoly competition and exploitation in the ‘neoliberal period’.

in Imperialism and the development myth