Historically, industrialisation has been seen as a virtual definition of development in both bourgeois and Marxist literature. During the neoliberal period, China and other Third World states rapidly expanded the local presence of certain industries and aspects of industries that had historically been central to imperialist monopoly – such as coal, steel and autos – leading many Marxists to believe that China is dislodging imperialist economic power. However, it is necessary, with Marx, to distinguish first between manufacturing and assembly, on the one hand, and from true industrial production, on the other. Further, industrialisation in the modern era is no longer limited to the production process alone – something long anticipated by Marx. Today ‘services’, logistics, data analysis, the organisation of work and all manner of professional labour are increasingly subject to both mechanisation and scientific organisation. That is to say, these too are being industrialised. In this context, even if it were the case that certain historical industries, such as certain standard manufacturing, came to be dominated by the poor countries, this would not signal imperial decline any more than it is signified by the shift of the centre of textile manufacture from Manchester to Bangladesh and China.
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.
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.
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’.
Monopoly capital, in Lenin’s sense, involves the transfer of value from non-monopolies to monopolies, as well as among monopolies and among non-monopolies. It does not negate Marx’s theory of value as Sweezy, Amin, Shaikh and Smith all argue. Rather it applies Marx’s law of value to monopoly conditions. The amount of extra surplus value accruing to an individual monopoly capital (i.e. that above the average rate) is determined by the degree of monopoly that capital possesses. The degree of monopoly is fundamentally determined, in the most important spheres, by the degree of domination in the labour process. Therefore, the degree of appropriation of other capital’s surplus value is determined in the labour process also. Hence there is a clear parallel between monopoly competition and the way Marx showed that capital can gain above-average profit in pre-monopoly conditions – by its superior labour productivity.
The creation at one pole of the labour process of simple processes (whether carried out by humans or machines) requires, at the other pole, the design, development, control, maintenance and management of these same processes. On the one side, we have ordinary, bulk processes, and on the other, sophisticated labour. The extent to which the ordinary bulk process will be carried out by humans or machine is determined by competition between the two – something greatly affected by the price of labour. That competition, in final analysis, is really competition between ordinary labour and the sophisticated labour that brings machines into being. In the post-war period Third World labour tended to be relatively excluded from the global labour process as the imperialist countries invested in semi-automated production. In the ‘neoliberal’ period the reverse tendency occurred as ‘hyper-globalisation’ sought to super-exploit abundant cheap labour. Over the last several years, the world economy has again started to reset as the super-abundant global cheap labour supply in China, Eastern Europe and elsewhere started to dry up. What seems likely to determine the extent and contours of globalisation into the future is not technology. Both tendencies require technology, though in different areas. Where imperialist states and corporations choose to invest is what determines what types of technology will be developed.
Neoliberal monopoly-dominated ‘free trade’ represented a more advanced form of domination and exploitation compared with earlier eras. Many of the most profitable corporations specialised in particular labour processes within an overall world division of labour. Almost all specialised in one type of labour: sophisticated labour. While the separation of capital into monopoly and non-monopoly groupings predates the neoliberal period, during it, production processes were more vigorously divided into two opposite labour types – what we might call ‘ordinary’ and ‘sophisticated’ labour. Independent firms were tasked with carrying out separate stages of the production process even for a single product, sometimes thousands of kilometres apart. The two types of labour stand in contrast to each other technically and, flowing from this, in terms of the income they can generate. Simple labour processes are more easily replicable, while sophisticated labour is far less so. Simple labour processes therefore cannot, by definition, be monopolised as such. Sophisticated labour, also by definition, always possesses a monopolistic characteristic, as such, to one degree or another. Non-monopoly firms are assigned, or left to compete for, simple and well-known labour processes. Through these they can gain only non-monopoly profits. The monopolies control high-end, specialised and scientific labour. On this basis they can gain the high, monopoly profits that investment in such labour processes also demands.
The existence of economic, political or military conflict between the United States and China is believed to indicate that China is a rising threat to US domination. However, the United States and other rich countries historically have engaged in the most belligerent conflicts and warmongering with many Third World societies, including those far weaker than contemporary China. The ‘trade war’, which is an economic attack on China by US imperialism, aims to secure and strengthen imperialist claims to value brought into the world economy by Chinese labour. The battle is not over which country will be dominant but the degree to which the United States and other rich countries can continue to exploit China. China’s rapid economic development over the last several decades has changed the conditions of this exploitation, and forced the rich, imperialist countries to adjust their posture. Chinese policies such as the Belt and Road Initiative or its military posture do not represent serious or credible threats to the dominance of the rich countries. Rather, the idea that they do originates as a justification for imperialist attacks on China.
Third World capital can sometimes win in competition with imperialist capital for the production of simple commodities. To the extent a commodity is labour intensive and can be produced using ordinary labour, it will be more competitive to produce it in the Third World where such labour is cheap and abundant. On this basis we can see the emergence of a small number of large Third World corporations that dominate specific segments of the production process. Yet such production cannot achieve a high, monopoly profit as it can be achieved by many competing Third World producers. Low Third World profits and wages become the determinant around which prices are set for commodities produced in this way. Analysis of the largest corporations in the world as listed on both the Fortune and Forbes databases shows that almost no large Third World corporations are competitive with imperialist-based corporations in the most lucrative areas of the world economy. An overwhelming majority of Third World corporations listed are national, not global monopolies. The far smaller number of Third World global corporations are almost all concentrated into low-end and low-margin economic sectors, or they exist within sectors that are dominated overall by First World companies. As a result, Third World corporations, on average, have far lower gross profits, return on assets and market capitalisation.
Polarisation of labour processes and profit rates in the ‘neoliberal period’ occurred between monopoly capitals (which dominate sophisticated labour processes) and non-monopoly capitals (which carry out ‘ordinary’ labour). It is only the sophisticated labour and production processes that can form a sustainable basis for high, monopoly profits. This division of labour also corresponds to the division between rich and poor societies. The rich, imperialist countries are the base of operations for the monopoly corporations while the poor countries produce corporations that are restricted to the ‘domination’ of only ordinary labour processes. Hence, they can and do increase their production without ever thereby catching up. This division of labour has meant that in the neoliberal period, Third World societies massively increased their share of the world’s work but suffered massive terms of trade losses and achieved only a very modest increase in their share of world income. By contrast, the period was highly lucrative for the rich, imperialist countries.