The changing face of imperialism

Ukraine and Syria have put imperialism back at the top of the political agenda. Rob Owen traces the theory of imperialism and charts the trajectory of US imperialism in recent years.

This article was first published in the autumn 2014 issue of the rs21 magazine. Order your copy of the magazine here

US Marines entering one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces, 2003

US Marines entering one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces, 2003

Israel’s most recent assault on Gaza drove thousands onto the streets and thrust the question of imperialism back into the news. On the 27th July the Independent newspaper estimated over a million people had demonstrated in solidarity with Palestine just 19 days into the conflict. These were some of the largest protests since the Iraq war and their size was not simply a response to atrocities, but a cry against longstanding injustice. For many Israel’s occupation of Palestine has, since its creation, epitomised western interests in the Middle East.
In radical circles the question of imperialism, the interference of powerful states in the affairs of others, had already become a hot topic of debate. Revolution in Syria and popular protests in Ukraine had been transformed into civil war under Russian influence. Activists and commentators have found themselves trying to understand how the world had changed and what, if any, side to take to fight against injustice.

What is imperialism?

The widespread hatred of George W. Bush took the word “imperialism” from socialist jargon into the mainstream. In its most popular sense imperialism means the domination of powerful states over weaker ones but for Marxists there is a more specific meaning. For us, imperialism is a world system intrinsic to capitalism; one which creates conflicts between powerful states and domination of weaker ones. It is a system rooted in economic competition that flows into militarisation and war. Lenin, the first Marxist to popularise a theory of imperialism, wrote that it had the following five features:
  1. The concentration of production and capital has developed to such a high stage that it has created monopolies [firms which dominate particular markets] which play 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’, of a financial oligarchy.
  3. The export of capital as distinguished from the export of commodities acquires exceptional importance.
  4. The formation of international monopolist capitalist associations [multinationals] which share the world out among themselves.
  5. The territorial division of the whole world among the biggest capitalist powers is completed
The five features were far from universal but the essence of his argument has stood the test of time. It could be summarised as the concentration of capital in ever bigger enterprises driving competition between states. By “capital” Lenin meant money, means of production and investments directed towards making a profit.
Bukharin developed the idea of imperialism into a more systematic theory1 giving it two essential features:

The concentration of capital into ever larger units. Those units become more closely tied to finance capital and integrated into nation states. During a crisis smaller capitals get absorbed by larger ones contributing towards the formation of monopolies in different sectors of the economy. He called the “organisation” of those concentrations of capital into the state “state-capitalist trusts” which competed internationally.

  1. The growing internationalisation of productive forces, or in today’s terms, globalisation. The globalised economy means exchange values in different economies are brought into line. In a relatively open world economy there is less space for purely national development. To give an example: a developing country seeking to manufacture cars would have to create a production process able to compete with multinational firms sourcing resources globally. Therefore market pressure means competition inside states is shaped by commodities produced most efficiently globally.
Economic competition at a global level drives competition both politically and militarily. Competition between multinationals for markets and resources is backed by their states relative military and political clout–and not all states are equal. The uneven concentration of capital in particular nations creates “imperialist” states able to use their economic weight to carve out spheres of influence. Using Bukharin’s model we can build a framework for understanding the competition between the US and Russia. Both are competing to maximise profit for their own domestic capital and both have spheres of influence where they can bend weaker economies to their needs. In areas like Ukraine the US’ global interests clash with the regional interests of Russia. This helps shape conflicts between local forces that can enhance their position by allying with one or the other power.

The state

Bukharin’s understanding of the development of states into “state capitalist trusts” drew heavily from the experience of Germany in the period preceding the First World War. Germany was competing with an established British capitalism that had the advantage of a global empire. The German state played a central role in organising its finance and banking capital to develop centres of modern production able to undercut its rivals. This was a degree of state management that has been taken further by others since, notably the Soviet Union, but is far from typical. To make his theory generally applicable requires some discussion of the state under capitalism.
The Marxist theory of the state is contested and the outline sketched here draws on the work of Chris Harman, Colin Barker and others. This sees the state as a capitalist institution shaped by the need to ensure the growth of their economies. While states predated capitalism its growth as a world system transformed them to serve a changing society. Modern capitalism has brought even the most underdeveloped states into a relation with the world economy by opening their markets and transforming domestic production. To ensure the conditions for the stable accumulation of capital in general, states have to represent the long term interests of competing domestic capitals with varying, and sometimes opposed self-interests. They must also maintain the conditions for the social reproduction of society becoming responsible for law, justice and to varying degrees social welfare. To retain law and order through consent states must also respond to and contain pressure from the working class.
States exist not in the singular but the plural. Concentrations of capital tend to develop inside domestic markets supported by the stability and infrastructure of a state. As capitals outgrow their domestic markets, and become concentrated in fewer larger firms, they seek political support in accessing markets and investments abroad.
The ability of a state to provide support is dependent on its relative military and political strength which, in turn, is dependent on the size of its economy. A system of competing concentrations of capitals shapes a system of competing states. While Bukharin overstated the degree of organisation between capital and state the relationship between them holds the key to understanding global politics.
This is as true for the clashes between the US and Russia as it is for political tensions inside the European Union. As states are shaped by internal and external pressures Lenin’s “special bodies of armed men” are needed not just to maintain order domestically (hegemony must be backed in the final instance by force) but also to defend its interests against rival states. Ambassadors, diplomats and secret services provide the political means of foreign policy that ultimately rests on military power. And so it is that the drive to militarisation and war is built into capitalist competition.
Yet the actions of states are not reducible to the needs of accumulation or the immediate interests of its capitalist class. Those running the state form a distinct group and it is the actions of this group that shape a system of competing states. Those that run the state are forced to act in the “national interest”, the general interests of capitalist accumulation, to maintain funds for the state. Yet, deciding what is in the “national interest” is subject to interpretation and contested by rival political groupings responding to different pressures. The subjective question of “Politics”, and related questions of ideology and resistance, is part of any nuanced understanding of imperialism. The actions of states can rarely be reduced to pure economic imperative.

The development of imperialism

Imperialism is not a fixed state of relationships between states. Capitalism itself is a dynamic system which constantly reproduces itself and shifts the balance of power. It is a system that has developed historically. Imperialism, like capitalism itself, can be understood as having passed through a number of phases. At any point in time it is possible to identify both continuity and change as rival powers rise and decline reshaping the world system.

The period of classical imperialism: 1875 – 1945

The great depression of 1875 opened a period of competition between the “great powers” as industrial capitalism took hold. The military industrialisation that created their global empires was reflected in Hilaire Belloc’s poem, The Modern Traveller: “Whatever happens, we have got the Maxim gun, and they have not”. Yet despite the spread of territorial empires trade between the developed nations remained dominant accounting for 80 percent of trade up to 1900.
The competition between developed countries famously drove the world towards the industrialised horror of the First World War as the rising power of Germany tried to expand itself against established empires.
Many of the theories of imperialism and slogans that get thrown around the anti-war movement today derive from this time. Of particular relevance was the slogan first raised by the German revolutionary Karl Liebknecht – “the main enemy is at home.” Liebknecht was trying to oppose the war at a time when almost the entire working class movement had fallen behind different ‘national interests.’ He argued that the main enemy for the working class in the conflict was not each other but their own ruling class. To orientate activists in the conflict he called for a working class internationalism:
 We have seen how when war broke out, the masses were captured for the capitalist aims of the war with enticing melodies from the ruling classes. We have seen how the shiny bubbles of demagogy burst, how the foolish dreams of August vanished, how, instead of happiness, suffering and misery came over the people

The Cold War 1945-91

The period that emerged from the Second World War saw the world remaining economically multipolar but divided between two unequal superpowers. The USSR under Stalin conducted its campaign of intense accumulation – the Five Year Plans.
The huge geographical size of the USSR allowed the Soviet ruling class to brutally industrialise in order to compete militarily with the US. At the same time, the very existence of the USSR gave an ideological rationale to restructuring the world under the US’s economic and political hegemony. The Bretton Woods agreement of July 1944 laid the basis for a new world order led by the US as the economies of Europe depended on it to rebuild. The establishment of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank assured an open market to the US beginning the dismantling of the British Empire. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), set up in 1949, was transformed by the Korean War into a permanent military alliance with US bases across the world. This accompanied an expansion in US military spending and kicked off the arms race that would define the Cold War.
Paul Nitze, US director of policy planning at the state department, described their strategy as containing the USSR through “preponderant military power”. Competition between the US and the declining European powers remained a background feature with the US only gaining hegemony in the Middle East after the Suez Canal crisis of 1956. Vast US and Russian military spending was to provide an outlet to stabilise the world economy through an unprecedented period of growth.
While the military strength of the US made it the West’s only superpower, its interests remained meshed into the world economy. To maintain economic growth the US needed strong trading partners in the rest of the developed word. The Marshall Plan aimed to rebuild strong, but subordinate, concentrations of capital that could create trading partners and lend stability in the longer term. The US helped create the European Coal and Steel Community aiming to provide the space to rebuild the German economy and contain national antagonisms in Europe. Yet despite the economic growth of the eurozone, exploiting national antagonisms inside it allowed the US to maintain the role of NATO militarily and stop Europe becoming a geopolitical player. Over time, economies like Germany and Japan without significant military expenditure began to cut into the US’ global economic share, creating the conditions for the crisis of the late 1970s.
The “open” model of imperialism favoured by the US, coupled with the national liberation struggles that freed colonies from direct rule, gave states in the developing world greater space to develop. Regionally powerful states emerged throughout the period of the Cold War following the Russian model of national development through import substitution (including many in the Non‑Aligned Movement like Egypt under Nasser), as well as economies like those in East Asia and Latin America who used state direction of the economy to develop targeted exports to crack into the world market. Some developed regional influence that spilt over into conflicts, often backed by one or other of the great powers. By the crisis of the late 1970s a number, particularly in East Asia, had achieved a growing share of world GDP.

The New American Century

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 allowed the US to push much more assertively for the neoliberal opening up of weaker states. Emerging as the sole superpower in a politically multipolar world allowed western ideologues to argue for the export of the American model in the name of liberal democracy. The IMF restructuring that was enforced on debtor nations ensured a further transfer of wealth to the developed world. The neoliberal offensive against workers in the US now merged with an aggressive foreign policy determined to roll it out internationally and consolidate neoliberalism as a global phase of capitalism. But the US’s role was determined not just by its economic and military dominance. It also depended on a shared perception amongst western states that American policy was in their interest. It’s weakening of its global share of economic power, relative to Europe and China, made its ability to mesh domestic interests with that of its allies increasingly difficult.
The dependence of the US on the major exporter nations had been a long standing problem as it had run a vast balance of payments deficit for decades. The Chinese economy had grown massively throughout the 2000s through state directed growth. By 2008 the Chinese economy had built up foreign currency reserves of $1.8 trillion by exporting to the US and other developed nations. In order to sustain demand for its exports China loans back large amounts to sustain the US economy. The financial circuit between China and the US has led to other economies, most notably Japan, reorienting on exporting goods needed for Chinese production. A politically assertive China has created deep antagonisms between itself and the US. However, the proximity of other regional powers, particularly the nuclear power of India, and resistance to the authoritarianism at home imposes limits to China’s development as a superpower. Despite this, its willingness to engage in independent agreements with states over loans and exports presents a challenge to US dominance globally.
The Project for the New American Century (PNAC) was a powerful grouping in the US state that identified these problems and sought to solve them. In its founding statement declared “the belief that America should seek to preserve and extend its position of global leadership by maintaining the preeminence of U.S. military forces.” In 2000 it produced a significant strategy paper after failing to convince president Clinton of the need for regime change in Iraq. Rebuilding America’s Defenses gave four strategic priorities for the US Military:
  1. defend the American homeland
  2. fight and decisively win multiple, simultaneous major theater wars
  3. perform the “constabulary” duties associated with shaping the security environment in critical regions
  4. transform US forces to exploit the “revolution in military affairs
Figures in the PNAC were to come to prominence after 9/11 with senior figures occupying key positions including Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz.

Oil and the Middle East

Modern capitalist accumulation has reduced its dependence on raw materials with profits now mainly coming from more complex production. Countries in the developing world have struggled to maintain export driven economies leading to increased impoverishment.
The incredibly important exception is oil on which vast sections of the economy depend. Oil has maintained a profitability that created some of the world’s richest multinationals and allowed oil producing nations like Iran, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela to pursue paths to economic development and increased regional power. For imperialism oil takes on a particular importance, as control over supplies is central to the security of all world economies. The world’s biggest economy – the US – sources more than half its oil from overseas and its military consumes more oil than any other institution in the world. Ensuring future oil supplies are under US influence has been a central preoccupation of US foreign policy since well before president Carter declared any threat to the Persian Gulf was a threat to the US itself.
Middle Eastern supplies are of particular importance as the largest reserves of light crude oil in the world are located. Light crude contains the high percentage of fractions, like petrol, most useful to developed economies.

Regime change and defeat in Iraq

The 9/11 attacks gave the US a justification for displaying its military power in the Middle East. Despite the non-existent link with Al-Qaeda, the question of regime change in oil-rich Iraq became an immediate priority. The build up to the Iraq war marked a major policy shift for the US – from attempting to maintain agreement within the ‘international community’ to nakedly pursuing its own interests in the name of a moral purpose.
The military defeat of the occupation at the hands of the Iraqi resistance and the ideological victories of the antiwar movement hit the neocons hard. The strategy of compensating for its weakened economic position by demonstrating its unilateral military might had collapsed. The failure to leave behind a stable regime has been writ large by the growth of ISIS. The exposure of its military limitations showed the impossibility of sustaining ground wars and a requirement to work alongside other western powers. This was a major blow to supporters of an assertive military strategy that we shouldn’t underestimate.
If the defeat in Iraq humbled the US military the defeat of Israel by Hezbollah in 2006 unmasked Israel as a racist client state. The US’ desire to weaken Iran, who had been strengthened by the devastation in Iraq, by humbling Hezbollah backfired spectacularly. Political sympathy for Israel was badly damaged by the antiwar movement as has been shown by the popular horror at its actions in Gaza this year. The hypocrisy of claiming to “spread democracy” while propping up client dictators and supporting the occupation of Palestine laid the foundation for the Arab spring.

Georgia, crisis and revolution

The clearest indicator of the US’s declining global power was the rout of its sponsored forces in Georgia by Russia in 2008. Throughout the 1990s Russia had not just lost its global influence but been badly weakened regionally as western corporations rushed to exploit the collapse of the USSR. Russia deferred to the US politically and depended on Germany economically. The US policy of NATO encroachment into Eastern Europe continued apace with pressures to accede both Ukraine and Georgia into NATO right up to 2008. The oil boom of the mid 2000s allowed president Putin to transform the Russian economy through state-led development of its energy resources, and to rebuild its military capacities. Georgia’s attempt to annex South Ossetia provided the pretext for reasserting itself with the US weakened by its military commitments in the Middle East.

Economic crisis and the Arab Spring

The crisis that broke with the collapse of Lehman Brothers later in 2008 shook the American economy. The Western state bailouts totalled more than $14 trillion (a quarter of global GDP). The crisis of financialisation resulted from a much deeper crisis of profitability that neoliberal deregulation had failed to overcome. The crisis further weakened the US by increasing its debt and raising the question of the status of the dollar as a global reserve currency. The economic stabilisation owes much to the danger that a financial meltdown in any state would have posed to the stability of others. The integration between the economies of different states both helped spread the crisis across the globe and helped militate against a complete meltdown as states intervened in the parts of their economy that looked likely to collapse.
The revolutions that began in Tunisia and spread across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) revealed the power of popular struggle to change the course of events. The combination of economic crisis, democratic deficit and resistance to imperialism created a potent mix which exploded onto the streets. The occupation of Tahrir Square and the Egyptian revolution became symbolic, spreading across the Middle East and finding an echo in social movements around the globe. The role of working class and revolutionary movements showed the social as well as economic and geopolitical aspects of imperialism. The agency of these movements and the extent they can be co-opted by foreign powers has become a recurrent issue in understanding modern conflicts in states like Syria and Ukraine.

Anti-imperialism for a multipolar world?

The post-Cold War period of a largely unipolar world began to end with the US’s defeat in Iraq and closed with the crisis of 2008. The fallout from the MENA revolutions and deepening crisis in Iraq marked the weakening of US power in a strategically central region. The continuation of NATO, the $8 million a day aid to Israel, global military and political reach all mark it out as a superpower. Yet the relative growth of the eurozone and rise of the Russian and Chinese economies as regional (and in China’s case international) players create a politically and economically multipolar world.
Lenin emphasised that imperialism was a constantly changing system as rising powers seek to claim what declining powers can’t hold onto. The US retains the role of a hegemonic superpower for lack of a clear challenger and because to risk a devaluation of the dollar would be too damaging to both China and Europe. However its declining global power is likely to create more flash points as it seeks to maintain its influence while others try to extend theirs.
The weakening of US influence means its activities are no longer always the primary catalyst for conflicts. In Eastern Europe Russia’s aim of bringing states back under its influence makes it a more significant player in the onset of both the Syrian and Ukraine conflicts. Maintaining an anti-imperialist approach when British intervention is often negligible still requires recognising that our role in NATO binds us to the US superpower. But developing an analysis requires understanding the balance of power between the different world powers within a given region. While we should look to building mass antiwar movements, like those around Palestine, such opportunities will not always exist. Often the most productive thing revolutionaries can offer will be analysis and solidarity with those fighting against injustice. In an increasingly multipolar world that injustice may well be backed by imperial powers far from home.

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