The changes within world capitalism in the last thirty years since the end of the postwar boom have brought a significant theoretical discussion about both their scope and characteristics, and also their consequences for the prospects outlined by revolutionary Marxism. Thus, in the view of many contemporary thinkers, the globalisation of capitalist production and the world market have brought to life a new situation and a historical turn-about. This is the case with Toni Negri, autonomism’s main theoretician, who upholds such views in his latest book, Empire, co-authored with Michael Hardt. They define the latter as the globalisation’s new political order. Contrariwise, other theoreticians belonging to the school of historical sociology of the world system argue that, ever since its beginnings, capitalism has always operated as a world economy, thus rejecting the novelty of globalisation as a mere misinterpretation of history. One of the most notorious spokespersons of this strand is Giovanni Arrighi, who in the mid 90s went on to publish The Long Twentieth Century, a work where he poses such view. Such theoretical orientations challenge, from different angles, the classical definition of imperialism, such as it was formulated by Lenin and upheld by revolutionary Marxists in the bygone twentieth century.
The significance of this debate lies in the fact that the new developments call forth a reappraisal of the political, economical and social events, as a way to validate the Marxist categories that have been hammered out to grapple with the former. Regardless the changed situation, the current debate resembles the bustling theoretical and intellectual polemic that took place inside the international socialist movement -and also beyond it-, as free- concurrence capitalism grew into imperialism in the late nineteenth, early twentieth century. In the light of these new debates, new fundamentals questions for historical materialism and dialectics arise, to be able to grapple with the new challenges posed by the complex reality of the world and the new century. Such was Lenin’s approach, who took up the categories of dialectics to respond to the complex new questions which had arisen out of the new phase of capitalism- the Great War among them. Lenin did not confine himself to a scholastic repetition of Marxist categories. Instead, he applied them to the new reality in a creative manner, taking on board -albeit in a critical fashion- insights furnished by his adversaries and co thinkers, such as Hilferding or Kautky, and even by bourgeois liberal ideologues such as Hobson, while ridding them of the reformist overtones infused by their authors. In Lenin’s view, it was a matter of putting together those breakthroughs, building them into a new set-up that should highlight the revolutionary potential enshrined within the new epoch then unfolding before his eyes.
The two strands of thought we are taking issue with carry the merit of being endeavours to furnish a global overview of contemporary reality. However, the shortcomings of their theoretical approach prevents them from accurately understanding, no matter the findings and the genuine questions underpinning their contributions, the shifts within the world order in the last thirty years. That is why before dwelling on our own view, we shall make a critical appraisal of Negri’s and Arrighi’s postulates, which in turn shall enable us to understand better and more profoundly the classical Marxist method, as it was postulated in the new epoch by Lenin and Trotsky.
In this article we will criticise the those two strands of thought challenging the postulates on imperialism, taking up the materialist dialectic approach to analyse world capitalism, in an updated view that shall enable us to grapple with present-day reality.
The “Long Twentieth Century”
The purpose of this book is to set out how the decline of American hegemony and the crisis of accumulation of the 70s (a reflection of which was the flotation of the dollar that put an end to the gold standard dictated by the Bretton Woods agreements, along with the American defeat in Vietnam) have both been a watershed in the history of world capitalism. In order to explain the shifts in the world today, Arrighi claims that we have to go back and place this crisis in the framework of the protracted record of cycles of capitalist accumulation. Drawing on Ferdinand Braudel and his approach, Arrighi builds up a massive analytical and historical work that tackles with the four systemic cycles of capitalist accumulation, the four “long centuries” which place the American century at the end of a series of centuries- Genoa’s, the Netherlands’ and the British century.
From this historical perspective, Arrighi shows that there is nothing new to the crisis of the 70s. What capitalism is going through today under America’s rule, it had already been through under the domination of the British, the Dutch before them, and the Genoese right at the onset of capitalist expansion. The crisis points to a transition, a watershed that has been common to every systemic cycle of accumulation, in which there has been a first phase characterised by material expansion, investment into production, then a second phase of financial expansion, including speculation. Such transition to a financial expansion, which in the author’s view took place in the early 80s in the American case, always bears an “atmosphere of doom” (in Braudel’s words), pointing to the end of a systemic cycle. It also highlights the decline of American hegemony over the world system, since in Arrighi’s view the end of long century goes hand in hand with a geographic shift of the heartland underpinning the systemic process of capital accumulation. In his own words, “Shifts of this kind have occurred through all the crises and financial expansions that have borne their mark on the transition from a systemic cycle of accumulation to another.” Arrighi claims that the U.S. has given way to Japan so that the latter will preside over the coming long cycle of capitalist accumulation.
Arrighi: the rejection of the class struggle as history’s driving force
Arrighi’s theoretical edifice on the series of systemic cycles of accumulation supersedes the Marxian tenet regarding the class struggle as the driving force of history. As with every cyclic theory, it is not human action, the human agency, the one that shapes the course of history, but the objective laws of capitalist accumulation. Change is brought about by a structural build up of contradictions. Such view on history precludes any chance of a revolutionary break up and transformation within society, just allowing for a cyclical repetition -although a more complex one every time- of the state bodies and the capitalist enterprise, the dialectic between the state and capital, the only agents of change within the historical process perceived by Arrighi.
The “systemic chaos” sparked off by the end of the phase of capitalist accumulation and the onset of the financial expansion of the hegemonic power that also provokes an increased inter-state competition among the main powers and also heightened social developments, always end up in the replacement of an old hegemony by a new emerging state and economic power. The outcome of this is a steady increase in the complexity, the size and the might of the leading agencies of capitalist history, a process that can be summed up as follows.
Thus, the Genoese regime was based upon a city-state of small size and simple organization, which actually had very little power. Its strength lay in its widespread commercial and financial links that enabled it to deal with most of the mighty, territory-based European rulers on an equal foot, and which were the at the base of its symbiotic bond with the rulers of the kingdom of the Spanish peninsula.
The United Provinces were a much bigger and more complex organization than their Genoese predecessor, a hybrid kind of organization combining some features of medieval city-states now withering away with features of the emerging nation-states.
Then, Arrighi claims, “Great Britain was not only a full blown nation-state and, as such, a much bigger and more complex organization than the United Provinces at any time; it was also conquering a commercial and territorial empire of world dimensions that would furnish its ruling circles and its capitalist class with an unprecedented rule over the human and natural resources of the entire world.”
Lastly, in the words of the same author, “…the U.S. were already something more than a full-blown nation-state. They were a continental industrial-military complex endowed with a power strong enough so as to give efficacious protection to a number of subordinated governments and allies, and to live up to its threats of economic strangulation or military annihilation aimed at rival governments anywhere in the world.”
However, regardless of the valuable historical elements he contributes with, such series of systemic cycles of accumulation whose origin and evolution is governed by a self-repeating pattern fails to explain away the actual operation of the capitalist mode of production. As every cyclic theory does, it just describes a kernel of efficient causes that fails to incorporate the driving forces at work behind the motion, it just describes a contingent sequence of events. In this way, Arrighi relapses in some sort of empiricism at odds with historical materialism, for which the source of motion lies in the contradiction and its laws of development arise from the process of interpenetration of the opposing poles of the contradiction.
History and structure of the world capitalist market
The outcome of such approach combining a changing hierarchy between the state power and the capitalist enterprise is a view on the history and the structure of the world capitalist market is an outright rejection of the fact that its development contains within it the existence of different relationships of production. In this way, it confounds the development of the world market, brought to life by merchant capital, a prerequisite for the unfolding of the capitalist mode of production in the fringes of the feudal mode of production, placing the origin the capitalist world market some 500 years ago, along with the flourishing of the Italian city-states in the Renaissance.
Secondly, it overlooks the fact that the existence of the world market can only be understood as the by-product of the consolidation of the capitalist mode of production, as a dominant regime of production, and that its setting up poses that “…an articulate system of capitalist relationships of production, semi-capitalist and pre-capitalist ones, linked to each other by capitalist relationships of exchange and dominated by the world capitalist market.” The coming to life of the capitalist world market, with these features, can only be found from the industrial revolution onwards, which took place in the late eighteenth century, early nineteenth century.
In the third place, it puts and equal sign between the capitalist economy and commodity exchange, overlooking the fact that under capitalism, the distinctive feature is the pursuit of surplus value, which is churned out of industrial production, being the latter the driving force of the expansion of world commerce. In Marx’s words, “the world market constitutes in itself the basis for this regime of production. On the other hand, its inherent need to produce on an ever increasing scale contributes to the steady expansion of the world market, therefore not being commerce the one to spur industry, but contrariwise, the latter spurs commerce.”
The conclusion of such theoretical schema is that it fails to differentiate the phases of the development of capitalism. If outbound expansion is a feature of the capitalist mode of production since the beginning, i.e., since the industrial revolution, in the history of capitalism in the last 200 years or so, we can see two phases. As Ernest Mandel points out: “In the epoch of free concurrence capitalism, the direct production of surplus value by big industry was confined to Western Europe and North America. The process of primitive accumulation of capital, however, was going on in many other places of the world at the same time, never mind the tempo was uneven…Foreign capital, of course, flowed into the countries which were industrializing themselves, but was unable to take over the process of accumulation.”
Mandel goes on, “In the epoch of imperialism there was a turn-about in this whole structure. The process of primitive accumulation of capital in the formerly non capitalistic economies was therefore submitted to the reproduction of the big capital coming from the West. From now on, the export of capital from the imperialist countries, but not the process of original accumulation of capital, was to shape the economic development of what later came to be known as the ‘Third World’. The latter was thus forced to meet the needs of capitalist production in the metropolitan countries…The process of imperialist export of capital thus suffocated the economic development of the so-called ‘Third World’….”
Arrighi and his theory of cycles overlooks this quantum leap in the structure of capitalist accumulation worldwide. Quoting Ferdinand Braudel -and discussing against a major feature of the classical definition of imperialism, the emergence of finance capital (an issue Lenin took from Hilferding)- he argues that: “Hilferding regards the world of capital as a series of possibilities, within which the finance type, a very recent outcome according to him, has tended to prevail over the rest, penetrating them from within. It is an opinion with which I would agree, with the reservation that I understand that the plurality of capitalism goes well back into time. Finance capitalism was no recently-born baby in the early twentieth century. I would even argue that in the past, let us say, in Genoa or Amsterdam…finance capital was already able to take over and rule during some time at least, over all of the endeavours of the business world.” In this quotation, we clearly see how the cyclic kernel of capitalist accumulation is completely misleading when it comes to understanding the quantum leaps within that mode of production. Such overlapping of historical epochs stems from the weakness of the concepts. How can we compare the money capital hoarded by the merchants living in the city-states of Italy and the Netherlands, which was used to give loans to the several European dynasties, with the surplus capital (churned out of big industry) accumulated in the main developed countries in the late nineteenth century, a by-product itself of the concentration and centralization of capital within the boundaries of the nation-state had reached its limit? Such surplus capital underpinned the unprecedented extension of capital’s geographic boundaries reaching out to the whole world. Such outbound expansion of national capital inexorably led to a chaotic competence for the resources, the markets and the control of the routes for foreign trade, which are at the base of struggle for the scramble of the world that reached momentum in the World War I. This was nothing but a symptom that the development of the productive forces had out flowed the borders of the nation-state, that imperialism deepens the contradiction between the growth of the productive forces of the world economy, and the borders separating nations and states against each other. This is also a symptom, in turn, that the contradiction between the qualitatively increased social production, such as the monopolies which embraced vertically under a single control different phases of production, and the private appropriation of social wealth. Such structural contradictions, inherent to the capitalist mode of production burst open in the early twentieth century, thus ushering in a new phase of capitalist development. This new phase of decline and agony does not preclude the contradictions at work in the capitalist mode of production, but incorporates additional laws presiding over its works. Arrighi, with his theory of cycles, fails to understand this. But it was Marx the one to point out that “The are special laws presiding over the origin, the existence, the development and the death of a given social organism, and also its replacement.”
The onset of this new epoch had brought to life something new: the first victorious proletarian revolution, the 1917 Russian Revolution. Such extension of capital’s domains, that bringing to life the mighty reality of the capitalist world market, had ripened the objective conditions that were to radically alter the nature of the epoch, putting proletarian revolution right on the agenda. Ever since, we cannot understand the dynamics of capitalist accumulation without taking into account the powerful revolutionary leverage of the proletariat and the oppressed worldwide. It is here where the schema furnished by Arrighi collides head-on with the reality of the “long twentieth century”, one that was characterised by a persistent class struggle, wars and revolutions, not only in those moments when “systemic chaos” reigned supreme, using his own words, but when “material expansion” was under way (such as the postwar boom). Those have shattered the metropolitan countries from time to time, whereas they have been present in the periphery continuously.
Following his own schema, Arrighi notes that “…as time elapsed, the cycles have grown shorter. As we move on from the early stages to the latter phases of capitalist development, the systemic regimes of accumulation have taken less time to come to life, develop and be superseded.” This speeding up of history’s tempo is a fact of the contemporary world. However, Arrighi fails to understand the fundamental reason for such shortening of history’s tempo: the social power accumulated by the workers movement and the masses, and the upheaval of the colonial and semicolonial peoples in pursue of their liberation. These two substantial elements have impinged on the dynamics of capitalist rule in the century now bygone. That is why in this book, it goes unnoticed to cast aside, in his own words, “the class struggle and the polarization of the world economy in peripheral and central areas, processes both that have played a preeminent role in my original view of the long twentieth century.” In this way, with a one-sided approach, one of which he is aware, he undoes the dialectic unity between the economy, the inter-state relationships and the class struggle, the one and only accurate starting point for an all-round understanding of today’s capitalism, and even the issue of the links between money and power, an aimed pursued by Arrighi in this book.
In this book, Negri and Hardt hold that globalisation has brought about a decline of sovereignty, since it relied on the nation-state, and also an ever-decreasing ability to regulate the cultural and economic exchanges: “The sovereignty of the nation-state was the cornerstone of the imperialisms that European powers constructed throughout the modern era. By ‘Empire,’ however, we understand something altogether different from ‘imperialism’. The boundaries defined by the modern system of nation-states were fundamental to European colonialism and economic expansion: the territorial boundaries of the nation delimited the center of power from which rule was exerted over exteral foreign countries through a system of channels and barriers that alternately facilitated and obstructed the flows of production and circulation. Imperialism was really an extension of the sovereignty of the European nation-states beyond their own boundaries.” However, this does not mean the end of sovereignty altogether, but the coming to life of a new type, made up of a whole new series of national and supranational agencies, gathered together by a new common logic of rule, such would be what they call Empire. “In contrast to imperialism, Empire establishes no territorial center of power and does not rely on fixed boundaries or barriers. It is a decentered and deterritorializing apparatus of rule that progressively incorporates the entire global realm within its open, expanding frontiers”. For them, these transformations in the political order worldwide point to a shift within the capitalist mode of production.
It has put an end to the spatial divisions of the “worlds” known under Yalta, the First World (western powers), the Second World (the USSR and the European East) and the Third World (semicolonial world), for it is now possible to find the First World within the Third, the Third World within the First, whereas the Second World is nowhere to be seen. This has gone hand in hand with a transformation of the dominant productive process, one in which the role played by industrial, factory-based labour has by and large subsided, while communicative, cooperative and affective labour have all become predominant. The outcome is that “postmodernity” holds a firm grip on the global economy.
Against those who regard the U.S. as the ultimate source of authority presiding over the unfolding of globalisation and the new world order, either to praise it as the leader of the world and sole superpower, or else those who loathe the renewed imperialist oppression, the autonomist theoretician and his cothinker postulate that “Our basic hypothesis, however, that a new imperial form of sovereignty has emerged, contradicts both these views. The United States does not, and indeed no nation-state can today, form the center of an imperialist project. Imperialism is over.No nation will be world leader in the way modern European nations were.”
Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt: an overestimation of the class struggle
If Giovanni Arrighi overemphasizes the role of the structure, up to the point of writing off the human agency as the driving force of social transformations, Negri and his literary fellow, Hardt elevate the latter to unprecedented heights. Thus, Negri takes issue against Arrighi in his Empire as follows: “What concerns us more is that in the context of Arrighi’s cyclical argument it is impossible to recognize a rupture of the system, a paradigm shift, an event. Instead, everything must always return, and the history of capitalism thus becomes the eternal return of the same. In the end, such a cyclical analysis masks the motor of the process of crisis and restructuring. Even though Arrighi himself has done extensive research on working-class conditions and movements throughout the world, in the context of this book, and under the weight of its historical apparatus, it seems that the crisis of the 1970s was simply part of the objective and inevitable cycles of capitalist accumulation, rather than the result of proletaran and anticapitalist attack both in the dominant and in the subordinated countries. The accumulation of these struggles was the motor of the crisis, and they determined the terms and nature of capitalist restructuring.”
We agree with Negri that the wave of working class and people’s struggles that swept through the imperialist countries, the bureaucratised workers states and the semicolonial countries since the late 60s, and that went through the following decade (although with ebbs and tides), meant a shift in the balance of forces favourable for the mass movement, a period where the oppressed moved to the offensive against imperialism.
Notwithstanding that, one cannot say that “The accumulation of these struggles was the motor of the crisis, and they determined the terms and nature of capitalist restructuring.” In this way, he endows the class struggle with absolute powers, taking issue against Arrighi -who abuses of the structural elements in his theoretical postulates- in an abstract way. The inherent contradictions of the capitalist mode of production, i.e., the relationship between the development of the productive forces and the relationships of production is downplayed because crises are regarded as the direct by-product of the power of labour.
At a more general level, the agency and the structure are strongly intertwined, and if one separates any of these poles, giving primacy to one over another is a big mistake. To give an absolute value to structural contradictions within the mode of production results in a closed structure devoid of any chance of revolutionary transformation through human action, therefore relapsing in a cyclic kernel, a feature we have already taken issue with in Arrighi and the school of the world system. Likewise, Negri’s elevation of the class struggle leads him to downplay the material contradictions that provide the substrate for the class struggle to unfold. He also forgets that the former becomes history’s driving force when the structural contradictions come to the surface. Such moments are the watersheds in history’s evolution. In other words, social developments play a predominant role when the contradictions have ripened. In this sense, we agree with an old polemic book by Anderson in which he claimed: “…according to historical materialism, among the most fundamental mechanisms of social change we find the systematic contradictions between the productive forces and the relationships of production, and not only social conflicts between the classes nourished by antagonistic relationships of production. The former overlap with the latter because one of the biggest forces of production is always labour, which in turn constitutes a distinct class due to the relationships of production. However, they do not coincide with each other. The crises of the modes of production are not identical with the clashes between the classes. They can fuse with each other occasionally. The onset of major economic crises, both under feudalism and capitalism has often caught the social classes unawares, since they stemmed from the structural depths lying beneath the direct clash between them. On the other hand, the resolution of such crises has been brought about quite often as a result of protracted clashes between the classes. As a matter of fact, the revolutionary transformations -from a mode of production to another- are as a rule the privileged terrain for the class struggle.”
As to the 70s, the increased organic composition of capital boosted during the boom and the subsequent fall in the rate in the profit, plus political developments such as sharpened inter-imperialist rivalries due to the emergence of powers like Germany and Japan -in other words, a ripening of structural factors- were all causes that pushed the exploited classes onto the scene worldwide. This, in turn, dislodged the postwar world order. It also disrupted the equilibrium between the states, the classes and inside the economy that had allowed for the boom, thus ushering in a period of crisis of accumulation for capital. Such crisis is the reflection of this combination of elements, but not a direct reflection of the power of labour.
In turn, this power of labour “dictates the terms and the nature of capitalist restructuration”. As Negri puts it in his work: “The revolting masses, their desire for liberation, their experiments to construct alternatives, and their instances of constituent power have all at their best moments pointed toward the internationalization and globalization of relationships, beyond the divisions of national, colonial, and imperialist rule. In our time this desire that was set in motion by the multitude has been addressed (in a strange and perverted but nonetheless real way) by the construction of Empire. One might even say that the construction of Empire and its global networks is a response to the various struggles against the modern machines of power, and specifically to class struggle driven by the multitude’s desire for liberation. The multitude called Empire into being.”
There is little doubt that the upsurge in the 70s aimed against the two mainstays of the postwar order eroded the partition of the world in three distinct areas (metropolitan countries, “the second periphery” or the degenerate and deformed workers states, and the semicolonial countries or the so-called “Third World”) that had shaped the class struggle during that historical period, due to the grip of the counterrevolutionary apparatuses (socialdemocrats, stalinists and bourgeois nationalists). The struggle waged by the Vietnamese masses and the solidarity movement that emerged in the imperialist countries, both of which paralysed the U.S. imperialist military machine, was the most eloquent proof of this. We cannot deny that that mass upsurge drove capital to seek for a response in the direction of undermining the bases of the power of labour, one that later on took the shape of the neoliberal offensive and the so-called globalisation that goes hand in hand with it. But claiming that the “terms and the nature of the capitalist restructuring” were the direct result of such accumulation of struggles overlooking the outcome of those fights is simply to glorify the class struggle in itself. The moments of capitalist accumulation are determined by the different phases and the corresponding shifts in the balance of forces between the classes. During the “dress rehearsal” back in 1968, although the industrial working class fought tooth and nail, the proletariat was unable to find a solution for its decade-long crisis of revolutionary leadership and thus could not win decisive victories over imperialism. In failing to do so, they gave time for it to rally its ranks, thus letting the unfolding of the neoliberal offensive get through. Such policies set in the early 80s, but the Brezhnev counterrevolution that had crushed the 1968 “Prague spring” and the Polish events a decade later paved the way for them. To these, we should add the policy of the CPs and the socialdemocracy that worked for the derailment of the upsurge in France and Italy, as well as the anti-dictatorial struggles in Portugal and Spain, and also the responsibility of the CPs in the debacle of the revolutionary upheaval in South America.
Hinging upon this balance of forces, the endogenous mechanisms of the capitalist accumulation gradually prevailed, i.e., the need to offset the tendency of the rate of profit to fall through the incorporation of new regions with cheap raw materials and labour, the ceaseless search of superprofits by monopolies and the constant technological revolution need for this, the wave of mergers and acquisitions as a fetter to competition.
Both elements, the derailment and the defeat of the “accumulation of struggles” in the 70s, and the imperialist backlash fuelled by the crisis of accumulation, were to dictate the terms of the capitalist restructuring, and not just the first element alone, making abstraction of outcome of the class combats
A ultrasubjectivist theory of a mysterious and phantasmagoric subject
The downplaying of the structural contradictions inherent in the capitalist mode of production and the overestimation of the subject are manifested in the new theoretical scheme proposed by Negri and Hardt to define the “Empire” as a new phase of capitalism that leaves imperialism behind. Breaking up the dialectic unity between the relationships of production and the class struggle, they attempt a recreation of materialism that is vitiated by the hypertrophy of the subject, a subjectivists theory where the structure holds no barriers, it does not constraint the human agency, even more, the former is a mere consequence of his action. This can be clearly seen when the Italian philosopher and his literary co thinker claim that: “Theories of the passages to and beyond imperialism that privilege the pure critique of the dynamics of capital risk undervaluing the power of the real efficient motor that drives capitalist development from its deepest core: the movements and struggles of the proletariat…History has a logic only when subjecitivity rules it, only when (as Nietzsche says) the emergence of subjectivity reconfigures efficient causes and final causes in the development of history. The power of the proletariat consists precisely in this…The old analyises of imperialism will not be sufficient here because in the end they stop at the threshold of the analysis of subjectivity and concentrate rather on the contradictions of capital’s own developmet. We need to identify a theoretical schema that puts the subjectivity of the social movements of the proletariat at center stage in the processes of globalization and the constitution of global order.” The emphasis between the role played by structural contradictions and the conscious human agency, of working out organic crises, has been displaced from the former to the latter throughout the centuries through which the history of mankind has unfolded. In the epoch of proletarian revolution, the subjective factor acquires a decisive role. The transformation heralded by proletarian revolution constitutes the most conscious step humanity has ever taken. The transition from feudalism to capitalism, in a certain way, is in-between (in the sense that the take over of the means of production comes before the seizing of political power by the bourgeoisie) when compared to the downfall of the Roman Empire and the Russian Revolution. Nonetheless, in spite of the predominant role played by the subjective factor -and its most developed form: the organization of the masses in soviets as organs of power led by a revolutionary party- one cannot appraise the outcome of these transformations through endowing subjectivity with an absolute power as a change agent in the world. Such is the view the Bolsheviks had of themselves: “…one of the historical factors, its ‘conscious’ factor, a very important but not a decisive one. We have never sinned of historical subjectivism. We regarded the class struggle -standing on the basis provided by the productive forces- as the decisive factor, not only at a national level but also internationally.”
Negri and Hardt relapse in such historical subjectivism when they claim that: “History has a logic only when subjecitivity rules it, only when (as Nietzsche says) the emergence of subjectivity reconfigures efficient causes and final causes in the development of history”. Their subjectivism, however, is of a different type to that mentioned in Trotsky’s quote mentioned above. It is not a subjectivism relying on a revolutionary party. It is neither a strand of subjectivism stemming from the revolutionary maturity or learning of the working class, i.e., the process of becoming a class for itself from a class in itself, the achievement of its political independence with regards to the bourgeoisie, which only can be brought about through the experience of the class itself and its bound with a revolutionary party. This is not the case with Negri and Hardt,, for whom the becoming of the subject does not hinge upon these achievements, but rather on ever-present grounds for liberation.
Building on a logic of an unreal subject (“the multitude”) that bears no correspondence at all with an empirically-set subject, they proceed to blur the objective positions of the different exploited classes within the capitalist mode of production, the centrality of the proletariat in particular as the social subject of the socialist revolution. Such phantom-like subject built by them, omnipresent and pure potential, has no need for programmes, strategic and tactics, let alone a revolutionary party to accomplish its historic mission.
Hence, when the authors of Empire are faced with the setting of the early 80s and most of the 90s, when neoliberalism gained momentum and the actual subject is in retreat and atomized, a far cry from the “constituent flames” of the 70s, their theoretical framework turns out to be completely unable to deal with reality. This comes to light when they explain why the U.S. has been able to hold on to its hegemony throughout the crisis. Thus, they claim that “The answer lies in large part, perhaps paradoxically, not in the genius of U.S. politicians or capitalists, but in the power and creativity of the U.S. proletariat…in terms of the paradigm of international capitalist command, the U.S. proletariat appears as the subjective figure that expressed most fully the desires and needs of international or multinational workers. Against the common wisdom that the U.S. proletariat is weak because of its low party and union representation with respect to Europe and elsewhere, perhaps we should see it as strong for precisely those reasons. Working-class power resides not in the representative institutions but in the antagonism and autonomy of the workers themselves…In order to understand the continuation of U.S. hegemony, then, it is not sufficient to cite the relations of force that U.S. capitalism wielded over the capitalists in other countries. U.S. hegemony was actually sustained by the antagonistic power of the U.S. proletariat”. This is really surprising. If there is a place where the bourgeoisie in the last twenty years has been able to overcome the fetters imposed by labour onto accumulation, that place is the U.S. As the Reagan onslaught unfolded, and later continued into the 90s, the American workers endured a massive retreat through a combination of defeats and the fear of the 1979-82 recession that brought about a hike of unemployment. It led to a big loss of conquests, a massive wage loss, the lengthening of the working day, which as a whole allowed for a significant increase of the rate of exploitation and a recovery of corporate profits. It is these factors that account for the relative strength of the U.S. in the face of its competitors and also lay the basis for its continued hegemony -along with the U.S. privileged position within the world finance system. Nonetheless, the analysis proposed by Negri and Hardt writes off this material reality, replacing it by a subjectivist approach. Thus, the objective balance of forces between the classes is replaced by the “desires” of the workers. As to the trade union and political level, it is true that the union and political representatives of the European workers is a reformist one or has been bought off by the bourgeoisie. But celebrating the weakness of the trade union organization and the lack of any class representation in the American bipartisan system as proof of strength is nonsensical. The low level of organization of the American working class is the result of a fierce opposition of the American bourgeoisie to giving the slightest right of organization to the workers on one hand, and the political and conservative backwardness of the working class stemming from the dominant position of the U.S., on the other. As we see, autonomism and its ultrasubjectivist approach, whose historical origin goes back to the euphoria of the struggles in the 60s and the 70s combined with the (justified) repulsion of many left Marxist intellectuals with Althusser’s structuralism and anti-humanism, is totally unable to understand the present-day world.
A new “ultra-imperialism”
From such new theoretical framework, it flows that the becoming of the Empire “as a global order, a new logic and structure of government, shortly a new form of sovereignty going hand in hand with the world markets and the world network of production”- in the words of the authors. When working out their subjectivist approach to the very end, they dissolve the capitalist competence and the fight for world supremacy by the rival capitalist states still at work in the imperialist phase- although disguised in new, more complex forms- into such “global order”.
In the early twentieth century, Kautsky, when analyzing the first “wave of globalisation”, foresaw a progressive withering away of interimperialist contradictions, a process that should culminate in “ultraimperialism”. In his schema, the international merger of capital has developed so much so as to make the distinct economic interests of the different international capital owners fade away. In his Der Imperialismus, published in Die Neue Zeit on November 11, 1914, he claimed that: “Thus, from a purely economic standpoint one cannot rule out that capitalism will outlive itself to another phase, the cartelisation in foreign policy: a phase of ultraimperialism, against which we shall, of course, fight against as resolutely as do against imperialism, but one which poses dangers of a different kind, not those of an arms race and the threat to world peace.” Lenin did not rule out the possibility that a bigger concentration and centralization of capital on an international level may take place. He claimed that the long-term “logic” tendency led to the establishment of a single world-embracing concern. But he argued that before such “logical” conclusion should come about, capitalism would blow itself up as a result of its increased internal contradictions and the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat and the oppressed peoples of the world altogether. In his preface to Bukharin’s Imperialism and the World Economy, he wrote: “There is no question that the development is heading towards a single world trust that will swallow up al of the enterprises and the states with no exception. But on the other hand, the development is unfolding under such circumstances, tempo, contradictions, stand-offs, upheavals -not only economic ones, but of a political and national kind, etc- that before we end up with a single world trust, a worldwide ‘ultraimperialist’ union of national finance capitals, the break-up of imperialism shall be inexorably unavoidable and capitalism will be turned into its contrary.”
The key of Lenin’s policy lay in the revolutionary perspective, but one that was not worked out due to sole voluntarism, but one that flowed from an objective analysis of the contradictions at work within capitalist development. In this, he differed from Kautsky and his “profoundly reactionary wish to smooth out the contradictions” (in Lenin’s words), a stand from which his deeply pacifists conclusions stemmed from.
Negri and Hardt want to emulate Lenin’s revolutionary policy and his struggle for a revolutionary international, in their own words: “there is an implicit alternative embedded in Lenin’s work: either communist revolution or Empire”. But they devoid this alternative of any objective basis for its realization. If Kautsky, out of sheer economism, arrives to the theory of “ultraimperialism” and to deny the existence of contradictions, Negri and Hardt, in turn, come to the same conclusion through their subject-focused approach, albeit they do not share the reformist conclusions drawn by the former. This can be seen in the following argument: “The analyses of the state and the world market also become possible in Empire for another reason, becausse at this point in development class struggle acts without limit on the organization of power. Having achieved the global level, capitalist development is faced directly with the multitude, without mediation. Hence the dialectic, or really the science of the limit and its organization, evaporates. Class struggle, pushing the nation-state toward its abolition and thus going beyond the barriers posed by it, proposes the constitution of Empire as the site of analysis ad conflict. Without the barrier, then, the situation of struggle is completely open. Capital and labor are opposed in a directly antagonistic form. This is the fundamental condition of every political theory of communism.”
Such denial of dialectics bears its consequences. Here, there view of the world reality turns out to be completely abstract. It is true that the internationalization of the productive forces and the ensuing internationalization of capital, and the objective basis for the internationalization of the class struggles with them, have all increased ten-fold in the last one hundred years, when compared with the time at which Lenin wrote his notorious pamphlet on imperialism. Because of this, the need for proletarian internationalism flowing from such basis has grown stronger than ever. Hence, we share their criticism of the “thirld world” perspectives, one of the strongest arguments put forward by them in their new road. But the authors of Empire wrongly regard the current reality of capitalism as a tendency, turning the tendency to the internationalization of capital into a demiurge, which in turn transforms their whole interpretation of reality into an abstraction that leaves out the role of mediations. In this way, their methodological approach is ridden with the same flaws as those Lenin criticized in Kautsky’s, although they regard “ultraimperialism” not as a possibility (in a “dream” according to the Bolshevik leader) but as an actual reality. As Lenin said: “In this yearning to turn away from the reality of imperialism and to take refuge in the pipedream of the ‘ultraimperialism’, one we do not know whether or not is feasible, there is not even the slightest shed of Marxism. Within such schema Marxism is taken on board for this ‘new phase of capitalism’ whose chances of becoming are not even guaranteed by its own creator, but for the present, already existent, phase, a deeply reactionary and petty bourgeois yearning to smooth out the contradictions prevails instead.”
Negri’s and Hardt’s logical operation, paired with their rejection of dialectics, blurs the actual structure of the world system and the contradictions flowing from it, i.e., the different hierarchies of countries within the capitalist world economy both at the centre and the periphery, the struggle for hegemony between the rival central powers, the world division between oppressive and oppressed countries and the concrete intermingling of the working class struggle and the people’s sector in the latter with the masses of imperialist heartlands, and thus the need to put forward both a revolutionary tactic and strategy. What comes out of this is an attack against the Leninist theory of the revolutionary party, since there is no need to take on the “weakest” link of the imperialist chain, but rather the “virtual centre” of the Empire can be conquered from any other point, such as they say in the following lines. Hence, “From the point of view of the revolutionary tradition, one might object that the tactical successes of revolutionary actions in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were all characterized precisely by the capacity to blast open the weakest link of the imperialist chain, that this is the ABC of revolutionary dialectics, and thus it would seem today that the situation is not very promising. It is certainly true that the serpentine struggles we are witnessing today do not provide any clear revolutionary tactics, or maybe they are completely incomprehensible from the point of view of tactics. Faced as we are with a series of intensive subversive social movements that attack the highest levels of imperial organization, however, it may be no longer usseful to insist on the old distinction between strategy and tactics. In the constitution of Empire there is no longer an ‘outside’ to power and thus no longer weak links-if by weak link we mean an external point where the articulations of global power are vulnerable. To achieve significance, every struggle must attack at the heart of Empire, at its strength. The fact, however, does not give priority to any geographical regions, as if only social movements in Washington, Geneva or Tokyo could attack the heart of Empire. On the contrary, the construction of Empire, and the globalization of economic and cultural relationships, means that the virtual center of Empire can be attacked from any point.”
It is true that the increased internationalisation of capital has shortened the distances between the centre and the periphery of the world, and that the developments in the alter bounce back on the imperialist heartlands more strongly than in the past. But in spite of this, the fact remains -even for any sensible observer- that the U.S. and Indonesia are vulnerable to a very greatly different degree, to put an extreme case, thus showing the validity of Lenin’s concept of the weakest link as the mainstay of the theory of world revolution, regarded as a concrete process stemming from the internal contradictions of world capitalism.
A strange coincidence
We have already said that Negri and Hardt’s “theoretical subjectivism” revolves around an abstract polarization against the views of “theoretical structuralism” of the world system school and its cyclic patterns in the historical evolution of capitalism. But quite surprisingly, and despite this methodological difference, Arrighi in his Long Twentieth Century arrives at the same conclusion at the onset of the twenty first century, postulating a structure of the world system that is quite similar to that of the Empire as a world order of “globlisation”. Thus, he argues that “The modern interstate system has consequently acquired its present global dimension through a series of successive hegemonies of an ever-expanding scope that have consequently reduced the exclusivity of the right of sovereignty really enjoyed by its member states. If this process were to carry on, nothing but a true world government such as that contemplated by Roosevelt would meet the condition that the next world hegemony should have a territorial and operational scope much extended than the precedent…Has the western world ruled by the American hegemony attained such a degree of world power so as to be on the verge of putting an end to the capitalist history in the way it has been shaped within the system of expansion of the modern interstate system?…the obverse of this process of formation of a world government is the crisis of the territorial states as efficacious instruments of dominion.” Further on, in the conclusion, he postulates, on the basis that Japan controls world liquidity but remains defenceless on the military terrain, quite the opposite of the U.S. that still enjoy a de facto monopolistic control of the use of violence, that: “Such peculiar configuration of the world power seems to fit perfectly into another of those ‘memorable alliances’ between the power of the arms and the power of money that has pushed forward the capitalist world economy both in space and time since the late fifteen century. All those ‘memorable alliances’, except for the first one, the Iberian-genoese one, were alliances between entrepreneurial elites and governmental groups that belonged to the same state: the United Provinces, the United Kingdom, the United States…”
What is the difference between such views and those holding the becoming of a “ultraimperialism” such as the ones we have criticized in Negri? Both views run against Lenin’s characterization of the imperialist phase. It is true that in the early twentieth century the international concentration of capital “did not take on the form of an international centralization but rather set the national imperialist monopolies against each other as antagonists in the world market of commodities, raw materials and capital.” The formation of monopolies closely linked to their own state that strived for political and military control of wide geographical zones laid the basis for a merciless struggle for the scramble of the world, sometimes through pacific means (tariffs, protectionism, etc), and when the contradictions burst into the open, it took the form of an imperialist war.
Ever since then, the international centralization of capital has grown apace. During the postwar, the expansion of American multinationals constituted the first great wave. The second wave took place in the wake of the onset of the crisis of accumulation of capital in the 70s, one that spread to the American companies and beyond, affecting the two other poles of the imperialist triad: Japan and Germany. If the monopolies were a major feature in Lenin’s schema, its importance has increased ten-fold, as shown by the increasing transnationalisation of the imperialist corporations. The frenzy of mergers and acquisitions, on a scale encompassing bigger capitals, is aimed at gaining the share of markets of those concerns or holdings merged.
The growth of these transnational corporations and the sheer size of their exchanges both between each other and within themselves have brought about a bigger integration of the world economy. In other words, such development is the form through which capital tries to overcome the contradiction between the development of the productive forces and the limits imposed by the national state. Nonetheless, as Marx argued with regards to credit, such process has meant “an abolition of the capitalist mode of production within the capitalist mode itself”, i.e., it has deepened its contradictions, posing them on a higher level. This has not brought about a withering away of the state, but a shift of its economic functions; it is oriented to an ever-increasing scale to guarantee the reproduction of its own transnational concerns. This is highlighted by the major role played by the state in the signing of commercial treaties, in the regulation of competition between rival concerns in the regions under its control, in implementing measures to boost a growth in the size of its big concerns, in the negotiations in the different multilateral agencies such as the WTO, where the different states strive to protect its groups of interest. All these speak against analyzing the world economy, if we are to understand it, without pondering these two aspects of reality, i.e., the level of the productive forces and the survival of the nation-state as one of the main contradictions of capitalism nowadays. Likewise, the introduction of new technology has but deepened this dichotomy. Thus the chief editor of the Foreign Policy magazine, in an article titled “New Economy, Old Policy” argues that: “This reality faces the companies of the new economy with a disquieting paradox:…the technology companies favour speed, decentralization, individualism, the disregard for geography, frontiers and sovereignty altogether. Multilateralism involves a process of slow decision-taking, obscure aims and a hypersensitivity to any erosion, be it real or symbolic, of national sovereignty.” The view of a “stateless” corporation bears no resemblance with reality.
The dialectics of the twentieth century
The twentieth century has been, as Eric Hobsbawn puts it, the “age of extremes”. The 1929 crack and the two world wars showed the convulsive and violent nature of the contradictions embedded in the development of capitalism. In turn, the revolutionary epoch ushered in by the Russian Revolution showed the enormous social might and maturity of the proletariat as a subject of change on the world arena. Hence the tendency to unilaterally underline any of these aspects, be it the structural tendencies, be it the tendencies to the class struggle when pondering the actual dynamics of capitalist development. Taking just one of these aspects into account, breaking up the dialectic relationship between them, and endowing it with an unlimited scope prevents one from reaching a scientific understanding of reality.
It is here where the materialistic dialectics shows its superiority. In this sense, Trotsky’s concept of “capitalist equilibrium” enables us to deal with the world system as a whole in a dynamic fashion. In this respect he pointed out that “capitalist equilibrium is a complicated phenomenon; the capitalist regime builds up such equilibrium, then it breaks it up, just to rebuild it and break it up once again, widening up, in passing, the limits of its dominion. In the economic sphere, such continuous break-ups and restorations of equilibrium take on the shape of crisis and booms. In the sphere of the relationship between the classes, the break up of equilibrium results in strikes, lock-outs, revolutionary struggle. In the sphere of the relationships between the states, the break up of equilibrium brings about war, or else in a veiled way, a war of tariffs, an economic war or a blockade. Capitalism possesses then a dynamic equilibrium, which is always undergoing a permanent break up.”
Such is the method that enables him to postulate that the break out of World War I, itself the manifestation of the contradiction between the development of the productive forces and their constraint by the capitalist relationships of production and the borders of the national state, meant a break up of the basis of capitalist equilibrium and the subsequent opening of a revolutionary epoch. In that epoch the interaction between the subjective and the objective elements reaches new heights, being very difficult to distinguish one another in the works of the economy at times. This is true to such extent that in the wake of the complete undoing of world commerce following the 1929 crack and the onset of the decade-long world economic depression and stagnation, and after the failure of the revolutions in the 30s due to the betrayals of Stalinism and social democracy (and their common responsibility for the ascent of nazism), Trotsky went on to say that “the crisis of mankind is the crisis of its revolutionary leadership”. It was the delay of proletarian revolution -not as consequence of the lack of heroism or fighting disposition of the proletariat but as a result of its most subjective factor: the counterrevolutionary nature of its leadership- what accounts for the survival of a decomposing capitalism.
In other words, the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism did not come about because the “opportunist cancer”, such as Lenin defined social democracy, was far stronger. Furthermore, Stalinism was to reach unheard-of proportions in the wake of World War II, a time when it became the mainstay of the world status quo, better known as the “Yalta Order”.
Thus, the defeat of fascism at the hands of the Soviet Russia gave renewed prestige to Stalinism, which used his regained strength to smash the European revolution and clinch a new deal with the U.S. to build a new world status quo. Thus, the world witnessed a contradictory situation in which the might of the Russian degenerate workers state was used to consolidate the American hegemony, under which the economic boom set in.
The “partial development” of the productive forces in the advanced capitalist countries cannot be explained away unless we take into account the extra economical factors allowing for its emergence: the derailment of the European revolution at the hands of Stalinism (which shifted the revolution away towards the colonial and semicolonial world), the prior destruction of productive forces provoked by the war, the sheer weakening of the US rival imperialist states (which enabled the former to rule unchallenged for decades within the imperialist camp), along with the low wage levels inherited from fascism. It would also have failed to uphold without the qualitatively increased economic and political action of the imperialist states (which introduced all-round social reforms and strengthened the mechanisms for the cooptation of the union bureaucracies out of fear of the revolution), the mechanisms of permanent monetary inflation and the inflation of credit, along with the role played the arms industry as a “replacement market” in the face of the overcapitalization of the monopolies. The very “compromise” of Yalta reflected the contradictory outcome of the war, since it was in exchange for the concessions given to the mass movement (new deformed workers’ states in the east and social gains the west), and the cooptation of the union bureaucracy (both of the Stalinist and Social democratic blend) as guarantors of the world order that a new order of imperialist rule was set up.
However, the partial development of the productive forces that took place in the imperialist heartlands during the boom (the growth of labour productivity was more intense in the 50s and the 60s in the main imperialist heartlands than in any other previous period) did not alter the general character of the epoch as one of “crises, wars and revolutions”. Thus, with these peculiarities, the new “equilibrium” achieved by and large by the agreements of Yalta and Potsdam did not prevent capitalism from losing a third of the planet in the years 1948/49, what ultimately expressed at the same time the fact that the USSR had survived the war and that capitalism (lacking inner strength) had been forced into a negotiation with the Stalinist leaders of the Soviet Union. With all these peculiarities and limits, a new capitalist equilibrium set in and the US economy finally reach a fresh momentum through the reconstruction of a devastated Europe – although at a much longer time than Trotsky had predicted. On the other hand, and in contrast with the capitalist expansion in the nineteenth century, the proletariat in the second postwar was already existent in the colonial and semicolonial world, which witnessed a number of revolutionary (and counterrevolutionary) upheavals that constantly haunted the relative stability achieved in the imperialist heartlands. Once again, Stalinism played a crucial role in this respect, preventing a break-up of the status quo. The postwar boom, in this context, was far proving capitalism organic strength. It not only needed of two world wars that wreaked havoc, but also a pact sealed with Stalinism that was a mainstay of the new equilibrium achieved.
Capitalism in the last few decades
The backlash of capital in response to the crisis of accumulation of the 70s, a decade in which the basis of the American hegemony were massively eroded, was neither due to a cyclic pattern of capitalist accumulation nor the onset of a fresh phase of capitalist development. The neoliberal onslaught and the so-called globalisation that went hand in hand with it was the peculiar form the American backlash took on. Due to crisis of legitimacy of its world rule fuelled by the failure in Vietnam, it took advantage of the leverage it exerts on the international finance system.
The first element, i.e., the weakness of the American might, or else its lack of legitimacy as the guardian of the world order both at home and abroad provoked a change in the forms of its interventions, in order to diminish their impact on its dominion. The “human rights” policy, the promotion of the NGOs , the substantiation of the so-called right of intervention in judicial and moral rights, and the pursuit of “just wars” were the ethos of the US foreign policy, which from a defensive position in the 70s was turned into a more offensive policy in subsequent years. It reached its climax with the so-called triumph of “democracy and the market” in the wake of the debacle of the so-called socialist countries. In the 90s, this ideology gained new forces with the intervention against Iraq, backed by the UN and supported by a wide coalition, and also in NATO’s war in Kosovo, where the imperialist intervention wrapped itself up in “humanitarian” clothes and the “rescue of the oppressed masses” . Nonetheless, this “new model of imperial authority” does not correspond with the new political order if globalisation, such as Negri and Hardt argue, but to the constraints imposed on the US might as a result of the yet open wounds of Vietnam, and the lack of an efficacious legitimating ideology for its interventionist policy, in the way the threat of Stalinist gulag had worked before.
The second fundamental factor was – we insist- the privileged position of the US within the international finance system, one that was to shape the neoliberal onslaught and globalisation altogether.
In this sense, one cannot but recall a poignant interview conceded by Trotsky to the New York Times when the depression in the 30s was raging. When asked: “How do you regard the position of the US in the present world situation?”, Trotsky replied that he foresaw an ever tightening grip by American capitalism over European capitalism, and he added that: “However, such inexorable growth in the US world hegemony will eventually nourish deep contradictions both in the economy and the politics of the great American republic. In imposing the dictatorship of the dollar over the world, the American ruling class will introduce the contradictions of the entire world in its own dominion” Nowadays, this remark retains a fundamental methodological value. This is because it has been from the US that all the attempts at reaching a fresh equilibrium have emanated, once the basis allowing for the postwar boom came undone. At the same time, in a complementary and contradictory fashion, the major factors of instability running through the world economy since the 70s have always revolved around it. This has been the case at the level of international relationships. The world currency system codified at Breton Woods was always conditioned and partially implemented, and although at the onset the US abode by the discipline of tying the dollar to the gold standard, when such parity was deemed detrimental for the interests of the US, the Nixon administration just cast it aside unceremoniously. This meant a way out of the constraints imposed on the balance of payments, thus giving it an increased room for manoeuvre in the exchange with other foreign currencies, but at the cost of increasing the fragility of the international currency system.
The same can be said with regards to the world finance system and the American initiative to do away with the state control on capital flows, a condition also codified in Breton Woods, pushing ahead with the deregulation and putting international finance flows in the hands of private financial brokers and the markets, thus turning New York in the main financial centre in the early 80s.
Another instance of this “dictatorship of the dollar” over the entire world was the ratification of the Treaty of World Trade Organisation (WTO) in the past decade, which explicitly states that the US recognition of its jurisdiction is hinged upon the WTO being “fair” towards America’s interests.
The 90s witnessed a tightening of such positions as a result of the debacle of the USSR, which left the US with an unchallenged military supremacy. However, it is its privileged position on a financial level that has empowered the US to regain its leading position in the last decade, using it to significantly limit the ability of rival imperialist centres to deal with their internal affairs in an autonomous fashion.
It is here that we are to find the capital difference between the basis of the British hegemony in the nineteenth century and those of the American rule in the twentieth century. Albeit Arrighi in his books paves the way for researching into the new modalities acquired by the development of the American hegemony and its decline compared with its predecessors , the school of the world system and its cyclic pattern is inadequate to grasp this qualitative difference stemming from the imperialist nature of the epoch we live in. While the British hegemony rested upon an extension of its frontiers in the direction of its new territories, its unfolding did not block the emergence of other powers such as the US and Germany directly. The “equilibrium of power”, the ethos of British diplomacy vis-à-vis the different European powers, had a rather negative character: it meant reassuring that no other power should dominate the continent. Britain itself did not have the ability, nor the willingness, to rule over Europe on its own. Quite otherwise, the American hegemony rests upon the need of the capitalist states of dominating the economy of all the continents, capital investments, preferential commercial agreements, currency regulations and political control altogether. It is a matter of subordinating not only the less developed world but other industrialized states as well, be them enemies or allies, to the priorities of the accumulation of capital of the hegemonic power. This weighs upon the conditions for the emergence of powers questioning the rule of the old hegemón: not only due to the fact that the scramble of the world has been done already (although the disintegration of the postcapitalist economies has created a new geographical area of dominion and dispute for capital), but, more important still, due to the increased subordination of those centres to the dictates of the accumulation of the ruling nation of the ancient order that holds back and delays the search for more autonomy.
However, the fact that we point to this development does not mean that we foresee the emergence of a “superimperialism” as the most likely event, such as the proponents of the twenty first as another “American century” claim once and again. A man coming from the inner circle of the American establishment, the conservative Henry Kissinger, has provided the most accurate prognosis as to its actual strength: “What is really new in the nascent world order is that, for the first time, the US cannot retreat from the world nor dominate it…When the US entered the world arena they were young and robust, and the necessary might to make the world adopt its view of the international relationships. At the end of Second World War, in 1945, the US were so powerful (at some time, 35% of the world economic output was American), that it seemed that they were poised to shape the world according to their preferences…Three decades later, the US are not in the same position to push ahead with the immediate satisfaction of its desires. Other countries have reached out to the status of big powers.”
In turn, it is the very existence of such other big powers that makes of the tendency to “ultraimperialism” an untenable view. Its advocates rely on the bigger integration of the world economy as a result of the accelerated centralization of capital worldwide, a process that has been unfolding ever since the crisis of accumulation of the 70s broke out, one that has been mainly fuelled by American capital. The tendency to an increased interimperialist competition, no matter it takes veiled forms, is today more noticeable than ever before. The increasing merger of capitals on a continental level has fuelled a renewed competition between blocs of power of continental scope, like the imperialist triad (the US and the NAFTA and his attempt to extend it to the FTAA, the EU and his expansion towards Eastern Europe, and to a lesser extent, Japan and the Pacific rim). So far, this interimperialist competition has taken a “benign” form, expressing itself has a heightened commercial competence, more mergers and acquisitions seeking to limit concurrence, the increase in direct investment in the imperialist countries themselves, etc. The likelihood that the American economy, which was the most stabilizing and dynamic factor of the world economy in the last decade, might go through a deep downturn, combining with the depression of the Japanese economy, thus ushering in the perspective of a world recession, might all herald a more vitriolic interimperialist competition that should lead to an all-round hike in tariffs which in turn might entangle the networks of world commerce. Both the American think-tank Stratfor and the British magazine The Economist hold that this perspective is likely to materialize. The former claims that: “In the past decade, there was a general consensus in favour of free trade, casting aside the protectionist forces. The reason was less ideological than empirical, the policy of free trade went along with the prosperity…In bad times, however, the relationship between free trade, protectionism and the economic performance becomes more problematic. As long as unemployment grows, the bankruptcies go up and life becomes more difficult, the foreign imports to the American market and the difficulty of exporting to foreign markets fuel by far more resistance. Much more than fuelling intolerance towards interventions abroad, the recessions make the Americans think that other countries are direct threats to the prosperity, and even agents of the economic failure. Things can get sour very rapidly. The powerhouse of international relationships can get dramatically altered when its centre of gravity becomes suspicious and hostile.” The Economist claims that: “The GDP of the world has not fallen at any year since 1930. Even during the oil crisis of the 70s, the world GDP grew. A truly global recession would not only be painful, but would bring about immense dangers, encouraging the countries to retreat once again behind protectionist barriers. With luck and some skill, a global slump might be avoided. The policy makers should be ready to stand by the economies, if need be, by lowering interest rates and taxes altogether. They should also make sure that the first recession of the new world economy does not bring about a reversal of globalisation itself.”
In this framework, with the phantom of the “old” protectionism haunting the world economy, the postmodernist novelty of an “Empire” that “does not establish any centre of territorial power and does not rely on fixed borders or barriers” sounds at best like a mere exaggeration of some conjuncture tendencies of the world economy, or else worse, a mere phantasmogorical ruse that is unable to predict the dynamic of the system, let alone to provide a scientific basis to fight against it.
Where is the world system going at the onset of the twenty first century?
We are not heading towards the Empire nor to the emergence of a “superimperialism”, but to an epoch of heightened crises, wars and revolutions, which under new guises and changing balances of forces cut across the reality of contemporary capitalism.
The last period of the twentieth century, particularly the last decade, witnessed a strengthening of the American supremacy, as opposed to the 70s, a time when its historical decline began. The collapse of Stalinism, along with the victory of the imperialist coalition in the Gulf War boosted the neoliberal onslaught worldwide. The withering away of what Arrighi and Hardt call the “second periphery”, along with the imperialist backlash against the semicolonial countries, which integrated these more openly into the world economy (the so-called “emerging markets”), meant a widening of the geographical scope of capital. In turn, the weakening of the rival imperialist nations and of the so-called “Rhineland” and “Nippon” models, and their submission to the US’ dynamics of accumulation (financing the American commercial deficit, as shareholders and direct investors, through the process of mergers and acquisitions, etc) is what explains that the reinforcement of the American rule took on the form of a break-through of “globalised” capitalism- hand in hand with the extension to new geographical frontiers.
Those who speak of Empire are just adapting their view to this appearance, working out from such peculiarities and the conjuncture tendencies of imperialist politics in the last period -the last decade in particular- the characteristics of a supposedly new phase of capitalism. They commit the same methodological mistake as the high priest of Marxist revisionism, Eduard Bernstein, although without drawing openly reformist conclusions. The former, when writing at the end of the great 1873-96 depression and the onset of the belle époque of European capitalism, when it went through one of its biggest booms worldwide that brought about improved living and work conditions for some layers of the industrial proletariat (what Lenin’s Marxism branded the “labour aristocracy”), saw no reasons why those tendencies might be reversed in a foreseeable future. The 1914 war and the crisis of bourgeois society that broke out at the time settled that debate and were a cruel reminder of how dangerous is to forget the dialectics (i.e., the laws that lay bare motion) when analyzing reality.
Against this methodological mistake and the conclusions that flow from it that many thinkers of contemporary capitalism relapse into nowadays, the 90s did not hallmark the emergence of a global empire nor a “superimperialism”, but rather ushered in an interregnum of “unstable US rule” opposed to the period of absolute hegemony that followed the Second World War.
The illusions of the early 90s as to the emergency of a “new world order” that went hand in hand with “globalisation” are coming up against the stumbling block of reality at the end of the same decade. The downfall of the USSR, albeit it has brought about a geographical extension for the rule of capital, has not yet provided a “historical” new lease of life (a new boom) for it, which would mean its complete transformation in semicolonies. Quite otherwise, the smashing up of the old order of rule, which had in the Stalinist bureaucracy one of its mainstays, has not yet been replaced by a reactionary new world order. Moreover, it has ushered in a period of clashes between the classes, the relationships between the states and the economy worldwide, where the contradictions in the formerly called socialist countries are one of the main sources of destabilization.
In the current period, the loss of its Stalinist ally leaves the US more lonely and exposed to deal with the contradictions running deep in the world arena, within a world system split into a imperialist triad (the US, Germany and Japan) of competing powers rivaling the American hegemony, especially in the sphere of the economy, increasingly in the level of politics, and still lagging behind in the military level, where the US remains unchallenged.
If the in the past decade these realities were “hidden”, the end of the cycle of American economic growth and its destabilizing consequences for the rest of the economies worldwide, along with the strong tensions running through the system of interstate relationships are making them come to the surface. This is noticeable in the shift under way in the foreign policy of the recently sworn-in Bush administration that is leaving behind any pretence of “universalism” typical of the Clinton administration, and is going for a increasingly “unilateral” policy prioritizing the “defence of national interest”, even at the risk of jeopardizing the relationships with the other big powers. Stratfor has taken notice of these shifts, claiming in its latest reports that: “The last few weeks have witnessed the tensions between the US and both Russia and China. This period will be remembered as the end of the post cold war period, and the onset of a new period of the international relationships…The structure of the world system is at stake here. Two big powers want to see a more multipolar world. The only superpower wants, understandably, to uphold the status quo, a unipolar system.” The “calm” period of the 90s and the bourgeois optimism that the world, after the “defeat of communism” was heading to and unlimited period of prosperity and less cashes is now behind us. As Stratfor claims: “Washington took this state of affairs as guaranteed, a hallmark of the post cold war period. The economic prosperity of the 90s allowed for this diplomatic carelessness. Russia’s and China’s natural inclination to resist the US military and political power was countered by theirs interest in maintaining friendly economic relationships”. For Stratfor the forthcoming scenario is not simply a “reversal” to the cold war period, as the rhetoric of the new Bush administration might seem to indicate, but to a more intricate scenario of international relationships, and this for two reasons: “First, neither Russia nor China might have domestic political stability so as to pursue their policies in the long term. Secondly, it is not yet clear if other countries will rally to resist the US. Japan will go soon through some dramatic changes, due to its untenable economic situation, while the political evolution of Europe with regards to the US is grimmer every time. In any of these cases, we are not facing a new cold war. This a world that has few precedents, one in which a superpower confronts several big powers trying to control it. The postwar period has passed away and cannot be resuscitated. All that is missing in this new period is a good name.”
Although this overview of emerging world situation is heavily biased towards the interstate relationships, as every bourgeois geopolitical analysis, it is useful to get a less “romantic” and “naïve” picture of the world system and the class struggle than that depicted by the authors of Empire, one devoid of contradictions and mediations. In the face of a world heading to increasingly deeper disputes and tensions between the main imperialist powers, between these and the former “communist” countries, between the centre and the semicolonies, with economic crises, saber-rattling and wider gaps between “those at the top” and a potentially heightened class struggle, the logic of the imperialist epoch as one of “crises, wars and revolutions” retains its full validity. This does not mean scholastically ruminating the old categories, but updating them incorporating the following elements that we have explicated in this article, which we now detail in summary. They are: a) the increased integration of the world economy and thus of the class struggle with a more decisive weight of the working class in most of the countries of the world (as shown by the growth of wage-earners in major regions of the periphery, and also the fact that most of the world population lives in the cities) than at the onset of the twentieth century; b) the weakness of the counterrevolutionary misleaderships that, first with the Social democracy and Stalinism then, were a major bulwark to contain the upsurge of the mass movement in the last century; c) the exacerbation of the interimperialist competence, one that starts from a massive unevenness between the old hegemonic power -whose rule relies upon the unprecedented control of the fundamental economic and military levers of worldwide accumulation- and the emerging powers, a factor holding back and delaying the alteration of the status quo of the world; d) the tendency to the formation of a “pool” of imperialist powers, no matter how unstable and utopian such endeavour might be, that in spite of their counter posed national interests have taken decisive steps towards supranational unification (European Union) as way of counteracting the unevenness of the components of interstate system mentioned in the last item; e) the yet indefinite social nature of the process of restoration-semicolonisation of the former degenerate and deformed big workers states, Russia and its sphere of influence and China.
Taking up the classical theory of imperialism in a creative fashion is a key task to appraise the complex and intricate reality of the world today.