Claudio Katz*

Economy: Imperialism in the 21st century

International Viewpoint 345, November 2002


The renewal of interest in the study of imperialism has changed the debate on globalization, previously centred exclusively on the critique of neoliberalism and on the new features of globalization. A concept developed by the main Marxist theorists of the 20th century — which enjoyed a wide diffusion in the 1970s — has again attracted the attention of analysts because of the aggravation of the social crisis of the Third World, the multiplication of armed conflicts and the deadly competition among countries.

The notion of imperialism conceptualizes two types of problem: on the one hand, the relations of domination in operation between the capitalists of the centre and the peoples of the periphery and on the other the links which prevail between the great imperialist powers at each stage of capitalism. What is the contemporary relevance of this theory? To what extent can it contribute towards clarifying contemporary reality?


An explanation of global polarization

The polarization of incomes confirms the importance of the theory in its first sense. While the wealth of three multimillionaires exceeds the GDP of 48 nations and a person on the periphery dies of hunger every four seconds, it is difficult to ignore the widening of the gap between the advanced and underdeveloped countries. Today nobody could believe that this asymmetry is a temporary phenomenon, to be ultimately corrected by the benefits of globalization. The peripheral countries are not simply the “losers” from globalization; they are also subjected to an intensification of the transfers of income that have historically held back their development.

This drainage has led to the intensification of extreme poverty in the 49 poorest nations and major deformations of partial accumulation in the dependent semi-industrialized countries. In this second case, the prosperity of those sectors inserted in the international division of labour is bought at the expense of those economic activities centred on the internal market.

The analysis of imperialism does not offer a conspiracy theory of underdevelopment nor does it absolve the local governments of responsibility for this situation. It simply presents an explanation of the polarization of accumulation on a world scale and the reduction of the possibility of its evening out among different economies. The accelerated margin of development which in the 19th century allowed Germany and Japan to acquire the status of great power, held until then by France or Great Britain no longer exists today for Brazil, India or Korea. The map of the world thus modeled is characterized by a ‘stable architecture’ of the centre and a ‘variable geography’ of underdevelopment, the only possible modifications being those of the peripheral status of each dependent country.

The theory of imperialism attributes these asymmetries to the systematic transfer of the value created in the periphery towards the capitalists of the centre. This transfer is concretized through the deterioration of the terms of trade, the extraction of financial resources and the transfer of industrial profits. The political effect of this drainage is the loss of the political autonomy of the peripheral ruling classes and the increasing level of US military intervention.




Military interventionism




[T]he US is gambling on the reactivation of its economy through rearmament and envisages potential wars against Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Syria and Libya. With 5% of the world population, the US now accounts for 40% of total military spending and has just begun the modernization of its submarines, the construction of new planes and the testing, through the ‘star wars’ programme, of new applications of information technologies.

Military aggression is the imperialist response to the disintegration of states, peripheral economies and societies, provoked by the growing US domination over this periphery. That is why the current ‘war on terror’ has some similarities with old colonial campaigns. Again, the enemy is demonized to justify the massacres of the civilian population on the front line and restrictions on democratic rights in the homeland. However, the more the destruction of the ‘terrorist’ enemy advances, the more one witnesses a political and social dislocation. The generalized state of war perpetuates the instability provoked by economic pillage, political balkanization and the social destruction of the periphery.

These effects are most visible in Latin America and the Middle East, two zones of strategic importance for the Pentagon since they possess oil resources and represent important disputed markets for European and Japanese competition. Because of this strategic importance they are at the centre of imperialist domination and endure very similar processes of state disarticulation, economic weakening of the local dominant class and the loss of authority of their traditional modes of political representation.


Neoliberal fatalism

Economic expropriation, political recolonization and military interventionism are the three pillars of the current imperialism. Some analysts limit themselves to describing this oppression as an inexorable destiny, in a resigned manner. Some present the fracture between ‘winners and losers’ of globalization as a ‘cost of development’, without explaining why this price persists over time and is still being charged to those nations who have already paid it in the past.

The neoliberals tend to prognosticate that the end of underdevelopment will happen in those countries that gamble on ‘attracting’ foreign capital and the ‘seduction’ of companies. However, the dependent nations who have entered on this road in the past decade by opening their economies up are now paying the heaviest price in the ‘emergent crises’. Those who were the most committed to privatization have lost most on the world market. In providing every facility to imperialist capital, they have lifted the barriers that limited the pillage of their natural resources and they are paying for it today by more asymmetrical trade exchanges, growing financial instability and a sharpened industrial disarticulation.

Some neoliberals attribute these effects to the limited application of their recommendations, as if a decade of negative experiences had not furnished enough lessons as to the result of their recipes. Others suggest that underdevelopment is a consequence of the temperamental inadequacies of the population of the periphery, the weight of corruption or the cultural immaturity of the peoples of the Third World. In general, the colonialist argument has changed style, but its content remains invariable. Today the superiority of the conquerors is no longer justified by their racial purity, but by their superior knowledge and patterns of behaviour.


* Claudio Katz teaches at the University of Buenos Aires and is involved in the Argentine network ‘Economistas de Izquierda’ (EDI, ‘Left Economists’).

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