Imperialism and World Economy


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Bukharin was fascinated by the phenomenon of world economy: the international division of labor and the unification of mankind brought about by the growth of trade. Like Marx, Bukharin regarded this process as qualitatively unique in world history, and like Marx, he produced a clear description of world economic relations. Unfortunately, his Marxist framework burdens the reader with numerous Hegelian metaphors advanced as real entities , but deciphering them is well worth the effort.

Unhappily, he presented monopolization as an inevitable outcome of market relations. Monopoly prices in turn made necessary massive capital export. Conquest and war, in a word, imperialism, were the necessary outcome. Only the working class has the social power to sweep away the capitalist order through socialist revolution and lay the basis for an internationally planned and collectivized economy, the essential precondition for human emancipation from imperialist subjugation and war.

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The development of the productive forces of world capitalism has made gigantic strides in the last decades. State power has become the domain of a financial oligarchy; the latter manages production which is tied up by the banks into one knot. This process of the organisation of production has proceeded from below; it has fortified itself within the framework of modern states, which have become an exact expression of the interests of finance capital. This process of the organisation of the economically advanced sections of world economy, on the other hand, has been accompanied by an extraordinary sharpening of their mutual competition.

Those groups find their final argument in the force and power of the state organisation, first of all in its army and navy. In the financial sphere, a qualitative change had taken place: unlike the earlier stage in which industrial capitalism prevailed, the economic impulse of imperialism now lay in haute finance.

Thus, the particularity of imperialism lay in the intrinsic need to export capital, rather than commodities. It would be precisely through the export of capital that the international character of capitalism with all its economic and social contradictions would assert itself in an aggressive and irreversible way.

Concepts of Imperialism

This would not be through the formal incorporation of territories, as Lenin [] highlighted when he wrote about the informal British domination of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. Even so, the state plays an essential role in the functioning of capitalism. In the absence of global government, capital cannot reproduce itself without nation-states. In order to ensure the interests of the bourgeoisie, the state develops strategies to manage the labour force, intervenes to maintain the profit of national capital and promote its expansion in the international economy Sakellaropoulos However, capital exports also lead to competition among states, since they also play the role of mediating among the interests of different ruling classes.

Monopolies can join forces in several parts of the world, yet need to remain linked to their home states where they receive legal protection, even outside legal systems, when this is convenient Harman Capital expansion does not necessarily require war, but this cannot be ruled out. For that reason, activities linked to arms acquire a privileged position in national economies. That causes a permanent warmongering atmosphere, since it is functional for monopolies linked to the war industry to have external enemies, whether real or illusory, to justify military purchases.

Why read...Imperialism and World Economy

In reality, the concepts of imperialism and globalisation are not compatible. Although several Marxist authors started to use them as a way of explaining contemporary capitalism, both concepts cannot be adopted at the same time, since the idea of globalisation suppresses a series of questions related to the historical development of the relations of exploitation within the capitalist system, and the role of imperialism as a theoretical and historical reference Sakellaropoulos The view of various Marxist authors that the international system is characterised by stability seems to find support in certain passages of the Manifesto of the Communist Party, by Marx and Engels In this understanding, conflicts are caused almost exclusively by the division between the bourgeoisie and proletarians at the international level.

Since international capital has attained unprecedented power, there is little room for protest movements that could undermine the system. This view underestimates the importance of the state and other forms of struggle, such as the struggle of nations oppressed by imperialism. However, even in the Manifesto, the nation-state problem is already raised when the authors call for the national liberation of Poland Marx and Engels These are countries where the oppression of women is a structural problem — although not necessarily connected to multinational corporations — and any deeper gender-related change favouring women can cause great instability, since the region plays an important role in the geopolitical interests of imperialist countries.

The notion that multinational companies have an extraordinary capacity for co-ordination that facilitates international exploitation is also more or less explicit in the writings of the authors referred to in the previous section. However, this is a questionable theoretical assumption in the context of Marxism.

The tendency towards the centralisation and concentration of capital inherent in the movement of capital does not eliminate competition, but rather brings it to another level, as pointed out by Lenin, following in the footsteps of Marx. This is because it is competition that forces the capitalist to accumulate uncontrollably. Capital produces without considering its limits, because it is an intrinsic expansionist force; hence the crises that occur from time to time when such limits are exceeded. For the capitalist, there is no other way but to continue seeking a continuous expansion.

In fact, the upsurge of capital internationalisation after the Cold War and the image of companies producing simultaneously in several countries — although this is nothing new — create the perception that these companies are no longer related to their states, as Robinson mistakenly suggests.


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The first is about the law of uneven development. Consequently, the contradictions among the powers making up the imperialist chain would escalate Lenin [] The law of uneven development is central to explaining relations among the countries in the imperialist chain, providing an economic basis for military conflicts. The second question is about the weakest link in the imperialist chain. Uneven development creates the possibility of revolutions in the relatively weaker links of the chain, and not in those states in which the productive forces are more advanced, as Marx initially predicted.

But this is a relative position: each country in the imperialist chain is weaker or stronger than the other links in the chain Poulantzas Indeed, the international scenario that has emerged at the beginning of the 21st century does not seem to confirm the idea that the capitalist system tends towards stability. They began with the Mexican crisis , which had serious repercussions, since Mexico used to be regarded as a model to be followed due to neoliberal reforms implemented since the late s.

Later on, the crises in East Asia , Russia and Brazil exposed the fragility of the international financial architecture that emerged in the s.

Globalisation and Imperialism

The turn of the century was the stage for new economic turmoil, as in Turkey and Argentina in Afterwards, the international economy went through a period of relative calm that lasted for about five years, but this was soon followed by the US subprimecrisis in , triggering the greatest global economic crisis since the Great Depression of the s. The crisis began in the USA, the centre of capitalism, and affected a major part of Europe as well as other world regions.

Despite the intense debate that followed about the reforms needed to prevent a crisis of such magnitude from happening again, few proposals have been implemented, mainly because of the contradictory interests inside the imperialist chain. Added to this, low levels of economic growth in the wake of the crisis have tended to make the environment even less conducive to fresh understandings, stirring up contradictions instead.

Given this, it cannot be concluded that the international economic system is more stable, despite the enormous capacity of intervention of central banks, the US Federal Bank in particular, as evidenced in the worst moments of the financial crisis of Likewise, it cannot be concluded that competition among states no longer exists, and that the problem remains only in the economic sphere.

Countries continue to use uneven structures of power to maintain and conquer new spaces of accumulation, according to the interests of their capitalists. During the s, when the USA expanded economically at an unprecedented rate, it managed to maintain its hegemony over other powers, preventing the emergence of autonomous regional strategies with relative success.

This did not make the US state more friendly, as Fiori , Gowan , and Sakellaropoulos and Sotiris demonstrate. However, as the law of uneven development prevails, new poles of power are emerging. Cooperation among states has become more problematic due to the growing multipolarisation of the international system, as can be seen in the formation of the BRICS alliance and the Union of South American Nations USAN , for example, and the relative decrease of US power Fernandes Since then, the USA has fomented conflict in several parts of the world, ignoring the sovereignty of countries like Afghanistan and Iraq Libya and Syria were also targets of US interventions in conjunction with France, Britain and a group of Middle Eastern countries with diverse interests in the region Bandeira Following the bombing of Libya in , the regime of Muammar al-Gaddafi was overthrown.

The same modus operandi was used in Syria. More recently, the intervention in Ukraine has created strong instability in the region, leading to a referendum on the reincorporation of Crimea into Russia. Finally, it should be noted that, despite the persistent global economic crisis, many countries — including numerous European countries — continue to spend a lot of money on arms Marshall This was the first increase since But before that, expenditure grew steadily for 13 years between and Perlo-Freeman et al As shown by Slijper , the military spending of countries such as Spain, Greece and Italy, which were at the epicentre of the crisis in the euro area and have struggled to implement economic austerity programmes at great social cost, remains impressively high.

This clearly contradicts the Kautskyan perspective, which predicted a reduction in military spending as a primary result of ultra-imperialism. In this study, I have sought to show that the notion that capitalism could achieve higher levels of organisation comes from the classic Marxist writers on imperialism. Hilferding predicted the emergence of a world cartel aimed at the efficient control of production, thereby stabilising the capitalist system. Bukharin examined that national capitalist economies could stabilise under the control of a cartel, while they would continue to compete in the international sphere.

Kautsky argued that stability would be achieved by an agreement between the great powers to a point where wars would no longer be necessary. Numerous contemporary scholars have examined the stability of the capitalist system. Hardt and Negri go even further by suggesting that the world has entered a phase in which there is no remaining room for national sovereignty, and wars will be only police actions.

Authors such as Sakellaropoulos, Sotiris and Marshall have been able to develop more satisfactory understandings of the international system, based on the Leninist theory of imperialism.


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Imperialism is a system of economic and political relations that grants unparalleled dynamism to capital while aggravating the economic contradictions of capitalism and the antagonisms among states. Several world regions are becoming more politically and economically unstable. The repercussions of the crisis of are still being felt in Europe, and the reforms proposed for improving global economic governance are not moving forward. This situation is very different from the notion of globalisation. The global leadership of the USA is being questioned, and there is growing discomfort with its unilateral policy initiatives in the military and macroeconomic spheres.

Therefore, war remains a concrete possibility, as recent events demonstrate. Finally, the concept of imperialism not only remains valid but is still the best way of describing relations of exploitation, property, class struggle, and revolutionary transition which rule out any possibility of a stable international capitalist system. Several authors have developed a broader discussion about the order and stability of the international system in the 21st century in the area of International Political Economy, beyond the frontiers of Marxist thought on imperialism.

However, in this article I will only deal with Marxist thought, as this is already a broad as well as controversial topic, and because I believe that the Marxist analysis of imperialism provides a relevant perspective on the current international order. The author is very grateful for the comments, corrections and suggestions made by the anonymous reviewers of Contexto Internacional.

Of course the remaining errors are entirely responsibility of the author. However, Hilferding did not expect planning to reach this limit, or that international cartel competition could be eliminated.

Forward to the past!

According to Kuhn 71 , numerous scholars believe this reflects the notion of a progressive and conceivably peaceful aspect of imperialism. Hilferding also saw a similar possibility when he explained why economic rivalries among states do not lead to a violent solution. Thus, tendencies towards solidarity of international capitalist interests arise. As Milios and Sotiropoulos 60 pointed out, the idea of ultra-imperialism was already present in a text written by Kautsky, The Class Struggle [Erfurt Program] of The concept of Empire arises from a long tradition of references to the old Roman Empire Hardt and Negri This criticism is aimed at Lenin, and specifically his work Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism.

Also see Lorimer There are several examples of human rights violations without any military intervention from the central powers, simply because imperialist interests were not at risk Sakellaropoulos and Sotiris Bringing chaos to certain states seems to be a tactic of imperialism today Losurdo In the case of zombie states, it is precisely external interventions that turn them into ungovernable territories.

Bandeira, Luiz Alberto Moniz. Beech, Eric. Reuters [online], 30 April. Bottomore, Tom. Brewer, Anthony. London and New York: Routledge. Brunhoff, Suzanne. Bukharin, Nicolai. Os Economistas. Callinicos, Alex. Imperialism and Global Political Economy. Cambridge: Polity Press. Fernandes, Luis. Fiori, Luis. Rio de Janeiro: Record, pp. London: Pluto Press, pp. Gowan, Peter. Critical Asian Studies 36 1 : Historical Materialism 9 1 : Halliday, Fred. London: Routledge, pp.

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