Book Review: ‘The Politics of Empire: Globalisation in Crisis

6 October 2004

Book review: The Politics of Empire: Globalisation in Crisis, edited by Alan Freeman and Boris Kargarlitsky

“The US war drive, going well beyond what it is now doing in Iraq, up to and including its clear and announced intention to deploy nuclear weapons, is not the deluded fantasy of a Strangelove but a considered and well prepared response to the emerging new world situation. It is part of a concerted strategic drive to ensure that whatever the international institutions fail to deliver by jaw, the Pentagon can secure by war.

“But for this very reason, it is not a product of strength but of weakness: it has come about because globalisation has failed to secure territorial governments that can impose the policies on which the US’s existence depends. With the failure of consent, the curtain falls on the age of globalisation, and opens on the age of war.” – From the Introduction.

If you want to know what I think about the Bush/Kerry ‘lesser of two evils’ debate then I think the quote above answers the question, for regardless of who gets elected, the issues are far bigger than the election, hence although the details may vary depending on whether it’s Bush or Kerry who is the next president, the underlying crisis of US capital determines the direction of US actions, a position that is unlikely to change with a Kerry presidency at least not in the short term.

Reading books written by Marxists/Leftists, especially of the academic kind is often like pulling teeth, painful and time-consuming, firstly because of the jargon that tends toward a private language and often because it has its roots in a range of ‘tendencies’ that go back a hundred years that are mired in sectarian ‘positions’ of one kind or another. The net effect unfortunately, is to exclude all but the ‘initiated’ which seems to be self-defeating given that the objective is get people ‘on-board’ the socialist train. For the most part ‘The Politics of Empire’ avoids the worst excesses of jargon, although some knowledge of a Marxist approach to the economics of capitalism is needed in order to make full use of this exploration.

On the other hand, no pain, no gain. Anything worthwhile is worth investing some energy into understanding, especially something as important as the future of our species.

The Politics of Empire: Globalisation in Crisis seeks to unpack the current situation by revisiting an area pretty well neglected since well before the end of the Soviet Union, namely the nature of capitalism, specifically an interpretation described by Lenin as “imperialism – the highest stage of capitalism” almost one hundred years ago. The editors go one step further and reinforce a view often put forward here that the seventy years of the Soviet Union was something of a ‘temporary diversion’ (my words, not theirs) from the imperialist project that with the dissolution of the USSR, the leading capitalist states could continue once more with extending the market to every part of the globe, a project now called ‘globalisation’.

The problem as the contributors put it is that ‘globalisation’ has failed abysmally to solve the inherent contradictions of capitalism even as it now has no major obstacles in its goal of extending the market to every area of the world and with this failure it has returned to its ‘roots’ as it were, namely the use of unrestricted war to further its political and economic objectives. This after a period following WWII when in order to defeat Communism, it was necessary for the ‘traditional’ competition between capitalist states to be suspended, even if now led by the US instead of the (former) European colonial, imperialist empires.

Is the current period then a continuation of imperialism albeit with a ‘new face’? A period that began in 1873, that was ‘interrupted’ in 1917 and then pursued once more following the defeat of the socialist project at the beginning of the 1990s. All the contributors to this volume loosely subscribe to this interpretation, indeed it signals a return as it were to our collective roots, especially those of Marx, Lenin and Rosa Luxemberg, the brilliant German revolutionary thinker and activist. In fact, as I’ve commented myself, many of the contributors voice the view that Marx is even more relevant now than ever.

The failure of ‘globalisation’ is signified by the fundamental contradictions of capitalism that is, as before, one of serious over-production/over-capacity, and the failure to produce growth that the enforcement of ‘structural adjustment’ on the poor countries of the world was meant we are told, to achieve. In fact, the contributors show quite conclusively that with notable exceptions, ‘structural adjustment’ has resulted in the stagnation of growth and a vast increase in poverty. It has also led to resistance albeit with mixed results and devoid of a common revolutionary theme.

The promise (read propaganda) that ‘globalisation’ would ‘solve’ the problems of the world’s poor has therefore not materialised. To the contrary, ‘globalisation’ itself is responsible not only for the increasing poverty that something like 80% of the world’s population is experiencing that in turn has resulted in the widespread resistance to the predations of global capital. In other words it is globalisation itself that has created the current instability euphemistically referred to as ‘terrorism’. One can go further and define ‘terrorism’ as a result of the failure of the governments of most of the developing countries to mount an effective defence against the predations of international capital through the policies of the IMF and the World Bank. ‘Terrorism’ then is the ‘politics of desperation’ insofar as it reflects the weakness of international bodies such as the Non-Aligned Movement to defend the interests of the poor of the world. In turn, this has led to the emergence of entirely new structures of resistance.

For myself, two, possibly three sections stand out as making a very valuable contribution, mostly I’ll admit because they tend to reinforce my own interpretations but also because it lets me know I’m not alone. Firstly, Bill Robinson’s ‘The Crisis of Global Capitalism: How it looks from Latin America’ contains the most original thinking especially his definitions of globalisation. So what are the major features of this allegedly newly globalised economy?

“Globalisation [is] a fourth epoch in world capitalism…marked by a number of shifts in the capitalist system… One of these is the rise of truly transnational capital… Another feature of global capitalism is the rise of a transnational capitalist class (TCC), a fraction grounded in global markets and circuits of accumulation over national markets and circuits. Transnational class formation also entails the rise of a global proletariat. Capital and labour increasingly confront each other as global classes. A third is the rise of a transnational state (TNS) apparatus, a loose but increasingly coherent network comprised of supranational political and economic institutions and national state apparatuses that have been penetrated and transformed by transnational forces.” (p. 156)

Robinson goes on to say:

“The nation-state may be around for a long time to come but the nation-state system is no longer the organising principle of capitalism. Nation states as components of a larger TNS structure now tend to serve the interests of global above national accumulation processes. The TNS has played a key role in imposing the neoliberal model on the old Third World and therefore in reinforcing the new capital-labour relation… A fourth shift, accordingly, is from nation-state to transnational hegemony.” (pps.156-57)

Perhaps the most important aspect of Robinson’s thesis is the following observation:

“In contrast to the predominant story-line of a resurgent US empire, I suggest that empire in the twenty-first century is not about a particular nation-state but about an ascendant empire of global capital. This empire is headquartered in Washington. But this does not mean that US imperial behaviour seeks to defend ‘US’ interests. As the most powerful component of the TNS, the US state apparatus defends the interests of transnational investors and the overall system… The only military apparatus in the world capable of exercising global coercive authority is the US military.” (p.157)

Another important aspect of this emerging “fourth epoch” of capitalism is:

“[The] novel relations of inequality in global society. Unequal exchanges – material, political, cultural – are not captured so much in the old concept of the international division of labour as the global division of labour… Globalisation renders untenable a sociology of national development since it undermines the ability of national states to capture and redirect surpluses through interventionist mechanisms that were viable in the nation-state phase of capitalism.” (p.157)

“Transnationality is a social category and development should not be seen in terms of nations but in terms of social groups in a transnational setting.” (p.158)

And here we see another aspect of the post-Soviet world we now inhabit, the emergence of a global capitalist class that has members in both the developed and now the developing world with those in the developing countries no longer what used to be called a comprador class dependent upon a local economy but on their direct connection to trans-national capital. This newly formed capitalist class does not depend on local social classes for ‘sustenance’. Bill Robinson puts it as follows:

“The model of capitalist development by insertion into new global circuits of accumulation does not require an inclusionary social base. Socio-economic exclusion is immanent to the model since accumulation does not depend on a domestic market or internal social reproduction.

“The physical existence of these groups in a particular territory is less important than their deterritorialised class-relational existence in the global capitalist system.” (pps. 175, 180)

But counter-posed to this new development has been the failure of the WTO to enforce the dictates of international capital, witness Cancun and other meetings of the WTO where through concerted actions led by countries such as Brazil, India and South Africa, the plans of the advanced economies to enforce its trade rules on the poor countries were soundly rejected.

Ultimately, as I’ve noted before, the key moment was the dissolution of the Soviet Union, that regardless of what one thinks about its internal policies, its mere existence acted as a ‘shield’ for the poor economies of the world that once removed, enabled the capitalist world, led by its most powerful force the US, to extend its reach over the entire planet. What is meant by shield is that that more than one third of the planet’s population were protected from the predations of the market as broadly these were countries that had followed protectionist economic policies and, as John Freeman notes in his section, ‘The Inequality of Nations’, following the fall of the Soviet Union the only countries not to suffer the Asian economic crash of 1997 were those that had protected themselves from the IMF/World Bank’s ‘structural adjustment’ policy, China, India, Malaysia and Vietnam. For ‘structural adjustment’ was in reality, an opening up of developing countries’ economies to the full force of the market, a market dominated by the developed economies of the world.

The common thread/s are obviously an exploration of the nature of ‘globalisation’ and its possible outcomes. One writer, Sungar Savran in his section, ‘Globalisation and the New World Order: The New Dynamics of Imperialism and War’ aside from being understandably very angry about events, takes what might be called a traditional view of imperialism and questions whether there is in fact such a thing as ‘globalisation’. Furthermore, in contradistinction to the section by Bill Robinson, questions whether there is a new ‘post-nation state’ environment within which the struggle is now or will shortly, take place. These are important questions as they go to the very heart of the current situation facing the Left namely, is the situation now so different that the strategies and analyses of the past are no longer valid?

And the future? Patrick Bond puts his faith broadly in the ‘global justice movements’ but with some caveats. In his section, aptly named ‘Facing Global Apartheid’ and under the heading ‘Next Steps: Toward a Fifth International’ he offers us the following:

“The rise of the global justice movements as the world’s first-ever multi-issue political convergence was profoundly important, and South Africa has become a site of crucial, productive conflicts for these movements’ developments. The time may well arise for a formalisation of the movement’s character in explicitly political terms, such as within the traditions of international socialism – for which the first four ‘internationals’ provide a host of lessons, largely negative, about world-scale co-ordination.” (pps. 216-217)

However, he is more circumspect when offering real world ‘solutions’ and seems somewhat divided over the nation-state/global movement approach to the immense problems that confront us. Patrick says in part:

“More generally, the rise of national and regional Social Forums in most parts of the world bodes well for more co-ordinated civil society inputs into global governance. My sense is that nation-state priorities will be seen as overriding, because the balance of forces at the international scale simply does not offer progressive social movements any real scope for satisfying reforms, as efforts on debt, trade, environment, militarism and so many other examples continually prove… However, all optimistic outcomes depends upon an obvious prerequisite: the hard work of local, then national, then regional and finally global-scale organising… Hence in sum, the approach of the South African social movements – thinking globally and acting locally first, while changing the balance of forces nationally and internationally, so that acting globally might one day generate something meaningful – is a wise route towards a final attack on global apartheid, and capitalism itself.

“No matter the continual reversals, the opportunities to take up these challenges, and link them across countries and sectors of struggle, is now greater than at any time in memory.” (p. 219)

I have perforce, merely scratched the surface of this book and my apologies to the other valuable contributions the book contains that I haven’t mentioned, and I hope I haven’t done the book a disservice as a result, but as regular readers of my columns know, I try to keep my essays short and hopefully ‘sweet’, else the sheer volume of words tends to be self-defeating. If what I’ve said about ‘The Politics of Empire’ is sufficient to get you to buy it, then I’ve succeeded as I think for anyone involved or interested in the workings of our world, especially those who don’t have a ‘traditional’ lefty background, this is an important and overdue contribution to the ‘struggle’.

It contains a diverse range of interpretations of the current situation that is in and of itself important, as it enables the reader to measure as it were, one view against another. Most important of all I think, is the fact that it attempts to unite two strands of thought, one that has its roots in the experiences largely derived from the 20th century but now operating in the 21st that as Bill Robinson puts it:

“Neither ‘socialism in one country’ nor ‘Keynesianism in one country’ can be sustained any longer.”

The Politics of Empire: Globalisation in Crisis, edited by Alan Freeman and Boris Kargarlitsky with contributions from Walden Bello and Marylou Malig, Jayati Ghosh, Sungar Savran, Bill Robinson, Patrick Bond, Kate Hudson. Published by Pluto Press in association with the Transnational Institute, September 2004.

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