Is ‘Imperialism’ a Relevant Concept Today? A Debate Among Marxists

This month, four prominent Marxists met at The New School in New York to debate the relevance of imperialism. The debate was related to the publication of Prabhat Patnaik’s (Jawaharlal Nehru University) new book A Theory of Imperialism (written with Utsa Patnaik). With him in the panel were geographer David Harvey (CUNY), political scientist Nancy Fraser (The New School), and economist Duncan Foley (The New School). Economics Professor Sanjay Reddy (The New School) moderated the debate. The main question for the panelists was: Is ‘Imperialism’ a relevant concept today? A fruitful debate followed, suggesting that contemporary imperialism is crying out for analysis and critique.

Patnaik’s answer to the question was unsurprisingly a yes, qualified by the fact that his answer obviously depends on what one means by ‘imperialism’. He himself sees imperialism as a relationship that underlies capitalism. He argues that the Northern demand for primary commodities from the South has perpetuated and solidified an imperialist relationship. In his view, the capitalist system itself requires commodities that cannot be produced at adequate quantities in the core and that are subject to increasing supply price. The key here is that capitalism relies on commodities that are outside of its frontiers.

For Patnaik, the imperialist relationship depends on openness to trade and finance, as well as income deflation in the periphery countries to suppress local demand. Under colonialism this can be done by dispossessing petty producers and imposing colonial taxes, directly contributing to the drain of surplus from the periphery. Immediately after the end of colonialism in India, Patnaik argues, land-augmenting investments were made to increase peasant incomes, thereby halting income deflation. However, since the 1980s with the rise of neoliberalism, one can again identify neo-colonial structures that impose income deflation on the periphery countries. The consequences of this contemporary capitalist imperialism has been brutal in India, Patnaik notes, as 300 000 peasants have committed suicide so far.

From a Northern perspective, Duncan Foley observes that the imperialist wars have been necessary for the political stability of the metropolitan countries. He approves of Patnaik’s analysis of imperialism, particularly as it is presented in his book The Value of Money. He concurs that the clothes may have changed, but that the wolf [imperialism] is still there. In other words, the division of labor where the periphery provides primary commodities for the core capitalist economies is still observable and it is still necessary to sustain the value of money. Although Foley is impressed by Patnaik’s analysis and evidence, he urges him to give a little more complete analysis of what changes took place in the 1980s. He cautions that globalization has been like a ‘weapon of mass destruction’ for many developing countries, and that ‘we as Marxists must take this into account’.

Nancy Fraser agrees with Foley and Patnaik on the continued relevance of imperialism. She argues that contemporary financial globalization is siphoning resources from the South to the North, and that this movement of resources is grounded in geography. However, she also points out that it is important to keep in mind that there are different phases of imperialism, as well as different dimensions. Furthermore, the various dimensions play different roles in the different phases. The dimensions she identifies are the economic (the concentration of wealth is related to impoverishment elsewhere), the political (freedom in one region is related to subjection in another), the ecological, and social reproduction (efforts to supply care in one region is related to care deficits and ‘care drains’ elsewhere). Neither of these processes can be understood fully without understanding all of them and how they relate to each other.

A particularly important distinction Fraser makes is between expropriative versus exploitative transfers, which illustrates a mix of political and economic mechanisms. She stresses the entwinement of the political and economic dimensions of imperialism, and contends that the distinction is often blurry, although on the surface it might appear to be straightforward.

As for the phases of imperialism, Fraser identifies mercantilism (where the main method was conquest), 19th century liberal industrial capitalism (where we saw a combination of coercion and free trade), decolonized states and managed capitalism of the 20th century (political coercion decreased in this period, but unequal exchange was still prevalent and still not purely economic), and financial capitalism of the 21st century (in this period the economic dimensions are more salient but the political is still there, for example through financial and institutional arrangements orchestrated by the IMF and the World Bank). Fraser also points to the new and intensified round of land grabbing in many parts of the world, that make it clear that political as well as economic means of imperialism are still relevant.

A critique Fraser has for the Patnaiks is their description of ‘capitalism’s spontaneous behavior’. She considers the only truly spontaneous element in capitalism to be the endless drive for accumulation and therefore that imperialism itself cannot be understood by only focusing on this economic aspect. Rather, political control must also be taken into account. She argues that expropriation may be necessary for profitable exploitation in capitalism. This begs the question: is imperialism necessary for capitalism?

The debate only gets heated once it’s David Harvey’s turn to speak. He disagrees fundamentally with Patnaik (and thus also with the rest of the panel), as he has also expressed in his foreword to the book A Theory of Imperialism. Harvey’s disagreement partly stems from the fact that he is a geographer, he admits. He considers the Patnaiks’ book to be too crude and argues that it is not asking specific enough questions about where things are produced. E.g. one of the biggest producers of food grain is the USA and part of the USA is in the tropics. Latin American countries are producing soybeans – not for the US (who is a net exporter of soy beans) – but to China.

Harvey points out that Marx did speak of spatial transfers (from labor-intensive to capital intensive areas) and considered that this would happen between nations. However, Harvey argues that an important element in Marx is that redistribution tends to benefit the capitalist class and that it is not a transfer between workers. For example, the Trans-Pacific Partnership has not been in US working class’ interest, but it is definitely in the capitalist class’ interest. Similarly, German workers did not benefit from being a part of the European Union, but German capitalists did.

As Marx once said we have to be prepared to adjust our categories according to changing circumstances, Harvey argues that circumstances have changed so much that although imperialism once was a relevant concept, it is simply not useful anymore. Unquestionably there is a redistribution of value going on and it is geographical, but it is more complicated than reducing everything to imperialism.

Finally, the chair of the discussion, Sanjay Reddy, gets the opportunity to add his two cents. His primary concern with the Patnaiks’ analysis is with the identification of the mechanisms. He asks: Is it adequate to say that a system has a certain need? While Patnaik insists that capitalism has a certain need to maintain the value of money, this is not capitalism’s only imperative (as Patnaik himself also recognizes). Reddy therefore considers the mechanisms in the Patnaiks’ work to be under-specified. Systems can have imperatives that are not adequately realized and there can be competing imperatives. Reddy therefore argues that it is not clear in Patnaik’s argument what the degrees of freedom are for developing countries and why some are able to take advantage of globalization, while others are not.

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