The Geopolitics of Financialisation and Development: Interview with Ilias Alami

This interview was originally published in German in the special issue on financialisation and development policies of the journal Peripherie, September 2021, No. 162/163. Frauke Banse and Anil Shah (both based at Kassel University) spoke with political economist Ilias Alami (Maastricht University) about some of his recent work on the relationship between geopolitics, financial flows for development and emerging forms of ‘state capitalism,’ as well as related new imperialist formations. The interview was conducted via email in May 2021.  

The interview covers a series of International Political Economy topics. Ilias first locates the emergence of the Wall Street Consensus in the long and turbulent histories of the relation between finance and development as well as in secular capitalist transformations. He then outlines some of the conceptual tools he’s developed in his work in order to make sense of the contemporary interconnections of money and finance and the reproduction of imperialism and race/coloniality. Next, he situates these interconnections within broader scholarly debates about financialisation and highlights the similarities and differences between ongoing sovereign debt crises in the global South and the so-called 1980s ‘Third World debt crisis.’ Finally, Ilias discusses the recent emergence of new forms of ‘state capitalism’ and their complex relation to the extension and deepening of market-based finance. 

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Dependency, gender, and race

In the classical works of dependency theory, such as the Dialectics of Dependency (Marini 2011 [1973]); Socialism or Fascism (Dos Santos 2018 [1978]); Dependency and Development in Latin America (Cardoso and Faletto 1979) and Latin American Dependent Capitalism (Bambirra 2012 [1978]), race and gender are absent. This absence is at odds with both the evident reality of racial and patriarchal oppression in Latin America and the concomitant rise of feminist and anti-colonial literature in the social sciences. In fact, in the exciting intellectual and political environment of the 1960s and 1970s, it would not be difficult to imagine productive dialogues between Ruy Mauro Marini and Margaret Benston, and Vânia Bambirra and Amilcar Cabral. Sadly, these dialogues never took place. Instead, the first generation of dependency scholarship privileged debates with white, male scholars engaged in modernisation sociology, structuralist economics and Marxist orthodoxy. With the sole exception of Vânia Bambirra’s forgotten writings about peripheral women’s liberation, gender and race remain to this day ignored by the dependency tradition.

Although the absence of race and gender does indeed represent a major blind spot in the work of dependency writers, the most seminal concepts coined by some of the early dependency writers such as Ruy Mauro Marini and Vânia Bambirra have ‘intersectional’ (Crenshaw 1989; 1991) potential. By that, I mean that they can be understood as referring to more than simply class-based dynamics of domination. Let us consider two examples: Marini’s concept of the ‘super-exploitation’ of labour and Bambirra’s definition of Latin American ruling classes as ‘dominated–dominant’.

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Economic Corridors as Infrastructures of Extraction

Economic Corridors

Economic corridors are geographically targeted development initiatives currently under construction on nearly every continent of the planet. While hard infrastructure such as transportation links, power generation, ports, and industrial zones contrive a spine, economic corridors are distinguished by accompanying “soft infrastructure” including business-friendly policies, regulations, and institutions to facilitate trade and investment. They feature prominently in foreign policy and development initiatives worldwide and have provided scaffolding for billions of dollars’ worth of infrastructure investments. They will likely do the same for those spurred by the “Build Back Better World (B3W) Partnership” recently announced by the G7. Yet despite being around for over twenty years, relatively little has been written about economic corridors beyond the grey literature supported by multilateral development banks.

Notable exceptions to this dearth of conceptual engagement include those framing them as technologies of nationhood (in Malaysia), a form of licenced larceny (in Africa), tools of containment and enclosure (in China), and neoliberal institutions and new frontiers of capital (in India). In an article recently published in the Review of International Studies I contribute to this literature on corridors and infrastructure by proposing we should understand economic corridors as an essentially extractivist paradigm: a constellation of policy prescriptions that advance processes of valorisation and accumulation based on the subjugation of human and extra human nature to intensified exploitation. The adjective “extractivist” here denotes a process whereby capital draws on its multiple outsides as it depletes the social bases of wealth. This includes but is not limited to the plundering of the earth and biosphere, extending also to social dimensions of exploitation, such as the reorganisation of production and social relations that enable production.

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Informal employment and the social reproduction of value

In the last year, the rise and spread of the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the fictitious nature of some of the categories we deploy to conceptualise the world of labour. Indeed, it has revealed the contingent nature of the separation between productive and reproductive spaces, times and realms when it comes to labour processes.

According to estimates produced by Janine Berg, Florence Bonnet, and Sergei Soares, when the crisis hit, around 30% of North American and Western European workers were in occupations that could allow home-based work, as opposed to only 6% of sub-Saharan African and 8% of South Asian workers. This is to say that in the Global North, the pandemic could de facto manufacture million homeworkers overnight, following national lockdowns. In many cases, these would still be contributing to formal sectors of the economy.

It is rather unsurprising that this shift to homeworking could not materialise in the Global South. Labour relations here are largely characterised by informal employment, in its double character – namely, employment in the informal economy and informalised employment in otherwise formal settings. While homeworking represents one segment of informal employment, its major share is composed instead of precarious forms of casual employment, far more difficult to immediately insource in home-settings. By the time the crisis hit, according to the ILO, informal employment constituted 69.6 percent of employment in the Global South and, given the share of working people it hosts, it constituted over 60 percent of total employment on our planet.

One of the key characteristics of informal employment is the interpenetration between productive and reproductive dynamics, activities and realms. The ever-growing reality of informal employment forces us to reflect and revise theories of value generation and extraction, and ultimately the basis of exploitation worldwide. That is, they force us to re-engage in the study of key Marxian categories of analysis, in ways that may account for how the majority on earth labours. These ways must necessarily account for the centrality of social reproduction in the working of labour processes and relations worldwide.

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The limits of “design ethics” under capitalism

Working as a product designer in media for the past five years, I’ve witnessed the topic of “design ethics” raised at industry conferences, presentations, and meetups. Yet I’ve noticed that in our discussions, designers rarely mention the economic context within which we design. We hold up examples like news feeds promoting fake news and financial apps encouraging users to trade the riskiest stocks and we ask: how might we design better? Conventional discourse presents these unintended consequences of our work as technical problems: how might we design and code ethically, while maintaining profitability and growth? (Perhaps the most well-known example of this framing is The Center for Humane Technology’s “The Social Dilemma,” which confuses correlation with causation by attributing negative mental health and political trends to technology, with no mention of technology’s place in capitalism.)

We will not solve problems of authoritarianism, racism and xenophobia, misinformation and addictive technology, mental health and public health, or climate change with design ethics. While designers should thoroughly consider the consequences of our work, the problems facing the design and technology industry are not ones of individual bad actors (though some exist). Rather, we must acknowledge that design decisions are economic decisions––and in our current economic system, the economic interests of individuals often conflict with their social consequences. Technology firms are not cultural or ideological actors, but “economic actors within a capitalist mode of production…compelled to seek out profits in order to fend off competition” (Srnicek 2017, 3). If we truly want to design ethically, we must first consider how technology is embedded in capitalism. Our ability to make technology work better for society as a whole depends upon our willingness to reorder our priorities and redefine value as more than profit maximization.

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From Post-Marxism back to Marxism?

The Handbook of Marxism and Post-Marxism I co-edited with Alex Callinicos and Stathis Kouvelakis aims to present the development of Marxism as a militant tradition in dialogue with other traditions and within itself. Even if it was conceived almost six years ago, the multiple crises we are confronting today – economic, political, social, gender, environmental and biological – vindicate the spirit of our project. The project seeks to look at Marxism as a tradition that is rooted in and addresses the totality of capitalist social antagonisms and, by doing so, is able to think strategically beyond capital. 

Several contributions challenge reductionist interpretations of Marx’s critique of political economy, and the idea that Marxism is irremediably Eurocentric and underestimates race, gender and ecology. This opens a space for a more complex, and I would say fertile, dialogue with Post-Marxists currents. The format of the Handbook – combining longer contextual essays and shorter essays on individual thinkers mainly – aims at facilitating this dialogue. We chose this format, rather than concentrating on themes and concepts, in order to capture the specificity of, and interactions between, individual thinkers and problematics. 

In the final part of the book, “Marxism in an Age of Catastrophe”, John Bellamy Foster and Intan Suwandi forcefully argue that Marx inaugurated traditions of thought that can intellectually encompass the present age of catastrophe, announced by the floods and fires around the world as well as by the Covid-19 pandemic. These reflections complement the first part of the Handbook, “Foundation”, which points to the strong connection Marx and Engels posited between the critique of political economy and a politics of working-class self-emancipation. Thanks to this connection, they were able to conceive of capitalism as a global, gendered, racialized and ecological class antagonism in which struggles over wages and working conditions are organically linked to struggles over dispossession, social reproduction, ecology, imperialism and racism. Support for the demands of the most oppressed is thus crucial for the advancement of the working class as a whole. 

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The Changing Face of Imperialism: Colonialism to Contemporary Capitalism

By Sunanda Sen and Maria Cristina Marcuzzo

How is imperialism relevant today? How has it mutated over the past century? What are different theoretical and empirical angles through which we can study imperialism? These are the questions we deal with in our edited volume on The Changing Face of Imperialism (2018).

We understand imperialism as a continuing arrangement since the early years of empire-colonies to the prevailing pattern of expropriations, on part of those who wield power vis-à-vis those who are weak. The pattern of ‘old imperialism’, in the writings of Hobson, Hilferding and Lenin, were framed in the context of the imperial relations between the ruling nations and their colonies with political subjugation of the latter, captured by force or by commerce, providing the groundwork for their economic domination in the interest of the ruling nations. Forms of such arrogation varied, across regions and over time; including  the early European invasions of South America, use of slaves or indentured labour across oceans, and the draining off of surpluses from colonies by using trade and financial channels. Imperialism, however, has considerably changed its pattern since then, especially with institutional changes in the  prevailing power structure.

The essays in the volume offer a renewed interpretation, which include the alternate interpretations of imperialism and its changing pattern over space and time, incorporating the changing pattern of oppression which reflects the dynamics underlying the specific  patterns of oppression. The pattern can be characterised as ‘new imperialism’ under contemporary capitalism as distinct from its ‘old’ form under colonialism. The varied interpretations of imperialism  as in the literature do not lessen the significance of the common ground underlying the alternate positions, including the diverse pattern of expropriations under imperialism.

The volume offers fourteen chapters by renowned authors. In this blog, we organise them in the following manner: the first five of those deal with the conceptual basis of imperialism from different angles, the next three chapters deal with contemporary imperialism, and then the rest six chapters of book deal with India, colonialism and contemporary issues with imperialism.

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Enduring Relevance: Samir Amin’s radical political economy

By Ingrid Harvold Kvangraven, Maria Dyveke Styve, Ushehwedu Kufakurinani and Ray Bush

In moments of great uncertainty there is refuge to be found in the work of intellectual titans like Samir Amin. After the sad news of his passing in August 2018 in Paris, aged 86, we began thinking about how best to explore the enduring relevance of his analysis and concepts to make sense of contemporary crises.

The pertinence and analytical heft of Amin’s work is particularly important in the contemporary period marked by the interconnected crises related to COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, the climate emergency, and looming debt crises across the periphery. In the years ahead, confronting these multiple and intertwined crises will require the kind of commitment to combining research with political engagement that Amin demonstrated.

Amin’s ability to weave together thorough analysis of the polarising effects of capitalism with concrete political projects for an international radical left makes his work particularly relevant in our quest to understand capitalism, its particularities across the world, and oppositions to it. There is a younger generation of scholars, of which we are a part, that is particularly hungry for Amin’s perspectives, one that came of age in a time where the universities have been thoroughly marketised and moulded by neoliberal processes, and where intellectual production and debates are not necessarily embedded within social struggles.

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