Alex Callinicos on imperialism, two reviews

Review by Barry Healy

Imperialism and Global Political Economy
By Alex Callinicos
Polity, 2009
227 pages

October 2, 2010 -- The topic of “imperialism” greatly occupied the minds of late-19th and early-20th century socialists. Some of the tradition’s greatest minds toiled mightily to discern the fundamental changes in capitalism that were occurring before their eyes.

Capitalism, as analysed by Karl Marx, had grown fat in its European heartland through the ruthless exploitation of colonies and the brutal factory system in its coal dark cities. But suddenly new phenomena started to appear in the late 1800s.

Banking capital moved from being a support for industrial capital, first merging into and then dominating manufacturing. This agglomeration of money power created massive industrial complexes, like Germany’s famous Krupps steelworks.

The colossal scale of these industrial works dwarfed human beings.

Quickly, the avenues for profitable investment on this scale became choked in the capitalist centres, so the export of capital arose. The relationship with the colonies and neo-colonies, and other capitalist countries changed as capital sought this escape valve from its own contradictions, continually dividing and redividing the wealth plundered from the downtrodden.

Argentina (for example) became a happy hunting ground for British capital in search of an easy profit. And terrifying war preparations, in which the full potentialities of industrial civilisation were turned towards weaponry, were obvious to all. World War I was the bitter fruit.

Lenin’s legacy

Lenin, whose Imperialism, the Highest Form of Capitalism is still the touchstone for socialist analysis, applied himself to examining the problem in 1915. He tried to make sense of the betrayal by the leadership of the European socialist movement at the outbreak of World War I.

Rudolf Hilferding, Rosa Luxemburg and Nikolai Bukharin were others who delved into imperialism.

Lenin’s achievement was not just to explain imperialist machinations internationally; he detailed the effects in the imperialist homelands, with the creation of well-paid layers of workers who identified their interests with their bosses, not with other workers.

But before him, Karl Kautsky in Germany produced a theory of ultra-imperialism, predicting that imperialist capitalism was capable of transcending national borders and so form a global capitalist state. Lenin demolished that argument.

With imperialism, the world entered into an epoch of wars and revolutions, Lenin said. Obviously, imperialism is still with us as the Iraq and Afghan adventures painfully drag on towards their inevitable defeats for the US superpower.

In Imperialism and Global Political Economy Alex Callinicos, a leader of the Socialist Workers Party in Britain, has set about critically surveying the full gamut of the historical literature and more recent thinkers in order to bring socialist theory up to date, and expound what he regards as his own theory of imperialism, which he believes is an advance on most previous writers.

Callinicos' aim is to distinguish imperialism's current stage. He believes that previous Marxists have relied too much on the notion of finance capital as the bedrock of imperialism and that has led to distortions in understanding imperialism since 1945.

In his view, Callinicos emphasises that imperialism is not just an economic structure. It has both economic and geopolitical drivers, and the state and ideology are essential in its operation.

Thus, some wars and interventions may not have an immediate economic pay-off for the plunderers but may be part of a large, international chess game in which rivals manoeuvre. The invasion of Iraq, he says, was not just a “war for oil” for the USA; it was a strategic intervention to dominate oil supplies to imperialist rivals.

Classical and contemporary Marxists

Imperialism and Global Political Economy is divided into two parts. The first is devoted to lengthy and heavily academic appraisals of a huge body of literature. If nothing else, Callinicos is a voluminous reader and summarises others’ ideas honestly, if in a difficult style for the general reader.

The second part is a more accessible history of the stages of imperialism.

Callicincos is at pains to discern useful nuggets within even failed attempts to analyse imperialism. So, for example, he praises Rosa Luxemburg’s The Accumulation of Capital, while criticising her failure to understand some crucial aspects of Marx’s Capital.

Luxemburg, he says, affirmed “in a particularly extreme and sometimes sophistically argued way” the notion that imperialism is inescapable once capitalism reaches maturity. But, she also developed a thread of argument, which Callinicos calls “at once quite brilliant and thoroughly wrong-headed”, against the sections of Capital that deal with the reproduction of capital.

She believed that Marx had failed to explain how, in the case of extended reproduction, that slice of surplus value which is invested in buying additional means of production and labour can be converted back into profit.

As Callinicos gently puts it: “No other major Marxist economist has accepted her critique of Marx’s reproduction schemes.”

Oddly, Callinicos himself goes out of his way to criticise Lenin, effectively accusing him of schematism, while counterposing Bukharin’s Imperialism and World Economy. However, Lenin wrote the foreword for Bukharin's work and didn't detect any differences with his own thinking in it.

`Aristocracy of labour'

Callinicos specifically distances himself from Lenin’s understanding of how imperialism affects workers’ consciousness in the metropolitan countries.

Under imperialism, Lenin believed, some crumbs are dropped from the bosses' table to convince a section of the working class that its interests lie with the bosses, not with its own class. Such bribery is an essential part of the construction of racism, xenophobia and nationalism.

Drawing upon Freidrich Engels, Lenin used the term “aristocracy of labour” to describe this social construction.

Lenin’s observation was essential to understand how workers' parties could politically collapse. In August/September 1914 European socialist parties and led their constituency to the slaughter after having pledged to do the exact opposite in international socialist congresses for years previously.

However, Callinicos says points out that it was the skilled, higher-paid metalworkers throughout Europe who rallied to Lenin’s call for opposition to the Socialist International's WWI betrayal. He says that Lenin failed to show a mechanism through which imperialist superprofits are distributed to sections of workers.

This is an astonishing charge.

In innumerable factories and offices the bosses’ favourites get better wages and conditions than troublesome workers. If you suck up to the boss, you can get crumbs! Capital happily extends this to sectors of workers to lower working-class consciousness and hobble our organisations.

Relative privileges are systematically granted to (usually) skilled, white, males while institutionalising worse conditions for (generally) women, non-white and young workers.

This construction is always contingent and provisional because sudden changes in the needs of capital (for example, technological advances) can suddenly make previously privileged workers redundant. Even loyal lickspittles can be cast into the fire at the convenience of profit accumulation -- and privileged workers can find their way to class consciousness and turn on their masters under the whip of crisis and tumult.

The combination of privilege with the paltry allowance of democracy that we are allowed under capitalism creates the machine are reformist parties, like the Australian Labor Party (ALP).

Full-time officekeepers of mass workers' organisations are induced to become bureaucrats doing deals on behalf of workers, not organising and leading struggles to raise workers’ consciousness. Of course, in order to have cards to deal at the bosses' table bureaucrats have to occasionally organise to squeeze out of the boss some higher than average wages and more secure conditions.

But leading such “money militancy” is not the same as advancing working-class consciousness.

Union faction bosses keep a weather eye out for talented young activists, especially those emerging from within the socialist movement who are methodically groomed and encouraged to switch to the bureaucratic worldview. These corrupted individuals have to demonstrate their loyalty to their new masters by exemplary acts of bastardry towards their former comrades -- such as handing over lists of activists in factories and rank and file groups ready for the bosses to target.

The ALP is peppered with such people who are often the most determined to use the police and other forces to crush progressive struggles -– their background makes them the most valuable to capitalism in spotting dangerous mass movements on the rise.

Even the labour attaché at the US embassy plays a role by approaching bright up and comers in the labour movement to attend US ideological formation schools for free, where they are inculcated in neoliberalism.

The smartest bureaucrats parlay their union power into preselection for safe Labor seats and from there the golden road to serving big business is guaranteed. After leaving parliament, cosy sinecures await in directorships of the companies they served while in government.

These mechanisms are so brazen in Australia it is inconceivable that Callinicos cannot see similar ones operating in Britain.

Such a social construction is only possible if the bosses’ saddlebags are filled with wealth plundered from throughout the globe.

Praise for Harvey and Meiksins Woods

While somewhat taking his distance from Lenin, Callinicos is at pains to demonstrate his basic agreement with David Harvey’s 1995 book The New Imperialism, which similarly points to the combined economic and geopolitical nature of imperialism. Callinicos combines his appreciation of Harvey with praise of Ellen Meiksins Wood’s Empire of Capital and sets out to bolster both books against criticisms that they use insufficient empirical data.

Callinicos outlays an array of such data in the second part of Imperialism and Global Political Economy, about the history of imperialism, and wields the information to argue that imperialism is a conflict between wealthy countries over command of the global loot.

Callinicos is at his strongest where he demolishes the ideas of such people as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (famous for their trilogy Empire, Multitude and Commonwealth), who believe that international competition has been superseded. Everything has been melted into a transnational capitalism, they say, similar to Kautsky’s thinking.

As an academic, Callinicos spends a lot of time debating such luminaries and so has a sharp appreciation for these intellectual controversies. But he appears a bit too clever by half with his readings of his Marxist forebears and overestimates the uniqueness of his own thinking.

Lenin, for one, never thought that imperialist wars were simply mechanical extensions of pure economic rivalry of finance capital; he always recognised their geopolitical content. Did any Marxist ever suggest that Germany invaded Belgium in World War I for any economic purpose? It was merely the shortest route to Paris!

The strengths of Imperialism and Global Political Economy are in its delving into many historical and contemporary disputes, delivering an important contribution to our grasp of the world. Callinicos wants to grapple with imperialism as it really is, not just for abstract philosophical clarification, even though he happily strays into that territory.

Its major weakness appears to be that, as a leader of the SWP, Callinicos needs to prove the independent value of its particular political tradition on the left.

Return of the state?

Bonfire of Illusions: the Twin Crises of the Liberal World
By Alex Callinicos
Polity, 2010, 179 pages

Review by Barry Healy

October 3, 2010 -- Alex Callinicos, central leader of the Socialist Workers Party in Britain is a prolific writer. In 2009 he wrote a major theoretical work on history of imperialism, Imperialism and the Global Political Economy, and with 2010's Bonfire of Illusions: the Twin Crises of the Liberal World he has produced what is effectively its companion volume, examining the economic and geopolitical specifics of the current capitalist crisis.

The very title evokes conjunctural images with its reference to Tom Wolf's novel Bonfire of the Vanities, which dealt with racism, class and greed in 1980s Wall Street, and the “twin crises” suggesting the Twin Towers, the fiery destruction of which is the leit-motif of the "war on terror".

But Callinicos is attacking deeper myths of contemporary capitalist ideology: that exemplified by Francis Fukuyama’s 1989 End of History, summarised by Callinicos as holding that “liberal capitalism offered the only basis on which humankind could hope to enjoy peace, prosperity and freedom” and that we now live in a unipolar world governed by US imperialism.

Callinicos uses as his launch pad what he believes are two cardinal events revealing the end of this illusory period: the 2008 geopolitical setback suffered by the US in the war between Russia and Georgia and the near collapse of the world banking system unleashed by the collapse of Lehman Brothers on September 15, 2008.

He presents these events as part of the same historical process, the ruination of US supremacy and its ideological support, "small government".

In the main, the book effectively offers the general reader an introduction to the complexities surrounding these events, which stretch over decades. It is divided into two basic sections titled "Finance Humbled" and "Empire Confined", which telegraph their contents.

Financialisation as a new stage of imperialism

Callinicos is very good at summarising and explaining the growth of what is commonly referred to as "financialisation", the latest form of imperialist capital, which has dominated our world for the last few decades and which created the subprime loans-instigated global disaster.

Finance capital, in Lenin’s famous reading of it, amalgamated with industrial capital in the late 1800s and from 1900 became the world dominant socioeconomic and political-military construct known as imperialism. But by the mid-1980s, finance and industrial capital in the imperialist heartlands began to relatively separate again, or at least mark out distinctive arenas of operations, because the major corporations effectively did not need to borrow.

In the USA, where wages have been effectively frozen since 1970, productivity and profitability have soared, allowing major companies like General Motors to finance their operations through retained revenue. They not only did not have to go to the banks, their finance arms became banks.

Losing the fees and interest from industrial loans as a bedrock source of profit, finance capital sought new happy hunting grounds in personal lending (credit cards for the workers whose wages no longer stretched to cover living expenses) and financial market mediation (the creation of ever more complex “financial instruments” for “hedging” risk and speculation).

The astronomical rise of fictitious capital created by all these derivatives and other trading summonsed up a “shadow” banking system of banks and strange financial actors like hedge funds, private equity firms and "structured investment vehicles". Each carved out different parts of the growing pie of speculative wealth.

For example, private equity firms were the pirates targeting companies with high cash flows, buying them to “restructure” the balance sheet (selling off or closing down low-cashflow parts) producing an image of profitability -- and then flogging them off quickly before the image soured.

Even traditional banks have taken to “proprietary trading”, which is financial speculation on their own account, not as agents of their clients. At least these banks have some semblance of state regulation, whereas hedge funds operate within the pores of society, roaming the globe like locusts, exploiting whatever opportunity comes their way no matter the social cost.

Of course, bonuses have become the norm for the elite in this financial universe that floats free of connection with real production.

Financialisation of everyday life

While scarcely connected to real production, this financialised capital has preyed upon the working class nonetheless. Working-class households have been drawn into the insecure world of speculation.

While capitalists will shamelessly declare bankruptcy to escape debt, workers are not so footloose or fancy free. We are tied to our jobs, families and communities, we do not have an army of high-priced lawyers at our figure tips -- so we are prime candidates for milking by the finance sector.

The key was to open up areas of private life to financialisation through the deliberate creation of insecurity. Millions of families in the advanced countries can only survive through credit card debt. And people have been encouraged to “remortgage” their homes, that is: take out loans based on the rising value of their house -– which can only work if values always rise!

This mirror-world logic was the background of the now infamous subprime loans. The loans, foisted on the poorest of the poor, were profitable only because they were the raw material for the construction of "collateralised debt obligations" –- the fraudulent speculative commodities marketed by the biggest banking firms in the world.

To explain the inherent instability of financialised capitalism, Callinicos demonstrates his notable capacity to read and summarise theory by digging into ideas from the Marxist David Harvey, the Keynesian Hyman Minsky and the godfather of neoliberalism F.A. von Hayek.

Callinicos looks at von Hayek’s first, 1931 book Prices and Production, from which he digs up the nugget that credit-driven capitalist economic expansion becomes unsustainable over time, producing destabilising booms. Of course, von Hayek was revolted by the thought that the state should do anything to stop crashes; that should be left to his beloved price signals!

Minsky was an acute reader of the instability of financial markets, providing many useful insights. Callinicos shows, however, that his ideas stopped short of linking finance and the broader capitalist economy (perhaps that would have been a step too far for the child of Menshevik refugees).

Minsky and von Hayek both saw financial crises as dysfunctions of markets. Not so, says Callinicos, “the contradictions that have been at work in the entire process of capital accumulation” are responsible.

Thus, in agreement with Harvey (and Marx), Callinicos argues that our current economic crises are not unusual or extreme events, but are built into how capitalism is constructed and operates. Crisis is as natural to capitalism as crushing the savannah grass is to a herd of elephants.

Callinicos discerns three corresponding processes behind the present disaster: a fundamental crisis of capital overaccumulation, with its consequent tendency for the rate of profit to decline; an insanely unstable financial system; and a conscious policy by bourgeois states to build credit bubbles as drivers of economic expansion.

Capitalism, state capitalism and the return of the state

Callinicos weaves a couple of threads into his argument that are dear to the heart of the International Socialist Tendency of which he is a leader, such as Mike Kidron’s permanent arms economy theory to explain the operation of post-WWII capitalism. This is a controversial proposition that has been argued over for decades without effective resolution.

Another emblematic theory is that of "state capitalism", which originally was a term used to explain the economic basis of the Stalinised Soviet Union. But here the term has leaked into describing every capitalist state; all instances of where a capitalist state makes decisions affecting the market warrants its use and of course all capitalist states do just that, always.

So, US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal is referred to as state capitalist, as is Nasserite Egypt and post-Stalinist Russia.

Such a casual sweeping together is unsustainable. Every capitalist economy from the rise of the bourgeoisie has involved state interventions, from the granting of a monopoly to the East India Company through to today’s massive bank bailouts.

Even Margaret Thatcher's Britain and Ronald Reagan's USA used state intervention in the interests of capital. The capitalist state exists to "organise capital and disorganise labour"; every state intervention is ultimately designed to maintain and expand capital.

If state intervention creates state capitalism – albeit along a spectrum from neoliberal, state capitalism lite to full-blown Stalinist state capitalism classic – then we have to ask if capitalism, as Marx spoke of it, has ever existed.

This annoying state capitalist categorisation shows up again in the book’s second section where Callinicos develops an argument that the Georgia-Russia war was a critical change in international relations. It marked “a shift in the balance of power between the state and capital”, he says. In fact, it demonstrated “the return of the state” after years of neoliberal ideology about the state’s diminished role.

What Callinicos is referring to is the return of the individual state as opposed to the role of international bodies such as the European Union, the G8 or G20 and the World Trade Organization.

This return of the state contrasts, Callinicos says, with the undermined authority of international organisations, such as the EU, in the financial crisis when nations pursued their own interests -- all the while mouthing platitudes about free trade.

He argues further that the Georgia-Russia scrap was the fight back by Russian state capitalism.

But if all forms of capitalism in the world are just varieties of state capitalism, why is the Russian variety's fight back a fundamental game changer? Would it not just be a variation of the "game" established by US state capitalism in Iraq and Afghanistan?

To posit all this as a return of the state as a player in capitalist dynamics simply flies in the face of the history unrolled in the first section of the book. The state never went away, it has been central to the bubble economy of modern capitalism all along, constructing bubbles in individual nations as part of a globalised system.

It has changed its role now that it is propping up the banks and transferring the cost of the bubble onto the shoulders of the workers, again on a global scale and in individual countries. In fact, European austerity has been decreed by the European Central Bank and enacted by the individual states.

Since this book was published the British Tories have unfurled the banner of neoliberal austerity again, which in Callinicos’ line of argument must mark a re-withdrawal of the state. Perhaps he rushed into print too early with this argument?

He has certainly stamped out a distinctive IST worldview on the crisis, but it appears to be standing on thin ice.

Imperialist geopolitics

Callinicos is on firmer territory when he points out the Russian war on Georgia was a geopolitical response to US efforts to expand NATO influence into eastern and central Europe.

However, coming from the author, who in Imperialism and the Global Economy hammered away at the dual economic/geopolitical nature of modern imperialism, asserting that this was a vital insight that had been missed by most other Marxists, it is strange that he spends only about 10 pages on what is a central tenet of this book.

Callinicos spends more time looking (usefully) at the contradictions and inherent confrontations in the China-US relationship and draws no connection between that and the supposedly epochal Georgia-Russia matter.

Perhaps the Georgia-Russia war loomed large on the European horizon in a manner that it does not in the rest of the world, which would be unfortunate for an internationalist commentator like Callinicos.

That Callinicos with this book makes ham-fisted use of his own 2009 argument about the nature of imperialism inadvertently reduces its stature, which is unfortunate. Leninists have always observed the multifaceted nature of imperialism and delving into the entrails of the beast is valuable -- and there is much useful information in this book.

Callinicos appears to want to prove that he and the IST have something new or unique to offer regarding the analysis of imperialism. If he toned that down, this contribution would be more useful.

[Barry Healy is a member of the Socialist Alliance in Perth, Western Australia.]


A fiery polemic

Issue: 128
Posted: 15 October 10
Gareth Dale
Alex Callinicos, Bonfire of Illusions: The Twin Crises of the Liberal World, (Polity Press, 2010), £14.99

A book’s dedication rarely relates closely to its content but this is an exception. Dedicated to the memories of Chris Harman and Peter Gowan, its twin themes are their lifelong preoccupations: capitalist crisis (Harman) and US imperialism (Gowan).

In the first part, Callinicos examines the causes of the Great Recession. He divides them into three spheres. One is long-term overaccumulation and profitability decline. Capitalism’s 1950-73 “golden age” was not followed by stagnation, but the lower average profitability of subsequent decades explains the harsh programmes of restructuring and wage repression that came to be known as neoliberalism. But neoliberal restructuring couldn’t restore profit rates to levels capable of supporting sustained rapid global growth.

China’s rise occupies a pivotal position in Callinicos’ second sphere: the unstable and structurally imbalanced global financial system. China and its East Asian neighbours gained a competitive edge by keeping wages low, creating a “savings glut”, and depressing the value of their currencies through the accumulation of large dollar reserves. That the US could attract colossal chunks of East Asia’s savings can be read as a sign of its continued economic strength. That so many of its liabilities now lie in foreign hands can be read as a sign of weakness. Dollar recycling from China and other surplus countries enabled interest rates in the West to remain low, and this underlay events in the third sphere: the dependence of the economies of the West in the late 1990s and 2000s upon credit bubbles. With subdued wage growth, demand came disproportionately through spending by the rich and credit-driven spending by the poor—fuelled in part by predatory lending by banks. The trigger for the Great Recession, the bursting of the credit bubble, was indissolubly bound up with the other causes. Had profit rates been robust in the 2000s, expansion would not have been so bubblesome; had wages climbed in step with productivity, demand growth would not have relied upon credit mania.

The Great Recession has brought the neoliberal model into crisis. Not only has it arrived at the culmination of three decades of neoliberal ascendancy, but its major contributory causes include two of neoliberalism’s core commitments: wage repression and financialisation. By the latter, Callinicos is referring to three features in particular. One is the increased weight of finance. Another is the integration of a broader array of actors—including industrial firms and consumers—into financial markets. The third is the rise of shadow banking (hedge funds and private equity firms) and the proliferation of financial instruments, notably derivatives.

In tracing the part played by credit derivatives Callinicos draws upon Dick Bryan and Michael Rafferty’s Capitalism with Derivatives. In their account, derivatives dismantle any asset into constituent attributes and establish price relations between different sorts of capital. They enable the law of value to operate more forcefully and ubiquitously, as the intensity of competition between bits of capital is ratcheted up, enforcing the requirement that each asset yields its due return. The pressure to deliver “competitive” levels of wages and productivity to match global benchmark rates of return on capital places additional burdens on labour. Bryan and Rafferty predicted in 2006 that derivatives “have made it likely that any financial crisis will have a more pervasive and speedy impact than was previously the case”, a forecast that was amply borne out shortly after the ink had dried.

Using a delightfully absurd metaphor, Bryan and Rafferty describe the system of financial derivatives as “a flexible, floating monetary anchor” for the global financial system, similar to the role once played by gold. Callinicos concurs that the derivatives system provides a foundation of the financial system but does not see derivatives as a new “gold”, for, unlike Bryan and Rafferty, he disputes that they assume the role of money. Instead, reading Marx through David Harvey, he insists that the contradiction between money as measure of value and as means of exchange is an intrinsic feature of capitalism’s laws of accumulation as manifested, crucially, in the tension between the sustaining of accumulation through credit creation and the need to preserve the quality of money. Derivatives function as a measure of value but not as a means of circulation.

So much for the causes of the Great Recession. What of its nature? Callinicos argues that it was a moment of revelation of the underlying crisis of accumulation. Its acuteness stems from the fact that a generalised economic crisis arrived together with a major financial crash. Indeed, it is this that invites comparison with Great Depression, although in the recent crisis massive state intervention served to ensure that a slump on the scale of the 1930s was avoided. Had states permitted inefficient capitals to fail, an even sharper slump would have occurred, but the devaluation of capital would have helped to restore conditions for sustained growth. Instead, they shored up unprofitable banks and other firms deemed “too big to fail”, and helped to restructure and rescue industrial corporations such as GM and Chrysler. The problem with this strategy is that it leaves chronic overcapacity, as witnessed worldwide in certain sectors (such as automobiles), and most gravely in the section of the world economy that is recovering most rapidly, China. One should beware, therefore, of reading too much into the signs of recovery. The long-term crisis of overaccumulation and profitability, Callinicos predicts, is set to continue.

If the economic future is unstable, what of the geopolitical? Once upon a time there was talk of a sunny liberal future in which a benign and powerful US hegemon, backed by a strong EU, oversaw trends towards global governance and democracy. This geopolitical illusion has been smouldering for some time, but Callinicos identifies the Georgia-Russia war of 2008 as a pivotal conflagration. It was fought and won by Russia against an erstwhile colony whose overtures to Nato were perceived as threatening it with encirclement, while Washington could only look on helplessly. The limits to US power were revealed—Russia succeeded in splitting Nato’s European members over the issue. Meanwhile, Europe’s other international organisation, the EU, has been snared in contradictions. And in Asia, the limits to US power have been probed by the Iraqi and Afghani resistance forces, and face the looming challenge of China.

Hegemonic decline doesn’t happen overnight and its pace should not be exaggerated. US GDP is growing faster than many of its economic peers, not to mention its political rivals (Russia, Venezuela). The US will remain the world’s dominant economy for decades to come; Obama has successfully relegitimated US militarism; and Washington will continue to act as supreme “broker”, capable of orchestrating power relations across the globe. Nevertheless, the system is tending towards multipolarity, and relations between states will as a result become more fluid and unpredictable. 2008 won’t be the last time in which Washington’s “imperial overstretch” is manifested in impotent rhetoric as Russia’s borderlands blaze. Beijing-Washington tensions will be a recurring feature—even in Latin America, as Chinese trade links begin to honeycomb US influence, eroding the pillars of the Monroe Doctrine.

So what of the prospects for progressive change? Some harbour hopes for a return to the “embedded liberalism” of the postwar age, but for Callinicos that is but another illusion. That regime was built upon vigorous growth rates and the conceding of considerable economic autonomy to nation states, but the former seems unlikely and the latter can be ruled out due to the globalised nature of production. In the long term, he holds out for democratic planning. En route thereto, a number of measures can be taken, including nationalisation of the commanding heights, wealth redistribution, and a universal direct income. Illusions in neoliberalism, let alone the market, are deeply entrenched, and, despite the book’s title, Callinicos does not pretend that they will be reduced to ashes under the impact of the crisis. That will require protracted political and ideological struggles.


Making sense of modern imperialism

Alex Callinicos
Imperialism and Global Political Economy
Polity Books, 2009
288 pages • $25


“Imperialism, to many people’s surprise, survived the Cold War. More to the point, it has also survived the presidency of George W. Bush.” Making sense of why imperialism survived, how twenty-first-century imperialism operates, and how to resist it are at the core of Alex Callinicos’s extremely useful, if also dense, book.

Callinicos is in general a prolific writer, and in particular on the subject of imperialism. His latest work on the topic, however, represents something of a departure from the classical Marxist approach to imperialism. Its main theoretical premise is that imperialism in fact comprises two dynamics—the economic and the geopolitical. Readers familiar with David Harvey’s work The New Imperialism will see the similarity between Callinicos’s formulation and Harvey’s of capitalist and territorial logics of power. In fact, Callinicos repeatedly acknowledges that both he and Harvey have settled on similar positions.

Callinicos elaborates on this theoretical position in two basic parts in the book. The first, entitled “Theory,” begins with discussion of the classical Marxist theories of imperialism, particularly those outlined by Luxemburg, Lenin, and Bukharin. Here, Callinicos defends Lenin and Bukharin’s formulations, but also raises several important critiques. Most important, he argues that their overreliance on the notion of finance capital has led to distortions in understanding imperialism since the Second World War. Callinicos concludes this first part of the book with a chapter examining the role of the state and ideology in the operation of imperialism.

The second and longer part of the book, entitled “History,” presents an historical overview of imperialism. Callinicos grounds this history in an exhaustive discussion of the origins of capitalism in the Dutch Provinces and England in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century. Two particular concerns guide this history. First, Callinicos distinguishes between pre-capitalist forms of empire and specifically capitalist dynamics of imperialism. Second, he steps into a long-standing debate over how and why capitalism emerged in northwest Europe earlier than in other regions.

This second part of the book concludes with two chapters that present a compelling periodization of modern capitalist imperialism: 1) classical imperialism (1870–1945), book-ended by the U.S. Civil War and unification of Germany on one end and the Second World War on the other; 2) superpower imperialism (1945–1991), characterized by two competing empires dominated by the United States and Soviet Union, respectively; and imperialism after the Cold War (1991–today), during which the United States has acted as a sole superpower.

There are two features that make this book extremely useful. First, it addresses complaints about other recent work theorizing imperialism—especially Harvey’s 2005 title and Ellen Meiksins Wood’s Empire of Capital—that they do not support their claims with enough empirical data. Callinicos responds, particularly in the second part of the book tracing the history of imperialism, with a wealth of such data. It is on the basis of these data that Callinicos is able to argue so effectively that imperialism is in fact a process of conflict among wealthy nations over control of the spoils of the globe.

Second, in his overview of classical Marxist writings about imperialism, Callinicos makes the point that they often drew on non-Marxist studies of political economy to make their case. He continues this tradition throughout the book, which at times makes for some dense reading. Part of this move acknowledges a new generation of Marxist analysis of political economy. This work challenges several decades’ worth of scholarship, particularly in the field of international relations and more recent studies of globalization. Callinicos strengthens his analysis both by drawing from non-Marxist scholarship and by distinguishing among competing approaches within Marxist traditions to understanding imperialism. This constant comparison is extremely clarifying and helps get a broad sense of major intellectual trends analyzing imperialism and empire since the Second World War. In fact, for this reviewer, the breadth of discussion represents the strongest aspect of the book.

Such exhaustive argument is likely to narrow its audience, which is unfortunate. Readers need either a good deal of patience to get through sections where Callinicos pursues highly specialized or secondary debates, or they need a strong academic or political background in order to follow along. That the book is aimed at a (left) academic audience is not a criticism—the academy certainly needs much more scholarship of this sort. At the same time, I look forward to a version of this book that has a more general audience in mind.

Alongside these strengths, however, are two theoretical weaknesses that work in tandem to undermine the overall analysis in this book. The first is mentioned above: the distinction between economic and geopolitical logics of imperialism. Callinicos justifies this distinction on three terms. First, it leaves imperialism “historically open.” In other words, by historicizing the development of Marxist theories of imperialism, we are able to understand both pre-capitalist forms of empire and latter-day forms of capitalist imperialism. Second, Callinicos argues that this distinction avoids the trap of economic reductionism, that is, explaining imperialism in narrow terms of the gains made by one section of capital over another through imperial conflict. Third, this distinction rescues a central tenet in Marxist theories of imperialism, namely that the conflict they describe occurs primarily among wealthy imperial powers, and not simply between the core/global North and the periphery/global South.

While each of these points is indeed necessary for a robust and accurate theory of imperialism, they are possible without this cleavage between the economic and the geopolitical. Take as a remarkable example of historicizing imperialism—both in terms of how it has unfolded and how Marxist thought has evolved in response to it—Chris Harman’s 2003 article, “Analysing Imperialism.” A formal division between the economic and the political is nowhere to be seen; yet the argument is nuanced in terms of tracing shifts in imperialism over time, and acutely aware of the political and ideological fallout of imperialism.

Additionally, by describing his approach to imperialism as avoiding economic reductionism, Callinicos concedes too much to academic critiques of Marxism. It is undeniable that the classical Marxist approach to imperialism has been in need of rescue from reformist, Stalinist, and Maoist distortions (whether in or outside the academy). Yet, the original analyses of imperialism are themselves not reductive. This is especially true of Lenin’s: his pamphlet on imperialism was meant to be read along with other works on nationalism and colonialism, making Lenin’s overall argument anything but simplistic.

To be sure, Callinicos is careful not to argue that the geopolitical side of imperialism operates somehow independently from or outside of capitalism. In fact, he raises a concern that Harvey at times goes too far in this direction. He stresses that the economic and the geopolitical are interwoven, where neither is reducible to the other. Yet, one need not categorize the geopolitical as a distinct dynamic in order to think of imperialism in historically specific and nimble ways.

For example, an economically reductive approach to imperialism would view the 2003 invasion of Iraq as a coup lead by the Bush-Cheney cabal in order to profit the oil companies they hitherto had led. This view in fact characterized a good deal of left and liberal analysis of the war throughout the Bush years, as Callinicos rightly points out. A more accurate analysis of the war and occupation recognizes that by controlling the spigots from which flows the most important commodity in the world economy, the United States strengthens its position vis-à-vis key economic rivals in Europe and East Asia, which depend on Middle Eastern oil in even more direct ways than do U.S. concerns. In fact, here we see the well-known quip that “politics is concentrated economics” borne out. Where precisely in the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq do economic questions end and (geo)political ones begin? In other words, where do we draw a line between maintaining U.S. leverage over key economic rivals by controlling the oil reserves they rely on, and manipulating international political institutions like the UN or waging war to realize those economic aims? Grounding imperialism in these central economic rivalries does not necessitate ignoring or downplaying their political manifestations.

The second theoretical weakness in this book asserts that global capitalism has been in a protracted and essentially uninterrupted crisis of profitability since the early 1970s. Certainly, Callinicos acknowledges the victory of neoliberalism pushed through by Reagan, Thatcher, and their respective successors, and he references a series of economic booms in the 1990s and early 2000s (e.g., in stocks, technology, housing, credit). On the first count, he argues that neoliberalism failed to overcome economic crisis, even if it won on a number of ideological points. On the second count, he dismisses those “booms” as mere speculative bubbles.

It is beyond the scope of this review to debate this assertion at length, but it functions as an important corollary to the distinction between economic and geopolitical dynamics of imperialism. If it were indeed the case that global capitalism had gone through a forty-year period of fairly steady decline, the classical Marxist theory of imperialism would have anticipated greater political and military rivalry among global powers as they attempted to dig out of economic crisis. Indeed, a central point around which Callinicos organizes the book is his response to a question put forward by Robert Brenner. Brenner, who shares the position that global capitalism has been in relative decline for the last forty years, essentially challenges the left to account for the absence of direct military conflict among imperialist powers on the scale of the two world wars. Yet, as Callinicos himself goes to great lengths to argue, absence of full-on warfare does not equate to absence of inter-imperialist conflict overall. Instead of re-evaluating this claim of protracted economic crisis, then, Callinicos overemphasizes geopolitical rivalry as a distinct form or dynamic of imperialism.

Whatever theoretical disputes are to be had with Callinicos’s argument, his specific analysis of contemporary imperialism is sharp. For example, he argues clearly that the “imperialism of free trade” is no less destructive or dangerous in terms of the potential for inter-imperialist conflict than the direct colonialism that characterized the classical era of imperialism. Moreover, Callinicos marshals significant empirical data to underscore the point that now, as in the previous two eras of imperialism, economic and political conflict occurs primarily among three centers of power in North America, Western Europe, and East Asia.

Finally, he recognizes both the current status and instability of U.S. dominance as a “sole superpower.” This instability results from a number of factors, including what Callinicos calls the “increasingly centrifugal world” represented by European and East Asian economies, as well as the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, and China). Second, Callincos recalls the basic propensity of capitalism for economic crisis that can play its own destabilizing role in terms of imperial rivalries. Third, he points to the overreach of U.S. military adventurism, both in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also represented by NATO expansion and U.S. saber-rattling during the 2008 conflict between Russia and Georgia. None of these factors themselves are predictive of the next specific imperial conflict. Instead, and taken together, they underscore the extent to which the basic dynamics of imperialism and imperial conflict remain as active today as in the first half the twentieth century.

As this review has argued, there are important points of debate to be raised in response to Callinicos’s book. None of them, however, detract from what is ultimately an extremely useful and exhaustive analysis of how imperialism developed under capitalism, how it operates today, and how the left must respond.


Imperialism and global political economy

Issue: 108
Posted: 17 October 05
Alex Callinicos
It has become a cliche to say that the ideas of empire and imperialism have enjoyed a renaissance in the early years of the 21st century. The main reasons for this are, of course, the global primacy of the United States and the arrogance with which the Bush administration has flaunted this pre-eminence, above all in the military field. Marxists should be particularly well equipped to respond to this development, given the importance that their tradition has given to the concept of imperialism. More particularly, the Marxist theory of imperialism is distinctive in that it does not treat empire simply as a transhistorical form of political domination—as in, for example, Michael Doyle’s succinct definition of imperialism as ‘effective control, whether formal or informal, of a subordinated society by an imperial society’—but rather sets modern imperialism in the context of the historical development of the capitalist mode of production.1

There are, of course, different versions of this intellectual enterprise, which seeks systematically to relate geopolitical relations to the process of capital accumulation.2 The variant on which I intend to concentrate was developed during the First World War, notably by Lenin in Imperialism (1916) and by Nikolai Bukharin in Imperialism and World Economy (1917). Stated most rigorously by Bukharin, what I henceforth call the classical Marxist theory of imperialism affirms that capitalism in its imperialist stage is defined by two potentially conflicting tendencies: (1) the internationalisation of production, circulation and investment and (2) the interpenetration of private capital and the nation-state. In consequence, an increasingly integrated world economy becomes the arena for competition among capitals that tends now to take the form of geopolitical conflict among states. The First and Second World Wars were from this perspective inter-imperialist conflicts reflecting antagonisms at the heart of capitalism in its imperialist stage.

The classical theory of imperialism, particularly in Bukharin’s hands, suffered from serious defects—notably, a tendency to view the state as a mere instrument of capital, dependence on Rudolf Hilferding’s theory of crises, which reduces them to the effects of imbalances between different branches of production, and the assumption that the trend towards state capitalism was a finished result.3 Nevertheless, stripped of these features and integrated into a rigorous theorisation of capitalism’s crisis tendencies, the classical theory is, in my view, an indispensable instrument for understanding the contemporary world.

From this perspective modern imperialism is what happens where two previously distinct forms of competition merged, as they did in the late 19th century: (1) economic competition between capitals; (2) geopolitical competition between states.

A century or two earlier these two competitive logics had been distinct, rooted in different modes of production: on the one hand economic competition in the nascent capitalist world system; on the other geopolitical competition in what Robert Brenner calls the process of ‘political accumulation’—military expansion and state-building—characteristic of feudalism that drove the formation of the European state system.4 Imperialism represents the moment at which these two logics become integrated. Geopolitical competition can no longer be pursued without the economic resources that could only be generated within the framework of capitalist relations of production; but capitals involved in increasingly global networks of trade and investment depend on different forms of support, ranging from tariff and subsidy to the assertion of military power, from their nation-state. Another way to put it is that the competitive struggle among what Marx in the Grundrisse called ‘many capitals’ now assumes two forms, economic and geopolitical.5

David Harvey expresses a very similar view when he calls ‘capitalist imperialism’ the ‘contradictory fusion’ of two logics of power, what he calls (following Giovanni Arrighi) the capitalist and the territorial:

The relationship between these two logics should be seen therefore as problematic and often contradictory (that is, dialectical) rather than as functional or one-sided. This dialectical relationship sets the stage for an analysis of capitalist imperialism in terms of the intersection of these two distinct but intertwined logics of power. The problem for concrete analyses of actual situations is to keep the two sides of this dialectic simultaneously in motion and not to lapse into either a solely political or a predominantly economic mode of argumentation.6

Other writers, notably Walden Bello, Peter Gowan, Chris Harman, John Rees and Claude Serfati, have pursued a broadly similar approach.7 Many contemporary radical theorists, however, argue that the classical Marxist theory of imperialism is no longer pertinent. Hardt and Negri famously assert that inter-imperialist rivalries have been transcended in the transnational network power of Empire.8

But a much more carefully stated and empirically supported critique of the classical Marxist theory has been developed in recent years by Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin.9 Since this is part of a broader effort to transform our understanding of American imperialism and reorient the radical left, it seems worth paying some attention to it. Accordingly, this article is devoted to assessing this critique and the alternative analysis it seeks to support.

The particular interest of this debate lies in the fact that, whereas the assertion of US global power by the Bush administration is widely seen as constituting the refutation of Hardt’s and Negri’s theory (which announces the transcendence of national antagonisms under Empire), Panitch and Gindin go to the opposite extreme, arguing that the era of globalisation saw the entrenchment of America’s ‘informal empire’. At the same time, they move from different premises from those of Hardt and Negri to the same conclusion, that geopolitical competition has largely been transcended in contemporary capitalism.

According to Panitch and Gindin:

The classical theories of imperialism developed at the time [of the First World War], from Hobson’s to Lenin’s, were founded on a theorisation of capitalism’s economic stages and crises. This was a fundamental mistake that has, ever since, continued to plague proper understanding. The classical theories were defective in their historical reading of imperialism, in their treatment of the dynamics of capital accumulation, and in their elevation of a conjunctural moment of inter-imperial rivalry to an immutable law of globalisation (Global Capitalism and American Empire (London, 2004), hereafter GCAE, p16).

Running through these errors is a failure to appreciate the importance in conceptualising imperialism as a proper understanding of:

states’ relatively autonomous role in maintaining social order and securing the conditions of capital accumulation… Capitalist imperialism, then, must be understood through an extension of the capitalist theory of the state, rather than derived directly from the theory of economic stages or crises. And such a theory needs to comprise not only inter-imperial rivalry, and the conjunctural predominance of one imperial state, but also the structural penetration of former rivals by one imperial state (GCAE, pp18-19).

The repeated phrase ‘one imperial state’ gives the key to Panitch and Gindin’s analysis of imperialism. Rather like J R R Tolkien’s ‘one ring to rule them all’, taking states seriously means for them acknowledging the dominance of one state in particular. More precisely their argument can be rendered down as follows:10

(1) Following Poulantzas, Panitch and Gindin claim that the post-war era was characterised by ‘the internationalisation of the state, understood as a state’s acceptance of responsibility for managing its own domestic capitalist order in way [sic] that contributes to managing the international capitalist order’ (GCAE, p42). The US used the Cold War system of alliances and the Bretton Woods international financial institutions to construct a global capitalist order in which not simply were the economies of Western Europe and Japan laid open to American capital, but the US state and transnational corporations were able systematically to penetrate and reorganise under its leadership the ruling classes of these zones of advanced capitalism: ‘With American capital a social force within each European country, domestic capital tended to be “dis-articulated” and no longer represented by a coherent and independent national bourgeoisie’ (GCAE, p47).11

(2) This order came under strain with the economic and monetary crisis of the 1970s. Panitch and Gindin rely on a version of what Robert Brenner has called ‘supply-side theories of crisis’: in other words, they trace the recessions, inflation and monetary instability of the 1970s back to the relative strength that organised labour built up during the post-war boom and that it was able to use to increase wages and thereby to bring down the rate of profit. Thus they describe ‘working class resistance as both a pivotal factor in causing the crisis and a target of its resolution at the end of the 1970s and beginning of the 1980s’.12 ‘The critical “turning point” in policy orientation came in 1979 with the “Volcker shock”—the American state’s self-imposed structural adjustment programme’ (GCAE, p50). The sharp hike in interest rates and imposition of restrictions on the monetary base announced by Paul Volcker, chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, in October 1979 was the US version of Margaret Thatcher’s simultaneous monetarist offensive in Britain. It sharply slowed down the American economy, and in doing so, Panitch and Gindin argue, it accelerated the process of industrial restructuring that broke the power of organised labour and attracted capital back to the US. The ensuing profits recovery provided the background against which the global order was ‘reconstituted’ on a neo-liberal basis that more tightly integrated the ruling classes of advanced capitalism under American leadership through institutions such as the G7 and the International Monetary Fund and through the global economic hegemony of finance, a change that reinforced the dominance of US capitalism.

(3) The structure forged at the beginning of the 1980s holds good today, Panitch and Gindin argue. If anything it is stronger now than it was then. Not only has the Soviet Union gone, but, ‘while the earlier period was characterised by the relative economic strength of Europe and Japan, the current moment underlines their relative weakness’ (GCAE, p55). It is, moreover, quite misleading to characterise economic competition within the advanced capitalist world as a case of ‘inter-imperialist rivalries’. Not simply does this overstate the extent of the competition, which unfolds within the context of a global neo-liberal economic order dominated by the US, but the implication that these economic tensions might be translated into geopolitical confrontations, even military rivalries, is entirely false. The European Union’s attempts to develop military capabilities are feeble and dependent on NATO, while Japan remains heavily reliant on America’s markets and security shield.

The conclusion that Panitch and Gindin draw from this analysis is not to invite us, in the face of the evidence, to conclude that all is well with the contemporary imperial order:

There is indeed a systemic complexity in today’s global capitalism that includes, even at its core, instabilities and even crises. Yet this needs to be seen not so much in terms of the old structural crisis tendencies and their outcomes, but as quotidian dimensions of contemporary capitalism’s functioning and indeed, as we argued above, even of its successes (GCAE, p61).

Well, I think the problem is a bit more than ‘systemic complexity’. Let me take three steps towards identifying what’s wrong with Panitch and Gindin’s argument. First of all, their adherence—identified as (2) above—to a supply-side theory of crisis is a crucial move. What such a theory does is to render the movements of the capitalist economy dependent on those of the class struggle. Hence, once the balance of class forces had shifted back in favour of capital—as it did, not just in the US but throughout advanced capitalism between 1975 and 1985—the ineluctable consequence was a recovery in profitability and an end to crisis. This differentiates Panitch and Gindin from those, such as Brenner and Harvey, who argue (correctly, in my view) that global capitalism continues to suffer from the crisis of profitability and over-accumulation that first exploded in the mid-1970s.

Panitch and Gindin criticise ‘traditional Marxist theories of structural crises’ because ‘they sometimes tend to fetishise crises in the sense of abstracting them from history’. They elaborate their own alternative approach thus:

This does not mean that it is no longer useful to speak of contradictions inherent in capitalism, but we must be careful not to make too much of their consequences unless they take the form of class contradictions that raise challenges to capital (in terms of whether it can adapt or respond) and labour (in terms of whether it can develop the political capacity to build on the openings provided). We must dispense with a notion of ‘crisis’ as something that leads capitalism to unravel on its own; our theories of crisis must be politicised to integrate the responses of both states and class actors.13

This passage is a strange mixture of truism, implied caricature, and potential error. Truism: of course, capitalism won’t ‘unravel on its own’. But—whatever might or might not have been true in the past—name a serious contemporary Marxist political economist who thinks otherwise (the implication that such exist is the caricature). Potential error: yes, of course, we should ‘integrate the responses of both states and class actors’. But for Panitch and Gindin ‘states and class actors’ don’t just react to booms and crises, they make them. Supply-side theories of crises are agent-centred, since they explain the business cycle in terms of the relative capacities for self-organisation of collective class actors. By contrast, both the theory of crisis that Marx developed in Capital, volume III, and the modified theory recently put forward by Brenner explain crises of over-accumulation by a structural tendency towards a falling rate of profit that cannot be altered by acts of collective will on the part of the contending classes—though of course how classes respond to the effects of this tendency is crucial in shaping the resolution of crises.14

In my view, Panitch and Gindin are mistaken both in holding to an over-politicised theory of crisis and in asserting that global capitalism in general, and the US in particular, have overcome the crisis of profitability that developed in the 1970s. I don’t have the time or space to argue this here: Brenner has done so elsewhere in a response to a paper by one of Panitch and Gindin’s co-thinkers.15 The work of Brenner, Harvey and other Marxist political economists such as Gérard Duménil and Fred Moseley provides plentiful evidence to refute Panitch and Gindin’s assertions. If these arguments are correct, the implications are very serious for Panitch and Gindin. Their narrative of post-war capitalism gives primacy to a single actor—the American state—that is able to shape and then reshape the world as its informal empire relatively unconstrained—both because of its power relative to other actors and because of the power of states and capitalist classes collectively to determine the fate of the world economy. But if tendencies to boom and crisis are the consequence of structural realities— in particular, relatively decentralised and anarchic competition among capitals—that are not easily amenable to collective interventions even by the most powerful capitalist states, then these states, the US included, are much more constrained in their actions than Panitch and Gindin are prepared to concede. Here it would be useful to compare their work with that of Harvey, who in The New Imperialism seeks to integrate the geopolitical strategy of the US under George W Bush with the continuing effects of what Brenner calls ‘the long downturn’ (indeed, Harvey’s major theorisation of Marxist political economy in The Limits to Capital [1982] already concluded with a discussion of contemporary inter-imperialist rivalries).

Secondly, Panich and Gindin insist on giving proper weight to the state as a relatively autonomous actor. Thus they write, ‘Those who interpreted Japan’s trade penetration of American markets and its massive direct foreign investments in the US through the 1980s in terms of inter-imperial rivalry betrayed a misleadingly economistic perspective’ (GCAE, p59). Insofar as remarks of this kind imply a rejection of instrumentalist conceptions of the state that treat it as a mere tool in the hands of big business, the point is well taken. But, once again, it is hardly news. Marxists have over the past few decades sought to develop theorisations of the state that give proper weight to its role as an independent actor.16 Moreover, this kind of understanding informs the main contemporary versions of the classical Marxist theory of imperialism. Harvey, as the passage cited at the start of this paper makes very clear, conceives the relationship between the logics of territorial and capitalist power as a dialectical one in which the two potentially contradict one another. Similarly, I conceptualise imperialism as the intersection of economic and geopolitical competition in part precisely to avoid the suggestion that the latter is an epiphenomenon of the former.17 Panitch and Gindin might object that in setting the development of capitalist imperialism in the context of the structurally determined crisis-tendencies of the capitalist mode of production Harvey and I are giving ultimate primacy to the economy, but if economic primacy doesn’t figure somewhere in the argument what is the point of calling oneself a Marxist?

Thirdly and finally, what about Panitch and Gindin’s substantive interpretation of contemporary imperialism as the relatively stable and expanded reproduction of the informal American empire? Here again, there is an important element of truth to their argument. It is undeniable that there is an asymmetrical relationship between the US and even the most powerful of the other advanced capitalisms—Japan, Germany, Britain, France, etc. Moreover, Panitch and Gindin’s critique of the idea that interimperialist rivalries persist is a useful corrective to the mistaken claim that, for example, I made in earlier writings that the end of the Cold War would see a return to the fluid and potentially disastrous economic and geopolitical competition among the Great Powers that prevailed during the era of classical imperialism between 1870 and 1945.18 In retrospect, this claim confused two levels of determination. It is inherent in the nature of imperialism that it involves economic and geopolitical competition among a plurality of major capitalist states. But it does not follow that this competition must necessarily take the form of conflict, ultimately military, among a relatively small number of roughly equal Great Powers or coalitions of Great Powers—as it did in the lead-up to both the First and Second World Wars. Moreover, the idea of a return to the Great Power rivalries of 1870- 1945, while (as I argue below) containing an important element of truth, stated baldly implied a simple repetition of earlier historical patterns without taking into account the effects of the concrete forms taken by economic and geopolitical competition in the intervening Cold War era.

Thus the historic achievement of the American state during the 1940s was the construction of a transnational economic and geopolitical space that unified the entire advanced capitalist world under US leadership: much of the material that Panitch and Gindin cite documents this process. One consequence of this arrangement was that capital and commodities flowed with growing freedom within this space, to the benefit, again as Panitch and Gindin show, of US banks and transnational corporations. Another was what I have called the partial dissociation of economic and geopolitical competition: in other words, as a result of the integration of advanced capitalism into a single ‘Western’ geopolitical and ideological bloc, economic rivalries among capitals did not have the same potential to become military confrontations as they had had in the earlier era of classical imperialism, when Germany emerged as both an industrial and naval challenger to British hegemony.

Panitch and Gindin are right to see this achievement as a result of the pursuit of a conscious grand strategy by the American ruling class, as numerous studies have confirmed. But they are insufficiently sensitive to the strains to which it has been increasingly subjected as a result of two overlapping processes. The first is the impact of the long-term structural crisis of profitability and over-accumulation, itself to a significant extent a consequence of the emergence from the 1960s onwards of Japan and Germany as major economic competitors to the US.19 The second is the development of centrifugal tendencies within the Western geopolitical bloc. While of long standing (and indeed partially related to the first process), these tendencies were reinforced by the collapse of the Cold War partition of the world in 1989-91, which removed the most obvious rationale for the system of alliances that had knitted together advanced capitalism under US hegemony. The fact that, instead of disintegrating after the Cold War, the transnational economic and geopolitical space constructed in the 1940s became genuinely global was in no sense inevitable. Its extension was a result of the creative political intervention of the American state, particularly under the Clinton administration, for example, to take advantage of the Balkan Wars to force through NATO and EU expansion on terms that preserved and indeed extended the role of the US as the leading military and political power in Eurasia, and to reinforce the role of the Bretton Woods institutions as enforcers of the neo-liberal Washington Consensus on terms favourable to the Anglo-American model of free-market capitalism.20

But the fact that the US-dominated space did not fragment does not mean that serious tensions do not exist within it, or that maintaining it intact does not require continuing and contested effort on the part of the American state. The crisis over Iraq brought all this into dramatic focus.21 Panitch and Gindin’s discussion of Iraq is one of the least convincing aspects of their overall argument. According to them the war was a case of the more general problem posed to the American empire by ‘rogue’ and ‘failed’ states, and the divisions between the US and Britain, on the one hand, and France and Germany, on the other, ‘pertain very little to economic “rivalries”,’ reflecting rather the latter states’ preference for multilateral forms of intervention (GCAE, p73).

The difficulty with this line of argument is that it says nothing at all about the strategic thinking behind the Iraq war. Yet if one consults the key documents that reflect the outlook of the neoconservatives apparently exerting a growing influence on US global policy under Bush father and son—the draft Defense Planning Guidance of March 1992, the material produced by the Project for the New American Century under Clinton, and The National Security Strategy of the United States of America of September 2002—running through of all these is precisely what should not exist, according to Panitch and Gindin, namely a preoccupation with preventing the emergence of ‘peer competitors’ to the US. Let a quotation from the last of these texts suffice: ‘Our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in the hopes of surpassing, or equalling, the power of the United States’.22

Moreover, it is important to understand that, whatever is eccentric, aberrant, or disputed about the neocon worldview relative to the broader US national security elite, it is not this concern with addressing the problem of potential peer competitors. If one takes the work of policy intellectuals other than the neoconservatives and in some cases hostile to them or at least critical of the Iraq adventure—for example, Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Philip Bobbitt, Joseph Nye and John Mearsheimer, one finds the same preoccupation with the future of US hegemony in the face of a variety of powers that can be expected to challenge it at least at the regional level.23

Now, Marx famously said that if essence and appearance coincided then science would be superfluous. All these weighty strategic analyses could be so much epiphenomenal fluff, beneath which lies the reality of a secure and invincible American empire. Personally I find it more economical, however, to take this material at face value, and to treat it as evidence of the very long-standing preoccupation of US grand strategy to prevent the emergence of a hostile Great Power or coalition on the Eurasian landmass. This then supports the interpretation of the Iraq war offered by both Harvey and myself, namely that seizing Iraq would not simply remove a regime long obnoxious to the US, but would both serve as a warning to all states of the costs of defying American military power and, by entrenching this power in the Middle East, give Washington control of what Harvey calls ‘the global oil spigot’ on which potential challengers in Europe and East Asia are particularly dependent.24

Not simply was the conquest of Iraq thus a pre-emptive strike by the US, less against Saddam Hussein than against the other leading powers, but the unfolding of the crisis made the tensions within the Western bloc dramatically visible. The first months of 2003 were remarkable ones in the history of the transatlantic alliance, with France, Germany and Belgium blocking the use of NATO assets for the invasion of Iraq, and Washington mobilising the EU accession states in East and Central Europe against ‘Old Europe’. Of course, considerable efforts have been made since the fall of Baghdad, and particularly since Bush’s re-election, to heal the wounds between the US and the leading continental European states, but there are definite limits. On the one hand, the administration has if anything strengthened its rhetorical commitment to spreading democracy by the sword. On the other, despite regular predictions to the contrary by Washington, London and a significant section of the Marxist left, France and Germany continue to resist American pressure to participate in the occupation of Iraq. The trend is rather in the opposite direction, as various ‘New European’ states that sent troops to Iraq fall over each other rushing for the exit.

Behind this lies, of course, the failure of the occupation itself. Despite numerous announcements of a new dawn, most recently at the elections in January 2005, the US is confronted with the opposition of a large majority of the Iraqi people to its presence, and with the armed resistance of a determined and well-rooted minority. The result has been a signal lesson in the limits of even American military might—overwhelming superiority in fire power doesn’t confer control over a large, dispersed, and predominantly hostile population.25 Panitch and Gindin indeed see the Iraq crisis highlighting ‘the danger posed to the broader legitimacy of the other capitalist states now that they are located in a framework of American imperialism that is so unconcealed’ (GCAE, p73). Giovanni Arrighi goes much further, suggesting that, ‘while its difficulties in Vietnam precipitated the “signal crisis” of US hegemony, in retrospect US difficulties in Iraq will be seen as having precipitated its “terminal crisis”,’ marking the transition to ‘dominance without hegemony’, where US global pre-eminence comes to rest on military might alone, losing the consent of other capitalist classes who had seen it as in their interest as well.26

Even if Arrighi is right to suggest that US hegemony is ‘unravelling’, it is important to state the implications with care. Let us return to the issue of inter-imperialist rivalries. Claude Serfati has given a good account of why, in his view, ‘there is no chance that the inter-capitalist economic rivalries among countries of the transatlantic zone will break out into military confrontations’.27 The reasons he gives are both positive and negative. Negatively, the military gap between the US and all other states singly and combined is so great as to create very strong ‘threshhold effects’ impeding any state (or, more realistically, block of states, such as the EU) from developing military capabilities comparable to the US. Positively, the extent of the interdependence among the leading capitalist economies gives them strong incentives to cooperate and means that US hegemony is the source of ‘public goods’ that benefit them all.

All of this is fair enough, and one can add other specific reasons why economic competition within the Western bloc need not translate into military conflict. Transatlantic tensions reached their height when, in the early months of 2003, the Bush administration apparently embraced a policy, not (as had traditionally been US strategy) of encouraging further European integration, but of divide and rule. This shift gave France and Germany a strong incentive to develop greater autonomy from the US— but it also made this harder to achieve, given the existence of a bloc of EU states more closely aligned with Washington and led by Britain, whose cooperation would be essential to any serious attempt to enhance European military capabilities.28 The defeat of the European Constitution in the French and Dutch referendums of May 2005 has reignited the conflict between ‘New’ and ‘Old’ Europe, this time over domestic economic policy, as the former, under the leadership of a reinvigorated Tony Blair, presses for more rapid neo-liberal ‘reforms’. All the same, it would be foolish to ignore the emergence of what Serfati himself describes as the ‘alter-imperialism’ of the EU and the increasing effort that, as he shows, is being put into developing the European Security and Defence Policy.29

Moreover, it would be a mistake to underestimate the reality and the destabilising potential of conflicts among the advanced capitalist states. Economic rivalries among transnational corporations whose investments and markets are concentrated in one of the three points of the G7 triad—North America, Western Europe and Japan—and that rely on state support in their competitive struggles remain a structural feature of the contemporary global political economy.30 An obvious example is provided by the endemic and serious tensions between the US and the EU over trade: the current dispute over state subsidies to, respectively, Boeing and Airbus seems especially bitter and hard to resolve. Moreover, in Latin America the role that the US has played in promoting neo-liberal policies that open up previously relatively protected markets to foreign capital had, according to Paul Cammack, the ironic effect of benefiting primarily European transnationals rather than American capitalism, despite the latter’s putative dominance of the region. This case illustrates how the activities of the US to provide ‘public goods’ to the benefit of the advanced capitalisms generally may be to the disadvantage of American capitalism in particular. Like all human phenomena, US imperialism is subject to the law of unintended consequences.31

But perhaps the most serious transatlantic row since the invasion of Iraq has been over EU plans to end the arms embargo imposed on China after the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 1989. American politicians and commentators have tended to portray the affair as a case of parochial, money-obsessed Europeans failing to see the bigger geopolitical picture. This doesn’t seem right at all: no doubt concern to get better access to what has become the powerhouse of the world economy was an important reason behind the proposed policy change. But the aim of the French president, Jacques Chirac, seems to have been straightforwardly geopolitical—to find in the rising power of China a counter-weight to American hegemony. A recent CIA assessment went even further, predicting: ‘An EU-China alliance, though still unlikely, is not unthinkable’.32

An even more striking feature of the row over lifting the arms embargo (a decision has now been postponed under intense US pressure) was that American critics of the policy openly objected on the grounds that a war between the US and China, ‘though still unlikely, is [also] not unthinkable’. Nor was this said simply by members of the Taiwan lobby or bug-eyed Republican China-bashers. Michael O’Hanlon of the eminently sane and middle of the road Brookings Institution wrote recently, ‘There really is a chance of a Sino-US war over Taiwan, which may ebb and flow month to month but nonetheless remains quite real. And any European decision to lift the embargo could make any war more likely and more costly in lives and assets’.33

Remarks of this nature rather put into perspective any predictions that the future course of capitalist development will be pacific. Panitch and Gindin do acknowledge the possibility that China may come to constitute a counter-example to their general analysis:

China may perhaps emerge eventually as a pole of inter-imperial power, but it will obviously remain very far from reaching such a status for a good many decades. The fact that certain elements in the American states are concerned to ensure that its ‘unipolar’ power today is used to prevent the possible emergence of imperial rivals tomorrow can hardly be used as evidence that such rivals already exist (GCAE, pp59-60).

This polarisation of present and future seriously underestimates the fluidity of contemporary geopolitics. The row over the lifting of the European arms embargo hardly suggests that the military threat from China is seen as being ‘a good many decades’ away—a series of senior US national security officials from Porter Goss, the Director of Central Intelligence, down have in the past few months been warning of the strategic threat represented by China and in particular of Beijing’s rapid modernisation of its naval and air forces. The Financial Times reports: ‘Policymakers in Washington are questioning the assumption that a Chinese challenge to US military domination of the Asia-Pacific region lies decades in the future’.34 The Pentagon’s annual report on the Chinese military is a compromise document, on the one hand affirming that the People’s Liberation Army’s current ability to ‘project conventional military power beyond its periphery remains limited’, on the other hand warning that, ‘over the longer term, if current trends persist, PLA capabilities could pose a credible threat to other modern militaries operating in the region’.35 Even if such fears are overstated (the CIA is hardly the most credible of intelligence sources after 9/11 and the non-existent Iraqi WMD), there is always the danger that steps taken by the US to prevent China from becoming a threat may simply give the latter’s rulers a greater incentive to build up their military capabilities quickly.

Panitch and Gindin are also dismissive of the increasingly important role played by the central banks of China and other East Asian states in financing the US fiscal and trade deficits: ‘To suggest, as Arrighi does, that because the holders of American Treasury bills are now primarily in Asia we are therefore witnessing a shift in the regional balance of power, is to confuse the distribution of assets with the distribution of power’.36 Here distinctions need to be made with more care than they do. In the first place, it is undoubtedly a sign of the economic and political strength of American capitalism—and, in particular, of the comparative advantage it gains from being able freely to issue, without any backing in gold or whatever, the world’s main reserve currency and thus to create new means of payment— that it has been able to finance the deficit through a massive inflow of capital from the rest of the world. But it doesn’t follow that we should subscribe to the theory affirmed by Vice-President Dick Cheney when he told the then US Treasury secretary, Paul O’ Neill, ‘Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter’.37

The Cheney theory implies that the US could easily continue a trade deficit that, on current trends, will rise from 6 percent to 10 percent of GDP by the start of the next decade. It would be easier to believe that it could if the inflow of capital financing the deficit were attracted by higher profits than are obtainable elsewhere: but, in fact, to judge by the fact that American corporations receive higher returns on their foreign direct investments than they do from their assets within the US, the reverse is true.38 No doubt the US has other economic attractions than sheer profitability—the security and mobility of capital, for example. But the role, already noted, that Asian central banks now play in financing the deficit highlights the role of more political or more political-economic considerations in this policy— for example, avoiding the dependence on foreign capital that had such a devastating impact during the crisis of 1997-98 and keeping Asian currencies at a competitive level against the dollar and thereby permitting the maintenance of the high-export economic model on which East Asian capitalism is based. In this context, there was an element of playing with fire in the recent campaign in the US and the EU for renminbi revaluation.39

From a broader historical perspective, it seems simply perverse to deny any broader economic and geopolitical significance to the role played by China in particular and East Asian capitalism in general in financing the US deficit. Arrighi’s analysis of the crisis of US hegemony is set against the background of a much broader cyclical theory of history in which capitalist powers win and lose hegemony according to a definite and fixed pattern.40 One doesn’t have to sign up to this kind of theory to recognise that it was a significant historical moment when Britain became financially indebted to the United States during the First World War, even if it took another 30 years for this to be translated into the definitive displacement of one by the other as the leading capitalist power. Even if one discounts any such displacement of the US by China, the profound tensions being concentrated in East Asia cannot be ignored.

The Chinese boom has played an important role in reorienting the global political economy, as China has become a major supplier of cheap manufactured goods to the US and the rest of the advanced capitalist world, as well as a key purchaser of intermediate goods from Japan, South Korea and the EU, and of raw materials from the Middle East, Latin America and Africa.41 Moreover, as we have already seen, China and the other East Asian states now closely bound up economically with it have become the underwriters of the continued expansion of American capitalism. Simultaneously China has also become a lightning-rod for geopolitical tensions, has supplanted Japan as the main object of protectionist agitation in the US, and has been identified by the Pentagon and the CIA as the Great Power with which America is most likely to go to war.42

The contradictions that are now concentrated in China are thus symptomatic of the current state of the global political economy—of, not the stable incorporation of world capitalism within the American informal empire, but the fragility of the global accumulation process and of geopolitics today. We must hope—and act to ensure—that this fragility does not make itself felt in too brutal and destructive a way.

1: M Doyle, Empires(Ithaca NY, 1986), p30. This article was originally delivered as a paper at the conference on ‘Korean Economy: Marxist Perspectives’ at the Institute for Social Sciences, Gyeongsang National University, Jinju, South Korea, 20 May 2005, which was funded by a Korean Research Foundation Grant (KRF-2003-005-B00006).
2: See A Callinicos, ‘Marxism and Global Governance’, in D Held and A McGrew (eds), Governing Globalisation (Cambridge, 2002). 3: A Callinicos, ‘Imperialism, Capitalism, and the State Today’, International Socialism35 (Summer 1987), pp84-88.
4: R Brenner, ‘The Social Basis of Economic Development’, in J Roemer (ed), Analytical Marxism (Cambridge, 1986). For a flawed attempt to use Brenner’s concept of political accumulation to trace the origins of the modern state system see B Teschke, The Myth of 1648 (London, 2003). Many of Brenner’s supporters and critics share the assumption that, if the state system originated before the capitalist mode of production became dominant, it cannot now be intrinsic to that mode. But this is a non sequitur that confuses genesis and structure: the state system first took shape in the early modern era of the transition from feudalism to capitalism but was transformed as the capitalist mode became dominant and is now a constitutive dimension of that mode. For discussion of related issues, see A Callinicos, ‘Bourgeois Revolutions and Historical Materialism’, International Socialism 43 (Summer 1989), and ‘Marxism and the International’, British Journal of Politics and International Relations6 (2004).
5: I have elaborated this perspective in A Callinicos, Making History (2nd edn, Leiden, 2004), pp179-199; ‘Marxism and Imperialism Today’, International Socialism 50 (spring 1991); ‘Periodising Capitalism and Analysing Imperialism’, in R Albritton et al (eds), Phases of Capitalist Development (Houndmills, 2001); An Anti-Capitalist Manifesto (Cambridge, 2003), pp50-65; and The New Mandarins of American Power (Cambridge, 2003), esp ch 5.
6: D Harvey, The New Imperialism (Oxford, 2003), pp26, 30. Arrighi’s masterpiece is The Long Twentieth Century (London, 1994).
7: W Bello, Dilemmas of Domination (New York, 2005); P Gowan, The Global Gamble (London, 1999); C Harman, ‘Analysing Imperialism’, International Socialism 99 (Summer 2003); J Rees, ‘Imperialism: Globalisation, the State, and War’, International Socialism 93 (Winter 2001); and C Serfati, Impérialisme et militarisme( Lausanne, 2004).
8: See the critical responses collected in G Balakrishnan (ed), Debating Empire (London, 2003), and A Boron, Empire and Imperialism(London, 2005).
9: L Panitch and S Gindin, Global Capitalism and American Empire (London, 2004), originally published in L Panitch and C Leys (eds), The New Imperial Challenge, Socialist Register 2004 (London, 2003), hereinafter GCAE, and ‘Finance and American Empire’, in L Panitch and C Leys (eds), The Empire Reloaded, Socialist Register 2005(London, 2004).
10: Panitch and Gindin make various assertions about the history of imperialism and of the classical theory, some correct, others not, that I don’t have the time or space to address here.
11: For Poulantzas’s influence on this analysis, see N Poulantzas, Les Classes sociales en capitalisme aujourd’hui (Paris, 1974), ch 1, and L Panitch, ‘The New Imperial State’, New Left Review (II) 2 (2000), especially pp8-10.
12: L Panitch and S Gindin, ‘Finance and American Empire’, as above, p81 n72. R Brenner, ‘The Economics of Global Turbulence’, New Left Review (I) 229 (1998) is, among other things, a devastating critique of this kind of theory of crisis.
13: L Panitch and S Gindin, ‘Finance and American Empire’, as above, p74.
14: For a comparative account of these two theories, see A Callinicos, ‘Capitalism, Crisis, and Profits’, Historical Materialism 4 (1999).
15: R Brenner, ‘The Capitalist Economy, 1945-2000: A Reply to Konings and to Panitch and Gindin’, in D Coates (ed), Varieties of Capitalism, Varieties of Approaches (Basingstoke, 2005).
16: For two of the most important contributions, see R Miliband, ‘State Power and Class Interests’, New Left Review (I) 138 (1983), and C Harman, ‘The State and Capitalism Today’, International Socialism 51 (Summer 1991).
17: A Callinicos, The New Mandarins of American Power, as above, pp104-106.
18: A Callinicos, ‘Marxism and Imperialism Today’, as above, pp27-31, and The Revenge of History (Cambridge, 1991), pp67-82.
19: C Harman, Explaining the Crisis (London, 1984), and R Brenner, ‘The Economics of Global Turbulence’, as above.
20: The best account of US strategy in successfully addressing these crises is provided by Gowan: see especially The Global Gambleand ‘The Euro-Atlantic Origins of NATO’s Attack on Yugoslavia’, in T Ali (ed), Masters of the Universe (London, 2000). His treatment is superior to that offered by Panitch and Gindin because he presents the economic and financial crisis of the 1970s and the end of the Cold War as moments of discontinuity that threatened US hegemony and stresses that actual or potential rivalry from Europe and Japan is an important dimension of both these challenges.
21: More detailed analysis of the causes and consequences of the Iraq war will be found in A Callinicos, The New Mandarins of American Power, as above, and ‘Iraq: Fulcrum of World Politics’, Third World Quarterly26 (2005).
22: The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, September 2002,, p30.
23: H Kissinger, Diplomacy (New York, 1996); Z Brzezinski, The Global Chessboard (New York, 1997), and The Choice (New York, 2004); J Nye, The Paradox of American Power (Oxford, 2002); P Bobbitt, The Shield of Achilles (London, 2002); and J Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics(New York, 2001).
24: D Harvey, The New Imperialism, as above, p19; see also pp25, 201-202.
25: M Mann, Incoherent Empire (London, 2003).
26: G Arrighi, ‘Hegemony Unravelling’, I, New Left Review(II) 32 (2005), p57.
27: C Serfati, Impérialisme et militarisme, as above, p184.
28: A Callinicos, The New Mandarins of American Power, as above, pp119-127.
29: C Serfati, Impérialisme et militarisme, as above, chs 8 and 9.
30: The case for this proposition is argued very powerfully by Peter Gowan in an unpublished paper, ‘Industrial Dynamics and Interstate Relations in the Core’.
31: P Cammack, ‘“Signs of the Times”: Capitalism, Competitiveness, and the New Face of Empire in Latin America’, in L Panitch and C Leys (eds), The Empire Reloaded. The growing European and Chinese economic presence in Latin America has had the effect in turn of increasing the room for manoeuvre of states such as Brazil and Venezuela relative to Washington: see, for example, R Lapper, ‘Latin Lessons’, Financial Times, 17 May 2005.
32: D Dombey and P Spiegel, ‘Up in Arms’, Financial Times, 10 February 2005.
33: M O’Hanlon, ‘The Risk of War over Taiwan is Real’, Financial Times, 2 May 2005.
34: V Mallet, ‘Strait Ahead?’, Financial Times, 7 April 2005.
35: Financial Times, 20 and 21 July 2005.
36: L Panitch and S Gindin, ‘Finance and American Empire’, as above, p73. Arrighi documents the growing economic and financial power of East Asia most recently in ‘Hegemony Unravelling’, I, pp61-80.
37: R Suskind, The Price of Loyalty (London, 2004), p291.
38: N Ferguson, Colossus (London, 2004), p281. Anyone who doubts the real problems posed by the American deficit could do worse than to consult the excellent series of articles on the subject by Martin Wolf published in the Financial Timeson 1, 8 and 22 December 2004.
39: See, for example, N Roubini, ‘Ten Reasons Why China Should Move Its Peg and Pull the Plug on the US Reckless Policies’, March 2005, www.stern.nyu/ globalmacro. China’s decision in July 2005 to revalue the renminbi by 2.1 percent and allow it to fluctuate mildly against a basket of currencies is unlikely to eliminate these pressures.
40: G Arrighi, The Long Twentieth Century, as above; G Arrighi, B Silver et al, Chaos and Governance in the Modern World System (Minneapolis, 1999); and G Arrighi, ‘Hegemony Unravelling’, II, New Left Review(II) 33 (2005).
41: Martin Hart-Landsberg and Paul Burkett give an excellent analysis of China’s place in the world economy in ‘China and the Dynamics of Transnational Capital Accumulation’, paper for the conference on ‘Korean Economy: Marxist Perspectives’, as above.
42: The case of Japan underlines the importance of not reducing geopolitical to economic relations. Japan’s uneasy recovery from the long slump of the 1990s has depended critically on feeding the Chinese boom, but the Koizumi government’s aggressive nationalist stance (symbolised by the conflicts over Japan’s war record) has involved sending troops to Iraq and, more significantly, aligning itself with Washington’s strategy of militarily containing China: see, for example, G McCormack, ‘Remilitarising Japan’, New Left Review(II) 29 (2004). Japan’s close geopolitical alignment with the US might seem to confirm Panitch’s and Gindin’s analysis, but the long-term effect is likely to be to stoke up the tensions that they underplay.


Feedback: ‘Imperialism and global political economy’—a reply to Alex Callinicos

Issue: 109
Posted: 3 February 06
Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin
We appreciate the attention that Alex Callinicos is giving to our work (International Socialism 108), and are especially pleased that he sees it as a ‘useful corrective’ to his earlier ‘mistaken claim’ that the end of the Cold War would see a return to the old inter-imperial rivalries. Our argument, he acknowledges, helped
him see the error in expecting, after 1989, ‘a simple repetition of earlier historical patterns without taking into account the effects of the concrete forms taken by economic and geopolitical competition’ in the post-1945 era (p116).

Unfortunately, Callinicos’s critique of our work makes it rather clear that the theoretical mistakes that led him to make this earlier claim have not been corrected. Despite beginning by admitting the ‘serious defects’ of the classical theory of
imperialism, Callinicos seems mainly concerned to defend it as an ‘indispensable instrument for understanding the contemporary world’. He borrows from Harvey and Arrighi a notion of ‘two logics
of power’—economic and territorial—to try to revive the classical theory.1 Defining imperialism as ‘the intersection of economic and geopolitical competition’, he explains this as deriving from the
internationalisation of capital, and the interpenetration of private capital and the nation-state by the late 19th century, which gave rise to the ‘merger’ of the two previously distinct logics of power:
economic competition between capital and geopolitical competition among states. Their ‘contradictory fusion’ continues to
define imperialism today.

By contrast, our argument is that there was a fundamental transformation in capitalist imperialism in the last half century along the following lines: (a) the closest linkages among capitalist states were now between the American state and the other states of the West, rather than with the South as in the old imperial era; (b) the internationalisation of capital was fundamentally different in the second half of the 20th century than in the 19th and early 20th, based as it now was on foreign direct investment and the
multinational corporation; (c) the interpenetration of production and finance in the contemporary era dissolved the coherence of the old national bourgeoisies that was the basis of the earlier inter-imperial rivalries; (d) what Marx in the Grundrisse called ‘many capitals’ came to depend on many states; and (e) the internationalisation of the state reflected this in terms of the
responsibilities states took on for managing the contradictions and crises of global capitalism, while still trying to make their territorial spaces attractive as sites of accumulation for foreign as well as domestic bourgeoisies.

Callinicos appears to accept our argument on how capitalist imperialism was transformed. As he puts it, ‘Thus the historic achievement of the American state during the 1940s was the construction of a transnational economic and geopolitical space that unified the entire advanced capitalist world under US leadership’ (p117). But he contends that we are ‘insufficiently sensitive to the strains’ to which this new imperial system was
‘increasingly subjected’ by the late 1960s. His entire argument in this respect appears to be founded on the claim that the economic crisis of the 1970s has never been resolved. Yet we show that it was precisely through the neo-liberal resolution of that crisis that global capitalism’s dynamism and the structural power of the
American empire were reconstituted over the last quarter of a century.

Callinicos misunderstands our argument when he says that we see class struggle from below as the sole cause of the crisis of the 1970s; we make it very clear that renewed economic competition was also at the root of this. Our main point is that it
became impossible to resolve the crisis of the 1970s without breaking the back of labour, not least through opening up the
world to the free flow of capital and restructuring the world’s states to that end under the new form of social rule that is
neo-liberalism. Far from the ‘strains’ of the crisis of the 1970s undoing the new form of capitalist imperialism, we show that
American hegemony not only remained unchallenged through that decade, but the trade competition that emerged from the
revived Japanese and European economies did not lead on to anything like the old rivalries. This was so precisely because of
the integration in production and finance that had already taken place and continued apace amid this revived competition.
Callinicos does not challenge this, nor does he dispute our argument that it was after the US applied neo-liberal discipline
to itself under the Volcker shock that the international authority of neo-liberalism was established, emulated and generalised. It was this that resolved, for capital, the crisis of the 1970s.

Callinicos offers no evidence himself that the crisis of the 1970s remains with us tothis day, and totally ignores the evidence
we offer to the contrary, including our refutation of the ‘plentiful evidence’ he seems to think the sources he mentions provide.2 Insofar as Callinicos is arguing that there are structural tendencies to crises in capitalism that operate behind the backs of class and state actors, we don’t disagree at all. In fact, we think that uneven development and financial volatility under neo-liberal globalisation significantly reinforce those tendencies. But we argue that the capacity to manage and contain crises also needs to enter into the analysis, and we stress not only the coordinated management under the American imperial aegis, but also the
difficulties involved in having to manage global capitalism through relatively autonomous states.

Despite his mea culpa for his earlier mistakes on this, Callinicos still seems to believe that the end of the Cold War, reinforced by the ongoing economic crisis that began in the 1970s, should have removed the structural underpinning of ‘the transnational economic and geopolitical space constructed in the 1940s’. Insofar as he now says the disintegration of the latter proved to be ‘in no sense inevitable’ after 1989, he seems to think this was only due to ‘the creative political intervention of the American state, particularly under the Clinton administration’ (p118). He thus fails to appreciate that the international economic integration and the coordinated management of global capitalism were not a
mere addendum to the Cold War; and he also gives far too much weight to the primacy of American state actors in making what he calls a ‘genuinely global capitalism’ happen in the 1990s. This is rather ironic, given that he accuses us of not giving primacy to economic determinants and paying too much attention to the imperial capacities of the American state.

Whereas we see the theoretical importance of stressing the relative autonomy of the state in terms of the role many states play in fostering and reproducing a dynamic global capitalism, Callinicos seems to mainly see the importance of states in terms of their role in ‘geopolitical competition’. This loose notion of
‘geopolitical competition’ acts as a stand-in for the concept of inter-imperial rivalries, and it is this that allows him to cling to the
classical theory of imperialism as ‘an indispensable instrument for understanding the contemporary world’.

The evidence Callinicos adduces to make his case for ‘the development of centrifugal tendencies within the Western geopolitical bloc’ (p118) strikes us as very weak, especially since the whole implication of his argument is that this is suggestive of a return to inter-imperial r ivalries. All he points to are certain
concerns among some American elites to prevent the emergence of effective rivals to US military dominance. This is hardly surprising, and only confirms that the American state wants to develop further capacities to reinforce its dominance. The very fact that Callincos speaks in terms of American elites having ‘a longstanding preoccupation…to prevent the emergence of a hostile Great Power’ (p118, emphasis added) is evidence that there is nothing new here. And even if we granted that this preoccupation alone could explain the American invasion of Iraq, it would no more indicate the likely re-emergence of
inter-imperial rivalries than the war on Yugoslavia over Kosovo did. We explicitly argued that the latter was mainly directed at making it clear to the Europeans that NATO would remain the policeman of Europe—and Callinicos admits it was successful in this respect.

There were of course greater tensions over the war on Iraq, but Callinicos makes far too much out of what transpired in this
respect in the early months of 2003, and ignores the significance of the German and French endorsement at the UN in the spring of 2004 of the American occupation of Iraq. As Dominique Moisi explained, the main reason for this accommodation was that ‘when the US finds itself bogged down, it poses a big challenge to the rest of the world. If America simply pulled out [of
Iraq] now…concern would quickly switch from the perils of US global domination to the dangers of a world deprived of US
international engagement… America is in a mess but so are we’.3 This sustains our argument that ‘what is at play in the current
conjuncture is not contradictions between national bourgeoisies, but contradictions of “the whole of imperialism”, implicating all
the bourgeoisies that function under the American umbrella’.4

We may also note in this context the French defence minister’s reassurance that even the ‘Defence Europe’ initiative would ‘strengthen NATO’s capacities and benefit the trans-
Atlantic link. We are not in competition. We complement each other’.5 No less notable is the French government’s advertising
campaign (inaugurated in late 2004) in publications like the Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review and Time Global
Business trumpeting ‘The New France’ (in obvious contrast with ‘Old Europe’) as the savvy investor’s place to do business.6 More than a short-term concern with profits is involved here. Very much at play is the belief by European capitalists that neo-liberalism can remain strong in Europe only insofar as it remains strongly tied to an America-led global capitalism. Indeed, the class alignments in relation to the yes and no votes in the
referendum on the European constitution sustains our argument that ‘the most serious contradictions and conflicts are located not so much in the relationships between the advanced capitalist states, as within these states, as they try to manage their internal processes of accumulation, legitimation and class struggle’.7 Of course, as we also argued, this is no less true of the American state as it tries to manage and cope with the complexities of
neo-imperial globalisation while also overseeing the social forces and social contradictions in its own social formation.

What all this suggests is that, even by replacing the concept of rivalry with the vaguer one of ‘geopolitical competition’,
Callinicos cannot make the old classical theory of imperialism ‘indispensable’ for understanding European-American
relations today. Callinicos offers nothing at all to challenge our central argument that the asymmetric power relationships that
emerged out of the penetration and integration among the leading capitalist countries under the aegis of informal American empire were not dissolved in the wake of the crisis of the Golden Age
or the end of the Cold War, but rather were refashioned and reconstituted through the era of neo-liberal globalisation. And he only caricatures our argument (and to recognise this one does
not need to read our own extensive critique of Hardt and Negri8) when he contends that we arrive at the same conclusion as Hardt and Negri ‘that geopolitical competition has largely been
transcended in contemporary capitalism’ (p111). It is only because he wants ‘geopolitical competition’ to act as a stand-in for inter-imperial rivalry that he can suggest this. For unlike Hardt and Negri we reject the notion that borders are being erased and states are being bypassed in global capitalism, and we insist on the very large role of states in the making of global capitalism; we also explicitly say that the relative autonomy of states within the American informal empire allows for divergence in many policy areas.

Indeed we would even agree with Greg Albo’s important argument that the precise nature of hegemony is that you expect different tactics to be put forward by the integrated field of forces but that they do so in a way that reproduces the overall structural relation and power.9 In a world of states, you would expect
different states to exhibit different approaches to what is needed for global capitalist development and security. The problem is to think that every conjunctural expression of this should be
taken as proof of fundamental divergences within the imperium, and to draw the conclusion that this constitutes a geopolitical
fault line that will spill over into rivalry for world dominance. Neither of these reductions is necessary theoretically, and they are wrong empirically.

The weakness of an argument that must rely on inflating instances of strain or tension among the advanced capitalist states far beyond what they deserve is especially seen when Callinicos points to the EU’s plans to end the arms embargo on China as ‘perhaps the most serious row since the invasion of Iraq’. The EU has, of course, backed down on this since he
penned these words. What this type of argument makes clear is that Callinicos is still too easily tempted to slip back into making the same mistake he made in earlier wr itings—he remains on the
lookout for ‘a simple repetition of earlier historical patterns’ that will sustain the old classical theory of inter-imperial rivalry. The attention he pays to China as a putative new player in these patterns might seem more plausible than the attention he gives to Europe in this respect. But the case he tries to make to counter our argument that China will remain very far from reaching the status of an inter-imperial pole for a good many decades relies again on quotations from American security elites that express their concern to prevent China from acquiring this status. He himself provides no historical materialist analysis of the
capacity of China to do this.

Callinicos returns at the end of his article to the question of the underlying economic factors that are allegedly undoing the American Empire. He focuses primarily on ‘the role played by China in particular and Asian capitalism in general in financing the US deficit’. From this, he draws a parallel with Britain having
become ‘financially indebted to the United States during the First World War even if took another 30 years into the definitive
displacement of one by the other as the leading capitalist power’ (p124). He thus slips here yet again into ‘a simple repetition
of earlier historical patterns’, and this is especially troubling insofar as it encourages people to pay insufficient attention to the
need for careful historical materialist analyses of what has distinctively changed by way not only of the names of the state
players in the global capitalist economy but in the relationships between them over the course of the last century.

All this makes it rather ironic that Callinicos should chastise us for not giving primacy to economic determinations. By virtue of our
‘not setting the development of capitalist imperialism in the context of the structurally determined crisis tendencies of the capitalist mode of production’, he is emboldened to ask: ‘If economic primacy doesn’t figure somewhere in the argument
what is the point of calling oneself a Marxist?’ (p116) This betrays a number of fundamental theoretical problems. On what basis does giving primacy to economic determinants get translated into crisis tendencies alone? What are we to understand by ‘economic primacy’ if the structural determination involved is read off from contradictory versions of crisis theory and that plays down the balance of power in social relations of production at both national and international levels? Isn’t it a version of the monetary illusion to read structural crises off from such indicators as deficits and debts?

It is significant in this respect that Callinicos fails to address our theoretical as well as empirical argument regarding the
relationship between finance and empire in global capitalism, nor our explicit explanation of why the relationship between the US and its creditors today is so different than that between Britain and
the US yesterday. Our explanation of the American ability to finance its massive deficits over the past quarter century, and
our argument that this has reflected imperial strength rather than weakness, has fundamentally to do with the ‘economic primacy’ we give to production and finance in our analysis, although we show that these can never be separated from their class and institutional moorings.10

We said of Lenin in ‘Global Capitalism and American Empire’ that he had a proclivity for over-politicising theory. We expect Alex Callinicos will not be overly upset if we say—in what is perhaps yet another example of ‘repetition of earlier historical patterns’—that he is also like Lenin in this respect. Unfortunately, this proclivity all too often gives rise to a search for evidence of economic crises on the basis of an overestimation of the political fragmentation and instability that such crises must bring. This tends to be accompanied by a type of politics that is premised on the expectation that economic crises and war among capitalist states will provide the setting for revolutionary opportunities.
And the underestimation that necessarily follows from this of the strength and cohesiveness of global capitalism today unfortunately also gives rise to an underestimation of what the left needs to do politically and organisationally to develop the revolutionary capacities to challenge capitalism in the 21st century.

1: It ought to be pointed out that Harvey’s notion of the territorial logic in his The New Imperialism (Oxford, 2003) is explicitly derived from Arendt rather than Lenin; and Arrighi has long dismissed as ‘irrelevant’ the old classical theory of imperialism for ‘interpreting accounts of world-historical events, trends and
developmental tendencies since the Second World War’. See The Geometry of Imperialism (London, 1978), p160.
2: We have shown, for instance, that Brenner’s data generally distorts the upturn in growth and profitability by including the crisis decade of the 1970s and leaving out the decade after 1996;
the picture looks very different if one takes the period of neo-liberalism proper from 1983 to the present. As for the ‘plentiful evidence’ of the other sources he mentions, Dumenil actually agrees with us against Brenner about neo-liberalism’s resolution of the crisis of the 1970s and the upturn in profits this gave rise to; his recent work points to the possibility of a new crisis now based on finance’s excessive appropriation of the revived profits. In addition to our essays in the 2004 and 2005 volumes of the Socialist Register, see also S Gindin, ‘Turning Points and Starting Points’, Socialist Register 2001, and L Panitch and S Gindin, ‘Rethinking Crisis’, Monthly Review 54:6, November 2002, and ‘Euro-Capitalism and American Empire’ in D Coates (ed),
Varieties of Capitalism, Varieties of Approaches (Basingstoke, 2005). Most recently, see L Panitch and S Gindin, ‘Superintending Global Capital’, New Left Review 35 (September/October 2005).
3: Financial Times, 12 November 2003.
4: ‘Global Capitalism and American Empire’, Socialist Register 2004, p32.
5: Michele Alliot-Marie, Wall Street Journal, 9 March 2005.
7: ‘Global Capitalism and American Empire’, as above, p24.
8: ‘Gems and Baubles in Empire’, Historical Materialism 10:2 (2002).
9: See G Albo, ‘The Old and New Economics of Imperialism’, Socialist Register 2004.
10: See our ‘Finance and American Empire’, Socialist Register 2005, esp pp67-75.