Imperialism in the 21st Century

by Doug Lorimer

January 2002 -- "The three grand imperatives of imperial geostrategy [are] to prevent collusion and maintain security among the vassals, to keep tributaries pliant and protected, and to keep the barbarians from coming together."1 This statement was not made by an official in the ancient Roman imperial bureaucracy. It was made by Zbigniew Brzezinski, a central figure in the US foreign policy elite, national security adviser to us President Jimmy Carter and chief architect of Washington’s policy of creating a network of fanatically anti-communist Islamic terrorists to spearhead the counter-revolutionary war against the Afghan workers and peasants’ government in the late 1970s. It was Brzezinski who infamously defended US support for the ultra-reactionary Taliban with the comment: "What is more important in the world view of history? The Taliban or the fall of the Soviet empire? A few stirred-up Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?"2

Brzezinski's statement about the "grand imperatives" of US imperial policy gives a candid insight into how the us ruling elite views the world. The "vassals", among whom it is necessary to "prevent collusion and maintain security", are the other imperialist powers. Like the vassals of medieval Europe, the other imperialist powers hold sovereignty within their own "fiefs" but are required to render general support, and particularly military service, to the supreme lord in Washington.

The "tributaries" who are to be kept "pliant and protected" are the semicolonial capitalist regimes of Asia, Africa and Latin America, from whom the imperialist powers extort tribute in the form of colonial super-profits, debt service payments and cheap raw materials, oil in particular.

The "barbarians", whom it is necessary to keep "from coming together", are the oppressed and exploited mass of humanity, since when they do "come together"—that is, act collectively in their own interests—pose a threat to the very existence of "civilisation" as the Brzezinskis conceive of it. That this is the real view of the propertyless mass of humanity, of the workers and poor peasants of the world, held by imperialist statespeople and strategists is confirmed by the argument given to US President Woodrow Wilson by his wartime secretary of state, Robert Lansing, in 1918 as to why the United States should send troops, money and arms to Russia to overthrow the Bolshevik government. The Bolsheviks sought, Lansing wrote, "to make the ignorant and incapable mass of humanity dominant in the earth"; they were appealing "to a class and not to all classes of society, a class which does not have property but hopes to obtain a share by process of government rather than by individual enterprise. This is of course a direct threat at existing social order in all countries."3

Of course, Lansing did not express this view in public, only in his private letters to Wilson. In public, he argued that the Bolshevik leaders were German agents and therefore US military aggression against Soviet Russia was not a counter-revolutionary intervention, but a subsidiary part of the Allied war against German imperial expansion.

Lansing, it is interesting to note, also concocted a now familiar ruse to provide cover for this counter-revolutionary intervention after Germany had surrendered in November 1918. He proposed to Wilson that Herbert Hoover, the US food administrator, take charge of a commission to organise the delivery of food parcels to Russian children. As Lansing noted: "Armed intervention to protect the humanitarian work done by the commission would be much preferable to armed intervention before this work had begun".4

Rise of US imperialism

As a consequence of World War I, US imperialism gained pre-eminence over its European imperialist rivals. US capitalism, which Lenin called "the only full beneficiary from the war", emerged in the 1920s not only as the capitalist world’s chief creditor, but also its leading industrial power. Nevertheless, its standing as the world’s chief imperialist power remained subject to challenge from its rivals, whose colonial empires in Asia and Africa remained largely intact, in some instances even expanding.

In the mid-1920s, the Bolshevik economic theorist Yevgeny Preobrazhensky noted that the United States had already acquired a preeminent position in the world economy and drew a momentous conclusion. "American expansion", he wrote, "cannot encounter an unbreakable resistance in any country of the capitalist world so long as the country undergoing attack and pressure remains capitalist". The reason for this, in his view, was that US dominance was a function of the commanding technological and financial superiority of its monopolistic corporations in an increasingly intergrated world market, and that this very superiority ensured its eventual triumph in any competition in that market. Elaborating on this idea, Preobrazhensky wrote:

The very economic structure of the present-day capitalist countries excludes the possibility of serious resistance to American conquest, because the already attained level of the world division of labour, of world exchange, with the existence of the huge and ever-growing economic, technical and financial superiority of America over all the rest of the world inevitably subjects this world to the value-relations of America. Not a single capitalist country can, without ceasing to be capitalist, break away from the operation of the law of value in its changed form. And it is just here that the avalanche of American monopolism falls on it. Resistance is possible only perhaps, on a political basis, specifically on a military basis, but just because of America’s economic superiority this would hardly prove successful.

Preobrazhensky concluded:

A struggle against American monopolism is possible only through changes in the whole structure of the given country, that is, through going over to a socialist economy, and would not allow American capitalism to get hold of one branch of industry after another, subjecting them to American trusts or banks, as is happening with the "natural" contact between present-day American capitalism and the capitalism of other capitalist countries.5

A decade and a half after this was written, the US rulers’ German and Japanese imperialist competitors made a bid to resist and overcome by military means the challenge of US monopolism, and, as Preobrazhensky forecast, this bid proved disastrously unsuccessful.

At the end of World War II, the US monopolists looked set to realise their goal of world domination. At the end of 1945, the US accounted for 50 per cent of world industrial production, and its rulers had overwhelming military supremacy among the imperialist powers. On this basis, the propagandists of US imperialism trumpeted the beginning of the "American century".

This "American century", however, ran into a major obstacle the US rulers did not count on—an enormous wave of political rebellion and social insurgency by the world’s working people, Brzezinski’s "barbarians".

In Europe, German imperial expansionism had been smashed by a combination of the mass resistance of the Soviet workers and peasants and local worker-peasant movements under Stalinist leadership. A revolutionary wave of revulsion against capitalist rule in Italy and France threatened the survival of capitalism. On the mainland of Asia, Japanese imperial expansion had also been smashed by a similar combination of action by the Soviet workers and peasants in uniform and local Communist-led national liberation movements.

Under the impact of the "Get us home" movement among US soldiers at the end of 1945, the massive US conscript army was temporarily disabled as an effective instrument for large-scale counter-insurgency operations. The US rulers were therefore unable to block the destruction of capitalist regimes and the capitalist economic structure in a series of eastern European countries in the late 1940s and in China in the early 1950s.

To restore capitalist stability in western Europe and Japan, Washington had to provide huge public loans to its imperialist rivals in Europe and Japan, which enabled them not only to revive production but, over the course of the 1950s and 1960s, to modernise their technology, bringing them into a position to offer increasing competition with US corporations at home and abroad, thus undermining the virtually unchallenged dominance the latter held within the world capitalist market at the end of World War II.

To rebuild their military forces as effective instruments for policing the world, the US rulers launched a campaign to instil fear and stifle political dissent among the US masses. This campaign became known as McCarthyism after a Republican senator, Joseph McCarthy, who conducted televised hearings in the early 1950s into an alleged Communist conspiracy within the US government. However, the anti-leftist witch-hunt was initiated by Democratic President Harry Truman, who signed an executive order in 1947 requiring 2.5 million government employees to be investigated by the FBI for potential "disloyalty", defined as "membership in, affiliation with, or sympathetic association with ... any ... organization, association, movement, group or combination of persons, designated by the Attorney General as totalitarian". Soon afterwards, this "loyalty check" was extended to include the three million members of the armed forces and three million employees of defence contractors—a total of eight million people.

At the same time, on the basis of the rise in the rate of exploitation of labour resulting from the mass unemployment of the pre-war depression and wartime inflation, US capitalists were able to invest profitably in the technological innovations stimulated by war production. These in turn, particularly the use of electronically controlled semi-automated production systems, enabled the monopolists greatly to cheapen the cost of the production of whole branches of industry, and thus to expand the markets for these products.

This provided the economic basis for a twenty-year period of accelerated accumulation of capital, during which they were able to create a substantial enough aristocratic layer within the US working class to extinguish the embers of mass labour radicalism that had exploded in the 1930s.

Combined with the anti-leftist witch-hunt, this process eliminated the need for the US rulers to move outside the framework of capitalist democracy to maintain political stability at home as they pursued their global counterinsurgency strategy, which centred on blocking the anti-colonial struggles of the workers and peasants in the Third World from being transformed into successful anti-capitalist revolutions.

Decolonisation and US imperialism

The disintegration of the colonial empires in Asia under the combined impact of the military and economic exhaustion of the European colonial powers, the military defeat of Japan and the rise of national independence movements, enabled us imperialism to expand its economic interests and military influence throughout the former colonies. Before the second world war, for example, US corporations owned only thirteen per cent of the oil production of the Middle East; by 1960 they owned sixty-five per cent.

With some exceptions, US imperialism did not seek to replace the European colonial empires with its own overt political control. For many liberal thinkers, the end of colonialism signalled the end of imperialism. However, colonialism was only a politically contingent phase of imperialist development. Lenin recognised this and as early as 1916 suggested that "some slight change in the political and strategic relations of, say Germany and Britain, might today or tomorrow make the formation of a new Polish, Indian and other similar state fully ‘practicable’" since, as he put it, "the domination of finance capital and capital in general is not abolished by any reforms in the sphere of political democracy; and [national] self-determination belongs wholly and exclusively to this sphere...".6

What fundamentally distinguished the imperialist stage of capitalism, in Lenin’s view, was the replacement of the free competition of many small and medium-sized capitalist firms by the domination of the world capitalist market by a new form of capitalist ownership—finance capital—in which a small number of super-rich capitalist families and associations of these families held controlling ownership of monopolistic industrial corporations and monopolistic banks and other financial enterprises. As he noted in 1915:

At a certain stage in the development of [commodity] exchange, at a certain stage in the growth of large-scale production, namely, at the stage that was reached approximately at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries, commodity exchange had created such an internationalisation of economic relations, and such an internationalisation of capital, accompanied by such a vast increase in large-scale production, that free competition began to be replaced by monopoly. The prevailing types were no longer enterprises freely competing inside the country and through intercourse between countries, but monopoly alliances of entrepreneurs, trusts.

The typical ruler of the world became finance capital, a power that is peculiarly mobile and flexible, peculiarly intertwined at home and internationally, peculiarly devoid of individuality and divorced from the immediate processes of production, peculiarly easy to concentrate, a power that has already made peculiarly large strides on the road to concentration, so that literally several hundred billionaires and millionaires hold in their hands the fate of the whole world.7

While in his 1916 book Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, Lenin noted, "Finance capital is such a great, such a decisive, you might say, force in all economic and all international relations, that it is capable of subjecting, and actually does subject to itself even states enjoying the fullest political independence", he tended to regard the conquest of colonies as the culmination of finance capital’s striving for domination. Thus, he argued that "finance capital finds most ‘convenient’, and derives the greatest profits from, a form of subjection which involves the loss of political independence of the subjected countries and peoples".8 He therefore regarded the semicolonial countries, countries which were, as he put it, "formally independent, but in fact, are enmeshed in the net of financial and diplomatic dependence" on the imperialist powers, as being in a "transitional form of state dependence" on their way to becoming direct colonial possessions of one of the imperialist powers.9

The scramble among the European capitalist powers to acquire colonial possessions, however, occurred in the period 1875-1900, that is, in the quarter-century before the imperialist stage of capitalism. While there cannot be any doubt that it was strongly influenced by the growth of national monopolies in the major capitalist countries and their drive to secure cheap sources of raw materials, the two countries in which monopolisation proceeded earliest and fastest—the United States and Germany—were either absent or latecomers in the "great game". The leading players were the oldest of the industrial capitalist powers—Britain, France and Belgium. For the British capitalist rulers, the drive to acquire colonies represented a reversal of the previous trend of policy. Thus in 1852, British treasurer Benjamin Disraeli declared, "These wretched colonies will be independent in a few years and are millstones around our necks",10 while twenty years later he announced his conversion to a policy of colonial expansionism.

What had changed in the intervening period was that Britain had lost its world monopoly of industrial production. During the period when Britain held this technological monopoly, its rulers advocated open competition in international markets. From the late 1860s, however, two new industrial powers—the United States and Germany—began to challenge Britain’s economic supremacy. In a world of increasingly competitive and internationally oriented rivals, a movement by any of them to secure monopoly control of markets or supplies of raw materials by political means would inevitably tend to provoke a general pre-emptive scramble for colonial possessions to prevent the loss of presently held or potentially valuable markets. In retrospect, this appears to have been the major—even determinant—factor in producing the rush to acquire colonies.

This pre-emptive and preventive nature of imperialist colonialism is most clearly seen in the foreign policy of US imperialism, which eschewed formal for informal empire. This policy was first articulated by secretary of state John Hay in his "Open Door Notes", circulated in 1898, which sought to prevent European colonial expansion in China and preserve open access for all the imperialist powers to the Chinese market. This open door, as Woodrow Wilson aptly described it, was "not the open door to the rights of China, but the open door to the goods of America".11 As a political strategy, the open door policy represented the natural policy of a new great economic power, which recognised that open competition, in foreign as well as domestic markets, was the most efficient way of ensuring domination for the strongest. As the financier Andrew Carnegie argued shortly before the policy was announced:

The United States does not know the destiny that is lying immediately at her feet, provided she turns from ... phantom schemes of annexation of barbarous peoples in distant lands and just looks down ... and sees what the gods have placed within her grasp—the industrial dominion of the world.12

The US annexation of the Philippines following the US-Spanish war of 1898, while seemingly contradicting the open door policy, in fact was in part motivated by it. The Philippines was seen by the US rulers as the gateway to the markets of China, and in the context of the global colonial scramble the only guarantee of US access to China, at the time, seemed to be annexation.

The US war with Spain over Cuba and the Philippines also brought to the fore a central element of subsequent US foreign policy—military intervention to protect imperialist interests from national liberation movements. Spain’s inability to suppress rebellion in its empire was a major motivating factor for US military intervention. Thus Spain’s inability to control revolutionary unrest in Cuba, where US corporations already had substantial interests, was regarded by President William McKinley as a condition which "causes disturbance in the social and political condition of our own people ... and tends to delay the condition of prosperity to which this country is entitled".13

Unlike the Philippines, which was annexed as a US colony, Cuba was placed under US military rule until 1902, when it was granted formal independence under a government subservient to US corporate interests. The Cuba intervention set the subsequent pattern for US imperialist policy toward the underdeveloped countries. Between 1900 and 1917, for example, Washington intervened militarily on more than twenty occasions, in countries from Colombia to China, to suppress threats to US property during revolutionary outbreaks, and to impose nominally independent governments prepared to protect these interests.

In the face of anti-imperialist rebellions in the Third World after World War II, the US imperialists pursued the same strategy. During the 1950s and 1960s, they managed to register some significant successes in suppressing the tide of anti-imperialist revolution in the Third World. These included blocking the extension of anti-capitalist revolution to the southern half of the Korean peninsula in the early 1950s, the smashing of incipient revolutions in the Congo and Brazil in the early 1960s, and, most important of all, the almost complete extermination of the anti-imperialist movement in Indonesia in 1965-66.

Washington’s global counter-revolutionary counteroffensive also suffered two significant defeats in each of these decades. It was unable to prevent its French imperialist allies from suffering defeat at the hands of the Marxist-led national liberation movement in Vietnam in 1954 and the creation of a workers state in the north of that country. And it was unable to stop the overthrow of its puppet regime in Cuba in 1959 and the subsequent consolidation under Marxist leadership of the first workers state in the western hemisphere.

However, on the back of their counter-revolutionary success in Indonesia, the US imperialists began a huge escalation of their counter-revolutionary military assault on the revolutionary movement in southern Vietnam, dispatching half a million combat troops to save Washington’s puppet regime in Saigon and launching a massive bombing campaign against the workers state in the north.

Vietnam War

In Vietnam, Washington’s huge military machine proved unable to crush a mass insurgent movement headed by a revolutionary leadership. This undermined the credibility of its global counter-revolutionary strategy among the US masses and destroyed the reactionary McCarthyist atmosphere of hostility to anti-capitalist ideas.

Already in the mid-1950s, the reactionary political climate began to be undermined by the mass actions undertaken by African-Americans against the legally sanctioned apartheid regime they had to endure in the southern US states. These mass actions increasingly drew a new generation of white working-class and middle-class Americans into progressive political activity.

As it became clear that the US rulers’ war against the Vietnamese revolution could not achieve a quick and easy victory, rifts emerged within the ruling elite about how to conduct the war. While these were merely tactical differences, they helped legitimise public expressions of outright opposition to the war and placed an obstacle in the way of a repressive crackdown against such public expressions.

Increasing numbers of young people in the US advanced from criticism of the hypocrisy of the ruling elite’s denial of democratic rights for black Americans and the non-white peoples of the Third World to a consciously anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist outlook.

The attitude toward the war in Vietnam of the mass of US working people turned from apathy to deepening opposition as it became clear to them that the ruling elite was willing to sacrifice the lives the tens of thousands of young conscripts in an unwinnable war. This shift in the attitude of the masses provided the social base for the building of the largest anti-war movement in us history, a movement that increasingly found sympathy and expression among the ranks of the US conscripts in Vietnam, which in turn rendered the US conscript army utterly unreliable as a world police force. It was this factor that in the end led to the defeat of the US rulers’ counter-revolutionary enterprise in Vietnam.

The US defeat in Vietnam was the culmination of the shift in the international relationship of class forces to the detriment of imperialism resulting from the wave of mass insurgency in the Third World that flowed out of World War II. In a few semicolonial countries, such as China, Korea, Cuba and Vietnam, this mass insurgency led to the creation of workers’ and peasants’ governments and the destruction of the capitalist economic structure. The overwhelming majority of Third World countries, however, remained dominated by the world capitalist market and oppressed by the imperialist system. Most are saddled with governments that represent domestic capitalist exploiters subservient to imperialist finance capital.

‘Marshall Plan’ for Third World

Between 1948 and 1952 the US rulers provided billions of dollars in long-term loans that were used to rebuild the foundations for renewed industrial production and political stabilisation in war-ravaged capitalist Europe and Japan. The expansion of the developed capitalist economies over the subsequent two decades rapidly narrowed the large initial postwar gap between the level of productivity in the US and the other developed capitalist countries.

Many liberal commentators have called for a similar "Marshall Plan" to be applied to the Third World in the naive view that this would have similar results there. However, imperialist domination of the semicolonial countries prevents the development of a class structure and value of labour power capable of supporting an internal market that can either meet the profit needs of a broad developing local bourgeoisie or absorb massive imports of capital and commodities from the imperialist countries. These semicolonial class relations permit the emergence of isolated pockets of "prosperity": layers of wealthy export and service-oriented capitalists and a narrow, relatively prosperous, middle class. But there neither is nor can be a relatively well-off population of employed wage workers or prosperous farmers able to purchase a wide range of consumer durables on a level comparable to the imperialist countries.

Since the late 1960s imperialist governments, banks and international finance agencies have foisted hundreds of billions of dollars in loans on the semicolonial countries. The Marshall Plan has been repeated. Its main result has been a disaster for the workers, peasants and even the bulk of the urban middle class in the semicolonial countries. Nor has it proved possible for local capitalists to reproduce the successes registered in postwar Europe and Japan. Just the opposite has occurred: the gap between the economic strength of the imperialist and semicolonial countries has widened. The Third World debt has not been a blessing preliminary to a historic developmental take-off, but a trap preliminary to a devastating crisis. The contrasting experiences of the results of the Marshall Plan in Western Europe and Japan, on the one hand, and its repetition in the semicolonial capitalist countries on the other, demonstrate that debt is a social relation, one that has diametrically different effects depending on the relative power of the lender and borrower.

In small handful of semicolonial countries—South Korea, Taiwan, Mexico, Brazil and Argentina—imperialist loans facilitated a process of broader industrialisation in the 1980s. In the 1990s these countries became the targets for a substantial shift of international capital flows, as the bulk of imperialist capital flowing into the Third World switched from loans into portfolio investments—that is, into buying up stocks and bonds in the big private companies and newly privatised state enterprises of what are known as the "emerging markets". As the experience of each of these countries has demonstrated, this buying up of shares is simply a stepping-stone to imperialist capital directly taking over and running the largest and most profitable enterprises in these countries, which were formerly in the hands of local capitalists—that is, to reversing the limited gains in independent industrialisation that were made by these capitalists during the 1980s.

The US defeat in Vietnam in the early 1970s coincided with the exhaustion of the factors that had sustained a twenty-year wave of rapid expansion of the imperialist economies, a sharp fall in the rate of profit and the resurgence of the "normal" tendency of monopoly capitalism toward increasing economic stagnation and financial instability.

Transnational corporations

During this "long boom", the imperialist economic system underwent a new stage of development in which the international concentration and centralisation of finance capital, particularly US finance capital, proceeded at faster pace than at any time in history.

This new stage of imperialism was marked above all by the emergence of transnational corporations, corporations based upon an international division of labour, as the dominant form of capitalist business organisation. Such corporations had existed before the second world war, but they were largely confined to the sphere of extraction, processing and distribution of raw materials such as petroleum.

In his 1969 book Imperialism and Revolution, David Horowitz noted that between 1946 and 1966 US direct foreign investment had grown by almost 800 per cent. He went on to give the following description of the forces that propelled this postwar overseas expansion:

To develop commercially the new technologies (many of which received immense stimulus from the war) required heavy research and manufacturing investments and hence mass markets over which to spread unit costs. At the same time modern communications and mass media standardized tastes in different countries, while resurgent economic nationalism, often coupled with foreign currency shortages, induced governments to ensure that international goods they bought were manufactured on their own soil.

In the course of these developments a new corporate form emerged—the "multi-national" or international corporation. Carrying out both manufacturing and marketing operations in literally dozens of countries, such corporations, as distinct from even their giant predecessors, no longer merely look to foreign sources for an independent share of sales, profits and growth, but rather seek "to apply company resources on a global scale to realize business opportunities anywhere in the world". Once placed in "external" markets, international corporations seek to expand their control of these markets as such; for they are locked in mortal combat with similar giants for control of markets at an international level.14

Referring specifically to US transnational corporations, Horowitz observed that in 1964 "only 45 U.S. firms account for almost 60 per cent of direct U.S. foreign investment, while 80 per cent is held by 163 firms".15

At home and aboard, US corporations invested in the mechanisation, semi-automation and massive expansion of factories producing automobiles, refrigerators, washing machines, vacuum cleaners, television sets and other consumer durables. Consequently, the great bulk of US foreign investments went to mass consumer markets for these products provided by other imperialist countries. By the late 1960s, eighty per cent of the foreign assets of US corporations were in Western Europe, Canada, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. Similarly, as the big capitalists of the other imperialist countries, particularly those of Western Europe and Japan, recovered from the ravages of World War ii, and began to transform their companies into transnational corporations, the bulk of their foreign investments also flowed into other imperialist countries, including the United States.

Expansion of the state

The postwar extension of the internationalisation of the forces and processes of production that formed the substratum for the rise to dominance of transnational corporations entailed a substantial deepening of the fundamental contradiction inherent in the capitalist system. This is the contradiction between, on the one hand, the increasing social and economic interaction and interdependence among people throughout the world and, on the other, the political division of the world into a series of nation-states in which a small number of wealthy families own the commanding heights of the economy, which enables them to control all major decision making in the interests of furthering their own private enrichment rather than meeting the needs of the vast majority of humanity.

Imperialist capitalism had already brought this contradiction to maturity, as the editors of the London Economist openly acknowledged when they wrote in October 1930:

The supreme difficulty of our generation ... is that our achievements in the economic plane of life have outstripped our program on the political plane to such an extent that our economics and politics are perpetually falling out of gear with one another. On the economic plane, the world has been organized into a single all-embracing unit of activity. On the political plane, it has remained ... partitioned. The tension between these two antithetical tendencies has been producing a series of jolts and smashes in the social life of humanity.

Imperialist capitalism deepens this contradiction not only from its economic side by extending the internationalisation of production and centralising capital in the hands of "a few hundred billionaires". It also deepens it on the political side, by strengthening the coercive power of the capitalist state in the imperialist countries through a massive growth of its armed forces and by extending the capitalist state’s role in guaranteeing the surplus profits of the capitalist monopolies, mainly by providing them with subsidies and state orders—above all, but not exclusively, for armaments.

State economic intervention

In the nineteenth century, during the era of freely competitive capitalism, the attitude of the capitalists toward the state was summed up in the classical liberal aphorism, "The best government is the least government". State revenues and expenditures in the capitalist countries were kept to a minimum, accounting for around five per cent of gross domestic product.

By contrast, in the imperialist epoch, the epoch of the domination of world economy and world politics by finance capital, the share of state revenues and expenditure steadily rose, accounting for around forty per cent of the GDP of imperialist countries since the second world war. A substantial part of the growth of these state revenues and expenditures, particularly in western Europe and Australia, reflected the expansion of the socialised portion of wages in the forms of welfare payments, publicly funded housing, health care and education. This expansion of the socialised portion of wages was undertaken during the postwar "long boom" as a political response to counter the attraction that the social security measures inherent in the Soviet bloc’s post-capitalist planned economies exercised over large sections of the working class in these countries.

However, the greater part of growth of the imperialist state’s expenditures was the result the increasing need of the monopoly corporations for state subsidies. This can be most clearly seen in the growth of state expenditures in the United States, where the postwar McCarthyist witch-hunt completely marginalised those sections of the working class that were attracted to the Soviet alternative to capitalism and the US rulers therefore had no political need to create a large "welfare state". Instead, the large postwar expansion of state expenditures in the US was connected with the creation and supply of a huge military machine. In fact, as a share of GDP, non-military expenditure by the US government remained roughly what it was in 1929.

The qualitatively greater role that the capitalist state plays in the economic life of the imperialist countries is a reflection of the inability of imperialist capitalism to spontaneously reproduce itself by simply relying on the laws of the capitalist market—a reflection of the fact that, as Lenin pointed out, imperialist capitalism is the epoch of decaying capitalism, capitalism which has reached the stage where it has to be propped up by the use of mechanisms that run counter to its own spontaneous laws of motion.

The neo-liberal offensive launched against "big government" by the imperialist rulers at the end of the 1970s might seem to contradict this, but this offensive has not been aimed at reducing the overall levels of state expenditures in the imperialist countries. Rather, it has been aimed at cutting back the share of these expenditures allocated to working people’s welfare and increasing the share that goes directly to provide subsidies to the corporations and their rentier owners: it is part of the drive to increase finance capital’s exploitation of wage earners in the face of the return of monopoly capitalism’s long-term tendency toward economic stagnation.

The last empire

While she was President Clinton’s secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, a former pupil of Brzezinski at Columbia University, stated, "The United States is the world’s indispensable nation". While this comment might seem to be nothing but an expression of US imperial arrogance and national chauvinism, from a Marxist viewpoint it has a rational content: the United States is the world imperialist system’s indispensable nation. The economic and military strength of the United States is indispensable to the survival of the imperialist system.

While the other imperialist ruling classes inevitably seek to advance their own interests against each other and against the US rulers and US-owned corporations in the world capitalist market, they know that there is no imperialist power that can displace the dominance of the US, either economically or militarily.

This situation is new in the history of world capitalism. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Spanish and Dutch empires, through bloody colonial expansion in the Americas and Asia, accumulated much of the wealth on which capitalism based its initial spurt of growth. By the eighteenth century, they had been displaced by Britain and France, and by the end of that century, British agricultural, banking and manufacturing capital had laid the foundation for what was to be a century of world dominance before being displaced by US capital.

While US imperialism has suffered a relative decline in its position since the end of World War II, this has not brought any of its imperialist competitors closer to establishing its own predominance in the capitalist world.

The US has sixty-three per cent of the imperialist world’s naval tonnage, forty-six per cent of its land-based and ninety-one per cent of its sea-based military aircraft, and thirty-nine per cent of its ground troops. Its armed forces are the backbone of NATO and of the military alliance with imperialist Japan and Australia. The US rulers’ international military supremacy, however, is not simply based on being the most massively armed power within a system of military alliances with other imperialist powers. Nor, like Britain in its heyday, does Washington rely primarily on its unchallenged position as the world’s leading naval power. Unlike any of its predecessors, Washington’s imperial might reaches directly into every part of the world.

A quarter of all US military forces—some half a million troops—are based at nearly 400 military installations in western Europe, the Middle East, the Indian Ocean, Japan, South Korea, the Pacific islands, Panama, Puerto Rico and at Cuba’s Guantánamo Bay. Another seven to eight per cent of US forces are on naval patrols in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere in the world. All of the imperialist powers are dependent on the massive presence of us ground, air and naval forces on every continent and every ocean to maintain the "security" of the world capitalist order.

In addition to Washington’s military power, the enormous size and weight of the US market and productive capacity also preclude any replacement of US imperial dominance in the capitalist world. The US market absorbs some twenty-five per cent of the goods imported by all the imperialist countries combined. Between the beginning of the 1960s and the mid-1980s, the US share of world exports declined from fifteen per cent to eleven per cent. While this reflected a relative decline in US economic power, it was compensated for by the growth in exports from factories owned by US corporations in other countries. In total, commodities produced and exported by US-owned corporations accounted for seventeen per cent of world exports in the mid-1980s, roughly the same share as at the beginning of the 1960s. And between 1985 and the mid-1990s, US corporations’ share of world exports rose to twenty per cent, while the world market shares of Japanese and European corporations all declined.

When we look at the commanding heights of corporate power, US economic dominance stands out sharply. In 1999, for example, sales of the 200 largest corporations accounted for 27.5 per cent of world GDP. Eight-two of these 200 corporations were US-owned, and they accounted for eleven per cent of world GDP. In 1999 the world’s twenty largest corporations had sales of $2.3 trillion and profits of $90 billion. While only seven of the twenty top corporations were US-owned, they accounted for forty-two per cent of their sales and sixty-one per cent of their profits.

The agreements among the twelve West European governments that make up the European Union to remove all intra-union barriers to trade, labour and capital flows and to create a common currency zone cannot fundamentally challenge the dominant position of US finance capital in the world economy. Even for this project to be stabilised would require the transformation of the European Union into a federal multinational state on an equal military footing with the US, and a rapid process of international mergers among the largest European transnational corporations to attain a level of capital ownership and productive capacity equal to their US rivals. And without such a process of international fusion of the European big capitals, there is little prospect that the German or French or British financial oligarchies will surrender their existing national sovereignty to a pan-European imperialist federal state.

Among the world’s 200 largest corporations, seventy-one are owned by European capitalists, and of these, only three exhibit multinational ownership and two of these—the Anglo-Dutch-owned Royal Dutch-Shell oil company and the Anglo-Dutch-owned Unilever food and beverages firm—have been in existence for nearly 100 years. The process of international fusion of big capital within the EU has thus been extremely slow.

The present relationship of forces among the imperialist powers could only be fundamentally changed by a war between them in which the United States’ economic and military supremacy was shattered. But US military supremacy rules out a repetition of direct inter-imperialist military conflicts such as the first and second world wars.

Growing social and political instability

At the beginning of the 1990s, the imperialists won the Cold War when the bureaucratic ruling elites in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union and China finally decided to secure their material privileges by attempting to transform themselves into capitalist ruling classes. The imperialist rulers triumphantly hailed this long-sought victory for capitalism as marking the emergence of a "new world order" of peace, prosperity and democracy. But in the context of the continued trend of the world capitalist economy toward stagnation and the growing social and political instability it is provoking in the Third World, the real perspectives that imperialism in the twenty-first century presents to the working people of the world are continuing cuts to their living standards, new wars and a curtailment of democratic rights.

The imperialist rulers will continue the drive they began in the late 1970s to take back all the economic concessions they were politically forced to cede during the Cold War to the working people of their own countries and to local capitalists in the semicolonial countries, and to squeeze even greater amounts of wealth out of the workers and peasants of these countries. This means eroding the real purchasing power of the wages of the big majority of workers, extending their working hours and drastically paring back social welfare programs. It means whipping up nationalist xenophobia and racism in order to increase the divisions among working people and to prevent the development of international working-class solidarity—"keeping the barbarians from coming together", as Brzezinski put it.

It also means cutting down on the social legacy bequeathed to future generations—a habitable natural environment, schools, hospitals, public housing. It means increasing social dislocation: petty crime, drug addiction and mounting social alienation.

There will be repeated imperialist military interventions in the Third World tributaries to counter the inevitable popular resistance to the imperialists’ demands for greater and greater tribute and the collapse of stable bourgeois rule in these countries that such resistance will lead to.

At every opportunity, the US imperialist rulers will push as far as they can to reverse the Vietnam syndrome, by instilling a siege mentality and whipping up patriotic fervour among the US masses to stifle any opposition by these masses to again becoming willing cannon fodder in Washington’s new counterinsurgency wars and its military assaults on unpliable tributaries.

To carry through their domestic war on workers’ living standards and to stifle opposition at home to a new series of wars abroad, the US rulers will seek to curtail the democratic rights of dissidents through a new McCarthyism and through the legitimisation of the increased use of naked police force against public expressions of dissent.

This is, of course, the trajectory that the US and other imperialist ruling classes have embarked on since September 11, 2001 under the cover of a global war against terrorism.

The last time the US rulers attempted such a global counterinsurgency strategy, it was able to be sustained without serious domestic opposition for more than two decades by their ability to grant economic concessions and social improvements on a scale sufficient to imbue large sections of the US masses with faith in the social justice of the capitalist system. But the central dilemma facing the US rulers as they again launch a bid to create an "American century" is that they and their allies must wage war not only on recalcitrant forces in the Third World, but also against the living standards of their own working people.

In these circumstances, their prospects for stifling a domestic radicalisation and political polarisation are vastly more limited than they were in the late 1950s.

The situation today has little in common with the early Cold War period of counterinsurgency wars abroad and rising prosperity at home. Rather, it more closely parallels the situation of war abroad and deepening impoverishment at home that prevailed in the imperialist countries in the period between the first and second world wars. At the beginning of that period, the revolutionary opponents of imperialist war were far more isolated and marginalised than they are today. But as the initial wave of pro-war patriotic fervour was drowned in the brutal realities of a prolonged foreign war and sharply deteriorating living standards at home, the radical opponents of imperialism found a growing base among broad masses of working people for their perspective of revolutionary mass political action as the only road out of the endless horrors that imperialist capitalism presented to humanity.

The "lack of stability", wrote the Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky in the early 1920s, "the uncertainty of what tomorrow will bring in the personal life of every worker, is the most revolutionary factor of the epoch in which we live". The resulting "absence of stability drives the most imperturbable worker out of equilibrium. It is the revolutionary motor power", Trotsky added.16 This, above all, is what imperialist capitalism offers to the working people of the world in the twenty-first century—a prolonged period of political and economic shocks, insecurity and uncertainty, a prolonged period of deepening class polarisation and potential revolutionary political crises. This is why we, revolutionary opponents of imperialist capitalism, though from a fundamentally different class perspective from that of the imperialist rulers, also say: "Bring on the American century!".

At the time of writing Doug Lorimer was a member of the Political Committee of the Australian Democratic Socialist Party. This article was presented to the January 2002 DSP and Resistance educational conference held in Sydney.


1. Quoted in G. Acher, ‘Rasputin Plays Chess: How the West Blundered into a New Cold War’, in T. Ali, ed., Masters of the Universe? NATO’s Balkan Crusade, London, Verso, 2000, p. 72.

2. Quoted in A. Rashid, Taliban: Oil, Islam and the New Great Game in Central Asia, London, Zed Press, 2000), p. 130.

3. Quoted in D. Horowitz, Imperialism and Revolution, London, Penguin, 1971, p. 75.

4. Ibid., p. 78.

5. Ye. Preobrazhensky, The New Economics, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1965, pp. 157-9.

6. V. I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 22, Moscow, Progress Publishers, 1977, pp. 144-45.

7. Ibid., pp. 104-5.

8. Ibid., p. 259.

9. Ibid., p. 263.

10. Quoted in Horowitz, op. cit., p. 47.

11. Quoted in John Gittings, ‘The Origins of China’s Foreign Policy’, in D. Horowitz, ed., Containment and Revolution, New York, Monthly Review Press, 1967, p. 186.

12. Quoted in Horowitz, Imperialism and Revolution, p. 70.

13. Quoted in W. Williams, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, New York, Delta, 1962, p. 34.

14. Horowitz, Imperialism, pp. 242-3.

15. Ibid., p. 244

16. L. Trotsky, The First Five Years of the Communist International, Vol. 1, New York, Monad Press, 1972, p. 234.