Imperialism, the Long Depression and the BRICS illusion: Interview with Michael Roberts

BRICS global GDP

Michael Roberts is a political activist and economist who worked in the City of London where he closely observed the machinations of global capitalism from within the dragon’s den. He is also the author of The Long Depression: Marxism and the Global Crisis of Capitalism and Capitalism in the 21st Century: Through the Prism of Value (with Guglielmo Carchedi). In discussion with Federico Fuentes for LINKS International Journal of Socialist Renewal, Roberts talks about the realities of imperialism today and how much — or how little — has changed since Vladimir Lenin wrote his book on the subject.

Following the end of the Cold War, global politics seemed dominated by greater economic integration (globalisation) and wars that sought to reinforce US imperialism’s role as the sole global hegemon (unipolarity). However, in more recent years, a shift appears to be taking place. With the United States forced to withdraw from Afghanistan, increased rivalry between the US and China, Russia’s war on Ukraine, and the rise of BRICS, we seem to be witnessing a breakdown of the process of globalisation and US hegemony, and a turn towards protectionism, conflicting trading blocs, and potential war. Do you see this as being the case? In general terms, how do you understand the current dynamics at play within global capitalism?

The “great moderation” (fast growing economies, free of inflation and crises) and “the end of history” (the end of class and geopolitical conflicts) were proclaimed by mainstream economists and political strategists at the end of the Cold War. That proved to be a short-lived illusion. Globalisation (rising free trade and capital flows) disintegrated under the impact of the Global Financial Crash and the Great Recession of 2008-9. What I have called a Long Depression then followed in the 2010s with low levels of trade, productivity and investment growth, engendered by the low profitability of capital. Growth in annual trade fell below even the lower growth in real GDP per capita in the major economies. Investment in productive assets slowed as capital switched to speculation in what Karl Marx called fictitious capital (financial assets), driven by lower profitability in productive investment. The pandemic slump of 2020 compounded all this.

Correspondingly, geopolitical conflicts did not disappear, but intensified with Iraq and Afghanistan in the first decade of the 21st century; the Arab Spring of the 2010s, and now Ukraine, Nagorno-Karabakh and increasing tension in Asia over Taiwan in the 2020s.

Over the past century, we have seen the term imperialism used to define different situations and at times be replaced by concepts such as globalisation and hegemony. Given this, what value remains in the concept of imperialism and how do you define imperialism? 

Imperialism as a concept is still relevant — more so than ever. With the development of capitalism to all parts of the globe during the 20th century, colonisation (political and military control of countries) gave way to modern economic imperialism. The dominant imperialist countries control the rest of the world through economic exploitation; that is, through foreign investment, financial power (credit/debt) and international trade. This is the essence of modern imperialism.

I define modern imperialism mainly in economic terms: the systematic and sustained transfer of surplus value in the form of profit, rent and interest from the periphery — which represents 90% of the world’s population — to the dominant bloc — which represents the remaining 10%. These transfers are effected by: technological superiority in trade (a process of unequal exchange); monopolisation of key sectors; repatriation of profits by multinationals; exploitation of cheap labour in the periphery; running up of credit/debt with the periphery; and the extraction of natural resources. Estimates vary over the size of this transfer of value, but it is anything up to 5-10 times what the peripheral countries get in “foreign aid” every year and adds approximately 3-5% to the annual GDP of the imperialist bloc.

Discussions on the left regarding imperialism today often refer back to Vladimir Lenin’s book on the subject. How much of the main features of imperialism outlined in Lenin’s book remains relevant today and what elements, if any, have been superseded by subsequent developments? 

Lenin’s analysis, published in 1915, was the first comprehensive Marxist analysis of the nature of imperialism. It relied to some extent on the work of some radical pre-Keynesians, such as John Hobson, but Lenin stamped his own mark. He argued that imperialism had taken a much more extensive turn than previous colonialism through the export of capital to all parts of the globe to raise the profitability of capital. This spread of finance capital was dominated by just a few countries. He suggested that this was a new and “latest stage” in capitalism, which had finally become global by the end of the 19th century.

In my view, what Lenin glossed over was that imperialist expansion took place because the profitability of capital in the imperialist homelands had waned; the crisis of profitability was exhibited in the depression of the 1880s and ’90s. This drove capital abroad, and increased rivalry between the major powers that eventually led to world war.

What has superseded Lenin’s analysis is the rise of a new hegemonic power that replaced Britain’s role in the 19th century. It took another world war to resolve this, but the US became the dominant power. It set the rules of international trade and finance and led the world in manufacturing and military prowess. Pax Americana was established at least up to the early 1970s. After that we entered a period of relative decline of US hegemony, as happened with Britain after 1850.

But the essence of what Lenin described in 1915 remains: a few leading economies in an imperialist bloc dominating the rest of the world through better technology, financial power and trade, as well military superiority.

What relative weight do the mechanisms of imperialist exploitation have today, as compared to the past?

Colonialism was the direct extraction of resources and labour (slavery) through political and military occupation and control. That is generally over. But, in many ways, the exploitation of labour in the periphery is even larger and more destructive than in the colonial era. Now, the transfer of value from poor countries to the imperialist bloc is through so-called free trade and free flows of capital and credit. The extraction of natural resources and exploitation of labour is “paid for” in money, but it is an unequal exchange that sees value transferred through international markets.

Military and political dominance remains, of course, but it is a response to economic domination. The world of capital is linked to the military. For example, Ukraine wants to be part of the European Union, but also part of NATO. The growing economic conflict over trade and technology between the US and China is leading to political confrontation over Taiwan.

The original imperialist powers built their wealth and military might on colonial conquest and pillage of pre-capitalist societies. Do they remain the only imperialist powers? If so, why? Have any nation-states passed from being non-imperialist to imperialist? If so, how have the economic foundations of the newer imperialist forces been set in place and what specific features allowed them to join the imperialist camp?

It is a startling fact that the membership of the imperialist bloc in 1915, when Lenin wrote his book, has not changed. It is still the same “usual suspects”, if now led by the US and not by Britain and Europe. The last country to gain imperialist status was Japan, just before Lenin’s book. Since then we can only talk about the emergence of smaller satellites of the major powers within the bloc, such as Australia (but not South Korea). The imperialist club is closed to new entrants.

If by imperialism we mean the achievement of systematic and sustained transfers of value into a country from the rest of the world, then none of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) countries have achieved that status. Some people talk of “sub-imperialism”, where a country is exploited by an imperialist power but, in turn, exploits its neighbours in a similar way. The empirical evidence for this is very weak. Russia, China, India, Brazil and South Africa do not receive much in the way of surplus transfers from trade and investment in poorer countries — nothing compared to the imperialist bloc. So, I am not sure sub-imperialism is a useful concept.

Given the debate over how to characterise China and Russia, how do you view these two countries fitting into the global imperialist system? 

On the basis of economics and the Marxist theory of imperialist exploitation, then neither Russia nor China can be described as imperialist; that is, gaining huge and sustained profits, rent and interest from other countries through trade and investment. That does not mean that these and other countries are not capitalist or do not seek to control their neighbours.

Russia is clearly a gangster capitalist economy run by “oligarchs” and controlled autocratically. It wants to control its neighbours and keep out the influence and control of the imperialist bloc in, for example, Ukraine. Similarly, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq attacked Kuwait and Iran to gain more political control of the region and preserve power at home. That was not imperialist though in the sense of enabling a development of significant transfers of value from abroad on a permanent basis.

Amid talk of an emerging “multipolar world”, how should the left view initiatives like BRICS? Do they provide a progressive, or even anti-imperialist alternative, for countries of the Global South? If not, what kind of internationalism do we need to confront the challenges of imperialism today?

The BRICS countries are capitalist and nationalist. They do not have an internationalist perspective and certainly not one aimed at the unity of labour against capital. Moreover, the BRICS and other non-imperialist groupings — and certainly not China on its own — will never rival the imperialist bloc sufficiently to break it up or weaken it. Any weakness will come from within imperialist economies.

Looking to BRICS, as a club of weaker nations, to bring down the imperialist bloc is utopian. What is needed is international solidarity of the working class against capital. That means the best way to end imperialism is to achieve a radical socialist transformation within the imperialist countries and to achieve revolutionary change in the BRICS countries as well. Hoping for progressive internationalist policies from the BRICS regimes is illusory.

Think of it this way: if there was a socialist revolution in one of the BRICS, it would be a major event and leap forward for a socialist future. But if imperialism stays in control, then its future would be in peril as it was in Chile, the Soviet Union or maybe even soon in China. But if there was a socialist revolution in the US, then imperialism would crumble very quickly, and internationally other capitalist states would fall like dominos.