Neoimperialism, ecological crisis and the fight for a new internationalism: An interview with Pedro Fuentes

ecological crisis

Pedro Fuentes is a leader of the Movimento Esquerda Socialista (Socialist Left Movement, MES), a revolutionary tendency within Brazil’s broad anti-capitalist Partido Socialismo e Liberdade (Socialism and Freedom Party, PSOL). He is the author of, among other writings, Setenta años de luchas y revoluciones en América Latina (Seventy Years of Struggles and Revolutions in Latin America). In this extensive interview with Federico Fuentes for LINKS International Journal of Socialist Renewal, he discusses imperialism’s new phase, ecological crisis and “accumulation by dispossession”, the unpredictability of contemporary politics and the need for a new internationalism.

Over the past century, the term imperialism has been used to define different situations and, at times, be replaced by concepts such as globalisation and hegemony. Does the concept of imperialism remain valid and, if so, how would you define imperialism today?

I think [Vladimir] Lenin and [Rudolf] Hilferding’s definition of imperialism remains valid. Imperialism is still a higher phase of capitalism. But we now have to speak about a new phase or period of imperialism. Its essence remains the same, but the contradictions that Lenin and Hilferding outlined — concentration and globalisation of capital, etc — have become more acute with the financialisation of the economy. New elements, provoked by imperialism and its monopolisation of the means of production, have also emerged, above all in the field of extractivism and energy exploration. These have triggered what is now commonly referred to as an ecological crisis, leading us towards a climate and environmental catastrophe. This is a new feature of this phase of imperialism.

[Karl] Marx did write about humanity’s destructive relationship with nature, so we are not talking about something completely new. But the relationship between the means of production and human life on this planet has developed in such a way that it has been profoundly altered. [Vladimir] Lenin said the means of production had developed in such a way that they had paved the way for socialism, but that the relations of production had to be changed for production to function for society as a whole. Today, we must not only change the relations of production but also the relationship between people and the productive forces that has brought about this ecological crisis.

It is difficult to say exactly when this new period began. But this period combines economic stagnation, climate crisis, crisis in the world order, crisis of political regimes and the rise of a neo-fascist right. The imperialist capitalism of today’s world order, evidently, represents something higher than Lenin wrote about.

You spoke of a new phase of imperialism. Within this new phase, are there also new mechanisms of imperialist exploitation?

One form of value transfer that has been occurring for a long time, but was not previously characterised as such, is dispossession, or what [US Marxist writer] David Harvey called “accumulation by dispossession”. Harvey said this was counterposed to or, better said, complemented accumulation by expanded reproduction. Accumulation by dispossession, for Harvey, represented a contemporary revival, in modified form, of primitive capitalist accumulation. It is based on the expropriation of territories and capitalist control over collective forms of property (such as nature, water) as a means of increasing accumulation. This is, to some extent, new in the theory of imperialism, and something we have to understand because it is very current.

This new phase also incorporates the information revolution and artificial intelligence; that is, new technologies. These new technologies have allowed for greater and faster interactions for imperialism, for its capitals, its economic movements and, at the same time, greater realisation of fictitious surplus value through the financialisation of capital. Alongside this, the globalisation of production has led to greater fragmentation of the working class and the creation of a world reserve army of labour.

What there has not been, in my opinion, is a revolution in the productive forces that could enable a leap towards a new phase in world production and expanded capitalist reproduction. When compared to other technologies that initiated long phases of growth, such as steam, electricity and automation, I do not see the information revolution as representing a similar advance in the forces of production. This is because it comes at the same time as an advance in the destructive forces of production over nature. So, I don’t see any new leap in production opening up a new wave of economic growth. Instead, we are still in the period of stagnation that began in 1970. The agony of imperialist capitalism will continue, given it will not die on its own. Imperialist capitalism has to be killed through a rupture with capitalism capable of overcoming the system.

Do the original imperialist powers remain the only imperialist powers, or have any nation-states gone from non-imperialist to imperialist? If so, how have the economic foundations of the new imperialist forces been laid and what specific characteristics enabled them to join the camp of imperialist powers?

Yes, there are states that are in a phase of new imperialism, or what we could call neoimperialisms. First, we have the emergence of China with the restoration of capitalism, or more accurately state capitalism. China has developed imperialist relationships not only over the peoples it has colonised within or on its borders, such as the Uighurs or Mongols, but through the expansion of its finance capital throughout the Third World. In Latin America, Chinese investments compete with the United States and the European Union for first place. In the past two decades, China has heavily invested in factories, for example, setting up what will be the biggest electric car factory in Brazil. China has also heavily invested in mining in many Latin American countries. One recent important mining conflict was against a gold and copper mine in Panama that was owned by Canadian and Chinese capital. In Peru, Chinese capital is the largest player in mining extraction. In Argentina, it has a strong presence in the countryside. And let’s not even talk about China’s presence in Venezuela through its predatory loans. Chinese imperialism is not messing around. China is not carrying out internationalist solidarity. It is an imperialism directly extracting surplus value from underdeveloped countries and carrying out neo-colonial plunder in terms of raw materials, mining, etc.

Russia is also a neoimperialism, but one that is not so new in one sense: Russia was an imperialism in the time of the tsars and also had an imperialist character over the nationalities it oppressed in the Stalinist era. Today, with the restoration of capitalism, it is also an imperialism — even more so under [Vladimir] Putin. Russia’s direct aggression against Ukraine is an imperialist aggression: there is no other name for it. Russia’s policy in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia is an imperialist policy: it allowed a genocide against the Armenians and did nothing to defend the right of the inhabitants of the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave. Russia also has mercenaries and investments in Africa. Let’s not fool ourselves, Russia is trying to expand. It obviously does not have the strength of US imperialism, but that does not take away its neoimperialist character.

But are we dealing here with imperialist powers that sit at the same table as the original imperialist powers, or does the concept of neoimperialisms imply that we are dealing with unconsolidated imperialist powers or of a second order?

We are talking about first-rate powers; about imperialist powers that sit at the same table as the other powers. China’s dictator, Xi Jinping, sits down with [Joe] Biden to debate as equals. And the world is going to depend — in fact, it already increasingly depends — on what the two of them decide.

The growing conflict between the US and China seems to point towards the end of globalisation and a shift towards protectionism. How should we understand this growing rivalry, given it takes place in a context where the two economies are more integrated than ever? In light of this, how do you view the concept of multipolarity promoted by some on the left?

Between Chinese imperialism and US imperialism, there is inter-imperialist competition, which is becoming more acute. At the same time, there is a certain kind of economic partnership due to globalisation. Protectionism does not eliminate but sharpens this competition, which is both economic and geopolitical. Productive forces have developed such a level of global interconnectedness that it would be difficult to sever them overnight. It is a two-sided contradiction, one which I think will tend more and more towards competition with the world becoming more polarised. Interdependence will continue, but in a framework of more crisis.

I do not see the world moving towards a multipolar reordering. Multipolarity creates more disorder. Global capitalists are divided — this is an important point that needs to be made. On Palestine, US imperialism is united around Israel, but differences exist between Biden and [Donald] Trump. In France, differences exist between the social democrats and [Marine] Le Pen. The world’s capitalists are divided over how to confront the new world. That is another element of the crisis.

What I see is a world of more crisis. We are not talking about a crisis that will last many decades, we are really only looking at a duration of three or four decades. This will depend on whether we are capable of building an anti-capitalist alternative in that period. It is also possible that we may face a new world war: this is not the most likely scenario, because it would mean the end of humanity, but irrationality is assuming an increasingly important role in this world in crisis.

After the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, world politics was completely dominated by US imperialism. In recent years, however, a shift seems to be taking place. While the US has withdrawn from Afghanistan, we have seen Russia invade Ukraine, China’s rise and even nations such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, among others, deploy military power beyond their borders. How do you view the current dynamics within global capitalism?

I agree with several concepts you have developed in your question. US imperialism is a declining imperialism but one that retains — due to its military and economic power — its position as the world’s largest power. We cannot lose sight of the fact that the US is the world’s leading imperialist power — that would be a grave mistake. But it has lost its global hegemony, geopolitically and economically. Since Vietnam, it has suffered further defeats, in Iraq and Afghanistan most recently; this is a symptom of its decline. It is trying to regain its power, and the Israel-Palestine conflict has put it on the offensive with its navy occupying the Red Sea to halt Iran’s entry into the conflict. But it is in decline — the speed of the decline will depend on class struggle.

That said, I do not think we can talk of a new Cold War in which there are only two contending poles: the US and China. The current world disorder is so great that other sectors — as you noted — have started to play regional roles. Turkey plays a role in its region. So too the Gulf countries that, due to their oil and gas wealth and the fact they now have their own oil companies and control over part of their economies, have acquired a weight that previously only foreign oil companies had.

What about Brazil?

Brazil tries to play — in Latin America and, to some extent, in some African countries — the role of sub-imperialism; which is, an intermediary role [dominated by imperialism while dominating some Global South countries]. This role was very noticeable during the military dictatorship. It was less clear at the start of the century, with the rise of nationalist movements in Latin America such as Chavismo [in Venezuela], etc. However, Brazil’s capitalists, with a lot of investments abroad, intend to keep playing that role.

While there are two more or less obvious poles, their weaknesses and contradictions have allowed new actors to appear. These actors do not have the same power and strength, and the US seeks to limit their expansion. But this has all contributed to a grave crisis in imperialist domination; which is not to say that imperialist world domination no longer exists — it does, it is just more in crisis.

That is why I do not see this period as similar to the Cold War. The Cold War was a period of coexistence, of relative global stability maintained by two powers that divided up the world on the basis of the Yalta and Potsdam pacts. They accepted the pacts and pretty much honoured it — only on occasions did things slip out of their hands. Stalinism playing the role of handbrake [on world revolution]. Had this not been the case, today we would be talking about a socialist world; but they did the opposite of promoting world revolution.

Today, we have a situation of more unpredictability — it is very difficult to predict future developments. In other times, one could say such and such a period represented a revolutionary period, which lasted until such and such a year, then came a counter-revolutionary period. For example, we can say that the 1930s was a counter-revolutionary period, which was followed by a revolutionary period after World War II. But what are we in now? Today’s situation is much more difficult to define — it is much more an interregnum, much more chaotic. Just as I do not see the same kind of counter-revolutionary triumphs as we saw in previous periods (they exist on a smaller scale, and Israel may achieve one over Palestine although it remains to be seen), I also do not see big, resounding triumphs by mass movements that indicate we are moving towards a revolutionary or pre-revolutionary period.

And there is a very important new element in the world situation: the absence of an alternative leadership in the face of capitalism’s crisis. By this I am not referring to what [Leon] Trotsky said in 1938, that the crisis of humanity was the crisis of leadership. Back then, he was referring specifically to Stalinism. Today, when I say absence of leadership, I am talking not only about certain weaknesses and fragmentation of the working class, but about a general regression in mass consciousness, a product of the fact that the previously existing socialist model failed. We have still not overcome this.

Where is this all heading? I really do not know. But I do know that while there are many attempts at analysing the current situation, few go to the heart of the contradiction. The dilemma posed by Rosa Luxemburg — socialism or barbarism — is still posed today, though now on another plane. Perhaps today it should be: civilisation or total crisis of humanity. However we term the contradiction, it means the fight for a socialist path forward is fundamental.

How has all this played out in South America?

South America is one of the important points of world class struggle. It brings together important historical experiences of anti-imperialist struggles and even democratic revolutions.

We had a very important process in which anti-imperialist regimes emerged at the start of the 21st century after huge mobilisations in Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela and Argentina. In Bolivia and Venezuela, and to a lesser extent Ecuador, this process led to governments that politically broke with the old capitalist classes. They even modified the political regime — though always within the framework of the capitalist state — by means of constituent assemblies. That process was cut off, but via reactionary not counter-revolutionary means; it was a very partial closure.

Subsequently, from 2017-18 onwards, we had a new wave of mobilisations. These were more democratic, spontaneous and popular than working-class based. There was Nicaragua, with the revolt against the totalitarian-authoritarian regime of [Daniel] Ortega [in 2018]; then the anti-corruption struggle in Puerto Rico [in 2019]; then came then Ecuador [with the anti-neoliberal October rebellion of 2019]; Chile [in November 2019], the undisputed vanguard of that insurrectionary process of national revolts; Bolivia, with the defeat of the coup d'état [in 2020]; and Colombia [with the National Strike in 2021]. These were followed by electoral victories for [Gabriel] Boric in Chile [in 2021], [Pedro] Castillo in Peru [in 2021], and [Gustavo] Petro in Colombia [in 2022]. But these processes entailed much less of a rupture with the institutions and parties of the old regimes; these new processes occurred without any big ruptures [of previous processes]. Boric had opportunities to deepen the process, but opted for conciliation to achieve his constituent assembly, and then adapted to social democracy; he stopped representing the mobilisations. Castillo was a more episodic phenomenon, although the struggle continues in Peru. What is left is Petro [in Colombia], which is the most advanced process in Latin America today.

I did not mention Brazil because Brazil was the most institutional process of them all. We had a very important democratic triumph in Brazil [with Lula defeating Bolsonaro to become president in 2022], but all within the framework of an alliance with large sectors of the capitalist class. [Lula’s] government is a government with and for the capitalist class. It is not our government — in fact, none of those I have mentioned were or are our governments. We have to support progressive measures and defend those governments against the right, but maintain our independence. That is the key to this new situation: to remain independent in order to develop an anti-capitalist leadership within the process. This is the role we are playing within PSOL. We fight within PSOL, and also as a public expression, the MES. We mark out our points of difference with the majority of the [PSOL] leadership, while maintaining a policy of independence and of building from within the mass movement.

What is the outlook for Latin America following the latest triumph for the right, that of [Javier] Milei in Argentina? While the left continues to argue whether this new right is fascist or not, it is clear that a new right has emerged globally that has neofascist tendencies and currently has [Israeli president Benjamin] Netanyahu as its vanguard. Argentina will be very important for this process in Latin America, because in Argentina there will be crisis and resistance. This government will not be able to govern as it wants. It will have less margin to manoeuvre than Bolsonaro in Brazil, because the working class in Argentina is more independent, more autonomous and has more experience of struggle.

The other promising process — which is an example to follow — is in Panama, where there was a great triumph of the ecological struggle. The mobilisations had been building since 2022 but took on much greater proportions in 2023. They succeeded in closing Panama’s most important mine. Panama is a small country with a history of anti-imperialist struggle over its canal. It achieved a historic victory thanks to a united front of struggle that included everyone from trade unions to indigenous and popular organisations.

Panama’s rich process shows how the struggle for the climate can be approached. Not just through abstract ecosocialist propaganda, which we must do as part of the battle of ideas. But we need to know how to seize the problems of the people, the working class, the poor, the excluded, in order to mobilise them against the concrete enemies of environmental pollution — in this case, a mining company in Panama.

We socialists face a new challenge in our continent, where we have the Amazon and large energy reserves: to be able to defend and fight for them. We must develop a program that combines the most immediate demands of the people with transitional measures — such as the expulsion, regulation and expropriation of oil companies — that point to a socialist way out. In a sense, I think that is the path we are on. It is a gamble, but we have to fight.

Do you see any possibility of building bridges between anti-imperialist struggles, bearing in mind that different struggles confront different powers and may seek support from rival powers, as is the case with Ukraine? What should anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist internationalism look like in the 21st century?

We had an important experience of anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist internationalism, which was the World Social Forum (WSF). Out of this emerged a coordinating body that organised the most important global demonstration against the invasion of Iraq. But the experience of the WSF ended in stagnation; it became institutionalised because the first [Luiz Inácio] Lula [da Silva] government absorbed a large part of its leadership.

Ukraine was also an important step, although it led to divisions within the global left. We, as anti-imperialists, stand for Russia’s defeat, for an end to the aggression and for Ukraine to recover its territories, regardless of its government. And it is obvious that in a war, Ukraine needs weapons. That is why we do not oppose the delivery of arms to Ukraine — it would be a tragedy if arms were not sent to them, as that would mean Russia wins. It is quite another thing to support the rearmament being pushed by European powers, which are using the Ukraine war as a pretext for arming themselves. Or to support NATO, which is a sinister, imperialist organisation. We are against NATO. But as long as Ukraine needs military support, we understand and accept this. This is no reason to stop supporting the peoples’ struggle for their self-determination, or to stop supporting their more left-wing sectors and trade unions. That is why we reached out to [Ukrainian] trade unions and [Ukrainian socialist organisation] Social Movement, to help the comrades keep socialist politics alive inside Ukraine. Our main task is to support the socialist left in Ukraine, not to denounce NATO.

But with Ukraine, we saw the emergence of campist sectors who view any fight against the US — no matter who is waging it — as progressive. So, they stand with Russia, they stand with China…

Some of them, who would not necessarily identify with such campists, argue the problem is that Russia’s defeat will be a victory for, or at least benefit, the United States...

I do not see it as being a victory for the US; in essence, it will be a victory for the Ukrainian people. And a victory for the Ukrainian people will infect the struggle against imperialism all over the world — including the struggle against US imperialism. The Palestinian solidarity struggle in the US has been a great example for us all: there have been mobilisations, tremendous debate within the vanguard, great courage has been shown to confront the Zionist lobby. I trust that these people will say, “how great is it that Ukraine won,” and not that imperialism won. I have faith in the US masses — we have to be able to distinguish [them from their rulers]. In contrast, campism is a competitor we must defeat in this process of building a new anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist internationalism.

Today, Palestine is the struggle that opens up the most possibilities for international solidarity and struggle against the global right and the establishment because the entire world establishment supports Israel. There have been big mobilisations. I do not know how this process will develop, as it has not yet finished. But we have to push for it to continue, and to develop both it and all other possibilities for solidarity that serve to unite.

Along this path, a new international organisation has to emerge. We are part of the Fourth International. We recognise it is a small organisation; that it is not a pole that unites the world vanguard. It is a place for programmatic elaboration, which brings together parties and organisations of a certain relevance. But the world needs much more. We, the Fourth International, are committed to a new international organisation and to contribute, from wherever we are, to making that possible. That is our goal. How far will we go to achieving it? We do not know. How are we going to achieve it? We have to struggle; it is a struggle. Yes, it contains somewhat utopian elements, but it is a utopia that is within our reach. And it is one we have committed ourselves to.