Prelude to a new imperial order?

new imperial order

First published at Spectre.

The immediacy of the Russian invasion of Ukraine alongside the emergence of China as a potential global power has changed the debate on imperialism. Theories premised on the deepening integration of global capitalism under the unrivalled dominance of the United States have become increasingly untenable. This perspective, exemplified in Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin’s Deutscher-prize winning The Making of Global Capitalism, has enjoyed considerable esteem across the broad left over the last few decades.1  Meanwhile, the more recent prestige of campist celebrations of multipolarity represent a sort of distorted mirror-image of the same premises of a singular American imperium. The distinction in the latter is that the imperium is now in jeopardy, not because of interimperial rivalry, but rather due to the emergence of a bloc of states in conflict with the United States and, by that fact, to be understood as anti-imperialist entities irrespective of their social-structural or political makeup. Despite their contrasting estimations of the enduring strength of US supremacy, the two perspectives increasingly converge politically, as in their common apologia for the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which both streams tend to view as merely a response to US overreach.

If it is more obvious now that global capitalism is fractured by competing geopolitical powers, the view of US supremacy—even at the height of its post-Cold War power—as a well-lubricated machine free of serious contradiction never really captured the complexity, dynamism, or unevenness of the world order and its imperialist configurations. US dominance was often misconstrued as omnipotence. Expectations of the US empire’s boundless longevity grew naturally out of the foundations of this worldview. In short, an exceptional moment of preeminence was mistaken as a new normal, obscuring the long arc of multipolar imperialism in the history of world capitalism.

To stress that the unipolarity thesis always obscured more than it revealed neither requires a belief in an imminent successor to US power, nor a return to theories of imperialism from a century ago when interimperial rivalry was brutally unmistakable, however much we might continue to glean from the debates that emerged during the Second International. The challenge for anti-imperialists in the twenty-first century is to identify the fundamental forces driving capitalist imperialism across time while remaining attentive to the various forms it assumes in different historical periods. The capitalist global order is inherently imperialist in character, even if its hierarchies and the patterns of competition and cooperation between states are subject to change. Imperialism cannot be willed away through peace treaties, nor transcended by integrated global markets. Global stability, peace, and justice will necessarily remain elusive so long as capitalism survives.

In what follows, we offer some preliminary points of departure for an analysis of the underlying imperialist logic of capitalism and its phenomenal forms in the twenty-first century.

The world market

Capitalism’s history makes clear that it has an imperialist dynamic that differs from noncapitalist empire building. Ellen Meiksins Wood expressed this most eloquently in Empire of Capital.2  Like feudal lords in their relations with peasants, the noncapitalist colonial empires of the past—such as the feudal Portuguese and Spanish Empires in Latin America between the late fifteenth and early nineteenth centuries—dominated territory and subjects through military conquest and direct political rule; it was, in other words, a nonmarket form of coercion principally dependent on the exercise of political power. What we commonly identify today as two institutionally separate realms of economic and political power were commonly fused in noncapitalist European empires. Political power was vested in the sovereign, the landed elite, and the church hierarchy. The direct and personalized power they accrued through their politico-religious status was used to forcefully extract wealth from peasants domestically and the colonized abroad.

In contrast, mature capitalist imperialism is driven by the universal and impersonal market imperatives that govern capitalist society. Productive wealth—that is, capital—is deployed solely to make profit within the disciplining boundaries of market competition. Survival in the market hinges on the ability of capitalists, as capital, to effectively increase productivity by accumulating and deploying the most advanced technologies, squeezing ever more value from labor, and searching for new markets with natural resources to commodify, cheaper labor to exploit, and more consumers to purchase their commodities. The power to extract wealth from the labor and land of others is not, strictly speaking, a directly political act, but the product of domination in the market. That capitalists are required to plunder natural wealth and exploit labor is itself a product of market compulsion, the whip of competition.

Despite the claims of orthodox Marxist theories of the early twentieth century, imperialism is coextensive with capitalism per se, rather than a temporary byproduct of a peculiar “monopoly stage” in which international expansion is ostensibly driven by a surplus of capital in search of an outlet. The augmentation in size of companies concomitant with late nineteenth-century classical liberalism or late twentieth-century neoliberalism, for instance, is not synonymous with monopoly control or suppression of competition. Theories of monopoly capital have always been of limited analytical value. Capitalism systematically recreates competition and oligopoly in complementary forms. At certain moments of intense interfirm rivalry, specific companies introduce transitory forms of supremacy. But these always succumb to the new competitive battles driven by downward pressures on the rate of profit and the associated competitive pursuit of improvements in productivity.

It follows from the above that there is a geographically expansionary logic at the very heart of the capitalist social order rooted in market imperatives. “The tendency to create the world market,” Marx argues, “is directly given in the concept of capital itself. Every limit appears as a barrier to be overcome.”3  In other words, capital’s impetus to transcend national boundaries is immanent to a social order premised upon the competitive pursuit of profit. The quotidian obligation to expand is further conditioned by the common low-order volatility of capitalist rule, just as compulsory bursts of expansion are often produced by capitalism’s recurring systemic crises. The contours of expansion on the world market are contingent on the spatio-temporal, logistical, and political limits encountered by capital in a given time and place.

Direct colonial occupation of inhabited foreign territories, for instance, was an important initial feature of transitional capitalist powers emerging out of European feudalism in the face of the noncapitalist world beyond Europe. Direct colonial rule was a repertoire of conquest appropriate to early expansionary capitalism given the intense competition between the nascent European colonial powers and their mutual efforts to establish markets beyond their own national boundaries over which they could exercise preferential access. But direct territorial and political control of colonies was never an end in itself. Capital was instead driven to transform those societies, their forms of labor, and their ecologies by subordinating them to the impersonal logic of the capitalist market; the survival of dominant European capitalist enterprises was contingent on their ability to reproduce themselves through global market relations governed by the capacities of competing colonial powers.

If territorial occupation was the defining feature of feudal empires, under transitional capitalism it became a political expression of the underlying drive of market expansion and domination—the result, not the cause, of capitalist imperialism. Thus, the post-World War II disintegration of formal colonialism in the wake of anticolonial rebellion did not signify the end of capitalist imperialism. Instead, it represented, among other things, a change of form enabled by more fully developed capitalist relations on a global scale. This entailed a shift toward mechanisms of imperial power, subordination, and competition more heavily refracted through the market relations that now ensnarled the entire world. Colonial rule, involving direct territorial control and domination, did not entirely disappear under the new scenario but was mainly limited to the internal dynamics of settler colonial societies of nominally sovereign and independent nation-states.

Thus, even if each imperialist machination is hardly reducible to immediate economic calculus, mechanisms of imperialism in the twenty-first century operate through the impersonal forces of the world market. There is little doubt that in today’s world the material reproduction of all nations, and thus their political expressions, are inseparable from international market forces. All nation-states—even the most powerful—are subordinated in differentiated ways to the law of value and its imperatives. The regulatory regimes they establish and the cross-border trade and investment patterns they facilitate serve to reproduce those imperatives. The successive historical phases in the development of capitalism as a unified whole are strewn with the consequences of that animating general logic.

Apprehending the world market as a system of differentiated global interdependence, rather than national independence, is thus a necessary starting point for comprehending the specific trajectories of different societies. In this respect, the global capitalist order should be understood as a totality coming into being, at the heart of which is the world market, whose internally related parts cannot be properly understood in isolation from one another or from the wider whole that they constitute. Understood in this way, it makes little sense to conceive of the imperialist actions undertaken by dominant states to reproduce their position within the hierarchy of states as responsive to some calculated balancing of an economic logic of capital and a geopolitical logic of state management. The territorial space of the modern world is that of world money. Its logic operates from within the state itself rather than merely acting upon it from outside. State and capital, in this sense, do not adhere to separate and external logics that resolve themselves only through collision, but are rather internally and dialectically integrated into a single unified process replete with antagonism and contradiction.

Those complex antagonisms mean that capitalist imperialism never dispenses with the need for coercive force, as a casual look at today’s newspapers will attest. Just as market domination has to be enforced locally over the poor and dispossessed, capitalist states and international institutions exert their power globally for this same purpose. Power over other nations and their populations is advanced through market dependency. Those countries that lack—often as a legacy of their historical subordination through colonial rule—the capacities to compete on the world market with the more advanced capital of richer countries remain stuck in a cycle of low productivity alongside high levels of poverty and indebtedness. For this very reason, global market relations are inherently unstable and force is required to ensure the property rights of capital invested internationally. Recalcitrant populations, and sometimes their governments, need to be kept in line. Meanwhile, generalized competition between states within the world market also pushes states to advance the interests of one set of capitalists against another.


Stressing global interdependence does not imply a flat world in the present, nor homogenize the historical specificity of national and regional paths of capitalist development. The timing and nature of a territory’s transition to capitalism and insertion into an ever-evolving world market is enormously consequential. It matters whether development is “early” or “late”, whether incorporation into the world market is to the top or the bottom of the global hierarchy of states. There is a dialectic of the universal (the world market) and the particular (the national and regional parts), the abstract (the general logic of global capitalism) and the concrete (the specific local conditions), that informs the uneven development of capitalism and the distinct experiences of specific social formations.

Uneven accumulation reinforces and sustains a plural system of states, and thus stands in the way of the kind of international architecture of state power that some liberals and Marxists imagined to be developing at the peak of globalization. The processes of global capital accumulation result in geographic concentrations of investment, markets, and labor in specific locations of the world economy—clusters of capital that privilege certain areas at the expense of others and that tend to be reinforced over time. It is primarily through such path-dependent peculiarities of accumulation that hierarchies are reproduced. While all countries are bound by the universal imperatives of the market, each one submits in a manner peculiar to its size and power. As Marxists have argued in various ways for over a century, the world market is constituted and reconstituted, in part, through the channeling of wealth from the poorer nations to the richer nations, particularly in periods of deep and sustained capitalist crisis. As per the dialectical unity of state and capital described above, the ongoing subordination of poorer and weaker states is never strictly an “economic” process but the consequence of imperial state power in all its dimensions.


Global unevenness is also a key source of tension between different imperial states, as well as between imperial states and late-developers aspiring for greater power. The pervasive imperative to capitalist expansion leads to intensified competition for markets often accompanied by efforts to establish growing geopolitical spheres of influence. Late-development is especially influential on the patterns of class struggle and their expression in the politics of “catch-up” development, often exemplified in a state’s enforcement of capitalist development from above through authoritarian power over workers and interventionist policies to protect, promote, or control specific industries. Capitalist development in one geographic zone of the world system—including the political and geopolitical side of development —is necessarily related to, the cause or result of, the development of other zones.

That is precisely why theories of global capitalism that are inattentive to war and lesser manifestations of rivalry—whether it is William Robinson’s emphasis on transnational class and state formation, Panitch and Gindin on US omnipotence, or Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri on Empire—are strikingly at odds with the definitive characteristics of the present international conjuncture.

Unevenness, tension, and conflict do not imply the inevitability of interimperial war, or the simplistic contemporary vindication of classical Marxist theories of imperialism at the turn of the twentieth century. The phenomenal forms of conflict are never merely epiphenomena that mechanically express the fierce disputation of capitalist competition. Ultimately, when it comes to the rhythms of geopolitical competition in concrete settings, its crescendos and nadirs depend on a series of conjunctural factors, such as the intensity of competition, shifts in the balance of forces, the stakes of a given conflict, and the capacity of international institutions to channel tensions away from direct, military confrontation. While geopolitical antagonisms have assumed different forms and intensities over the long history of capitalist modernity, they have always remained a salient feature of the landscape and are clearly augmenting serious fractures within the twenty-first century global system.  To attend to the emerging properties of conflict coming into being today, we need to avoid presupposing equilibrium or overestimating the enduring powers of an ostensibly integrated liberal order. Cross-border investment and trade, alongside multinational ownership of capital, undoubtedly deepened and expanded in the last three decades of the twentieth century. However, following the 2008 crisis, global integration has modestly declined across all these metrics. It is too early to tell the depth and speed of this trajectory, but the direction is clear enough, and it may well quicken pace and assume deeper significance as the rivalry between the United States and China and Russia swells.

However conceptually consistent world-market integration and the transnationalization of capital and state structures may be at the level of capitalist logic, the historical reality is that global capitalism was born into a world of national territories and states, and four centuries of capitalism has only multiplied their number. Persistent territorial boundaries, uneven economic development, competition, instability, and crisis have actually reinforced processes of national state formation. The regional and international institutions that have emerged rarely amount to more than a sum of the national states that produced them. National states continue to play a foundational role in the regulation of domestic and international capitalist accumulation. As long as the nation-state remains a central medium through which global capitalist accumulation is organized, we can expect conflict, rivalry, and war.  The existence of the nation-state presupposes that, even with international investment and trade, capital will maintain some rootedness within specific nationally defined territories; capital, and thus capitalists, will retain some degree of national identity based on where it emerged, where it is headquartered, and how it is linked to national institutions.

A chain

The world system today is organized into what Lenin referred to as an imperialist chain—a continuum of power that stretches from the imperialist superpower, to states seeking to challenge the dominant power, to secondary imperialist states, to peripheral states. Each of these constitutes a link on a chain that is a hierarchical unity of economic and political interdependence, coordination, and conflict.

The crudely coercive element in the reproduction of US dominance coexists with a more intangible element stemming from the stability and selective opportunities its leadership represents for members positioned throughout the entirety of the imperialist chain. And yet, the notion of frictionless US supremacy is a fantasy; its elegant minimalism comes at the cost of denying the actual complexities of competition, cooperation, antagonism, and mutual dependence—all of which run through the hazardous realm of international politics. The US polity is rife with symptoms of domestic decomposition that spill over onto its projection of power abroad. Meanwhile, the actions of states positioned further along the chain, including those secondary powers allied with the United States, have never been explicable merely through reference to diktats emanating from Washington. One needs to account for the bounded agency of nonhegemonic powers and the antagonisms that this room for maneuver between different powers can generate, up to and including crises of hegemonic rule.

As a number of observers have shown, a host of countries besides the United States exhibit significant capacity to project their political, economic, and military power beyond their borders. While some of these countries are allied with the United States, others are not. In The City: London and the Global Power of Finance, Tony Norfield develops one of the only serious frameworks for systematically measuring the relative weight and influence of different capitalist powers in the world today. Norfield offers empirical evidence to challenge “the assumption that other capitalist powers are, at most, only minor accomplices in America’s plans, ignoring how their own interests are also promoted by their actions.”4  But however one evaluates gradations of power among the links of the imperialist chain, the interests and actions of many countries clearly cannot be easily reduced to US whimsy. China’s Belt and Road initiative, militarization of the South China Sea, aggregate defense spending, and calculated growth as a creditor nation to poorer countries are among the most obvious indicators of the limits of US power. Likewise, Russia’s interventions in Georgia, Syria, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine, represent bold efforts to promote regional economic integration and assert power beyond the remit of US dominance. But not all evidence of independent interest and capacity appears as an audacious affront to US power. Even the hostile imposition of imperial power over weaker states of the Global South by closely integrated US allies like Canada or Australia is often irreducible to US strategic direction.

Race and nation

Nationalism and racism pervade and reinforce the other dimensions of imperialism discussed in the preceding sections. Capital’s self-expansionary character—its need and ability to transcend national boundaries in pursuit of profitability—does not in any way entail that the concrete historical processes enabling its mobility are purely economic. Our conception of state and capital’s dialectical unity rules out the possibility of any dual logic, that is, the idea of capitalist expansion siloed off from a purportedly autonomous state management of territorial interests. Political power and bourgeois hegemony are necessary to reproduce capitalist social relations at the nation-state level. Likewise, the internationalization of capital requires political power and intervention. Recurring state intervention and the reproduction of bourgeois rule across these scales necessitate some form of ideological legitimation. Recourse to racism has proven to be an important ideological medium to justify imperial domination.  “Many of the key moments described by Marxists as driven by capitalist expansion,” Robert Knox observes, “were also steeped in racism.”5

Nationalism in dominant states of the world system has frequently been tied to racism. Part of the problem with much extant Marxist work on imperialism, as Knox points out, is a rigid separation of race and capitalist value, rather than seeing them as co-constitutive elements of capitalist expansion both historically and in the present. Most strikingly, “imperialism has largely been characterised by white, European states expanding into and subordinating nonwhite, non-European societies,” and “the contemporary division of labour has largely mirrored these historical patterns.” Drawing on Frantz Fanon, Knox points to the ways in which race and value are intertwined in the constitutive historical moments of capitalist imperialism.

… at every moment of the process of capital accumulation, race is central. Race initially enters the scene to justify the dispossession of native inhabitants and legitimise the transfer of value from the periphery. The deep social transformations required for expanded capitalist accumulation are articulated in terms of racial categorisations. Finally, these racialized categories play a crucial role in governing peripheral territories and containing resistance of processes of capitalist accumulation.6

Race is not a feature merely of an initial period of colonial history that is subsequently transcended by color-blind capitalist accumulation. Rather, race plays out continuously through the primary axes of contemporary imperialism—an imperialism largely conducted without colonies. “That the flagship journal of modern US empire, Foreign Affairs, evolved from the tellingly titled Journal of Race Development suggests,” Elizabeth Esch and David Roediger point out, “that few architects of US empire did their work outside a racial framework.”7  As Knox argues, racism continues to feature in the good governance rhetoric of international financial institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in so far as their language relies on racist stereotypes of the lazy and corrupt populations of peripheral societies. As conditional aid is divvied out, withheld, and policed, race provides useful linguistic tools through which stories of the deserving and undeserving poor are constructed. The same is true of the armed wing of imperial power. Military interventions in the contemporary period rely on renovated reproductions of standard colonial tropes concerning the ostensible savagery of non-European societies. The renovations need not always be thoroughgoing—“barbarian” is a steady refrain, for example, in Michael Ignatieff’s liberal apologias for the Iraq War of 2003. Similar ideological work is done under the banner of humanitarianism, where racial codes predominate as exemplified by the exclusive targeting of African countries by the International Criminal Court.


Imperialist ordering of the world is dynamic, an unstable mixture of cooperation and competition, friction and contradiction. Some powers rise, news ones threaten emergence, and older ones face potential decline. Certain historical moments can accelerate these processes and deepen existing fault lines, opening possibilities for major transformations.

Future students of world politics will likely view the 2008 global capitalist crisis and resulting prolonged period of stagnation as one of those moments. All previous periods of deep and protracted capitalist crisis have transformed the geopolitical order. The Great Depression of the 1870s to 1890s intensified the scramble for colonial possessions and culminated in the First World War. The Great Depression of the 1930s ultimately led—following the defeat of Germany in the Second World War—to the consolidation of American hegemony in the postwar period, the wave of successful anticolonial struggles, and the decline of the European powers. The crisis of the 1970s set the stage for the neoliberal era, involving, among other things, the industrial rise of China, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the close of the Cold War.

Just as great power rivalry predated the first Great Depression, and the origins of American ascendance are located prior to the Second World War, core features of the present imperial conjuncture—the relative decline of US dominance, the emergence of China as a regional and potential global power, and the increasing assertiveness of Russia within its sphere of influence—are all phenomena that began before 2008. But the volatility unleashed by 2008—the destruction of capital in the United States, Europe, and Russia; the near collapse of banking systems; sovereign debt defaults in Greece and elsewhere; a decade and a half of anemic investment and growth; and, China’s ability to mitigate some of the worse impacts of the crisis and subsequent stagnation—could not but transform the global landscape.

The United States remains the world’s dominant imperialist state, but the global order is undergoing a process of reconfiguration. The international competitiveness of US manufacturing capital is waning. The dollar’s role as global reserve currency is in the early stages of decline. US power has been unable to integrate China into the world system strictly on its terms. The limits of US war making as a means of leadership were made clear in Iraq and Afghanistan. China has seized upon this moment to leaven its economic, political, and military influence regionally and beyond. It has developed multinational corporate champions to compete with its US and European counterparts. It has secured access to the raw materials of weaker countries to feed its industrial and high-tech growth, while ensnaring those countries in new relations of indebtedness. It maintains its global dominance in the critical minerals industry. China’s defense budget has expanded rapidly and may exceed standard US estimates of its size. It is now capable of asserting military predominance in the South China Sea. While, aside from its nuclear capacities, Russia is neither a great power nor an emergent one, it too has seized the opening provided by the instabilities of US hegemony and the export earnings from the European Union’s dependence on its oil and gas to reassert its claim over a sphere of influence that extends back to the pre-Soviet Russian empire.

If we are to even begin to understand the current transformations in imperialism, we cannot cleave to received notions. We require an open-ended and dialectical theoretical frame. We will need to be alive to new developments suggestive of multipolarization.  At the same time, we should not pretend that the rise of one or more powers necessarily entails the endless decline of another. If the dynamic present world situation congeals into a comparatively stable, reconfigured international order it is highly unlikely to be a mere repetition of either the contested US hegemony of the post-World War II era, or the early twentieth century epoch of classical interimperial rivalry. If we hope to keep our bearings, we might do worse than pay attention to capital’s relentless expansion across the world market, the enduring capacities of the nation-state form in all of its multiplicity, the contradictions of uneven accumulation, the strengthening and weakening of links on the imperialist chain, and the ferocities of nationalism and racism underpinning it all.

Todd Gordon is an editor of Midnight Sun Magazine and teaches in the Department of Law and Society at Wilfrid Laurier University, Brantford. He is the author of Imperialist Canada and coauthor of Blood of Extraction: Canadian Imperialism in Latin America.

Jeffery R. Webber teaches in the Department of Politics at York University, Toronto. He is coauthor of The Impasse of the Latin American Left and Blood of Extraction: Canadian Imperialism in Latin America.

  • 1Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin, The Making of Global Capitalism. The Political Economy of American Empire (New York. Verso, 2012).
  • 2Ellen Meiksins Wood, Empire of Capital (New York. Verso, 2005).
  • 3Karl Marx, Grundrisse. Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (New York. Penguin, 1993).
  • 4Tony Norfield, The City. London and the Global Power of Finance (London. Verso, 2017).
  • 5Robert Knox, “Valuing Race? Stretched Marxism and the Logic of Imperialism,” London Review of International Law, 4, no. 1 (2016) 28.
  • 6Knox, “Valuing Race?” 28.
  • 7Elizabeth Esch and David Roediger, “‘One Symptom of Originality’. Race and the Management of Labor in US History” in David Roediger, Class, Race and Marxism, (London. Verso, 2017), 143.