US imperial dominance, BRICS sub-imperialism and unequal ecological exchange: An interview with Patrick Bond

BRICS summit Johansberg

Patrick Bond is a Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the University of Johannesburg, as well as a political economist, political ecologist and scholar of social mobilisation. He is the author of BRICS: An Anti-Capitalist Critique and Extreme Uneven Development: Financial Volatility, Deep Capitalist Crisis and Super-Exploitation in South Africa and the World. In this interview with Federico Fuentes for LINKS International Journal of Socialist Renewal, Bond discusses modern-day multilateral networks of imperial power, the role BRICS countries play within this framework, and the need to incorporate the concept of "unequal ecological exchange" into our analysis of imperialism.

Over the past century, we have seen the term imperialism used to define different situations and, at other 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 today?

The idea of imperialism was classically associated with competitive internecine battles between a few great European powers. Their internal capitalist-crisis tendencies spurred an unprecedented geographical expansion, facilitated by major financial markets, which in turn ran into various limits. In that context, colonial military power was typically deployed to conquer territory and establish formal state management and, later, informal neo-colonial political-economic power relations. Colonial regimes established the policing, legal and monetary systems that capitalism required to conquer territories, subjugate peoples and extract resources, dating to the 16th century in the British, French, German, Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, Belgian and Italian spheres of influence, and joined later by the United States.

In our current age, that imperialist formula remains highly relevant, with an additional element that became more vital after World War II and has been utterly impossible to avoid since the 1990s: the post-war economic, socio-cultural, geopolitical and military dominance of the United States, increasingly exercised through Western-headquartered multilateral institutions whose operations favour the interests of the largest multinational corporations and especially financiers. Imperialist multilateral institutions include the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), founded in 1944, and later the World Trade Organisation (WTO, originally the 1948 General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade). The Bretton Woods financial institutions dramatically expanded during the ’80s and ’90s in the wake of commercial bank internationalisation, along with the Bank for International Settlements as a league of central banks dominated by those of the US, Great Britain, Europe and Japan. Increasingly important financial regulatory systems emerged especially after the Western attack on Muslim banks following Al Qaeda’s September 2001 attack on New York and Washington.

In relation to the most difficult problem — climate change — the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change has generally served the main corporate fossil fuel and industrial interests. As witnessed in Dubai in early December, the annual global climate summits are under imperialist control and hence fail to compel cuts in greenhouse gas emissions to sustainable levels — or to even phase out fossil fuels — while refusing a logical principle: polluter-pays reparations. Instead, imperialist climate policymakers prefer gimmicks such as carbon markets that, in effect, privatise the air, and techno fix myth-making. A large network of status quo NGOs and philanthro-capitalists have become vital enablers and legitimators of climate imperialism, as is also the case in nearly every other (silo-delimited) sectoral arena of global public policy.

Additional informal networks of imperial power can be found at the Davos-based World Economic Forum, which has taken on the mantle of a futuristic brain trust, one formerly adorning the Bilderberg Group and US Council on Foreign Relations. Likewise, working to shape public consciousness, the corporate media and numerous think tanks with specialist influences are responsible for ideological and strategic aspects of imperialist regime maintenance, now located in capital cities across the world.

But states remain vital, and military, geopolitical and economic-managerial collaborations between powerful capital cities remain the crucial factor behind imperialism’s durability. Since the ’70s, the G7 bloc has often coordinated Western state power, depending upon the conjuncture. The US Pentagon-centred North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, NATO, has been revived in recent years, while the Five Eyes intelligence alliance (involving Great Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) coordinates Anglophone military interests. And the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue fuses Japanese, Indian, Australian and US forces in Asia, mainly against China’s expansion.

Sometimes, imperial powers use the UN Security Council for broad-based control — albeit recognising divisive contradictions associated with geopolitical antagonisms — and allow the UN General Assembly votes on the “rules-based order” mainly for the sake of legitimacy. Disputes within the imperialist military networks, such as whether to support the early-2000s invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, were subdued as US neo-conservative leadership consolidated through the George W Bush and Barack Obama administrations, with firm British backing. Aside from two exceptions at the UN — a 1987 ban on chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and a 2002 medicines fund — neoliberal policies have been sustained throughout.

At the national scale, as the COVID-19 pandemic caused economic lockdowns in 2020-21, many states engaged in mild Keynesian income distribution and some industrial policy intervention. China remains the leading national state capable of major non-market and often anti-market interventions, such as banning cryptocurrencies, imposing tough exchange controls, tightly regulating Big Data and investing in public goods (especially environmental rehabilitation). But this occurs within a context: the sustained over-accumulation of Chinese productive capital, leading to a “going out” by many industrial firms, mainly along an uneven Belt & Road Initiative, also reflecting extractivist expansion.

Most of this imperial power requires comprador elite alliances with victim-country neoliberal leaders in business and most governments. Indeed, since the world financial meltdown of the late 2000s, and again during the COVID-19 pandemic, there has emerged a vital new feature of imperial assimilation, especially associated with the Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS) bloc’s rise to the global stage. These middle-sized economies are playing greater roles not only in multilateral institutions, but in the G20 group — hosted in 2023 by India, 2024 by Brazil and 2025 by South Africa. The utilisation of regional middle-power allies to complement the US military agenda is not new, with Brazil, Turkey and, especially, Israel deserving longstanding titles of sub-imperialist. This was the term Ruy Mauro Marini coined to characterise Washington-Brasilia relations in 1965, which was later to be broadly characterised within the category semi-periphery by Immanuel Wallerstein’s world-systems school.

The merits of sub-imperialism to US power were articulated by independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who otherwise is a strong critic of abusive trillion-dollar annual military spending. But in an interview on November 5, RFK Jr pledged that if elected in late 2024, he would “Make sure that we have the resources that are critical to us, including the oil resources that are critical to the world, that we have a strike capacity to make sure to be able to protect those. And Israel is critical, and the reason it’s critical is because it’s a bulwark for us in the Middle East. It’s almost like having an aircraft carrier in the Middle East.”

That is a terribly crude, albeit honest, version of Washington’s desired sub-imperial allies. A more general reflection is in capitalism’s multilateral management, such as when economic stress rose in 2008-11 and 2020-22 and both imperial and sub-imperial regimes used the G20 and IMF to coordinate monetary expansion, bank bailouts and rapidly-lowered interest rates.

You have outlined the array of imperialist forces and institutions. But how should we then understand the economic and geopolitical contradictions they now confront, for example in the form of US-Russia tensions?

Major shifts in capital accumulation patterns are reflected in quite dynamic imperialist/sub-imperialist arrangements. Since the 1970s, when capitalist crisis tendencies reemerged, East Asia became an attractive investment option for firms facing lower profit rates in the West. The globalisation of trade, investment and finance accelerated, spurred by the advent of petrodollars (oil economy reserves) and Eurodollars, which centralised money in core Western financial havens. Then, US/British-led neoliberal financial deregulation, starting in the early ’80s, permitted an explosive growth in credit, financial product innovations and speculative capital. Soaring interest rates — imposed from Washington in 1979 to address US inflation — attracted more of the West’s investable funds into the financial circuits of capital. And the European Union economy became a more coherent, less fragmented unit of capitalist power, with a single currency by the early 1990s. Correspondingly, multilateral institutions’ control functions in relation to debtor countries mainly served the interests of multinational corporations and banks, especially once the ’80s debt crisis transferred policy power to the World Bank and IMF. This financial component of imperialism is once again a profound problem in the wake of many countries’ COVID-19 debt encumbrances.

In this context, various long-standing geopolitical pressures and military tensions became more acute during the 2010s — mostly evident as full-blown wars in Ukraine and the Middle East at present, but potentially also in conflicts liable to break out at any time in Central Asia, the Himalayan Mountains, the South China Sea and the Korean peninsula. These divisions can certainly escalate quickly, submerging broader mutual interests and creating a “camp” mentality — the West versus a China/Russia-led so-called multipolar alignment, which in turn have profoundly affected anti-imperialist sensibilities across the world.

The conflicts have extended to labour migration, trade and finance, as witnessed by the rise of xenophobia and right-wing critiques of “globalism”. These were crystallised in right-wing populist victories in three 2016 votes: Brexit, Donald Trump in the United States, and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, followed by other votes including in Brazil, Italy, and now Argentina and the Netherlands. Underlying the lack of faith in liberal elite politics is not only mismanagement of what they concede is a so-called “polycrisis” unfolding in diverse areas of multilateral responsibility, but also the decline of most globalisation ratios (especially trade/GDP) after 2008 resulting in a “deglobalisation” or what The Economist terms “slowbalisation” and the latest UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) report refers to as “stall-speed” growth. That UNCTAD document confesses “unequal benefits from trade integration,” which since 2021 have begun to generate “a new political economy of trade governance” based on “building resilient supply chains, supporting a just energy transition, delivering decent jobs, tackling corruption and corporate tax avoidance, and developing a secure digital infrastructure” — all of which deprioritise “globalisation in general, trade liberalization specifically.”

In addition to these openly-admitted flaws in the system, the US-China trade war, starting in 2017, and the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine reflect further contradictions and limits within capital’s geographical expansion. The ebb and flow of paleo-conservative ideology against the neo-con imperial agenda will continue to disorient imperialist managers and institutions, as was witnessed during the Trump regime.

But many such conflicts — born of internal capitalist contradictions — are not really inter-imperial in character. They reflect a rogue character within sub-imperialism – from which Russian president Vladimir Putin crossed the line by invading Crimea in 2014 and the rest of Ukraine in 2022 – and within imperialism — for example when the US Treasury took extreme measures against Russia’s global financial integration, kicking Moscow out of the main bank transaction system and seizing several hundred billion dollars of its carelessly-scattered official and oligarch assets.

It is difficult to contemplate contemporary imperialism without at least touching on all these dynamics and mentioning the institutions undergirding imperial power. Since the era of Lenin’s imperialism, the system has evolved into a far more complex network responsible for managing global capital’s commodification of everything under the sun, in part by displacing its crisis tendencies via more extreme uneven and combined development. We need conceptual tools — especially sub-imperialism, although the term is very alienating for Third World nationalists — to attack each of these processes. This will, in the process, allow us to transcend the simplistic anti-imperialist rendition of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend,” so often found in so-called campist logic. After all, Putin himself made clear on the eve of the Ukraine invasion how stifling he considered Lenin’s Bolshevik legacy of decentralising power to ethnic nationalities, threatening in mafioso-style: “You want decommunisation? Very well, this suits us just fine. But why stop halfway? We are ready to show what real decommunisation would mean for Ukraine.”

In spite of that, an enemy’s-enemy-is-my-friend sentiment — for example, backing Putin’s invasion, in part because they consider China as the world’s socialist vanguard — is still a dominant “mood”, as Vijay Prashad terms this orientation to Global South politics. Such sentiments are regularly expressed by the leadership of the five largest centre-left forces here in South Africa: the Economic Freedom Fighters, the Radical Economic Transformation faction of the ruling African National Congress, the South African Communist Party, and the two largest wings of organised labour — the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa. So, the formulations we use are increasingly important, for example in contesting both Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Israel-US’ genocidal attacks, with a consistent line of analysis.

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

Yes, we all go back to that little bible — so let us consider its strengths, but also its weaknesses. The core description involves five features of an integrated world capitalist system in that particular conjuncture, which showed sufficient maturity to work in tandem: concentration of capital and production; finance capital fusing industrial, landed and mercantile capital under the domination of banks; export of capital; monopolies and cartels that operated across borders; and the division of the world among the biggest capitalist powers, which was most obvious in the Berlin “Scramble for Africa” in 1884-85 and — just as he finished writing Imperialismthe May 1916 British-French-Russian Sykes-Picot Agreement that carved up the Ottoman Empire. In various ways, all these tendencies are evident today.

But at least two flaws stand out. First, bear in mind the 1929 rebuttal by the first Frankfurt School economist, Henryk Grossman, to an idea of Lenin and, before him, Rudolf Hilferding: the all-encompassing “finance capital”. In the crucial third chapter of Imperialism, Lenin insisted: “It is characteristic of capitalism in general that the ownership of capital is separated from the application of capital to production, that money capital is separated from industrial or productive capital, and that the rentier who lives entirely on income obtained from money capital, is separated from the entrepreneur and from all who are directly concerned in the management of capital. Imperialism, or the domination of finance capital, is that highest stage of capitalism in which this separation reaches vast proportions. The supremacy of finance capital over all other forms of capital means the predominance of the rentier and of the financial oligarchy; it means that a small number of financially ‘powerful’ states stand out among all the rest.”

Much more of a social-democratic reformer than Lenin, Hilferding had advised in 1910 that “taking possession of six large Berlin banks would mean taking possession of the most important spheres of large-scale industry.” The term finance capital reflected the sector’s power — of which Lenin and Hilferding provided many examples — but not its vulnerabilities and contradictions, as Grossman presciently argued just before the 1929-31 world financial meltdown in his book, The Law of Accumulation and Breakdown of the Capitalist System: A study in Marxian crisis theory.

Second, Lenin’s framing assumed that internecine battles between corporates — backed by states representing their interests — would define the imperialist stage of capitalism, in contrast to an earlier understanding elaborated by Rosa Luxemburg in 1913. For her, due to the “ceaseless flow of capital from one branch of production to another, and finally in the periodic and cyclical swings of reproduction between overproduction and crisis ... the accumulation of capital is a kind of metabolism between capitalist economy and those pre-capitalist methods of production without which it cannot go on and which, in this light, it corrodes and assimilates.” The stress in Luxemburg’s analysis is on how imperialism follows from capitalist power, confronting society, nature and early states: “non-capitalist relations provide a fertile soil for capitalism; more strictly: capital feeds on the ruins of such relations, and although this non-capitalist milieu is indispensable for accumulation, the latter proceeds at the cost of this medium nevertheless, by eating it up.” Lenin considered such arguments to be “rubbish” and wrote off Luxemburg’s book as a “shocking muddle”. But the subsequent century proved that even during a period of relatively non-competitive Western imperialism dominated by a sole military superpower, more extreme forms of accumulation by dispossession — as David Harvey has renamed such capitalist/non-capitalist thievery — are often the recourse capitalism takes when needing to temporarily displace its contradictions. Casualised labour, welfare-state austerity, privatisation and the wider reach of the extractive industries into what Marx called the “free gifts of nature” are obvious manifestations.

Two other responses to crisis, crucial ever since the first circuits of capital emerged, are what Harvey termed the “spatial fix” — the geographical shift of capital to more profitable sites — and the “temporal fix” — in which the ability to displace capital over time relies on ever more sophisticated financial systems, so as to pay later but consume now, to mop up the glutted markets. The result is a “new imperialism,” more dependent than ever upon shifting, stalling and stealing in order to displace capital that over-accumulates in exposed economic spaces and sectors, rather than face full-fledged devalorisation of the 1930s Great Depression type.

That means it is vital to comprehend which reforms, either proposed or underway, will allow that displacement of overaccumulated capital to continue, and hence facilitate imperialism’s revitalisation, and which stand in the way. In his 1964 Strategy for Labour, French sociologist Andre Gorz derided minor adjustments that meet broad-based imperialism’s needs as “reformist reforms” and those that undermine the dominant political-economic logic as “non-reformist reforms”. That distinction requires serious anti-imperialists to transcend their current fetish with inter-state relations, in part because of the way BRICS+ has been assimilated within multilateralism.

In light of the changes experienced during the past century, what relative weight do the mechanisms of imperialist exploitation have today, as compared to the past?

Enormous influence has emerged above and beyond the national state and are found within the core multilateral imperialist institutions just discussed. That is why the West has often worried about an increasingly arduous — but nonetheless vital — assimilation of the BRICS into the structures of world power, and now its additional five members (assuming Argentina declines its invitation) — US sub-imperial allies Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Egypt, plus Ethiopia, and durable Washington enemy Iran.

China is most important, and in mid-2014, Obama was asked by a leading imperialist periodical about assimilation prospects:

The Economist: You see countries like China creating a BRICS bank, for instance — institutions that seem to be parallel with the system, rather — and potentially putting pressure on the system rather than adding to it and strengthening it. That is the key issue, whether China ends up inside that system or challenging it. That’s the really big issue of our times, I think.

Obama: It is. And I think it’s important for the United States and Europe to continue to welcome China as a full partner in these international norms. It’s important for us to recognise that there are going to be times where there are tensions and conflicts. But I think those are manageable. And it’s my belief that as China shifts its economy away from simply being the low-cost manufacturer of the world to wanting to move up the value chain, then suddenly issues like protecting intellectual property become more relevant to their companies, not just to US companies.

The welcoming strategy generally paid off. By early 2017, on the eve of Trump’s inauguration, [Chinese president] Xi Jinping pronounced in Davos that he would gladly take the mantle from Obama: “Economic globalisation has powered global growth and facilitated movement of goods and capital, advances in science, technology and civilisation, and interactions among peoples… Whether you like it or not, the global economy is the big ocean that you cannot escape from. Any attempt to cut off the flow of capital, technologies, products, industries and people between economies, and channel the waters in the ocean back into isolated lakes and creeks is simply not possible.”

A former BRICS New Development Bank (NDB) vice president, Paulo Battista, made the same point as Obama at the Valdai Club in Russia recently, in a wide-ranging self-critique of that bank and the Contingent Reserve Arrangement (CRA), which was meant to be an alternative to the IMF: “Let me assure you that when we started out with the CRA and the NDB, there existed considerable concern with what the BRICS were doing in this area in Washington, DC., in the IMF and in the World Bank. I can testify to that because I lived there at the time, as Executive Director for Brazil and other countries in the Board of the IMF. As time went by, however, people in Washington relaxed, sensing perhaps that we were going nowhere.”

Nowhere different, to be more precise. Hence in spite of talk-left critique of the West, there is a walk-right coherence with imperialism’s sustenance of corporate power within a multilateral agenda that the West and BRICS+ generally support. The overall aim of imperial/sub-imperial managerialism remains the extension of the principles and practices of commodification into all aspects of human life and nature, amplified by Big Data, rising surveillance capacity, artificial intelligence and other new technologies. Even when global public goods are urgently needed, such as removing intellectual property from renewable energy and storage innovations, or in pandemic vaccine treatment and management, the WTO has proven important notwithstanding rare critiques, such as India and South Africa requesting a waiver to address COVID-19 — a stance they retreated from in mid-2022 when Brazil, Russia and China did not help overcome European Big Pharma resistance.

The assimilation process has long corresponded with the interpenetration of capitals — and a newly-confident international capitalist class with tax-haven protection and multiple citizenships — during the period of ever-rising trade, foreign investment and cross-border financial flows, up until the peak of globalisation in 2008. A near-universally adopted ideology was vital — the neoliberal so-called Washington Consensus — and is still associated with privatisation, deregulation, outsourcing, casualisation, market-based public policy and a myriad of public-private pilfering techniques, as austerity policies are reasserted (following the momentary 2020-22 pause).

In the case of environmental management, the ideology of ecological modernisation combines faith in technology and markets. As for social policy, attempts to reform imperialism and establish social pacts conclusively failed, aside from the 2020-21 years of COVID-19 emergencies. Instead, a new threat can be found in “financial inclusion” strategies to leverage cash welfare grants through collateralised microfinance debt encumbrance, as innovated in an extremely predatory manner here in South Africa a decade ago by the new World Bank president, Ajay Banga.

Compare this ideology with that of past imperial projects, such as racist colonialism, or Bismarck’s Germany which pioneered the welfare state, or the way colonial and neo-colonial power fostered a labour aristocracy in the core capitalist countries, or the post-war Keynesianism and social-democratic frameworks in which US and European powers projected their alternative to the Soviet and Chinese paths. Today’s imperialism is a far more vicious, extractive and effective version. Neoliberalism leads to a no-holds barred capitalism that shrinks sovereignty and entails such an all-encompassing global power structure that even BRICS countries’ firms rely upon Washington-Geneva-New York institutions to extract profits up and down the global value chain, in which Shanghai-Mumbai-Johannesburg-Sao Paulo capital often does the dirty work of extraction and manufacture but rarely picks up the bulk of profits located in R&D, marketing and financing.

It would appears that, particularly in the wake of the BRICS+ Johannesburg summit in August, some left intellectuals who once viewed BRICS as a potential challenger to Western imperial hegemony are now more sceptical of the possibilities of multipolar politics? Do you get that impression too? What value, if any, should the left give to the concept of multipolarity, given what you have outlined with regard to the role BRICS countries play within the imperialist system?

I think that is the case, and it is mainly because of the failure of that summit to advance a de-dollarisation agenda. One revealing discussion regarding this topic occurred in September. Here are some excerpts:

PEPE ESCOBAR: “Nothing can be done by the BRICS as long as the IMF continues to dictate... an extra problem. The fact that the New Development Bank, the BRICS Bank, basically, essentially, as Glazyev has been saying all the time, it’s still dollarized. And how are they going to escape from the fact that they are dollarized?... how are we going to de-dollarize the BRICS bank, the new development bank? This is something that Dilma Rousseff, former Brazilian president, now president of the NDB, she said that a few months ago, and she said that during the BRICS summit. Ah, our goal is to have 30% of our loans bypassing the dollar in the next few years. But this is completely nuts. It should be like 70% or 80% now. And you’re going to wait for 30% next year or in two years. So this means that it’s still a completely dollarized bank. What to do, Radhika and Michael?

RADHIKA DESAI: Well, let me start. So I would say that the key thing that we have to understand is that the New Development Bank is not where we should look if we are looking at the processes of de-dollarization. I agree that it remains within the spell of the IMF and the World Bank and so on... we are overestimating the cooperation between the… BRICS [which] still includes India, for example, and Brazil and South Africa, whose commitment to an anti-dollar world is actually not as firm as you might imagine. So, I think that this is going to be a drag...

MICHAEL HUDSON: “The problem that the BRICS have is not simply avoiding the IMF. How on earth can they afford to make their public investment in infrastructure and roads and the things we’ve been talking about if they have to pay the existing backlog of foreign dollarized debt that has been run up under IMF sponsorship... So if you’re going to have a philosophy that’s the opposite of the old neocolonialist financial imperialism, you have to make the BRICS break from the West, not only trading among yourselves, but saying, we’re going to have a moratorium on foreign debt.”

Those still believing the BRICS are or can be anti-imperialist, instead of sub-imperialist, need to grapple with the following questions:

  • Why are the BRICS directors at the Bretton Woods Institutions so supportive of the status quo, backed by their Treasuries and central banks?
  • Why does the BRICS NDB portfolio appear not only so irrationally dollarised (since so many loans really are meant for inputs that do not require $US-denominated imports), but also so subject to New York credit ratings agencies’ approval (hence the NDB joining anti-Moscow sanctions in early March 2022) and thus so eco-socially-destructive and crony-capitalist corrupt?
  • Why has the most desperate BRICS borrower from the IMF/Bank — South Africa — not even begun to question what is its inherited and corruption-related odious debt?
  • Why, when Putin defaulted on Russian foreign debt in mid-2022, did nothing really happen as a direct result, and why does he actually want to resume repayment?
  • What are the social forces we need to put in place in South Africa and other BRICS countries to achieve hegemony for a “philosophy that’s the opposite of the old neocolonialist financial imperialism”?
  • If we all want de-dollarisation and one of the routes towards that is a Western financial collapse, then what lessons do we learn from Quantitative Easing, bailouts, low interest rates and other Western central-bank rescue tricks from 2008-13 and 2020-21 — and how can a delinking process succeed when the Western financial authorities have all manner of blandishments and punishments, and BRICS banks and corporates are so reliant upon Western trade, investment and finance?

The only way to answer these queries is to shift from multipolar fantasies to a more realistic, radical approach, by framing the BRICS as a generally sub-imperial force (albeit with features of “antagonistic cooperation”), drawing upon, updating and expanding the ideas along these lines of Ruy Mauro Marini, David Harvey, Sam Moyo and Paris Yeros, Samir Amin and others.

Most of the discussion on imperialism today focuses on unequal exchange as a means of transferring surplus value from exploited to imperialist countries. In your writings you raise the concept of “unequal ecological exchange”. Could you explain what you mean by this and why attempts to analyse modern day imperialism need to incorporate this idea?

This is vital, given the extent to which exploitative global value chains and overlapping ecological crises threaten us all. Amin described too many accounts of imperialism that ignore depletion of non-renewable resources in a scathing manner in his 2010 book, Law of Worldwide Value: “capitalist accumulation is founded on the destruction of the bases of all wealth: human beings and their natural environment. It took a wait lasting a century and a half until our environmentalists rediscovered that reality, now become blindingly clear. It is true that historical Marxisms had largely passed an eraser over the analyses advanced by Marx on this subject and taken the point of view of the bourgeoisie — equated to an atemporal ‘rational’ point of view — in regard to the exploitation of natural resources.”

Even someone I admire for his rigorous critique of profit movements, Michael Roberts, succumbs to the ecological eraser when he argues — in his recent LINKS interview — that there is “sustained transfer of surplus value in the form of profit, rent and interest from the periphery” but without fully addressing the transfer of depleted natural wealth and the impact of pollution, especially carbon dioxide emissions. So, while he mentions “the extraction of natural resources” as one of the transfers from South to North, his value chain analysis neglects the role of sub-imperial extractive industries and fossil fuels. In turn, because Roberts neglects the way depleted wealth is facilitated by BRICS extractivism, the calculations he makes about the shifting of Southern “surpluses” to the North are no better than a bourgeois economist’s GDP calculation, in which a positive income account in an economy reliant on commodity extraction would ideally be corrected for depleted non-renewable resources, local pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and unpaid social reproduction of labour.

By not taking this into account, Roberts dismisses our critique as such: “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.” But there is actually quite strong empirical evidence for three layers of return on investments in imperial, sub-imperial and peripheral economies, even without incorporating natural resources. If Roberts does not find empirical evidence for transfers from resource-rich poor countries to sub-imperial middle-men extractors and manufacturers in the global value chain, it is partly because he “passed the eraser” over all these kinds of unequal ecological exchanges. That allows him to call the resulting analysis of sub-imperial contributions to uneven and combined development “weak,” and to term China “not a capitalist economy” — even though African economies are objectively shrinking in size due to minerals and fossil fuel depletion led by Chinese mining and oil companies.

It is true that Roberts and Guglielmo Carcheddi treat resources and climate catastrophe with more sensitivity in their book, Capitalism in the Twenty-first Century Through the Prism of Value, where they acknowledge: “Capitalism turns the ‘free gifts of nature’ into profit. And in the incessant drive to raise profitability, it depletes and degrades natural resources.” But they stop short of the obvious measurements that prove the geographical unevenness and super-exploitative character of this process.

Do you see any possibility for building bridges between struggles on an international scale, taking into consideration that local movements have different powers (whether imperialist or sub-imperialist) as their principal enemy? What could a 21st century anti-imperialist internationalism look like?

Those two exceptions I mentioned earlier amid the UN’s overall acquiescence to corporate-neoliberal imperialism — the 1987 banning of ozone-destroying CFCs and the 2002 medicines fund — could be models for internationalism. Both, firstly, fused activist and state capacities, and, secondly, addressed at the global scale what were and are indeed global crises. The Montreal Protocol saved us from a growing hole in the ozone layer — which even the [Ronald] Reagan, [Margaret] Thatcher and [Helmut] Kohl regimes recognised as an existential threat — with the ban fully implemented by 1996 (and an original exemption for hydrofluorocarbons subsequently eliminated). That also saved the planet from what NASA suggests would have been a potential 0.5oC of additional warming by 2100. Such a ban on the main sources of carbon dioxide and methane, without emissions-trading loopholes, is what the UN should have been aiming for in Dubai, but did not due to the adverse balance of forces.

The second exception — the advent of a UN Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria — which, here in South Africa, Treatment Action Campaign comrades, alongside international allies such as Medicins sans Frontiers and US-based ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), demanded and won, followed a waiver on Intellectual Property for generic anti-retroviral medicines within the WTO in 2001. At the time, more than 40 million people were living with HIV. That fund’s management, in a self-congratulatory yet justified manner, describes on its website what was “an act of extraordinary global solidarity and leadership … to fight what were then the deadliest infectious diseases confronting humanity,” resulting in US$60 billion donated by rich countries, “saving 59 million lives and reducing the combined death rate from the three diseases by more than half.”

Those are two internationalist approaches to global public goods, within and against the logic of multilateral institutions, which any ecosocialist must consider victories. Other specific battles have inspiring lessons, such as South Africa’s anti-Apartheid struggle, which stands out for at least sufficiently weakening the racial power bloc of white state and capital in the mid-’80s — through both local struggle and international sanctions — so that democracy was won here (even if socio-economic and environmental conditions worsened). From time to time, projects such as the Chiapas Zapatistas autonomous municipalities, Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement (MST) farm occupations or Rojava grassroots, feminist, democratic socialists have provided prefigurative sites. And we have seen countless other acts of anti-imperialist internationalism, such as recent widespread Palestine solidarity protests, including boycott, divestment, sanctions (BDS) campaigns, against the Israeli, US and British states. Globally-coordinated climate activism have sometimes shown great promise, and the best local applications — occasionally under the banner of “water defenders” — provide what Naomi Klein terms “blockadia” activism, with many such struggles evolving from “climate action” to “climate justice”.

However, as identity-based movements gained traction and co-optation occurred to some degree — leaving us with the likes of an Obama or with what is termed the “lean-in feminism” of the 1% — we have seen emerge a right-wing doppelganger mirror image, as Klein warns. The formidable rise of a faux anti-imperialism, or more precisely anti-“globalism,” around the networks Steve Bannon has built are playing a pernicious, conspiracy-mongering role uniting proto-fascistic self-declared populist dissidents across the world. On the other hand, the impressive showing of Jeremy Corbyn’s 2017 British leadership campaign, which included defanging the UK Independence Party that had driven through Brexit the year before, shows working-class forces can be won back to the left using compelling socio-economic policies. At the same time, the recent German Die Linke split demonstrates that the danger of red-brown political forces making concessions to xenophobic tendencies remains acute.

As for far-right forces’ success, right-wing populism deserves some credit for having tackled problems the left had historically dominated, such as critiques of coercive state power, extreme surveillance, excessive medicalisation and crony corporate-state relations — even as they undermined a science-based vaccine campaign against COVID-19. The debates over hate speech and censorship exist nearly everywhere, as Big Data generates what Yanis Varoufakis terms technofeudalism. These will represent profound challenges for anti-imperialists in the decades to come, thanks to the power growing in the US (Seattle-Silicon Valley) and Chinese (Shenzhen-Hangzhou) corporate headquarters of the largest tech firms given the inadequate capacities of Washington-Beijing regulators.

Going back in recent history to the peak of the global justice movement protests against multilateral institutions a quarter century ago and mobilisations against the US-British war on Iraq in 2001, we can find more sobering lessons. The World Social Forum began well in 2001 in Brazil, but within a decade had degenerated into an ideology-free talk shop dominated by NGOs. Some strong components persist — for example, Via Campesina, the World March of Women and Water Warriors — and both the single-issue and geographically-focused movements have shown they can mobilise in coherent ways at global and local scales. But it is obvious enough that the two primary movements of late 2023 — climate and Palestine solidarity— must win some far more profound victories in coming months, as a step towards reconstructing our forces against both imperialism and also now sub-imperialism.