Zombie anti-imperialists vs the ‘Empire’

Today's anti-war movement is motivated more by romanticism than a serious critique of imperialism.

James Heartfield

Topics Politics

‘I call these zombie categories because they are dead but somehow go on living, making us blind to the realities of our lives.’ Ulrich Beck

In the anti-war movement, young protesters reacting against the political leadership offered by Bush, Blair and Berlusconi meet older radicals thrilled to find a new audience for their well-rehearsed polemics against capitalism and imperialism. Theories of a capitalist crisis, giving rise to Great Power rivalries and the exploitation of the third world are being dusted off for a twenty-first century audience.

Yet a superficial revival of radical pamphleteering hides what is really going on. The old left is lending its vocabulary to a movement that is not interested in changing the world, so much as decrying it. The original theory of imperialism envisaged an era of transition, where the barbaric features of the age were all signs of the old society struggling to contain the new.

Clearly, today’s is not an age of transition, and there is no substantial movement towards a new society. Ideas developed in revolutionary times take on a quite different significance when they are re-presented in another context. Sloganeering against ‘imperialism’ and ‘overaccumulation’ does not imply revolutionary change today. Rather, these radical ideas become components of a moral revulsion at the mundane world of politics, where the point is not to change the world but complain about it.

The publication of Empire by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in 2001 opened the floodgates to critiques of US imperialism. This was a new turn for the ‘anticapitalist’ movement, which had until then concentrated on criticism of the market rather than state actions. Institutions under the spotlight were the World Trade Organisation, and the ‘Washington Consensus’ more than states and armies (1).

Events in the real world led to the shift towards a critique of imperialism – including the Kosovo campaign of 1999 and the election of George W Bush in 2000. With the (more symbolic than real) change in policy initiated by the Bush administration, the left opened up a critical distance from Western policy that was not evident in the Clinton years (2). The anticapitalist protests of 1998-2001 gave way to the anti-war mobilisations of 2003-4. The radical critique of US ‘imperialism’ was its intellectual accompaniment (3). The old left – once isolated by its association with oppressive regimes in the East – now found new audiences for its old themes of anti-imperialism.

The important themes of the new imperialism debate are: overaccumulation and the ‘war for oil’; the problematisation of trade relations between the Great Powers; the ‘continuing plunder of the non-capitalist world’; and the ‘Imperialism of Trade’. But as we shall see, the pertinence of the old left’s revamped critique of imperialism is largely illusory.

  • The War for Oil

One factor that boosted the critique of imperialism was the way that the Bush team understood its own ambitions. It is important that Republican think tanks like the Project for the Next American Century did imagine their goals in terms of ‘Full Spectrum Dominance’ and even ‘Empire’. Michael Mann, author of Incoherent Empire, argues that US policy towards landmines, Star Wars, Iran and the southern Philippines is ‘all part of the grand strategy for a global American Empire’. Furthermore, they drafted plans to invade Iraq and finance reconstruction through the privatisation of Iraq’s oil reserves (4). These documents clinched the argument that the Bush team had launched a war for oil (with chasing those responsible for 9/11 as little more than a pretext).

David Harvey, author of The New Imperialism, summarises the neo-conservative’s argument: ‘Iraq will be liberalised for open capitalist development with the aim of creating a wealthy consumerist society along Western lines as a model for the rest of the Middle East.’ ‘Iraqi oil will be used to finance the reconstruction and pay for some of the cost of the war, and it is hoped, be delivered to the world market as a sufficiently low price to spark some kind of recovery in the world economy.’ (5)

At least some of the critics understood that the US administration’s ambitions might be deluded (6). As the long-anticipated reconstruction contracts failed to materialise, nobody asked what had happened to the plundering of Iraq’s oil-wealth – understandably the debate had moved on. The legend of the ‘war for oil’, though, stuck like tar.

‘The majority of Iraq’s 200-odd state-owned factories are white elephants full of outdated equipment’, reported the Kansas City Star on 19 March 2004. ‘Still, in the fall, the coalition had to abandon its notion of rapidly privatising those enterprises after heated opposition from Iraq’s Governing Council.’ When the Pentagon finally did start to award contracts in March 2004, it was part of an $18.6billion construction programme funded by the USA. In October 2003, a donor conference failed to raise the targeted $34billion from America’s allies, leaving the US to foot the bill.

Behind the ‘war for oil’ legend is a coalescence of the old left’s theory of imperialism and the new cynics’ predisposition to see all government as corrupt.

Early in 2003, Guardian columnist George Monbiot gushed that ‘in a series of packed lectures in Oxford, Professor David Harvey, one of the world’s most distinguished geographers, has provided what may be the first comprehensive explanation of the US government’s determination to go to war’. Monbiot was probably unaware that he was regurgitating a garbled update of VI Lenin’s analysis of imperialism from 1916: ‘The underlying problem the USA confronts is the one which periodically afflicts all successful economies: the overaccumulation of capital.’ (7)

But while David Harvey’s doctrinal adherence to the results of Lenin’s analysis was satisfied, it is wrong to say that the USA is awash with capital, overflowing into the less developed world. In fact, America is a net importer of capital, dependent upon foreign purchases of US treasury bonds to recycle as consumer credit (8).

  • ‘Overaccumulation’ – in relation to what?

Theories of overaccumulation have been with us since Adam Smith first anticipated that too many capitalists chasing the same profits would drive profits down to nothing. The resonance of theories of a ‘law of diminishing returns’ arose from the coincidence of growing investment and dwindling profits – in 1813-1815, the 1870s, 1920s, and 1970s. The ‘profit squeeze’ was widely seen as a harbinger of economic doom (9).

In fact, investors did suffer diminishing returns on their investments in the 1990s. But Wall Street investors were not even put off paying fantastic prices for stock with negligible or no earnings. They accepted the advice to ignore the traditional rule of thumb comparing the price of the stock to the earnings (PE ratings) on the grounds that flotations like Netscape’s indicated a ‘world-changing event’ that created a ‘new way of financing companies’ (10).

Diminishing returns did cause problems. Companies like Enron, Parmalat and Shell forged their accounts to disguise poor earnings. But these problems never caused the difficulties that the profit squeezes of the 1880s, 1920s or 1970s did. Without any challenge from organised labour, declining profit rates are a problem that can be contained. Everyone understood that the climb in stockmarket prices was speculative, meaning that money was to be made, not from dividends, but by selling the stock on as it appreciated (11). Where previous generations were scandalised by falling profit-to-capital ratios, in the 1990s these were welcomed for what they were: a stockmarket boom.

The touchstone for radical theories of overaccumulation would seem to be Karl Marx’s celebrated account of the ‘tendency of the rate of profit to fall’ (12). In Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol III, Marx shows how increased accumulation can give rise to diminished profits. His underlying assumption is that all societies create a surplus over and above the producers’ means of subsistence. Under capitalism, this surplus takes the specific economic form of profits on invested capital. But, explains Marx, an ever-greater proportion of investment is in capital that does not yield surplus value, such as machinery and raw materials (which he calls constant capital), and relatively less in labour (which he calls variable capital), which does yield surplus value. ‘Overaccumulation’ for Marx, then, is the overaccumulation of constant capital, relative to the profit-creating variable capital.

The importance of Marx’s theory should not be made into a dogma. Marx was seeking to uncover those trends in the economy that indicated the historically limited, or transient, character of capitalism. Crises suggested that the market system was not synonymous with human civilisation, but might need to be overcome in favour of a more intelligent mode of social organisation. On the other hand, it was never Marx’s aim to suggest there was an automatic tendency for capitalism to break down, independent of the deliberate actions of people (13).

The assumptions that frame Marx’s theory of overaccumulation, though, are less pertinent to today’s economy. Capital accumulation in the 1990s boom years has typically been extensive investment, or ‘job-rich growth’: the creation of new points of production, the assimilation of ever-greater numbers of workers, ‘the rapid growth of employment taking place without the benefit of a parallel increase in the plant and equipment at the disposal of each worker’ (14).

In fact, both the European and American workforces grew – the EU workforce by 15million and America’s by 27million – between 1986 and 2001. In East Asia, and especially China, millions more have been drawn into the factories. That implies an expansion of capitalist production, but not necessarily an increase in the ratio of investment in means of production relative to labour. There is evidence that the ratio between constant capital and variable moved in the other direction, as a more labour-intensive service sector expanded (15).

Whatever the real movement of profits, they are not, in this instance, a consequence of the declining ratio of workers to means of production. While raging against ‘overaccumulation’, today’s critics have failed to notice that the real problem is the shortfall of investment in new technologies, the perpetuation of drudgery and the squandering of labour in unproductive toil.

In any event, most of the radical critics of imperialism only pay lip service to Marx’s theory of overaccumulation. Their Marxism is what Ulrich Beck might call a ‘zombie Marxism’, whose categories wander the night, though life has long since drained from them. They like the way that it sounds – full of crashes and ‘death knells’ – but each give different explanations for the long-awaited reversal of capitalist fortunes.

The most common explanation for the crisis is an overproduction of goods, relative to the available market, rather than an overaccumulation of constant capital relative to variable capital. ‘In the current crisis of overaccumulation and overproduction, in which the markets are saturated, low levels of income…make it impossible for the poor to access these commodities’, argues David Masondo of the South African Communist Party. David Harvey also conflates the two, writing of the ‘general problem of excess capacity (overaccumulation)’. Robert Brenner, author of The Boom and the Bubble, agrees: ‘The overcapacity that was already showing itself very clearly in 1998, 1999 and 2000 has become blatantly obvious, as bubble years’ over-investment, exacerbated by the reversal of the wealth effect, has hit the economy with ever-greater force.’ Brenner finds plenty of evidence for his thesis, such as the utilisation of just 2.5 per cent of existing telecommunications networks, 25 per cent surplus in world auto production, and massive increase in retail floor space. But this interpretation represents the perspective of the individual businessman, for whom selling goods is always a source of existential angst, rather than the socialist critique of capitalist production as a whole. With businesses investing less in developing new products, they concentrate instead on marketing the same old stuff (16). But despite the relative constraint on wages in the 1990s, the growth in numbers working has kept shop tills ringing.

Brenner in particular has difficulty with the evidence of economic buoyancy in the USA from 1993 onwards, adopting awkward euphemisms like ‘up-tick’, ‘equity price aggrandizement’ and ‘amplification of the growth of personal consumption’. Not surprisingly, he makes great play of the collapse in stockmarket prices around 2000-2001, pointing out that these were equal to the aggregate profits these companies reported between 1995 and 2000. ‘As one economist pithily put it’, he writes, ‘what it means is that with the benefit of hindsight, the late 90s never happened’ (17).

No doubt Brenner wishes that the 1990s had never happened, since the economic optimism in that decade seems to make a nonsense of his thesis. The reductio ad absurdum of Brenner’s argument comes when he describes an ‘ongoing international economic stagnation, rooted in overcapacity and over-production’ – in other words, decline, rooted in growth.

Though the old left was providing the intellectual ballast, the real meaning of the ‘war for oil’ slogan was rather different from the Marx-inspired analysis of over-mature capitalism. Behind the terminology lay the more moralistic preoccupations of the contemporary radical intelligentsia with personal greed on the part of the West. According to Christian Aid, ‘the global economy’s addiction to oil – its drug of choice – has done more than anything else to skew the world’s priorities’ (18). The war in Iraq was taken as a sign that the West was overdependent on cars and fossil fuels. The real target of the criticism was not a social system that stood in the way of economic development, but of economic development itself, and of the greater personal consumption it gave rise to.

  • The problematisation of inter-triad trade

Radical critics of imperialism had a ready formula for explaining the diplomatic conflict on the United Nations Security Council over the Iraq resolutions – the clashes mirrored inter-imperialist rivalry at the level of trade. In The Decline of American Power, Immanuel Wallerstein draws attention to relations between the ‘triad’ – America, Europe and Japan. He argues that since the 1970s the downward spiral of capital accumulation means ‘all three could not do well simultaneously’ and ‘the three major loci of accumulation expressed their competition with each other by an effort to “export unemployment” in order to maximise the maintenance and increase of national wealth’: ‘A crude summary of the situation is that Europe did best relatively in the 1970s, Japan in the 1980s and the United States in the 1990s.’

Wallerstein’s schema is not without descriptive power, but the underlying assumption that the economy is in a long downward ‘Kondratieff curve’ is both speculative and unsupported. It is this presupposition that leads Wallerstein to argue that ‘the triadic division will probably grow stronger in he coming decades’ (19).

Robert Brenner similarly assumes that ‘the struggle for export markets’ between the USA, Germany and Japan has ‘increasingly assumed a zero-sum character’. Brenner’s picture of the world economy is drawn too closely from his academic studies of the history of the mercantilist era of the sixteenth century. Then, world trade really was a zero sum game, and princes set out to boost exports at the cost of rivals and to suppress domestic consumption on the way (20).

Brenner’s fixation on the relative weights of national currencies – the dollar, yen and deutschmark – reverses the priority of the economy over what is merely symptomatic: exchange rates. In Brenner’s telling, world leaders manipulate their currencies to drain rival treasuries as if they were sixteenth century Princes. Times of economic decline often echo the rivalries of the mercantilist era, as competition becomes a matter of survival. But while Brenner exaggerates the power of statesmen over economies, he misses out the substantial economic cooperation of recent years.

What Brenner’s material actually shows is that since the 1987 stockmarket crash – when Japanese investors extended credit to avoid a slump in the USA – economic cooperation at the international level has succeeded in managing the more extreme cycles of boom and bust. In the 1990s, America’s trading rivals have continued to fund America’s deficit. None of this means that rivalries have gone away – but they have for the most part been contained, and most importantly de-politicised.

  • ‘Accumulation by dispossession’

Central to the case against imperialism is its predatory character. In the early nineteenth century radical critics like Wilfred Scawen Blunt, Roger Casement, ED Morel and John Hobson highlighted the way that imperialism grew rich by exploiting native labour and resources (21). Today’s critics also point to the disparities in income between the developed and underdeveloped nations as evidence of predation.

But unlike those earlier critics, today’s radicals see the plunder of resources not as a departure from free markets, but a perennial crime of ‘primitive accumulation’, or what David Harvey calls ‘accumulation by dispossession’.

Here Harvey is following US academic Michael Perelman and the veteran Egyptian leftist Samir Amin, who argued back in 1974 that: ‘Whenever the capitalist mode of production enters into relations with pre-capitalist modes of production, and subjects these to itself, transfers of value take place from the pre-capitalist to the capitalist formations as a result of the mechanism of primitive accumulation.’ (22)

Amin’s point is based on a misunderstanding of the concept of primitive accumulation developed by Marx (and later by Eric Williams). Marx’s chapter in Capital on primitive accumulation deals with a concept in the economic theory of his time, that of ‘original accumulation’. This theory held that abstinence on the part of the first capitalists was the source of the original accumulation fund. Marx shows that historically, the first funds garnered by capitalism in the mercantilist era were, on the contrary, plundered from primitive societies, in the form of gold, slaves or other goods, by force. Marx’s point was that this wholesale plunder was not typical of the mode of capitalist expropriation, which depended instead on ‘the silent compulsion of economic relations’ to set the seal on the ‘domination of the capitalist over the worker’ (23). But for Michael Perelman, ‘primitive accumulation is a process that continues to this day’. Perelman’s examples include the recruitment of more women into work, overcrowding in modern cities, the reduction of domestic work (hardly comparable with slavery), and the Conquest of Latin America. Such examples suggest that he has stretched the definition of primitive accumulation beyond recognition (24).

The effect of the preoccupation with ‘primitive accumulation’ is that it concentrates on the exotic outer reaches of the economy, largely the less developed world. But for the most part, Solomon Islanders, Amazonian Indians and the Inuit make no significant contribution to capitalist wealth. They do, on the other hand, make romantic symbols of anticapitalism for those weary of the tribulations of modern life. In the process, jaded Westerners re-envisage their own frustrations through the eyes of dispossessed peasants. Being charged to download music files off the internet becomes another instance of the ‘enclosure of the commons’, and the distinction between coerced and voluntary acts is altogether lost (25).

The Marxist terminology cloaks a romantic anticapitalist outlook that it is quite at odds with. Harvey in particular confuses the issue, asking rhetorically: ‘What would have happened to overaccumulated capital these last 30 years if these new terrains of accumulation [China and the Soviet Union] had not been opened up?’ Certainly Chinese capitalism has been an important locomotive for growth, but this is more a story of the expansion of the market than of primitive accumulation (26).

  • The Imperialism of Trade

In the contemporary critique of imperialism, a contrasting theme to that of ‘accumulation by dispossession’ is the idea of ‘imperialism of trade’. Sociologist Michael Mann grants that the ‘USA has indeed led the movement towards more open global markets’. ‘But self-interest is the cause’, he adds, explaining that ‘most US industries are highly competitive and will broadly benefit from open trade’. Mann cites Brazilian opposition leader Luis Inacio de Silva – ‘Lula’ – who declared free trade was imperialism, and promptly got elected (27).

Mann’s theme is echoed by historian Ellen Meiksins Wood in her book Empire of Capital. In a schematic account of successive imperialisms, Wood aims to make the critique of imperialism relevant to the present. She relegates the ‘classic Marxist theories of imperialism’ to a previous age in which the focus shifted ‘from the internal operation of advanced capitalist economies to the external relations of capitalism’ (28). According to Wood, the ‘basic Leninist idea’ was that ‘the main axis of international conflict and military confrontation would run between imperialist states…. But that competition was, by definition, rivalry over division and re-division of a largely non-capitalist world.’

However true of those who came after, this was definitely not Lenin’s basic idea. He argued that the imperialist stage of capitalism was reached precisely when ‘the division of all territories of the globe among the great capitalist powers had been completed’ (29). The later vogue for casting the less-developed world as somehow ‘outside’ capitalism was alien to Lenin’s approach. It suits Wood, however, to relegate Lenin’s ‘basic idea’ to the past, because that avoids the awkward question of how it is that capitalism survived what Lenin called its ‘Highest Stage’. Wood’s answer is that capitalism has only now entered its highest stage, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989.

‘The classic age of imperialism effectively ended in 1918’, she writes, though the greater part of the world was still colonised. At that time, she argues, ‘the USA was already showing signs of becoming the world’s first truly economic power’. But only since the Berlin wall came down has ‘capitalist imperialism become almost entirely a matter of economic domination’. Rewriting the history of the Eastern Bloc countries as if they were pre-capitalist societies, not the post-capitalist societies they claimed to be, evades the awkward questions raised by the collapse of communism.

Like Mann, Wood develops the theme of the ‘imperialism of trade’, which is to say an elision of two apparently contradictory themes, direct domination, and free exchange. Where ‘classic Marxist theories of imperialism’ emphasised the growth of coercion at the expense of free trade, Wood and Mann see trade liberalisation as itself imperialism. On the face of things, trade liberalisation does appear to be a mechanism for dominating the developing world. For the radical critics this case is all the more compelling because it is made by former World Bank economist Joseph Stiglitz, for whom ‘all too often, the [International Monetary] Fund’s approach has had the feel of a colonial ruler’ (30).

Stiglitz piles up evidence of the colonial approach of the IMF and the USA, and the way that loans to developing countries have been linked to onerous conditions, with an authority that radicals who made these same points in the past did not have (31). Not surprisingly, Stiglitz’s book has made radical journalism a lot easier. However, the conclusions drawn from it are flawed.

Superficially the evidence is that capitalist policy has been marked by trade liberalisation, in the years since the Second World War, and more markedly in the past 20 years. It is true that, largely under US pressure, trade tariffs were brought down from the heights of the 1930s, and European colonies were granted independence. Further, since the 1980s, political elites sought to undo a regulatory framework – both at the domestic and international level – that had over time become a barrier to expansion. But it is a mistake to take either of these moments of ‘liberalisation’ on face value.

In both cases, the rhetoric of free markets was invoked in a move from one regulatory framework to another: in the postwar period the Cold War system of security replaced formal colonisation, but involved greater military interventions against insurgents than before. More confusingly, the ‘neo-liberalisation’ of the 1980s, while removing one set of restrictions, merely re-imposed others, such as the European Union ‘acquis’ of laws and regulations which candidate members in Eastern Europe were obliged to incorporate into their domestic laws before joining.

Today, the World Trade Organisation promotes ‘rules-based trade’ rather than ‘free trade’. The evidence marshalled by third world countries in the lead up to the WTO Cancùn summit in 2003 showed that far from liberalising trade, both Europe and America were heavily subsidising and protecting local farmers and industries. The new regulatory regimes are different in their rationale than the old – invoking themes such as food safety, the prevention of crime and terrorism – but they are just as onerous (32).

For many radicals, however, the rhetoric of neo-liberalism was taken too literally. Having identified with the old-era statist controls, they mourned their passing. Sociologists Scott Lash and John Urry announced a new era of Disorganised Capitalism (33). But others clamoured for new controls on capital movements, corporate malfeasance and the environment, unaware that they were kicking at an open door: these were measures that governments welcomed, as legitimating factors in the new conditions. World Bank loans come today with conditions on protecting the environment and addressing income inequality.

  • The question of transition

In all of the literature on the new imperialism, there is an underlying confusion over historical transition. Though the critics of imperialism invoke the theoretical categories of ‘classical Marxist theories of imperialism’ these turn out to be ill-suited to the present. Concepts such as ‘primitive accumulation’ or the contrast between free trade and imperialism are all jumbled up in contemporary critiques. This is not just shoddy thinking. The concepts are difficult to hold to in today’s conditions because they arise out of a definite theory of transition.

Marx’s insistence on the historically prior era of primitive accumulation, and Lenin’s on the supercession of the epoch of imperialism over that of free trade, are not incidental, but arise out of a clear conception of the historical transcendence of the capitalist order (34).

The historical order of the categories – ‘primitive accumulation’, free trade, imperialism – arises out of the analysis of the transient character of capitalism as a mode of social organisation. But today’s critics have no real sense of transition, and consequently the categories all collapse into each other, losing their specificity. Categories that were developed to highlight the historical transience of capitalism are wrenched out of their context to perform a quite different service. Today they are used only to make a moral case against the presumed inequities of the system. So ‘Free trade is imperialism’ and the enforcement of copyright is ‘the enclosure of the commons’. In the moral critique of imperialism, it is less important what comes after than that the critics demonstrate their ethical superiority in the present.

Characteristically, all the new critiques of imperialism gloss over the question that preoccupied previous critiques – how to overcome imperialism. So David Harvey admonishes Marx for ‘failing to see the creative potential that resides in what some regard dismissively as “traditional” and non-capitalistic social relations and their systems of production’ (35). But this is to talk up a strategy of retreating into the past and leaving the present to ‘Empire’. In any event, Harvey’s characterisation of the intrinsically capitalist character of imperialism does not shut off the possibility that capitalism can be pressured to take a more progressive stance: ‘The USA could…downgrade if not turn away from its imperialist trajectory by engaging in a massive redistribution of wealth within its borders and a redirection of capital flows into the production and renewal of physical and social infrastructures’.

For Harvey, a ‘New Deal’ of domestic and international reconstruction led by the USA and Europe might face ‘overwhelming class forces and special interests ranged against it’ but ‘it is surely enough to fight for in the present’. If Harvey’s ambitions seem to be unrelated to any movement capable of realising it in the here and now, do not worry: he has endorsed the campaign of Democratic challenger for the White House John Kerry as a first step (36). Like Harvey, Michael Mann thinks that the market is here to stay: ‘economic efficiency requires some liberalisation of markets’, he grants (37).

But this is not just a question of individual failings. The concept of an era of transition presupposes a transitional subject. It is the absence of any social force with an interest in the transition to a new form of social production that gives rise to the confusion in the contemporary critiques of imperialism. Lenin wrote of imperialism ‘the question naturally arises: to what is this new, “transitory” capitalism leading?’ The answer was clear to him – social revolution. Today’s critics shout loudly about ‘imperialism’, but when Immanuel Wallerstein raised the question of a social transition he was met with embarrassment, and he only ventured a ‘transition to an uncertain future’ (38). The biggest single challenge imperialism seems to face in the present is from a small gang of isolated conspirators, who wish to see the restoration of a twelfth-century Caliphate. Any takers?

The issue that the critics avoid is central not just because it bears on the subjective alternative to the present. It also changes the objective possibilities of capitalist accumulation and development. In the period 1983-1989 the working-class alternative to capitalism was effectively defeated. That defeat opened up new possibilities for stabilising capitalism. With wages held down, and geographical and social limits to capitalist penetration suspended, the system grew extensively, incorporating more women workers into production, immigrants, and workers in the developing world. With the class struggle contained, elites had more room to manoeuvre, and international cooperation moderated the excesses of the economic cycle (39). At the economic level, society is not subject to the extremes of crisis that underscored the need for social revolution.

In that context, the critics’ case against capitalist imperialism seems strangely hysterical, and coexists quite usefully with the general mood of cynicism and unhappiness, without many obvious examples of impoverishment to justify it. None of this implies that there are not issues that need to be addressed in the present, or that capitalism has become a system of peaceful coexistence and plenty. But it does mean that explanations for the breakdown in international diplomacy and the military venture in Iraq will not be found in the inner logic of capital accumulation, so much as the special problems of the present day: the retreat from leadership and responsibility amongst the elite (40).

Sociologist Ulrich Beck recently argued that the peculiar condition of the present is that we live under the rule of ‘zombie categories’ whose actual content has long since evaporated, persisting only because of a lack of new terminology to describe present conditions. The contemporary debate on imperialism makes ‘zombie categories’ out of the arguments of Marx and Lenin, terminology which seems to make sense to today’s anti-war movement, but only because they are not taking them very seriously. The old left can provide the rhetoric, but the content is the contemporary romantic anti-development mood.

James Heartfield is the author of The ‘Death of the Subject’ Explained, Perpetuity Press, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK)); and Great Expectations: The Creative Industries in the New Economy, Design Agenda, 2000 (buy this book from Amazon (UK)). He is also coauthor of Sustaining Architecture in the Anti-Machine Age, Wiley-Academy, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)). See his website

(1) Important contributions include: No Logo, Naomi Klein; Globalisation and its Discontents, Joseph Stiglitz; The Silent Takeover: Global Capitalism and the Death of Democracy, Noreena Hertz; Rigged Rules and Double Standards, Oxfam; and Kicking Away the Ladder: Development Strategy in Historical Perspective, Ha-Joon Chang.

(2) The important books in the critique of Empire are: Empire, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri; The New Imperialism, David Harvey; The Empire of Capital, Ellen Meiksins Wood; The Boom and the Bubble, Robert Brenner; Incoherent Empire, Michael Mann; The Global Gamble: Washington’s Faustian Bid for World Dominance, Peter Gowan; Clash of Fundamentalisms, Tariq Ali; The Decline of American Power, Immanuel Wallerstein; and After the Empire: The Breakdown of American Order, Emmanuel Todd. Also interesting are: ‘Empire Lite’, Michael Ignatieff, New York Times, 28 July 2002; Clash of Barbarisms: September 11 and the New World Disorder, Gilbert Achar, 2002; Contours of Descent, Robert Pollin, 2003; and articles in Monthly Review and Le Monde Diplomatique; as well as collections in Socialist Register and interventions.

(3) Some important forums include the Mumbai meeting of the Social Forum; Robert Brenner and Perry Anderson’s Center for Social Theory and Comparative History at UCLA; Neil Smith and Omar Dahbour’s seminar on ‘Imperialism’ at CUNY’s Centre for Place, Culture and Politics, which David Harvey and Talal Assad took part in; and Bashir Abu Manneh’s conference on Imperialism and the Middle East, also at CUNY.

(4) Incoherent Empire, Michael Mann, p2. On the right, important documents include: ‘Campaign 2000: Promoting the National Interest’, Condoleezza Rice, Foreign Affairs, January/February 2000; Renewing the Atlantic Partnership: Report of an Independent Task Force of the Council on Foreign Relations, Henry A Kissinger and Lawrence H.Summers, March 2004; Joint Vision 2020, US Department of Defence (‘full spectrum dominance’: ‘the ability of US forces, operating unilaterally or in combination with multinational and interagency partners, to defeat any adversary and control any situation across the full range of military operations’); Rebuilding America’s Defences: Strategy, Forces and Resources for a New Century, Project for the Next American Century; Dick Cheney’s April 2001 report on US energy needs urging the military protection of ‘free oil markets’.

(5) The New Imperialism, David Harvey, p197

(6) Incoherent Empire, Michael Mann, chapter 3; The Decline of American Power, Immanuel Wallerstein; After the Empire: The Breakdown of American Order, Emmanuel Todd.

(7) Too much of a good thing, George Monbiot, 18 February 2003

(8) Ann Pettifor of the New Economics Foundation objected that George Monbiot ‘is wrong to say that the US is awash with capital, striding the Earth in search of markets in which to invest surplus savings’, but is actually a net importer of capital. An empire living on credit, Ann Pettifor, Guardian, 20 February 2003

(9) ‘The Origin Of The Law Of Diminishing Returns’, Edwin Cannan, 1813-15, Economic Journal, vol 2, 1892. Marx quotes Ricardo: ‘The natural tendency of profits then is to fall…the very low rate of profits will have arrested all accumulation’. Marx adds: ‘This, as Ricardo sees it, is the bourgeois “Twilight of the Gods” – the Day of Judgement’. (Theories of Surplus Value, vol 2, 1969, p544.) Comparing profits in the 1960s with those in the 1970s, William Rees Mogg wondered whether ‘maybe Marx was right in saying there will be a historic decline in the rate of return on capital’. (Diaries, Tony Benn, 1996, p370)

(10) As Morgan Stanley analyst Mary Meeker told John Cassidy, quoted in his dot.con: The Greatest Story Ever Sold, 2002

(11) Everyone, that is except Robert Brenner, who worried that the ‘glitch of course, was to be found in the ever-increasing chasm between expected profits, on the one hand, and actual profits, on the other, which manifested itself in the stock market bubble’ (The Boom and the Bubble, Robert Brenner, 2003, p247). Hype about ‘future profits’ was really for the brochures, not to be taken seriously.

(12) So for example, the South African Communist Party’s 1999 document ‘The current global economic crisis’, uses Marx’s terminology: ‘The present crisis is, in fact, a global capitalist crisis, rooted in a classical crisis of overaccumulation and declining profitability.’ Patrick Bond says the document borrows from Robert Brenner’s New Left Review article (May-June 1998) which was the basis of his book The Boom and the Bubble – see Green Left Weekly, 5 May 1999

(13) ‘For some of his disciples the “law of value” … seems to assure the breakdown of capitalism’, chided Paul Mattick, adding: ‘Marx’s critique of political economy became the ideology of the inevitability of socialism.’ (‘Value Theory and Capital Accumulation’, Science and Society, Winter 1959, Vol XXIII, No 1, p 33)

(14) The Boom and the Bubble, Robert Brenner, 2003, p79

(15) 50 Years of Figures, Eurostat, Bureau of Labour Statistics, 2003

(16) ‘The Pitfalls of the Long Transition to Socialism’, The African Communist, First Quarter 2002, p101; The New Imperialism, David Harvey, p70; The Boom and the Bubble, Robert Brenner, 2003, p254; ‘Too much of everything’, R Miller, et al, Business Week, 9 April 2001; ‘Branding over the cracks’, James Heartfield, Critique 35, May 2004. According to the British Department of Trade and Industry, productivity deteriorated as ‘the economy has generated an additional 1.5 million jobs at a quicker rate than it has increased investment’, UK Competitiveness Indicators, HMSO, 2001, p75

(17) The Boom and the Bubble, Robert Brenner, 2003, p295. The quote is Robert Barbera, chief economist at Hoenig and Co, talking to Steve Liesman of the Arkansas Democratic Gazette, 19 August 2001. Remember that the asset prices were overvalued, so the losses do not bear upon the underlying profits.

(18) Fuelling Poverty: Oil, War and Corruption, p 3-4

(19) The Decline of American Power, Immanuel Wallerstein, p275, 280

(20) The Boom and the Bubble, Robert Brenner, 2003, p95; Merchants and Revolution: Commercial Change, Political Conflict, and London’s Overseas Traders, 1550-1653, Robert Brenner, 2003. Robert Brenner’s description of an economy in which ‘gains through exports in one or several regions tend to be counterbalanced by losses elsewhere’ is a curious homage to mainstream economic theory and its belief that trade is an equilibrium, and therefore fixed around a given point.

(21) British Foreign Policy and its Critics, Andrew Rothstein, 1969

(22) Accumulation on a World Scale, Samir Amin, 1974, p3

(23) Capital, vol 1, Karl Marx, 1972; Capitalism and Slavery, Eric Williams, 1966. ‘Direct extra-economic force is still of course used, but only in exceptional cases. In the ordinary run of things, the worker can be left to the “natural laws of production”, ie, it is possible to rely on his dependence on capital, which springs from the conditions of production themselves, and is guaranteed in perpetuity by them.’ Williams, too, cautioned: ‘But it must not be inferred that the triangular trade was solely and entirely responsible for the economic development. The growth of the internal market in England, the ploughing-in of the profits from industry to generate still further capital and achieve still greater expansion, played a large part…. This industrial development, stimulated by mercantilism, later outgrew mercantilism and destroyed it.’ (p106-7)

(24) The Invention of Capitalism: Classical Political Economy and the Secret History of Primitive Accumulation, Michael Perelman, 2000

(25) As, for example in the disappointing essay ‘The fictions of free labour’, Jairus Banaji’, Historical Materialism, 11.3, 2003; (36) The New Imperialism, David Harvey, p149

(26) The original funds for the development of Chinese capitalism were accumulated by expatriate Chinese in East Asia (Incoherent Empire, Michael Mann, p50; ‘China’s comprador capitalism is coming home’, James Heartfield, Review of Radical Political Economy, forthcoming)

(27) Incoherent Empire, Michael Mann, p58-59. John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson coined the phrase, in ‘The Imperialism of Free Trade’, John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson, Economic History Review, second ser, 6, 1953; and see British Imperialism 1688-2000, Peter Cain and Tony Hopkins, 2002, p26-30

(28) The Empire of Capital, Ellen Meiksins Wood, p125-6, my emphasis

(29) Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, VI Lenin, 1996, p90; The Empire of Capital, Ellen Meiksins Wood, p128, 152

(30) Globalisation and its Discontents, Joseph Stiglitz, 2002, p40, 24, 25 , 30, 45, 43-49

(31) See, The Globalisation of Poverty: Impacts of IMF and World Bank Reforms, Michel Chossudovsky, 1997; Dancing the Cancun, by James Heartfield

(32) See ‘Mutual Recognition of Regulatory Regimes: Some Lessons and Prospects’, Kalypso Nicolaides, in Regulatory Reform and International Market Openness, OECD, Paris, 1996

(33) Polity, 1987

(34) Marx put it like this: ‘As long as capital is weak, it still relies on the crutches of the past modes of production, or of those that will pass with its rise. As soon as it feels strong, it throws away those crutches, and moves in accordance with its own laws. As soon as it begins to sense itself and become conscious of itself as a barrier to development, it seeks refuge in forms which, by restricting free competition, seem to make the rule of capital more perfect, but are at the same time heralds of its dissolution and of the dissolution of the mode of production resting on it.’ (Grundrisse, Karl Marx, 1973, p651)

(36) The New Imperialism, David Harvey, p179, 75, 210

(36) At a Columbia University seminar, 25 February 2004.

(37) Incoherent Empire, Michael Mann, p69; Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, VI Lenin, 1996, p37

(38) ‘Transition to an uncertain future’, Immanuel Wallerstein, Monthly Review, vol 53, no 8, January 2002

(39) See In the wake of WorldCom, by Phil Mullan

(40) See The ‘Death of the Subject’ Explained, James Heartfield, 2002 – especially chapter 11, ‘The Retreat of the Elite’

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