The Structures of Imperialism

February 20th, 2006  |  Published in Imperialism, Political Economy  |  1 Comment

The war in Iraq has led to a rehabilitation of "imperialism" as a description of the American role in the world--both from the left, and from conservative defenders of the empire like Niall Ferguson. From my perspective, this is all to the good, as it moves us away from the delusional idealism that informed so many of the debates over so-called "humanitarian intervention" in the 1990's.

But a lot of the debate smacks of economism. That is, people are not distinguishing between the theory of imperialism, and the belief that U.S. foreign policy is directly determined by the interests of specific private corporations and industries. The widespread use of the military- and prison-industrial complex as an analytical framework is indicative of this tendency. These ideas, which are really aspects of one idea, illuminate something important: the positive feedback loop between the expansion of the state's coercive apparatus at home and abroad, and the increasing size and power of private interests which materially benefit from that expansion. But they can lead us down the blind alley of looking for specific economic interests behind each and every military action of the state. In the case of Iraq, the relevant interest is easy to find, which is why "no war for oil" is such a tempting and plausible rallying cry. But the framework breaks down when it is applied to any wider set of historical examples. To use my favorite case: the nation of Grenada is economically notable primarily for being the world's second largest producer of nutmeg; yet the Reagan administration plainly did not go to war against Grenada in the 1980's for nutmeg.

We need to take more seriously Marx's remark, in the Communist Manifesto, that the state is "an executive committee for managing the affairs of the bourgeoisie". This clause is usually taken as a statement of economic determinism: the actions of the state directly reflect the interests of capital. But we should pay less attention to the end of the phrase, and more to the beginning. As any student of bureaucracy and organizations knows, "executive committees for managing" are complex and contradictory entities with their own autonomous logics. It is certainly often true that the state rules in the interest of particular capitals; the economistic anti-war critique captures this. Yet just as often, the state must suppress particularist interests in order to ensure the orderly accumulation of capital in general.

What we need, then, is a theory of imperialism as a structure, and not as a set of interests. If imperialism signifies nothing more than a territorially defined hierarchy of wealth and power in the world system, we can ask what aspects of contemporary capitalism generate and reinforce such hierarchies. As a preliminary step, it occurs to me that we should differentiate some different levels at which the global economy is integrated.

  1. Primitive Accumulation. Capitalism could not take off without the existence of massive, concentrated stores of wealth, which could then be thrown into circulation as capital. The primitive accumulation of capital refers to the violent and lawless process by which this concentration occurred. The process of primitive accumulation also destroys pre-capitalist social formations and allows capitalism to expand into new areas. This type of global integration is central to Rosa Luxemburg's theory of imperialism. It has been picked up of late by David Harvey, who uses the term "accumulation by disposession" to encompass not only the process traditionally included under the heading of "primitive accumulation", but also things like the commodification of traditional knowledges through the patent system, and the privatization of public institutions.
  2. Export of Commodities. Capitalism has an innate tendency toward overproduction, because increases in productivity are not matched by equivalent rises in the wages of those who must buy the products. Capital thus always seeks new markets, and thus breaks down national barriers. Marx refers to this in the Manifesto: "[t]he cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate."
  3. Export of Capital. Capital ultimately needs not only new markets, but new investment opportunties to dispose of all the capital that is accumulated through repeated cycles of production. This leads to the export not merely of commodities, but of capital, as investment is made abroad and capitalist production begins to be globalized. The export of capital was central to early 20th century theories of imperialism, most notably Lenin's Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism.
  4. Currency Regimes. The globalizing process which is inaugurated in primitive accumulation, and intensified by the export of commodities and capital, necessitates a means of payment in global trade--a way of mediating between the diverse national currencies. Up until the 1970's, gold served this function. Since the collapse of the gold standard, however, a peculiar new system has emerged. The U.S. dollar has become the global reserve currency: global commodities like oil are priced in dollars, and national central banks hold reserves of dollars in order to back up their own currencies. This gives the United States, the only state which can print dollars, a unique power on the global stage. Specifically, dollar hegemony allows the U.S. to maintain structural budget and trade deficits without triggering massive domestic inflation. In order to maintain their massive trade surpluses, China and other countries buy up massive amounts of U.S. Treasury bonds, thus underwriting U.S. government spending. This system means, in essence, that "world trade is now a game in which the US produces dollars and the rest of the world produces things that dollars can buy." Yet no-one wants to upset this arrangement by selling their dollar reserves, since the resulting process of global rebalancing would destroy the production of our trading partners at the same time it demolished American consumption. The constitution of this regime of "dollar hegemony" or "super imperialism" has been documented in detail by Marxist-influenced economists Michael Hudson and Henry C.K. Liu. It is also a topic of concern among mainstream economists like Brad Setser and Nouriel Roubini.
  5. Energy. It is not arbitrary that current events appear to swirl around oil, rather than any other commodity. The productivity of the economy is highly dependent on oil--to a large extent, the increased efficiency of human labor in production has been a function of the availability of cheap energy, in the form of petroleum. If oil becomes more scarce (and therefore more expensive), this has follow-through effects throughout every sector of the economy, from transportation costs to electricity to agriculture (which is sustained by
    nitrogen fertilizer, a petroleum product). There has been a lot of concern lately at the possibility that we are approaching the condition known as "peak oil": the point at which the absolute quantity of oil produced in the world will begin to decline. Note that this is not the same as saying that we are "running out" of oil. The important variable is not how much oil is in the ground, but how fast we can extract it. Capitalism can only exist if it constantly grows, and growth in the economy is tied to growth in oil production. If the peak oil theorists are right that we are approaching peak oil--or have already passed it--then the effects on the global economy will be severe. Moreover, geopolitical contests over oil will certainly intensify. Attempts to integrate energy into the theory of imperialism have so far been somewhat halting--but some important initial steps have been taken by Alf Hornborg, Stan Goff, and Mark Jones.

It is important, I think, to recognize that these five aspects of imperialism are not stages which follow each other in a temporal sequence. Rather, they are overlapping structures of international capital which co-exist and interact. A theory of imperialism has to attend to all of them; moreover, we need an empirical and historically specific account which shows which aspects are subordinate and which predominant in the current conjuncture.

As a start, we might think about the territoriality and directionality of these processes. Imperialist structures 1-3 (dispossession, commodities, capital) are increasingly deterritorialized, in that the capitalist class is becoming transnational, and accumulation by dispossession happens within countries as well as between them. At least in the case of (2) and (3), they are also bidirectional--the need to break down barriers to commodities and capital by now applies almost as much to the subordinate economies of the post-colonial world as it does to the old imperial center, and neoliberalism is breaking down many of the barriers which the first world used to protect its economies from the third world.

Dollar hegemony has the clearest directionality of any of these processes: it is the structure which allows the United States to consume more than it produces, and thereby to materially exploit the rest of the world. For that reason, I think dollar hegemony has to be central to any concept of imperialism which maintains the political and moral force of Lenin and Luxemburg. Yet this picture is complicated by a deterritorialization noted by Henry Liu: "Another unique distinction about dollar hegemongy is that it produced an incongruity between the dollar economy and the US economy." In other words, dollar hegemony benefits a class of finance capitalists that is not American, per se. I have not thought through the implications of this, but it might be a clue to resolving the paradox I discussed yesterday.

Then there is oil, the commodity which underpins so much of global finance, yet one which is by its nature territorial. It is the wild card here, and I think we need an account of oil's role in imperialism which gets past economism. If dollar hegemony is the structuring logic of contemporary imperialism, oil would seem to be its "determining last instance"--the commodity whose fate will ultimately determine the future shape of the system.


  1. j_richter_scale says:

    October 7th, 2007 at 1:38 am (#)

    It is interesting that the important questions you posed in this blog predate the contents of this article by Loren Goldner:

    However, can energy and dollar hegemony (or its potential replacement in “euro hegemony”) be part of an expanded portion on primitive accumulation, because that phenomenon doesn’t need violence or lawlessness to occur (Russian privatization wasn’t violent at all, and was legal, and ditto with Chinese privatization)?

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