Torkil Lauesen has written a great book here - a compelling mixture of history, theory, personal experience, and analysis, all presented in a simple, friendly writing style. Lauesen sometimes repeats himself, and when combined with the grand scope of the topics covered that means this book can take some time to work though, but it is the most readable (and most interesting) introductory work to contemporary imperialism that I've read so far.
Lauesen divides the book into three principal parts. The first recounts a brief history of imperialism, nationalist and internationalist currents in the global socialist movement, anti-imperialist and anti-colonial movements of the 20th century, and modern theories of imperialism. Lauesen also discusses his life-long work as an activist and the organizations he contributed to. Part Two examines the rise of neoliberalism, uses theories of unequal exchange to explain the current world economy, and sketches out a picture of the class divide between Global North and Global South countries. The final part consists of examining the current political situation, the current state of the institutions that could lead to change (trade unions, communist parties, social movements, etc.), a discussion of strategy for Global North activists, and what Lauesen sees as the principal possibilities for the future.
For activists in the Global North hoping to develop an effective anti-imperialist practice, the relatively few words on strategy do not provide much of a blueprint. Learning about Lauesen's activist history is interesting, but he does not attempt to draw generalizable lessons from his experiences and suggest specific organizational forms or tactics. He gives at-times vague prescriptions about supporting Global South struggles through solidarity work or balancing heirarchical, Leninist-type organization with more horizontal, participatory democratic principles. It may be too much to expect a handbook for doing anti-imperialism in the Global North, but even a few more examples of what Lauesen sees as successful experiments or organizations would be helpful. Most communist groups in the U.S. can hardly turn out 50 people to a rally - they are certainly not at the point of doing the kind of mid-to-long-term planning that Lauesen focuses on in his discussions of practice. The lack of more specific ideas for activists is disappointing given that Lauesen has clearly taken his activism very seriously and faced very serious consequences for it. Meanwhile, most other advice for Western activists is penned by academics or hobbyists.
Regardless, this is a valuable book for understanding the basics of modern imperialism, the political actors that have the potential to challenge it, and the possibilities that lie ahead. Lauesen's "realistic optimism", grounded in decades of activism and study, is also refreshing.
Preface by Zak Cope
The present work examines how imperialism has impacted societies in the Third World or Global South, that is, the former colonies of Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean, as well as how it has shaped social relations and popular perceptions in the First World or Global North countries of Europe, North America, and Japan. It describes imperialism’s evolving means of international wealth transfer and reveals how returns derived from unequal exchange, accumulation by dispossession, and capital export (none of which can treated in isolation from the other) have come to form the very taproot of the global profit system.
Today, the nations of the Third World face imperialist invasion, occupation, proxy war, embargo, extortion, starvation, assassination, genocide, fascist repression, corporate plunder, and grinding superexploitation. The contrast with the consumption, leisure time, and social peace that imperialism has afforded the nations of the First World could not be clearer. In spite of this, we have reached the point where authors such as Torkil Lauesen are forced to not only explain but to plainly state the obvious, even (and especially) to alleged Marxists. In these bleak times, it is often hard to discern how we can possibly work towards a better future. On an intellectual level at least, we can only begin to do so if we adopt the perspective of the world majority struggling for a better life.
Part One: The History of Imperialism, A Personal Perspective
Chapter 1: The Emergence of A Divided World
This chapter traces the concurrent rise of capitalism and colonialism, as well as its effects on class struggle in the major European powers.
While trading colonies were characteristic of the colonization of Africa and Asia, colonialism in the Americas was different. The American colonies were settler colonies, where Europeans came and stayed. The economies of these colonies were often based on plantation agriculture and slavery, the sugar industry of the Caribbean being a prime example. Settler colonies were very profitable for European merchants. At the same time, some settler colonies in North America were different: they were not based on plantation agriculture, but on small-scale farming and modest manufacturing. These colonies were of no particular interest to merchant capital, since they didn’t promise any profits. Eventually, they become rivals.
At first, the English mainly used their Indian trading colonies to export Indian goods to Europe and North America. Of primary interest were finished goods such as cotton clothes and silk. Merchants paid for these with silver and gold. Europeans had few goods of interest to Indians. The result was an accumulation of silver and gold in India, which, in turn, stimulated craftsmanship and manufacturing even more. [...]
During the conflict with France, English policies in India changed. The English were no longer satisfied just trading with the Indians, they wanted to gain control over local production. This shift cannot be understood without considering the interests of England’s clothing manufacturers. Clothes imported from India were competitive on the European market. The protectionist tariffs introduced in England at the beginning of the eighteenth century were an initial response to this. Attempts to force Indians to export raw materials (mainly silk and cotton) rather than finished goods failed, since the English trading companies lacked political influence. There was only one solution: India had to be conquered. [...]
Bengal had benefited from trading with the English and had grown rich. Now, however, the state was systematically ruined. Its treasury was emptied with tons of gold being shipped to England and many of its riches disappearing into the pockets of East India Company employees. The English introduced outrageously high taxes. Within a few years, Bengal’s infrastructure was in tatters and its population brought to the brink of extinction. In 1770 alone, one third of the people living in Bengal starved to death. That same year, the East India Company enjoyed record profits.
The colonies existed to serve the needs of the motherland. This also meant that, wherever the settlers were strong enough, they tried to get rid of the motherland. In North America, the settlers seceded from England in 1776. Most important for the development of the capitalist world system, however, was the ever growing capitalist character of colonization.
In England, powerful manufacturers made the government prohibit the import of finished goods which might compete with their own products on the domestic market. By the mid-eighteenth century, Indian clothes were banned from Europe. The market for English textile goods expanded. The colonies’ role was to supply raw materials. This meant that, instead of competing with goods produced in England, they provided the necessary materials for those goods (while at the same time being turned into overseas markets for them). The conditions for capitalism’s rise could not have been better. What followed was one of the most violent and radical transformations in human history: the arrival of big industry.
Introducing how imperialism was also a "spatial fix" for purchasing power problem:
Purchasing power is also limited by the exploitation necessary for capitalist growth. On the one hand, the capitalist needs to keep wages as low as possible in order to make the biggest profits possible. On the other hand, wages make up a significant part of the purchasing power that is required to generate profit. In other words, the capitalist form of accumulation has a tendency to destroy its own market. If capitalists increase wages, their profits decrease; if they decrease wages, their markets decrease. In both cases, capitalists become hesitant to invest, not because they can’t produce, but because they don’t know if what they produce can be sold.
These structural problems of capitalism came to the surface in England during the first half of the nineteenth century. Capitalists could not meet the workers’ demands for higher wages and better working conditions if they wanted to keep their profit rates intact. The English bourgeoisie could not afford full suffrage and trade unions, because it would have threatened capitalism’s entire existence at the time. This is why Marx opened The Communist Manifesto in 1848 with the words: “A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of communism.”
But, just around that time, capitalism found a solution to its first major crisis: the productive forces underwent a revolution with the introduction of spinning and weaving machines, the steam engine, and railways. Productivity increased multifold. This, however, did not bring better conditions for the working class. On the contrary: the 1840s became known as the “hungry forties,” as millions suffered from starvation all across Europe. During the Great Famine in Ireland, which lasted from 1845 to 1852, roughly one million people died of hunger and related diseases. The famine was not caused by the plant disease that wiped out the potato crop. Potatoes accounted for no more than 20 percent of the country’s agricultural production. During the famine, Ireland was exporting sufficient quantities of corn, wheat, barley, and oats to England, feeding an estimated two million people there. It is simply that Ireland was a food-producing colony, similar to India and the sugar islands of the Caribbean, and its population had to suffer the consequences.
In the first half of the nineteenth century, workers’ wages in England covered the bare essentials necessary for survival. This weakened the domestic market. Internationally, the rapid industrialization of France and the Americas troubled the English. Traditional craftsmanship was no longer the main competition to English industry—foreign rivals were. Competition among English capitalists also grew. Worst of all was the recurring problem of stagnant consumption vis-à-vis ever expanding production. The English industrialists’ profit rates were falling.
As we know, the hangman’s face remains well hidden. The predictions of Marx and Engels proved false. Not because their analysis of capitalism was wrong: the capitalist system, as it functioned until the middle of the nineteenth century, was indeed in the process of running out of steam. It was wracked by regular crises of ever increasing severity. Simultaneously, the strength and resistance of the proletariat grew. The “spectre of communism” materialized with the Paris Commune in 1871. The bourgeoisie was terribly afraid of widespread revolution. What Marx and Engels did not foresee was that the proletariat’s struggle for better living conditions would initiate new forms of imperialist accumulation which would in turn revitalize global capitalism. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, described this in 1933:
“It is said that capitalism managed to prolong its life to our day because of a factor which perhaps Marx did not fully consider. This was the exploitation of colonial empires by the industrial countries of the West. This gave fresh life and prosperity to it, at the expense, of course, of the poor countries so exploited.”
Colonialism was not just a centrifugal phenomenon, it was also a polarizing one. The division of the world into rich and poor countries, into center and periphery, lay the basis for capitalism’s growth and longevity.
By the end of the nineteenth century, the British population had become dependent on a number of goods imported from the colonies for mass consumption. Especially sugar, rice, tea, coffee, and tobacco. The most important raw material, cotton, was imported from the slave plantations of North America before the American Civil War, and from India and Egypt afterwards. Britain’s entire economy had become dependent on the colonies and on control of world trade. Improvements in living standards for British workers relied on colonial profits and the relatively low prices of imported goods. The working class was integrated into what was becoming the first consumer society, and as such played an important role in maintaining the empire. By the mid-1800s tea and coffee were regularly consumed by all classes. In 1850, the amount of sugar imported from the colonies was only surpassed by that of cotton. Tea was number four, and coffee number six. Even the poorest classes spent 6 to 7 percent of their income on colonial imports.
The workers' movement in the West helps strengthen capitalism (Lauesen emphasizes this is not through conspiracy but the natural result of things:
The situation was similar in France, Germany, and other Western European countries. Capitalists resisted the workers’ movement, but the concessions they made, especially in terms of higher wages, did not hurt the capitalist system. On the contrary, they helped solve the crisis of overproduction by strengthening the domestic market. But the capitalist system could only afford improvements to the living conditions of European workers because of the exploitation of the colonies. The economies of the colonies themselves had by now become capitalist. Factories and mines had been established and plantations were run as capitalist enterprises. More and more capital was invested. The profits helped compensate for the decline in the profit rate in Europe caused by the increased wages for European workers. Globally, this promised to provide a long-term solution to the contradiction between production and consumption. Capital flows also changed: more capital, and therefore value, was now flowing from the colonies to the developed countries than vice versa. Prior to this, the export of capital from the developed countries to the colonies had helped balance out some of the differences in economic development. Now, the gap between rich and poor only deepened. This was necessary for the continued expansion of the capitalist mode of production. Capitalism needed the best possible conditions for the development of its productive forces.
The new economic conditions changed the political dimensions of class struggle. In Europe and in the European settler colonies, employers could now afford to make concessions to the labor movement. This, in turn, strengthened the workers’ belief in reformism. For the employers, accepting certain reforms was far less risky than provoking revolutionary uprisings. This served both sides. Measured by today’s standards, even the top tier of the English working class, skilled industrial workers, still lived poorly, but their living conditions had improved dramatically within a relatively short period of time and they were far superior to those of the workers in the colonies. At the beginning of the twentieth century, widespread hunger—which we still see in the Global South today—had basically disappeared from England and most Western European countries.
The improved living conditions and political influence of the working class were not the result of some shrewd capitalist plot or a payoff to keep workers submissive. They were a consequence of working-class struggles. Yet, they would not have been possible without imperialism. To speak of “bribes” for the working class—as some anti-imperialist organizations did, KAK included—is an oversimplification. But as a result of improving conditions for the European working classes, the reformist sections of the labor movement were certainly strengthened and the revolutionary ones weakened. Whereas the Paris Commune had been crushed, many reformist campaigns had scored victories. Reformism seemed capable of improving conditions for the proletariat.
One of the reasons for the patriarchal nuclear family model spreading into the working class was colonial profits. The gender roles championed by the workers’ movement in the late nineteenth century corresponded to the development of the labor aristocracy. During the second half of the nineteenth century, the ratio of women to men in the industrial workforce fell by 0.7 percent a year on average. During the 1780s, the percentage of married women in the small town of Cardington who worked for a wage was 67.5. In 1911, in all of England it was 10 percent. This shift was due to factory legislation, the ten-hour work day, rising wages, and the spread of the bourgeois family model within the working class. Maria Mies described this process as follows: “Without the ongoing exploitation of external colonies—formerly as direct colonies, today within the new international division of labour—the establishment of the ‘internal colony,’ that is, a nuclear family and a woman maintained by a male ‘breadwinner,’ would not have been possible.” White men in Western Europe and North America ruled over their own colonies in the form of the nuclear family with a wife forced to stay at home. This was one of the most important factors ensuring that the unpropertied, and formerly dangerous, proletarian would become a loyal citizen.
Mass emigration from Europe strengthened both the labor aristocracy in Europe and the labor aristocracy of European settlers in the colonies. It is important to emphasize the character of the labor aristocracy in the colonies, as Europeans were not the only immigrants. Immigrants from other countries, especially from India and China, also arrived, but under very different circumstances. Most of them were contract laborers, so-called “coolies.” Together with slaves and the indigenous population, they had to do the hardest work for the lowest wage. They built railways and worked in mines and on plantations. Once they tried to better their situation, the European settlers saw them as rivals on the labor market. In the 1880s, the first restrictions on immigration from Asia were implemented. In Australia, European language tests for immigrants were introduced. Soon after, Australia enforced a full stop on immigration from China. The situation was similar in the USA, Canada, and New Zealand. By 1920, immigration for non-Europeans was heavily regulated in all of the English-speaking settler colonies.
Lauesen's explanation for divergent economic success of US vs. Latin America:
Let us compare the colonization of North America in the seventeenth century with that of South America one hundred years earlier. Portugal and Spain were feudal societies. They arrived in armor, intent on conquering and plundering any society they encountered. They built colonial economies based on feudalism, with big estates and plantations. The labor force consisted primarily of slaves. In North America, the early colonists were merchants and plantation owners with an interest in trade. Investments were important. They had a long-term vision for themselves.
In the beginning, the merchants bought fur and agricultural products from small farmers for export. Tobacco was one of the most important trading goods. When big plantations were established, production was also geared toward export. The plantations produced sugar, rice, and cotton. To acquire land—a lot of land—was no problem, but the cost of waged labor was high. Attempts to establish a cheap labor force based on the forced labor of prisoners and the indentured labor of impoverished peasants and craftsmen from Britain failed. Once the latter arrived, they fled the plantations and looked for land of their own. What really made the plantation economy blossom was slavery.
While the merchants and plantation owners of North America had close ties to British merchant capital, the vast majority of European settlers had none. They were mainly displaced peasants and proletarianized craftsmen who had come to America to find land and work. They had not come to return anything to Europe. Many of them had also suffered political or religious persecution. These men and women were determined to stand up for their beliefs. They had no attachment to the countries they came from, neither economically nor politically nor religiously. This was an important factor in the later separation from Britain.
The relationship between the settlers and the European powers was ambiguous. On the one hand, the settlers were agents of the latter, the colonizers on the ground. They administered the colonial territories and brutally crushed any resistance by the indigenous population. On the other hand, their ambition was to become independent. They developed their own national identities and came to see the European powers as forces of occupation that robbed them of their own wealth. In an ironic twist, the settlers themselves became anticolonial. This was not limited to North America; in South Africa, the Boers, settlers who had arrived from the Netherlands, fought brutal wars against the British over the control of the territory and its riches, using the rhetoric of revolutionary republicanism to justify their cause.
After gaining their independence from England, the settlers in the US managed to establish a strong national economy, transforming North America from a periphery within the world capitalist system into its new center. In the early twentieth century, the US had all the requirements for rapid capitalist development: a big domestic market, strong purchasing power, and high industrial profits. The constant flow of value that was required to maintain protectionist policies and a (white) national labor aristocracy was secured by the privatization of the indigenous peoples’ commons, the exploitation of an internal proletariat (formerly, of slaves), and imperialist policies in the West Indies, in Central and South America, and in the Pacific region.
The transformation of the US from colony to imperial superpower marked an overall shift in the power structure of global capitalism. Between 1860 and 1913, the world’s industrial production grew sevenfold. In England it tripled, in France it quadrupled, in Germany it grew sevenfold, and in the US twelvefold. The days of England being the world’s industrial powerhouse were over.
Chapter 2: Nationalism and Internationalism
This chapter tackles the socialist movement's orientation towards nationalism and colonialism, the distorted socialism that arose in the West, and the emergence of a stronger anti-imperialist current elsewhere (Lenin, Comintern and beyond).
The leading ideologue of German social democracy was Eduard Bernstein. Bernstein criticized Marx on several points. In his 1899 book The Preconditions of Socialism , he stated, contra Marx, that capitalism would not lead to a polarization between rich and poor, pointing out that the living conditions of the German working class were improving. For Bernstein, this was proof that the working class could better their situation within the capitalist system. Since they comprised a majority of the population, workers could seize state power by electoral means and introduce socialism without resorting to revolutionary violence. Bernstein’s revision of Marx became the DNA of European social democracy. In the decades to come, the social democratic parties of Europe would repeatedly choose the interests of capital and the nation over socialism.
Bernstein opposed the notion that “working men have no country,” as Marx and Engels had written in The Communist Manifesto . Bernstein conceded that this might have been the case in the 1840s, but claimed it no longer held true. Workers had become citizens of their nation states, equipped with political and social rights, not least due to the efforts of the social democrats. For Bernstein, the social democrats’ task was to reconcile the interests of the working class with those of the nation. Only this would advance working-class politics. This implied that the social democrats had to support colonialism. Bernstein agreed that in order for it to progress, Germany needed to have ready access to raw materials and tropical goods.
The connections drawn by Bernstein between the interests of the German working class and colonialism were logical. Only colonialism made it possible for the situation of European workers to improve. Colonial profits allowed capital to mitigate the social contradictions within the European countries. It helped turn the dangerous classes into loyal citizens. The specter of revolution was contained.
Colonial and racist attitudes among German social democrats were barely concealed. The SPD supported imperialist ambitions in China and was a strong opponent of Chinese immigration, since the “coolies” were seen as a threat to European proletarians. At the SPD’s congress in Mainz in 1900, Rosa Luxemburg was the only member who condemned imperialist attitudes. In the USA, the Socialist Party had already passed a resolution against “yellow immigration” in 1885.
With its reformism, its support for colonialism, and the equation of working-class and national interests, the social democratic parties abandoned the principle of international solidarity and became an integral part of the imperialist system. This was reflected in the official policies of the Second International. When colonialism was debated at the International’s congress in Stuttgart in 1907 (only three years after the genocide against the Herero in South West Africa), Bernstein made the following comment, approved by SPD luminary Ferdinand Lassalle: “People who do not develop may be justifiably subjugated by people who have achieved civilization.” Bernstein added: “Socialists too should acknowledge the need for civilized peoples to act like the guardians of the uncivilized. … Our economies are based in large measure on the extraction from the colonies of products that the native peoples have no idea how to use.”
Interesting view of colonized nations as "proletarian nations" despite lack of a developed industrial working class:
Another interesting figure attending the 1920 Comintern congress was Mirsaid Sultan Galiev, a Tatar revolutionary and proponent of “Muslim national communism.” Galiev, who had participated in the revolution of 1917, wanted the Comintern to focus on anticolonial struggles in the East, arguing that ending colonial plunder was a precondition for revolution in the West: “Deprived of the East, and cut off from India, Afghanistan, Persia, and its other Asian and African colonies, Western European imperialism will wither and die a natural death.” In his view, the communist movement had committed a serious strategic error by “giving … priority to the revolutionary movement in Western Europe” and thereby ignoring the fact that “capitalism’s weak point lay in the Orient.” Galiev conceded that there was no developed working class in what he called the “Eastern nations,” but he considered them to be “proletarian nations,” as they were exploited by the capitalist world system. A similar point was made by Li Dazhao, one of China’s earliest Marxists. He described China as “proletarianized in relation to the world system.”
Revolutionary socialism never gained a strong foothold in North America and largely disappeared from Western Europe in the 1920s. The centers of revolutionary socialism were now to be found in the East and South. Virtually all attempts at socialist revolution during the last one hundred years have occurred in the periphery or semi-periphery of the capitalist world system. The Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Chinese Revolution of 1949 are only the two most prominent examples.
Chapter 3: Anti-Imperialism During the Cold War
After summarizing the pro-imperialist attitudes of Western european working classes (esp interesting in this passage is the AFL-CIO VP's highlighting of military industrial complex's direct employment impact):
In the USA, too, the white working class generally supported US imperialism. The American trade union movement fully supported the government’s anti-communist line and its foreign policy in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The protests against the Vietnam War were not carried out by the white working class, but by students, intellectuals, and the Black liberation movement. The latter took an explicitly anti-imperialist stance and condemned the US occupation, domination, and exploitation of Third World countries. Heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali famously declared that he had “no quarrel with them Viet-Cong.”
If there were any reservations toward the war in Vietnam among the white working class, it was because many white working-class people died in Vietnam. This, however, did not prevent powerful trade unions from organizing a “Support the Boys” march in New York City in May 1967. As they walked down Fifth Avenue, they brandished signs saying “Bomb Beijing” and “Drop the A-Bomb Over Hanoi.” Later that year, thirteen major trade unions gathered for their annual congresses. All in all, 3,542 delegates participated. Each congress held a vote on the war in Vietnam: a total of 1,448 delegates supported the government’s policy, 1,368 wanted to see more military engagement, 471 less, and a mere 235, that is, 7 percent, demanded a withdrawal of US troops. Some months later, the Nixon government not only intensified military operations in Vietnam, but also invaded neighboring Cambodia. At Kent State, twelve students were shot (and four killed) during an anti-war demonstration, yet trade union support for the war only increased. Joseph Beirne, vice president of the AFL-CIO, explained in a speech why resistance against the war hurt the interests of the American working class:
“Suppose last night, instead of escalating into Cambodia, President Nixon said we are pulling every man out in the quickest manner, with airplanes and ships; if he had said that last night, this morning the Pentagon would have notified thousands of companies and said, ‘Your contract is cancelled’—by tomorrow millions would be laid off. The effect of our war, while it is going on, is to keep an economic pipeline loaded with a turnover of dollars because people are employed in manufacturing the things of war. If you ended that tomorrow these same people wouldn’t start making houses.”
During the big anti-war demonstrations in May 1970, construction workers in hard hats attacked protesters with clubs and steel pipes; several hundred were injured, yet the police hardly intervened. The attackers were not some fringe extremists: in New York alone, trade unions mobilized more than one hundred thousand workers to join a rally supporting Nixon’s Indochina policy. The president expressed his gratitude for this “very meaningful” show of support, at the end of which he received a hard hat with the inscription “Commander in Chief.” For Michael Yates, who has studied the American workers’ movement for decades, none of this is surprising:
“Nowhere was the labor movement more nationalistic and anchored in imperialism than in the United States. While there have been individual workers, unions, and movements devoted to the concept and practice of international solidarity, these have always been a minority and suffered decisive defeats at the hands of their more numerous opponents. The historical record is both appalling and tragic. At every critical juncture labor stood against internationalism.”
The people of the Third World had different experiences with nationalism during decolonization. First, nationalism appeared as a progressive tool to gain independence. It stood for the rejection of colonialism and self-reliance. But the consequences of a successful struggle for independence depended very much on the composition of the nationalist movement (its main actors, their interests, and so on), and on the relationships between the classes: bourgeoisie, petty bourgeoisie, proletariat, and peasantry. The strength of the anti-imperialist movement in the Third World nourished the hope that, once independent, Third World nations would develop welfare states or even introduce socialism. But people overlooked the fact that the First World’s welfare capitalism required the reckless exploitation of the Third World. Still, the defeat of colonialism was a progressive step and brought material improvement in people’s lives. As Samir Amin has noted: “[I]n thirty years, the horrible regime of Mobutu led to the production of an education capital in Congo forty times higher than what the Belgians achieved in eighty years.” But Third World nationalism was only progressive when it envisaged a clear break with the capitalist system. Otherwise, it was simply a tool to secure the power of a new national elite.
Despite the often radical history of liberation movements, most focused on capitalist development once they came to power. Land reforms were rare, and mines, industries, and banks were not nationalized. This led to a slow erosion of the vision of the Bandung period, and to the decline of liberation struggles with a socialist perspective.
The wave of anti-imperialist movements of the 1960s did have a strong impact on anti-imperialist theory, though. Marxist thought had not developed much since the 1920s, having mainly been preoccupied with defending the Soviet Union; if there was any theoretical innovation it came from the Trotskyist camp. Now, however, people involved in anticolonial and anti-imperialist struggles made important contributions: Mao, Kwame Nkrumah, Amílcar Cabral, Che Guevara, Frantz Fanon, and others. They laid the foundations for what would later become known as dependency theory.
Nkrumah also addressed the situation in the imperialist center after World War II:
“In the industrially more developed countries, capitalism, far from disappearing, became infinitely stronger. This strength was only achieved by the sacrifice of two principles which had inspired early capitalism, namely the subjugation of the working classes within each individual country and the exclusion of the State from any say in the control of capitalist enterprise. By abandoning these two principles and substituting for them ‘welfare states’ based on high working-class living standards and on a State-regulated capitalism at home, the developed countries succeeded in exporting their internal problem and transferring the conflict between rich and poor from the national to the international stage. … Today the need both to maintain a welfare state, i.e. a parasite State at home, and to support a huge and ever-growing burden of armament costs makes it absolutely essential for developed capitalist countries to secure the maximum return in profit from such parts of the international financial complex as they control. However much private capitalism is exhorted to bring about rapid development and a rising standard of living in the less developed areas of the world, those who manipulate the system realise the inconsistency between doing this and producing at the same time the funds necessary to maintain the sinews of war and the welfare state at home. They know when it comes to the issue they will be excused if they fail to provide for a world-wide rise in the standard of living. They know they will never be forgiven it they betray the system and produce a crisis at home which either destroys the affluent State or interferes with its military preparedness.”
KAK used terms like “parasite state” and “bribing” to emphasize its political perspective. Today, the usefulness of the latter term seems limited. The word “bribe” suggests a conscious motive on the part of both the receiving and the giving end. However, individual capitalists did not hand individual workers any “bribes” to prevent them from making revolution. The working class had to fight for higher wages and to improve their living conditions. These struggles created a dynamic that allowed capital to use the payment of higher wages to expand its markets. Democratic institutions and the welfare state followed, made possible by the exploitation of the colonies. As such, at least the term “parasite state” remains analytically accurate.
Later in this chapter Lauesen moves on to description of the groups he was involved with, and their work (study, travel, material support as the three basic prongs):
In 1971, KAK’s efforts to provide material support for Third World liberation movements increased. Our guiding principle was: “Solidarity is something you can hold in your hands.” We founded an organization with a rather inconspicuous name, Tøj til Afrika (Clothes for Africa, TTA). Its members were all dedicated anti-imperialists, but the goal was not to push ideology. Rather, we wanted to collect as much clothing and other materials for flea markets as possible. TTA had chapters in Copenhagen and four other Danish towns, and during its heyday it had about one hundred members overall. In the 1970s, TTA supported FRELIMO in Mozambique, the MPLA in Angola, ZANU in Rhodesia, SWAPO in Namibia, and the PFLO in Oman. In the 1980s, it also supported a Black consciousness project in South Africa by the name of Isandlwana Revolutionary Effort as well as the New People’s Army in the Philippines. We sent clothes, shoes, and medicine as well as the money we made from the flea markets we held every month. We were able to send hundreds of thousands of crowns every year.
The TTA chapter in Copenhagen stored its donations in an abandoned machine factory. On weekends, we went out to collect whatever was given to us. In the 1970s and early 1980s, people were generous. We had mountains of clothes. On weekdays and during holidays, we sorted and packed them by the ton. They were then transported to Hamburg and shipped to destinations where they could be received by the liberation movements. We had our own offset print shop, producing books, pamphlets, posters, and leaflets, both for the liberation movements and our own use.
This was the legal practice. There was also an illegal one. Some KAK members committed fraud and robbery to get extra money, especially for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). 284 But getting money was far from the only thing we did. We had regular study circles to sharpen our theory and develop a practice that was effective, based on our own circumstances and possibilities. We went on numerous trips to Third World countries to study economic and social conditions on the ground and establish contact with liberation movements. We also had regular discussions with those few organizations in the imperialist countries that shared our perspective.
Political activism was a priority in the lives of KAK members. Some were “professionals” in the sense that they dedicated all of their time to KAK, living off of unemployment benefits. We felt that what we did was meaningful, and that our practice corresponded to our theory. We saw ourselves as a tiny wheel in a big machine that was going to change the world.
As mentioned above, our analysis didn’t help us make many friends within the European left. Our sympathizers consisted of small groups in Sweden and Norway and of individuals scattered across the continent. But we never felt isolated. We regularly met with representatives of liberation movements and had most of our political discussions with them. Appel’s understanding of politics and the role of the revolutionary party was inspired by Lenin and his sense for rigid organization. He was sharp, dedicated, a good speaker, and uncompromising; all of this appealed to the more radical circles of the ’68 generation. Appel managed to gather a small but highly motivated group of militants around him. KAK was a very effective organization. Appel wanted its members to have the knowledge and the experience necessary to make the right moves when socialism became a possibility in Europe again. His strategy was twofold: First, liberation movements in the Third World had to be supported in order to throw imperialism into a crisis, which would lead to a revolutionary situation in Europe. Second, a disciplined and organized party had to be ready to seize the opportunity. Both aspects were closely linked, which was reflected in KAK’s practice.
This also applied to KAK’s illegal practice. Its purpose was to provide Third World liberation movements with material resources. At the same time, it was supposed to familiarize KAK members with illegal work, deemed necessary in a revolutionary situation. We were required to develop secure communications, handle surveillance, set up safe houses, plan actions diligently, and acquire practical skills such as forging documents, picking locks, and stealing cars. We were in it for the long haul and needed to work undercover , not underground . Had our illegal practice been openly political—with communiqués about expropriations and the like—we would have been chased down in no time. Our actions had to look like ordinary crimes. This made it possible for us to operate for almost twenty years. Fraud and robbery were natural choices. The proceeds served the liberation movements well, as they were in short supply of cash. Whatever they got from us, they got unconditionally.
Other leftist groups in Europe which engaged in illegal practice chose different strategies. The Red Army Faction in Germany attacked US army bases to support the anti-imperialist struggle in the Third World. Their actions were openly politically motivated and intended to shake up imperialism’s hinterland, tear what they called the “democratic mask” off the German political system, and serve as an inspiration to the masses. But the Red Army Faction were not “fish swimming in the sea.” They did not have mass support. They were forced into a defensive underground struggle which they were destined to lose. Their strategy was based on a wrong analysis of the ’68 rebellion’s political depth and the possibilities of broad anti-imperialist resistance in Western Europe. This was not a dry prairie where you could spark a fire, but a damp meadow.
Strategy is short-term support for Global South struggles that also builds long-term capacity/skills as a militant organization (contingent on significant change in Global North conditions). Does this model still make sense?
The LSM was a small organization with chapters in San Francisco, Seattle, New York, and Vancouver, Canada. Its key theorist was Don Barnett, a social anthropologist who, in the early 1960s, had visited Kenya to study the anticolonial Mau Mau movement. He was, like Appel at the time, a Maoist and very charismatic. In 1967–1968, Barnett spent time in Dar es Salaam where he established contact with the Angolan MPLA. In 1967, he wrote the pamphlet Toward an International Strategy , which expressed many of the same views as the articles in KAK’s Kommunistisk Orientering . For Barnett, the Third World liberation movements were in the vanguard of the anti-imperialist struggle, while the US working class benefited from the superprofits generated by imperialism. In 1972, the LSM formulated three principles as the foundation of its political work:
“To say this [that labor aristocracies existed in the First World], however, is not to say that there exist at present no potentially progressive strata or elements in the metropolitan centers. By ‘progressive’ in this context we refer to those sectors of the metropolitan population which, in serving and satisfying some of their non-revolutionary interests and acquired needs, can be and sometimes are moved to act in ways which objectively advance the practice and interests of revolutionary classes in motion within imperialist society.
These sectors can and should be mobilized to contribute material and propagandistic support for genuine liberation movements and revolutionary classes in the countryside.
“Again, we believe that certain actions—legal and illegal, peaceful and violent—can be carried out in the metropolitan centers which weaken (however slightly in the present stage) the power of the corporate ruling class and its military apparatus. Particular local tactics must, of course, be worked out by revolutionary groups in the light of concrete conditions prevailing in each metropolitan area.
“Given the above position, LSM’s principles of anti-imperialist work can be summarized as follows:
“( 1) To accelerate, through various concrete forms of material support, political education and ideological struggle, that revolutionary process whereby vanguard subjugated classes and peoples in the countryside are fighting their way out of the imperialist system and contributing significantly to the emergence of post-capitalist socialist internationalism;
“( 2) To unceasingly strive to achieve an international socialist content and direction to the various struggles emerging within the metropolitan centers as contradictions there sharpen due to revolutionary successes in the countryside and the resulting decline in imperialist super-profits and ruling-class capacity to sustain ‘peoples imperialism’;
“( 3) To work toward the formation of revolutionary internationalist structures and forms of effective collaboration across national lines, and at the same time fight against those tendencies which, if not checked, might well lead to a post-capitalist world of unevenly developed, internally stratified and competitive (if not warring) ‘socialist’ countries.”
For the LSM, there was no doubt that Third World liberation movements were the most important forces fighting the capitalist and imperialist system. In 1968, LSM members had visited Angola to write a book about the liberation struggle led by the MPLA. They returned with a “shopping list” of technical and medical equipment that the MPLA needed. The practice of the LSM would subsequently focus on two things: First, disseminating information about Third World struggles in North America. Second, shipping clothes, medicines, foodstuffs, radio equipment, printing machines, and other materials to the MPLA, FRELIMO in Mozambique, SWAPO in Namibia, and the PFLO in Oman
From above, where/which are the "potentially progressive strata or elements" in Global North countries today? And how are they to be mobilized?
The Weathermen had to choose between two kinds of actions with different objectives. The first was to target imperialist institutions and interfere with their operations. Examples were attacks on the war industry and military infrastructure. The second was “armed propaganda,” that is, to demonstrate the possibility of militant resistance and expose the system’s weaknesses.
In the end, most of the Weather Underground’s actions fell into the latter category. Their targets were mainly symbolic, for example when a small bomb went off in the toilets of the US Capitol in Washington DC, the “heart of the beast,” in March 1971. In May 1972, they targeted the Pentagon, and in June 1974 Gulf Oil. Every time, the Weather Underground made sure that no one was hurt. Causing maximum damage was not the goal; the actions were meant to send a message and inspire others. It is a mistake to compare the Weather Underground to organizations like the Red Army Faction or the Red Brigades in Italy.
LSM member Carrol Ishee wrote a comradely critique of the Weather Underground in the journal LSM News in 1975. He questioned the power of symbolic actions. The LSM did not reject armed struggle in the imperialist countries, but they felt it would be most effective if directly linked to struggles in the Third World. Ishee provided an example from Portugal, where, in April 1973, the Portuguese Revolutionary Brigades (Brigadas Revolucionárias ) broke into the Portuguese army headquarters in Lisbon and made off with numerous documents of great use to the liberation movements in the Portuguese colonies.
We never had any direct contact with the Weather Underground. Our approach was different. Our actions were neither direct attacks against imperialism nor symbolic actions. They were not meant to mobilize the working class. Their purpose was to provide material support. Despite these differences, I found some striking similarities between the Weather Underground and our group when I recently read David Gilbert’s autobiography Love and Struggle: My Life in SDS, the Weather Underground, and Beyond . The significance of the Vietnam War, the urge to fight the imperialist system, the desire to move from protest to resistance—all of this was part of our history, too. There are also obvious similarities in operating undercover and operating underground : both require precautions against surveillance, fake identities, safe houses, etc.
Shift in theoretical perspective from Leninist conception of imperialism to more contemporary theories:
In M-KA, we saw ourselves as KAK’s true heir. We had the same political convictions and engaged in the same practice. The main difference was a change in our internal organization: with Appel gone, individual members had more influence and decisions were made by consensus. There were theoretical innovations, too. In KAK, all discussions had started and ended with Lenin. In 1975, some of us wanted to update the analysis of Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. We looked at direct investments and profit rates, and it seemed obvious to us that direct investments in the Third World were much lower than direct investments among imperialist countries. Profits from direct investments in the Third World were a little higher (much higher with respect to oil and certain minerals) than from direct investments in imperialist countries, but not enough to explain the global differences in living conditions. Appel had had great reservations about adding new theorists to KAK’s (very limited) canon. It was only in M-KA that we were able to update Lenin with the help of the new imperialism theories of the 1960s and 70s.
Chapter 4: The Golden Age of Imperialism Theory
Lauesen summarizes the major new theorists of imperialism and their contributions. Specific highlights (not the overall description of their theories) noted here.
According to Emmanuel, the historical basis for unequal exchange was laid by colonialism between 1500 and 1800. Once imperialism engulfed the planet, unequal exchange was brought to new heights.
The unequal relationship between center and periphery had been cemented by the 1880s. While only subsistence wages were being paid in the latter, wages were significantly higher in the former. Since then, the gap has only widened. This is the result of two simultaneous processes: the struggle of the working classes in the center for better pay and living conditions, and the oppression and exploitation of the people in the periphery. According to the theory of unequal exchange, wages are key to assessing a country’s position in the imperialist order. Emmanuel addressed a reality that has been denied in liberal (and neoliberal) theory, namely, that internationally capital is much more mobile than labor. Only restrictions on the free movement of labor can generate the enormous global differences in wages that we see today. With regard to their actual value, goods produced in the Global North are sold for a relatively high price, and goods produced in the Global South for a relatively low one. By value, we understand the amount of socially necessary labor-time used in production. The notion of unequal exchange in trade between the Global North and South is based on a Marxist understanding of value insofar as this trade implies value hidden in the low prices of goods produced by cheap labor.
Another reason why Emmanuel appealed to us was his clarity on the political consequences of unequal exchange, namely the creation of a labor aristocracy:
“When however the relative importance of the national exploitation from which a working class suffers through belonging to the proletariat diminishes continually as compared with that from which it benefits through belonging to a privileged nation, a moment comes when the aim of increasing the national income in absolute terms prevails over that of the relative share of one part of the nation over the other. From that point onward, the principle of national solidarity ceases to be challenged in principle, however violent and radical the struggle over the sharing of the cake may be. Thereafter a de facto united front of the workers and capitalists of the well-to-do countries, directed against the poor nations, coexists with an internal trade-union struggle over the sharing of the loot. Under these conditions this trade-union struggle necessarily becomes more and more a sort of settlement of accounts between partners, and it is no accident that in the richest countries, such as the United States—with similar tendencies already apparent in other big capitalist countries—militant trade-union struggle is degenerating first into trade unionism of the classic British type, then into corporatism, and finally into racketeering.”
Wallerstein adopted Emmanuel’s notion of unequal exchange. But while Emmanuel focused on the economy, Wallerstein focused on the state:
“The concentration of capital in core zones created both the fiscal base and the political motivation to create relatively strong state-machineries, among whose many capacities was that of ensuring that the state machineries of peripheral zones became or remained relatively weaker. They could thereby pressure these state-structures to accept, even promote greater specialization in their jurisdiction in tasks lower down the hierarchy of commodity chains, utilizing lower-paid work-forces and creating (reinforcing) the relevant household structures to permit such work-forces to survive. Thus did historical capitalism actually create the so-called historical levels of wages which have become so dramatically divergent in different zones of the world-system.”
Amin has paid particular attention to capitalist monopolies. He has identified five monopolies of central importance for unequal exchange:
- The monopoly of technology;
- The monopoly of global finance;
- The monopoly of access to natural resources;
- The monopoly of international communications and mass media;
- The monopoly of weapons of mass destruction.
These monopolies and the superprofits they generate are what have made it possible for the working classes of the imperialist countries to receive relatively high wages.
A central feature of Amin’s work is the notion of delinking. Amin believes that the only way for Third World countries to reach real political and economic independence is to detach themselves from the capitalist world market. Unequal exchange can only end when the countries in the periphery no longer serve the needs of the core countries. This would break the logic of capitalism and make socialism possible. In the core countries, a crisis would ensue challenging the historical compromise between capital and labor. According to Amin, the future of class struggle in the core countries depends on political developments in the periphery.
Lauesen also turns back to nat-lib struggles and the challenges they faced (reasons for "failure", at least to create socialist states).
We were in close contact with the liberation movements we supported. Their socialist convictions were definitely genuine. In analyzing the legacy of the liberation struggles, it is too easy to simply focus on how power corrupts. There were other reasons for socialism not becoming a reality. Needless to say, each struggle had its unique features, but I will focus on three that affected them all: the structure of the global economy; the question of power in a nation state; and the lack of socialist examples.
Working-class victories in national class struggles always have international significance. But this also poses a problem: the bourgeoisies of all capitalist nations will try to reverse them. The Russian Revolution faced the intervention of several foreign forces; both the UK and the US supported the Whites. The history of the Soviet Union was characterized by outside threats, whether from Nazi Germany or from Ronald Reagan’s crusade against the “Evil Empire.” The situation was the same in China, Vietnam, Cuba, North Korea, Angola, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and all other countries where socialist revolutions succeeded. Many counterrevolutionary movements were sponsored by the US: UNITA in Angola, the Contras in Nicaragua, the Mozambican National Resistance, and others. The Cold War arms race created a claustrophobic, paranoid, and defensive socialism that did not allow for democratic socialist development.
The same circumstances that facilitate communist rebellion—that is, wars raging between nations—also facilitate counterrevolutionary attacks supported by foreign powers. This, in turn, leads to internal oppression and militarization. All revolutions that occurred during the Cold War, from 1945 to 1989, had to contend with this. On the one hand, the constant tension between the US and the Soviet Union created openings for Third World revolutions; on the other hand, it severely limited the political options these revolutions had. It was difficult to escape the political playing field defined by the superpowers, even for movements that tried to place themselves outside of it, such as the anticolonial movements of Asia and Africa, the democratic movements of Latin America, or the Black Power movement in the US. In the end, they were all pawns in a game played by the world’s most powerful states—a game dangerous enough to bring the world to the brink of nuclear war.
Actually existing socialism—and, with it, the anti-imperialist movement of the 1970s and 80s—vanished with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The window of opportunity had been opened by the two global superpowers trying to neutralize one another; it was now closed. Material support for liberation movements was no longer forthcoming, and for the former colonies that had become independent countries, it was now more difficult than ever to pursue a socialist course. Neoliberal capitalism set the agenda and integrated the newly independent countries into the capitalist world market on its own terms. To delink and build self-reliant economies was a herculean task that the newly independent countries were unable to accomplish. This also meant that they were constantly drained of resources that would have been vital to building strong national economies; they were destined to remain poor. Any attempt at implementing socialist policies despite the difficult circumstances was met with opposition from the US and, if necessary, simply crushed.
The revolutionary movements of the twentieth century made huge sacrifices in their attempts to topple the dominant order. Still, they failed, being met with brute force as well as cunning strategies of cooptation. It is important, however, to remember that each of these movements forced capitalism to adapt. Capitalism has gone through enormous changes in the past hundred years. The national liberation struggles did not lead to world revolution or even produce individual socialist nation states, but it would be wrong to say that they achieved nothing. They brought an end to colonialism in Africa and Asia. They brought an end to the apartheid regime of South Africa. Dictators in Latin America were toppled. The fate of the Palestinians entered the global consciousness.
What is the situation today? The former colonies have not been able to escape imperialism, despite independence. The ruling elites of the newly independent countries constitute—more or less willingly— a class of compradors. Workers and peasants have largely lost faith in socialism and now put their hopes in either Islamism or liberal democracy. This has extended the life of global capitalism. The crisis of 2007, however, was an early sign that it is nearing its end. The causes underlying the crisis went much deeper than irresponsible financial speculation, and they will not go away. The next thirty years will see many windows of opportunity for radical change. If the 1970s were characterized by too much optimism, then the present is characterized by too much pessimism.
Part Two: Globalized Capitalism
Chapter 5: Neoliberal Globalization
Bringing us from the 70s up to the present, and describing the new modes of economic imperialism.
Transnational corporations aim to lower production costs and increase profits by replacing high-wage labor with low-wage labor. This has led to a new stream of superprofits and a transfer of wealth (in the form of cheap goods) to consumers in the imperialist countries. Neoliberal globalization has strengthened capitalism’s parasitic traits. The relationship between capital and labor has become a global relationship between Northern capital and Southern labor. It represents a “pure” capitalist form of imperialism; that is, a form of exploitation that relies on an economic framework rather than on colonial violence. This does not mean that it is detached from colonial history or that all forms of violence are gone. No economic system will ever be “pure” in that sense.
On the "post-industrial" West, and a clear definition of productive labor:
In the 1980s, it became popular to describe Western societies as “post-industrial.” Immaterial labor, meaning labor related to knowledge, information, communications, service, creativity, and what has been dubbed the “experience economy” became increasingly important. We are a far cry from a “post-industrial” world, however: computers, screens, smart phones, and all the other consumer goods we use in ever increasing quantities are produced by actual people. Globally, there are more industrial workers today than four decades ago, not less. Industrial production has not disappeared, it has only been moved out of sight if you live in the Global North. While the labor is done in the South, it is still controlled by the North, which handles finance and trade, and enforces property rights.
The industrialization of the South goes hand in hand with the rise of unproductive labor in the North. Today, about half of the workforce in the North is involved in unproductive labor. As an article in the Economist put it in 2012: “[F]actory floors today often seem deserted, whereas the office blocks nearby are full of designers, IT specialists, accountants, logistics experts, marketing staff, customer-relations managers, cooks and cleaners.” 352 Economists have characterized the present phase of globalization as one “in which production and the realization of value are more delinked geographically than ever before.”
It is important to remember that everything consumed by workers involved in both productive and unproductive labor comes from the productive sector. Let us look at the security guards hired at factories, as an example to illustrate this. They create a common good, security. But if the number of security workers is rising in relation to industrial workers, then the average production per worker declines. Security workers are reliant on the value produced by industrial workers. Hence, the rise of unproductive labor in the North depends on the increased exploitation of productive labor in the South. Otherwise, profits would fall. Already in 1990, James Devine pointed out that “if the center uses unproductive labor more than the world average … then value will be transferred to the center.”
Labor arbitrage takes two forms: First, production is moved to low-wage countries. Second, labor is imported from low-wage countries. The first is by far the most important because the mobility of labor is strongly limited by migration laws, as the militarized borders of the European Union and the US make painfully obvious. Industries that cannot easily move, for example agriculture, construction, or the care industry, do what they can to import cheap labor. Migrant workers toil in the fields of the US and on European construction sites. Their wages are lower than those of the “native” working class, but they are significantly higher than what they could earn at home. According to the World Bank, each of the 210,000 Bangladeshi immigrants who resided in England in 2013 sent, on average, US$4,058 to their families in Bangladesh. That same year, the average income of a worker in Bangladesh’s textile industry was US$1,380. This means that a Bangladeshi immigrant worker in the UK could save three times more money than what a Bangladeshi worker in the textile industry could earn.
Countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and other Gulf States have become entirely dependent on the import of low-wage labor. Migrant workers are brought into the country when they are needed, and sent away when they are not. This is particularly pronounced in the construction and service industries. The skylines of Dubai and Qatar have been built by workers from Bangladesh, Nepal, and the Philippines. William Robinson has described their situation: “Neither employers nor the state wants to do away with immigrant labour. To the contrary, they want … its maximum exploitation together with its disposal when necessary.”
Laborers such as these make up today’s world proletariat. There are millions toiling in factories, mines, and plantations across the Global South. The global market for labor is determined by the global labor arbitrage, which is directly linked to both the limited mobility of labor and the vast reserve army of labor that exists in the Global South. According to the World Bank, “international wage price gaps exceed any other form of border-induced price gap by an order of magnitude or more.” Labor arbitrage allows a form of exploitation that is not dependent on political or military oppression and can simply rely on the global labor market. This does not mean, however, that oppression and violence have disappeared. They are necessary to maintain state power, global chains of production, and the division of the labor market. One of the most important functions of the state today is to control the movement across its borders—not of commodities and capital, but of people.
The number of migrants moving from the Global South to the Global North today pales in comparison to the number of Europeans who emigrated between 1850 and 1920. As mentioned above, 17 percent of the European population left their home countries during that period. In the last decades, only 0.8 percent of the Global South’s labor force has moved North. That the number is not higher is particularly striking if we consider the circumstances. Europeans moved to countries where wages were comparable to those they were used to. Migrants from the Global South move to countries where wages are often ten times more than what they are used to. Transportation has become faster and safer, and it is much easier today to keep in touch with friends and family. What keeps people from the Global South away despite all this, is easy to identify: economic, legal, and physical restrictions. People who live in a country that is not their country of birth comprise only 3 percent of the global population—and only 35 percent of them have moved from the Global South to the Global North. By comparison, in any given year during the second half of the nineteenth century, foreign-born residents made up 10 percent of the world population.
Capitalism has profited immensely from the hierarchies within the international labor market. The relocation of production to the Global South helped raise profits, which the working classes in the imperialist countries benefited from as well. Their wages remained at least relatively stable and consumer goods became cheaper. Had capital not been able to stop the 1970s decline in profit rates, social unrest and the end of the historic class compromise would have been likely. 381 Capital in the Global North is still in trouble, however, as migration creates enormous pressures for it. Capital has an interest in using cheap migrant labor, but this threatens class compromise. We find this expressed in the skepticism, or even hostility, with which many European workers eye migration. With their own wages and welfare services under threat, they fear increased competition on the labor market.
The political framework of class compromise is parliamentary democracy. Today, an increasing number of working-class people vote for right-wing parties. In response, social democratic parties have adopted right-wing rhetoric and policies. Neoliberal parties find themselves in a double bind: they cannot bring in unlimited numbers of migrants, nor can they alter the economic system that causes migration.
There are few places in the world where the Global South geographically meets the Global North. At these places, mines, walls, barbed wire fences, soldiers, and navy ships are supposed to prevent migration. In the nineteenth century, migrants dreamed of getting their own land. Today, they dream of getting a job. Never have there been so many people wanting to emigrate as today—and never have there been so many determined to prevent others from doing so. Neoliberal states mobilize an increasing number of police and soldiers to keep migrants and refugees from crossing their borders. The Mediterranean sea and the US–Mexico border have been transformed into death zones, as thousands of desperate people from low-wage countries die in their attempts to reach the promised land.
But even if they succeed, fortune is not guaranteed. It has become very difficult to receive citizenship in the countries of the Global North. Few of the arriving migrants will find legal work and access to the institutions of the welfare state. Citizenship has become a biopolitical border. To receive it, you have to work your way up in the migrant hierarchy. There are people with temporary residency, people with permanent residency, people who are allowed to bring their families, etc. Your access to the welfare state depends on the level you have reached.
The immigration system also distinguishes between “political refugees” and “economic migrants”; the latter are sometimes, cynically, called migrants for “personal convenience.” As a consequence, political persecution is seen as an escape route from poverty; it is not only political persecution, however, that entails physical harm and death—poverty does too. Even liberal refugee policies often favor political intellectuals at the expense of poor workers and peasants. Torture justifies refugee status, but starvation does not. Wilma A. Dunaway and Donald A. Clelland write: “In the early 21st century, one of the worst ethnic/racial inequalities of the world-system lies in how the core countries manage the crisis-level flows of refugees. While Western and Japanese media and politicians fuel public fears that their countries are being inundated by these foreigners, the core externalizes this human burden to countries with fewer economic resources to bear the costs.”
Despite the level of exploitation that the countries at the periphery of the capitalist world system are already suffering from, the core countries make them pay for a “refugee crisis” they themselves have created. Military intervention is an important aspect of this. In 2014, more than half of the world’s refugees had left their homes due to the military involvement of imperialist countries in the Middle East and Afghanistan. That same year, 48 percent of the world’s refugees found shelter in countries of the Global South, while the countries of the Global North granted only 9 percent of them asylum.
A majority of the world’s refugees find homes in countries with unemployment rates up to eight times higher than in the countries of the Global North. At least half the world’s refugees reside in countries in which a majority of the population live on less than $2 a day.
With the defeat of Nazism and the era of decolonization, racism based on biology and science was largely discredited. Today’s racism is expressed in terms of cultural norms and values. Almost everyone agrees that all human beings are essentially equal and that the color of one’s skin does not matter. As long as we follow the right norms and values, so the common view holds, we all have the same opportunities in life. In this sense, today’s racism is “post-colonial.” The global wage gap and strict migration laws have seemingly nothing to do with it. Yet, it is with regard to migrants and refugees that the new racism becomes painfully obvious. In its institutional form, it means the exclusion from citizenship. While open racial, or even cultural, prejudice has become unacceptable, the right to citizenship in a country of the Global North remains reserved for a small minority of the world’s population. Race is not an official reason to deny anyone citizenship; the reasons are economic ones. But the result is clear: the vast majority of the people who are denied citizenship in the countries of the Global North are not white. There is even a special word for migrants who pass the economic entry test: “expats.” They can be doctors, engineers, or IT specialists. In any case, they are acceptable migrants. Class, of course, mitigates the exclusion. Members of the Global South’s national bourgeoisies can cross the borders into the Global North without problems. They frequent their homes in Paris, go weekend shopping in London, and send their children to schools and universities in New York.
Lauesen ends the chapter with a very compelling argument for viewing imperialism as a global apartheid:
The situation in the Gulf States resembles the apartheid system of South Africa: a minority of affluent and privileged citizens is being served by the poor and discriminated-against masses. It is also a mirror image of the global apartheid created by the capitalist world system.
There are two reasons why the word “apartheid” is not misplaced. First, the capitalist world system implies racial and national hierarchies as well as legal, physical, and sometimes violent restrictions imposed on the mobility of labor. Second, production and consumption are being divided along the same lines that divide the world into low-wage countries and high-wage countries. Citizenship in a country of the Global North is a reward, citizenship in a country of the Global South a punishment. The question of who is going to be rewarded and who is going to be punished is decided in a birth lottery. Of course, there are also differences between citizens in countries of the Global North: if you are born into a rich family, expect a generous inheritance, and have an influential social network, you will have few material problems in life. But due to working-class struggles and class compromise, there have been political interventions in the form of progressive taxation, access to education and health care, and so on, in order to reduce this inequality and promote social mobility. This is not happening in the Global South. Even a poor US citizen is relatively rich compared with a citizen of Mexico. For the latter, the fastest way to climb up the social ladder is to cross the border into the US—which, in many cases, entails a risk to one’s life.
Chapter 6: Unequal Exchange Revisited
Lauesen goes deeper into UE today.
From a Marxist perspective, some commodities are sold for less than their value and others for more. Price is not the same as value. Price determines the profit rate, but also the distribution of surplus-value, both between capital and labor (in the form of profits for the former and wages for the latter), and between factions of capital with different organic compositions (via the average rate of profit). The transformation of value into price is therefore highly dependent on the political relationship between capital and labor as well as between different factions of capital. The redistribution of value and surplus-value through market prices not only occurs between workers and factions of capital within a single country, but also globally, as a result of transnational movements of capital, trade, and production. Marx’s theory about the transformation of value into price assumed an integrated market for goods, capital, and labor. Such markets tend to form a single price for a single good, balance out profit rates, and pay the same wage for the same kind of labor. This is what we see in the US, the EU, and Japan. The global market is different: it is an integrated market with respect to the movement of capital and goods, but not with respect to labor. Therefore, the wages paid for the same kind of labor can differ widely. This also applies to global chains of production. Depending on where labor is done, its impact on the price of a product is very different. The surplus-value of labor in one part of the world (the Global South) raises profits and consumption in another part of the world (the Global North). The value added in the happy-face smiley’s curve includes not only the value created by a company in its home country but also the value created elsewhere and usurped by capital via the price for which a commodity is sold on the market. Value added is in reality value captured. In short, the basis for the profits made by companies in the North is created in the South.
Value is not only redistributed from the South to the North via price. In a world where prices for most commodities are determined by a common world market price, while the prices for labor are not, there are different ways to redistribute value. The reason for labor in the Global South being much cheaper than labor in the Global North is not that labor in the South creates less value. The reason is that laborers in the South are more oppressed and exploited. The relatively high wages in the North allow workers to consume goods whose value is higher than what they themselves produce. In other words, value is transferred from the South to the North via the profits made from global chains of production and the relatively low prices for goods produced in the South. This is the essence of imperialism today.
Clelland concludes that the total dark value of an iPad, conservatively calculated, is no less than US$472. Producing it in the Global North would almost double the costs of production and therefore also the sales price. Without the dark value gained by production in Asia, Apple would sell less iPads and lose profits. But dark value does not just benefit transnational corporations: the lion’s share is passed on to consumers in the Global North in the form of lower prices. In other words, consumers in the Global North benefit from the exploitation of workers in the Global South. For what they make in one hour of work, consumers in the Global North can buy goods whose production implies numerous hours of low-paid (or unpaid) labor, environmental destruction, and the exploitation of valuable raw materials.
Timothy Kerswell has illustrated this development by comparing the situation in the US with that of China. He chose these two countries because of their importance for the global economy, but also because they engage in so much trade. With respect to the countries’ labor forces, Kerswell relied on national labor market statistics. He concluded that 66.8 percent of China’s labor force belong to the productive sector, while 33.2 percent work in sales, services, and transport (the so-called tertiary sector, or what we could call the consumptive sector). In the US, it is almost the exact opposite: 27 percent work in the productive sector and 73 percent in the consumptive sector. In short, China is a producer economy and the US is a consumer economy.
There are two possible explanations for how a country can have a strong economy when 73 percent of its labor force works in the unproductive sector. Either the 27 percent working in the productive sector create enough value for the entire nation to prosper—or value is created elsewhere. In 2010, the US had a trade deficit of US$497 billion. Imports from China exceeded exports to China by US$365 billion. This confirms that value must be being transferred to the US via the import of Chinese goods, but none of this value is visible in trade statistics or GDPs. It is included, and hidden, in the price that the goods are sold for. If the 27 percent of US workers involved in industrial production were able to create enough value to sustain national economic growth, there would be no reason to import all those goods from China. How the hidden value transferred to the US and other countries in the Global North is divided between capital and labor there depends on power-sharing agreements reached by class compromise.
Some theorists have related the notion of unequal exchange to ecological devastation. They have analyzed the natural resources required in industrial production in the Global South. Stephen G. Bunker has written about the Amazon region. He compares a “mode of extraction” to a mode of production, and has reached the conclusion that “the unbalanced flows of energy and matter from extractive peripheries to the productive core provide better measures of unequal exchange in a world economic system than do flows of commodities measured in labor or prices.” He adds that “the fundamental values in lumber, in minerals, oil, fish, and so forth, are predominantly in the good itself rather than in the labor incorporated in it.”
In above quote we have a new way of seeing natural resource exploitation that would otherwise be discounted by exclusively labor theory of value perspective (e.g. Marx's idea that natural resources have no "value" independent of labor required to extract and bring them to market)
Globalization has eradicated any natural limits on the exploitation of resources, since the people responsible won’t suffer the consequences (at least not right away). Not only do we receive cheap goods from China, we are also destroying China’s environment. But who cares? I live in a city in the Global North, Copenhagen, which aims to become carbon-neutral by the year 2025. It is quite likely that this will be achieved, but doing so will only be possible because we won’t have to deal with the consequences of our consumption. If the carbon emissions from the production of the goods consumed by Copenhagen’s residents were counted in the city’s carbon emissions, it would be utterly impossible for us to become carbon-neutral.
The exponential growth that characterizes capitalism resembles cancer. Sustainability is impossible within a capitalist framework. Competition between countries hoping to attract foreign investment means ecological concerns are pushed to the side. Capital has always looked to externalize the costs of pollution; paying for them would threaten profits and accumulation. In the coming decades, lack of raw materials and clean water and other ecological shortages will have enormous consequences for our societies, yet hardly anything is being done politically to prevent this. If anything, politicians do their utmost to sabotage such efforts. The notion of resilience has replaced that of sustainability. In this context, “resilience” simply means being able to make it through catastrophes, not avert them. But is that even possible? Our survival depends on entirely new approaches to growth, consumption, and the relationship between humankind and nature. This requires new values as well as a critical investigation of capitalist production. At a minimum, we need some kind of “lifeboat socialism,” in which the fair allocation and balanced use of resources will replace individual consumption as the main principle of production and distribution. This is inevitable, and a new world order is quite likely to follow.
Chapter 7: The Global Class Divide
Describing the divergent fates of the Global North and Global South working classes, as well as an outline of the major global classes (proletarians, peasants, middle class in Global South, labor aristocracy in Global North, and global bourgeoisie). This section also goes over several major contradictions (reactionary nationalism vs. neoliberalism in the West, state-directed development vs. capitalism in China) and how they might play out in the coming decades.
Once wages rise above the subsistence level, the formerly clear distinction between bourgeoisie and proletariat becomes much less obvious. Workers now receive money that can potentially be turned into capital, or used to acquire means of production. Whether they do this or whether they use the extra money for consumption is their personal choice. They can buy consumer goods, they can buy stocks in a company, they can even start their own company. Whatever they do, they have a chance to accumulate money, and they have access to credit.
To regard everyone who does not own means of production and who sells their labor-power as a proletarian is insufficient if we want to understand social relationships and related power dynamics. In 2006, football players in the English Premier League earned £676,000 on average, plus bonuses. This is, of course, an extreme example, but it reflects a pattern: in capitalism, administrators, managers, academics, and so forth, are all wage laborers, yet they all consume more value than they create. Where we draw the line between those who consume less value than they create and those who consume more value than they create, is not a moral question, it is a mathematical question. The point being: receiving a wage is not enough to define a person’s economic status in any meaningful way. Perhaps most importantly: wage levels impact political consciousness.
To uphold the notion of two major classes, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, and to apply this globally, masks the enormous differences that exist between workers. This makes it impossible to understand that their interests (at least their short-term interests) are also enormously different. Only when we acknowledge these differences can we develop strategies that help us overcome the difficulties for working-class unity created by imperialism.
In recent years, both academics and journalists have written much about the so-called new middle class of the Global South, created by the process of industrialization. However, the term “middle class” should be taken with a pinch of salt. We are not talking about families with an SUV and two dogs in a suburban home. According to the World Bank, you belong to the middle class of the Global South if you earn US$2 to US$13 a day. Only if you earn less than US$2, are you considered poor. In 2005, about half of the Global South’s population was middle class, according to such standards—in China, it was two thirds. In sub-Saharan Africa, on the other hand, it was only one in four.
The economist Nancy Birdsall, who worked for the World Bank Group for many years, counts only people who earn at least US$10 a day as part of the Global South’s middle class. If we accept her standard, then only 3 percent of China’s urban population, and only 1 percent of its rural population, are middle class. In South Africa, it would put the middle class at 8 percent of the population, in Brazil at 19, and in Mexico at 28. If the same standard was used for the US, the middle class would be 91 percent of the population.
There does exist a middle class in the Global South that resembles the middle classes of the North. The ritzy shopping malls of Shanghai, New Delhi, or Jakarta attest to this. But this middle class cannot be measured in percentage points, only in fractions of a percent. The reason it has become visible in a country like China is because of China’s huge population. There are as many as three hundred thousand US dollar millionaires in China today. The country has become a very lucrative market for companies like BMW. We also meet the new middle classes of China and India as tourists all over the world. But none of this means that the masses in these countries are on their way to a European lifestyle. First and foremost, the industrialization of the Global South has created a new proletariat, not a new middle class.
Several factors tie the interests of the working classes of the North to global capital. The transnational corporations’ superprofits made from investments in the Global South allow them to pay relatively high wages in the Global North, providing workers there with significant purchasing power. The wages are also high enough to fund an extensive welfare system via taxation (although there are huge differences between, say, the USA and the Scandinavian countries). At the same time, the low wages of the Global South keep prices for goods produced there relatively low. Workers in the Global North benefit from this to the point where they can invest parts of their income into buying their own homes. This makes them concerned about things like the real estate market, interest rates, property taxes, and so on. These are not traditional proletarian concerns.
Another factor that links the working classes of the Global North to global capital is the pension system. Pension systems vary greatly from country to country, and also from industry to industry, but there are some common features. Pension funds and private pensions have become increasingly common. This means that pensions are based on investments in stocks, bonds, and other securities, even real estate speculation. The days when the state alone was responsible for workers’ pensions are long gone.
We can conclude from this brief survey of the pension system that many workers in the Global North have invested heavily in stocks and bonds via their retirement accounts. In other words, their well-being in retirement is directly linked to the well-being of capitalism. They have much more to lose than their chains. Large parts of the population of the Global North will live as pensioners off their own capital. The concept of the parasite state is far from obsolete.
Almost all countries in the Global South now have very rich bourgeoisies. In 1996, there were no dollar billionaires in either Russia or China. In 2010, there were seventy in Russia and seventy-two in China. According to the Hurun Global Rich List of 2016, 53 percent of the world’s wealthiest people were from the Global South, and, for the first time, China surpassed the United States in the number of billionaires (568 vs. 535). Brazil had more billionaires than France, Canada, or Australia. Both South Korea and Turkey had more than Australia and Italy. The billionaires from the Global South form a particular faction of global capital. Their wealth is closely tied to the export industry. They have no reason to challenge the global division of labor that produces their wealth, even if it simultaneously reproduces imperial and racial exploitation.
In response to above: are there any sections of national bourgeoisies that ARE willing to challenge Western-led order? How does this help to explain "anti-systemic" capitalist states (e.g. Russia, Iran)?
In the Global North, neoliberalism is challenged by right-wing populism, which is strongly supported by the working classes and sections of the middle classes. It is also supported by national-conservative factions of capital. Once again, contradictions in the Global North set the agenda for changes in the world system. But the role of the Global South has become much more important—one need only think of China’s new position in the world order.
The contradictions that were the engine of capitalist development during the last two hundred years mainly emerged in the Global North. Capitalist development was driven by imperialism. Ongoing accumulation would not have been possible otherwise. This has created a polarization of the world that not only implies a permanent risk of war, but also of collapse. The more central industrial production in the Global South becomes for the system, the less central its old center becomes. The new global division of labor has given birth to productive forces in the Global South that have the power to undermine the imperialist order and create socialism. The objective possibilities for the countries of the Global South to free themselves from imperialist domination are much greater today than they were fifty years ago. The question is whether there is enough political will and organization to make this a reality.
China occupies a special position. It has become a significant economic and political power. At the 2017 congress of its Communist Party, Xi Jinping declared that the country was ready to be one of the main actors on the world stage. Today, China appears not only more far-sighted than the US but also more reliable. It is emerging as a leader in the Global South and the main rival to the US for global dominance. While the US is trying to maintain global hegemony by imperialist means, China aims to shed its economic and political dependence on the Global North. Soon, the global balance of power will, once again, be divided between two poles (at least), which will open up new windows of opportunity for radical social change.
If we are trapped in objectivism, we might miss those windows and speak cynically of some “necessary historical processes.” This is reflected in the pessimism that characterizes the left in the Global North today. Given the thirty-year success of neoliberalism and the decline of the anti-imperialist and anticapitalist movements of the 1970s, pessimism is understandable. But it is also grist for capitalism’s mill, since it seems to confirm Margaret Thatcher’s infamous phrase: “There is no alternative.” Resistance seems futile. Perhaps there was less reason for optimism in the 1970s than we thought at the time. But pessimism doesn’t help us. Today’s pessimism has led to a loss of radical perspectives. Reforms within the capitalist system and the institutional framework of the state seem to be the most we can achieve. I firmly believe there is reason for optimism. The ruling system is in crisis and is highly unstable. The objective conditions for social change are good. The problem is the subjective forces—and pessimism is a big part of it.
If we want to develop an effective strategy to change the world, we need to meet two requirements: We must understand the capitalist mechanisms that reproduce imperialism, and we must understand the class tensions that threaten the system’s stability. We must, in the words of Mao, identify the principal contradictions—the contradictions that must be deepened to bring the system to its knees.
We now see why it is unlikely that global capital will continue to generate enough surplus-value to secure profits. It will try, but this will force it to abandon its compromise with the formerly dangerous classes. Environmental problems will also accelerate. It is unlikely that the current structural crisis will be overcome. The next decades will be characterized by strong economic fluctuation, depression, and social conflict.
There have been many predictions of capitalism’s end. It was announced in the 1870s, in the 1930s, and in the 1970s, but, so far, capitalism has always got back on its feet. Why should it be different this time? For example, couldn’t a new labor aristocracy arise in the South and create the new market that capitalism so desperately needs? Sections of the working class and of the middle class, both in industry and management, do occupy privileged positions in the Global South, but their wages are only a fraction of those paid in the Global North. Together with others in the Global South, they will demand a global redistribution of wealth. As we have seen, wages have in recent years risen for Chinese industrial workers. This was directly related to the financial crisis of 2007. China’s exports were falling and the Chinese government had to stimulate the domestic market. This hurt transnational and Chinese capital, but the Communist Party of China prioritizes the strength of the national economy over capital’s interests. In most other countries in the Global South, however, the situation is very different. It is difficult to make political decisions that defy the demands of neoliberalism. Besides, even if a general increase in wages in the Global South would probably create new markets, it would hurt markets and profits in the Global North, and jeopardize the global labor arbitrage necessary for ongoing accumulation.
Another possible option for capital to beat the crisis is to unleash a new wave of proletarianization. This has worked very well over the past two hundred years. The problem is that it no longer works if there is no one left to proletarianize. While peasants still exist, their numbers have been dwindling. 464 The single biggest source of new proletarians, China, will soon have proletarianized the entire nation. The remaining peripheral regions in Asia and Africa do not have the strong state apparatus, political stability, or population size required for another significant wave of proletarianization.
To argue that rising wages in the South will secure the continuation of capitalism as a global system and that China is just replacing the United States as the hegemonic power, overlooks the fundamental contradiction in capitalist accumulation. You cannot have it both ways: low wages which generate profits on the one hand, and on the other hand a flourishing market which ensures those profits can be realized through sales. Capitalism cannot support its own market in full, it requires an extra input of value from the outside in order to run smoothly. Capitalist China will face the same contradiction which Europe and North America solved by imperialist exploitation, yet it does not have a periphery it can exploit in order to escape the problem. China will not prevent the disintegration of the capitalist system as a whole. The best it can do is to try and secure its place in a future world-system, by adopting a socialist path.
It seems that we are on our way to a triple crisis, at the same time economic, ecological, and political.
Economic , because the working classes of the Global South will demand higher wages, while capitalism is running out of new peripheries. The falling profit rate for productive capital will slow down investment and therefore accumulation.
Ecological , because every credible scientific study tells us that we are heading toward catastrophe in the form of natural disasters, droughts, and shrinking harvests. The North has moved much of its industrial production to the South, but no one will escape the ecological and climatic consequences.
Political , because the crisis leaves the main political actors in the North in disarray. Both capital and the working class are divided in their attempts to save the system. There are factions of capital that want to continue with neoliberal globalization and change everything to keep everything the same. Other factions want to return to a nation-based form of capital accumulation, authoritarian rule, and warfare in order to secure the lion’s share of the global spoils. And then there are those factions that have given up on production altogether and focus exclusively on financial speculation. Among the working classes, there are winners and losers of globalization. Unsurprisingly, their reactions to the crisis differ, and there is a strong polarization between nation-based and class-based responses.
All three aspects of the crisis are tightly interwoven and pose a serious threat to the capitalist system. At this point, there don’t seem to be any viable alternatives, but a new world order will emerge from fiery struggles between progressive and reactionary forces.
Part Three: Politics in a Divided World
Chapter 8: A Window for Radical Change
This short chapter summarizes the destabilizing factors that will contribute to structural crisis and open a window for change in the next decades. It transitions to the next chapters which examine the forces or movements which could contribute to that change.
Chapter 9: The Trade Union Movement
Analysis of the International Labour Organization (ILO) and International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) as well as the labor movement more broadly.
Anner went on to explain that the Global South’s trade unions have not attained the same status and influence as many trade unions in the Global North. Indeed, this is reflected in the makeup of ITUC. Table II above shows the size of the global labor force, the number of members in trade unions linked to ITUC, and the number of ITUC delegates. It shows that most workers, especially in the Global South, are not organized in trade unions. It also shows that the Global North’s workforce, which makes up 18 percent of the planet’s overall workforce, is represented by 36 percent of ITUC delegates. The reason is that only 3 percent of all laborers belong to trade unions in the Global South compared with 17 percent in the Global North. Workers in the Global South have one ITUC delegate for every 3.26 million workers; workers in the Global North have one for every 1.27 million workers. This imbalance helps explain why ITUC rarely prioritizes the interests of workers in the Global South. One of the most important tasks for the international trade union movement is therefore to get more laborers in the Global South unionized. This, however, is a very challenging task due to the pace of industrialization, the size of the economy’s informal sector, and the massive political repression.
Lauesen's view of China's labor movement (like in other parts of the book, he seems to hedge on China and what system it represents):
The All-China Federation of Trade Unions is closely tied to the government. There has been much international criticism to the effect that the Chinese working class has no independent representatives, yet in recent years the All-China Federation of Trade Unions has supported workers’ demands across the country. Wages in China have risen more than in those countries with independent trade unions.
One of the most important labor struggles in China occurred at Tonghua Steel, which had been a state-owned steelworks in Jilin Province. In 2005, it was privatized and its name changed to Jianlong; 24,000 of its 36,000 workers lost their jobs and related benefits, migrant laborers were hired for half the previous workers’ wages, the new management got big bonuses, and new legislation allowed for an array of sanctions and punishments for unruly workers. From 2007, there was increased unrest among the workers, and in July 2009 they went on strike. When a senior manager threatened to fire the entire workforce, he was attacked and beaten to death. The police, present with thousands of officers, did not dare intervene. After this, there were no more privatizations in Jilin Province.
In 2010, wages in China stopped falling. The relationship between capital and the working class had reached a turning point. The urban working class now had significant bargaining power. The new generation of migrant workers has higher expectations with regard to wages and consumption. They are better educated, more politically conscious, and more likely to take militant action.
We have seen that the workers’ struggles of recent years have brought results. Capitalists were forced to raise wages and benefits, and local and provincial governments were obliged to raise the minimum wage. The monthly minimum wage in Shenzhen, for example, rose from US$150 in 2010 to US$301 in 2014. During the same period, it rose from US$160 to US$303 in Shanghai. Today, average income in China is comparable to average income in the poorest EU countries (all located in Eastern Europe). This trend cannot continue indefinitely, however, within the current political framework. The collaboration between Chinese and global capital is dependent on low wages. This has turned China into the world’s leading exporter, but rising labor costs threaten this position. Minqi Li writes: “In the late twentieth century, China’s capitalist transition created conditions for the global labor arbitrage that turned the global balance of power to the favor of neoliberal capitalism. In the early twenty-first century, as China emerges as the new center of working class movement, will it again fundamentally change the terms of the global class struggle, this time to the favor of the global working classes?”
We must not confuse the current situation in China with that of Europe in the late nineteenth century. Even if the Chinese government’s long-term goal is less dependency on exports and a stronger domestic market, and while working-class demands appear compatible with capitalism and the imperial system, China cannot copy European social democracy. It has no external proletariat to exploit. What we will see are rising contradictions in Chinese society itself.
At the same time, South Africa boasts some of the Global South’s most well-organized and radical trade unions. South African trade unions have the potential to turn workplace struggles into broad political movements demanding systemic change. They have also been pioneers in challenging the dominance of trade unions from the Global North in ITUC. Bongani Masuku, the international secretary of the most important of South Africa’s trade union alliances, COSATU, has divided the trade union alliances of the Global North into four categories:
“Firstly, there is the Big Four: AFL-CIO (US), DGB (Germany), TUC (Britain) and RENGO (Japan)—who are the core custodians of the most conservative policy positions, particularly as regards maintenance of imperialism. … In many instances, the Big Four recite the foreign policy verses of their ruling classes particularly as regards issues such as trade and underdevelopment of Africa as well as the Middle East. The second category consists of the social democratic unions. This is the Nordic plus Dutch grouping. These unions agree with most of our views but are not eager to challenge the Big Four. … They cannot, however, be relied upon for the most deeply profound and fundamental battles, particularly on confronting underdevelopment, trade and anti-imperialism. Thirdly, Southern European trade unions which include the CGIL (Italy), CCOO (Spain), CGT (Portugal). These unions have been historically progressive, possessing an anti-imperialist posture. There are recent signs of retreat. These unions are slightly more confident in challenging the Big Four in certain mild areas, but top toe on some major issues. Lastly, there are progressive individual unions that are part of federations that are not necessarily progressive. This is the case even within the Big Four. … [These progressive unions] share many of COSATU’s perspectives on global matters such as Palestine, trade and Africa’s development.”
The above quote from SA trade union leader is very lucid.
Currently, ITUC’s priority remains defending the capitalist welfare state, no matter how futile this may seem. ITUC criticizes neoliberal globalization, but not capitalism as such. It believes that the way forward for the Global South lies in copying the trade union movements of the Global North. With regard to China, ITUC wants to make the country’s labor movement more independent from the government. It echoes the principles of Solidarność under the state socialist regime in Poland. It seems that its primary motivation is to damage the Chinese regime rather than to support the Chinese working class. The All-China Federation of Trade Unions has proven more effective in improving the conditions of workers than any independent trade union in the Global South.
Chapter 10: Communist Parties and Social Movements
More on China:
From a nationalist perspective, Dengism was a success. Today, China is, once again, one the world’s great powers. From a socialist perspective, Dengism has a dubious record. China has gone from being one of the world’s economically most equal countries to one of the world’s most unequal.
China’s integration into the global capitalist economy has been very different from that of India, South Africa, or Brazil. The reasons why all these countries attract big foreign investors are the same: low wages, a comparatively well-educated, healthy, and disciplined workforce, and a modern and effective infrastructure. The difference between China and the others is that its integration into the world market is not based on a neoliberal national economy but on state capitalism built around a planned economy. This doesn’t always make a big difference on the ground, however. Low wages and hazardous working conditions in sweatshops and factories do not make the Communist Party’s claim that China is on the road to socialism appear very convincing.
According to the Communist Party of China, state capitalist development has three goals: to establish a highly developed, integrated, and diversified industrial sector, to establish a sound balance with the agricultural sector, and to make a planned national economy (which includes a state-controlled finance sector and state ownership of the land) an important factor in the world capitalist system. The critical question is whether China’s industrialization will indeed create an economic basis for socialism, or whether it will simply turn into a capitalist economy controlled by a national bourgeoisie making any form of socialism utterly impossible.
While China’s rise as a global economic power went hand in hand with the rise of neoliberalism, China’s long-term national interests are not identical with the long-term interests of global capital. China is trying to reshape international politics; it is challenging the hegemony of the Triad and wants to see a polycentric division of global power. The Chinese government increasingly represents the interests of the Global South in international debates. Its influence in Asia, Africa, and South America is growing; it invests heavily in infrastructure projects, implements alternative development banks, and seeks to create a new kind of Bandung Alliance to counter the dominance of the Global North. To be credible, though, it will eventually have to abandon its pragmatic alliance with capitalism and develop an economic model that promises a true alternative to it.
Communist Party officials argued that private enterprise was necessary to avoid the economic stagnation experienced by the Soviet Union. In terms of economic output, China’s state capitalism has indeed brought astonishing results. Over the past twenty years, industrial jobs have been created for four hundred million people (roughly, the population of Europe). China’s economy remains relatively independent but has become very diverse and highly developed. It was just decades ago, that China exported little more than textiles and shoes. Today, machines and consumer electronics dominate Chinese exports, with cars, high-speed trains, and airplanes on the way. China accounts for about 50 percent of the world’s cement production. Within a span of sixty-five years, China has gone from being a poor, primarily agricultural country to being the world’s most important producer of industrial goods. What China’s planned economy remains responsible for are the ongoing, and often enormous, infrastructure projects: housing for millions of new urban proletarians as well as the roads, ports, dams, and power lines required by industrialization.
Only time will tell if the planned economy will survive China’s integration into global capitalism, or whether China will become a neoliberal country like all the others. China’s economic growth certainly can’t be detached from neoliberalism. It was neoliberalism that demanded cheap labor and efficient infrastructure in the Global South, and China delivered. But both the financial crisis of 2007 and increasing unrest on the Chinese labor market have cast a shadow over the success story. The Communist Party now focuses on the domestic market and the development of previously neglected regions such as western China.
A new anticapitalist politics is always possible in China. It might come from social movements or from inside the Communist Party. Seeds can be sown by bottom-up movements like the New Rural Reconstruction Movement and the current labor movement, which organize independently from the state but talk about “changing the social substance of state power.” Any new anticapitalist politics in China will require the mobilization of peasants and workers. The left wing of the Party alone will not be able to revitalize the country’s political life. This can only be accomplished by struggles on the ground. It is crucial to support relevant projects, and to ensure people have a right to organize and express themselves. There must be democratization at the workplace. If the Communist Party wants to play a progressive role in the future, it will have to be involved in these struggles—it needs to “go to the masses” and formulate a new politics.
I believe that a socialist resolution of China’s economic and political contradictions is still possible, the main reason being the militant history of the Chinese working class. A working class fighting for socialism can take control of the economy’s most important sectors. They can enter into an alliance with migrant workers, peasants, and the proletarianized petty bourgeoisie. This requires the organization of trade unions and open conflict with the pro-capitalist wing of the Communist Party. Globally, China could play an important role as an active supporter of the struggles against neoliberalism we are witnessing all across the Global South—akin to the support that the Soviet Union lent to Third World liberation struggles in the twentieth century. This, of course, can only happen if the workers and peasants of China resist the temptations of national chauvinism. The significance of a truly socialist China can hardly be exaggerated. It could tip the global balance of power and create a decisive advantage for the global working class.
Lauesen also discusses the Zapatistas (who he has great admiration for) and the World Social Forum.
Chapter 11: Practice
Lauesen finally turns to the question of what to do, by laying out the factors of revolution and ongoing experiments in the Global South. He also turns again to China.
In the long run, ALBA aims to become independent from the World Bank and the IMF, which have been responsible for implementing the neoliberal agenda across Latin America. The ALBA Bank grants low-interest loans to member countries, invests in industrial production and infrastructure, and finances schools and hospitals.
ALBA can be criticized for being a top-down project. This also makes it vulnerable, as it is too dependent on political leaders. Workers are not involved in any of the major decision-making processes, which contradicts ALBA’s socialist ambitions. The dominant position of Venezuela is a particular problem; ALBA is largely financed by Venezuela’s oil and promoted by its current left-leaning government. The instability of both oil prices and the political situation in the country have affected ALBA negatively. But ALBA has demonstrated that it is possible for Latin American countries to lay a foundation for common and progressive economic development. A project such as ALBA can help the participating countries to partially delink from the capitalist world market and strengthen their national economies. ALBA has proven that economic cooperation is possible between countries whose leaders don’t necessarily share the same political ideology. Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador have governments committed to socialism (even if they define it differently), which is back on the agenda in Latin American politics. This is also confirmed by many social movements committed to socialist principles. They no longer follow the traditional communist party model of trying to seize state power. Their goal is to, step by step, create the conditions that make a socialist society possible. But ALBA also includes countries whose governments are social democratic and mainly aim to free themselves from US domination and free trade. The US, of course, is strongly opposed to ALBA—but they have to accept that Latin America no longer wants to be their backyard.
China’s integration into the global economy is a conscious national strategy controlled by the government. Faced with the neoliberal offensive after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Communist Party of China chose neither passive submission nor rigid opposition to the neoliberal project. The Chinese government wanted to catch up with the rich countries and restore China’s global might. In order to achieve this, the nationalist wing of the Party decided to copy the technology and management of the imperialist countries and enter the global market. At the same time, there are still factions within the Party committed to building socialism. This situation has led to the current form of Chinese state capitalism.
China was keen on avoiding an unconditional integration into global capitalism. The government defended its sovereign economic planning and forced global capital entering the country to adapt to it, not vice versa. China’s aim was to develop a strong and diverse industrial sector on the basis of joint ventures with transnational corporations. Conditions in China are, of course, unlike those in any other country of the Global South. Industrialization is controlled by the government. Certain regions are developed first according to a strategic plan. China has strong national banks and a strong national currency with increasing international importance. Agriculture has been modernized, and remains under strict government control. Land cannot be privately owned. Finally, the country is not engaging in an arms race to the detriment of the national economy, as happened with the Soviet Union.
But questions remain. Can the influence of the transnational corporations be contained? Will China develop a strong national bourgeoisie that will seize power and turn China into a regular capitalist country? Will the appeal of consumer society be stronger than socialist convictions? Can state capitalism actually develop into socialism?
Capitalism’s current structural crisis has also thrown the parasite state into crisis. Tensions between capital and the working class have increased in the Global North. Due to the demands of neoliberalism, the governments of the social welfare states are no longer able to distribute power and riches to the satisfaction of both capital and the working class. The welfare state is slowly being dismantled. Calls for a return to the 1970s are short-sighted, since doing so is not an option. Neoliberalism was introduced because that welfare state was no longer sustainable. Besides, calls to reestablish the welfare state of the 1970s often have a strong nationalist bent. Louder even than the demands to limit welfare cuts and outsourcing are the demands to limit immigration. No one, however, complains about cheap goods coming from the Global South. Essentially, the people of the Global North demand a strong nation state to protect the assets of transnational capital. This creates a political climate in which fascist movements flourish. In today’s right-wing movements, protectionist views and racism overlap.
Apart from the moral bankruptcy involved, these are losing strategies. It has become much more difficult for the working class in the Global North to pressure capital, and it has become much more difficult for the state to act as a mediator between classes. The former cohesion of the First World nation state has been eroded by globalization. This is reflected in the only two answers that currently seem available to those worried about their privileges: either they embrace neoliberal parties in the hope that these will produce more riches, or they embrace right-wing populist parties in the hope that these will at least protect the riches they have. Neither answer challenges the system, but they contradict one another and cause much political tension.
There is poverty and oppression in the Global North, too. Migrants in Europe and the Black community in the US face it daily, not least in relation to the police and the prison system. But struggles against poverty and oppression in the Global North easily reach their limits. This is partly because the problems concern minorities, and movements against them can’t garner mass support. More importantly, however, the problems cannot be solved within the current system.
What is Lauesen's opinion on what activists should do about the aforementioned Global North struggles, even if they "easily reach their limits"?
The future will be characterized by two main class alliances among the privileged citizenry of the imperialist countries: one brings together those at the bottom of the hourglass, troubled sections of the middle class, and the national-conservative factions of capital; the other brings together transnational capital, the upper middle class, and skilled workers in niche sectors. The power-sharing agreement between capital and labor will continue to create tensions. The parasite state and the labor aristocracy are far from the final expressions of these tensions, which will intensify with capitalism’s structural crisis. Capital needs to lower wages to secure profits. With respect to class struggle in the Global North, we must distinguish those forces that only want to protect their share of the imperialist cake from those that interact with class struggles in the Global South. If we ignore these contradictions within the working classes of the Global North, our analysis of the parasite state and the labor aristocracy will be incomplete. It is not enough to wait for the workers of the South to overthrow capitalism. We—revolutionaries in the Global North—must contribute to making this possible. I will now, in the book’s concluding chapter, look at how this might be done.
This last assertion about the two main class alliances is a little puzzling - why would the bottom of the hourglass (described earlier in the chapter as migrant workers, the precariat, etc.) join with the national-conservative factions?
Chapter 12: Visions and Strategies
Neoliberalism ushered in a golden age for capitalism. It seemed that we had reached “the end of history.” But we hadn’t. Today, the system is in crisis. The objective conditions for change are good, and change will come. The question is what kind of change. Right now, it is populist right-wing movements that profit from the crisis. Nationalism, racism, fundamentalism, and fascism are on the rise. The problem for revolutionaries is the subjective forces. Pessimism gets in the way of revolutionary hope: “There is no point in fighting,” “Capitalism is invincible,” “Capitalism survives every crisis,” “All attempts to establish socialism have ended in disaster,” “Capitalism is the only realistic option,” and so forth. The result is a cynical, defensive, and toothless critique of capital with no global perspective. Therefore, I choose optimism.
When I say optimism, I don’t mean naiveté. It is not inevitable that history will throw capitalism into the dustbin and replace it with socialism. It is not simply a matter of time until “the masses get it right.” What I mean is realistic optimism, taking into account the structural economic, political, and ecological crisis and instability of global capitalism, as well as the hundreds of millions of new proletarians in the Global South who have “nothing to lose but their chains,” and who are becoming ever more conscious of their own power.
The global chains of production have created new economic contexts and new possibilities for resistance, both in the Global South and the Global North. Anti-imperialism no longer focuses on national liberation, as it did in the 1970s. Today, it focuses on economic liberation from global neoliberalism. This means that anti-imperialist struggles have a stronger anticapitalist profile. The peoples of the Global South want to liberate themselves from neoliberalism’s exploitation by delinking from the capitalist world system and increasing South–South collaboration (or, as in the case of China, by entering into a controlled coexistence with capitalism). Workplace struggles will intensify, which will lead to broad political struggles. The anti-imperialism of the future will have a clear class perspective.
State power is geared toward repression and control rather than toward creation and renewal. It is a useful tool with which to rule but not a very useful tool with which to change people’s norms and values. Since it is used to prevent revolution, it is important to seize state power to enable revolution, but the revolution itself must reach much further, otherwise it will be incomplete. The requirements of revolution are much less centralized and much more complex than state power. The power relations that must be revolutionized are embedded in everyday relations, in customs, perceptions, attitudes, etc. The revolutionary struggle is a struggle over defining what is true and false, what is good and evil. It is a struggle for the hearts of the people. It happens everywhere and can take many forms. To be revolutionaries, we must acknowledge this and be prepared.
Some economic decisions must be made at a central level by representative assemblies; for example, if they concern the general relationship between production and consumption, or the focus of investments. Whether a local, regional, national, or global assembly is required to make the decision depends on the scope of the question. What is important is to consider the needs and interests of those most affected. This is part of a socialist vision. If we want to redeem socialism and turn it into a popular “brand” once again, we must develop concrete and viable ideas about how to govern and produce in a socialist society. We must move from the ideological plane to the practical one.
Medium-term politics consists of developing strategies, practices, and organizations able to bring capitalism’s structural crisis to a positive end. We need to understand the most important of capitalism’s contradictions so as to be as effective as possible in our political work. This requires knowledge, experience, analysis, discussion among militants, ideas with broad appeal, grassroots organizing, and popular alliances. We cannot rely on the top-down organization of the state. We need movements that have enough strength and cohesion to act effectively on their own, but that are still willing to collaborate with others. Short-term politics are characterized by compromise, medium-term politics are not. Their primary goal is not to alleviate immediate problems but to make long-term radical change possible. This does not make medium-term politics less realistic. Their realism, however, is not one of opportunism but of building a different world.
It is difficult to find broad support for radical politics in the Global North. People have too many vested interests in the current system to wish for its demise. Due to their strategic significance for the imperialist order, however, struggles in the “belly of the beast” are of crucial importance. With right-wing populism on the rise, we face a situation where conflicts between imperialist powers might once again dominate global politics. Anti-imperialists in the North will be a minority, but an important one. Members of the labor aristocracy and the middle class can commit “class suicide,” even if this contradicts their objective interests. History provides many such examples. There has been radical First World support for the struggles in Vietnam, Palestine, South Africa, and Chile. We must avoid the illusion, however, that a bit of education will radically change the outlook of the labor aristocracy as a whole.
The coming decades will be characterized by economic instability and military conflicts. In the Global North, if even 5–10 percent of the population end up working for radical change in the world system, it will make a huge difference for the struggles in the Global South. Breaking the chains of imperialism will become significantly easier. Many people in the Global North will regard this as treason against their nation, or even their class. Governments are already criminalizing international solidarity with socialist movements, as support of alleged “terrorists.”
5-10% of the population is huge - again, what are the segments of the population this "militant minority" comes from and what is their practice?
It would be naive to think that the ruling classes will simply accept this. NATO will be a key actor in the coming military conflicts. War has always been tied to imperialism; opposition to it has always been part of anti-imperialism. This concerns both feuds between imperialist countries and aggression against the Global South. Militants in the Global North must weaken imperialism’s home base. This will not be popular with parts of the working class (and, of course, the state), but anti-war campaigns have the capacity to unite different sections of the population. A crucial issue is opposition to NATO bases in the Global South.
The current wave of right-wing populism in the Global North might lead to fascist regimes if the crisis of capitalism worsens. Once in power, right-wing populism controls the military and police; it exerts pressure on courts, media, and educational institutions, forcing them to get in line. Police and intelligence services received more power and human and technical resources during the “War on Terror.” Their priorities and focus can change quickly. We need be prepared to engage a hostile state, practically and organizationally.
In Chapter 11, I discussed the factors that John Foran considers necessary for a revolution to succeed. They included a strong culture of resistance and a window of opportunity for change in the global political system. Unrest in one country often leads to unrest in other countries. This is a consequence of a global political system built on nation states. It means that transnational alliances of like-minded movements will constitute a central factor for effective resistance. Cultures of resistance can inspire others, in the same way that the revolution in Russia, the resistance in Vietnam, and the experiment in Chiapas have inspired others. The impact that a particular culture of resistance can have depends on its ability to build alliances and to develop its own social institutions. Psychological factors such as determination, sacrifice, and courage are also of great importance. Social movements can help each other with material resources and know-how. They can keep the state occupied and create a window of opportunity for change. Such a window appears whenever a superpower is troubled by internal conflict, lacks a proper analysis of the political situation, or loses control of social developments. The result is that its ability to repress revolutionary forces is diminished. A culture of resistance and the opening of a window for change reinforce one another: strong cultures of resistance can force a window to open, and an opened window reinforces cultures of resistance.
Today, ten years into capitalism’s latest crisis, we have numerous movements critical of neoliberalism, but there is no clear common strategy, and certainly no leadership. The motivation for anti-imperialist resistance in the Global North differs from that in the Global South. In the North, being an anti-imperialist is something you can choose, depending on your personal circumstances and political convictions. This results in a high turnover among anti-imperialist militants and in organizations that don’t last. In the Global South, anti-imperialist resistance is directly related to everyday struggles against oppression and exploitation. The struggle in the South must guide and radicalize the struggle in the North.