Making sense of modern imperialism

Imperialism and Global Political Economy

“Imperialism, to many people’s surprise, survived the Cold War. More to the point, it has also survived the presidency of George W. Bush.” Making sense of why imperialism survived, how twenty-first-century imperialism operates, and how to resist it are at the core of Alex Callinicos’s extremely useful, if also dense, book.

Callinicos is in general a prolific writer, and in particular on the subject of imperialism. His latest work on the topic, however, represents something of a departure from the classical Marxist approach to imperialism. Its main theoretical premise is that imperialism in fact comprises two dynamics—the economic and the geopolitical. Readers familiar with David Harvey’s work The New Imperialism will see the similarity between Callinicos’s formulation and Harvey’s of capitalist and territorial logics of power. In fact, Callinicos repeatedly acknowledges that both he and Harvey have settled on similar positions.

Callinicos elaborates on this theoretical position in two basic parts in the book. The first, entitled “Theory,” begins with discussion of the classical Marxist theories of imperialism, particularly those outlined by Luxemburg, Lenin, and Bukharin. Here, Callinicos defends Lenin and Bukharin’s formulations, but also raises several important critiques. Most important, he argues that their overreliance on the notion of finance capital has led to distortions in understanding imperialism since the Second World War. Callinicos concludes this first part of the book with a chapter examining the role of the state and ideology in the operation of imperialism.

The second and longer part of the book, entitled “History,” presents an historical overview of imperialism. Callinicos grounds this history in an exhaustive discussion of the origins of capitalism in the Dutch Provinces and England in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century. Two particular concerns guide this history. First, Callinicos distinguishes between pre-capitalist forms of empire and specifically capitalist dynamics of imperialism. Second, he steps into a long-standing debate over how and why capitalism emerged in northwest Europe earlier than in other regions.

This second part of the book concludes with two chapters that present a compelling periodization of modern capitalist imperialism: 1) classical imperialism (1870–1945), book-ended by the U.S. Civil War and unification of Germany on one end and the Second World War on the other; 2) superpower imperialism (1945–1991), characterized by two competing empires dominated by the United States and Soviet Union, respectively; and imperialism after the Cold War (1991–today), during which the United States has acted as a sole superpower.

There are two features that make this book extremely useful. First, it addresses complaints about other recent work theorizing imperialism—especially Harvey’s 2005 title and Ellen Meiksins Wood’s Empire of Capital—that they do not support their claims with enough empirical data. Callinicos responds, particularly in the second part of the book tracing the history of imperialism, with a wealth of such data. It is on the basis of these data that Callinicos is able to argue so effectively that imperialism is in fact a process of conflict among wealthy nations over control of the spoils of the globe.

Second, in his overview of classical Marxist writings about imperialism, Callinicos makes the point that they often drew on non-Marxist studies of political economy to make their case. He continues this tradition throughout the book, which at times makes for some dense reading. Part of this move acknowledges a new generation of Marxist analysis of political economy. This work challenges several decades’ worth of scholarship, particularly in the field of international relations and more recent studies of globalization. Callinicos strengthens his analysis both by drawing from non-Marxist scholarship and by distinguishing among competing approaches within Marxist traditions to understanding imperialism. This constant comparison is extremely clarifying and helps get a broad sense of major intellectual trends analyzing imperialism and empire since the Second World War. In fact, for this reviewer, the breadth of discussion represents the strongest aspect of the book.

Such exhaustive argument is likely to narrow its audience, which is unfortunate. Readers need either a good deal of patience to get through sections where Callinicos pursues highly specialized or secondary debates, or they need a strong academic or political background in order to follow along. That the book is aimed at a (left) academic audience is not a criticism—the academy certainly needs much more scholarship of this sort. At the same time, I look forward to a version of this book that has a more general audience in mind.

Alongside these strengths, however, are two theoretical weaknesses that work in tandem to undermine the overall analysis in this book. The first is mentioned above: the distinction between economic and geopolitical logics of imperialism. Callinicos justifies this distinction on three terms. First, it leaves imperialism “historically open.” In other words, by historicizing the development of Marxist theories of imperialism, we are able to understand both pre-capitalist forms of empire and latter-day forms of capitalist imperialism. Second, Callinicos argues that this distinction avoids the trap of economic reductionism, that is, explaining imperialism in narrow terms of the gains made by one section of capital over another through imperial conflict. Third, this distinction rescues a central tenet in Marxist theories of imperialism, namely that the conflict they describe occurs primarily among wealthy imperial powers, and not simply between the core/global North and the periphery/global South.

While each of these points is indeed necessary for a robust and accurate theory of imperialism, they are possible without this cleavage between the economic and the geopolitical. Take as a remarkable example of historicizing imperialism—both in terms of how it has unfolded and how Marxist thought has evolved in response to it—Chris Harman’s 2003 article, “Analysing Imperialism.” A formal division between the economic and the political is nowhere to be seen; yet the argument is nuanced in terms of tracing shifts in imperialism over time, and acutely aware of the political and ideological fallout of imperialism.

Additionally, by describing his approach to imperialism as avoiding economic reductionism, Callinicos concedes too much to academic critiques of Marxism. It is undeniable that the classical Marxist approach to imperialism has been in need of rescue from reformist, Stalinist, and Maoist distortions (whether in or outside the academy). Yet, the original analyses of imperialism are themselves not reductive. This is especially true of Lenin’s: his pamphlet on imperialism was meant to be read along with other works on nationalism and colonialism, making Lenin’s overall argument anything but simplistic.

To be sure, Callinicos is careful not to argue that the geopolitical side of imperialism operates somehow independently from or outside of capitalism. In fact, he raises a concern that Harvey at times goes too far in this direction. He stresses that the economic and the geopolitical are interwoven, where neither is reducible to the other. Yet, one need not categorize the geopolitical as a distinct dynamic in order to think of imperialism in historically specific and nimble ways.

For example, an economically reductive approach to imperialism would view the 2003 invasion of Iraq as a coup lead by the Bush-Cheney cabal in order to profit the oil companies they hitherto had led. This view in fact characterized a good deal of left and liberal analysis of the war throughout the Bush years, as Callinicos rightly points out. A more accurate analysis of the war and occupation recognizes that by controlling the spigots from which flows the most important commodity in the world economy, the United States strengthens its position vis-à-vis key economic rivals in Europe and East Asia, which depend on Middle Eastern oil in even more direct ways than do U.S. concerns. In fact, here we see the well-known quip that “politics is concentrated economics” borne out. Where precisely in the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq do economic questions end and (geo)political ones begin? In other words, where do we draw a line between maintaining U.S. leverage over key economic rivals by controlling the oil reserves they rely on, and manipulating international political institutions like the UN or waging war to realize those economic aims? Grounding imperialism in these central economic rivalries does not necessitate ignoring or downplaying their political manifestations.

The second theoretical weakness in this book asserts that global capitalism has been in a protracted and essentially uninterrupted crisis of profitability since the early 1970s. Certainly, Callinicos acknowledges the victory of neoliberalism pushed through by Reagan, Thatcher, and their respective successors, and he references a series of economic booms in the 1990s and early 2000s (e.g., in stocks, technology, housing, credit). On the first count, he argues that neoliberalism failed to overcome economic crisis, even if it won on a number of ideological points. On the second count, he dismisses those “booms” as mere speculative bubbles.

It is beyond the scope of this review to debate this assertion at length, but it functions as an important corollary to the distinction between economic and geopolitical dynamics of imperialism. If it were indeed the case that global capitalism had gone through a forty-year period of fairly steady decline, the classical Marxist theory of imperialism would have anticipated greater political and military rivalry among global powers as they attempted to dig out of economic crisis. Indeed, a central point around which Callinicos organizes the book is his response to a question put forward by Robert Brenner. Brenner, who shares the position that global capitalism has been in relative decline for the last forty years, essentially challenges the left to account for the absence of direct military conflict among imperialist powers on the scale of the two world wars. Yet, as Callinicos himself goes to great lengths to argue, absence of full-on warfare does not equate to absence of inter-imperialist conflict overall. Instead of re-evaluating this claim of protracted economic crisis, then, Callinicos overemphasizes geopolitical rivalry as a distinct form or dynamic of imperialism.

Whatever theoretical disputes are to be had with Callinicos’s argument, his specific analysis of contemporary imperialism is sharp. For example, he argues clearly that the “imperialism of free trade” is no less destructive or dangerous in terms of the potential for inter-imperialist conflict than the direct colonialism that characterized the classical era of imperialism. Moreover, Callinicos marshals significant empirical data to underscore the point that now, as in the previous two eras of imperialism, economic and political conflict occurs primarily among three centers of power in North America, Western Europe, and East Asia.

Finally, he recognizes both the current status and instability of U.S. dominance as a “sole superpower.” This instability results from a number of factors, including what Callinicos calls the “increasingly centrifugal world” represented by European and East Asian economies, as well as the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, and China). Second, Callincos recalls the basic propensity of capitalism for economic crisis that can play its own destabilizing role in terms of imperial rivalries. Third, he points to the overreach of U.S. military adventurism, both in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also represented by NATO expansion and U.S. saber-rattling during the 2008 conflict between Russia and Georgia. None of these factors themselves are predictive of the next specific imperial conflict. Instead, and taken together, they underscore the extent to which the basic dynamics of imperialism and imperial conflict remain as active today as in the first half the twentieth century.

As this review has argued, there are important points of debate to be raised in response to Callinicos’s book. None of them, however, detract from what is ultimately an extremely useful and exhaustive analysis of how imperialism developed under capitalism, how it operates today, and how the left must respond.



Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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