The piece below examines the evolution of imperialism. It is republished and was first written in 2014.
The question of imperialism is once again a widely-discussed issue following the crisis in Ukraine.
There are accusations from the British and US governments that Russia is imperialist, and many on the left appear to concur. The accusation is entirely false.
The article reaffirms the central idea that imperialism arises from the concentration of capital through monopolies (or more often oligopolies) and its merger with bank capital which forms finance capital and then goes on to dominate almost the whole world through specific imperialist countries.
The dominant imperialist country is the US. It is currently mobilising the World Bank and the IMF, which are the main pillars of the post-World War II architecture to act against Russia. At the same time it has ordered the SWIFT global bank payments network to boycott Russia.
No other country in the world can issue those instructions or hope to have them carried out. This is a strong real world indicator of which country is the dominant imperialist power, who its junior partners are and how it marshals them. The main architecture itself was created in US interests at Bretton Woods.
As the piece was written in 2014 and republished unamended, it includes data that has since become outdated. But generally the factual changes do not qualitatively alter the trends, or the main point of the argument. It is hoped that a comprehensive revision may be possible at a later date.
What is the Current Phase of Imperialism?
Previously published: May 13, 2014
By Michael Burke
A new situation requires a new analysis, and each new factor in the situation requires a specific and concrete analysis, placing it and its weight correctly in the overall situation.
In world politics, the new situation is that the US was unable to bomb Syria, it finds itself negotiating with, rather than bombing Iran, and its coup in the Ukraine may not be entirely successful in drawing Russia’s neighbour into NATO’s sphere of influence.
This overturns recent history. The overthrow of the Soviet Union in 1991 was accompanied by the US-led Gulf War. Since that time, the US and its various allies have bombed, invaded or intervened in Somalia (twice), Yugoslavia, Haiti, Afghanistan, the Philippines, Liberia, Iraq, the Maghreb, Yemen, Libya, Pakistan, Libya and South Sudan. The US has also led, organised or outsourced countless other interventions, overthrown governments and destabilised economies in pursuit of its interests. There has also been a series of coups and attempted coups in Latin America with varied success, and the so-called ‘colour revolutions’ in Eastern Europe to install pro-US, pro-NATO governments, as well as the US hijacking of the Arab Spring.
However, the economic rise of China has warranted a strategic ‘pivot’ towards Asia in an attempt to curb the rise of the only economy that could rival US supremacy in the foreseeable future. Given this absolute priority and the reduced circumstances of the US economy, it has been necessary to suspend new large-scale direct military interventions elsewhere.
This curb on US power has had immediate and beneficial consequences for humanity. Syria could not be bombed and neither could Iran. In these, Russian opposition to US plans was a key political obstacle, especially as the US wanted to deploy multilateral and multinational forces to do its bidding and needed the imprimatur of the UN Security Council. The US response to this blockage has been to increase pressure on Russia, most dramatically with its ouster of the elected Ukrainian government in a coup and its attempt to breach the country’s agreed neutrality by bringing it into NATO.
This curb on US power, however limited or temporary, should be welcomed by all socialists, by all democrats and simply by all those who desire peace. Instead, we have the strange spectacle that some on the left have raised the charge that Russia is imperialist, or that China is, or countries such as Brazil, or India or South Africa are‘sub-imperialist’!
This is not a coincidence. In the US State Department’s frustration it has produced every type of calumny against Putin, including that he is an imperialist[i] and akin to Hitler. Self-styled socialists who simply echo these charges are not highly amenable to logical argument. But it is vital for socialists to understand the nature of imperialism and its current manifestation[ii].
Concrete political aims must be set in concrete circumstances. All things are relative, all things flow and all things change. Lenin, Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution
The most important single work of Marxism on the subject of imperialism is Lenin’s Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism.
Lenin’s stated aim in writing the work was to demonstrate that the 1914-1918 war was imperialist (that is an annexationist, predatory, war of plunder) on the part of both sides; it was a war for the division of the world, for the partition and repartition of colonies and spheres of influence of finance capital, and so on.
Furthermore, he argued, that the character of the war, its class character, was determined by the position of the ruling classes of the warring countries and of the whole world, as the ruling classes of the belligerent countries had between them annexed almost the entire world. Therefore, he concluded imperialist wars are absolutely inevitable under such an economic system, as long as private property in the means of production exists[iii].
However, Lenin was categorical in warning that this was a study of imperialism in a given historical epoch and this was specifically (or concretely) ‘a composite picture of the world capitalist system at the beginning of the twentieth century’. As shown below, he also highlighted how this composite might change, as it was already changing.
Therefore it completely contravenes Lenin’s injunctions in this and other works, indeed it is completely alien to the method of Marxism, to abstract from his pamphlet one or two important features of imperialism at this point, and use them as a measuring rule for modern imperialism. Imperialism, like all phenomena, must be analysed concretely, and only after taking all the main factors into account, and so establish its laws of motion.
Three decisive changes in world politics have occurred since Lenin wrote his great work. As we shall see, the world economy has not stood still either, like all phenomena it too has continued to ‘flow’, in Lenin’s words.
The first decisive political change was in the contest over who would be the dominant imperialist in the world, which began in 1914 was resolved by 1945. The US had become the single dominant imperialist power and would countenance no serious rivalry from other imperialists. The best they could hope for was to play some subordinate but mutually beneficial role as a junior ally of US imperialism.
The second decisive change took place between in the short period between Lenin’s writing the pamphlet and its later Preface. The Russian Revolution meant that for the first time the working class was able to lay hold of and maintain state power. Since that time, and notwithstanding the overthrow of the Soviet Union, there have been continuously some parts of the globe where the working class holds state power, including Cuba, Viet Nam and Venezuela. Of these workers’ states by far the weightiest in the world economy is China. In all these cases, private property in the means of production is not the dominant form of ownership in the domestic economy. However, all are obliged to operate in a global capitalist system in which imperialism dominates.
Taking advantage of this contradiction, the third change is that the anti-colonial and national liberation struggles were able to free the great bulk of humanity from burden of direct colonial rule, and in some cases this led ultimately to socialist revolution.
These three facts, US supremacy within the imperialist bloc, the continuous existence of workers’ states and the wave of direct decolonisation, are entirely new factors. They are decisive in understanding that the main antagonism in the world is no longer inter-imperialist competition (which has certainly not been abolished).
Now, the pre-eminence of the US and the existence of workers’ states with real political and economic weight means that principal contradiction in world politics is between the US and its imperialist allies versus the workers states and the countries oppressed by imperialism (including the semi-colonial world and the remaining colonies). Of these, the biggest, the weightiest threat to US economic interests is the rise of China.
In Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism, Lenin sums up the main economic features of imperialism in that period. To some readers these are well-known, but they are worth repeating here. Worth repeating too is his own characterisation of this definition, which is that it was a special stage in the historical development of capitalism (which has continued to develop).
The five features identified by Lenin are as follows:
(1) the concentration of production and capital has developed to such a high stage that it has created monopolies which play a decisive role in economic life;
(2) the merging of bank capital with industrial capital, and the creation, on the basis of this “finance capital”, of a financial oligarchy;
(3) the export of capital as distinguished from the export of commodities acquires exceptional importance;
(4) the formation of international monopolist capitalist associations which share the world among themselves, and
(5) the territorial division of the whole world among the biggest capitalist powers is completed.
Lenin’s starting-point is the concentration of production into monopolies, which is the basis of imperialism. This concentration is the inevitable outcome of ‘free competition’ between capitalists and has as a result risen exponentially since the pamphlet was written. Concentration means capitalist rivals are eliminated, and so increased profits require expansion overseas.
The increase in concentration of production and trend towards monopolisation can be illustrated by the fact that the largest companies in the world are now larger than most countries. The tenth largest company in the world has revenues of well over US$200bn, and only 40 countries in the world have a greater level of annual GDP. In Lenin’s time, 44% of all US industrial output was carried out by just 3,000 firms. Now the output of just 130 firms is equivalent to 48% of US GDP[iv].
Concentration of production within the imperialist bloc has also increased. The dominance of the US is evident from the fact that it boasts nearly one-third of the leading Fortune 500 global firms, the same as its next three imperialist rivals together. At the turn of the twentieth century US Steel was the largest company in the world, with average net profits of US$34million. This is equivalent just under US$1 billion in today’s terms. In 2013 the most profitable company in the world was Apple, with profits of US$42bn. Aside from the few loss-makers, most companies in the Fortune 500 had profits far in excess of US$1 billion in 2013.
The role of banks has also increased, but in an even more pronounced way. Lenin uses detailed data to show that the 9 leading banks in Germany held deposits of 10 billion German Marks. Two banks in the US, owned by the plutocrats JP Morgan and Rockefeller had deposits equivalent to 11 billion German Marks. These were equivalent to US$2.4 billion and US$2.6 billion in 1913 exchange rates. In today’s terms these are equivalent to US$56 billion and US$62 billion respectively. In 2013, Germany’s largest bank Deutsche Bank alone had deposits equivalent to US$727 billion. JP Morgan Chase is the biggest bank in the US which in 2013 held deposits of US$ 1,288 billion. At the same time, Lenin identifies the growth in traded securities to the equivalent of 479 billion French Francs. This is the equivalent of US$ 2,700 billion in today’s terms. But this is a fraction of the current level of international claims held by banks in the imperialist centres, of US$32,859 billion[v].
Taken together these data show that the main features identified by Lenin, the concentration of capital and monopoly and the increasing dominance of finance capital have both become more pronounced and more dominant features of imperialism.
However, value can only be extracted if it is produced. Just as imperialism is a parasitic extension of capitalism, the dominance of finance capital is a parasitic characteristic of imperialism, which leads to its decay.
Parasitism and decay
Under a system of super-exploitation, the capitalist has a diminishing incentive to develop the productive forces of the economy as profits can be increased simply by increasing the scope of territory and the number of slaves held by the slave-owners. This was noted by Marx in his analysis of the Southern slave states of America.
In a different context, imperialism too is a system of super-exploitation, one which attempts to embrace the whole world. Marx had earlier shown that the first imperial power, Britain in Ireland, had benefited from a higher rate of exploitation in its colony, with the imperial power ‘pocketing the excess’ profits even beyond the rate of exploitation in their own domestic market. As the brutality and rapaciousness of the regime increases, so too does its parasitical nature. This leads to decay and its vulnerability to competition from a more vigorous system of production.
At the beginning of the twentieth century Britain was the premier trading nation in the world, via its empire. However, Lenin points out that Britain’s profits from its foreign and colonial trade was just one-fifth of its profits derived from its overseas financial investments. Britain had already become a ‘rentier state’, primarily living off these investments.
Britain had run a trade deficit, the value of imports exceeding the value of exports for most of the period from the 1890s to the outbreak of the 1914-18 war[vi]. But the very high level of interest income (or rent) on its overseas possessions meant that the balance on the current account (the combined balance of trade in goods and services plus overseas interest payments) remained in surplus. This overall surplus on the current account ended in the 1930s. Repeated devaluations of the overvalued pound frequently redressed this imbalance by making exports cheaper and increasing the value of overseas interest payments in pound sterling terms. The discovery of North Sea oil also gave a temporary boost, but deficits on the current account have become such a fixed feature of the British economy since that in some official data it is sometimes referred to as the current account deficit, rather than the current account balance.
The deficit on the current account must have an off-setting item to balance it. This is the capital account, the net flows of capital rather than of interest payments or dividends. When Britain fell into a current account deficit in the 1930s it was obliged to become a net importer of capital to off-set it.
As noted above, Lenin had identified the export of capital as one of the key features of imperialism at the beginning of the twentieth century. Only the most hide-bound or scholastic reading of Lenin would then argue that in the 1930s Britain passed from being an imperialist nation to an oppressed one. Instead, the parasitism and decay of British imperialism has led it into a new and more decrepit, leech-like phase. Where Britain has trod the United States has followed.
The much greater size of the US domestic market, the consequent scope for increasing the division of labour and the greater productivity of its industries all meant the capitalist mode of production retained a degree of vigour there that had long become a distant memory in Britain. This was reinforced by the pre-eminent position of the US following the 1914 to 1945 world wars.
However the US too has become a net importer of capital over a different timescale. This is shown in Chart 1 below. The US became an importer of capital because the growth of the economy was insufficient to maintain both the growth in living standards of the population and to fund the Viet Nam war. The US became an importer of capital in the course of the Viet Nam war and in order to pay for it.
Chart 1. US Current Account Balance 1960 to 1980, US$ billions
Source: Federal Reserve Economic Data
The US did not become an economically oppressed nation while it was raining more bombs on Viet Nam, Laos and Cambodia than were dropped in the whole of the Second World War. Instead, imperialism and the dominant imperialist power has entered a new phase, where it sucks in capital from the rest of the world. It does so without in advance being either a net exporter of goods or of capital.
As Lenin and a host of commentators had shown, in an earlier phase imperialism had been an exporter of capital. By the early 1970s the US (and Britain, long before) had become importers of capital.
Persistently incurring new net debts will tend to run down any existing net stock of overseas capital. This is precisely what has happened. The US, as well as France and Britain are imperialist powers who own no net overseas assets, that is to say, their overseas debts are greater than their overseas assets. This is shown in Table 1 below.
Table 1. Net International Investment Position 2012, US$ billions
Source: IMF, International Financial Statistics[vii]
The US is the world’s biggest net overseas debtor. It requires capital inflows to support the living standards of the population while maintaining the same level of military spending as the rest of the top 10 nations put together. These debts in return require interest payments, which in turn piles up further debt.
Yet the most remarkable feature of the current economic aspects of imperialism is that the US, a country which has no net assets but only net debts, achieves a surplus on its investment income account. The net flows on the investment income account are shown in Table 2 below.
Table 2. Investment Income Account, Net Flows, 2012, US$ billions
Source: World Bank, Data, Net Primary Income[viii]
Taken together these five imperialist powers have effectively no net overseas assets, as the net assets of Japan and Germany are effectively balanced by the net debts of the US, France and the UK. Yet in 2012 they received a net US$526 billion in net payments of interest and dividends from the rest of the world.
Within this bloc, the US is clearly pre-eminent. It extracted more interest from the rest of the world than Japan, despite having net debts greater than the level of Japan’s net assets. France and the UK were junior partners in this role. By contrast, both Japan and Germany are able to sustain trade surpluses because of accumulated levels of productivity (and in Japan’s case severe restrictions on imports). For them, there is no imperative to engineer investment income surpluses, these are a natural outcome of their trade-driven accumulation of overseas assets. Even so, along with France and the UK, they too play a supporting role in the global system of imperialism and benefit from it.
[* The UK is undergoing a particular period of turmoil in its overseas accounts, associated with the continuing crisis of its banking system and their overseas operations. In the prior year the surplus was $42 billion. But it remains to be seen to what extent the UK can recover this position].
A capitalist economy is one in which there is generalised commodity production. Money is the universal commodity, standing in for all other commodities in the process of exchange. The control over the direction or allocation of money capital therefore becomes decisive in the development of capitalism itself. The medium for this allocation is the banks[ix].
As a result, the degree of concentration of capital and the dominance of monopolies depends on the financial capacity of the banks. The scale of necessary investment requires access to large-scale savings. The elimination of rivals requires financial resources. So, the creation of Ford Motors, Standard Oil and AEG relied on the emergence of JP Morgan, Rockefeller and Deutsche Bank respectively. This control over the allocation capital places the banks in an increasingly dominant position in the capitalist economy. Dominance over the global financial system is the essential condition for dominance over an entire economic system dominated by finance capital.
As the dominant force in the global financial system, the US directs resources for its own needs. It charges vastly higher rates of interest when it recycles capital overseas than it is willing to pay. This explains how it is possible for the US to draw in interest income when it owns no net assets. At the same time, the US and its junior partners in France and the UK have not grown as rapidly as the world economy over a prolonged period, and yet they are continually able to draw in capital from the rest of the world. This too is only possible because of the US dominance over the global financial system, with Britain and France playing an important subordinate role.
The US dominates all global transactions through the trading pre-eminence of the US Dollar, which accounts for approximately 85% of all foreign exchange transactions.[x] Firms seeking to raise capital privately are inspected by the US-dominated ratings’ agencies. Governments are frequently obliged to apply to the IMF or World Bank, where the US dominates. The obligatory criteria under which these finances are disbursed, or not, comprises privatisations, reduced government spending, lower living standards and financial ‘liberalisation’. These have the effect of allowing greater access to domestic markets for the imperialist powers, their firms and their banks, and most especially allows access to domestic savings, which are required to fund the external deficits of the US and the other imperialists. It is no accident that the ideology underpinning these criteria is called the ‘Washington Consensus’. It amounts to dominance over the financial system which dominates the world and gives the US privileged access to its resources.
This is far removed from the era of ‘free trade’, between firms and nations which ended by the turn of the twentieth century. In any event this frequently involved robbing the colonies of goods or raw materials for far below their value, or in many cases simply outright plunder. It is even further removed from the trade of one large country with another, say Brazil with Venezuela or China in Africa. These can be mutually beneficial trading relationships, even while governed by laws of the capitalist market.
Instead, the parasitic imperialist powers are able to conjure capital and interest from the rest of the world, seemingly out of thin air and on a repeated basis. It is comparable to free trade only in the way that an armed robber is akin to a market stallholder. In both cases money changes hands, but US dominance over the global financial system leaves as little in return as the robber. And this is not a one-off, but it is a continuous flow of capital.
It is only possible to rob someone repeatedly if a knife is held to their throat. The extraordinary US expenditure on its military and the willingness of its French and British aides de camp to support its military adventures (even their disappointment when the US was obliged to refrain from bombing Syria) is explained by this imperative to plunder the rest of the world. Military dominance and repeated shows of military force are necessary to underpin a system of global financial extortion.
The negative effects of imperial domination are not most frequently felt through war. This is just the most extreme symptom. Instead, a consequence of the dominance of the US and its interests in global finance is that even any changes in the economic or monetary conditions of the US reverberate globally. Abrupt changes in the US repeatedly manifest themselves as regional or even global crises. This is shown in Chart 2 below.
Chart 2. US Long-Term Interest Rates and Financial Market Crises
Source: Federal Reserve Economic Data
The chart above shows long-term US interest rates and some of the main financial market crises. The yields on US government debt change if there is an alteration in the balance of supply and demand for capital in the US. This was the case when Reagan came to office and hugely expanded the US budget deficit. It has also been the case with (increasingly modest) economic revivals in 1994, in 1997 and the very mild economic upturn in 2012. In all cases the increased demand for capital in the US led to a rise in US long-term interest rates.
The consequence was that capital flowed out of the semi-colonial world and into the US, leaving the former in crisis. This occurred with the Latin America debt crisis of the early 1980s, the global financial crisis in the early 1990s, the Asian financial crisis of 1997 and 1998. The recent ‘emerging market’ slowdown is only milder to date because the rising demand for capital in the US to fund rising consumption has been extremely modest by historical standards. Yet among the countries most affected by this slowdown include Brazil, Russia, South Africa, Turkey[xi], and so on, precisely those countries which are foolishly described as sub-imperialist, or even in Russia’s case, without the diminishing prefix. It is only those countries who are able impose capital controls that can partly insulate themselves from being a store of savings for the US (and face fierce opposition from the US for doing so). This imperial dependence on capital inflows is the reason that the US, and its proxies like the IMF are so adamant that capital movements be ‘liberalised’.
In each case after these major crises the subsequent outflow of capital from the semi-colonial countries restored the US domestic balance of supply and demand for savings and so US long-term interest rates declined. But the outflow of capital left devastation in its wake in the semi-colonial countries affected.
Increased parasitism, further decay
The impact of US dominance is felt not only in the colonial and semi-colonial countries but also in the subordinate imperialist countries themselves. As noted above, in 1994 there was a global financial crisis provoked by an increased demand for capital in the US which affected all countries unevenly.
While the UK and France attempt to benefit directly from the dominance of the US and the role of global finance, Japan and Germany remain more closely related to the archetypal imperialist power of the early twentieth century. Highly competitive industries and persistent trade surpluses have previously allowed the build-up of a stock of overseas assets from which German and Japanese imperialism draw interest from the rest of the world. Consequently, they have had less incentive to support domestic finance at the expense of domestic industry. As a result Japan and Germany have much less to gain from the increased dominance of US-led global finance in the worldwide system of imperialism.
After 1945, the US aim of bolstering capitalist allies as a bulwark against the Soviet Union prioritised the rebuilding of war-ravaged Japan and Germany. This was state intervention to preserve the capitalist system. But it was only after the US had established its supreme dominance over the rest of the world, including the subordination of these other imperialist powers through war.
The weight of the imperialist economies is not static, either as a group or individually. They have undergone a series of dramatic changes. The only constant is US dominance. Chart 3 below shows the relative weight of these five imperialist economies in the world economy, both individually and as a group. The data is shown in the table below.
Three distinct dates are chosen. 1913 represents a snapshot of the world economy on the eve of 1914-1918 war. 1951 represents the post-1945 settlement. This is also the highest recorded point of imperialist power on a world scale as accounted for by share of world GDP and is also the highest recorded level for the weight of the US in the global economy. 2008 is the final data available from Maddison before his death, and of course coincides with the onset of the global financial crisis.
Source: Author’s calculation from Maddison data
The high-point of these imperialist powers in terms of share of world GDP was 1951. There has been a sharp decline since that time (which has almost certainly been deepened by the effects of the crisis). Within that bloc, the US has returned to its former starting point a century ago, whereas most of the other imperialist powers have declined in a more marked way. The UK has experienced the most spectacular fall of all, its weight in the world economy declining by two-thirds in a hundred years. Japan is the partial exception to this rule, having been only on the verge of becoming an imperial power at the beginning of the twentieth century and being utterly devastated by war and nuclear bombing by the early 1950s.
This still left just 9.5% of the world’s population in these 5 countries to enjoy the benefits of one-third of world output in 2008. Within those countries a tiny minority of the population takes the lion’s share. All manner of chauvinist and racist explanations are advanced for this unequal distribution of global income, and the accumulated wealth it brings. But in reality it is only possible if most of the world is dominated by a global system of imperialism, the forcible transfer of incomes and wealth from most of the world to a minority of it. This system includes ideological, legal, institutional, commercial and financial strands. All of these are underpinned by the aggressive exercise of military dominance, led by the US.
A century ago, Britain had already become a ‘rentier nation’, living off its overseas income. The factual verdict on this strategy in terms of delivering growth is devastating. By contrast, Japan’s post-War success was built on very high levels of investment and favoured nation status in its trade relationships with the US. Japanese investment as a proportion of GDP rose to what was then an unprecedented level of 30% of GDP and in consequence GDP growth accelerated to over 8% per annum.
However this period is already at an end. The Japanese domestic economy has not been accumulating net new capital for some years and the structural trade surpluses have become deficits. Growth has also stagnated for 25 years and it seems probable that like the US, France and the UK, Japan’s net overseas assets will dwindle towards zero (or below).
A decisive blow was struck by the US against both Japan and West Germany in the late 1960s. Both countries had been growing more strongly than the US over a considerable period based on much higher levels of investment. Using the pressure of its military relationships, in a series of measures the US forced sharp revaluations of both the Japanese Yen and the Deutsche Mark. It suspended the convertibility of the US Dollar and finally collapsed the entire post-WWII Bretton Woods financial system. In this way it was able to disguise a substantial devaluation of the US Dollar as a widespread but piecemeal revaluation of other major currencies, while its grip on Middle East oil ensured this did not lead to an outright balance of payments crisis in the US.
The effect was not to increase US growth but to slow both the Japanese and German economies for a generation, just as it had used the combination of its military and financial muscle to devastating effect against France and the UK during the Suez crisis in 1956. The US later repeated this feat particularly in relation to Japan, by redirecting Japanese capital towards the US arms race to bankrupt the Soviet Union in the 1980s. The most important outcome was the overthrow of the Soviet Union and its reduction to the status of a semi-colonial country, primarily producing raw materials for the (US-dominated) international markets. A side-effect was to foster the collapse of Japanese growth into stagnation, which has been unaltered since 1990.
Inter-imperialist rivalry has not been abolished. But the US has used a combination of its financial and military dominance to ensure its own dominance within the imperialist bloc, even as that bloc has been in relative decline.
The concentration of capital and the dominance of finance capital have both become more pronounced features of global capitalism in the current phase of imperialism.
Simultaneously, the decayed and parasitical ‘rentier nation’ that Britain had already become over a century ago is now the norm for the imperialist countries as a whole and for its dominant country, the United States.
Like an ancient despot, the US and its allies draw in tribute from the rest of the world in the form of a continuous inflow of capital. There is even a substantial net inflow of interest income, even though they possess no net overseas assets, only liabilities.
The main mechanism for this worldwide extortion is the US dominance over the global financial system, which is itself the dominant sector of capitalism. This is only possible because it is underpinned by the vast military resources of the US, which are far greater than all its major rivals combined, and which it exercises repeatedly and brutally.
Like Britain before it, the US has become a ‘rentier nation’, whose main overseas income is derived from the exaction of interest and other payments rather than net trade. But this has entered a new phase, where the tribute of interest income continues to flow even though there are no assets on which it is based. Without any net overseas assets, this is only possible because of its status as imperial power. Imperialism is a global system of super-exploitation, directed by control over finance capital and supported by military dominance. The sole imperial super-power is the US, supported by its allies.
Because imperialism has entered a more decrepit phase does not make it more benign. On the contrary. The US relentlessly seeks to extend its interlocking systems of military alliances, trade treaties and financial predominance because it is in relative decline. The vampire always seeks fresh blood.
Using ‘imperialism’ as a term of abuse, or even as a synonym for a large trading nation, albeit one possessing nuclear weapons, is to rob it of all scientific value. The fact that US imperialism can occasionally be challenged or stymied by some combination of semi-colonial countries and worker’s states acting in concert does not alter the essential meaning. Instead, these challenges are a reflection of the relative economic decline of the imperialist powers in general combined with a growing and related war-weariness on the part of the population. The US insistence on its own supremacy within the imperialist bloc has only exacerbated that collective decline, while preserving its own dominant status.
Rather than echo the frustrations of the US State Department, socialists and communists welcome the current impotence of the US, for however long it lasts and however limited it is. In 1997 a triumphalist US imperialism set out its bold plan to brook no global or regional opposition and to be able to fight two major wars simultaneously[xii]. In 2013 the US and its allies were unable to begin bombing Syria.
Imperialism is the enemy of all humanity and its set-backs or defeats are a cause for celebration as they represent an advance for all humankind and the struggle for socialism.
[i] This is not new. At the outbreak of war in 1914, most leaders of the Socialist Parties in Europe promptly discovered that their real enemy was the same as the one identified by their own bourgeoisie.
“The scientific concept of imperialism, moreover, is reduced to a sort of term of abuse applied to the immediate competitors, rivals and opponents of the two imperialists mentioned, each of whom holds exactly the same class position as his rivals and opponents! This is not at all surprising in this day of words forgotten, principles lost, philosophies overthrown, and resolutions and solemn promises discarded.”
Lenin, preface to Bukharin’s ‘Imperialism and the World Economy’,https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1915/dec/00.htm
[ii] As the US became free to engage in increased military adventures with the collapse of the Soviet Union, there arose a concerted effort to disguise this by arguing that ‘imperialism’ was a diffuse and unspecific phenomenon. Hardt and Negri led the way in ‘Empire’arguing that ‘imperialism has no address.’ Imperialism is a global system of exploitation, but it has a sole superpower protagonist which is headquartered in Washington DC.
[iii] This essay cannot possibly do justice to the scope of Lenin’s work, which relied on exhaustive and voluminous research in a host of languages. The notebooks for his pamphlet encompass hundreds of works, in Volume 39 of his Collected Workshttps://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/cw/volume39.htm . However, with access to modern and publicly available databases it is possible to analyse some of the most important features identified by him and to update them in light of factually altered conditions. This can be done without the volume of work that Lenin was obliged to do, and should be done by socialists seeking to understand the development of capitalism.
[iv] The Fortune 500 list of leading global firms contains 130 from the US http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/global500/2013/full_list/ In 2013 their combined revenues was equivalent to just under $16 trillion, approximately the same as US GDP.
[v] Bank for International Settlements, BIS Quarterly Review, Q3 2013 https://www.bis.org/publ/qtrpdf/r_qs1403.pdf
[vi] Bank of England, Three centuries of economic datahttp://www.bankofengland.co.uk/publications/Documents/quarterlybulletin/qb100403.pdf There is an accompany dataset which shows the trade deficit from 1891 to 1906, followed by a trade surplus until the outbreak of the war. Dataset can be accessed here
[vii] IMF, http://elibrary-data.imf.org/public/FrameReport.aspx?v=3&c=20840396
[viii] World Bank,http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/BN.GSR.FCTY.CD
[ix] Lenin drew on Hilferding’s ‘Finance Capital’http://www.marxists.org/archive/hilferding/1910/finkap/ which analysed the dominance of finance capital beginning with the role of money which ‘stands in the place of’ all other commodities.
[x] BIS, Annual Foreign Exchange Survey, Reuters reporthttp://www.reuters.com/article/2013/09/05/bis-survey-volumes-idUSL6N0GZ34R20130905
[xi] Financial Times, Emerging Market: Fears of Contagionhttp://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/b201ae8e-89a5-11e3-8829-00144feab7de.html
[xii] Project for the new American Century,http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_for_the_New_American_Century#End_of_the_organization