Imperialism Today

This text served as the introduction at the public meeting of IP, in Paris this past April 20th. It is an integral part of the discussion begun at the meeting of the Francophone branch of the Discussion Network last January 19th, and continues that debate:

1) Can one still speak of "imperialism" in a society whose dominant tendency is globalization?

2) How are we to understand the present period in the life of the capitalist system, and with that in mind, does the cycle crisis-war-reconstruction still make sense?

3) How do the structures of national states, supra-national structures, and imperialism, fit together?

4) How do we understand the most recent conflicts and wars in the light of the above questions?

5) Finally, where does the proletariat fit in; is it still a "brake on the tendency to war"and, if so, how can we understand its lack of reaction to these conflicts?

1) The capitalist system, like every living historical system, goes through an evolution and process of change. We have indicated the nature of those economic transformations and some of their implications, for example, with respect to the composition of the different classes. But our understanding of the amplitude of those changes is still insufficient: either we did not grasp their amplitude, and sought to comprehend the world with outdated analyses and theoretical tools, or we saw only the changes, and did not perceive the continuity in the functioning of the system and the continuing need to utilize certain concepts to understand the world in we live.

Can it be that our questions about whether the concept of imperialism is still operative reflect that same difficulty? If Lenin or Luxemburg’s theory of imperialism is not adequate, one is tempted to reject the concept of imperialism itself, dispensing with an understanding of the world divided into antagonistic blocs, grabbing territory and markets, and proceeding to an image of a unifying globalization, transcending internal conflicts; in short, the world of super-imperialism a la Kautsky, but under the aegis of American capital.

2)Based on the mechanism of value production, valorization-devalorization, we need to ask ourselves about the pertinence of the schema “crisis-war-reconstruction,” and take another look at the causes of the unleashing of the two world wars.

If capitalism is regulated by economic laws, it is also a complex set of global social relations in which economic, political, and ideological means are wielded by the ruling class in order to control those laws; and that as a function of the ruling class’s understanding of those social relations at a determinate moment in its history, and taking into consideration both its own internal conflicts and the existence of the proletariat – an antagonistic class, but one necessary to the maintenance of the domination of the ruling class itself. It is only by taking all those factors into consideration that one can understand the decisions of the bourgeoisie, whereas too often we have had a tendency to see the origin of a war only through the lens of economic laws. If war is inevitable in capitalism, neither its precise form, nor the moment of its unleashing, is predictable in advance. It’s not a matter of a mechanical reflex, but rather of the understanding that the ruling class has of its own margin for maneuver, of its evaluation of the putative costs and benefits of a war, as well as of its control over the working class. We can, therefore, understand the cycle "crisis-war-reconstruction" as a general description of the functioning of the capitalist system in the modern epoch: the crisis alone does not suffice to bring about the needed devalorization; war is needed to complete the process. Were devalorization alone sufficient, it would itself permit the renewal of the cycle of the production of new value.

One factor that must be emphasized with respect to the unleashing of the two world wars were the protectionist policies adopted by the ruling classes before each of them, as well as a reflex for territorial conquest inherited from the past, and which no longer corresponded to the needs for the enlargement of capital, and which rapidly led to a new open crisis after the first world war. It is clear that the modifications in the operation of the law of value have as a consequence the transformation of economic structures, and the modes of decision-making. Those modifications generated supra-national structures, such as the World Bank and the IMF, after the second world war, under the aegis of the victorious and dominant American capital.

If the capitalist system has gone through profound upheavals, lending its component parts different forms, it still remains a system whose economic and social relations are dominated by the law of value, and one marked by a necessary scarcity, by ferocious competition, and by intrinsic contradictions. To recognize this opposition between transformation and continuity must lead us to recognize other contradictory tendencies such as the existence of an increasingly globalized functioning vis a vis the maintenance of particular interests; the opposition between the interests of global capital and individual capitalist interests; centrifugal and centripetal movements, all of which we shall have to ultimately deal with.

The passage from the formal to the real domination of capital, and the progressive generalization of the latter, has brought about an unprecedented development of the productive forces and technological progress. We know that that formidable expansion has put the system in a state of enormous tension between the continuation of that dynamic of the development of the productive forces and the necessity for the massive destruction of capital. That process of devalorization takes place through crises and wars, and constitutes an extremely violent manifestation of the functioning of the system. The fall in profits exacerbates competition, and makes the weakest states increasingly fragile, even as the stronger one’s grab ever bigger pieces of a shrinking pie. The need to create and the necessity to destroy, a tendency to unlimited expansion and a confrontation with the limits imposed by the necessary scarcity, a tendency to the integration and inter-dependence of the different capitals and the expression of divergent interests, all reflect that opposition inherent in capitalism, and make it possible to explain why both globalization of the economy and imperialism co-exist and the tension between those two tendencies becomes ever sharper.

3)It is through that link between globalization and imperialism that we can also understand the co-existence of supra-national structures and the maintenance of separate states. We already know the opposed tendencies at work in the overall process of globalization: the tendency to enlargement and integration on the one hand, and the tendency to a splintering into local entities and withdrawal into oneself on the other. If world capital has provided itself with structures for the control and administration of its economy and politics, the national state still continues to fulfill vital functions within the capitalist world: the instantiation of a feeling of “belonging,” it constitutes the ideal ideological entity for the control of the proletariat, confronted by its own atomization and recomposition. The national state also makes it possible to express the particular economic interests of individual capitalists, and, therefore, makes it easier to hide from the proletariat the reasons for the economic crisis and the means to overcome it. The supra-national structures increasingly have the function of economic administration and the national structures the function of ideological control and the representation of opposed capitalist interests.

4) The Gulf War began an era of unprecedented conflict. The crushing of Iraq, the dismantling of Yugoslavia and the putative consolidation of Serbia, the regaining of control in Afghanistan, the re-igniting of the war in the Middle-East – all these wars have a common source. The first, is that they were all unleashed by the strongest capital: American capitalism, together with its “allies.” On each occasion, two elements were present: the economic importance of the zone in question, the existence of important stakes for the US, and a threat to those interests represented by a political destabilization, too great a bid for autonomy on the part of the local bourgeoisie, or the expression of local economic interests. The economic interests at issue concerned the provision of energy (oil and gas) for world industry, its free circulation via pipelines or commercial routes, and the control of their exploitation by consortia dominated by the US. The assertion of those economic interests would tolerate no destabilization, no fetter, no challenge.

On each occasion, the response was violent; no question of reaching an agreement or international mediation. American capital asserted itself by deploying a military force completely disproportionate to the “challenge,” implacable, and particularly lethal. It is no longer more useful to place friendly “leaders” in those zones. Puppet governments accompanied by an American military presence or the threat of same, suffice. There is also no point in stabilizing those entities by seeking “credible” local majorities: the heavy hand imposed by the past war, and the threat of the one to come, provides a precarious calm, though one sufficient for the pursuit of the American-led economic development projects.

If military budgets had been somewhat reduced, the Gulf War marked a new wave of spending on armaments. Indeed, wars are the occasion to test and produce new weapons systems, and equip the troops who will use them. The end justifies the means: no financial limit is now imposed on military deployment.

Finally, the US brooks no limit on the assertion of its own imperialist interests, with which it simply identifies the interests of world capital as a system. It therefore scoffs at the assertion of the interests of its own supposed partners, taking for granted the consent of the UN when it decides to intervene in a region. The elements of this new face of imperialism are thus assembled in these various conflicts: violence and destruction; the defense of the economic interests of the dominant capitalism; the disregarding of any limits and the crushing of any expression of competing economic interests; the more and more frequent recourse to arms.

5) Faced with this situation, how are we to understand the apparent indifference of the proletariat? We have already pointed out that at the time of the unleashing of these recent conflicts, the working class did not openly assert itself as a class in opposition to the outbreak of war. The lack of a direct impact of these wars on the populations and the proletariat of the most industrialized countries has surely been an important element in that relative apathy. By contrast, however, we see in the countries that are the locus of the conflicts themselves movements of desertion or opposition, that make it reasonable to conclude that the working class of those countries is far from supporting the interests of the ruling class, even if nationalist, ethnic or religious ideology weighed heavily upon it in a series of such conflicts (in Yugoslavia, for example). We have also pointed to the fact that many of those conflicts have been presented by the bourgeoisie as almost humanitarian interventions in defense of oppressed minorities, defense of freedom, or the struggle against terrorism – this latter following the emotional impact of September 11th.

However, it is clear that the proletariat remains a brake on the outbreak of war. Even if the most recent conflicts have been fought by professional armies, and not by conscripts (one sees what that means in Israel!), a military engagement always has an economic impact, above all if it is prolonged. The fact that a third world war has not occurred is probably linked, as one factor at least, to the absence of the adherence of the proletariat to the bellicose discourse of the ruling class.

But, even if the ruling class must remain on guard concerning the social reaction that a military engagement on a grand scale might provoke, this kind of “passive resistance” on the part of the working class is not enough. All of which means that we are in a complex temporal perspective in which the economic contradictions and the impact that they will not fail to have on conditions of life and labor, as well as the more and more somber perspective offered by capitalist society, could provoke significant social reactions.


It is clear that the tendency to the globalization of the economy, the tendency towards consensus between bourgeois factions or nations, and the existence of supra-national tools for economic and political administration, have not brought about the elimination of imperialism. On the contrary, the violence and destructiveness that are an integral part of the functioning of decadent capitalism have only increased imperialist rivalries.

Today, imperialism manifests itself more in the form of quasi-permanent local conflicts and the control of capital movements or flows, than in the conquest of territory (even if these different tendencies are not mutually exclusive). Nonetheless, if a third world war has not yet occurred, such a perspective has not been banished from the scene.

Finally, more than ever before, the fate of humanity is in the hands of the world proletariat. The bearer of another social project, it is also a brake on war. Imperialism will never disappear as long as capitalism continues to exist. The only means of doing away with imperialism and its string of murderous orgies is to put an end to capitalism itself.


Home Issues of IP Texts Discussion IP's French site Links