The purpose of this article is to clarify what imperialism is and is not, how it is functioning worldwide as the year 2017 begins, how it impacts workers in the United States, and what we should be doing in response to it.
What Imperialism is, and what it is not
Imperialism is not just a policy option available to the governments of rich capitalist countries should they choose to use it, though such policy options play an important role in imperialism and in the anti-imperialist struggle.
Imperialism is not just a set of conspiracies against poorer countries, hatched in the capitals of the wealthy capitalist ones, though such conspiracies also play a role in shaping imperialism.
Military interventions in other countries, and the vast number of military bases all over the world,y are part of imperialism, but only a part.
Imperialism is these things but much more. To focus exclusively on specific policies and conspiracies is to run the risk of losing the larger perspective of what imperialism really is, where it is going, how it affects workers not only in poor countries but in rich countries like the United States as well, and, most importantly, what we should be doing to combat it.
Lenin’s Characterization of Imperialism
Lenin was the most influential theorist of Marxism after the deaths of Marx and Engels, and also the leader of the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917. Lenin was the Prime Minister of revolutionary Russia and then the Soviet Union from 1917 until his death in January 1924. He was instrumental in the creation of the COMINTERN, or Communist International, the coordinating body of communist parties around the world until it was dissolved on the insistence of Stalin in 1943.
Lenin wrote “Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism” in 1916, while he was in exile. The First World War was raging and the February and October Revolutions were still in the future.
Lenin’s purpose in writing the book was to locate the imperialism of his day within its historical and economic context. He saw modern imperialism as “the Highest Stage of Capitalism”. That is to say, he saw monopolistic capitalism at the beginning of the twentieth century as being the same thing as imperialism, not a separate phenomenon. The implication for Marxists and workers was that to fight monopoly capitalism you must fight imperialism, and vice versa.
According to Lenin, the characteristics of imperialism include the following:
*”Free trade” among capitalist entities is replaced by world-scale monopolies.
*Finance capital grows greatly, combines with industrial capital in an increasingly dominant position.
*There is no longer just the export of goods (e.g. British-made textiles to India) but also the export of capital from the rich capitalist countries to their colonies and to the poorer independent countries (China, Iran, etc).
*Transnational monopoly capital based in the rich capitalist countries subordinates the economies of all the poorer countries, not only the predominantly agrarian ones.
*Imperialism, as the highest stage of capitalism, does not bring about a world of peace and mutual cooperation but rather one of intensified conflict, violence and war, involving rivalries among major capitalist powers but also (we should add) the violent suppression of resistance in the poorer countries it dominates.
Imperialism Since Lenin
Much of what Lenin wrote in 1916 still holds true today, but there have also been important changes.
After the end of the First World War, the victorious Entente powers, plus the United States and Japan, continued to increase their domination over the poorer countries of the world. France in Indochina and in North, West and Central Africa, Britain in South Asia and most of the rest of Africa, Belgium in the Congo, Japan in East Asia, and the United States in the Philippines and much of Latin America, plus the Netherlands in Indonesia promoted the interests of their own monopoly corporations worldwide, creating major economic and social disruptions in every poor country, and resulting in armed rebellions in a number of them.
The October Revolution and the creation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the COMINTERN had a major impact in the dynamics of imperialism and anti-imperialist resistance. Increasingly, the world communist movement became a source not only of ideological inspiration but also of potential material support for colonial and semi colonial peoples wishing to break out of the stranglehold of imperialism.
The defeat of the Axis in the Second World War increased the prestige of the USSR and later of the socialist states of Eastern Europe and the People’s Republic of China as bulwarks of anti-imperialism. In subsequent years, a number of countries that been dominated by imperialism, including China, Korea, Cuba, Vietnam and Laos, were able to embark on a socialist path, in spite of efforts of the imperialist centers to stop them.
As a result of the bankrupting and thus weakening of the European imperialist centers and also Japan by the war, most African, Asian and Caribbean nations were able, with heroic struggle, to gain political independence in the postwar period. At the same time, the United States stepped into the shoes of the former European colonial powers as the principal state level bulwark of imperialism.
The end of colonialism by no means meant the end of imperialism. In 1965 Kwame Nkrumah, the president of newly independent Ghana, warned that while the British, French, Dutch etc. flags no longer flew over the former colonies, the corporations based in the former colonial powers continued to expand their penetration and exploitation in the poorer nations of the world. Nkrumah called this “neo-colonialism”, but it was and is simply the continuation of the development of imperialism using other political tools. Since Nkrumah wrote this, it has continued to develop and expand – vastly.
The Collapse of European and Soviet Socialism and the Rise of Neoliberal Imperialism
We do not have space here to discuss neoliberalism in all its dimensions and its application within rich capitalist countries like our own. Briefly, neoliberalism is the economic theory and practice which stresses so called “free” trade (actually domination by transnational monopoly capital), deregulation of the economy (or laissez-faire policies), privatization of public enterprises and services, and austerity. In spite of the use of the word “liberalism”, this is a project of the worldwide far right and of monopoly capital.
The neoliberal period of imperialism began while the anti-imperialist struggles were going on worldwide and achieving victories in some places. The U.S. supported military coup d’état in Chile on September 11, 1976 created an opening for U.S. and Chilean neoliberal economic theorists to test out their noxious ideas.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern European socialist states of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Albania and the German Democratic Republic, a process that began in the late 1980s and was completed by 1991, the neoliberal paradigm of imperial control became by far the dominant one. The ideology of neoliberalism was aggressively pushed by conservative, “liberal” and social democratic parties in power and out of power, and in both wealthy and poor capitalist countries. It even penetrated the thinking of some currents within the communist movement.
In a very short period, poor countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America, as well as the former European socialist countries, found themselves pushed up against the wall. No longer having an alternative source of trade and development aid, they had to rely on trade and economic relationships with the most powerful capitalist states in order to merely survive, let alone to advance to a better future for their people. Those poorer countries that tried to resist the neoliberal pressure found themselves subjected to economic sabotage, destabilization campaigns and even direct military intervention by the major capitalist powers and their local allies.
As the world developed in a more and more unipolar direction, the United States and other wealthy capitalist countries found their position vis-à-vis the poor countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America now unchallenged by the socialist bloc. They used various mechanisms to keep those poorer countries dependent and economically subordinate to transnational monopoly capital.
Structural Adjustment Programs Under Neoliberal Imperialism
Among the many mechanisms employed for this purpose were (and are) the “Structural Adjustment” programs which the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank imposed on poor countries that sought their aid in the form of loans and development aid. And of course, the IMF and World Bank were and are entities dominated by the United States and the European Union.
“Structural adjustment programs”, called “the Washington Consensus” in it their Western Hemisphere manifestation, involved, in exchange for aid, agreement to policies that basically track the outlines of the overall neoliberal program of “free” trade (meaning allowing transnational monopoly capital to penetrate all aspects of your country’s economy), deregulation, privatization and austerity, as well as monetary policy, sky high interest rates and other things.
The reason given for requiring these things in exchange for World Bank and/or IMF support is that they would supposedly encourage growth of the private sector in the poor country, which the ideology of neoliberalism posits as the requirement for real growth and development. Further, Structural Adjustment is promoted as a method of making sure that poor countries are not locked out of future financial aid, because the budgetary measures promoted are supposed to free up funds to pay off existing debts expeditiously (including by debt restructuring agreements) and thus keep the poor country’s credit-worthiness intact. Socialism having supposedly “failed”, this reasoning, which is highly ideological, became dogma, starting before the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern European socialist states, and hitting its stride after that process was completed in 1991.
The result for the poorer countries who submitted themselves to “structural adjustment” ranged from unsatisfactory to catastrophic. Far from being able to pull themselves out of poverty, countries that accepted these neoliberal rules found their social safety nets decimated and themselves inundated in unpayable debt.
But “structural adjustment” has been a bonanza for transnational capital, especially (but not only) finance capital, whose profits are assured at the expense of some of the poorest people in the planet. In Africa especially, Structural Adjustment Programs have decimated already rickety health and education systems, leading to the premature deaths of countless children and adults.
Yet these programs continue to be promoted by the United States and other wealthy capitalist states, whose ruling classes profit mightily from them. By forcing poor countries to concentrate on export of cheap raw materials, or by turning them into low wage havens for major corporations looking to outsource their production, Structural Adjustment and the neoliberal program overall close off avenues of development that might really be effective in decreasing poverty. Such policies neither create an internal market within the poor country (because they keep the mass of the consuming population too poor), nor do they create the skills sets for more balanced kinds of industrial development (because they starve the educational system of necessary resources). Export of cheap commodities without the development of a manufacturing sector means that the poor country has to pay high prices to import all kinds of finished products, also.
What’s not to like? Transnational finance capital is guaranteed high profits from its investments. Monopolistic extractive industries (oil, mining, etc) are guaranteed access to cheap raw materials with a minimum of environmental and labor regulation by the government of the poor country. U.S. agribusiness profits mightily from being able to sell taxpayer subsidized grain in Mexico, or rice in Haiti, at prices at which Mexican and Haitian farmers cannot compete and therefore are pushed off the land. All the already wealthy capitalist sectors of the rich countries get wealthier off structural adjustment policies as a central element of neoliberal imperialism.
The Debt Trap
In 2000, as he had on other occasions, then Cuban President Fidel Castro pointed out that the growth of the debt of the poorer countries was so enormous as to be literally unpayable. He called for the cancellation of the entire debt of the poorest countries in the world, its sharp reduction in many other countries, and the abolition of the IMF. Though millions around the world agreed with his assessments and the solutions he proposed, the political conditions did not exist at that time to make headway on those demands. Very few of the leaders of poorer, indebted countries at the time were willing to stand up to pressure from the IMF, the World Bank, the United States and the other rich capitalist centers and make a decisive break with neoliberalism.
True, various programs have been introduced at the international level to cut or renegotiate these debts since that time. But today, 17 years later, the unpayable debt problem has only grown greater. And the mere effort to pay it cripples the ability of poor countries to develop their infrastructure, to educate, feed and provide housing and health care for their people and even maintain a very hardscrabble level of existence for the majority.
Has adherence of poor countries to Structural Adjustment, Washington Consensus neoliberal policies managed to get out of the high levels of debt that these programs were supposed to combat? No, on the contrary in many poor countries the level of debt has simply increased. Even when in 1995 and on other occasions the International Monetary Fund agreed to major write offs of existing debt, debt soon piled up to the same or higher levels. In a number of African countries, for example, by 2012 the debt had piled up even higher than before (it is true that rich capitalist countries also pile up debt, but this is offset by the debts owed to them by the poor countries).
The utter failure of the neoliberal / structural adjustment / Washington Consensus approach to deliver anything resembling healthy “development” in the poor countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America has led to waves of financial and economic crises in many countries. But the rich capitalist countries, the lending institutions and the ruling classes of the poor countries have returned again and again to the same failed neoliberal formula.
In 1982, Mexico, in the throes of a debt repayment crisis, turned sharply away from its previous import substitution strategy of growth, re-privatized its recently nationalized banks, and began the process of getting on board the neoliberal program full blast. In 1994, shortly following the inception of the neoliberal North American Free Trade Agreement, Mexico underwent another crisis whose impact spread beyond its borders, but did not subsequently deviate from neoliberal orthodoxy. Each of these crises had specific characteristics (the one in 1994 involved a run on the Mexican peso because of selectively leaked information about a coming devaluation) but in no case did it cause the Mexican government to move to bolster the social safety net and other protective mechanisms for its most vulnerable citizens. Privatization, austerity and the opening of the economy to penetration by transnational monopoly capital moved inexorably forward.
There have been too many such crises to enumerate here. There was the “lost decade” Latin America in the 1980s, and then the “lost half-decade” in the second half of the 1990s. Both of these crises had to do with inability to repay debts to international lenders.
As the neoliberal phase of imperialism gained steam from the late 1980s on, all over the world, poor country leaders who had been promoting “socialist” measures found themselves in retreat, and knuckling under to neoliberal “structural adjustment” policies. Jamaica is just one example. In his first term in power (1972-1980), Prime Minister Michael Manley aligned his country with socialist Cuba, denounced imperialism and tried to build his economy on the basis of nationalizations and the expansion of public education, health care and other services. Jamaica was promptly subjected to destabilization and sabotage campaigns which had the effect of causing Manley’s People’s National Party to lose power for a while. Returned to power in 1989, Manley found that he had no choice but to give in to the neo-liberal demands of the United States. Manley’s second term in power saw Jamaica forced to accept most of the neoliberal package in exchange for foreign investment and aid, which plunged Jamaica deeply into the trap of bottomless debt. This gave transnational monopoly capital and its U.S. government backers unassailable leverage over all the decisions of the Jamaican government. Yet in Jamaica and other poor countries, the level of debt is such that vast proportions of the country’s national income are drained off to international finance capital, allowing little to support the needs of the Jamaican people, let alone to finance the balanced development that Jamaica and similar countries so desperately need.
This pattern has been repeated in poor country after poor country. And the adoption of neoliberal measures imposed by the IMF, the World Bank, the wealthy capitalist governments and monopoly capital itself has never pulled any country out of poverty. On the contrary, they sink deeper into debt and poverty. Underdevelopment, seen, I think correctly, by the late Guyanese scholar Walter Rodney as an active process fomented by the wealthy capitalist countries, is intensified, rather than solved, by neoliberal imperialism and the “solutions” it imposes on the poor countries.
There are other dimensions to the trap the poor countries find themselves in. They can fund their people’s basic services by selling commodities, or by inviting in foreign investment, or by a combination of both. To rely on the sale of commodities subjects poor countries to fluctuations in the price of those commodities. These can be manipulated by transnational monopoly capital and the rich states whose desire for cheap energy, mining products and other things is one of the main bases of imperialism.. This is the dilemma in which Venezuela finds itself today. Since the election of leftist Hugo Chavez as president in 1998, Venezuela had made great strides in improving the living conditions of its poorest citizens, while maintaining an independent stance toward the United States. But the sudden drop of worldwide oil prices in 2015 has severely damaged these efforts, creating great political instability due to shortages and inflation. The right wing within Venezuela has taken advantage of this situation to make a play for restored power, and the United States government has used the situation to try to destabilize Venezuela’s “Bolivarian” government by helping the opposition and declaring Venezuela to be a threat to U.S. national security.
The alternative of throwing one’s country open to large scale foreign investment in the hope that this will bring in enough capital to jump start one’s economy also has given poor results. This is the strategy that Mexico has followed, accelerated since the beginning of the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994. Many other countries have adopted this strategy. The trouble with it is that foreign corporations only invest in a poor country on the basis of its government’s acceptance of the full neoliberal package of “free” trade, privatization and austerity. If workers demand wages the foreign corporation does not wish to pay, or if the country’s government passes too many regulatory laws, including ones to protect workers’ rights and the environment, the foreign corporations decamp to even poorer countries with cheaper labor and weaker environmental regulations.
This state of affairs was the reason why South Africa, immediately after the fall of the apartheid regime and the election of Nelson Mandela as president, could not immediately embark on the planned socialist path and had to make many concessions to neoliberal imperialism. Only already-socialist Cuba was able to resist the massive pressure, but even for Cuba this was extremely difficult.
Institutions of Neoliberal Imperialism
Neoliberal imperialism is maintained through a dense network of national and international institutions which have been created by the wealthier capitalist states and benefit the largest corporations. These include not only the rich capitalist countries’ armed forces (and alliances such as NATO) and “security” services (such as the C.I.A. and Britain’s MI 6), but also multinational entities involved with economic integration.
In spite of the role of transnational corporations, the role of the state in each rich capitalist country is crucial. International trade entities, including big neoliberal trade pacts, are created and maintained by the participating states, and the more powerful the states involved, the more powerful the impact on the life of poor countries and their inhabitants.
For example, there is the World Trade Organization (WTO), founded in 1995, which sets the rules for international trade in a way that favors the biggest corporations based in the most powerful capitalist countries. In the 1990s, the United States appealed to the WTO to block the countries of the European Union, and specifically Britain, from favoring Jamaica over U.S. dominated Central American countries in the purchase of bananas. The United States won this dispute, with the result that Jamaican banana farmers were ruined, because slave labor like conditions in Central America’s banana plantations, owned by U.S. based corporations, could produce bananas more cheaply. This horror story is recounted in Stephanie Black’s gripping documentary film Life and Debt
Also covered in Life and Debt are the roles of the “Bretton Woods” organizations: the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. These entities, created after the Second World War for the purpose of stabilizing the world’s currencies, have become the source of last resort for poor countries looking for credits and development aid. But such aid is only given if the poor country accepts all or most of the neoliberal package of “free” (meaning monopoly-dominated) trade, austerity and privatization. To accept these conditions shreds the poor country’s social safety net, and grows the unpayable national debt.
Recently, an aspect of international trade treaties like NAFTA has been in the spotlight worldwide, namely the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) tribunals. These are corporate controlled tribunals, established in the context of neoliberal “free” trade treaties, which rule on accusations that governments in treaty nations have enacted laws or policies that infringe on future profits of foreign corporations. The tribunals are not accountable to any laws or courts in the countries affected, and certainly not to the voters. These tribunals serve another mechanism of corporate domination especially over poorer countries, which are in a worse position to pay up if the tribunals rule against them than are the wealthier countries. Since NAFTA came into force on January 1, 1994, numerous cases have been brought against all three countries. Mexico has had to pay out $204 million in such judgements under NAFTA. Canada has had to pay out $160 million and the United States – not a single penny. These may appear to be comparatively trivial amounts, but the real damage is done by inhibiting countries from enacting progressive environmental, public health, labor and other standards lest they fall afoul of some tribunal’s judgement against them. The United States and Canada are wealthy countries and Mexico is a very large one, but smaller and poorer countries can be very seriously affected by these undemocratic infringements on their national sovereignty. In Central America, there are indications that some governments, especially Guatemala, are violently repressing indigenous and environmental activists who are protesting against rapacious Canadian and U.S. mining activities out of fear that concessions to the protestors will cause the governments to be fined under the Investor State Dispute Settlement mechanisms of the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA). This dimension of neoliberal imperialism is characterized by savage violence reminiscent of the Opium Wars of the 19th Century.
Of course there is U.S. and Western European “foreign aid”. But there is little of this, and much of it is channeled through entities in the poor country that promote the whole neoliberal approach. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the National Endowment for Democracy, the National Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute are credibly accused of this kind of bias. It is clear that poor countries cannot pull themselves out of poverty by means of this kind of “foreign aid”.
The U.S. dollar plays an important role as the main reserve currency of the world. This gives the United States a lot of leverage in keeping the poorer countries in line. The hegemony of the dollar has been challenged but it still dominates.
The bond rating agencies– Standard and Poor’s, Fitch and Moody’s– are not government entities but purely private ones, accountable to nobody but the big financial corporations themselves. Yet they act as gatekeepers for poor countries seeking private credit on the world bond market. To stay on the good side of these entities is very important for poor countries; if they lower the rating of your bonds your country can be in deep financial trouble. Private equity funds, sometimes called “vulture funds”, specialize in finding distressed private or public entities, including entire countries, buying up their debt at bargain basement prices, and then trying to collect the original amount from the countries at the original price, and at a huge profit for themselves. One such company, Elliot Management, has had a drastic effect on the finances of Argentina, the Congo Republic and Peru. In the Congo Republic, money that was to go for health care had to be diverted to satisfy Elliot’s demands.
The big corporations of finance, industry and retail sales can and do act on their own to enforce the neoliberal rules on the poorer countries, because the sheer scale of their operations sometimes dwarfs the size of the economies of fairly large countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America. WalMart’s revenue in 2010, for example, exceeded the gross domestic product of most countries around the world, including major ones like South Africa or Vietnam.
Many see the only way out of all this is for the poor countries to move rapidly toward socialism, but that would have to happen in a very unfavorable international and national context. So the dilemma is likely to continue for a while.
Meanwhile, the world becomes more and more unequal as larger and larger fortunes accumulate in fewer and fewer hands due to the wonders of twenty first century neoliberal imperialism. Oxfam recently reported that just 8 individuals of the 7 ½ billion on earth have more wealth than the poorest 50% of the world’s population.
Instability and Crisis
This seemingly all powerful world-scale structure of economic and political power is not, however, stable. Neoliberal imperialism, as a world system of integrated economic and political power, is subject to a series of increasingly serious crises.
There is the profitability crisis. In order to keep profits up, corporations have to continue to find new sources of income. Many Marxist economists relate this issue to an old problem, the declining rate of profit. Corporations try to do this via new technology, and via outsourcing of production to poor countries where they can find cheaper and cheaper labor and sources of raw materials, with fewer regulatory obstacles to profit making. But how long can they keep this up?
There is a crisis of excess financialization. Back in 1916, Lenin pointed out the rapidly increasing degree to which finance capital was becoming dominant over industrial capital. In our own time, this process has metastasized with a galloping increase of financialization of the world’s economic life, with currently as much as 40% of all capital being in financialized form. The increase in global debt and the growing mobility of capital promote instability and accelerate the spread of crises, as shown by the financial crisis of 2007-2008 which spread rapidly from the United States to Europe and beyond. Capital that is diverted into financial speculation and accumulated wealth does not contribute to increased production, just to the wealth of already wealthy corporations and individuals. Extreme financialization contributes to the already sky high level of inequality without proportionately increasing production, and thus is a factor in recurring crises like the mortgage crisis of 2007-2008.
There is a food self-sufficiency crisis, as, in one poor country after another sees its ability to feed its people dwindle, in part because the actions of transnational corporations take food producing farmland out of circulation either by reorienting agriculture to export crops or by diverting both land and water supplies to ecologically destructive mining operations.
There is a potential world scale public health crisis. As we saw with the 2015 Ebola Virus epidemic in West Africa, poor countries that lack the infrastructure and public health services to protect their own populations can serve as incubators of epidemics that could threaten people far beyond their borders.
There is a worldwide migration crisis, with more people today displaced as economic or political refugees than at any time since the Second World War. In many rich capitalist countries, this migration crisis is being used by demagogues of the far right to build up their political power. Trump is only one example of this kind of opportunistic anti-migrant demagogy.
And, finally, there is the climate change and global warming crisis, the biggest of them all, which is threatening an existential crisis to entire countries and, if not checked, will create economic devastation worldwide. The capitalist mode of production itself requires constant development, not to meet human needs, but to meet the needs of capitalist corporations for more and more profits. There is no end to this within capitalism; it is the nature of the beast.
All of these things are either products of the current model of neoliberal capitalist production and distribution, or at least exacerbated by it. They are the source of its instability as a world system, but it will not be replaced by something better without action at the base.
Resistance to neoliberal imperialism is often thought of as a matter for workers and poor people in the poor countries of the world, but it should and can be a task for us all, even in the wealthy United States, because it affects us all. We must finish with neoliberal imperialism (which is capitalism of the 21st century) or it will finish with us.
Resistance to Neoliberal Imperialism
There have been many working class and grassroots protests against the ravages of neoliberal imperialism and structural adjustment programs specifically, some of them successful. For example, the Water War centered in Cochabamba, Bolivia, not only reversed a government plan to privatize the water supply and drastically drive up the price of water to the poor, but also led eventually to a total political shakeup and the coming to power of a left wing, indigenous president, Evo Morales, in January of 2006. Protests against such policies also led to other advances of the “Bolivarian pink tide” electoral movement to the left in Latin American politics, starting with the election of Hugo Chavez as president of Venezuela in 1998. To a greater or lesser extent, the “Bolivarian” and left-center governments of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Uruguay, Venezuela and some smaller states repudiated Structural Adjustment and tried to break away from the controls of neoliberal imperialism overall. They have had mixed success, and the “Bolivarian” project is currently in crisis, essentially because of the difficulty of breaking free from the neoliberal vortex.
To tamp down such protests, the wealthy countries have resorted to destabilization methods and have also propped up authoritarian right wing governments, like the current ones in Honduras and Guatemala, which are willing to guarantee transnational monopoly capital the conditions for profit making. Yet resistance never ceases either, in spite of many setbacks and defeats.
Imperialism and Workers in the United States
After Lenin’s “Imperialism, the Highest State of Capitalism” was written a hundred years ago, there was considerable discussion in the world communist movement about how workers in the wealthy capitalist countries benefited – or not – from the super-exploitation of the workers in the colonies and semi-colonies. This debate has now been superseded by events. It is quite clear that neoliberal, 21st Century imperialism harms workers in wealthy capitalist countries like the United States.
It does so in a number of ways.
Most obviously, making workers in poor countries like Haiti or Bangladesh even poorer intensifies the tendency of capitalist corporations to move production away from the rich capitalist countries to those poor countries. This undercuts the position of workers in the rich countries while imposing heavier and heavier burdens on the workers in the poor countries. Even if factories do not close in the United States, Japan or Britain, the mere threat of moving production to low wage countries exerts a downward pressure on the wages in the former.
A second way in which workers in countries like the United States are harmed by the super-exploitation of workers in the poor countries is by greatly increasing the concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands –fewer and bigger monopolistic corporations richer and richer individuals. This increases the power, including the political power, of those corporations and individuals in our own country, with deleterious effects on all aspects of our society, including especially our electoral politics and labor relations. In recent years, U.S. elections have increasingly become matches between candidates who can line up the most corporate and billionaire campaign donors.
Now with the new Trump administration, we see the White House and the Cabinet being taken over by tycoons in the oil industry (Exxon), in finance capital (Goldman Sachs), and in other corporate giants. These capitalist entities operate on a world scale and their wealth and power comes not only from the exploitation of workers in the United States, but from the super-exploitation of workers all over the world, and from other profits they derive from the radical inequality among and within nations. These oligarchs have the power to buy elections, candidates and officials, rework the laws to maximize their profits, control the media and weaken and, if they could manage it, destroy our labor unions.
A third way in which workers in the United States and other rich capitalist countries are harmed by today’s neoliberal imperialism relates to the crises which this phase of capitalism has engendered. The financial, environmental, food security, public health and other crises are a threat to ordinary people in rich countries as well as poor. The strengthening of tendencies toward military intervention goes hand in hand with the increasing scale and power of the armaments industry, with its close links to the top military brass—another threat to democracy and world peace.
For these reasons, it is essential that workers in the rich countries, in the United States also, find common cause with workers (and poor farmers) in the poor countries. We have the same enemy –21st Century neoliberal imperialism, which is the same as 21st century capitalism—and face the same dangers.
One of the things that came out of Lenin’s 1916 book was an emphasis in the world communist movement on connecting proletarian internationalism with a struggle against imperialism in all its forms. Today we prefer to say “working class internationalism” here in the United States, but remember that the last words in the Communist Manifesto of Marx and Engels are “Workers of all nations, unite!” Today, we must add “against neoliberal imperialism’.
How to do this?
Because we live, work, vote and pay taxes here, and because the United States is by far the biggest state entity involved in modern imperialism,we have a responsibility to convince fellow U.S. workers that it is our own interests to join hands with other workers around the world to face the common enemy. Our own ruling class does everything in its power to convince U.S. workers otherwise, to tell us that workers in poorer countries are their “competitors” rather than potential allies. During the period in which the left was repressed, back in the days of Senator Joe McCarthy and the House Committee on Un-American Activities, organized labor’s efforts to counter this nationalistic zero-sum propaganda were greatly weakened. However, since that time U.S. organized labor has become more open to a different approach that makes new initiatives in international labor, working class and all people’s solidarity possible. Every effort should be made to develop that solidarity, including especially bringing workers from the United States into direct face to face contact with struggling workers in every part of the world. In delegations, visits, conferences and other contacts between workers of many nations, mutual understanding can be developed and mutual strategies for confronting neoliberal imperialism can be developed and implemented.
Do Workers Have Leverage over Neoliberal Policies?
Neoliberal imperialism is modern monopoly capital seen at the level of the entire globalized world. It is not a mere matter of decisions by this or that government in power. In our own country, it is a system supported by the most powerful sectors of both the Republican and the Democratic parties.
But this does not mean that we have no leverage over key policy decisions that affect the ability of workers in our country and worldwide to defend their interests and rights.
Among electoral politicians in this country, there are nuances of opinion, and they are also subject to pressure and influence. For example, not every electoral politician, or elected official, is equally keen on military interventions in other countries. So when George W. Bush started the Iraq War, there was increasing opposition to this policy not only in the country, but in Congress as well. There has also been opposition, mostly within some sections of the Democratic Party, to U.S. support for right wing governments that acquiesce to neoliberal trade regimes imposed on poorer countries. For example, there is a strong current in the House of Representatives that wants to cut off U.S. military and security aid to Honduras (in Central America) because the corrupt right wing regime in that country has been murdering human rights and environmental activists. The murders have been happening to prop up the people in power in Honduras, but also to guarantee profits for transnational mining corporations which are engaged in aggressive and invasive profit-seeking activities in that country.
Not every Democratic Party politician is strongly tied to all aspects of the neoliberal program, especially as it applies to the internal affairs of this country. Some strongly oppose privatization and austerity, for example, while others are almost as gung-ho as their Republican colleagues on these matters. In the recent elections (November 2016), one of the Democratic Party candidates for nomination, Bernie Sanders, came out very much against a domestic neoliberal approach, and even Hillary Clinton, like Sanders, eventually stated opposition to the neoliberal Transpacific Partnership. The party program of the Democratic Party for 2016 also diverged very much from the neoliberal approach to domestic affairs, reflecting the upsurge of popular support for Sanders and his non-neoliberal proposals such as free university and college tuition for all.
It is easier for electoral politicians to diverge from neoliberal policies on domestic issues than on international ones, because to a large extent mass public opinion, especially of the working class, is opposed to things like privatization and austerity. So candidates for election and re-election are often in a position to be rewarded for anti-neoliberal and punished for pro-neoliberal attitudes on such matters.
It is harder by far to pressure our politicians to diverge from the neoliberal program at the international level, because most voters do not have a clear understanding of how such global patterns affect their lives and those of their families. This is why it has been possible for the fascist-trending ultra-right to demagogically use issues like international trade and migration to garner votes on the basis of fears of foreign threats – Mr. Trump being exhibit A in this country.
Into a Trump-Filled Future
Our new president, Donald Trump, contradicts himself daily on every issue, including foreign policy. But a glance at the people he has put into his cabinet can show us the real forces that will drive U.S. foreign policy in the coming period.
It is a cabinet of big oil, finance capital and the military, with a dash of fascism to spice things up. The Secretary of State nominee, Rex Tillerson, is an Exxon-Mobil executive. The Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin, comes from finance capital, specifically Goldman Sachs. The Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur Ross, is involved with extractive industries and has a finance capital background too. The Secretary of Defense, James “Mad Dog” Mattis, is a General, as is John Kelly (Secretary of Homeland Security). Nobody should be under the illusion that Trump’s regime will promote a “kinder, gentler” form of imperialism. These are individuals who have been involved at the highest level in running the most important economic and military dimensions dimensions of the imperialist system, worldwide.
They are neoliberal imperialism incarnate.
Never mind the campaign pitch to populism and the anti-elitist feelings of various sectors of the U.S. working class and masses. That was to get votes. And the anti-foreign rhetoric, against immigrants but also the ludicrous claim by Trump that every other country in the world takes advantage of the United States, is a “divide and conquer” tactic designed to prevent understanding and solidarity between workers in the United States and those in the rest of the world.
While Trump says nice things about Russia’s Putin, he is raising tensions with China to a dangerous point. He also is playing with fire in the statements he has made about the Israel-Palestine situation. He has threatened to reverse progress made under the Obama administration in normalizing relations with Cuba, in supporting the six power agreement on Iran, and on the Paris global warming treaty. Hillary Clinton was far from being an “anti-imperialist”, but the victory of Trump and the Republicans in the election was a shot in the arm for the economic forces that are central to the imperialist order. The neoliberal imperialist system is strengthened, not weakened by the Trump/Republican victory.
In addition to all the other struggles we have before us, it is essential that we increase our international working-class solidarity work in the era of Trump.
The author would like to thank Art Perlo and Carl Wood for their indispensable help in developing the ideas in this article.