Imperialism and the Left

Against the Current, No. 61, March/April 1996

Catherine Samary

a) ONE MUST FIRST understand that world capitalism’s “logic of accumulation” underwent a transformation starting with the 1970s–that is to say, a reversal of the long phase of expansion. Imperialism’s attempt to respond to the crisis in the principal postwar mechanisms of capitalist regulation produced (or accelerated) several main factors:

(i) A gigantic expansion of global debt, facilitated by the freeing of credit from its former constraints. We must include all of the various private and public components and mechanisms of debt expansion:

* the debt of the Third World and, on a different scale, the various ex-COMECON countries, paved in the first phase of the crisis of the “core” during the 1970s by an influx of petro-Eurodollars;

* the American deficit of the Reagan years (a deficit accumulated by simultaneously raising the stakes of internal class struggle–austerity politics–and increasing military expenditure, the final chapter of the Cold War) and its global finance mechanisms, producing a historic rise in interest rates;

* the costs of the German unification, in which a dominant imperialism imposed anew the conditions of its financing; and overarching this worldwide restructuring of the balance of forces, the gutting of public budgets tied to the effects of austerity politics.

In this framework, the IMF and World Bank are merely the visible hand of imperialist domination, one aspect of the larger aggregation of transnational financial capital.

(ii) A new relationship between financial capital and productive capital, behind which there are several factors: the development of the Euro-market in the 1960s alongside the offensive of the Anglo-Saxon imperialisms (as a function of their specific interests) to deregulate the financial markets; deflation and a rise in interest rates favorable to the growth of financial markets; the alteration in the rate of profit and a global market contraction linked to the politics of austerity, limiting the expansion of productive investments while attractive financial investments multiplied (debt underwriting, new bond markets, and financing of the U.S. government debt). A massive redistribution of value took place in favor of the rentier sectors of capital.

(iii) A rearticulation of the mechanisms of capital reproduction on a world scale, divorced more and more from the framework of the nation-state, accentuating social divisions. The race for productivity creates tension and precariousness. Dislocations accentuate these traits. At the same time there emerged a very selective space for productive investments: the developing world itself and, very partially, the periphery (in those countries, regions and sections of the “South” and the “East” in good position relative to the market).

In brief, in confined sections of the globe opportunities existed for expansion. Yet fundamental needs were sacrificed under the criteria of finance capital (monetarist criteria of European construction, the IMF’s politics of “structural adjustment”) and more generally the logic of profit (in place of the social gains of growth, “competitive austerity” in which “efficiency” is the measure of maximum social regression).

Some consequences that follow from these points:

“Globalization” has its positive side: the perception by more and more of the planet that human needs are not being satisfied, of the unjust logic of the capitalist system, of its ecological consequences, of an interconnected global system. If globalization makes the struggle more difficult, it also opens areas of struggle indispensable for the repudiation of capitalist logic.

It permits us to render transparent the dictates of the IMF and World Bank and their effects (as in the “50 Years Is Enough” campaign around Bretton Woods and the Third World debt, which ought to be enlarged to include Europe’s political designs on the East); but also the financial markets and growth of stockholder income side by side with the expansion of poverty and unmet needs. We must also expose the World Trade Organization.

A basis must be found for anti-capitalist intervention corresponding to the dimensions of globalization, for a way to multiply labor alliances regionally and internationally, for a way to strike a blow against transnational business elites.

b & c). Imperialism evidently has not changed its nature or its fundamental logic. In every circumstance the evidence must be held up against the hypocrisy of words, the defense of state and class interests, the hegemonic ambitions, arrogance, and domineering relations of the great powers.

But we should be attentive to two “pedagogical” difficulties aggravated by current conditions as well as actual world conflicts.

(i) The collapse of the nominally socialist countries isn’t merely, unfortunately, a crisis of Stalinism. It accentuates the alteration of the balance of class forces on a world scale begun by the neo-liberal offensive of the 1980s in favor of imperialism.

The crisis is widely identified as a crisis of socialism, which reveals ideological disarray, the degeneration of anti-capitalist consciousness–in spite of the barbarism and the seriousness of the capitalist crisis itself. More generally, global perception, notably for the new generations, is profoundly stamped by this ideological crisis. The very words that we use must be re-explained.

(ii) At the same time, capitalist globalization and the mediation of conflicts posititively produces, as I mentioned earlier, the development of very large movements of opinion, sensibilities of the rights of human beings, to the questions of growing poverty, and to the conflicts of the new world disorder and its social and national polarizations.

More and more often, this is expressed in a popular insistence upon intervention to save human life or combat the politics of barbarism. People look to the UN and, worse, to NATO for a sort of “pacifying police.”

This reflects a form of solidarity in the context of a decline in anti-imperialist consciousness, when the workers’ movement isn’t capable of intervening or of mounting immediate adequate actions. It legitimizes new forms of imperialist interventions, since public opinion is volatile.

The difficulty for the left grows when struggles and conflicts with class dimensions are scrambled and imperialist interests aren’t clear cut. Evidently, the array of “humanitarian interventions” falls in this category, as well as all the various missions of the UN. Globally, the question isn’t how to be “non-sectarian” (i.e. tolerant or compromising) about imperialism but to know how to denounce it effectively.

The perception of the left as “sectarian” can result from mistakes on our part: a wooden language that substitutes for the necessity of explanation, denunciation by formula, abstract slogans; a perception of our identity if we do not make it plain in our anti-imperialist proclamations that radical engagement is on the side of the victims of all the politics of oppression and exploitation; it is incomprehensible to declare, “on principle,” against the presence of the UN when it is demanded by a Bosnian people in distress.

One can, however, declaim against, in a concrete way and taking the side of the defense of these populations, the inefficiency of these interventions, the inexplicable character of the UNPROFOR’s mandate to “maintain the peace” in Bosnia, the subordination to the politics of states, which have chosen “to continue” the conflict for the ethnic partition of these countries (the snare of plans imposed by the United States in anticipation of electoral returns), the fact that the self-defense by the population itself always brings the greatest mastery of its own future.

Otherwise, the logic of imperialist interventions isn’t the same in Iraq, Somalia or Bosnia, but in all these cases one can denounce the contempt for the populations, the cynicism and hypocrisy of the big powers.

Concrete analysis is necessary. The left will appear sectarian if it appears insensitive to human rights under the pretext that they are easily subsumed under class categories and if it contents itself with abstract, atemporal, uncontextual anti-imperialist slogans. We must:

1) show the responsibility of the dominant state’s politics behind conflicts;

2) encourage defiance against the institutions invested with the power to interfere (those that control, that make the decisions, that are the cynical state interests motivating them); and 3) criticize case by case the effects of their politics.

Finally, we must take in hand the many debates related specifically to the need for global responses to capitalist globalization and the institutions of the bourgeoisie (over and above the very hot questions of the IMF, World Bank and World Trade Organization).

We need to return to and realize the debate on NATO, in contrast to the disappearance of the Warsaw Pact. The demand for the enlargement of NATO versus the East, the conflicts between the United States and Europe, raise again the questions of “security problems”–against what enemy?

Equally necessary is analysis of the UN, of its evolution, of the tensions that criss-cross it, linked to its enlargement. It is at once the terrain of conflicts and relations of inter-imperialist forces, an instrument for the camouflage of imperialist politics (like the Gulf War), but also one place of partial resistance to hegemonic
politics and the pressures on the Third World.

It is because the UN is not totally or all the time a direct instrument of American imperialism. For example, the United States is more and more reluctant to pay its huge dues to the UN and sometimes (as in Bosnia) prefers to bypass it. The role of the UN must be looked at concretely, case by case–by criticizing particularly the functioning of its instances, the Security Council’s role, the imperialist disrespect for the purported forms for the control of its politics by the “united nations,” and so forth.

In times like the present, sometimes there isn’t any “good” agitational slogan. In such circumstances there is a more important role for critical analysis and demystification.

ATC 61, March-April 1996