More on “Imperialism Today”

Against the Current, No. 63, July/August 1996

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and the author of, among other books, In Other Worlds (1987), The Post-Colonial Critic (1990), and The Spivak Reader (1996).

1. What is the significance of the rise to world dominance of transnational financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank?

THE FIRST PHASE of the unfolding of monopoly industrial capital required development-model territorial imperialisms.

As Lenin pointed out, the development of cartels at the end of the nineteenth century pushed the unfolding of capital into a stage where, structurally, greater emphasis fell on the turnover accumulation of finance capital, with the slow development toward a sufficiency of world trade as its interruption; since unlimited financialization is an impossible horizon.

In response to this abstract and rarefied logic, the development-model cathexis of space as empire, seemingly more appropriate for “rationalized” world trade, began to erode. “National” liberation movements began to “succeed.” End of first phase.

This account leaves out a great deal — the fate of settler colonies (Australia, the Americas, South Africa, Palestine), the vicissitudes of the Soviet Union, not to mention the heterogeneity of imperial formations; but it accounts for “world dominance.” All the exclusions can be factored into it.

In these broad strokes, then, it may be suggested that the rationalization of world trade meant a movement from multinational merchant companies to regulatory centralization in empire states. The emergence of the relative dominance of finance capital, also coded as “end of empire,” required concentration of regulatory power into multinational cartels of the imperial states rather than single-state imperial authority entering into alliances. hence the Bretton Woods organizations.

Each such new phase is constituted by the ghost of its own transgression: the possibility of persistently redirecting accumulation into social redistribution channels; hence GATT, in 1948; and, on a less global yet more inclusive scale, the “Third World initiative, and the non-aligned movement in general.

The story of the maneuverings of GATT and the immediate consolidation of the World Trade Organization (WTO) after the Uruguay round is well known; the rise and fall of the Third World is well documented; non-alignment is no longer possible in the post-Soviet conjuncture. End of second phase, on the way to the internationalization of capital as financialization of the globe.

It is not to be forgotten, as Chakravarthy Raghavan points out, with the greatest sympathy, that a significant part of the consolidation of the GATT in the interest of the Group of 7, even before 1989, was due to individual members of the Group of entering into bilateral agreements with the former group, inside of acting in a “common interest,” whatever that might have been.

This new phase — the possibility of the financialization of the globe — is arrived at by the demise of the centralized state socialism(s) of the USSR. this one is coded as “the end of the Cold War.”

Finance capital now turns over twenty-five times the volume of World Trade in a day. The barriers between international capital and fragile national economies are being removed. All the economic constraints are orthodox. The possibility of social redistribution is being taken away from the (of course often recalcitrant and corrupt) nation state; and therefore the possibility of seeking constitutional redress.

“Economic citizenship” (Sasskia Sassen) — authority and legitimacy — is passing into the hands of finance capital markets and transnational corporations. Now the old Bretton Woods organizations and the WTO act as a structure to make the capital-intensive “laws” that will regulate this global structure. The UNDP is now collaborating with the World Bank in the African theater. Since the interest of this post-state global “legal” structure is capital-servicing rather than social justice, the UNDP now justifies “aid” openly on the basis of “return” (see Beyond Aid: Questions and Answers for A Post Cold War World, UN Division of Public Affairs).

What we have to keep in mind is that this is all in the interest, finally, of “private capital.” “Under stabilization and structural adjustment programs the role that [the IMF and the World Bank] play is to unleash private flows, facilitate the restructuring of private debt, and so on” (World Bank Conference on Development Economics, 1995, 203).

2. How can the left maintain its long-held, principled opposition to imperialism without appearing irrelevant or sectarian? What specific actions or strategies do you recommend that the left pursue?

If “the left” is an idea, then, in a task of thinking alone, it can keep itself opposed to imperialism by recoding it as a “globalization,” resistance to which includes many modes or resistance — all against exploitation — which may include national liberation movements.

When national liberation movements are seen as an end in themselves, they seem inevitably to fall into a long-term failure of decolonialization involving internal exploitation, international collaboration, and ethnico/religious fascisms of various sorts, entailing fierce gender oppression and sexual violence. In the name of redressing this last, globalization can enter in, and continue gender oppression with, no extra-economic coercion.

On the other hand, new nation committed to the establishment of a state-based socialism, such as South Africa, are compromised by the post-state situation of globalization, which should become “the left”‘s inclusive frame of reference. By itself, anti-imperialism is a bourgeois struggle. Anti-exploitation is “the left”‘s task, so not too much has changed on the task of thinking front.

Three more specific recommendations can be made:

I. Euro-U.S. Socialism should acknowledge the non-Eurocentric New Social Movements as the major arena of struggle against globalization. Positively or negatively, there is still a tendency to think of them as anti-systemic. In fact, the non-Eurocentric glob-girdling movements of Ecology, Bio-Diversity, Women, and Alternative Development are in a much more direct confrontation with the global system of international capitalism than any fantasmatic notions of international socialist utopia.

When the United States of Europe or America consider the future of the U.S. left or the European left (somewhat more serious) in a restricted focus, they are engaging in a new version of “socialism in one ‘country,'” in a vanguardism that is the flip side of exploitation.

In the post-Soviet world order, where capitalism is being recoded and reterritorialized as democracy, there is now East-West, only North-South. The South has no bargaining point. The only dialogue is through Development-as-Exploitation.

Unless international socialism rewrites itself by recognizing the systemic anti-globalization role of the Social Movements of the South (forget “New”) in this new order or phase, it will remain caught within a Eurocentric nostalgia. This is reflected more urgently in the deep division between trade unions along the international division of labor by way of post-GATT “social dumping.”

Thus join, lend support. Don’t generate unnecessary new models for the rest of the world to follow. these so-called anti-systemic movements are not Luddite ad hoc initiatives toward which socialists must show approval and solidarity in a somewhat patronizing big-brotherly way. this is the new face of socialism, persistently attempting to turn capital around for social redistribution.

II. Because of the limits and openings of a particular civil society are classically tied to a single state, the transnationalization of global capital requires a post-state class-system. The use of women in its establishment is the universalization of feminism of which the United Nations is increasingly becoming the instrument.

In this reterritorialization, the collaborative non-governmental organizations are increasingly being called an “international civil society,” precisely to efface the role of the state, and to mask the functioning of “economic citizenship” mentioned in answer to the previous question. Thus elite, upwardly mobile (generally academic) women of the new diasporas join hands with similar women in the so-called developing world to celebrate a new global public or private “culture,” often in the name of the underclass, and keep in place the immiseration of grassroots Southern women.

With the increasing socialization of reproductive labor power (not only surrogacy and genetic engineering but patenting of the DNA of indigenous individuals), socialism must recognize women’s issues as essential for resistance to exploitation: homeworking as the base of post-fordism, Southern population control as the scapegoat measure to enfranchise environmental devastation and overconsumption as well as permit pharmaceutical dumping, so-called women’s micro-enterprise as credit-baiting for financialization — the list goes on.

III. The children of the bourgeois component of the New Immigrants (who came after Lyndon Johnson relaxed quotas after 1965) often fall into identity politics. They might be encouraged to rethink their countries of origin not only as repositories of cultural nostalgia but as part of the geopolitical present.

With their still-fresh sense of divided of hyphenated nationality, they can turn around the nationalist failures, excoriated by Lenin, of the Second International, as well as the nationalist failures of the Third World project. Transnational capital uses them as its international agents. Why not reverse this?

The possibility of persistently redirecting accumulation into social redistribution can be within their reach if they join the globe-girdling Social Movements in the South through the entry point of their own countries of origin. Liberal multiculturalism without global socialist awareness simply expands the U.S. base, corporate or communitarian. Or, to put it brutally, as does a Calcutta left journal:

“The oppressed in America are not going to affect the radical process in the third world in the near future because they are still a privileged lot when judged against subhuman conditions in which millions toil in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The hard truth is that most Americans share interests with the corporate lobbyists and foreign policy decision-makers. But things are changing very fast because of the changed rules of world business and America can hardly avoid a social unrest.” (Frontier, 28, 37-38,

3. Is there such a thing as “humanitarian intervention” carried out by U.S. forces? Does the toleration of intervention in Somalia, Bosnia, and Haiti by key sectors of the left indicate an astute recognition of new realities or a serious error?

The world-wide human rights network is itself a grand post-state apparatus that can be manipulated to provide support for the new economico-political imperialism. Its strength is its supposed base in the secular religion of humanism, so that to criticize it seems always meretricious, merely political rather than ethical. Many great figures, who would not otherwise enter the political arena, can be drawn into its support.

In the face of this tremendous bourgeois appeal, the left must ask why. Without faulting individuals, indeed giving them the benefit of the doubt, it can be claimed that benevolent imperialists have often had faith in their civilizing or humanizing missions.

Yet, I cannot believe it is too crude to say that, on the register of the abstract momentum of capital dictating decisions (a position not be confused with “rational choice”), it is the interest of exploitation and financialization that drives these interventions. Ron Brown dies carrying foreign direct investment to Bosnia. Arafat gets $20 million from the World Bank.

So much for the encompassing argument. The next step is to realize the extraordinary historical diversity informing and producing the complicated problems and struggles of the failures of decolonization in each separate region. Responsibility for these failures are not so easy to assign. here we are not computing with the abstract structural register of capital, but its violent and messy recoding, indeed, with reterritorialization as such.

I think the left should consider each case by seeking out nonpartisan resistant opinion, connected to movements, within the countries, in order to advance a judgment. Investigative journalism plays an important role here. I do not possess the necessary knowledge — differentiating in historical textural detail, and making connections with reference to global structural dynamics — that would allow me to answer your question responsibly.

In closing, I can only repeat my convictions against the U.S. role of the world’s policeman, correcting symptoms. the left must prefer systematic dismantlings of dominant capital that would, persistently, get at the disease, in an “unfinishable project.”

The customary U.S. move is to silence critiques of military intervention as “isolationism.” The left should know that economic counter-intervention of a global sort (see 1 and 2) is quite the opposite.

Of course all decisions are definitely impatient. Yet one must risk judging some immediate solutions, seemingly commonsensical to U.S. or NATO common sense; in the interest of “long-term changes” that will have happened, recognizable in their effect. The re-emergence, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, of the mobilizing possibilities of subnationalisms seething under earlier imperial formations (Russian, Ottoman, Hapsburg), should be a lesson to us.

Or must we continue in the mindset inherited from earlier imperialisms” that “Europe” is inherently better than “Muscovy” and therefore our impatient interventions will produce better results than theirs? To find an answer to your Question 3, the U.S. left might strive to be less U.S. and more left.

ATC 63, July-August 1996