Capital and Empire: An Interview with John Bellamy Foster

Q.  2007 is the 140th anniversary of the publication of Volume One of Marx’s Capital.  In your opinion, what is its main contribution to understanding contemporary capitalism?

Marx’s object in Capital was to explain capital as a social relation in the fullest dialectical sense and in the process to describe its law(s) of motion.  I think he was in large part successful at this.  He himself said that the “best parts” of his work were the distinction between use value and exchange value, between labor and labor power, and the analysis of surplus value independent of its particular forms as profit, interest, and rent.  These contributions served to separate his analysis from earlier classical political economists.  However, it was the concept of the rate of surplus value (rate of exploitation) that I think was Marx’s crowning achievement.  Next to this I would emphasize his notions of the incessant revolutionization of production (requiring a more and more detailed division of labor), the reserve army of labor (or relative surplus population), and the concentration and centralization of capital.  Marx’s contributions to the understanding of contemporary capitalism are best appreciated I believe by starting at the back of volume 1 of Capital where he presents the results and preconceptions of his analysis — i.e., the absolute general law of accumulation (including the reserve army and concentration, the polarization of income and wealth, and concentration and centralization of capital) and primitive accumulation.  Nowadays I would also emphasize Marx’s concept of metabolic rift, first introduced in the final section of his chapter on Machinery and Modern Industry, since this was the basis of Marx’s ecological critique.

Q.  In the Preface to the first German edition of Capital (1867), Marx says: “The country that is more developed industrially only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future.”  Can we infer from it that Marx thought the capitalist world-system would become more or less uniform and homogenous, without the major polarization between core and periphery that exists today?  Was Marx thinking that what happened in the transition to capitalism in England would happen all over the world, following the exact same steps of economic development?

It is worth remembering the context of this statement in Marx’s preface.  He was telling his German readers that although the analysis was based directly on Britain, the most advanced capitalist country, it applied to Germany as well.  Here he quoted from the Roman poet Horace’s Satires (Book I, Satire 1), where Horace, in his critique of the pursuit of riches, says to those who think this critique does not apply to them: “Change the name, and the tale is told of you.”  Germany, Marx insisted, would follow the same basic developmental course as Britain, reflecting an “iron necessity” of capitalist development.

This passage has frequently been quoted to indicate that Marx thought of capitalism as following one linear set of stages, through which all nations would inevitably pass.  Marx, however, did not himself adhere to such a rigid interpretation and pointed in his later writings to uneven and distorted development and alternative paths.  The best known of these alternative paths was the Asian mode of production, which, whatever its demerits as a conception, pointed to Marx’s departure from any simple linear pattern.  From the late 1860s on, he increasingly took into account relations of dependency in the cases of Ireland and India, in particular, learning from resistance movements in those countries.  At the end of his life he argued that the next revolution would first take place in Russia, which was still a semi-peripheral power.

Still, the notion “the tale is told of you” clearly dominated most Marxist thinking until the 1950s.  By that time it was clear (since the underdeveloped world’s share of total industrial output had declined steadily from more than 60 percent in 1830 to something like 7 percent in 1950) that the notion that all countries would develop along the line of the original capitalist powers was false.  Fifty years ago in 1957, Paul Baran wrote The Political Economy of Growth which introduced a new Marxist approach to imperialism and development, inspiring the radical dependency and world system traditions.  Baran observed that while Marx’s notion that the less developed countries would follow the path of the more developed countries had been right for Western Europe and the European settler colonies in North America and Australia, the manner of the imperialist penetration of Latin America, Asia, and Africa had created a different reality: an imperialist system in which the peoples and territories of the periphery were in a seemingly perpetual condition of dependency.  Indeed, these conditions could be expected to persist , Baran argued, apart from some break with the imperialist status quo, either on the lines of the Japanese state-led, authoritarian Meiji restoration/revolution (an option now closed to most of the periphery), or socialist revolution (of varying types).

Q.  What main theoretical contributions did Marx make to the development of theory of imperialism (by Lenin, Luxemburg, Bukharin, etc.)?

Marx’s analysis of concentration and centralization of production led to the concept of the monopoly stage of capitalism, which was fundamental to Hilferding, Bukharin, Lenin, Baran, Sweezy, and many other thinkers.  Lenin defined imperialism in its briefest possible definition as the monopoly stage of capitalism, giving a historical specificity to what might be called the classic imperialism of his era.  Marx’s scattered writings on colonialism/imperialism, including the growth of the world system in the context of the genesis of industrial capital, exercised an influence on both Lenin and Luxemburg.  Later Marxist theorists (for example, Kenzo Mohri [Monthly Review, April 1979], Suniti Kumar Ghosh [Monthly Review, January 1984], and Teodor Shanin [Late Marx and the Russian Road] were to point to many of the crucial components of dependency and world-system analysis foreshadowed in Marx’s later writings.

Q.  Nowadays, everywhere we see a wave of privatizations, destruction of public services, attacks on workers’ social, economic, and political rights.  How is neoliberalism linked to imperialism?  What is the significance of combining both concepts?

Marxist political economists increasingly see neoliberalism as the ideological counterpart of “The Financialization of Capitalism” (see my article on this subject forthcoming in the April 2007issue of Monthly Review, as well as my earlier article on “Monopoly-Finance Capital” in the December 2006 Monthly Review).  The dominant realities of the capitalist world system (both in the center and for all but a few economies worldwide) over the last three decades or more have been: (1) the slowdown of the rate of growth (or the reemergence of economic stagnation), (2) increased monopolization with the continuing rise of multinational or global corporations, and (3) the financialization of capitalism.  These three phenomena are in fact interrelated.  Monopolization contributed to stagnation and financialization arose from stagnation (as capital sought to find ways to park its excess money capital, which could not find sufficient profitable investment opportunities in the productive economy).  This has generated a new phase of monopoly capitalism which I have referred to as monopoly-finance capital or global monopoly-finance capital.  It gave rise to neoliberal ideology, which reflects the leading role of finance in this period, and also the distinctive aspects of the latest phase of globalization, which are closely related to the spread of world finance.  This period is also a period of declining U.S. hegemony.  Declining hegemons always resort increasingly to military and financial power to try turn things around and to strengthen their diminishing productive power.  This is certainly evident in the current phase of imperialism where the object is openly said to be the creation of a “New American Century.”  But the underlying reality is one of stagnation and financialization in the capitalist core.  This is not a product merely of cycles of global hegemony but of the logic of monopoly capitalism itself.

Q.  We are confronted by a world of wars promoted by US imperialism, in Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. You, as well as Paul Sweezy, Harry Magdoff, Samir Amin, and other authors, have written in Monthly Review against the arguments of some leftists that reduce those imperialist wars to the will of just the present American Administration without connecting George W Bush and his Administration to the imperialist system, against the idea that the war in Iraq was just the result of one man’s madness.  Could you explain how, in fact, it is imperialism — as a social, political, and economical system — that is the real cause of the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan?

No informed observer, whether left or right, doubts that we are seeing a resurgence of “Naked Imperialism” (see my book by that title).  Some, however, see it merely as a policy and an aberration, attributable to neoconservatives and militarists.  Often there is the suggestion that a junta or a cabal has taken over the U.S. administration.  The most famous advocate of this view, which is very popular among liberals, is Gore Vidal.  But Michael Mann and many others have argued the same thing.  It has emerged as the dominant view among liberal critics of the war.  Such an interpretation, however, presumes a very sharp detour in U.S. policy and a split in the ruling class.  Neither is the case.  A more adequate explanation points to five central facts of our time: (1) economic stagnation, (2) financial globalization, (3) declining U.S. hegemony, (4) the disappearance of the Soviet Union, and (5) a renewed race for resources.  This has created a strong imperative for a resurgent imperialism and a thrust by the United States to create a true global hegemony, putting itself in the place of a supranational state.  This impulse is supported across the board by the U.S. ruling class (including the dominant elements in both parties) and has transnational support among its allies (most notably Britain).  It is bound to fail but in the process is unleashing unprecedented destructive potentials worldwide.  In one Monthly Review article that I coauthored with Brett Clark, based on a talk presented in Portugal, we called this “The Empire of Barbarism.”

Q.  Within the actual context of the United States, how do American intellectuals resist and fight imperialism?  At the same time, can you give us a picture of the American labor movement, especially what roles it is playing in the peace movement against the Iraq War?

American intellectuals mostly support U.S. imperialism.  Liberal intellectuals, however, oppose certain imperialist adventures at certain stages and are more favorable toward economic than open military imperialism, often dissenting up to a point when it comes to the latter.  So there are contradictions.  A genuine left response that questions the system itself exists in pockets but has no real political presence at the moment, other than its capacity to raise more critical issues.  Still, there is the potential in this context for the rise of a new radical left in considerable numbers.  Opposition to imperialism is of course the number one responsibility of radicals in the United States at the center of the imperialist system.  Even in small numbers such opposition makes a difference in the belly of the beast.

The U.S. labor movement is in decline at present, but it is full of contradictions, and there have been new leftist possibilities developing in the womb of labor, promising new radical phases.  So far labor has not had a strong influence in the movement against the war in Iraq.  A majority of the population is now opposed to the war — and even more amongst those associated with the Democratic Party and presumably with labor.  But much of the opposition is not so much opposition to imperialism as to what is perceived as a failed war effort.  Needless to say, the hope in this area as in so many others is for the rise of a radical labor movement perhaps allied with the global justice (anti-globalization) movement able to challenge capitalism itself.  But there are few real signs of this on the horizon in the U.S as yet.  Hence, the current phase of U.S. imperialism is likely to continue until the contradictions sharpen even further and new forces of opposition emerge.  It is not too much to say that such an outcome is inevitable.

João Aguiar is a sociology student at the Faculty of Humanities of Oporto University (FLUP) in Portugal.  The Portuguese version of this interview will appear in O Diário:

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