An interview with Egyptian economist Samir Amin: his latest book reiterates his search for alternatives to surpass capitalism, which he describes as “a historical parenthesis”; meanwhile, processes of migration are building a planet of slums.
“Memoirs of an Independent Marxist”: that is the subtitle of A Life Looking Forward (Zed Books, 2006), the latest autobiography by Egyptian economist Samir Amin, who has devoted much of his life as a scholar and activist to seeking alternatives to surpass the historical parenthesis called capitalism. In his most recent book that has been translated into Italian, La crisi. Uscire dalla crisi del capitalismo o uscire dal capitalismo in crisi? (The Crisis: Emerging from the Crisis of Capitalism or Emerging from Capitalism in Crisis? Punto Rosso, pp. 208, €13), he continues to assert the necessity to invoke a critical utopia and “to begin with Marx without ending with him” in order to understand and transform the world. Despite the obsolescence of capitalism and the failure of the neoliberal model — “apartheid on a global scale” — Samir Amin is nevertheless aware of the obstacles to the “long transition to global socialism” that he proposes. After all, as he wrote in his last book, the financial crisis “is not the product of a surge of social struggles” but of the contradictions inside the system of capital accumulation. And “the initiative remains in the hands of capital.” That is because, as he explains in his manifesto, ten years after the first World Social Forum, “movements are terribly fragmented and weak: they defend themselves from the attacks of the capitalism of financialized oligopolies but do not elaborate effective political strategies and actions. They still suffer from the naïve illusion that it is possible to change the world without taking power.” For Amin, however, only by recognizing “the inescapability of the question of the relation between power and transformation” will it become possible to build a “convergence of struggles in all their diversity” for the emancipation of individuals.
With the economic-financial crisis, we are again examining the limits of neoliberal globalization and, more generally, the limits of capitalism. Can you explain to us in what sense, as you write in The World We Wish to See, “global development of capitalism has always been polarizing” and imperialism does not represent “a phase of capitalism, but it is the permanent characteristic of its global expansion”?
At first, I adopted Lenin’s theory, according to which monopoly capitalism constituted a new phase in the history of capitalism in the late nineteenth century and capitalism became a form of imperialism only after that. Later, however, I ended up developing the idea of the originally polarizing — therefore in some way imperialist — character of capitalism from its very beginnings. I believe that accumulation on a global scale has always been, not exclusively but predominantly, accumulation by dispossession. Dispossession is not only a matter of “primitive accumulation” analyzed by Marx and referred to as the origins of capitalism, but it is a permanent feature of the history of “actually existing” historical capitalism, starting with the mercantilist epoch. During that long period of transition, the central role in globalization, organized around the conquest of the Americas and the slave trade, was clearly and unquestionably played by accumulation by dispossession. Accumulation by dispossession unfolds itself throughout the course of the nineteenth century, and it intensifies with the formation of monopolies, which promote capital export on a much larger scale, “establishing” segments of the globalized capitalist system in “overseas” colonies, semi-colonies, and the colonies of Latin America. Moreover, that polarization is immanent in the globalized development of capitalism, accompanying it from its very origins, is demonstrated by a simple fact: until about 1820, China’s per capita GDP was higher than the average per capita GDP of advanced Europe. Between 1820 and 1900, however, a ratio of 1:1 shifts to a ratio of 1:20, and from 1900 to 2000 the ratio shifts from 1:20 to 1:50.
In Beyond Senile Capitalism you wrote that, precisely because of its “Achilles heel” — its financial dimension — the capitalist system was preparing itself for “an imminent financial catastrophe.” Now what was imminent has become a reality: what do you mean when you say that the current situation is “the crisis of the imperialist capitalism of oligopolies,” organically linked to the financialization of the system?
Continuing in a direction of research inaugurated by Sweezy and Baran in their 1966 book Monopoly Capital — the first coherent formulation of qualitative transformation of capitalism that took place in the late nineteenth century with the establishment of monopolies — I identified the impact of two great waves in the process of monopolization: the first begins in the late nineteenth century and extends to 1945; and the second commences in the 1970s, so it’s not at all coterminous with the financial crisis of 2008. In this second wave the degree of monopolization reaches an unprecedented level. That leads me to believe that modern capitalism is a capitalism of generalized, globalized, and financialized oligopolies. Generalized oligopolies because they control the economy as a whole (including the political and cultural spheres), even those sectors that are not directly monopolized. And globalized, too, due to the liberal and neoliberal policies of the eighties, nineties, and noughties. Now, regarding financialization, most analysts of the financial system, even those on the “Left,” tend to separate financialization, supposedly artificial and negative, from good productive capitalism. Not so: they are two faces of the same coin. Oligopolies are themselves financialized, in the sense that it’s not that there is a financialized sector, the sector of banks, insurance companies, pension hands, on one hand and a healthy productive sector on the other hand. Rather, it is the same oligopolies that own big manufacturing corporations and, at the same time, big financial institutions. And, in turn, these oligopolies need financial expansion to ensure their dominance over the economy and society as a whole. Their “overlap,” as Baran argued, is total. And it has its roots in a system that leads itself to relative stagnation, particularly so in the period since 1970, during which there has been a drastic reduction in the rates of profit, growth, and investment in the countries of the imperialist Triad (USA, Europe, and Japan). It is this stagnation — an excess of surplus relative to the possibilities for capital expansion to broaden and increase productive investments — that feeds financial bubbles. Bubbles are not the result of derivatives or deregulation but stem from a need immanent in the contemporary capitalist system: financialization is the only means available to the capitalists of generalized and globalized oligopolies to overcome the deep-seated tendency to stagnation intrinsic to this system. Therefore, I am convinced that we have no alternative except to get out of this capitalism in crisis. Or, more modestly, to begin to head toward the exit, towards another model of development, the exact contours of which are not yet clear, and whose definition will take fifty more years, even a hundred more years.
In your recent essay “A Critique of the Stiglitz Report,” you say that negotiated globalization must pass through “delinking” to build an auto-centered but non-autarkic national economy. This economy — you write in A Life Looking Forward — “would face serious obstacles if it were not reinforced by forms of regional integration capable of enhancing its positive effects.” How can we combine strategies to delink from the global system with the construction of regional blocs?
There are no viable alternatives to auto-centered development that subordinates external relations to what is required by an internal transformation that is as progressive as possible. This is no simple autarky, but a complete reversal of the current logic: rather than acquiescing in or submitting to the dominant global trends, we need to work to adjust those trends to internal requirements. That is, in my opinion, the meaning of the independent initiatives adopted by countries of the global South. The reasons for taking such initiatives are clear in the majority of cases, perhaps except for the three new economic giants, China, India, and Brazil, each of which has a weight equivalent to that of a large region, and which, for that reason, do not appear to need to rely on sub-regional and interregional agreements. Yet, even these countries feel deficits — just think of the scarcity of the natural resources, energy above all, that they need. And this is even truer for other regions: the countries of Southeast Asia, the Arab world, sub-Saharan Africa, and Spanish-speaking Latin America. In all these cases, sub-regional agreements serve to establish, through negotiation, forms of complementarity that interlink on several levels. For example, on a technological level: today the countries of the South are able — though not in the same way — to develop technological capacities without necessarily having to submit to the protectionism of the industrial law promoted by the World Trade Organization. The same must happen with infrastructure, through the identification of the strategy of industrial complementarity, beginning with basic industries of course, but also mass consumption industries and access to natural resources.
About natural resources, you argue that, “far from being resolved, the ‘agrarian question’ lies, now more than ever, at the heart of the challenges that humanity must face in the twentieth century.” Why do you think that capitalism, “by its very nature, is incapable of resolving it,” and why do you believe that it can offer only the prospect of a planet of slums?
Accumulation by dispossession which characterizes historical capitalism, crystallized around the London-Amsterdam-Paris triangle in the early nineteenth century, applied to not only the peoples of the Americas but also the European peasants. The model is that of the enclosures in Great Britain, in which the British and Irish peasants were the first in Europe to be subjected to private appropriation of land, which was later generalized on the European continent. This historical model would have had explosive consequences had it not been accompanied by an enormous “security apparatus” and “safety valves” provided by the system of migration to the Americas. The processes of migration allowed Europe to build a new Europe elsewhere, which was as important as, if not more important than, the original continent in terms of population. But, if we consider the other continents — Asia, Africa, and Latin America — where today seventy-five percent of the world population (one half of whom are peasants) live, we realize that this system is both unacceptable and ineffective. As demonstrated by the recent birth of a planet of slums, peasants expelled from their land cannot be “absorbed” by the mechanisms of modern industrialization and they cannot en masse resort to migration. If the agrarian question were to be solved according to the capitalist model, at least four more Americas would have to be given to Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
Samir Amin is director of the Third World Forum in Dakar, Senegal. His recent books include Obsolescent Capitalism (Zed Books), The Liberal Virus (Monthly Review Press, 2004), and The World We Wish to See (Monthly Review Press, 2008). The original interview “Il marxismo di Samir Amin” was published in Il Manifesto on 3 March 2010. Translation by Yoshie Furuhashi (@yoshiefuruhashi | yoshie.furuhashi [at] gmail.com).