This is part fourth and final part of a four-part interview of John Smith by Farooque Chowdhury. Click here to see all parts of the interview. Part 4 of the interview begins with the relation of imperialism to ecological degradation and concludes with tips for new comrades interesting in studying the process of imperialism —Eds
Today, it is impossible to ignore the question of imperialism in any discussion concerning people as imperialism is distorting and destroying all aspects and areas of life. Ignoring the question of imperialism is synonymous to betrayal of people’s cause. John Smith, former oil rig worker, bus driver, telecommunications engineer, longtime activist in the anti-war and Latin American solidarity movements, and author of Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century: Globalization, Super-Exploitation, and Capitalism’s Final Crisis (Monthly Review Press, January 2016), discusses the question of imperialism in the following interview taken by Farooque Chowdhury during July 2018-February 2019.
The analyses, interpretations and observations made, the narratives presented, the terms used, and the way persons, politics, ideologies and trends characterized in the interview are completely of John Smith, and, those don’t always correspond to the interviewer’s opinion, interpretation, etc.
Climate crisis and imperialism
How is climate crisis impacting imperialism?
JS: “Climate crisis” is a euphemism for the capitalist destruction of nature, and is an extremely dramatic and terrifying manifestation of capitalism’s destructive and imperialistic nature. So, imperialism is certainly impacting the climate crisis! How, and in what sense, is the climate crisis impacting upon imperialism? Capitalism/imperialism is extremely proficient at externalizing the costs of its destructiveness, making other peoples and future generations suffer the consequences of its marauding nature, as the people of Bangladesh know only too well. Yet it is not immune from “blow-back” effects, such as when overfishing and run-off from intensive farming causes blooms of jellyfish that destroyed tourism and clog the water-cooling inlets of power stations, or the droughts and heat waves causing forest fires and the collapse of farming in large tracts of Australia and the United States. The climate crisis also poses a major political challenge to imperialism—they are working very hard to prevent public opinion and the world’s scientific community from coming to the conclusion that system change is necessary if we are to avert climate change.
Benefits and resource flow
Is there any benefit from imperialism?
JS: Yes—to the imperialists. And yes—to the middle class and the elites of the subject nations, who are given a place for their snouts in the trough that is filled by the world’s workers and farmers. And yes—to the workers in the imperialist countries, whose rulers divert some of the proceeds of imperialist exploitation to bribe privileged layers and purchase social peace. But these benefits are temporary and the price that workers in the imperialist countries are paying for being led into an alliance with the enemies of humanity is already high and will grow without limit. Which imperialist country will be the first to see a fascist movement come to power—France, the UK, Italy, USA…?
Has there been any change in the direction of flow of resources and benefits in imperialist system? How do you define the claim that resources flow to neo-colonies/countries being exploited by imperialism as a result of imperialism?
JS: No. I define the claim as complete and utter nonsense. (The following is drawn from my response to claims by David Harvey that the flow of resources from imperialist to developing countries has changed direction.)
In 2015, researchers based in Brazil, India, Nigeria, Norway and the USA published Financial flows and tax havens: combining to limit the lives of billions of people, which they fairly claim to be “the most comprehensive analysis of global financial flows impacting developing countries compiled to date.” Their report calculates “net resource transfers” (NRT) between developed and developing countries, combining licit and illicit inflows and outflows—from development aid and remittances of wages to net trade receipts, debt servicing, new loans, FDI and portfolio investment and repatriated profits, along with capital flight and other forms of financial chicanery and outright theft. They found that in 2012, the most recent year for which they could obtain data, what they call “developing and emerging countries” (which of course includes China) lost $2.0 trillion in net transfers to rich countries, equivalent to 8% of emerging nations’ GDP in that year—four times larger than the average of $504 billion in NRT transferred annually from poor to rich countries during the first half of the 2000s. When informed estimates are included of under-invoicing and other forms of rip-off and criminality that leave no statistical trace, NRT from poor countries to imperialist countries in 2012 exceeded $3 trillion, around 12% of poor nations’ GDP.
More generally, they report, “both recorded and unrecorded transfers of licit and illicit funds from developing countries have tended to increase over the period 1980-2011”. As for Sub-Saharan Africa, they report, NRT from this continent to imperialist countries (or tax havens licensed by them) between 1980 to 2012 totalled $792bn, that illicit transfers from Africa to imperialist countries as a proportion of GDP are higher than from any other region, and that capital flight from SSA is growing by more than 20 percent per annum, faster than anywhere else in the world.
In what they called “an ironic twist to the development narrative” the researchers concluded that “since the early 1980s, NRT for all developing countries have been mostly large and negative, indicating sustained and significant outflows from the developing world… resulting in a chronic net drain of resources from the developing world over extended periods of time”.
Where does China fit into this broader picture? Using sophisticated methodologies and on the basis of conservative assumptions, the researchers calculate that China accounts for no less than two-thirds of the total recorded resource transfer deficit of all “emerging nations” between 1980 and 2012, $1.9 trillion in all; the explanation for this high proportion being “China’s large current account surpluses and associated capital and reserve asset outflows,” and it accounted for 21%, or $2.8 trillion, of the total of $13.4 trillion in capital flight drained from all “emerging countries” to rich nations during these three decades.
Progressives and imperialist intervention
Are progressives and grassroots groups who face autocratic/despotic/anti-democratic rulers ever justified in lending support to—or inviting—imperialist intervention? What are the most common confusions/misunderstandings about imperialism associated with these sections of the left?
JS: No. But it is easy to make glib denunciations of peoples who are in an extremely painful and difficult situation—I think, for instance, of the Kurdish people, who have no state of their own because of the crimes of British, French and American imperialism, and also because of the chauvinism and extreme brutality of the Arab and Iranian capitalist rulers; and I also think of Jewish people who are confronted by virulent anti-Semitism, which, as history and contemporary politics shows, becomes inflamed at times of systemic capitalist crisis, when gentile capitalists seek to deflect popular resentment onto scapegoats. So, I’d like to avoid making generic statements and consider each specific example individually, and state that before we as socialists, as communists, as workers, criticize other peoples we have to demonstrate in deeds as well as words, that we, not hypocritical imperialists, are their most reliable allies.
What are the problems in studying imperialism today?
JS: To study capitalism is to study imperialism, and vice versa. And the only way that can be done, unfortunately, is by starting with the total system and the entire history leading up to it. Whether we like it or not, we cannot form a theoretical concept of any part of the total system of interaction unless we have at least a working concept of this total system. This is what Karl Marx meant when he said there is no “royal road to wisdom”, there are no shortcuts. So, we should not pretend that the task is easier than it actually is—but neither should we underestimate our own capacity to make progress, to stand on the shoulders of others, to rejoice in the fact that the hard work of those who have gone before us enormously amplifies the fruits that we can reap through our own efforts. Most important of all is honesty, integrity and hard work.
What are the confusions in the study of imperialism today?
JS: The most fundamental confusion is the one discussed in my answer to the second and eighth questions above. To repeat this extremely important point, but in a different way, we could say that there are two ways to approach the question “what is imperialism?” One would be to make a list of all of the different types of imperialism that have existed in known history, list the features they have in common, and generalize a theory out of this. The other is to study the actually existing socio-economic system, i.e. capitalism, and ask “what is it about capitalism that caused it to evolve into a new form of imperialism?”
The first approach, which at first glance seems perfectly reasonable, deals exclusively with forms of appearance and can only result in a description rather than a theoretical concept. A theory can only be generated from this approach by the addition of other premises, e.g. something about human nature—or about the nature of men, since the vast majority of emperors and imperialists have been male. This is, in my opinion, a bourgeois, positivist, pseudo-scientific approach that either ends up justifying imperialism (“it’s just human nature”), or denying it, since modern, 21st-century capitalist imperialism does not include one feature that is common to all other forms of imperialism, namely territorial occupation and domination.
The second approach is the one that is recommended by dialectical materialism and followed by Marx and Marxists. Capitalism must be studied both empirically and theoretically, including what makes this social system different from others that have existed in history and that have developed their own forms of imperialism. We then discover that the transition to capitalist imperialism was necessitated by the centralization and concentration of capital (i.e. monopoly capitalism), over-accumulation, or what could be called the hypertrophy of capital (when the mass of capital expands far beyond that which can be valorized solely by surplus value extracted from workers “at home”), and, connected to this, the long-term tendency of the rate of profit to fall that results from the replacement of living labor (the sole source of value) with dead labor, i.e. machinery. Imperialism—or rather, a historically new and very distinctive form of it—is then revealed as an increasingly important way to counter the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, a tendency which distills the very essence of the contradictions of capitalist social relations.
As for the “human nature” which plays such a role in bourgeois pseudo-scientific theories of imperialism, we can say that human nature combines many qualities and potentialities—e.g. for selfishness and for solidarity, for love and for hate—which of these potentialities become realized is profoundly influenced by the socio-economic system you live in and your place within it.
Another major source of confusion results from the artificial separation of economics from politics; imperialism is then seen as a relation of domination and subordination rather than as a relation between exploiters and exploited. This is quite typical of the bourgeois approach, since apologists for capitalism have great difficulty acknowledging exploitation of any type, or that a great part of the wealth currently being accumulated by capitalists in London, Paris and New York was extracted from Africa, Asia and Latin America. Unfortunately (to say the least!), many avowed Marxists resident in imperialist countries deny this reality, I explain in my critique of David Harvey (see John Smith, “Imperialist realities vs. the myths of David Harvey,” March 22, 2018). In other words, students of imperialism should cast an extremely critical eye on everything they read on this subject, especially the opinions of people who claim to be Marxists (and I invite you, indeed I urge you, to cast an extremely critical eye on everything I say in this interview!).
What aspects of imperialism should a newer comrades look into? Where should they begin?
JS: Whichever aspects you find most interesting, whichever seem to you to be most important, whichever seem to be most puzzling and in relation to which existing answers seem insufficient. There really are a million different points of departure, but there is only one mountain peak!
We should begin with what is happening today, we should begin by opening our eyes to the world around us and formulating questions about everything we see that we don’t understand.
Thank you, John, for helping understand aspects of imperialism.
Thank you, Farooque, for asking such interesting questions. I look forward to hearing opinions of readers on the issues covered in this interview.