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Interpreting contemporary imperialism: lessons from Samir Amin

Samir Amin’s life and work left behind many important legacies, which can continue to enrich us if only we recognise them adequately. He brought an indefatigable ‘optimism of the will’ to complex processes of political, social and economic change, involving an energy that was not deterred at all by the ‘pessimism of the intellect’ that his razor-sharp mind could generate. Unlike many ivory tower intellectuals, he was obsessed with the need for mobilisation for progressive change, and always willing to contribute toward it in whatever ways he could. He did this most of all by bringing the tremendous power of his analysis to understanding the issues and problems of global capitalism, uneven development and imperialism, and how these affected material realities and social life in what is known as the developing world. Perhaps most importantly, he was always aware of the need to recognise shifts in global and local tendencies and analyse them appropriately. In this tribute, I briefly consider some of the essential features of Amin’s analysis of imperialism, to consider how they provide us with tools to understand the phenomenon today.

Samir Amin saw capitalism–not just currently but since its inception–as fundamentally a global system, determined in its nature and functioning by the unequal relationship between centre and periphery. He saw this as characterised by the five monopolies which reproduce global capitalism. These are: the monopoly of technology generated by the military expenditures of the imperialist centres; the monopoly of access to natural resources; the monopoly over finance; the monopoly over international communication and the media; and the monopoly over the means of mass destruction. These monopolies tend to be regionally concentrated in the countries of the North–the ‘advanced world’–but could also persist in a more multipolar world. So even as he greatly welcomed the emergence of new powers and the waning of U.S. global power, he recognised that multipolarity does not necessarily represent a decline in imperialist tendencies or in traditional centre–periphery relations of hierarchy and domination.

He was capable of a very high level of abstraction, and therefore of what could be seen as sweeping characterisations of global political economy. For example, he identified six global classes of significance: (1) the imperialist bourgeoisie at the centre or core, to which accrues most of the global economic surplus value; (2) the proletariat at the centre, which earlier benefited from being a labour aristocracy that could enjoy real wage increases broadly in line with labour productivity, but which was now more threatened and experiencing falling wage shares and more insecure employment conditions; (3) the dependent bourgeoisie of the periphery, which exists in what he saw as an essentially comprador relationship with multinational capital based in the core; (4) the proletariat of the periphery, which is subject to super-exploitation, and for whom there is a huge disconnect between wages and actual productivity because of unequal exchange; (5) the peasantries of the periphery, who also suffer similarly, and are oppressed in dual manner by pre-capitalist and capitalist forms of production; and (6) the oppressive classes of the non-capitalist modes (such as traditional oligarchs, warlords and power brokers). Even for progressives, this schematic characterisation necessarily creates an extremely complex set of struggles and alliances, even as it suggests that relations between economies in the ‘periphery’ would not always necessarily display the characteristics of working class and peasant solidarity that traditional Marxists hoped for.

So what does all this mean for interpreting contemporary imperialism? Let us use the framework that Samir Amin has provided to consider recent trends in the global economy and how we might interpret the ways in which imperialism now manifests particularly in developing countries.

The early twenty-first century could be described as a period of flux for imperialism. The phase of ‘hyper-imperialism’–with the United States as the sole capitalist superpower, free to use almost the entire world as its happy hunting ground–is over. Instead, the United States looks significantly weaker both economically and politically, and there is less willingness on the part of other countries (including former and current allies, as well as those that may eventually become rival powers) to accept its writ unconditionally. The imperial overreach that was so evident in the Gulf Wars and sundry other interventions, in the Middle East and around the world, was replaced by a more inward obsession during the Trump presidency. Even under the Biden administration, this is likely to lead to a reduction of this overreach (even if the U.S. avoids ‘isolationism’) or at the very least a change in its direction.

So the contemporary global context of imperialism is a complex one, in which the contours shift constantly. Recent political changes in various countries of the North have meant that global strategic alliances are also much more fluid than at any time over the past half century. Several are much discussed: the changing attitude of the Trump administration towards the US’s traditional enemy, Russia, as well as towards traditional allies; the complicated international politics emerging in Europe with the British decision to withdraw from the European Union; and the emergence of right-wing political forces in a number of other European countries. But it is also evident in other parts of the world, notably China, where traditional friends and foes are no longer so easily demarcated. Yet there is another sense in which the fundamentals of the imperialist process have not changed, even as the forms in which they are expressed are altered.

Defining imperialism broadly, as Amin did–as the complex intermingling of economic and political interests, related to the efforts of large capital to control economic territory–makes clear that, despite all these changes, imperialism has not really declined at all. Rather, it has changed in form over the past half century, especially when we embrace a more expansive notion of what constitutes ‘economic territory’. Economic territory includes the more obvious forms such as land and natural resources, as well as labour. These are all still hugely contested, as testified by struggles over control of land (especially in periods of rapid urbanisation), oil and other mineral resources, forests, oceans, rivers, and so on. The wars for oil in the Middle East, the continuing attempts at land grab in Africa, the struggle over the fruits of extraction of natural resources in parts of Latin America and Asia, all testify to this.

But the struggle over economic territory also encompasses the search for and effort to control new markets–defined by both physical location and type of economic process. One of the key aspects of recent capitalist dynamism has been its ability to create new forms of economic territory, bring them within the realm of capitalist economic relations, and therefore also subject them to imperialist control. Two forms of economic territory that are increasingly subject to capitalist organisation and imperialist penetration today are basic amenities and social services (earlier seen as the sole preserve of public provision) and the generation and distribution of knowledge.

A major feature of our times is the privatisation of much of what were, until recently, generally accepted as basic responsibilities of public provision. Basic amenities like electricity, water and transportation infrastructure, and social services like health, sanitation and education all fall into this category. Of course, the fact that these were seen as public duties does not mean that they were always fulfilled. Indeed, expanding public provision and access to high-quality public infrastructure and social services has only come about historically as the result of prolonged mass struggles. And issues of inequality in access have always existed. Nevertheless, the fact that provision is no longer necessarily in the public domain, and that private provision is increasingly seen as the norm, has opened up huge new markets for potentially profit-making activity. This has been a crucial way of maintaining demand, given the saturation of markets in many mature economies, and the inadequate growth of markets in poorer societies.

Opening up such markets has occurred through a combination of inadequate public delivery and changes in economic policies to encourage private investment. The expansion of the global bottled water industry, for example, is partly a result of the failure of adequate public delivery of potable water. Meanwhile, global institutions–including formal organisations such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization (WTO), as well as more informal bodies such as the World Economic Forum–have actively encouraged private investment in formerly public sectors. This is a more complicated expression of the imperialistic drive for control over economic territory than the direct annexation of geographic territory, but that does not make it any less consequential.

Another new form of economic territory, increasingly subject to imperialist penetration, relates to knowledge generation and dissemination. The privatisation of knowledge and its concentration in fewer and fewer hands–especially through the creation and enforcement of new ‘intellectual property rights’–have become significant barriers to technology transfer and social recognition of traditional knowledge. This is clearly evident in the case of access to medicines, even essential and life-saving drugs, whose prices have been hiked up by patents that reward multinational companies and allow them to monopolise production and set high prices or demand very high royalties. Similarly, control over seed patents, which are again overwhelmingly held by multinational agribusinesses, have enabled monopoly control over crucial technologies for food cultivation across the world, even in the poorest societies. The cases of medicine and food are comparatively well known and highly controversial, but much the same is true for industrial technologies, as well as knowledge for mitigating and adapting to adverse environmental changes (that themselves result from the production systems created by global capitalism).

The control over knowledge that was so clearly defined by Samir Amin as one of the five prongs of imperialism has been particularly evident during the COVID-19 pandemic. Big global pharma companies have profited hugely from the pandemic, receiving substantial state support to engage in research for treatment and vaccines, and then allowed to market on commercial terms despite most, if not all, of their R&D costs being covered. Advanced economies have repeatedly blocked the attempt by developing countries in the WTO to suspend intellectual property rights for such drugs and vaccines during the period of the pandemic. This reinforces the point Samir Amin had made–that imperialism is not about pitting one country against another, but about the interests of big capital versus people everywhere, with such capital supported by their states.

The general perception is that national and international institutional structures that should provide checks and balances to the privatisation of knowledge are more fragile and less effective than they used to be. But in reality, many are actively working in the opposite direction. The numerous ‘trade agreements’ that have been signed across the world in recent years have been much less about trade liberalisation–already so extensive that there is little scope for further opening up in most sectors–and much more about protecting investment and strengthening monopolies generated by intellectual property rights. This is even more true of investment treaties that privilege the (broadly defined) property rights of companies over the human rights of citizens.

It is often argued that the rise of new powers–especially China, but also India, Brazil and others–means that the concept of ‘imperialism’ is no longer valid. Yet the imperialist phase of capitalism has always been characterised by the emergence of ‘new kids on the block’, some of which have gone on to become neighbourhood bullies. For example, when Lenin wrote his famous pamphlet Imperialism: the highest stage of capitalism (1917), a century ago, the emergence of the United States as the dominant global power was far from evident. Lenin’s claim that, during the imperialist phase of capitalism, ‘the territorial division of the whole world among the biggest capitalist powers is completed’ is the weakest link in his argument, and one which was belied almost immediately. The United States, which was then only a minor player compared to the major European powers, emerged to dominate the world scene from the second half of the twentieth century on. The rise of Japan in the second half of the twentieth century by no means signified a weakening of imperialist power generally; it merely necessitated a more complicated assessment of such power.

The recent emergence of China is being interpreted as a sign that the global economic landscape is completely transformed. It is true that the growing weight of China in world trade and investment has had major effects: it has become the biggest source of manufactured-goods imports for most countries, changed the terms of trade and volume of exports for many primary-product (agricultural and mineral raw materials) producing countries, and brought more countries into manufacturing value chains. It is true, also, that Chinese capital has become a significant player in the ongoing struggle for control over economic territory across the world. Yet there are dangers of exaggerating its current significance. Even now, China accounts for less than 9% of global output (constant 2005 U.S. dollars, nominal exchange rates); its per capita GDP is less than half (around 45%) of the global average, and still just a fraction of the average for the economies that form the imperialist core. In relative terms, China remains a ‘poor’ country. Many of the hyperbolic mainstream analyses and predictions with respect to China are eerily similar to the predictions for Japan in the 1970s, as an emerging giant soon to take over the role of global economic leadership from the United States.

A similar point can be made even more forcefully for other nations that were until very recently enthusiastically described as ‘emerging economies’, supposedly proving that forces of imperialism are no hindrance to the rise of developing countries. Taken together, however, the ‘BRICS’ nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) account for less than 15% of world GDP, even though their share of global population is just under 50%. Announcing these countries as new global powers is very premature, especially when global institutional structures are still very much tilted in favour of the established powers.

The newly emerging economies are often thought to be more significant than they are, in part, because many analyses compare incomes across different countries based not on market exchange rates, but rather on purchasing power parity (PPP) exchange rates. PPP exchange rates seek to establish the relative purchasing power of each currency in terms of prices of a common basket of commodities. As I have argued elsewhere, this overstates the real incomes of poorer countries and therefore underestimates global inequality.

All this does not mean that there have been no changes in global economic and political power: there have been and will continue to be significant and even transformative changes. However, these changes in the relative positions of different countries on the economic and geopolitical ladder do not mean that the basic imperialistic tendencies that drive the global system have disappeared–indeed, they may even become more intense as the struggle for economic territory becomes more competitive.

This is particularly evident in the global spread of multinational corporations and their new methods of functioning, particularly with the geographic disintegration of production. Technological changes–advances in shipping and container technology that dramatically reduced transport times and costs, as well as the information technology revolution that enabled the breakdown of production into specific tasks that could be geographically separated–have been critical to this process. Together, they made possible the emergence of global value chains, which are typically dominated by large multinational corporations, but involve networks of both competing and cooperating firms. The giant corporations are not necessarily in direct control of all operations. Indeed, the ability to transfer direct control over production–as well as the associated risks–to lower ends of the value chain is an important element in increasing their profitability. This adds a greater intensity to the exploitation that can be unleashed by such global firms, because they are less dependent upon workers and resources in any one location, can use competition between suppliers to push down their prices and conditions of production, and are less burdened by national regulations that might reduce their market power.

This transformation has therefore given rise to what has been called the ‘smile curve’ of exchange values and profits. Value added and profits are concentrated in the pre-production (such as product design) and post-production (marketing and branding) phases of a value chain. These now provide immense economic rents to the global corporations that dominate them, due to the intellectual property monopolies that these corporations enjoy. The case of the Apple phones is now well known: the actual producers in China (both companies and workers) earn only about one-tenth of the final price of the good, while the rest is taken by the company as reward for its design as well as marketing and distribution costs and profits. The producers of coffee beans across the developing world earn a tiny percentage of the price of the coffee in a multinational chain like Starbucks, while those producing cocoa beans earn next to nothing compared to the highly branded sellers of chocolate, all of which are Northern companies. These rents have been growing in recent years. Meanwhile, the production phase, from which workers and small producers mainly derive their incomes, is exposed to cut-throat competition between different production sites across the world, thanks to trade liberalisation. Therefore, incomes generated in this stage of the value chain are kept low.

The overall result is twofold. First, this has resulted in an increase in the supply of the ‘global’ labour force (workers and small producers who are directly engaged in production of goods and services). Second, the power of corporations to capture rents–from control of knowledge, from oligopolistic/monopolistic market structures, or from the power of finance capital over state policy–has greatly increased. Overall, this has meant a dramatic increase in the bargaining power of capital relative to labour, which in turn has resulted in declining wage shares (as a percentage of national income) in both developed and developing countries.

These processes imply worsening material conditions for most workers in both the periphery and the core. Imperialism has generally weakened the capacity for autonomous development in the global South, and worsened economic conditions for workers and small producers there, so that is not altogether surprising. The growth of employment and wages in China is a break from that pattern and an example of some benefits of global integration, at least for a subset of working people in the developing world, but it occurred within a national context of significant state control over important economic and financial processes and very strategic and phased external integration. However, the beneficiaries still form a minority of the workers in the global South. In other countries generally seen as ‘success stories’ of globalisation, like India, the economic realities for most people are much bleaker.

The more obvious–and potent–change that has resulted from this phase of global imperialism has been the decline of the labour aristocracy in the North. The opening of trade, and with it a global supply of labour, meant that imperialist-country capital was no longer as interested in maintaining a social contract with workers in the ‘home’ country. Instead, it could use its greater bargaining power to push for ever-greater shares of national income everywhere it operated. This was further intensified by the greater power of mobile finance capital, which was also able to increase its share of income as well. In the advanced economies at the core of global capitalism, this process (which began in the United States in the 1990s) was greatly intensified during the global boom of the 2000s, when median workers’ wages stagnated and even declined in the global North, even as per capita incomes soared. The increase in incomes, therefore, was captured by stockholders, corporate executives, financial rentiers, etc.

The political fallout of this has now become glaringly evident. Increasing inequality, stagnant real incomes of working people, and the increasing material fragility of daily life have all contributed to a deep dissatisfaction among ordinary people in the rich countries. While even the poor among them are still far better off than the vast majority of people in the developing world, their own perceptions are quite different, and they increasingly see themselves as the victims of globalisation. The pandemic has dramatically reinforced global inequalities, but also accentuated particular concerns of the more vulnerable within each country, such that people everywhere are more prone to supposedly ‘nationalist’ propaganda that pits working people in different countries against one another and allows capital (and therefore imperialism) greater power. So, thus far at least, the political changes associated with these processes have been largely regressive. But this is not inevitable; indeed, recent changes in several core countries suggest the real possibility of more radical alternatives that will require fundamental changes to global and national economies.

Samir Amin would have greatly appreciated these more recent tendencies that represent impetus for positive and progressive change, even as he would have come down with his characteristic rigour on the broader processes that still determine the nature of imperialism today.

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