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Imperialism then and now: Capital relocation, inequality, encroachment and protracted crisis – Part 3/3

Imperialism which existed in the colonial era persists to this day and the system cannot do without it. In a 3 Part series, Prabhat Patnaik discusses his read on the history of capitalism from colonialism into the present. This concluding segment takes up the present period of capitalism.

As per Capital and Imperialism (Chapter 6–Periods in Capitalism): The periodization we follow is: (1) Colonialism prior to the First World War; (2) the interwar years; (3) the post-Second World War years of the ‘Golden Age of Capitalism’; (4) the era of globalization; and (5) the current conjuncture, which marks the dead end of globalization.


LYNN FRIES: Hello and welcome. I’m Lynn Fries producer of Global Political Economy or GPEnewsdocs. This is Part 3 and the concluding segment of a conversation with Prabhat Patnaik. He’s talking about his new book co-authored with Utsa Patnaik, Capital and Imperialism: Theory, History, and the Present. More specifically, he giving us some perspective on the read of the history of capitalism presented in the book. So a look at capitalism in five periods spanning colonialism before WWI to the present. A read in which imperialism which existed in the colonial era, persists to this day and the system cannot do without it.

Hello and welcome. I’m Lynn Fries producer of Global Political Economy or GPEnewsdocs. This is Part 3 and the concluding segment of a conversation with Prabhat Patnaik. He is talking about his read on the history of capitalism that he breaks up into 5 periods from colonialism into the present. And how imperialism which existed in the colonial era persists to this day and the system cannot do without it. Topics sourced from a new book Capital and Imperialism: Theory, History and the Present authored by Prabhat Patnaik and Utsa Patnaik published by Monthly Review Press.

A world renowned economist, Prabhat Patnaik is Professor Emeritus at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. Earlier books by Prabhat Patnaik include Accumulation and Stability Under Capitalism, The Value of Money and Re-Envisioning Socialism. Prabhat Patnaik’s blog is published by Network of Ideas. Professor Patnaik, welcome. And thank you for joining us.

PRABHAT PATNAIK: Thank you. Thank you very much.

FRIES: We’re going to pick up the conversation where we left off. Let’s start by going deeper into what happened to the world economy in the era of globalization for the first time in the history of capitalism. And how this fits into your read on the history of capitalism into the present. So 5th of 5 periods, the current period of protracted crisis.

PATNAIK: Throughout its history, capitalism had this remarkable feature that it actually kept the entire world segmented. In the sense that there was a diffusion of capitalism in the temperate regions but there was no diffusion of capitalism in the sense of capital shifting from the Global North to the Global South. That means investment occurring from the Global North to the Global South. Because after all in the Global South for reasons which have to do with de-industrialization under colonialism, there’s huge unemployment. Huge reserve army of labor because of which the wages are close to subsistence level.

With the wages at close to subsistence, then it would be profitable for capital to invest in the Global South using exactly the same technology of production for meeting global demand. That actually then they start investing, producing in the South using the labor of the Global South which is much cheaper for producing for the entire globe. But this did not happen.

Had this happened then the gap between the North and the South wouldn’t have been so pronounced. The gap in fact, shouldn’t have been there strictly speaking because of the fact that capital is globally mobile. Like inside the country, similarly in the world as a whole, if it is globally mobile then it would have the tendency to equalize wages all across. That did not happen. Why that did not happen is an extremely important question, but certainly historically did not.

Because of that the wages in the South continued to remain low. And labor from the South as I was saying was not allowed to move freely to the North. Therefore the wages in the South continued to remain close to a subsistence level. While in the North, because investment was taking place, because labor productivity was growing, there was an increase in real wages occurring as well. Therefore you had a divergence of wages. Northern wages kept increasing. Southern wages kept remaining at a subsistence level. That is the genesis of this segmentation. That is the real kind of gist of the segmentation.

Now, what has happened in the current globalization is that to some extent that is being overcome. Because now capital from the North has started moving South to locate plants in China, in Vietnam, in Indonesia, in Malaysia. Or to locate service sector activities for instance, in India. You have call centers in India, which actually do the same job that normally in the U.S. these jobs would be getting performed but the wages there are much higher compared to the wages here. So it’s much more profitable to shift that kind of service sector activity to India rather than retain it in the United States.

So for all these reasons, a whole range of activities are increasingly being shifted from the North to South. And that is a unique feature of the contemporary globalization. To the extent that happens, then that difference in wages which had existed certainly does not grow. And what is more, there is some tendency for the wages also in the North to come down.

Stiglitz made a calculation, according to which if you compare the real wages of a male American worker in 1968, with the real wages in 2011, average male American worker, then in 2011, the real wages were marginally lower than in 1968.

Now, obviously it doesn’t mean it has been falling all through or has been stagnant all through. It has gone up. Hopefully. It’s still much higher than what you find in the South. There’s no equalization of wages, but there is a pressure on Northern wages.

Let us say, therefore that the different wages or if you like the vector of wages all over the world does not go up. It’s more or less given, more or less fixed in this period of globalization. But on the other hand, labor productivity is going up everywhere.

If labor productivity goes up, but the real wages do not go up in that case, you’ll find then the share of surplus in output increases everywhere. It’s like a distribution from wages to surplus; wages to profit shares.

But of course, if a hundred dollars are shifted from wages to surplus, if they were part of the wages all of the a hundred dollars would have been consumed. But if they’re shifted to surplus, then let’s say only $50 are immediately consumed within any given period. Therefore there is an overproduction of $50 worth of goods because demand has gone down by that.

Therefore there is a tendency towards ex ante overproduction which this phenomenon of globalization generates because of the fact that it is actually making workers everywhere, including Northern workers, compete against Southern workers who have an albatross around their necks in the form of the huge labor reserves that have been generated because of colonial deindustrialization.

So these labor reserves now begin to affect Northern wages as well. They cannot go up with productivity. And therefore surplus rises everywhere in the world economy as a whole and there is an ex ante tendency towards overproduction.

FRIES: I see you note in the book that this rise in surplus in the distribution between wages and surplus in the world economy as a whole shows up in the inequality of income distribution in most countries established by Thomas and other researchers.

PATNAIK: You know people like Piketty who actually document this increase in income inequality do not see the increase in income inequality as arising from this reason. They use all kinds of other theoretical frameworks which I won’t go into. But those frameworks assume full employment and so on which are really not realistic assumptions. Their work is important because it documents this increasing income inequality everywhere in the period of neoliberal globalization.

FRIES: That gives us a broader perspective on overproduction crises in capitalism and how the tendency to overproduction was unleashed by globalization. Comment more on what you call de-segmentation. Corporate media reports that globalization and outsourcing from North to South made the Global South a beneficiary of growth and development. What are your thought on that?

PATNAIK: Firstly, I should make it clear that de-segmentation which means the coming over of a lot of activities from the North to the South does not mean that the South is developing. It is not that the Third World countries as a whole are actually witnessing development. By the way, which is the standard thing that all Bretton Woods institutions, everybody says that: Oh, you know, globalization has brought about the high growth rates in the South.

That high growth rate is something that is not giving rise to an improvement in the conditions of the bulk of the population in the South. Because the hiatus now is within the South.

The dividing line is now no longer between the North and the South but it has now reached within the South. The dividing line is within the South between a segment of the population who are the beneficiaries of globalization and those who are integrated with international finance capital(which consists of the monopoly capitalists, big capitalists and so on, on the one hand, and segments of the upper middle class that are beneficiaries that have attached to this big capital) and the rest of the population (consisting of peasant agriculturists, laborers, urban workers, craftsmen, fishermen and so on). So that petty producers, peasant agriculturists, laborers of various descriptions, they are the sufferers from this globalization.

So, it is wrong to say that globalization has benefited the South. No, globalization has basically meant a shift of some activities to the South of which there’s a small segment of the population in the South that is the beneficiary but the rest of the population have actually suffered

FRIES: As a follow on to that, comment on how growth theory in mainstream economics is concerned with accumulation through expansion. Whereas you point out that what you call “accumulation through encroachment” is a hallmark of contemporary imperialism and a direct result of neoliberal policies. Explain that.

PATNAIK: So I draw this distinction between accumulation through expansion and accumulation through encroachment.

Now, suppose you have a certain amount of capital. Let’s say capital is in hundred blocs. Each bloc grows by 10% because each block makes some profits. Out of that profit, they invest a certain amount. It grows by 10%. Now that’s obvious.

That is what economic theory is all the time talking about. They look only at accumulation through expansion. All growth theory in economics is concerned with that. Accumulation through expansion. The amount of capital stock, it increases because of the investment decisions.

In addition to this, there is an accumulation of what I call accumulation through encroachment. Now that accumulation through encroachment can be let us say that public sector units are being privatized. So the private capital stock is rising. Not because they have made investments. Not because they have made physical investments but because they have just bought up the public sector units.

So that taking the economy as a whole, there is no increase in the capital stock. But taking the private capital stock, there is an increase. And this increase is what I call through encroachment.

Similarly, if you have private capital that displaces small producers, now you don’t necessarily take over the exact physical assets of the small producers but the market that the small producers had occupied or catered to is the market which now accrues to the big capital. And the big capital therefore occupies the space of the small producers, small capitalists. So that is again an example of accumulation through encroachment.

Now under neoliberalism because of the fact that all obstacles to accumulation through encroachment are removed, peasant agriculture is no longer supported or defended by the State. Similarly, small capital is not necessarily defended by the State. Similarly public sector units are actually privatized. You actually find that the scope for accumulation through encroachment increases considerably.

FRIES: So that increasing scope for “accumulation through encroachment” also means growth by appropriation of what had been common resources?

PATNAIK: Yes, that’s, that’s a classic example of accumulation through encroachment. And that goes back a long way. That began in the 16th century Enclosure Movements in Britain. So the 16th century Enclosure Movement meant basically that the Commons were appropriated by the big landed estates. And because the Commons were appropriated by the big landed states, the land they had increased.

But at the same time, the small peasantry, you know, had access to Commons and because they had rights over the Commons a whole lot of commodities were garnered by them from the Commons. But because the Commons were appropriated by the big landed estates, they cease to have that access anymore because the Commons got enclosed. And that being the case, the small peasant economy became unviable. Many of them had to abandon agriculture and become laborers.

So, the Enclosure of the Commons is a classic example of accumulation through encroachment. The mistake which is often made is to assume that this is something which only is confined to the period of birth of capitalism but once capitalism gets born then it only proceeds through accumulation through expansion. But no this phenomenon of accumulation through encroachment is a phenomenon that lasts throughout the history of capitalism.

FRIES: You argue this phenomenon of accumulation through encroachment lasts throughout the history of capitalism. So staying with the case of encroachment on peasant farmers. Talk about what is going on with peasant farmers in India and the broader implications.

PATNAIK: You know, there’s a huge agitation going on of peasantry in India at this moment. It’s going on at this very moment. Big agitation. This agitation is against three farm laws that our present government has brought in. And these laws would basically allow agribusiness to encroach on peasant agriculture through contract farming.

But contract farming is a way whereby they actually put the squeeze on the peasantry. And ultimately the peasants are worried that they will lose their land and simply become laborers on lands cultivated by big business.

We always used to think that, the peasants produced let’s say food grains, higher food grain prices would hurt the industrial workers. So we always thought that there is a conflict of interest between the peasants on the one hand and the industrial workers on the other. And a conflict which had to be managed by the State coming in through food subsidy and so on.

But now what we find is that if the peasant agriculture is getting squeezed then peasants actually migrate to cities for jobs. Because they are not viable anymore in agriculture. When they move to cities for jobs, they actually don’t get jobs.

There aren’t that many jobs. So they swell the reserve army of labor. Or the given amount of work is distributed among more people. And even the organized, that is unionized industrial workers bargaining strength goes down.

So you find that the distress of peasants gets translated also into the distress of the urban workers. So there is a commonality of interests there. It’s in the interests of the urban workers to make sure that the peasants are not displaced, are not distressed. So it’s a commonality at both ends.

FRIES: And under neoliberal globalization for the first time in the history of capitalism, as you commented earlier, distress among workers in the Global South gets transmitted into pressure on wages and so bargaining strength of workers in the Global North. So comment more on your argument that globalization under the hegemony of global finance capital, so basically what we refer to as neoliberal globalization, is at a dead end.

PATNAIK: It is clear that the world cannot be where it is. This prolonged crisis is having very important implications in the capitalist world because of which something needs to be done urgently about it. One important implication of this prolonged crisis is in my view, the growth of neo-fascism.

Neofascist movements are arising everywhere. Look at India, look at Poland, Hungary, even the United States under Trump. You look at Britain, UKIP. You look at Marine Le Pen, France. You look at, you know, Germany, AFD; Brazil, Bolsonaro. Everywhere there is a strengthening of neo-fascism.

Now this strengthening is obviously something which gains from,it profits from the increase in unemployment. Because neo-fascist movements as marginal phenomena exist in all modern societies. But they’re moving center stage aided by monopoly capital. Because monopoly capital feels threatened in a period of crisis. Its legitimacy, social legitimacy goes down.

Therefore it actually uses the neo-fascist movements in its own interest. They help in very many different ways. They change the discourse. In India today, the idea of the government is not to continue with a discourse of people’s living standards. It has to do with accentuating the division between Hindus and Muslims.

Everywhere neo fascism targets the other. Changes the discourse to be one against the other. It occasionally even explains the crisis in terms of the other. That the Chinese are stealing jobs from us. The Mexicans are stealing jobs from us.

All this poses a very serious threat to the social structure of capitalism. That being the case there is now a certain kind of urgency that even the liberal bourgeois elements in capitalism face in order to do something about the crisis. And it’s in that context that some of the moves which are being made today have to be understood.

One of these moves is the fact that now there is an effort in the United States to revive a kind of Keynesian policy. Because the United States is less concerned than the other major capitalist countries about pleasing globalized finance.

Because globalized finance considers it, its home base. And therefore there is not going to be huge capital outflows from the United States elsewhere because United States is the safest place. Its currency is as good as gold. And therefore you will not find capital outflows the same way that would find from other capitalist countries.

So the U.S. has a degree of freedom, some leeway. But anyway, the U.S. fiscal deficit is going to increase and the whole argument is that we are thereby reviving Keynesian demand management. We know that Trump had spent $2 trillion as kind of a rescue cum support package during the pandemic.

When Biden became president, he spent another $2 trillion. And now [recorded July 8th] he has come up with another proposal to spend close to $2 trillion, $1.9 trillion for an infrastructure plan. Not confined to a single year, but over a period of time.

Now, I was sayingBiden is attempting to revive Keynesianism. But there is an aspect of it which I want to draw attention to which is not often recognized. As I said finance capital which is opposed to Keynesianism, if the U.S. is pursuing this, may find it difficult to migrate elsewhere. And therefore Biden may actually be able to stimulate the U.S. economy.

But suppose it does that. Then you would find a revival of inflationary pressure. Already oil prices are rising. And the IMF today [recorded July 8th] has said that actually in the U S inflation is beginning to pick up. Now, when that happens, then you would find that an effort will be made to impose austerity on the Third World so that inflationary pressures are kept in check. So that the prices of raw materials are kept in check.

So we may end up having a situation where there is Keynesianism in the First World and austerity in the Third World. Now that is something which is again really going to really worsen the plight of the working people, peasants, workers and so on in the Third World. Actually make matters much worse. That is something which is a fallout of, if you like, what the capitalist solution might actually lead to.

As opposed to this, what we are arguing is an alternative. Wecannot have a global solution in the sense that the whole of the Third World suddenly arises up. And the whole of the First and the Third and every possible world, you know, the world proletariat and the world peasantry rises up. Because obviously they have not ha d joint movements of that kind. Movements have remained confined to individual nations.

Now that being the case, then let us say that in India now there is a big struggle of the peasantry that they are doing. Now suppose you could have a struggle of the workers and peasants against the crisis which is engulfing the Indian economy. If so, then politically this might give rise to the coming into government of an alternative political formation that represents the interests of the workers and the peasants.

If this alternative political formation is going to remain faithful to its constituency, then it will have to overcome the hegemony of globalized finance capital. Therefore it has to delink itself from this web of financial flows by having capital controls.

That is a necessarycondition for the autonomy of the State that we have been discussing. That if you have globalized finance and the nation State and then the nation state is caught in the web of globalized finance, then of course the nation State cannot do anything other than simply cow-tow to globalized finance.

But if the nation State is going to do something different, then it will have to get out in the web globalized finance. Andan important way of doing so would of course be through capital controls. That’s a form of the delinking from globalization.

The problem is when you have capital controls, then you would have difficulties in meeting your trade deficit. So you would have to have some trade controls. And when you have trade controls, then you would have pressure being exerted by the advanced countries through, for instance, the imposition of sanctions on any government that tries to get out of this globalized regime.

Therefore the transitional difficulties are there butone has to face these transitional difficulties as best as one can.

And the people of the Third World, the workers and the peasants and so on have to recognize this. And they have to be aware of the fact that getting out of this globalization is essential for a new order to come in. And when they get out of globalization, they will be opposed by the local capitalists.

It will have to be on an agenda that would actually lead on to socialism. It would have to be an agenda that is opposed to the local monopoly capital and of course globalized finance capital. And that would necessarily give rise to an alternative trajectory of development that must lead on to socialism.

FRIES: That would provide an alternative to ending up in a situation where the conditions of life for vast populations in India and throughout the Global South are made much worse under a deepening of subsistence wages, a swelling reserve army of labor and so on. In an ideal world that kind of fallout from First World policy could also be avoided if instead of austerity along with Keynesianism, First World policy would support and promote Third World capacity to increase their supply and so keep prices and inflation down that way.

PATNAIK: Yes. You know, I mean, after all, as I said, there are two ways in which prices can be kept down. One is by squeezing demand the other is by increasing supply. That actually, if the petty producers, the peasants, and agriculturists and so on are protected and promoted and encouraged to increase production then of course the inflationary pressures would be kept down. And likewise, of course, in the case of minerals, oil and so on which is very important commodity.

So, there are two kinds of issues here. One is to enlarge production and of course in the case of oil, one has to move out of oil use. Develop other substitutes and so on. Being a complex issue, I don’t want to go into. But of course all that has to be done. But for a range of primary commodities which are of an agricultural nature, output has to be increased.

And therefore, as you said, in an ideal world the First World should be supporting the Third World and Third World governments to enlarge output as a means of controlling inflation. But not to impose austerity, not to impose income deflation.

But you see this has actually been the typical method. Not only earlier, even now, even now. Third World debt is supposed to be rolled over and many of the Third World countries went to the IMF to enable them to roll over the debt. And the IMF wherever it helped imposed conditionalities.

And Oxfam made a study that out of about 81 such agreements where the IMF came to the rescue of Third World countries to roll over their debt, the conditionalities entailed austerity, out of 81 in 77 cases.

So austerity, imposition of austerity is not an idea that has been given up by the Bretton Woods Institutions. Therefore, the tendency would be to control inflation in the First World by imposing income deflation in the Third World.

While, ideally, as you say, in an optimum world, it should have been through enlarging supplies from the Third World by enlarging output which could happen by supporting peasant petty production and so on. I believe that a socialist economy can do that.

In fact, I believe that a very fundamental difference between capitalism and socialism is that capitalism encroaches on petty production while socialism can in principle prevent such encroachmentsand protect and promote petty production.

FRIES: In commenting on imperialism into the present, you say a significant feature of this new phase of imperialism is the squeeze it imposes on the rural economy of the Third World countries where the bulk of these countries’ populations live. Do you then think this will be the principal source of resistance to contemporary imperialism?

PATNAIK: Well, I mean, I think, okay, let me put it this way. I believe whether it is in the Third World or in the First World, the existing crisis requires that overcoming it must be by confronting globalized finance. If Biden is following a Keynesian policy, then he is also in some sense confronting globalized finance. Because globalized finance doesn’t want Keynesianism.

So the confrontation against globalized finance; getting rid of the hegemony of globalized finance is a necessary condition for mankind to get out of this present predicament.

Now, if in the Third World, we simply keep waiting then the First World confronting globalized finance and getting out of the current predicament there, would simply mean that our burdens would become even greater. That’s what I was talking about, austerity here as opposed to Keynesianism there.

Therefore what we have to do is that we also have to make our own effort to get out of the hegemony of globalized finance. Not that hopefully would not arouse the kind of hostility from the advanced countries that it has done till now. But on the other hand, we have to reckon with the fact that it will around that hostility.

And if it does then obviously life may become very difficult here. But we have to face that difficult time. And then, in the course of doing so, we would be following a trajectory of development that would lead on to socialism.

So I would not say that the struggle is only in the Third World. I would say the struggle is everywhere. People are probably not aware everywhere that there’s a common enemy that is globalized finance capital.

But on the other hand, unless the struggle is joined everywhere, we may end up in a situation where the First World confronts globalized finance and adopts Keynesian policies but the impact of it is to squeeze the Third World even further.

FRIES: We are going to have to leave it there in this conversation with Prabhat Patnaik. And this look into Capital and Imperialism: Theory, History, and the Present. Prabhat Patnaik, thank you.

PATNAIK: Thank you very much.

FRIES: And from Geneva, Switzerland thank you for joining us in this GPEnewsdocs segment.

Link to Part 1 and Part 2