In what way is imperialism today different from the imperialisms of the past? And what strategies are capable of undermining it?
The most basic elements of contemporary imperialism have been analyzed extensively. They consist in the formation of a collective imperialism, an unprecedented event, the ongoing internationalization of production, the re-financialization of monopoly capital, and continuous military aggression, long after the end of the Cold War.
The economic changes underway have now sapped collective imperialism of its economic vitality and its domestic social peace, obliging it to escalate its military project externally and its class offensive internally. The concrete result today is a new wave of natural resource grabs and new military interventions in the peripheries, accompanied by the demise of social pacts in the centres of the system.
It is clear that the great systemic rivalry of the Cold War had no real winners among the superpowers. The Soviet Union may have been the first to succumb, but disaster is now looming in the centres as well. The only concrete advance of the last half-century has been decolonization and the emergence of the South. This marked the beginning of the end of the system born in 1492.
The emergence of the South has produced a new set of challenges. During the Cold War, the Bandung movement outlined a coherent set of objectives, comprising of total decolonization, economic development, and ‘positive non-alignment’. The latter meant, specifically, non-participation in the military blocs of the superpowers and capacity to judge every external relation on its own merits, in accordance with national interests.
The emergence of the South has also produced a new set of contradictions. The internationalization of production has continued to differentiate the South among peripheries, semi-peripheries, and now ‘emerging’ semi-peripheries. One of the key questions is what role do semi-peripheries, and especially the ‘emerging’ ones, play in the system. Semi-peripheries have in the past been seen as systemic safety-valves, by which monopoly capital outsources its production to areas with cheaper labour and natural resources.
In the Cold War, the safety-valve policy gained geo-strategic expression in the Nixon-Kissinger Doctrine, whose purpose was to select Southern partners as proxies in regional economic expansion and political-military stabilization. Rarely did the policy fail, as indeed it did in Iran. The most precious proxy, then as today, was Israel, but there were other important ones, like Brazil, where the phenomenon was termed ‘sub-imperialism,’ that is, an attempt to go beyond semi-peripheral conveyor-belt functions.
The term called attention to a new contradiction, not only between peripheries and semi-peripheries, but also between centres and the emerging semi-peripheries of the time, regardless of their ideological orientation (Brazil was under a right-wing dictatorship).
The contradiction remained non-antagonistic, until the military regime overstepped its boundaries. It negotiated a nuclear accord with West Germany and recognized independent Angola. Thus, the dictatorship was abandoned by the United States, at a time of swelling internal mass mobilization. The transition was controlled by financial and other political means, leading to the eventual ‘reconversion’ of this semi-periphery to a de-nationalized neoliberal financial playground.
The term also called attention to the fact that whatever emergence occurred under monopoly capitalism, and its financial and technological domination, it could only be based on the super-exploitation of domestic labour (not the social pacts characterizing the centres of imperialism).
It was this internal relation that intensified external dependence, creating the need for export markets for semi-peripheral manufactures and exertion of regional political-military influence, so as to resolve its chronic profit realization crisis.
The subsequent ‘reconversion’ of semi-peripheries generally has produced contradictory effects, whereby a process of privatisation, enhanced extroversion, and de-nationalisation has accentuated internal class conflicts, but also led to the formation of new giant blocs of domestic capitals, which are once again vying for a place in the sun.
They are no longer simply looking to export manufactures but also capital. The ‘re-emerging’ semi-peripheries are even engaged in the ‘new scramble’ for land and natural resources in Africa. Of course, they are also being scrambled, which is no paradox, given their persisting incorporation into external monopolies.
The question has been raised as to whether the newly ‘emerging’ semi-peripheries are essentially subservient regional stabilizers, or a force antagonistic to imperialism. Some have argued that the collective emergence of these semi-peripheries implies a system-changing diversification of economic partners in the South.
Should we conclude that the semi-peripheral bourgeoisies have become, inadvertently, anti-systemic? Others have argued that the simultaneous emergence of a handful of big semi-peripheries, and especially of China, marks the inadvertent but terminal systemic contradiction from which the capitalist world system will not recover. Should we similarly conclude that the system is on a progressive historical course?
We can pin our hopes neither on the newly shining bourgeoisies nor on inexorable historical laws. The immediate question is political, and it concerns the type of alliances that are necessary to oppose imperialism, especially as it escalates its military project. Thus, we should also be asking: are all emerging semi-peripheries equally subservient or antagonistic to imperialism? Do they have structural differences which manifest different political tendencies?
In fact, they differ significantly from each other. For example, Brazil and India are driven mainly by private blocs of capital, with strong public financial support, in conjunction with Western-based finance capital. China has much heavier and more autonomous participation by state-owned enterprises and banks.
Meanwhile, in South Africa it is increasingly difficult to speak of an autonomous domestic bourgeoisie of any sort, given the extreme degree of de-nationalisation and re-conversion that the country has undergone in the post-apartheid period.
The degree of participation in the Western military project is also different from one case to the next, although a ‘schizophrenia’ – one might say typical of sub-imperialism – is inherent to all this. Ironically, the most reconverted state, South Africa, has signed up to a regional mutual defense pact, effectively against Western military interference in Southern Africa, while continuing to serve as a conveyor belt for Western economic interests on the continent.
India has increasingly fallen into line with US strategy, especially in the nuclear field, but internal resistance remains significant. Brazil, no less schizophrenic than its peers, denounces coups in South America while zealously leading the post-coup invasion of Haiti under US auspices. Russia has remained a blocking power in the UN Security Council, increasingly alienated from NATO. China is the clearest counter-force to the West, consistently exercising full strategic autonomy, despite its evident dependence on external markets and monopolies.
Their modes of engagement with Africa are no less diverse or contradictory. To be sure, all are beneficiaries, including China, of the neoliberal prying open of African economies, conducted since the 1980s under the aegis of the West and its multilateral agencies.
Yet, they all maintain a higher sensitivity to matters of national sovereignty, even though there remains an unresolved race question everywhere, with paternalist tendencies towards Africa. Moreover, there is potential for the breaking of monopolies in certain sectors − and, by extension, the Western strangle-hold − especially by China and its trade finance and oil-for-infrastructure strategies.
Given the tendencies and counter-tendencies of this conjuncture, it is necessary to rekindle the strategy of Non-alignment on new terms. In so doing, it is imperative to avoid the highly ideological ‘equivalence’ between Western imperialism and the emerging semi-peripheries, whose clearest expression is China-bashing.
Whatever one makes of the new semi-peripheries, they are certainly not the main agents of imperialism, nor are they militarizing their foreign policies. Nor, for that matter, are they cohesive nations internally, given the ongoing super-exploitation on which their extroversion is based.
The first principle in a new Non-alignment should undoubtedly be non-participation in the military project of the remaining superpower, that is, the United States, as well as its junior partners in NATO and its AFRICOM initiative. The second is the devising of a strategy with respect to both the established and the aspiring scramblers to enable a larger degree of maneuver for national development.
Few countries in Africa have used the existing room for maneuver in the current conjuncture in the interest of social and economic progress; and when they have, they have typically been labeled ‘corrupt’ or ‘tyrannical’ by the West. Zimbabwe, the country that has gone the furthest in breaking up monopolies and devising a pragmatic non-alignment policy (actually named ‘Look East’) has been one of the most despised for doing so.
The new Non-alignment implies not only resisting the West militarily and ‘looking East/South,’ but also setting conditions on all external relations. Such resistance can only be effective by collective strategies on the continental and sub-regional levels.
Establishing mutual defense pacts, like in Southern Africa – a pact which has shielded Zimbabwe’s radicalization – would constitute a fundamental building block, as would new forms of regional integration, beyond rule-based, commercial integration, which are yet to emerge.
Sam Moyo is Executive Director of the African Institute for Agrarian Studies; Paris Yeros is Adjunct Professor of International Economics at the Federal University of ABC, São Paulo, Brazil.