By Prince Kapone
The current crisis of neoliberal capitalism has given rise to much resistance across the world, from the Occupy Wall Street movement in the U.S. to the political revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa. As capitalist regimes everywhere impose austerity measures on their populations, reducing the capitalist state to nothing more than its policing functions, even the welfare states of Western Europe are becoming the visible fists of the markets’ “invisible hand.”
This decimation of the welfare state is typically accompanied by a widening gap in wealth between the rich and the poor. Thus, in the United $tates the Occupy movement has adopted the slogan “we are the 99%,” in counter reference to the elite 1% who own a majority of the wealth in America. However, as we shall see, this equation is based on faulty arithmetic, as it overlooks or ignores the global wealth disparity between the First World and the Third World as a whole. In reality, the wealth of the First World nations is derived from the conquest, colonization, and continued exploitation of the Third World nations of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. This is the principal contradiction in the world today that must be resolved if humanity is to evolve into a higher stage of social organization.
It is taken for granted nowadays that we live in a “globalized” world, but many neglect the fact that capitalism has been a global system from its very inception. In fact, “from its origins in the 17th century, when merchants from England, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands invested their wealth in large state-chartered trading companies, capitalism has organized production and exchange on an intercontinental scale.”1 What is crucial to understand, however, is that this process of globalization was and remains characterized by unequal development, whereby the development of some is inextricably linked to the underdevelopment of others. In other words, “the impoverishment of the peripheral capitalist countries of the Third World and the enrichment of the core capitalist countries of the First World are dialectically related processes, that is, the latter become richer insofar as the former become poorer.”2
It is also true that capitalism developed in the West, particularly in its industrial stage, by feasting on the blood, sweat and labor of its own national working-classes. Karl Marx showed long ago that it is the exploitation of labor power that produces the surplus value for capitalists to expand their capital. Marx thought at the time that an inherent tendency towards the overaccumulation of capital would eventually lead to a fall in the rate of profit, triggering a corresponding fall in wages and increased immiseration for workers which would ultimately drive them towards socialist revolution. However, Marx did not live long enough to see how colonialism and imperialism would eventually act to offset these self-destructive tendencies of capitalism, earning the support of workers and prolonging its demise.
Already by the 1880’s, Friedrich Engels, Marx’s closest collaborator, observed that “the British working class is actually becoming more and more bourgeois, so that this most bourgeois of all nations is apparently aiming ultimately at the possession of a bourgeois aristocracy and a bourgeois proletariat as well as a bourgeoisie. Of course, this is to a certain extent justifiable for a nation which is exploiting the whole world.”3 Engels saw a connection between the national chauvinism and opportunism displayed by the British working class and the colossal profits obtained by British colonialism. As one British capitalist statesman aptly put it, “the empire, as I have always said, is a bread and butter question. If you want to avoid civil war, you must become imperialists.”4 Imperialism, then, was both a globalizing force that linked nations together, unevenly, through colonialism, and a pacifying force that improved the lives of workers in the imperialist countries, thus buying their acquiescence and loyalty to capitalism.
Far from being merely a matter of political policy, imperialism developed as a distinct stage of capitalism characterized by: the monopolization of capital; the mergence of finance and industrial capital; the division of the world into core (imperialist), peripheral (colony or neocolony) and semi-peripheral zones of production, distribution and consumption; the export of capital; and unequal exchange between core, semi-peripheral and peripheral countries, to the benefit of the first.5 It must be emphasized that these features of capitalism evolved as a response to the systems own internal contradictions. For example, the tendency towards monopoly capital is the logical result of capitalist competition. Imperialism then must be understood as an inevitable stage – the final stage – of capitalisms’ historical development. In the modern era, the two are inseparable.
Although colonialism was inextricably tied to the growth of capitalism, imperialism as a distinct stage of capitalist development did not begin to consolidate until the 1870’s, with the rise of monopolies. The establishment of monopoly capital in turn triggered a new wave of colonization, which culminated ultimately in an imperialist world system dominated by the core capitalist countries of Western Europe and its settler offshoots (the U.S., Canada, Australia, etc.). Whereas in the pre-monopoly competitive stage of capitalism (early 1800’s), Western Europe and its colonies covered 55% of the globe, by 1876 they covered 67% and in 1914 84%. Thus, the inner contradictions of capitalism compelled the core nations of Western Europe to expand their national markets to the colonies of the periphery, structuring the colonial economies in such a way that ensured the continued transfer of wealth from the colonies to the imperialist metropoles.6 The initial links of globalization were thus connected as shackles binding the exploited periphery to the imperialist core.
Imperialism injected lifeblood into capitalism, counteracting the stagnation that is endemic to monopoly capital and increasing the prosperity of the imperialist nation as a whole. It allowed capitalists to make superprofits (profits over and above those they would make from exploiting the workers of their “own” country), which in turn enabled capitalists to pay superwages to “their” workers (wages over and above those they would make absent imperialism).7 As W.E.B. Du Bois remarked at the height of the imperialist era, “the white workingman has been asked to share the spoil of exploiting ‘chinks and niggers.’ It is no loner simply the merchant prince, or the aristocratic monopoly, or even the employing class, that is exploiting the world: it is the nation; a new democratic nation composed of united capital and labor.”8 In effect, imperialism renders the contradiction between metropolitan capital and metropolitan labor non-antagonistic.