For decades the concept of “imperialism” all but disappeared from popular discourse and academic writing in the rich countries. It was an idea that used to be dominated by Marxist thinkers until the 1970s, but even among Marxists – at least in academia – the concept has rarely been seen as useful or relevant in recent times.
The radical post-war understanding of imperialism – spurred on by mass-based national liberation struggles in major Third World societies – challenged the economic exploitation of Third World societies by the imperialist core. However, by the 1990s, with the decline of these struggles and the collapse of Soviet Communism, anti-imperialism was largely abandoned. In many cases it was replaced by a discourse around “globalisation” that skipped over the dynamics of national exploitation.
As important sections of rich country workers lost jobs to cheap labour economies, critical discourse focused instead on corporations that were viewed as breaking free of national bounds and undermining the global dominance of the First World societies. That didn’t happen.
There was a brief upturn in writing on imperialism after George Bush was elected president of the United States at the turn of the century. This upturn was led by pro-war hawks around Bush who thought it would benefit United States’ world power to once again openly declare itself an ‘empire’. Prominent Marxist writers like Harvey re-discovered imperialism in this context but promptly forgot again once it dropped out of mainstream discourse.
Today’s near ubiquitous obsession with the rise of China as a supposed threat to the dominance of the United States and its rich country allies again permits critical thinkers to ignore the actual scenario of ongoing and devastating exploitation of Third World societies by the imperialist core states.
The massive divide between rich and poor countries after World War Two – when colonialism was ended in much of the world – has not been eroded over the last 75 years. It has actually got worse and continues to.
Figure 1 shows that USD income levels in the major countries has actually diverged – even during the periods of neoliberal globalisation and China’s supposed rise.
Largest rich and poor countries (plus Australia)
GDP per capita in US dollars, 1960 – 2020.
The graph is available as an interactive resource here
Source World Bank Databank.
My new book, Imperialism and the development myth: How rich countries dominate in the twenty-first century, published in the Progress in Political Economy series with Manchester University Press, shows this is the case not just for the 11 rich and poor countries represented in this graph, but for all major countries on earth. Notably China does not appear as an exception to the global rich-poor country divide but a part of it.
The world is so divided today that some 87% of the world’s population live in poor countries, just 13% in rich countries and less than 1% live in a handful of small truly middle-income countries – Such as Portugal and the Czech Republic.
This most striking and important feature of the world system – its division into two parts – should immediately fire up intense interest among all serious thinkers – especially anti-capitalists.
The division poses the crucial question: how has the modern imperialist system managed, for some 75 years since the end of colonialism, to reproduce the same rich poor divide as existed in the colonial period?
We might ask, what concrete mechanisms do the rich, imperialist countries and their ruling classes use to maintain this position? Why does modern capitalism produce two distinct and separate groups of countries with almost no middle? What exactly has prevented every major poor society on earth from breaking out from economic subordination? How can we best understand the essential factors that define and mediate the relationship between rich and poor societies (and also among rich and poor societies)?
To answer those questions convincingly it is necessary to have an understanding that not only analyses the relationships between countries, but also how that relationship is connected to the internal social structures of all individual societies.
My new book is the product of a very intensive and ambitious research project lasting over seven years. Surprisingly, it was able to find what are in fact quite straightforward, even simple and verifiable answers to those questions. Mostly this has been possible by drawing on key parts of the vast quantities of new data contained in academic research and business press reportage of developments in the global labour process that took place in the neoliberal period (since around 1980).
The degree of globalisation of labour processes reached in the period has laid bare the basic mechanisms of Third World exploitation to such an extent that these can be seen more clearly now than was the possible even for the 1970s radical writers concerned with imperialist exploitation. What has been revealed is that the stranglehold of the rich countries is fundamentally maintained through their monopolisation over the global labour process itself.
This labour process understanding of imperialist dominance developed in my book is superior to competing explanations – such as imperialist military power, financialisation, dollar hegemony, debt or legal and institutional structures like intellectual property and trade rules. All of these are important and re-enforce but cannot fundamentally explain social dominance.
Monopoly over the labour process, by contrast, is the most fundamental and direct form of social dominance. It has long been known that rich countries and monopoly corporations can demand a lot of simple products – like T-shirts – in exchange for a much smaller quantity of sophisticated products – for example touch screens used in phones. In this way the rich countries can and do get more Third World labour in exchange for less of their own labour via international trade. Getting more labour for less is the essence of imperialist exploitation.
The more difficult question posed is what stops poor countries from breaking out of this vice-grip – especially over a period of decades? Most readers will be posing that question in their heads in relation to China.
The reason no break-out or catch-up has or can occur within the capitalist system is because things have already developed too far for that to happen. By this I mean that the existing productive process – modern production technique – has already become so large scale and therefore so specialised as to make that impossible. The necessary scale of production means that specialisation has already become international. All countries are forced to specialise in the types of labour processes they are best suited to – or rather have been moulded to become best suited.
International labour specialisation is not incidental but hierarchical. It is formed by the imperialist system and takes the following basic form: Rich countries: monopolise and concentrate to themselves all of the highest technology, scientific and sophisticated labour processes while poor countries are forced to specialise in low technology, simple and ordinary labour processes. This hierarchical polarisation of the labour process is the underlying social basis and explanation for the polarisation of income shown above.
There are two major reasons why poor countries can never break out of this stranglehold – at least within the capitalist system – even via the most serious and vigorous state led efforts. Firstly, the labour process that any given society carries out is the most important determinant of the social-economic capacity and character of that society. For this reason, carrying the daily burden of low-tech drudge work does not prepare poor societies to compete in the opposite type of work.
The second reason is that capitalist competition forces societies to specialise in the areas where they have a competitive advantage. Precisely because of the legacy of colonialism and 75 years of neo-colonialism, poor societies are most competitive in simple and cheap labour processes. Hence the logic of the world market (and its corresponding domestic social life) pushes back hard against any attempts to compete with imperialist high-technology production.
This organic push-back combined with vicious push-back by the powerful Multi-National Corporations (MNCs) and their imperialist state backers is what has doomed any all attempts at catch-up-within-capitalism and will continue to.
Most readers will view China as an exception or emerging challenge to this system. However, the book demonstrates that in industry after industry where China is reputed to be catching-up (or even leading), no convergence with the imperialist economies is in-fact occurring. That is the case, for example, in telecommunications (including 5G), energy production and aerospace.
Trump’s so-called “trade war” on China, which has continued under Biden, demonstrates this most clearly. Huawei was perhaps China’s only true MNC prior to the trade war. Now it is being crushed by US bans on the export of high technology products and parts to China and to Huawei. China has been unable to respond with any bans on the export of Chinese technology to the US for the simple reason to China does not possess any significant technological monopolies.
Forty years of China’s turn to the world market is not bringing it closer challenging the technological level of the rich countries. Another forty years of will not change the situation either. The recent series of Chinese policy decisions that curtail the freedom of operation of foreign and domestic capital appears to speak to increasing official acknowledgement of this hard limitation.