From the ‘New Imperialism’ of Chamberlain and Salisbury to German Lebensraum and the Japanese ‘Greater Co-Prosperity Sphere’, right through the institutional integration of the modern-day liberal world economic order, the history of capitalism has been the history of ambitious projects of economic territorialisation. Alex Callinicos’s new book is an overview of the various Marxist theories of capitalist imperialism, the latter understood as ‘the intersection of economic and geopolitical competition’, using a framework which draws heavily from David Harvey’s notion that imperialism comprises a dialectical relation between territorial and capitalistic logics of power. In the book’s opening chapter Callinicos attempts – with only partial success – to integrate Marx’s theory of crises neatly into the disparate accounts of imperialism developed in the early 20th Century. There follows a critical but sympathetic reading of the seminal contributions by the likes of Bukharin, Hobson and Luxemburg to a debate which has continued significance in today’s violent and militarised world.
It was a subject that was of great interest to the late Giovanni Arrighi, who conceived of the history of capitalism as the rise and fall of successive imperialist hegemonies. While Callinicos questions the notion that the merchants and bankers of Genoa could constitute a ‘world hegemon’ in the same sense as 19th Century Britain or the US in the 20th Century, he agrees that it was through the accumulation of political power – following on from their emergence as economic forces – that the emerging nation-states of Holland and England facilitated expansion and conflict. The link between economic imperatives and the drive to political conquest emerges as a consistent them in a sweeping survey of 19th and 20th Century imperialism. Set in its historical context, the aggressive expansionism of the Axis powers in the 1930s and 1940s loses some of its singular, apocalyptic aspect – as Callinicos explains, the Nazi military drive into Central and Eastern Europe dovetailed with interests of German capitalists, who sought a uniform economic bloc to restore Europe’s world status; 1930s Japan pursued the same logic of military expansion to acquire access to markets and raw materials. The post-war period has witnessed a transnational expansion of capital accumulation that transcended politico-territorial considerations, a hegemony which required the projection of massive military power, and sustained politician intervention in key regions of Eurasia. US superpower status was cemented through institutionalised domination of EU and Japan, as well as traditional material capability.
Few on the left would dispute Callinicos’s assertion that ‘Knowing empire is part of fighting it’. Callinicos sees today’s international system as reflective of an entrenched uneven development of economic and military power, and dismisses as a myth claims by contemporary intellectuals like Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri that international capital has broken free of its geographical moorings. Looking to the future, he predicts that the world economy will become increasingly difficult to manage, due to instability, slow growth and intense competition. The US, though waning economically, will continue to project its power outwards in the name of ‘the international community.’ War is a fact of life in a capitalist world, and the chief purpose of Marxist and radical liberal critiques of imperialism as been to identify what J.A. Hobson called the ‘economic taproot’ of militarism and war. Imperialism and Global Political Economy is a well-researched and thought-provoking contribution to this singularly important endeavour.
Imperialism and Global Political Economy by Alex Callinicos is published by Polity Press.
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This post was written by Nathaniel Mehr