< < <
Date Index
> > >
by Louis Proyect
05 September 2002 18:31 UTC
< < <
Thread Index
> > >
Robert Biel's "The New Imperialism: Crisis and Contradictions in 
North/South Relations" (Zed Books, 2000) is everything that Hardt-Negri's 
"Empire" is not. Starting with the premise that there *is* such a thing as 
imperialism--as opposed to some nebulous concept of Empire--Biel supplies 
the kind of data to support his argument that is ostentatiously missing 
from Hardt-Negri. And he ends with an embrace of local, precapitalist 
initiatives that are disdained by Hardt-Negri, who favor a kind of 
homogenizing and benign globalization that appears to critics as a leftwing 
version of Thomas Friedman's "Lexus and the Olive Tree."

For those Marxists rooted in grass-roots activism, it might come as a 
surprise that some of their academic brethren either deny the phenomenon of 
imperialism or--worse--welcome its existence through a kind of 
neo-Kautskyist self-deception. The late Bill Warren was the most notable 
example. Starting out with an undialectical appreciation of the Communist 
Manifesto, they assume that because Marx wrote, "The bourgeoisie cannot 
exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and 
thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of 
society," it is necessary to stand with the bourgeoisie against every local 
initiative that would impede this process. Between the multinational 
corporation seeking to "modernize" agriculture in Mexico in order to step 
up the export of flowers or lettuce, for example, and the Mayan peasant 
seeking to preserve traditional corn-based subsistence farming, they might 
choose the former.

Although widely regarded nowadays as being overstated, Warren's ideas still 
reverberate in the academy. As late as 1995, you can still read such 
nonsense in the Fall 1995 Science and Society special issue on Lenin as 
John Willoughby's "Evaluating the Leninist theory of imperialism". From 
this we discover that the third world suffers not from capitalist 
penetration, but just the opposite:

"Lenin's original argument appeared to link exploitation to stagnation--the 
implication being that a country could only develop by breaking out 
completely of capital accumulation circuits. Samir Amin has drawn precisely 
this conclusion, but an examination of the data suggest that those 'Third 
World' countries most enmeshed in capital circuits are also the most 
dynamic. It is a common joke in development circles that most poor nations 
would love to be exploited by an infusion of capital from the North. More 
seriously, most of those countries that have either purposefully isolated 
themselves from the world economy or been isolated by imperial action have 
suffered disastrously.

"Space does not permit an elaboration of this point. Nevertheless, radical 
economists are increasingly realizing that it is not true that global 
capital accumulation must coerce the Third World into a position of 
permanent economic backwardness. On the level of the abstract theory of 
capital expansion and exploitation, it is not possible to argue for the 
inevitable necessity of the North-South divide."

(Jim Blaut had a reply to Willoughby in the 1997 S&S that can be read at: 

With little apparent interest in staying current with academic fashion, 
Robert Biel openly describes himself as in the dependency theory tradition. 
This school emerged in the 1950s as a result of trying to apply Baran and 
Sweezy's views on monopoly capital to the 3rd world. Andre Gunder Frank's 
phrase "the development of underdevelopment" captured this approach 
succinctly. Most of the dependency theorists, including Frank, have long 
since mutated into world systems theorists. This is a very high level, 
almost Olympian, understanding of world history that posits rise and falls 
of hegemonic powers in almost a Viconian sense. Attempts to get off the 
merry-go-round of history, such as the Cuban revolution, are derided as 
exercises in futility.

For Biel, world capitalism can only have one set of winners:

"The conditions for the form of development which entrenches poverty are 
international. The dependency perspective (which is a radical critique of 
mainstream development theory) highlights these conditions by introducing a 
dangerous idea: it is not just that there is one group of countries in the 
world which happens to be poor. The two are organically linked; that is to 
say, one part is poor *because* the other is rich. The relationship is 
partly historical--for colonialism and the slave trade helped to build up 
capitalism, and this provided the conditions for later forms of 
dependency--but the link between development and underdevelopment is also a 
process that continues today. As Amin pointed out, in what is perhaps the 
most single idea of dependency theory, the tendency to pauperization--the 
acute poverty that is both the basis and product of capital accumulation, 
and thus of 'growth'--was transplanted to the periphery."

As one would hope and expect, any book with the title "The New Imperialism" 
would be charged with the duty of updating both Lenin and dependency theory 
to the current global setting. Arguments that Lenin is not current might 
have some basis as long as one assumes that his 1916 pamphlet was etched in 
granite rather than written with pen and paper. Biel makes it clear that 
Lenin is not a deity: "Today's capitalism, dominated as it is by currency 
speculation, the futures market, and so on, has become parasitic in ways 
that Lenin could scarcely have imagined, strongly confirming his argument 
that these are characteristics of mature capitalism, which it will never 
shake off. In this sense it is still correct to see imperialism as 'the 
highest stage of capitalism'. But despite this, it is important to 
recognize that imperialism can still undergo large-scale change as it 
acquires new regimes of accumulation that allow it to be parasitic in new 

Starting from this premise, Biel's study supplies all the data that shows 
the new parasitic forms of imperialism.

This entails, among other things, a close look at ecological imperialism. 
It also involves a thorough and devastating refutation of the Asian tiger 

For the South, among the most serious ecological problems is soil 
fertility. In Africa today, where as many as tens of millions face famine, 
the West offers genetically modified crops as a panacea. When African 
leaders question such aid, they are regarded as foolishly unscientific. 
Producing cheap food that in environmentally sustainable conditions must be 
a sine qua non for Africa and the rest of the South.

Biel supplies some rather enlightening statistics. Using the ratio between 
the caloric content of crops and the calories used up in the process of 
producing them, traditional crops such as cassava can produce output/input 
relationships like 60 to 1. But the industrial agricultural model being 
foisted on the South comes nowhere near this ratio. In fact, in the US food 
industry, which is heavily dependent on huge energy inputs from fertilizer, 
fuel for machinery, processing, canning, transportation, refrigeration, 
cooking, etc., the calorific output/ratio in 1940 was only 1 to 5. By 1970 
it had deteriorated to 1 to 10.

Used as a substitute for organic inputs, chemical fertilizers epitomize the 
law of diminishing returns. Holland currently uses 660 pounds per acre. 
Japan consumes more fertilizer than all of Latin America! When touting the 
benefits of the Green Revolution, modernization ideologists tend to sweep 
such costs under the rug. Biel observes, "Resources such as phosphates or 
oil are drawn in at an insubstantial cost (neither reflecting the full 
value of the rents, nor that of the labour used to extract them) to make 
agriculture *seem* more efficient."

Another example, which relates to the meat industry, can be described as 
'protein imperialism'. Biel writes:

"Animals consume 10 times as much plant protein as they produce meat 
protein (in the case of beef, 21 times). Grain converted to meat loses 
75-90 per cent of its calories and 65-90 percent of its protein. According 
to FAO figures for 1978, animal feed accounted for 36 percent of the total 
world consumption of cereals and for 61 per cent of the world consumption 
of maize. The total cereal deficit of the Sahel countries during the famine 
of 1973 was 1 million tones, which was only 0.25 per cent of the amount of 
grain fed to animals in the industrial countries in the same year. A 
significant amount of animal feed takes the form of high-quality protein 
imported from the South (fish meal, oilseeds, etc.)"

Comparing this to the Hardt-Negri view of the meat industry below, which is 
somewhat lacking in the ecological department, one has to wonder why 
"Empire" became a runaway best-seller. One supposes that it is a 
confirmation of P.T. Barnum in some perverse fashion.

 >>In Hardt and Negri, the proletariat has become the global multitude. 'I 
keep thinking of fast-food workers in McDonald's all over the world,' says 
Hardt, 'who wear a badge saying "Service with a Smile".' But there are 
stirrings within this 'multitude', says Hardt, that reach beyond its 
smiling servitude to Empire.<< (Guardian, July 15, 2001)

With the smoldering rubble of capitalist "development" all around the world 
from Buenos Aires to Istanbul, it is a little bit more difficult nowadays 
to argue the Bill Warren line. The last gasp of modernization theory, 
either directly from the horse's mouth like Paul O'Neill or from 
like-minded academic Marxists with their own peculiar Kautskyist spin, 
centered on the Asian tiger model. Taking the bull by the horns, Biel 
demonstrates both the exceptional nature of this model and why it has 
ultimately failed even on its own terms. His analysis of the limitations of 
the Asian tigers or "NIC's" (newly industrializing countries) is contained 
in chapter ten and is worth considering in some detail.

During the initial flush of enthusiasm over the NIC's, a kind of escalator 
stagism was put forward. South Korea was at the top and others such as 
Indonesia and Malaysia were on their way up. As they vacated their spots on 
the escalator, other less developed countries would take their place. The 
implicit view was that South Korea would eventually be as prosperous as the 
USA, with all the aspiring tigers, either in Asia or even in Africa, on 
their way up.

What was missing in this rosy scenario was the element of indebtedness 
accrued by countries like South Korea. Seen in retrospect, it is now 
obvious that internal borrowing in South Korea was heavily reliant on 
external capital. Biel points out that "Domestic banks felt free to loan 
money because they knew that external funds would cover the gap. It has 
become clear that the peripheral economies are self-expanding only in so 
far as they absorb finance from outside. In late 1997, South Korea was 
discovered to have an external debt of US$110 billion, which served as 
backing for an internal debt accrued by all Korean companies that amount to 
a staggering US$323 billion."

Another weakness of the Asian tiger model was that they lacked real 
technological autonomy. Biel writes, "Reprisals against Asian exports 
sharply increased in Europe in the period 1985-1988 and a computer price 
war, launched by the big American companies in 1991, led to a wave of 
bankruptcies in Korea and Taiwan. The Korean company that won the top award 
in 1990 for computer exports went bust in the following year!"

Like the current collapse of the US stock market, the prolonged rise of the 
Asian tiger economies can be attributed to speculative mania. Credit flowed 
into the region as long as a high return could be insured. Once that 
prospect disappeared, the bubble burst. Biel points out that it is 
estimated that by the late 1990s only 2.5 percent of foreign exchange 
transactions in the region had anything to do with the real economy (buying 
commodities or goods, investing, etc.). By contrast, over 80 per cent of 
capital in 1975 flowed into the real economy.

As Biel proposed in the early part of his book, "The conditions for the 
form of development which entrenches poverty are international." The ways 
in which dependency are manifested come in various sizes and shapes, but 
they all leave the peripheral country worse off. With respect to the Asian 
tigers, the 'coup de gras' came wrapped in currency manipulations. Pegged 
as they were to the US dollar, devalued NIC currencies have made it 
possible for Western multinationals to buy local companies at bargain 
basement prices.

If Hardt and Negri are all too eager to repudiate localized struggles that 
can "can easily devolve into a kind of primordialism that fixes and 
romanticizes social relations and identities," Biel shows both a deep 
compassion for the peasant villagers inevitably drawn into such a struggle 
and provides insights into why their "primordialism" might have a rational 
basis in the need for survival.

The implicit assumption in Hardt-Negri, Bill Warren, John Willoughby and 
others is that precapitalist farming somehow needs to be swept away like 
cobwebs. At first blush, hostility toward "fixed" and "romanticized social 
relations" would seem to be a core belief of Karl Marx, if you take the 
Communist Manifesto seriously if not altogether dialectically: "The 
bourgeoisie has subjected the country to the rule of the towns. It has 
created enormous cities, has greatly increased the urban population as 
compared with the rural, and has thus rescued a considerable part of the 
population from the idiocy of rural life."

However, there is much evidence that there is less idiocy in rural life 
than meets the eye, at least when it comes to producing food, the necessity 
of life. Biel points out:

"It is being recognised more and more by the public that ordinary people 
can possess scientific knowledge of enormous importance. Besides reflecting 
genuine admiration for grassroots initiatives, this shows that many 
specialists believe that mainstream agricultural development will come to a 
dead end if it does not take on board some of this traditional knowledge. 
Part of what is needed, people say, is a reassessment of ancient practices, 
for example the use of ridging systems in agriculture. In pre-colonial 
America these enabled marginal land to be cultivated very effectively, 
while in Africa the area of contemporary Tanzania -- conventionally 
considered to have been barren and stagnant prior to colonialism - 
possessed, in fact, a thriving system that, using a mixture of 
contour-following ridges laced with diagonal up-and-down ridges, permitted 
land on steep hills to be farmed. But even more important than historical 
re-assessment is to look carefully at contemporary practices. All 
traditional systems have elements of sustainable agriculture that can be 
seen in the balance between livestock and the cultivation of crops that 
return nutrients to the soil, the use of mixed cropping instead of 
monoculture, and so on."

Biel does not call for a return to the past. He is especially adamant that 
women must enjoy equal rights with men. But there must be a willingness on 
the part of the revolutionary movement to root itself in the peasant-based 
and urban "informal sector" that is drawing a line of blood against 
imperialism today. While this might not coincide immediately with the 
traditional battalions of organized labor, it is where the fight is being 
conducted on the sharpest terms.

In order to participate successfully in struggles of what Biel calls 
"unofficial society", it will be necessary to approach it with a kind of 
respect that Marxism has not always lived up to. Fortunately, there can be 
exceptions to the rule, as he points out in the concluding sentences of his 

"Lenin, in his last years, argued strongly for the independent 
organizations of workers *within* the socialist state. This has interesting 
implications for the grassroots movements. While any movement to establish 
an alternative power will necessarily draw its strength from the new 
grassroots struggles, it is also clear that the social movements will have 
to maintain a distinct identity. What is needed is some new relationship 
between official and non-official society on a different basis. In the 
longer term, the relationship of pre-eminence would be reversed, with the 
non-official world dominant, but in the immediate term the relationship 
would keep the state machine in check. In general, the point is for the raw 
material of future socio-economic development to emerge from the base. The 
source of new ideas and new practices must be mass initiatives, the real 
social movements. And this must continue under a new social order."

Louis Proyect

< < <
Date Index
> > >
World Systems Network List Archives
at CSF
Subscribe to World Systems Network < < <
Thread Index
> > >