The Crisis of the Imperial System

Eliezer Markowich Lissitzky, Proun 1D, 1919


Commentary on the recently released book by Claudio Katz

This is a fundamental book in the battle of ideas in the current global reconfiguration. The work adopts a comprehensive and systemic view of the XNUMXst century. It is a toolbox to start from global views and be able to carry out an analysis of the situation without getting confused. But also keeping in mind an approach to the world since the so-called “Cold War”. How this has changed over the last four decades based on different forms of the capitalist system and other variants.

From this perspective, Claudio Katz, renowned and influential Marxist author, proposes to verify the singularities of imperialism in the XNUMXst century. He considers this notion basic for understanding the crisis of the imperial system in a transversal way. And, in addition, it condenses the main ideas of this thinker in more than four decades of intense scientific and journalistic work.

From economics, before social sciences, it complements an exhaustive theoretical examination carried out in its text Under the Empire of Capital (Ediciones Luxemburgo, 2011), which delved deeper from Lenin and Kautsky as antagonists, to Hilferding, Luxemburg and Hobson. A rigorous manual on imperialism (classic, post-war and current) and its application to reality. There he responded that these ideas should be updated to study the post-war situation and the more recent context.

Two basic premises seem to lie behind this essential reading work: contemporary capitalism is clear, but the imperial system remains more elusive. However, we specify that, by reading it, you can get a precise approach to these dilemmas. The other is that the imperial system differs from the classical one, it underwent mutations after the implosion of the Soviet Union and was modified again by the relentless rise of China and the recomposition of a Russian military power, together with the stagnation or crisis of Europe and Japan. Despite the different levels of tension between the powers, this has not led to direct military clashes between them since 1945.

This committed activist and intellectual summarizes the theme by postulating the concept of the imperial system. He orders the geopolitical and economic territorial logics, or even the so-called spatial adjustment in other previous writings, to here give him a format of structure and interaction, between the different sections of his writing. It synthesizes the main device of global domination.

At the same time, he updates his works, a previous one on the topic and another as Addiction Theory 50 Years Later (Batalha de Ideias, 2018), where he investigates the use of the concept of imperialism as a nodal point in interpretations of current capitalism. Here, a good fraction of his postulates are expressed as shared or discussed ideas.

The six parts of the book are subdivided into 22 chapters, which the author wrote between 2020 and 2023, as a theme of research with a common thread, and which he has been thinking about for years. The first part already breaks down the order of the imperial system into its vision of crisis and constant conflict. It begins by showing the order and main theories used to evaluate each region analyzed. It is worth clarifying that the situation of Our America is present in his studies during these years, but will appear in the imminent, more specific book Las encrucijadas de América Latina. Right, progressivism and left in the XNUMXst century (Battle of ideas, 2023), and added to that.

It displays the imperial system of which the United States has marked the prerogatives since 1945. With which the so-called superpower seeks to regain control, accumulate wealth, crush rebellions and block its competitors. In the text, he examines it from a tripartite perception in the economic, political and geopolitical dimensions, the others are subsumed under these.

This imperial organization is reflected in European powers as alter-imperialism, especially England and France, great empires of the past with current reminiscences (greater in military power than Japan and Germany, economic powers). Other co-imperials, such as Canada, Australia and Israel, are collaborating appendages in the different regions. And in different degrees of association or even in opposition, powers considered sub-imperial such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran appear.

Systemic competitors are arrayed against this system: Russia, a non-hegemonic power and an empire in the making, and China as a great power, with an unfinished restoration of capitalism and the absence of imperialist policies. Therefore, there is no transnationalism or a global empire, but rather a pyramidal structure led by the United States and an opposition of alternative powers, China and Russia, vying for power in strategic regions.

The second part presents the outline of the imperial system: the United States, which will later be followed by China; on another level, Russia and the Middle East and, finally, the debates on imperialism and anti-imperialism. In addition to clarifying which positions he is moving away from, the result he reaches promises new extensions.

This almost quarter of the new century is characterized by the failed imperial recovery of the United States. It failed to achieve the objectives of its incursions into Eurasia, from Iraq and Afghanistan, or into Syria and Libya. Historical interventionism and North American military centrality are based on its arms economy and NATO leadership, to maintain the power of its finances and the dollar, control natural resources, subjugate the people and subordinate its rivals.

Two factors lead to these results: the country's internal fractures and the erosion caused by its long-lasting crisis. As throughout the text, it presents the various scenarios in tension, rather than trying to predict future outcomes. It also discusses theories of hegemonic decline, differentiates empire from imperialism and articulates the logic of the empire of capital based on industrial capitalism. In this way, and in general, he considers approximations or disagreements with authors such as Arrighi, Amin, Mandel or Wallerstein, to which he adds Harvey, Perry Anderson or Nazanín Armanian.

The third section is one of the cores of the text, as it focuses on the great novelty of the time, the dazzling appearance of China, its transition from the periphery to the center. It studies the relationship between the United States and China and distinguishes their positions in a situation of growing hostility.

This demonstrates the aggressive geopolitics of the North American power in the vicinity of the Asian giant. Without proposing a merely indulgent reading of this, it evaluates its actions in third countries, given their current expansive role. This is why he categorizes it as different from imperialism, but not anti-imperialist. As it does not belong to the Global South, it remains to be seen how its cautious geopolitics and economic expansion will unfold. In China – as in the rest of the world – it is clear that popular struggles will play a significant role in changing the international scenario.

The underlying question is whether China has become an imperialist power or not. It indicates that its economic characterization is not sufficient to align it in this group. It organizes the table based on the idea of ​​China going abroad, given its overproduction and overinvestment. Characterizes it as a “New Deal on a global scale” for investment in infrastructure, where it dumps part of its surpluses. However, he argues that it is not affected by financialization or neoliberalism. There, social protest will largely resolve the direction adopted by the country with the largest working class in the world. Furthermore, it is questioned whether this new status promotes overcoming the underdevelopment of its partners or is it the only one that benefits.

In addition to the heated debate over the international position, it is involved in the debate over whether its mode of production is capitalism or socialism. It deduces the importance of the previous socialist pillar, as well as the uneven and combined development that permeated the Chinese leadership. That is why he observes the lack of definition of the capitalist or socialist character of his system, something already raised in his book The future of socialism (Herramienta, 2004), and reaffirms that the turn towards capitalism remains unfinished. One status singular is maintained with disputed projects that compete to redirect it. Finally, the characterization of China summarizes the visions and objectives of the country that will transform the geopolitical chessboard.

The fourth section deals with Russia's new emergence on the global stage and why it is a regional power on a planetary scale. It resettled after the Soviet fall and a premature step towards capitalism. This restoration is conditioned by its internal contradictions, its semi-peripheral nature in the economic order, its alliance with China and imperial harassment through NATO. Claudio Katz postulates it as a non-hegemonic Empire in the making. He also highlights the intervention in 8 of the 15 countries in the post-Soviet sphere. This Eurasian giant seeks to counter US hegemony with the strategic triangle with China and India, to which it adds Brazil and South Africa (the current BRICS+) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

By interpreting the criteria followed by Lenin, he shows why the gravitation of the Russian economy in the world does not acquire imperialist standards. In his investigation of these criteria and other followers of it, he finds that in Russia there was no Soviet imperialism because it was socialist, it is not sub-imperialism and it is essential to differentiate it from dominant imperialism. At the same time, he criticizes benevolent views that do not perceive internal political and social inconveniences. For Claudio Katz, Moscow is a military power and its influence goes in that direction, which is why it is necessary to intensify the reading from below and criticize internal policies that are far from progressivism.

In the fifth part, it recovers Ruy Mauro Marini's notion of sub-imperialism, to analyze a region that usually anticipates or shows ongoing systemic changes, the Middle East. For three factors such as its geostrategic location at the intersection and crossing of routes, its hydrocarbon reserves, and because it is seen by some as the levers from which the world can be dominated. It evaluates the intervention led by the United States in the last three decades (and especially since 2001), as a failure of the attempt at balkanization and the objectives of preventing the emergence of a new systemic competitor such as Russia or China.

Check how the foundations of the “New American Century Project” were wasted through the warmongering practiced there. It conceptualizes direct intervention or under unilateral economic sanctions, and the lies for a supposed “war against terrorism”, or the role of oil and weapons in dominating that region.

In chapter 15 “Three different profiles of dominant imperialism”, he organizes the world architecture based on European subordination, and the positions against an unpredictable Russian empire in formation, and the great Chinese economic implantation whose status is non-imperial. Check out the situations of growing sub-powers such as Pakistan, or the regional case of “Kurdistan”. In the following chapters he covers the implications of the sub-imperial regional powers Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran, then differentiates the circumstances of each in reference to the region, their relationship with the powers and how this would have an impact on a planetary scale. Finally, the case of the particular co-imperialism of Israel, the main geostrategic ally in that neuralgic region.

The sixth and final section clarifies how imperialism's defeats in this vast area did not lead to progressive triumphs. He asks about the role of anti-imperialism and the left in relation to positions regarding the most recent events, self-determination or resistance against the persistent maneuvers in the region that have intensified in this century.

The following chapters focus on the crisis in Europe manifested in Ukraine as one of the areas of release of tension and fragmentation of the world. Attempts to subjugate Europe and the responsibility of American imperialism are notorious, however, pressure from Kiev collided with a reaction from Moscow. It must be examined whether or not it was excessive. Likewise, he calculates the role of competition, profit and exploitation (i.e. capitalism) as throughout Claudio Katz's thought, as well as the divergent positions in relation to this ongoing conflict.

While the final chapter recovers the concepts collected in the writing. This long-awaited publication organizes and summarizes the path and singularity of imperialism in this new phase of capitalism, through the dialectical method. It provides a vision of how different confrontations have changed in recent decades, since the emergence of a unipolar world.

Claudio Katz notes throughout his writing that the epicenter of the imperial system is protected in what we could call control over the exercise of large-scale violence. Economic supremacy is a logical factor, and is also based on the repetition of narratives that endorse the status quo, but corroborates the thesis that what is fundamental is the use of coercion to preserve capitalism.

The different areas of tension such as the Sahel, Ukraine, Taiwan or Iran, where tensions between Russia, China and the United States are resolved, expose new articulations addressed in this overview. However, the geopolitical-military power of the United States is called into question. As well as all the scaffolding organized since the mid-XNUMXth century through organizations such as the IMF, the World Bank, NATO, or even more recent ones such as AUKUS or QUAD. This is undermined by the rise of China (primarily associated with American capitalism).

Which offers another perspective on organizations under its umbrella, such as the SCO, BRICS+ or the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Despite this, Cláudio Katz proposes a critical vision that overcomes, on the one hand, a view only from above of balances or disputes between powers and, on the other, the active role of social movements and rebellions.

The analytical ability to obtain a panoramic view of contemporary conditions stands out, while also highlighting historical and geographical depth. In fact, the choice not to include the part dedicated to Our America here invites you to read it later, in order to complete a general perspective on the current political environment and theoretical dilemmas.

From start to finish we have a consistent reading, which also invites non-specialists interested in understanding today's world, as it demystifies a large number of assumptions. Behind each postulate is constant and even collective reflection. In addition to elucidating ideas that conflict with its foundations. It has the virtue of leaving topics open to discussion without decisive conclusions. The conclusion of the work refutes other aspects under discussion and demonstrates the thorough work, now what remains is to invite new readings and debates.

Like every great book, it opens up new questions, here about the crisis of the imperial system and its development. This thinker and economist with a deep geographical focus justifies the development of the text and its use by saying “The characterization of the imperial system is essential to understand and transform contemporary reality (Katz, 2023)”.

Martin Martinelli Professor at the Department of Social Sciences at the Universidad Nacional de Luján (Argentina).


Claudio Katz. The crisis of the imperial system. Buenos Aires, Jacobin, 2023.

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