The Crisis of the Imperial System

Nidaa Badwan, image from the One Hundred Days of Solitude project


Preface to the recently released book by Claudio Katz

This book by Cláudio Katz resumes and updates the author's research on imperialism in a context of increasing global disorder and escalating tensions, including military ones, between the United States, China and Russia. Dialogues with one of his previous works, Under the empire of the capital (Ediciones Luxemburg, 2011), a fundamental work in which the author analyzes how imperialism works in the XNUMXst century, but which goes back to the origins of the classic phenomenon, the one analyzed by Kautsky, Luxemburg, Hilferding and Hobson.

In that work, Cláudio Katz took up these authors, made them discuss, dissected them and discerned what continued to be useful or not in each of them. In that work, as well as in The theory of dependence 50 years later (Batalla de ideas, 2018), the concern of this renowned Argentine economist was not centered on resolving the historic debate about imperialism, but rather, from a Marxist perspective, elucidating to what extent and in what sense it is valid to talk about it today . This way of approaching problems, resuming, without dogmatism, central debates in the social sciences and in Marxism in particular, comes to the fore in The crisis of the imperial system.

Unlike what happened just over a decade ago, when the concept of “imperialism” still seemed marginal, today, thanks to the cold war that the United States is waging against Russia and China, it is present in a large part of discussions within the scope of geopolitics, although it is still constantly omitted by many international analysts. We are witnesses, then, of a healthy revival of debates about imperialism. It is enough for it to be mentioned, the author emphasizes, to make clear the fact that the dominant powers exercise their primacy through force.

Without allusions to the particular situation of Our America, which are addressed in another work by Katz with imminent publication, The crossroads of Latin America: Derecha, progresismo e izquierda en el siglo XXI (Batalla de ideas, 2023), this book, published by Jacobin, is made up of a series of articles, published between 2021 and 2023, that follow the complex global situation, while updating theoretical debates and polemicizing with different exponents of the left and other versions.

The crisis of the imperial system is divided into 22 chapters, which make up six sections. In the first, the imperial system is defined, which has been in force since the second post-war period, and which, as Cláudio Katz insists, must be distinguished from its classical precedent. This has an economic dimension – it confiscates resources from the periphery –, a political dimension – combating popular insurgency – and a geopolitical dimension – it shows the rivalries between different powers. The scenarios of inter-imperialist war clashes that shook the first half of the 75th century have not been repeated in the last XNUMX years.

In any case, in addition to the fact that the feared Third World War was not unleashed – and that, for Cláudio Katz, there are several circumstances that would mitigate this possibility, at least in the immediate future –, there are, indeed, elements of continuity highlighted by the author: the coercive element remains central. The absence, until now, of frontal war clashes between the powers has not meant a decrease in military spending, quite the opposite. Multiple war clashes, for analysts like Gabriel Merino, are part of a hybrid and fragmented world war. And we also cannot completely rule out, in the future, the possibility of a warlike confrontation on a global scale.

In the second section of the book (chapters 2, 3 and 4), Cláudio Katz analyzes one of the most debated topics today: the American decline. This part studies the failed imperial recovery of the United States – since the different strategies promoted by Trump and Biden failed, internal fractures in the country begin to increase –, the discussion between decline, supremacy or transnationalization and contemporary imperial uncertainty. The author is cautious when making predictions, among other reasons because he correctly emphasizes that there are no predetermined paths or immutable trends, but that the resolutions of dialectical contradictions have to do with changing the correlations of forces and, especially, with social struggle.

Cláudio Katz analyzes the successes and errors of theories of hegemonic succession (China would replace the United States, as it previously replaced the United Kingdom) and global empire, showing the significant differences between the current imperial system, led by the United States, and its British predecessor. When it comes to understanding how the system works, cases of alter-imperialism in the United Kingdom and France are analyzed, as well as the variants of co-imperialism that Australia, Canada or Israel embody.

In the third part of the book, Cláudio Katz begins to present a very detailed mapping of the powers that orbit outside the imperial system. The five chapters in this section are dedicated to the study of China: the rivalry with the United States (noting that it is not a competition between equals), the unique situation of the Asian giant (it is not an imperial power like the United States, but also is not part of the Global South), the dilemmas between dissociation and integration through the Silk Road, the debate about the character of the economic-social and political system that prevails in China (incomplete capitalist restoration along with a singular political regime) and the projects in dispute within the main challenger of the imperial system.

Using the concept of “unequal and combined development”, Cláudio Katz criticizes the indulgent views on the Asian giant (he disbelieves that it promotes “inclusive globalization”) and puts the magnifying glass on the imbalances that it already highlights as a developed economy and as a very large creditor. significant, mainly from Latin American and African countries. This without forgetting, of course, the particular characteristics of China, which has a very advanced capitalism (but which does not dominate the entire economy), a unique international insertion (productive expansion, but with geopolitical prudence) and the absence of neoliberalism and financialization , which has allowed accelerated development in recent decades, based on the transformations achieved after the 1949 revolution.

The four chapters in the following section are dedicated to the other exclusive protagonist of current tensions on the global stage: Russia. Katz, unlike many other analysts, prefers to characterize it as a non-hegemonic empire in the making. He discusses Lenin's legacy, the continuities, reconstitutions and ruptures since the fall of the Soviet Union and refutes the arguments of those who, addressing exclusively geopolitical issues, have a benevolent view of the Moscow government. Russia suffers from visible economic weaknesses and a semi-peripheral international insertion, based basically on the export of primary goods (although also weapons). However, this economic weakness contrasts with its very active external geopolitical intervention, which includes military incursions.

Russia's current actions, under the command of Vladimir Putin, differ from both tsarist imperial action and Soviet expansion, which was never imperialist. In addition to the confrontation with the imperial system led by the United States and NATO, the current government in Moscow, according to the author, is completely distant from the progressive universe, with policies that promote the interests of the oligarchy, balance tensions between chauvinists and liberals and attack left-wing expressions.

The fifth part is entirely dedicated, in its four chapters, to the analysis of the region that has been a powder keg in recent decades: the Middle East. Rescuing the category of “sub-imperialism”, the cases of Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia are analyzed. Israel's co-imperial action is also analyzed. The tragedy that this region of the planet is experiencing is not due to religious or cultural issues, as the United States claims, but rather to the attempts of this power to regain its primacy. The Pentagon's actions, as Cláudio Katz explains, aim to control oil, subdue rebellions and deter rivals. However, the results were negative for Washington in the latest incursions into Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria. China's growing economic presence in the region is altering the alliances that the United States knew how to build in previous decades.

The sixth section addresses the political consequences of the conflicts that the entire imperial system is going through. United States defeats in the Greater Middle East, however, do not necessarily imply popular victories. Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria offer clear examples of this approach that avoids Manichaeism. Cláudio Katz proposes anti-imperialism as the main compass to position oneself on the left in the face of conflicts. It is essential, he argues, to analyze how the protagonism of popular struggles gravitates towards the confrontation with the imperial system. We must not absolutize geopolitical alignments, nor fall into neutralism.

Chapters 20 and 21 are dedicated to the war in Ukraine, defining responsibilities, proposing a joint analysis of geopolitical factors and class struggle and people's self-determination. At the same time, it is proposed what the appropriate positions for the left could be. Cláudio Katz criticizes the Russian invasion (which ignores the Ukrainian people's right to national self-determination), highlighting, at the same time, that it was caused by NATO's imperialist actions and the policy of attacks on the Russian population in eastern Ukraine. Under this perspective, international calls are emerging to restart urgent negotiations to stop the humanitarian tragedy caused by the war.

In the last chapter, Katz rebuts critics of his theses, particularly those who defend, from an economistic and dogmatic perspective, an analysis of the current situation as if it were equivalent to that described by Lenin more than a century ago. The author concludes that the current scenario cannot be understood as if it were similar to the previous one, when the contrast between imperialisms and semi-colonies emerged.

This book is part of Cláudio Katz's vast work, which addresses today's most important debates from a Marxist perspective, but without disregarding the contributions of other schools of thought. Over the last two decades, this member of EDI – Argentine Left Economists – has published books on the future of socialism and the left in Latin America, the dilemmas between the FTAA, MERCOSUR and ALBA, the theoretical current of Marxist economics, the imperialism and dependency theory, among other topics.

The author always carries out exhaustive studies on the subject, which allows the reader to orient themselves even if they are not experts in the issues addressed. This is one of his great successes, which is also repeated in this book. In each topic, Cláudio Katz organizes and presents the different currents and positions, trying not to distort them, even when he totally disagrees with them. This approach, far from the usual dogmatisms, allows the reader to reconstruct problem systems, learn about the most current debates and even arrive at syntheses that are not those of the author. Furthermore, thanks to his vast experience as a teacher and journalist, Katz presents in a simple and didactic way themes and issues that tend to seem distant and even incomprehensible to the non-specialized reader.

The specific theme of this work, the crisis of the imperial system, provides interesting reflections on where capitalism is heading and the current world (dis)order. After all, is there an emerging mutation that points in the direction of a multipolar system? Is the decline of the American empire as real as it is believed? Is the XNUMXst century one of Chinese hegemony? Is Russia an imperial power? What will happen to sub-imperialisms? Does the Global South exist? What role do Europe, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Canada, Israel and Australia play? Could there be another world war like those of the last century? What is the nature of the armed conflicts in recent years? How will the main powers view current confrontations and trends?

Although, regarding each topic, Cláudio Katz explains his own hypothesis, in many cases he does not propose a clear answer to the questions raised. Perhaps it is sometimes more fruitful to explain the latent contradictions and tensions. The author is cautious about predictions and warns against visions confined to mere circumstances and against those who permanently predict, sometimes without solid foundations, which trend will prevail over others.

In his previous work on the subject, Under the empire of the capital, Katz distanced himself both from orthodox views that propose the continuity of Leninist schemes, almost without modifications, and from globalist theses that simply discard the problem of imperialism. Neither approach, he stated, allows us to understand today's contradictions. We are not in a context like that described by Lenin, but we are also not in a world in which national states are practically dissolved. Capital pushes us towards globalization, but state mediations remain in force.

Speaking to and with the founders of Marxism-Leninism, Cláudio Katz had no problem rejecting hypotheses or analyzes that he considered incorrect. It may seem obvious, but overcoming a dogmatic approach is a fundamental point of view to keep the tradition of critical thinking that the author cultivates alive and useful.

Cláudio Katz does not take a definitive position in many of the debates he raises. He does not have a Leninist vision nor an anti- or post-Leninist vision. Katz is not interested in ratings or Slogans, but rather on focusing on tensions, on dialectical contradictions. He is someone who is more concerned with seeing the different tendencies operating – hierarchically – than with risking saying which of them will prevail over the other. And this happens, in part, because the dynamics of the social struggle, for him a key factor in the analysis, are not easy – not to say impossible – to predict. The imperial system, in crisis, will not fall under its own weight; its fate will depend on social struggles.

This book is essential for understanding the current global crisis. Cláudio Katz states that contemporary imperialism (the imperial system) is clearly different from its classical predecessor, in the spheres of warfare (currently there are no inter-imperialist wars), economic (growing globalization of capital) and political (joint collective management, led by the United States) . It is necessary to highlight these changes, which mean that the contradictions of imperial oppression in the XNUMXst century are not the same as those at the beginning of the last century. Orthodox Leninist approaches do not take such changes into account, while globalists exaggerate the mutations, currently discarding the notion of imperialism, in any of its meanings.

For Cláudio Katz, there is a tendency towards the integration of bourgeois classes, although the constitution of a global ruling class without local anchors and without the mediation of national States is far from having been completed. The new multinational organizations (NATO, UN, WTO, IMF, G8, G20) hold powers that, in the past, were exclusive to national states, but do not replace them. Military organization, for example, is no longer an exclusive attribute of each State. Instead, there is a coordinated and hierarchical global management, in which the United States exercises singular leadership.

The growing tensions between the United States, China and Russia force us to specify the characterization of the time. Geopolitical analyzes must not ignore, as a fundamental guideline for the popular classes and the left, that the focus must always be on supporting anti-imperialist struggles. This work by Cláudio Katz, then, can be read as a map to understand global disorder, from the perspective of those who want to defeat the imperial system.

*Leandro Morgenfeld He is a professor at the University of Buenos Aires (UBA). Author, among other books, of Dangerous relationships. Argentina and United States (Intellectual capital).

Translation: Natalia Scalvenzi


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

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