The Crisis of the Imperial System

Image: Tim Gouw


The logic of imperialism is only understandable by overcoming such crude views and investigating the relationship of the concept with its capitalist matrix.

Debates on imperialism reappear after a winding trajectory. During the first half of the last century, this concept was widely used to characterize warlike confrontations between the great powers. Later, it was identified with the exploration of the periphery by the central economies, until the rise of neoliberalism diluted the centrality of the term.

At the beginning of the new millennium, attention to imperialism faded into the background and the notion itself fell into disuse. This lack of interest was in line with the weakening of critical views of contemporary society. But the US invasion of Iraq eroded conformism and triggered a resurgence of discussions about the mechanisms of international domination. The denunciation of imperialism regained importance and the questioning of US military aggressiveness multiplied.

These objections later moved to the substitutive notion of hegemony, which gained primacy in studies of the US decline in the face of China's rise. Hegemony was emphasized to assess how the dispute between the two main powers on the planet develops in the geopolitical, ideological or economic scope. The coercive characteristic that distinguishes imperialism has lost relevance in many reflections on the Sino-American confrontation.

When this substitution seemed to be imposed – together with the new centrality of the notions of multipolarity and hegemonic transition –, mentions of imperialism regained importance through an unexpected event. This term reappeared with the Russian invasion of Ukraine to underscore Moscow's expansionism.


Singularities and adaptations

Imperialism is a category often used by Western media to contrast the tyrannical policies of the Kremlin or Beijing with the respectful conduct of Washington or Brussels. This biased use of the term obstructs any understanding of the problem. The logic of imperialism is only understandable by overcoming such crude views and investigating the concept's relationship with its capitalist matrix.

This analytical course has been explored by several Marxist thinkers, who study the contemporary dynamics of imperialism in terms of the mutations registered in the capitalist system. In these approaches, imperialism is seen as a device that concentrates international mechanisms of domination, used by wealthy minorities to exploit popular majorities.

Imperialism is the main instrument of this subjection, but it does not operate within each country, but in interstate relations and in the dynamics of competition, in the use of force and in military interventions. It is an essential mechanism for the continuity of capitalism and has been present since the beginning of this system, modifying itself in correspondence with changes in this social regime. Imperialism never constituted a specific stage or epoch of capitalism. It has always incorporated the forms that geopolitical-military supremacy adopts at every moment of the system.

Due to this historical variability, current imperialism differs from its predecessors. It is not only qualitatively different from pre-capitalist (feudal, tributary or slave-owning) empires, which were based on territorial expansion or control of trade. It also does not resemble the classical imperialism conceptualized by Lenin, when the great powers competed through war for control of markets and colonies.

Contemporary imperialism also differs from the model led by the United States in the second half of the XNUMXth century. The First Power introduced new features of collective coordination and partner subjugation to ensure the protection of all ruling classes against popular insurrection and the danger of socialism.

Throughout this variety of stages, imperialism ensured the usufruct of resources from the periphery by the advanced economies. The coercive devices of the great powers ensured the capture of the riches of the dependent countries by the capitalists of the center. In this way, imperialism recycled the continuity of underdevelopment in the neglected regions of the planet.

This perpetuation recreated the value transfer mechanisms from dominated economies to their dominant peers. The inequality between the two poles of global capitalism was reproduced through various productive, commercial and financial modalities.


Mutations and Indefinitions

Twenty-first century imperialism must be evaluated in the light of the enormous changes in contemporary capitalism. For 40 years, a new scheme of low-growth accumulation in the West and significant expansion in the East, linked by productive globalization, has been in force. The international deployment of the manufacturing process, subcontracting and value chains underlie this productive scheme sustained by the information technology revolution. This development of digital capitalism contributed to the massification of unemployment and to the generalization of precariousness, insecurity and work flexibility.

The new model operates through financialization that introduced the credit autonomy of companies, the securitization of banks and the family management of mortgages and pensions. This financial centrality in the current functioning of the economy multiplied, in turn, the periodic emergence of shocking crises.

Speculative bubbles – which erode the banking system and lead to ever-increasing state bailouts – accentuate the imbalances of current capitalism. This system is strongly affected by the tensions raised by overproduction (which globalization has driven) and by the fracture of purchasing power (which neoliberalism has accentuated).

The current scheme also incubates potential far-reaching catastrophes from unstoppable environmental degradation generated by competition for higher profits. The recent pandemic was just a reminder of the stormy scale of these imbalances. The end of this infection did not result in the expected “return to normality”, but in a scenario of war, inflation and ruptures in global supply circuits.

The crisis begins to pave new contours and nobody knows what direction the economic policy will take in the next period. In the midst of renewed state intervention, the dispute between a neo-Keynesian turn and an opposing course of neoliberal revival remains unresolved.

But any of these directions will confirm the preeminence of the new model of globalized, digital, precarious and financialized capitalism, with its consequent scale of uncontrollable contradictions. This scheme is as visible as the dramatic magnitude of its imbalances.

The sharpness of contemporary capitalism does not, however, extend to the geopolitical or military plane. Twenty-first-century imperialism is marked by an accumulation of uncertainties, indefinitions and ambivalences far beyond its economic base. The radical mutations that have taken place in this area in recent decades do not project to other spheres, and this divorce determines the enormous complexity of the current imperial tangle.


Erosion of imperial leadership

The existence of a dominant bloc led by the United States is the main characteristic of the contemporary imperial system. The first power is the greatest exponent of the new model and the obvious manager of the apparatus of international coercion, which ensures the domination of the wealthy. The diagnosis of current imperialism involves an assessment of the United States, which concentrates all the tensions of this device.

The main contradiction of current imperialism resides in the impotence of its leader. The colossus of the North suffers from an eroded leadership as a result of the deep crisis that affects its economy. Washington has lost the preponderance of the past, and its declining industrial competitiveness is not offset by its continued financial command or its significant technological supremacy.

The United States confirmed its advantages over other powers during the 2008 crisis. But the greater adversities in Europe and Japan did not diminish the systematic retreat of the North American economy, nor attenuate the sustained rise of China. The United States has not been able to contain the geographic reconfiguration of world production towards Asia.

This economic erosion affects US foreign policy, which has lost its traditional internal support. The old homogeneity of the Yankee giant has been shaken by the dramatic political breach that the country faces. The United States is corroded by racial tensions and political-cultural fractures that oppose the Americanism of the interior with the globalism of the coast.

This deterioration has an impact on Pentagon operations, which no longer have the backing of the past. The privatization of war takes place against a background of growing internal disapproval of foreign military adventures.

The US economy does not face a simple retreat from its continued supremacy. The international centrality of the US state apparatus and the primacy of its finances contrast with the commercial and productive decline of the country.

This wear and tear does not imply an inexorable and uninterrupted decline. The United States fails to restore its former leadership, but it continues to play a dominant role and its imperial future cannot be clarified by applying historical-deterministic criteria postulated by the theory of the cyclical rise and fall of empires. The decline of the US economy is synonymous with a crisis, but not with a terminal collapse on some pre-established date.

In fact, the power that the United States retains is based more on military deployment than on the impact of its economy. For this reason, it is essential to analyze the first power in an imperial key.


The failure of bellicose

For several decades Washington has been trying to regain its leadership through energetic actions. These incursions concentrate the main characteristics of current imperialism. The Pentagon manages a network of “contractors” who enrich themselves with war, recycling the military-industrial apparatus. They maintain the same importance in periods of distension and in periods of high conflict. The US arms economic model is recreated through high exports, high costs and a permanent display of firepower. This visibility requires the multiplication of hybrid wars and all kinds of incursions by parastatal formations.

With these deadly instruments, the United States created dantesque scenarios of deaths and refugees. It resorted to hypocritical justifications of humanitarian intervention and “war on terror” to perpetrate the atrocious invasions in the “Greater Middle East”. These operations included the gestation of the first jihadist groups, which later took off on their own with actions against the American godfather. The fringe terrorism these groups fostered never reached the appalling scale of state terrorism that the Pentagon monitors. Washington has gone too far in consummating the complete pulverisation of several countries.

But the most striking feature of this destructive model has been its resounding failure. Over the past twenty years, the US project of recomposition through military action has failed time and time again. The “American century” conceived by neoconservative thinkers was a short-lived fantasy, which he himself establishment of Washington abandoned to resume the advice of more pragmatic and realistic advisers.

The Pentagon occupations did not achieve the expected results and the United States became a superpower that loses wars. Bush, Obama, Trump and lately Biden have failed in all their attempts to use the country's military superiority to induce a revival of the Yankee economy.

This gap was particularly visible in the Middle East. Washington used its aggressions by stigmatizing the peoples of that region, with images of primitive, authoritarian and violent masses who are incapable of assimilating the wonders of modernity.

This nonsense was publicized by the media to cover up the attempt to appropriate the world's main oil reserves. But at the end of a stormy crusade, the United States was humiliated in Afghanistan, withdrew from Iraq, failed to subdue Iran, failed to create puppet governments in Libya and Syria, and even had to deal with the boomerang of jihadists who operate against the country.


Inflexibility of a tangle

The misfortunes faced by the first power did not result in its abandonment of external interventionism, nor in a retreat into its own territory. The US ruling class needs to preserve its imperial action, to sustain the primacy of the dollar, control of oil, the business of the military-industrial complex, the stability of Wall Street and the profits of technology companies.

For this reason, all White House leaders are rehearsing new variants of the same counteroffensive. No American leader can renounce the attempt to restore the country's primacy. Everyone returns to that goal, never reaching a successful conclusion. They suffer the same compulsion to look for a way to recover their lost leadership.

The United States lacks the plasticity of its British predecessor to hand over global command to a new partner. They don't have the capacity to adapt to the withdrawal that their transatlantic counterpart has shown in the last century. This North American inflexibility prevents them from molding themselves to the current context and accentuates the difficulties in exerting the direction of the imperial system.

This rigidity is largely due to the commitments of a power that no longer acts alone. Washington directs the web of international alliances built in the mid-twentieth century to deal with the so-called socialist camp. This articulation is based on a close association with European alter-imperialism, which develops its interventions under the North American aegis.

The capitalists of the Old Continent defend their own businesses with autonomous operations in the Middle East, Africa or Eastern Europe, but they act in strict harmony with the Pentagon and under an articulated command around NATO. The great empires of the past (England, France) preserve their influence in former colonial areas, but condition all their movements to Washington's veto.

The same subordinate partnership is maintained by the co-empires of Israel, Australia or Canada. They share custody of the global order with their referent and develop actions in accordance with their tutor's demands. At a regional level, they tend to support the same interests that the United States secures at a global level.

This articulated global system is a feature that current imperialism has inherited from its postwar precedent. It works in frontal divergence with the model of diversified powers that disputed primacy in the first half of the last century. The crisis of the hierarchical structure that followed this scheme is the crucial fact of XNUMXst century imperialism.

A striking expression of this inconsistency was the merely transitory character of the unipolar model that the neoconservative project envisioned for a new and prolonged “American century”. Instead of this renaissance, a multipolar context emerged, confirming the loss of North American supremacy vis-à-vis numerous actors in world geopolitics. Washington's desired dominance was replaced by a greater dispersion of power, in contrast to the bipolarity that prevailed during the Cold War and the failed unipolar attempt that followed the implosion of the USSR.

Today's imperialism thus operates around a dominant bloc commanded by the United States and managed by NATO, in close association with Europe and Washington's regional partners. But the Pentagon's failures to exercise its authority have led to the current unresolved crisis, which is seen in the emergence of multipolarity.


A non-hegemonic empire in the making

How does the updated concept of imperialism apply to powers that are not part of the ruling bloc? This question looms over the most complex enigmas of the XNUMXst century. It is evident that Russia and China are great rival powers of NATO, located in a non-hegemonic sphere of the current context. With this differentiated position: do they share an imperial statute or not?

The clarification of this condition has become particularly inevitable in the case of Russia since the beginning of the war in Ukraine. For western liberals, Moscow's imperialism is an evident fact and rooted in the authoritarian history of a country that shied away from the virtues of modernity to opt for the obscure backwardness of the East. With the well-worn argument of the Cold War, they contrast Russian totalitarianism with the wonders of American democracy.

But with such absurd assumptions, it is impossible to advance in any clarification of the contemporary profile of the Eurasian giant. Russia's potential imperial status must be evaluated in terms of the consolidation of capitalism and the transformation of the old bureaucracy into a new oligarchy of millionaires.

It is evident that the pillars of capitalism were consolidated in Russia, with the strengthening of private ownership of the means of production and the resulting patterns of profit, competition and exploitation, under a political model at the service of the ruling class. Yeltsin forged a republic of oligarchs and Putin only contained the predatory dynamics of that system, without reversing the privileges of the newly enriched minority.

Russian capitalism is very vulnerable due to the uncontrolled weight of various types of mafias. Informal surplus appropriation mechanisms also recycle the economic adversities of the old model of compulsive planning. The predominant scheme of exporting raw materials also affects the productive apparatus and recreates a significant flight of national resources abroad.

On the geopolitical level, Russia is a favorite target of NATO, which has tried to disintegrate the country through a large deployment of border missiles. However, Putin also reinforced Russian intervention in the post-Soviet space and developed a military action that goes beyond defensive dynamics and the logic of deterrence.

In this context, Russia is not part of the dominant imperialist circuit, but develops policies of domination in its surroundings that are typical of a non-hegemonic empire under construction.


Differences with the past

Moscow does not participate in the ruling group of world capitalism. It lacks significant financial capital and a significant number of international companies. It specialized in the export of oil and gas and consolidated its position as an intermediate economy with few connections with the periphery. It does not derive significant profits from unequal exchange.

But with this secondary economic position, Russia presents a potentially imperial profile rooted in foreign interventions, impactful geopolitical actions and dramatic tensions with the United States. This external role does not lead to the reconstitution of the former tsarist empire. The distances with that past are as monumental as the qualitative differences with the social regimes of the feudal past.

The asymmetries are equally significant with the USSR. Vladimir Putin does not recompose the so-called “Soviet imperialism”, which is an inconsistent and structurally incompatible category with the non-capitalist character of the model that preceded the 1989 implosion. engaged in imperialist actions in its conflicts with Yugoslavia, China or Czechoslovakia.

Currently, a large circuit of internal colonialism persists, perpetuating regional inequalities and the primacy of the Great Russian minority. But this oppressive modality is not on the scale of apartheid in South Africa or Palestine. Furthermore, the determinant of an imperial status is external expansion, which, until the war in Ukraine, was seen only as a tendency of Moscow.

The imperialist project is effectively sponsored by right-wing sectors that feed the war business, foreign adventures, nationalism and Islamophobic campaigns. But this course is opposed by the internationalized liberal elite, and for a long time Putin ruled maintaining the balance between the two groups.

It should not be forgotten that Russia is also the antipode of a dependent or semi-colonial status. It is an important international actor with a major role abroad, which modernizes its military structure and asserts itself as the world's second largest arms exporter. Instead of helping its neighbors, Moscow reinforces its own dominant project, for example by sending troops into Kazakhstan to prop up a neoliberal government that plunders oil revenues, cracks down on strikes and outlaws the Communist Party.


Ukraine's impact

The war in Ukraine introduced a qualitative change in Russian dynamics and the end results of this incursion will have a dramatic impact on the country's geopolitical status. The imperial trends that were just embryonic possibilities took on a new thickness.

There was certainly primary responsibility for the United States, which sought to bring Kiev into NATO's missile network against Moscow and encouraged far-right militia violence in Donbass. But Vladimir Putin consummated an inadmissible and functional military action for western imperialism, which has no justification as a defensive action. The Kremlin chief despised the Ukrainians, aroused hatred against the occupier and ignored the widespread aspiration for peaceful solutions. With his incursion, he created a very negative scenario for the emancipatory hopes of the peoples of Europe.

The final outcome of the incursion remains unclear and it is uncertain whether the effects of sanctions will be more adverse for Russia than for the West. But the humanitarian tragedy in terms of deaths and refugees is already capital and convulsing the entire region. The United States is betting on prolonging the war in order to push Moscow into the same quagmire that the USSR faced in Afghanistan. Therefore, it induces Kiev to reject negotiations that would stop hostilities. Washington intends to subject Europe to its militarist agenda, through an endless conflict that ensures NATO funding from Brussels. It no longer aims to just incorporate Ukraine into the military alliance. Now he is also pressing for the entry of Finland and Sweden.

In short: Russia is a capitalist country that, until the incursion into Ukraine, did not have the general characteristics of an imperial aggressor. But the offensive geopolitical course of Vladimir Putin supports this profile and induces the transformation of the empire in gestation into an empire in consolidation. The failure of this operation could also result in a premature neutralization of the nascent empire.


China's role

China shares a similar position in the non-hegemonic conglomerate with Russia and faces a similar conflict with the United States. For this reason, its current status raises the same question: is it an imperialist power?

In his case, it is worth noting the exceptional development he has achieved in recent decades, with socialist foundations, mercantile complements and capitalist parameters. He established a model linked to globalization, but centered on the local retention of the surplus. This combination allowed for intense local accumulation intertwined with globalization, through reinvestment circuits and great control over the movement of capital. The economy expanded in a sustained manner, with a significant absence of the neoliberalism and financialization that plagued its competitors.

China was also hit by the 2008 crisis, which introduced an insurmountable ceiling on the previous model of financed exports to the United States. This “China-America” link has been exhausted, revealing the imbalance generated by a trade surplus paid for with huge credits. This lag ushered in the current crisis.

China's leadership initially opted for a shift in local economic activity. But this decoupling did not generate benefits equivalent to those obtained in the previous globalized scheme. The new course accentuated overinvestment, real estate bubbles and a vicious circle of excess savings and overproduction, which forced the resumption of the search for foreign markets through the ambitious project of the Silk Road.

This course raises tensions with the partners and faces the great limit of an eventual stagnation of the world economy. It is very difficult to sustain a gigantic international infrastructure plan in a scenario of low global growth.

During the pandemic, China again proved to be more efficient than the United States and Europe with their express Covid containment mechanisms. But the infection broke out in its territory, a consequence of the imbalances precipitated by globalization. Urban overpopulation and uncontrolled food industrialization illustrated the dramatic consequences of capitalist penetration.

China is currently affected by the war that followed the pandemic. Its economy is very susceptible to food and energy inflation. It also faces obstacles that obstruct the functioning of global value chains.


a new position

China has not yet completed its transition to capitalism. This regime is very present in the country, but it does not dominate the entire economy. There is a significant prevalence of private ownership of large companies, which operate under rules of profit, competition and exploitation, generating acute imbalances of overproduction. But, unlike in Eastern Europe and Russia, the new bourgeois class did not gain control of the state and this lack prevents the crowning pre-eminence of the capitalist norms that prevail in the rest of the world.

China defends itself against US harassment in the geopolitical field. Barack Obama started a sequence of aggressions, which Donald Trump redoubled and Joe Biden reinforced. The Pentagon has erected a naval encirclement, while accelerating the gestation of a “Pacific NATO”, along with Japan, South Korea, Australia and India. Taiwan's remilitarization is also advancing and the attempt to leave Europe at all costs from the confrontation with Russia, in order to concentrate military resources on the fight with China.

So far, Beijing has not developed actions equivalent to those of its rival. It asserts its sovereignty within a limited radius of miles, to resist the US attempt to internationalize its coastal space. It reinforces the fishing activity, the underwater reserves and, above all, the sea routes it needs to transport its goods.

This defensive reaction is a far cry from Washington's push into the Pacific Ocean. China does not send warships to the coasts of New York or California, and its soaring military spending still keeps a significant distance from the Pentagon. Beijing privileges economic exhaustion, through a strategy that aims to “wear out the enemy”. It also distances itself from any warlike alliances comparable to NATO.

China therefore does not satisfy the basic conditions of an imperialist power. Its foreign policy is very far from this profile. It does not send troops abroad, it only maintains a military base outside its borders (at a key commercial crossroads) and it does not get involved in external conflicts.

The new power especially avoids the belligerent path taken by Germany and Japan in the XNUMXth century, using a geopolitical prudence inconceivable in the past. It has profited from globalized forms of production that did not exist in the previous century. China has also avoided the path taken by Russia and has not taken steps similar to those Moscow has undertaken in Syria or Ukraine. For this reason, it does not outline the imperial course that Russia is hinting at with increasing intensity.

Nor does this international moderation place China at the opposite pole of the imperial spectrum. The new power is already far removed from the Global South and has entered the universe of central economies, which accumulate profits at the expense of the periphery. It left behind the specter of dependent nations and placed itself above the new group of emerging economies.

Chinese capitalists capture surplus value (through companies located abroad) and profit from the supply of raw materials. The country has already reached the status of a creditor economy, in potential conflict with its debtors in the South. It profits from unequal exchange and absorbs surpluses from underdeveloped economies, based on productivity much higher than the average of its customers.

In summary: China has positioned itself in a non-hegemonic bloc far from the periphery. But it did not complete the capitalist status and avoids the development of imperialist policies.


Semi-periphery and sub-imperialism

Another novelty of the current scenario is the presence of important regional actors. They exhibit a lower weight than the major powers, but demonstrate enough relevance to require some ranking in the imperial order. The centrality of these actors results from the unexpected incidence of intermediate economies, which consolidated their profile with emerging industrialization structures.

This irruption made the old center-periphery relationship more complex, as a result of a double process of draining value from underdeveloped regions and retaining value from the ascending semiperiphery. Several members of the Asian pole, India or Turkey exemplify this new condition, in a context of growing bifurcation in the traditional universe of dependent countries. This scenario – more tripolar binary – gains relevance in the contemporary international hierarchy.

Internal differentiation in the former periphery is very visible on all continents. The enormous distance that separates Brazil or Mexico from Haiti or El Salvador in Latin America is reproduced on the same scale in Europe, Asia and Africa. These fractures have significant internal consequences and complete the underlying process of transformation of old national bourgeoisies into new local bourgeoisies.

In this spectrum of semi-peripheral economies, a complex variety of geopolitical statutes can be seen. In some cases, there is the emergence of an empire in gestation (Russia), in others the traditional dependent condition persists (Argentina) and in certain countries the traces of sub-imperialism emerge.

This last category does not identify weaker variants of the imperial device. This smaller place is occupied by several NATO members (such as Belgium or Spain), who recreate a simple subordinate role to the US command. Nor does the sub-empire allude to the current condition of former empires in decline (such as Portugal, Holland or Austria).

As Ruy Mauro Marini correctly anticipated, contemporary sub-empires act as regional powers, maintaining a contradictory relationship of partnership, subordination or tension with the US gendarme. This ambiguity coexists with strong military actions in disputes with its regional competitors. Sub-empires operate on a scale far removed from the grand geopolitics of the world, but with thrusts into areas that recall their ancient roots as long-standing empires.

Turkey is the main exponent of this modality in the Middle East. It develops a significant expansionism, demonstrates a great duality in relation to Washington, resorts to unpredictable movements, promotes foreign adventures and engages in an intense competitive battle with Iran and Saudi Arabia.


XNUMXst century specifics

From all the exposed elements, the characteristics of contemporary imperialism can be deduced. This device presents unique, innovative and divergent modalities compared to its two predecessors from the last century. Today's imperialism is a system structured around the dominant role played by the United States, in close liaison with Europe's alter-imperialist partners and co-imperial appendages in other hemispheres.

This structure includes military actions to guarantee the transfer of value from the periphery to the center and faces a structural crisis, following the successive failures of the Pentagon, which led to the current multipolar configuration.

Outside this dominant radius are two great powers. While China expands its economy with cautious external strategies, Russia operates with embryonic modalities of a new empire. Other sub-imperial formations, of a much smaller scale, dispute pre-eminence in regional scenarios with autonomous actions, but also linked to the NATO entanglement.

This renewed Marxist interpretation hierarchizes the concept of imperialism, integrating the notion of hegemony into this contemporary geopolitics system. It underscores the crisis of the US command without postulating its inexorable decline, nor the inevitable emergence of a surrogate power (China) or several allied surrogates (BRICS).

The focus on the concept of imperialism also underscores the continued importance of military coercion, recalling that it has not lost its primacy in the face of the growing influence of economics, diplomacy or ideology.


The classic approaches

Debates within the Marxist conglomerate include polemics between the renewed approach (which we have expounded) and the classical view. The latter proposes the updating of the same characterization that Lenin postulated at the beginning of the XNUMXth century.

It considers that the validity of this approach is not restricted to the period in which it was formulated, but extends its validity to the present day. Just as Marx laid the lasting foundations for a characterization of capitalism, Lenin had postulated a thesis that surpassed the date of its formulation. This approach opposes the existence of various models of imperialism, adapted to successive changes in capitalism. He understands that only one scheme is enough to understand the dynamics of the last century.

From this characterization, he deduces an analogy between the current scenario and what prevailed during the First World War, arguing that the same inter-imperial conflict reappears in the current situation. He argues that Russia and China compete with their Western peers, with policies similar to those implemented a hundred years ago by powers that challenge the dominant forces.

From this perspective, current conflicts are perceived as a competition for the periphery's booty. The war in Ukraine is seen as an example of this clash and the battle between Kiev and Moscow is explained by the appetite for iron, gas or wheat resources in the disputed territory. All countries involved in this battle are equated and denounced as sides of an inter-imperial struggle.

But this reasoning misses the great differences between the current context and the past. In the early twentieth century, a plurality of powers collided with comparable military forces to assert their superiority. There was none of the stratified supremacy that the United States now exercises over its NATO partners. This predominance attests that the powers no longer act as autonomous warriors. The United States governs both Europe and its appendices of other continents.

Today, moreover, an imperial system operates in the face of a variety of non-hegemonic alliances, which include only emerging imperial tendencies. The dominant nucleus attacks and the formations in formation defend themselves. Contrary to what happened in the last century, there is no battle between equally offensive pairs.


Lenin's criteria

The classic thesis defines imperialism with guidelines that underline the predominance of finance capital, monopolies and the export of capital. With these parameters, it proposes positive or negative responses to the status of Russia and China, depending on the degree to which they meet or distance themselves from these requirements.

Affirmative answers place Russia in the imperialist camp, assessing that its economy has expanded significantly, with investments abroad, global corporations and exploitation of the periphery. The same interpretation for the Chinese case emphasizes that the world's second economy already comfortably satisfies all the requirements of an imperial power.

Contrasting assessments point out that Russia has not yet joined the rulers' club because it lacks the potent financial capital that such ascent requires. It is also noteworthy that it has few monopolies or prominent companies in the ranking of international corporations. The same opinion for the case of China points out that the powerful Asian economy has not yet stood out in the export of capital or in the predominance of its finances.

But these economic classifications drawn from characterizations formulated in 1916 are inadequate to assess contemporary imperialism. Lenin only described the characteristics of the capitalism of his time, without using this assessment to define a map of the imperial order. He considered, for example, that Russia was a member of the club of empires, despite not fulfilling all the necessary economic conditions for such participation. The same was true of Japan, which was not a major exporter of capital, nor did it harbor pre-eminent forms of finance capital.

The current enforced application of these requirements leads to numerous confusions. There are many countries with powerful finances, foreign investments and large monopolies (such as Switzerland) that do not employ imperialist policies. On the contrary, the Russian economy itself functions as a mere semiperiphery in the world ranking, but develops military actions typical of an empire in gestation. China, in turn, fulfills all the conditions of the classic economic prescription to be typified as an imperial giant, but does not engage in military actions commensurate with this status.

The place of each power in the world economy therefore does not clarify its role as an empire. This role is elucidated by evaluating foreign policy, foreign intervention and geopolitical-military actions on the global board. This approach suggested by renewed Marxism sheds more light on the characteristics of current imperialism than the perspective postulated by those who update the classical view.


Transnationalism and global empire

Another alternative Marxist approach has been developed in the past decade by the global empire thesis. This vision gained great importance during the heyday of the World Social Forums, postulating the validity of a post-imperialist era, which would overcome national capitalism and state intermediation. He highlighted a new direct opposition between dominators and dominated, resulting from the dissolution of the old centers, the unrestricted mobility of capital and the extinction of the center-periphery relationship.

In a context of great euphoria with free trade and banking deregulation, he also highlighted the existence of a dominant class amalgamated and intertwined through the transnationalization of states. He saw the United States as the embodiment of a globalized empire, which transmits its structures and values ​​to the entire planet.

This view has been contradicted by the current scenario of intense conflicts between the great powers. The drastic clash between the United States and China is inexplicable from a perspective that postulates the dissolution of states and the consequent disappearance of geopolitical crises between countries differentiated by their national foundations.

The global empire thesis also omitted the limits and contradictions of globalization, forgetting that capital cannot migrate without restrictions from one country to another, nor can it enjoy a free planetary circulation of labor. A continuous sequence of barriers obstructs the constitution of this homogeneous space worldwide.

This approach extrapolated possible long-term scenarios to immediate realities, imagining simple and abrupt globalizations. It diluted the economy and geopolitics into a single process and ignored the continued protagonism of the states, imagining transnational entanglements between the main ruling classes. He forgot that the functioning of capitalism is based on the legal and coercive structure provided by the different States.

It was even more wrong to compare the pyramidal structure of the contemporary imperial system led by the US to a global, horizontal empire lacking national partners. He omitted that the first power operates as a protector of the global order, but without dissolving its army into multinational troops. Due to this accumulation of inconsistencies, the vision of a global empire has lost its importance in current debates.



Revamped Marxist theory offers the most consistent characterization of XNUMXst century imperialism. It underlines the pre-eminence of a coercive military device, led by the US and articulated around NATO, to ensure the domination of the periphery and harass the non-hegemonic rival formations of Russia and China.

These powers include only embryonic or limited imperial modalities and develop primarily defensive actions. The crisis of the imperial system is the central fact of a period marked by the recurrent North American inability to recover its declining primacy.

*Claudio Katz is professor of economics at Universidad Buenos Aires. Author, among other books, of Neoliberalism, neodevelopmentalism, socialism (Popular Expression).

Translation: Fernando Lima das Neves.

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  • Hélio Pellegrino, 100 years oldHelio Pellegrino 14/06/2024 By FERNANDA CANAVÊZ & FERNANDA PACHECO-FERREIRA: In the vast elaboration of the psychoanalyst and writer, there is still an aspect little explored: the class struggle in psychoanalysis
  • Volodymyr Zelensky's trapstar wars 15/06/2024 By HUGO DIONÍSIO: Whether Zelensky gets his glass full – the US entry into the war – or his glass half full – Europe’s entry into the war – either solution is devastating for our lives
  • Introduction to “Capital” by Karl Marxred triangular culture 02/06/2024 By ELEUTÉRIO FS PRADO: Commentary on the book by Michael Heinrich
  • PEC-65: independence or patrimonialism in the Central Bank?Campos Neto Trojan Horse 17/06/2024 By PEDRO PAULO ZAHLUTH BASTOS: What Roberto Campos Neto proposes is the constitutional amendment of free lunch for the future elite of the Central Bank
  • Letter to the presidentSquid 59mk,g 18/06/2024 By FRANCISCO ALVES, JOÃO DOS REIS SILVA JÚNIOR & VALDEMAR SGUISSARDI: “We completely agree with Your Excellency. when he states and reaffirms that 'Education is an investment, not an expense'”
  • The strike at federal Universities and Institutescorridor glazing 01/06/2024 By ROBERTO LEHER: The government disconnects from its effective social base by removing those who fought against Jair Bolsonaro from the political table