Imperialism and the myth of development

James Ensor, Belgium, Little View of Mariakerke


Commentary on Sam King's book

Over 18 chapters, Imperialism and the Devolution Myth articulates themes consistent with different levels of abstraction, the critique of the world economy to the debate on imperialism, monopolies and their connection with dependence. The book's point of arrival converges on a critical analysis of China – a fundamental theme and, for this reason, the subject of great controversy. Due to space, we will focus on chapters 2 to 15, which discuss the categories of imperialism, monopoly capital and non-monopoly capital and their applications for understanding current capitalism.

Even so, it seems important to us to go quickly through the first chapter. In it, the author classifies the countries of the world system in a way that does not seem to us the most adequate, insofar as he considers the dependent countries as “Third World” countries, resuming classifications characteristic of the Cold War and ignoring a whole bibliography of authors of peripheral countries on the issue. Much more useful and theoretically accurate would be if the author classified these countries as dependent. More than a semantic caprice, this demonstrates that the author did not incorporate the contributions of the Marxist Theory of Dependency into his theoretical reflection. Theotonio dos Santos (1978) had already indicated the gap that the classical theories of imperialism contained by not having addressed the unfolding of world capitalist development from the countries that are the object of imperialist expansion.

Another issue, still in chapter 1, which deserves a more attentive discussion, revolves around the methodology used to classify imperialist and dependent countries. Sam King uses gross domestic product (GDP) per capita as his main instrument. Here, the author raises a fruitful and important debate, putting into perspective, for example, China's entry into the club of imperialist countries by indicating the inconsistency of analyzing only GDP. However, classification using GDP per capita does not seem sufficient and can lead to error. From our perspective, this would be at most an approximation, whose path should incorporate other mediations. Let's see.

For the year 2022 (IMF, 2022; WB, 2022), the top five GDP per capita in the world are: (i) Luxembourg, (ii) Singapore, (iii) Ireland, (iv) Qatar, and (v) Switzerland . The United States, the largest imperialist power, appears in seventh place, behind Norway. Germany appears in 19a. position, while Canada, France, the United Kingdom and Japan appear respectively in 24th, 26th, 28th and 30th. In the same direction, the countries that make up the BRICS would be behind countless dependent countries. Russia is in 53rd, China in 77th, Brazil in 85th, South Africa in 103rd and India in 128th.

That said, it seems to us that the core of Sam King's contribution lies in the debate on the categories of imperialism, monopoly capital, non-monopoly capital and monopoly non-monopoly capital, as well as their implications for understanding current capitalism.

To reach this moment in the exhibition, the book critically dialogues with the conceptions about imperialism of authors from developed countries, whose reflections were written between the end of the XNUMXth century and the present – ​​being one of the book's highlights. At first, Sam King criticizes the deformation and abandonment of Lenin by these authors. According to these readings, Lenin's theory of imperialism would not have scientific pretensions (Emmanuel, White-Settler Colonialism and the Myth of Investment Imperialism), consisting in the subordination of scientific demands by the activity of political agitation (Arrighi, Geometry of Imperialism, 1979), would be defective and based on a fundamental error (Panitch and Gindin, Global Capitalism and American Empire, 2004), therefore being a pamphlet (Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism.

Taking advantage of the 20 years since the US invasion of Iraq, it is important to emphasize that only after this historical fact did Marxist authors begin to recover the idea of ​​imperialism. The most influential work of this period was The New Imperialism, by David Harvey, published precisely in 2003. David Harvey's work proposes a new approach to imperialism, based on the key concept of “accumulation by dispossession”. However, for Sam King, Harvey's work could not explain the exploitation of the “Third World” or the reproduction of imperialist domination.

In turn, the current that aligns with the Monthly Review, above all John Bellamy Foster, has emphasized imperialist exploitation in the periphery, identifying the growing polarization between rich and poor countries from the transfer of economic value from the periphery to the center. The central issue for Sam King, however, is to explain by what mechanism dependent countries are continually forced to transfer value. In this respect, Foster does not focus his investigation on the work process, but on a “global arbitration of work”, understanding that the system would have shifted production to world regions with lower labor costs, maintaining, at the same time, the division between center and center. periphery. This process would take place from contractual factors, such as international trade agreements, shifting the explanation of Marx's theory of value to contractual relations.

According to Sam King, from 2011 onwards, there was a new turn in Marxist production on imperialism as a function of the economic exploitation of the Third World. Along these lines, the author analyzes Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century (2016), by John Smith, who would have empirically demonstrated how the global production of goods causes the transfer of value from the periphery to the center. Smith proposes that the superexploitation of labor in the periphery would explain the transfer of value and should be incorporated into the theory of imperialism, being the (hidden) essence of imperialism.

However, according to Sam King, Smith does not explain how multinationals and imperialist states would ensure their preeminence in the appropriation of this value, given that the superexploitation of labor in the periphery would be the responsibility of capitalists in that region, so that the reason is not explained. whereby these capitalists would not be able to retain the surplus value created in their own factories, mines and farms. Thus, the superexploitation of labor alone would not be able to explain either the unequal exchange or the reproduction of imperialist domination.

For Sam King, it is exactly in this aspect that Lenin's theory of imperialism is rejected by Smith's work, as it would not be able to explain the current division of the world economy, insofar as monopoly would deny the law of value. Smith considers that the source of monopoly domination would not be in technological innovation or in the sphere of production, but in the legal area. For no other reason, the author argues that “[…] Apple's enormous profits arise from technological patents, as well as from brands and retail” (SMITH, 2016, p. 250). Still, it is exactly the monopoly domination ensured by patents that would explain, for Smith, the transfer of value.

Sam King argues that Smith's main theoretical error occurs because the author follows Arghiri Emmanuel and Samir Amin in the assumption that imperialism should not be analyzed as a form of capitalist competition. It is because of this that the author states that “[…] the development of the international division of labor in the neoliberal period manifests an evolution of the capital-labor relationship, in which it increasingly takes the form of a relationship between Northern capital and work of the South” (SMITH, 2016, p. 50). In this analysis, the Third World capitalist would not exist.

For Sam King, outsourcing, as a process widely used in the neoliberal period, does not mean the elimination of Third World capitalists, but precisely their hiring. This means that the value produced in the periphery is primarily appropriated by the capitalists in that region, and a part of this value is transferred to the imperialist capitals via the market, due to the fact that the goods are sold below their value. In effect, the value produced is redistributed through intercapitalist competition, involving capitals that produce different goods.

The problem would be to theoretically explain and demonstrate how imperialist domination is reproduced through the labor process and how this is expressed in the domination of the world market. Hence the need to recover Lenin and undo some misconceptions about the category of imperialism.

First of all, Sam King disagrees with authors such as Anwar Shaikh, John Smith, Alex Callinicos, Panitch and Gindin, among others, who understand that the core of Lenin's theory of imperialism would be the export of capital. According to King, the export of capital is not the central aspect, but rather the category of monopoly. In turn, colonialism was a present and important phenomenon for imperialism at the beginning of the XNUMXth century. Another thing, however, is to state that, for Lenin, colonialism would be synonymous with imperialism.

Then, the author rescues an extensive polemic about imperialism as the superior (last) stage of capitalism. The controversy seems clear: to the extent that imperialism would be the highest stage of capitalism, there would be no room for its own metamorphosis, that is, for its development to generate new phenomena and characteristics. From this perspective, Lenin would have been mistaken, since capitalism continued to metamorphose. However, Sam King argues that the idea of ​​a “higher stage” of capitalism would be present in chapter 27 (“The Role of Credit in Capitalist Production”) of book 3 d'The capital (MARX, 2017). By referring to the emergence of joint-stock companies, Marx captured the profound social antagonism that socializes production among producers and transforms large capital owners into veritable monopolies. In this sense, Lenin referred to the highest stage in the development of social relations of production.

It should also be noted that monopoly financial capital does not mean what is today understood by financialization – the primacy of finance over the productive sector. For Lenin (2012, p. 75), the concentration “[…] of production; monopolies resulting from it; merger or joining of banks with industry: such is the history of the emergence of financial capital and the content of this concept”. According to Sam King, reviving this definition would allow us to understand financial capital in the XNUMXst century.

For several authors, Lenin's monopoly would point to the suspension of capitalist competition. However, monopoly only means overcoming “free competition”, taking capitalist competition to another stage, intensifying it. In other words, it would be a new form of competition, which would maintain “[…] the general framework of formally recognized free competition” (LÊNIN, 2012, p. 48). In this way, imperialism would not deny this fundamental characteristic of capitalism, but would replace it in a more advanced form. In effect, the successful monopolization of research and development (R&D) that develops the work process, “[…] guarantees, by definition, a renewal of the monopoly over advanced production techniques and, in this way, […] over the process of work as a whole” (KING, 2021, p. 127).

Regarding non-monopoly capital, it is important to emphasize that they also compete in the field of free competition. After all, “[…] monopolies, resulting from free competition, do not eliminate it, but exist above and alongside it, thus engendering particularly sharp and intense contradictions, frictions and conflicts” (LÊNIN, 2012, p. 123-124). In this sense, Sam King distinguishes three forms of capitalist competition: (i) between monopolies; (ii) among non-monopoly capitals; (iii) and between monopoly capital and non-monopoly capital. The “monopoly 'revolution' of the means of production could not lead to a general increase in profits for the monopoly sector, unless it coexists with non-monopoly capital, from which extraordinary surplus-value can be extracted” (KING, 2021, p. 128). Thus, to the “[…] extent that it can monopolize the most advanced forms of necessary labor, it [monopoly capital] can parasitically appropriate the value of other parts of the labor process” (KING, 2021, p. 131). This is the economic relationship that imperialism would maintain with the dependent countries.

According to Sam King, this would be expressed “[...] in the difference between the average rate of profit of monopoly and the average rate of profit [of non-monopoly capital]” (KING, 2021, p. 139), being in accordance with the what Marx indicated about those individual capitals that have a higher labor productivity than their competitors in the same industrial branch, the consequence of which would be an above-average profit. This logic also extends between different branches. “This is the Marxist work theory of unequal exchange” (KING, 2021, p. 140).

For the author, the most important feature of the economic support of imperialism in the neoliberal period is precisely the monopoly over the work process. During this period, the general trend was to politically and economically protect the most sensitive work processes by moving abroad and outsourcing the most basic work processes. This expanded the reach of the market as a regulatory mechanism in the distribution of value, allowing for a greater degree of value transfer. In turn, contemporary technology has enabled the geographic separation of sophisticated work processes. This process would mean the expanded division between simple work and complex work.

In relation to non-monopoly capital from dependent countries, Sam King observes that, due to the position occupied in the international division of labor, there is a tendency for the prices of goods to fall, so that the technical progress achieved by these capitals would put pressure on prices of your goods down. Thus, the greater mass of surplus value due to increased productivity ends up being appropriated by multinational corporations and imperialist societies through price fixing by monopolies. “This loss of surplus value forces them to reproduce anemically, unable to fully carry out their self-expansion” (KING, 2021, p. 168).

Another effect of the international division of labor consists in the intensification of competition between non-monopoly capitals. For King, intense competition based on discounts would be the predominant business model for dependent capital. In this sense, it is clear how the author does not incorporate the category of overexploitation of the workforce. When it comes to monopolies, King demands that the cited authors shift their gaze to the sphere of production; however, the author makes the same mistake when dealing with dependent countries. Here is a big gap in his analysis.

In any case, the competition between these capitals follows the logic of capitalist competition in general, namely, the concentration and centralization of capital. This would result in the formation of what Sam King calls non-monopoly monopolies. Here, the author cites Ruy Mauro Marini's contribution on sub-imperialism, a phenomenon in which some dependent capital reaches the stage of monopoly, albeit in a dependent and subordinated manner.

Going forward, the author understands that as industries and factories spread around the world, the idea spreads that industrialization and development are taking place in the countries where they are located. Contrary to the bourgeois, reformist and Marxist readings that go in this direction, Sam King observes that the generalization of the industrial process changes the direction of industrialization in the current period. The incorporation of certain aspects of industry in dependent economies would not necessarily mean development or a more privileged position in the international division of labor, while specialization in certain industrial aspects and abandonment of others – as occurs, for example, in the United States – it would not mean deindustrialization. For, “[…] unless we define industrialization as the production of goods using abundant manual labor and not, according to Marx, as the replacement of manual labor by machines, then the United States clearly did not deindustrialize until the 2000s. ” (KING, 2021, p. 194).

The other side of the coin would be the frenetic pace of technical advance, so that technical superiority represents an unstable basis of long-term imperialist domination, requiring constant technological innovation through the systematic organization of R&D.

In general, we consider that the book by Australian author Sam King is a grateful contribution to the advancement of Marxist studies in the field of political economy (and, more precisely, its criticism). It is worth noting here that the thematic breadth is, at the same time, a great virtue of the book and a limitation, in that it condenses themes that require care and rigor, so that they could be explored separately in different books .

Fabio de Oliveira Maldonado é master's degree from the Postgraduate Program in Latin American Integration at the University of São Paulo (USP).

Originally published in the magazine reorient, flight. 2, no. 2 [DOI: 10.54833]


Sam King. Imperialism and the development myth: how rich countries dominate in the twenty-first century. Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2021, 312 pages.


DOS SANTOS, Theotonio. Imperialism and dependency. México, DF: Ediciones Era, 1978.

LENIN, Vladimir Ilich. Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism: popular essay. São Paulo: Popular Expression, 2012.

MARX, Carl. Capital: critique of political economy. Book III: the global process of capitalist production. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2017.

SMITH, John. Imperialism in the twenty-first century: globalization, super-exploitation, and capitalism's final crisis. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2016.

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