contemporary imperialism

Image: Tuur Tisseghem


On modern-day imperialism, wars, and a new world order

The Russian military advance in Ukrainian territory and the imminence of a possible open conflict between the United States, Europe and Russia has been arousing intense debates among those who study international relations, among representatives of leftist movements and parties and among the general public. in general. The conjuncture has generated different interpretations and has been bringing up concepts and categories, such as imperialism.

In the debate on imperialism, an important issue seems to me to be the care in giving historicity to the concept. What is imperialism today, after more than a century since its classical theoretical formulations, such as those of Lenin,[I] for example? To what extent does the concept help us to understand the current world?

According to John Bellamy Foster (2005)[ii] to think about the imperialism of yesterday and today, it is necessary to understand that it is not simply a policy, which results from the action of powerful groups that take over the State to impose their own interests through military means. Imperialism is a systematic reality arising from the very nature of capitalist development.

From the classic formulations about imperialism in the beginning of the XNUMXth century, the debate advanced. In the post-Second World War, authors such as Henry Magdoff,[iii] for example, they deepened the investigation into the imperialism of their time, emphasizing the centrality of monopoly capitalism that was consolidating at that time and its broad connection with the disputes between the United States and the Soviet Union.

After the end of the Cold War, the victory of the United States and the end of the Soviet Union, capitalism undergoes several transformations, such as the technological revolution, financialization and productive internationalization. Such changes are imposing new analysis challenges on imperialism. The debate continues, until today, even though liberal doctrine has made an effort in the 90s to paint a “globalized” world, in which the very strength of States would be shaken, which would rule out the functionality of the concept of imperialism.

As reality imposes itself, right at the beginning of the XNUMXst century, the War on Terror undertaken by the United States and the continuity of its military expansion project contributed, among other elements, to reset the debate on imperialism. Several authors will analyze the imperialism of the XNUMXst century from the investigation of the transformations of capitalism and the continuity of disputes between States, even in the context of a “globalized” world and large corporations.

Authors such as David Harvey,[iv] Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin,[v] Alex Callinicos,[vi] Ellen Wood,[vii] John Smith[viii] and several others have focused on the forms of concrete manifestation of imperialism today, each one in its own way and with important divergences. This analytical challenge is fundamental, as it means understanding capitalism itself in its current form, its concrete and historical manifestations, even if, in the end, we once again realize the validity and importance of Lenin's and, of course, Marx's classic formulations.

Always pondering the divergences present in these most recent theoretical contributions, it seems to me possible to extract some characteristics about the imperialism of our days, such as: the uncontested hegemony of the United States, a State that managed to gather around itself a military, economic and monetary capacity unprecedented in the international system. This State has been operating actively after the end of the Cold War through the dissemination of its capital, its companies, and through a policy, the neoliberal one, but also through wars, coups and sanctions. North American hegemony is a fundamental fact and a mark of imperialism today, without which it is not possible to understand any movement and conflicts between states.

Thus, on the military expansion of the United States after the end of the Cold War, Moniz Bandeira[ix] points out that, “[…] in 1995, when the White House pressured Congress to accelerate NATO's expansion project to the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, that is, to Russia's borders, Theodore C. Sorensen, former adviser and friend of President John F. Kennedy (1961–1963), he published an assertive article in The Washington Post against President Bill Clinton's foreign policy, pointing out that it was “hard to imagine a more provocative decision taken with less consultation and consideration for the consequences”. This initiative, in the sense of incorporating Eastern European countries into NATO, violated the commitments assumed by President George HW Bush with President Mikhail S. Gorbachiov, when Germany was reunified. Hence, on February 2, 1997, Ambassador George F. Kennan, architect of the Soviet Union's containment strategy, wisely warned that “expanding NATO would be the most fateful mistake of American policy in the entire post-cold-war era".

This management of the world perpetrated by the US, with a strong war content, but also monetary and economic, led to the deepening of inequalities around the world and the division, still present, between rich and poor countries.

But to understand imperialism today, it is necessary to understand that the consolidation and expansion of the United States took place in the midst of and connected to several transformations, such as the establishment of a financialized capitalism, which advances in search of spaces of valorization, subjecting National States and undermining any possibility of pro-development policies. In addition, we experience the existence of large transnational corporations (mainly North American and European), which move their capital around the peripheral world, in search of cheap labor for the production of goods, in what John Smith, for example, will call global labor arbitration.

It is also necessary to consider that we live under processes of accumulation by dispossession, in David Harvey's terms, which open spaces for accumulation, in a context of over-accumulation of capitalism. This involves processes of privatization and exploitation of natural resources by companies and countries around the world.

Thus, today's imperialism is also characterized by the expansion of capital accumulation, through transnational companies connected to their respective National States, mainly North American and European, but not only. This question is central to a critical analysis of the recent escalation of interstate conflicts. The concept of imperialism still helps a lot in this regard.

Imperialism today must also be analyzed in the light of the fact that amid its own material transformations and contradictions, and despite the permanent exercise of North American hegemony, it has seen the emergence in recent decades of other countries that have managed to advance, such as Russia and the China. This advance, each in its own way, confronts US hegemony and replaces new contradictions, even if these States do not have economic, warlike, technological power and external performance comparable to that of the United States, as explained above.

Russia rose from the rubble of the end of the Soviet Union, moving forward through the resumption of the State's ability to boost the economy, in a context of improved foreign trade, which allowed it to modernize its military apparatus and its national economy.

In the case of China, we observe a movement of expressive economic ascension, through the maintenance of the centrality of the State in the management of the economy, in spite of the broad economic opening and pro-market reforms. The country benefited from the processes of productive transnationalization, integrating itself into international capitalism, modernizing its industry and has been disputing a space in the productive and technological field that until then was controlled by western powers and mainly by the United States.

The US action to strengthen its position in European territory through the expansion of NATO can also be seen as an affirmation of its power in a scenario of China's advance around disputes between the two countries over trade, control of strategic natural resources and technologies, as well as spaces for capital accumulation. This seems to me to be another key issue in understanding the disputes we are experiencing.

Well, based on this picture of imperialism today, and the serious events that have been taking place with the Russian military advance to Ukraine, could we say that we are living an inter-imperialist war? No, at least in terms of how this type of conflict has played out in the past. And not without first qualifying what imperialism is today.

It is impossible to discuss the Russian advance without taking into account the hegemonic role of the United States and the current dimension of American power. That power seems to me to have substantially altered the position and capabilities of each nation state. In the European region itself, the way the US did not respect NATO's non-expansion agreements, or the interference in the Ukrainian political process that led to the 2014 coup in that country are a demonstration of this power. The monetary capacity to apply sanctions, related to the hegemony of the flexible dollar standard, is another demonstration.

It is the United States (and to some extent the richest European states) that most benefit from the new forms of appropriation of global value, in the context of imperialism today, through the actions of its transnational companies, which control and appropriate global value. productive, and through the expansion of finance capital.

In this context, the idea of ​​inter-imperialist disputes needs to be qualified in view of the transformations of contemporary capitalism. But this does not mean the end of disputes between states, quite the contrary. Arguing the centrality of US imperialism does not mean saying that other countries will not confront this power, in fact, this is exactly the point where we seem to find ourselves now.

Russia, although acting within a framework of imperialism marked by the affirmation of the United States, is not outside the capitalist system nor is it proposing another form of social organization. It acts as a capitalist state, within a capitalist order, seeking to maintain the structural conditions of its economy and society. In this sense, it acts by resorting to violence in the invasion of Ukraine, as we have seen in recent weeks, to resist yes, and to confront the American empire, but also to sustain its national economy.

In this regard, we should not support Russia and the military invasion of Ukraine. We must claim the end of the war and the diplomatic exit. Just as we must demand an end to NATO expansion and US imperialist action in the world.

In early February 2022, just weeks before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russia and China released a Joint Declaration[X] in which they assert their partnership at higher levels. Some passages of this document are interesting for us to reflect on the recent Russian military action and what may constitute a new world order.

In addition to the commitment to build friendship and cooperation without limits, the document brings the proposal to build a world where democracy is defended, but each people must decide which method and what kind of democracy will be built. There would not be a single model and no country could decide and impose a type of democracy. The excerpt represents a clear counterpoint to the way the US has been acting internationally.

Other excerpts are also quite illustrative of what we are observing: “The parties are opposed to further enlargement of NATO and call on the North Atlantic Alliance to abandon its ideological approaches to the Cold War, respect the sovereignty, security and interests of other countries, the diversity of their civilizational, cultural and historical backgrounds and have an objective attitude towards the peaceful development of other States”.

It is noticeable that the two countries are aligned, whether from the broader point of view, in defense of what may come to be constituted as a new world order, opposed to the US order, or in the specific issue of opposition to NATO enlargement. China's current position at the UN abstaining from voting on resolutions condemning the war in Ukraine is illuminating in this regard.

For then would we be observing the establishment of a new world order? What kind of new order will be established, beyond the idea of ​​multilateralism that appears in the speeches?

These are fundamental questions, although difficult to answer. In the partnership document, Russia and China present the defense of the international system and the world order based on international law. But by invading the territory of Ukraine, for example, Russia does not respect international law, demonstrating to act in a similar way to Western capitalist economies, even if we have to place these actions in the context of US imperialism.

And from China's point of view, what to expect? Although the country claims the construction of a socialist model, China is integrated into the capitalist system, reproducing internal contradictions typical of capitalism and also acting externally through processes that are also contradictory, typical of those undertaken by Western countries, such as the export of capital with a view to purchasing strategic assets in peripheral countries; the extensive importation of primary products, through the exploitation of natural and mineral resources, with impacts on the primarization of peripheral economies and broad environmental impacts; the expansion of the indebtedness mechanism via loans in peripheral countries, mainly more recently in the context of the Belt and Road Initiative.

As Lee points out[xi] analyzing the presence of Chinese capital in Africa, “even if Chinese state capital, with its peculiar logic of accumulation, productive organization and ethos management, offers more room for bargaining, China shows no interest, intention, or capacity to challenge or replace the existing institutional infrastructure of XNUMXst century capitalism”.

Certainly, a new world order, if present, will be built on new institutional bases, partially different from the current order. However, the way in which countries that challenge the current order have been acting seems to demonstrate the structural continuity of capitalist social relations of production. As long as these relationships persist, power relations and disputes between national states will also persist, as well as contradictions and inequalities between nations.

*Valeria Lopes Ribeiro Professor of International Relations at the Federal University of ABC (UFABC).



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

[ii] FOSTER, John Bellamy. The new era of imperialism. Monthly Review.

[iii] MAGDOFF, Harry. The Age of Imperialism. Modern Reader Paperbacks. New York and London. 1969

[iv] HARVEY, David. The New Imperialism. Sao Paulo: Loyola, 2005

[v] PANITCH, L.; GINDIN, S. The making of global capitalism, the political economy of American empire. New York: Verso, 2012. 464p.

[vi] Callinics, Alex. Imperialism and Global Political Economy (2009)

[vii] WOOD, Ellen M. The Empire of Capital. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2014.

[viii] Smith, J. Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century: Globalization, Super-Exploitation, and Capitalism's Final Crisis. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2016

[ix] BANDEIRA, Moniz. world disorder (2016)


[xi] LEE, CK The specter of global China: politics, labor, and foreign investment in Africa. Chicago; London: The University of Chicago Press, 2017.

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