Imperialism and development

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By José Luís Fiori*

The economic left is a prisoner of a circular and inconclusive debate, always in search of the magic formula that supposes being able to respond to the triple challenge of growth, equality and sovereignty.

“The great powers are those states from all parts of the Earth that possess high military capacity in relation to others, pursue continental or global interests and defend these interests through a wide range of instruments, among which force and threats of force, being recognized by less powerful states as principal actors exercising exceptional formal rights in international relations.” Charles Tilly, Coercion, Capital and European States (Edusp, 1996, p. 247).

It was after the First World War that the international socialist movement repudiated European colonialism and made “imperialism” the number one enemy of the world left. Even so, when the socialists came to power in Europe for the first time and were forced to govern capitalist economies, they were unable to extract consequences from their own theory of imperialism for the concrete level of public policies.

When they were called upon to direct economic policy, as in the case of Rudolf Hilferding, among others, they followed the classic Victorian recipe of “sound money and free markets”– until long after the Second World War, when they adhered, already in the 1960s and 1970s, to Keynesian ideas, proposals and policies. But in the 1980s, these same parties converted to the orthodox program of fiscal austerity and liberal reforms that led to the partial dismantling of the Social Welfare State.

This same problem reappeared in a more dramatic way when it came to socialists and leftist forces to govern “peripheral” or “underdeveloped” countries. Also in these cases, the theorists of imperialism and dependency had a hard time deciding what would be the “ideal” economic policy model for the specific conditions of a country located on the “bottom floor” of the world hierarchy of power and wealth.

In the case of Latin America, ECLAC formulated in the 50s a “structuralist” theory of international trade and inflation and proposed an industrialization program by “import substitution” that recalled the theories and proposals of Friederich List, a German economist of the XNUMXth century , with the difference that ECLAC's ideas did not have any kind of nationalist or anti-imperialist connotation.

In practice, however, inside and outside Latin America, the left-wing governments of peripheral countries almost invariably ended up overthrown or financially strangled by the great powers of the world system, without having been able to discover the path of growth and equality, within a underdeveloped capitalist economy, and in the context of an asymmetric, competitive and extremely warlike international system. Despite everything, these experiences left a fundamental lesson: that the economic models and policies that work in an “upstairs” country do not necessarily work in countries located in the lower echelons of the system, and even less, when these countries from the “floor below” had the audacity to want to change their relative position within the world hierarchy of power.

From this perspective, in order to move forward in this debate, it is useful to distinguish at least four types or groups of countries [1], from the point of view of their development strategy and their position in relation to the dominant power in each of the great geopolitical and cultural levels. economics of the world system.

In the first group are the countries that lead or have led the expansion of the world system, at different levels and historical moments, the so-called “great powers”, of the present and the past, since the origin of the capitalist interstate system.

In the second group are the countries that were defeated and submitted by the great powers, or that voluntarily adopted economic integration strategies with the victorious powers, transforming themselves into their domains economic and military protectorates.

In the third group should be placed the countries that managed to develop by questioning the established international hierarchy and adopting national economic strategies that prioritized the change in the country's position within world power and wealth.

Finally, in the fourth group, we can place all the other countries and national economies located on the periphery of the system and that could not or did not intend to leave this condition, or even suffered a process of deterioration or decay after having reached higher levels of development, as in the case of some African and Latin American countries.

In the case of Latin America, the dominant power has always been the United States. Since World War II, until the end of the 1970s at least, the United States defended and sponsored in its “zone of influence” a “developmentalist” type project that promised rapid economic growth and social modernization, as a way to overcome the Latin American underdevelopment. But after its crisis in the 1970s, and particularly in the 1980s, the North Americans changed their international economic strategy and definitively abandoned their developmental project and sponsorship.

Since then, they started to defend, city ​​and world, a new economic program of neoliberal reforms and policies known as the “Washington Consensus”, which became the core of his victorious rhetoric after the end of the Cold War. They combined the defense of free and deregulated markets with the defense of democracy and the privatization of economies that had followed their previous ideology, which proposed rapid economic growth induced by the State.

It was the moment when neoliberalism became the hegemonic thought of almost all parties and governments in Latin America, including socialist and social democratic parties. In the second decade of the XNUMXst century, however, the United States returned to redefine and radically change its economic project for the Latin and world periphery, defending a radical ultraliberalism and with a strong authoritarian bias, without any kind of social concern or promise for the future, either greater justice or greater equality.

It is in this hemispheric context that one must read, interpret and discuss the Brazilian economic trajectory from the Second World War until today, starting with the economic success of its “conservative developmentalism”, which was always protected by the military and supported by the United States. In exchange, throughout this period, the Brazilian military submitted to the military strategy of the United States during the Cold War, becoming the only case of success on the Latin American continent of what some economic historians tend to call “development by invitation”. ”, which fits directly into the second type of strategy and development in our previous classification. A caveat must be made to the Geisel government, which remained faithful to American anti-communism, but rehearsed a strategy of economic centralization and nationalization and the conquest of greater international autonomy, which was vetoed and defeated by the United States and by the Brazilian business community itself. [two]

It is exactly the “geiselist” period of the Brazilian military regime that leaves many analysts confused when comparing it with the ultraliberalism of the current “paramilitary” government installed in Brazil in 2018. In fact – excluding the “Bolsonarist excrescence” – the Brazilian military follows the same place, occupying the same position they occupied in the 1954 and 1964 coups: allied with the same conservative forces and with the religious extreme right, and unconditionally and subordinately aligned with the United States.

And it is precisely for this reason that it does not represent any embarrassment for them to have been “national-developmentalists” in the second half of the XNUMXth century, and are now “national-liberalists” at the beginning of the XNUMXst century. They believe that, once again, their automatic alignment with the United States will guarantee them the same economic success they enjoyed during the Cold War, only now through deregulated, denationalized and denationalized markets.

What the current Brazilian military still does not realize, however, is that the ultraliberal development strategy has exhausted itself all over the world, and in particular in the case of states and national economies of greater extension and complexity, such as Brazil. The United States is no longer able or unwilling to assume responsibility for creating a new type of “canadian domain” south of the American continent. Furthermore, in this new phase the USA is entirely dedicated to the competition between the three great powers that remain in the world [3]; they no longer have any kind of permanent or unconditional allies, with the exception of Israel and Saudi Arabia; and consider that their national economic and strategic interests are above any agreement or alliance with any type of country, which by definition will always be fleeting.

On its own account, the ultraliberal agenda can guarantee an increase in the profit margin of private capital, especially after the destruction of labor legislation, and during the period of great privatizations. But, definitely, the ultraliberal agenda will not be able to deal with the simultaneous challenge of economic growth and the reduction of Brazilian social inequality.

However, this “announced failure” brings back the great challenge and the great unknown of the left and the progressive forces, not least because the old Brazilian developmentalism was not a work of the left, but above all a conservative and military work that would not have had much success had it not been for the American “invitation”. And precisely because of this, it is very difficult to want to reinvent it using only new formulas and macroeconomic equations. Perhaps for this very reason, one sometimes has the impression today that the economic left is trapped in a circular and inconclusive debate, always in search of the magic formula or ideal that supposes to be capable of responding by itself to the triple challenge of growth, equality and sovereignty.

In these moments of great “historical bifurcations”, it is necessary to have the courage to change the way of thinking, it is necessary to “rewind” ideas, change the angle and change the paradigm. This is very hard to expect from the military because they were brought up to think in the same way all the time, and they were trained to do the same thing every day, in close-knit order.

The biggest problem, however, comes from the resistance of progressive economists who, when they hear about “imperialism”, “dependence” or “international power asymmetry”, prefer to hide behind the old and lazy argument that it is a “ conspiratorial vision” of History, without wanting to face the harsh reality revealed by Max Weber, when he taught us that “the processes of economic development are struggles for power and domination [and for this reason] the science of economic policy is a political science, and how this does not remain virgin in relation to everyday politics, the politics of governments and classes in power, and on the contrary, it depends on the permanent interests of the politics of power of nations”.

*Jose Luis Fiori He is a professor at the Graduate Program in International Political Economy at UFRJ.

Notes

[1] José Luís Fiori. History, strategy and development. Petrópolis, Voices, 2015, p: 43-44.

[2] “The Geisel government tried to impose a new movement of economic centralization, but it no longer found the social and political support – national and international – of the beginning of the military regime. That is why he failed, and despite appearances to the contrary, his attempt accelerated the internal division of the military, which grew even more in the following years and ended up leading them to final impotence”. Jose Luis Fiori Conjuncture and cycle in the dynamics of a peripheral state. Doctoral Thesis, USP, 1985, p. 214.

[3] Cf. COLBY, EA and MITCHELL, AW “The Age of Great-Power Competition. How the Trump Administration Refashioned American Strategy”. Foreign Affairs This Week. December 27, 2019.

[4] Max Weber. political writings. Mexico, Folio Ediciones, 1982, p. 18.

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