Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Whither Imperialism?

Chirashree Das Gupta


A book review of ‘Geopolitical Economy: After US Hegemony, Globalization and Empire’, by Radhika Desai; Pluto Press New York 2013.

Setting the long history of the emergence of the multipolar world in context, Radhika Desai in this book takes on the concept of a world unified by markets alone and its concomitant proposition of a ‘hegemonic’ or ‘imperial’ state in the dominant paradigms of globalization, hegemony and empire. Discarding these paradigms on the basis of historical evidence, Radhika Desai puts the ‘materiality of nations’ and the ‘dialectic that the Bolsheviks termed uneven and combined development’ as the foundation of ‘geopolitical economy’ to elaborate three arguments: 1. the centrality of nation states in capitalism 2. the failed US and unrepeatable UK imperialist experience demonstrating the inadequacy of Hegemony Stability Theory (HST) and 3. the conceptual inaccuracies of theories around  ‘empire’ and ‘globalization’ including its latest  terrain of ‘transformationalist’ arguments. 


The book is premised on the contention that the present historical conjuncture represents the closing of the ‘dominance, actual and attempted, of single powers’ in the long history of imperialism. Imperialism entails collusion between imperial powers and ruling classes of various nation states but also entails the greater likelihood of competition among the relatively powerful countries in the world leading to multipolarity. In arguing this, Radhika Desai puts as the centerpiece the ‘fracture in the foundations of the power of financial capital’ illustrated through the trajectory of the US dollar in the build-up and the aftermath of the global crisis. 

This alternate framework to analyse the history of capitalism of the twentieth century according to Radhika Desai opens up possibilities for the Left in pursuing the goal of re-regulating finance and of new international monetary arrangements for more equal, productive, egalitarian, culturally dynamic and environmentally sustainable societies. 

Tracing the materiality of nation states and taking on both the propositions of dominant neoclassicism and the claims of ‘realist’ theories of politics, as well as the kind of Marxist economics that capitulated to the neoclassical tenets of supply-side economics, Radhika Desai reiterates the classical Marxist understanding of the centrality of the state in capitalism since its very inception in its management of tendencies to injustice and crisis, in the consequences of the demand constraint in capitalism and in its mediations in the class struggle.  Radhika Desai uses a large volume of literature from Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, Marx, Engels, and Luxemburg, Hamilton, List to Ha-Joon Chang and Wade to dispel two myths: that the UK developed without state intervention and that till the mid-nineteenth century was anti-imperialist. Tracing the history of 20th century imperialism, Desai focuses on the centrality of states in the economic paradigms of Keynes and Polanyi ‘embedded in their critique of the gold standard’. The links between currency and credit are expounded to underscore the importance of perspectives (eg Patnaik 2009) which entail a conceptualization of money as store of value contrary to that of only being a medium of exchange. 

Having set the methodological terrain within the concept of ‘combined and uneven development’ which Radhika Desai traces to Marx and Engels as fore-runners to Trotsky’s exposition, and synthesizing it with the classical Marxist theories of imperialism, Radhika Desai undertakes a re-interpretation of the history of US power to argue that contrary to the dominant myth, the US was never reluctant to take on its imperial role. However, despite its imperial ambitions and myriad efforts through the twentieth century, the US never could become ‘hegemonic’ in reality because the contradictions of domestic political economy and the requirements for international hegemony could not be reconciled. So the historical trajectory of US interventions in geopolitical economy adds up to an imperial mimesis. 

Radhika Desai confronts dominant theories of globalization and empire espoused by the Right as well as critical takes from the Left which according to Desai have both been founded upon the flawed premises of the ‘hegemony stability theory’(HST). HST and its concomitants of globalization and empire according to Desai are ideologies masking as theory. 

Challenging the usual depiction of the so-called Golden Age of capitalism as a period of US hegemony and stable dollar, Radhika Desai demonstrates the conflicts in the attempts to fulfill the dollar’s world role and US national economic interests since 1945 and the failure of the US state to ever resolve this contradiction despite continuous attempts through the machinations of the Cold War and military Keynesianism which led to the final closing of the gold window in 1971. The subsequent opening of the ‘black gold’ window and the decades of US and dollar-centred financialisation that followed since 1973 entailed the same contradiction – conflict between increased international dollar liquidity and domestic economic governance in the US. Moreover, it was central banks and governments that were the key agents for supporting the dollar and not private holders, thus underscoring the importance of the materiality of nation-states in propping up the dollar. Thus the dominant account of a market-led process of globalization and growth cannot explain the Military Keynesianism and the Military Schumpeterianism of the Reagan era.

The accounts based on Hegemony Stability Theory of this period were an ideological attempt to build an ex-post historical narrative of the period that presented the myth of unipolarity in terms of American hegemony and dollar stability. However, the alternative geopolitical economy of postwar capitalism that Radhika Desai presents, demonstrates that the US state stumbled on from one policy to another to solve the inherent contradiction between preserving the unity of the world market and the supremacy of the declining US economy given the conditions of combined and uneven development of not only the Soviet Union and the socialist bloc, but also the newly independent countries that had emerged as sovereign through the anti-colonial struggles. The ‘contender’ development of the NICs and later the BRICs  and ‘emerging economies’ marks the closing of the possibility of a single country’s dominance in the history of imperialism. This emerging multipolarity has been the prime reason why ‘empire’ now could only be thought of in terms of historical time in the concept of the ‘new American century’ instead of the spatial geography of earlier empires eg the British.

The book is impressive and overwhelming in its historical account of the trajectory of US imperialism since the nineteenth century. Radhika Desai’s intervention cuts incisively into the interstices of three inter-connected debates - on states and markets in capitalism, the envisioning of capitalism as a ‘world system’ versus a system of nation states, and of imperialism as the consequence of domination of finance capital. While the book intervenes in the first two debates with a clear mosaic of historical account and conceptual innovation, the third is more circumspect and hazy. 

The book at the outset suggests a difference between Hilferding’s finance capital and the contemporary process of financialization to argue that these are different. However, the analysis which is heavily dependent on the  historical trajectory of the US dollar and financialization processes underlining the importance of states based on the history of the US state and the economy, does not go into either illustrating how or explaining why contemporary financialization is different from the conceptualization of finance capital in Hilferding and Lenin. 

In Marx and later Marxists, finance capital is a consequence of the centralization of capital through the increased role of banks and financial institutions while financialization is the outcome of a crisis of production in capitalism entailing either overproduction (or underconsumption) and disproportionality. The relationship between the two has been the raison d’etre of Marxist political economy. In Keynes, in sharp contrast, financialization itself is the explanans of crisis. Desai undergirds her analysis in a somewhat uncritical foundation in Brenner’s economics of global turbulence and thus takes the tendency of rate of profit to fall and a crisis of productivity in the US economy as a given. However, how this is linked to the changed role of finance capital as asserted early in the book is not borne out. Moreover, financialization often just happens eg in the part on the Great Depression. In the latter part on globalization, the realignment of big finance with the state is the explanans of the change in policy from the Reagan-Bush era to the Clinton presidency. But this trajectory of big finance itself as the explanandum finds scant treatment in the book.

The second question is related to the concept of ‘combined and uneven development’ in which the emphasis is on combined development with hardly any treatment of the concomitant unevenness. Towards the end, ‘contender development’ is pinned down as the sure evidence of mutipolarity. Are ‘contender’ and ‘combined and uneven development’ the same? This lacuna in an otherwise rich analytical narrative has bearings on the argument on imperialism, multipolarity and combined and uneven development. Is ‘contender’ development itself proof of the promise of a ‘mutipolar future’? Why is multipolarity necessarily a better dispensation for Left politics? Can this promise of multipolarity provide a bulwark against the expansion of finance capital and of concomitant neoliberalism so that the legitimacy of state’s economic roles towards progressive interventions can be actualized?

As the global crisis plays itself out, in a few years time, one may be better placed to find answers to these questions. And that is when one would wait for a sequel from Radhika Desai.   

This review has been published in Economic and Political Weekly in September 2014. 

Chirashree Dasgupta is Associate Professor at Ambedkar University Delhi

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