by James Petras
Introduction: The configuration of 21st century imperialism combines patterns of exploitation from the past as well as new features which are essential to understanding the contemporary forms of plunder, pillage and mass impoverishment. In this paper we will highlight the relatively new forms of imperial exploitation, reflecting the rise and consolidation of an international ruling class, the centrality of military power, large scale long-term criminality as a key component of the process of capital accumulation, the centrality of domestic collaborator classes and political elites in sustaining the US – EU empire and the new forms of class and anti-imperialist struggles.
Imperialism is about political domination, economic exploitation, cultural penetration via military conquest, economic coercion, political destabilization, separatist movements and via domestic collaborators. Imperial aims, today as in the past, are about securing markets, seizing raw materials, exploiting cheap labor in order to enhance profits, accumulate capital and enlarge the scope and depth of political domination. Today the mechanisms by which global profits are enhanced have gone far beyond the exploitation of markets, resources and labor; they embrace entire nations, peoples and the public treasuries, not only of regions of Africa, Asia and Latin America but include the so-called ‘debtor countries of Europe’, Ireland, Greece, Spain, Portugal and Iceland, among others.
Today the imperial powers of Europe and the United States are re-enacting the “scramble for the riches of Africa, Asia and Latin America” via direct colonial wars accompaying a rising tide of militarism abroad and police state rule at home. The problem of empire building is that, given popular anti-imperialist resistance abroad and economic crises at home, imperial policymakers require far-reaching expenditures and dependence on collaborator rulers and classes in the countries and regions targeted for imperial exploitation.
Any discussion of 21st century empire building – its dynamic growth and its vulnerability – requires a discussion and analysis of 1/the types and forms of ‘collaborator rulers and classes’; 2/the new forms of imperial pillage of entire societies and economies via debt and financial networks 3/ the central role of criminal operations in global imperial accumulation.
Imperial Pillage of Debtor Countries of Europe
The greatest transfer of wealth from the workers and employees to the imperial banks and state treasuries of the European Union, North America and Japan has taken place via the so-called “debt crises”. With the political ascendancy FIRE sectors (finance, insurance and real estate) of the capitalist class, the state and the public treasury became one of the key sources of capital accumulation, corporate profits and private wealth. Using the pretext of the crash of speculative investments, the FIRE ruling class extracted hundreds of billions of dollars directly from the public treasury and hundreds of millions of taxpayers. To secure the maximum wealth from the public treasury of the debtor states social expenditures were sharply reduced, salaries were slashed and millions of public employees were fired.
The state took over the private debts in order to restore the profits of the FIRE sector and in the process reduced the average wage and salaries of workers and employees across the entire economy. The centerpiece of this new structure of imperial pillage were the imperial states acting on behalf of the financial-real estate and insurance capital of the EU and North America.
The collaboration of the governing political class and their local financial elites was essential in facilitating the long term, large scale plunder of the local economy, taxpayers, employees, negotiating the terms and time frame for paying tribute to the imperial states: Ireland, Greece, Spain, Portugal because the site of the biggest suction pump for imperial enrichment in modern history: entire working populations are impoverished to transfer wealth for at least the next generation and beyond. Imperialism through onerous debt extraction payments and public pillage have created the perfect mechanism for imperial enrichment, deepening class and regional inequalities and the dispossession of homes, factories and land. Cheap labor, regressive taxes, open markets, a vast pool of unemployed, are results of imperial financial dictates complemented and enforced by the local collaborator political class (conservative, liberal and social democratic) and justified by a small army of media pundits, academic economists and trade union bureaucrats.
Criminality as the “Highest Stage” of Empire Building
Lenin, in his time spoke of finance monopoly capital as the highest stage of imperialism; since his time a new and more pernicious state has emerged: organized massive criminality has become the centerpiece for imperial exploitation and accumulation.
One has only to read the headlines of the major financial press to find trillion dollar swindles by the biggest and most prestigious investment banks, financial houses, credit agencies,risk rating corporations across Europe, North America and Asia. The famous French novelist Honore Balzac once wrote that “behind every great fortune there is a great crime”. In today’s financial world he would have to say that great criminal acts are perpetual and integral to the accumulation by great financial houses. Capital accumulation especially in the dominant international financial sector via criminality is evident in at least three major types of financial activity.
Trillion dollar swindles by all the major banks involve manipulation of the Libor inter-banking interest rates, deliberately puffing up and dumping stocks and bonds, fleecing pension funds and millions of investors of billions of dollars: packaging trillions in worthless mortgages and securities and selling them to small investors; conning Governments into taking over bad debts based on speculative bets gone south. The entire financial system for over two decades has engaged in systematic fraud, extortion of public wealth based on falsified credit and earnings reports – accumulating capital which is re-invested in new, bigger scams on a global level. Adam Smith’s “wealth of nations” would have to be rewritten to take account of the wealth of swindlers’ capitalism.
Complementary to fraud and swindles are the hundreds of billions of dollars that the leading banks accrue through laundering illicit income from billionaire drug cartels, sex slavers, body parts entrepeneurs, corrupt political leaders, tax evaders from five continents. Each year trillions are “packaged” by Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard educated MBAs employed by Barclays, Citibank, UBS and other financial leaders and dispatched to offshore accounts and ‘washed’ in upscale real estate in London, Manhattan , the Riviera, Dubai and other high end real estate sites.
Imperial capital’s profits and total wealth is enhanced by large scale illegal international capital flows from ‘developing countries’. Between 2001 to 2010 developing countries “lost” US 5.86 trillion dollars to illicit outflows. During the past decade China’s new billionaire capitalists, running the world’s biggest manufacturing sweatshops, shipped $2.74 trillion to Western imperial banks, Mexican plutocrats $476 billion, Nigerian corrupt elites pillaged oil wealth and poured $129 billion; India’s new and old rich rulers sent out $123 billion in illegal funds to the big banks of England and the Middle East. Obviously we need to update Marx and Lenin to take account of the systematic criminalization of capital as a central element in the process of capital reproduction. As capital becomes criminal, criminals become capitalists – on a world-historic scale.
Imperialism and the Central Role of ‘Domestic’ Collaborators
Contemporary Empire building is based on a complex network of overseas class, political and military collaborators who play an essential role in facilitating imperial entry and exploitation, defending its profits and privileges, and extracting wealth. Imperial armies, banks and multi-nationals operate within the framework of compliant clients, trained, selected, protected and rewarded by the imperial powers.
The US and France, together with other NATO powers have established military bases, training missions and special funds to create African mercenary armies to defeat anti-imperialist insurgents and to prop up puppet regimes which facilitate imperial plunder of the natural resources and vast agricultural lands. Imperial military commanders direct African mercenary forces from Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria, Mali, Libya and elsewhere. Without these mercenary collaborators imperialist politicians would face greater domestic opposition due to loss of their soldiers’ lives and higher military expenditures.
Following Euro-American and Gulf States military intervention in Libya – over 26,000 bombing missions – the imperial forces recruited a mercenary army to protect the petrol installations and prepare public firms for privatization. France with its eye on the gold, uranium and other mining resources invaded Mali took political control and established a collaborator regime. Following popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt which overthrew established imperial client dictatorships, Euro-US imperialism endeavored to establish a new collaborator coalition composed of pro-capitalist Islamists and the security apparatus of the dictatorships.
In Asia, in Afghanistan, Iraq and Kurdistan, imperial rulers despite over a decade of colonial wars are desperately trying to create mercenary armies to sustain client regimes to facilitate the plunder of oil wealth (Iraq and Kurdistan) and sustain strategic military bases facing China (Afghanistan). In Afghanistan after 12 years of war without victory, the US is forced to retreat, hoping to stave off an ignominious defeat by recruiting a 350,000 Afghan mercenary soldiers – proven to be of a very dubious loyalty. Despite conquering Iraq and imposing its rule, Euro-American imperialism is left with an unstable regime with growing links to Iran.
In the scramble to plunder African resources, amidst inter-imperialist competition, new imperial-collaborator partnerships have emerged: a new class of corrupt billionaire African rulers has opened their countries to unrestrained pillage. While imperial multi-nationals extract mineral wealth, the African collaborators transfer hundreds of billions in illegal flows to the imperial financial centers. Africa leads the way in the growth of illicit financial flows – 24% yearly between 2001-2010.
Western imperialism, more than ever, depends on the cultivation, maintenance of collaborators regimes – politicians, military officials, business elite – to open their countries to plunder, to transfer wealth to the imperial financial centers and to repress any popular opposition.
The entire imperial enterprise would collapse in the face of domestic anti-imperialist opposition movements ousting collaborator elites.
In Europe, imperial financial institutions depend on local political collaborators to impose and enforce so-called ‘austerity programs’, to assume the private financial debts and to transfer tribute to the imperial centers for indefinite time frames. Collaborator regimes are essential to maintaining tributary relations to their imperial rulers.
Imperialism, Militarism and Zionism
If we compare US imperialism to the expansion of Chinese global power, we will observe profound differences in the modes of operation and on-going trajectory. China’s overseas expansion is fundamentally economic – large scale investment in raw materials, markets for its manufactured goods and large scale infrastructure projects to facilitate the trade flows in both directions. It provides financial incentives, low interest loans and bribes to collaborator elites to propel economic expansion.
US-EU imperialism has emphasized and relied on military intervention, operates over 700 military bases, has military advisors in dozens of countries, is engaged in drone wars against Pakistan, Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia and elsewhere. Military conquests have enlarged the US military presence but at enormous economic cost, leading to unsustainable fiscal and trade deficits and hundreds of billions of losses for the private sector. The Iraq and Libyan wars and economic sanctions against Iran have undermined billions in oil profits. As the US economic empire declines, Chinese global economic power rises: and their conflict and competition intensifies.
The key to the rise of a military driven empire and the eclipse of the economic component of empire building can be attributed to three inter-related factors: the extraordinary influence of the Zionist power configuration in harnessing US imperial power to Israel’s militarist regional goals; the ascendancy of financial capital and its subordination of manufacturing and resource capitalists; the increasing importance of the military-security apparatus in the imperial state as a result of the ‘global war on terror’ ideology.
The subordination of US imperial power to a small, economically insignificant and isolated state like Israel is unprecedented in world history. As is the fact that US citizens whose primary loyalty is to Israel, have secured strategic policy-making positions in the power structure of the imperial state; including the Executive (White House), Pentagon, State Department and the Congress. The 52 Presidents of the Major American Jewish organizations exercise power via million dollar funding of legislators,parties and electoral campaigns; appointment of Zionist loyalists to strategic government posts dealing with the Middle East; private consultants to the government (housed in Zionist funded “think tanks”) and their influence in the major mass media outlets.
Although the population identifying as Jews has decreased (the only major denomination to decline by as much as 14% over the past two decades), representing less than 1% of the US religious population, the wealth, organization, tribal zeal and strategic institutional location of Israel Firsters has magnified their power several fold. As a result Zionist policymakers played a dominant role in driving the US to war with Iraq, formerly a powerful supporter of the Palestinians, and staunch opponent of Israeli colonial expansion into Palestine. Because of the political power of the Zionist power configuration, Israel extracts $3 billion a year in aid and a total of over a $100 billion over the past 30 years – in addition to having the US military engage in wars against Arab , muslim and secular regimes which materially support the Palestine national liberation struggle. Never in the history of modern imperialism has the foreign policy of a world power been subject to tributary demands and served the colonial aspirations of a second rate state. This historical anomaly is easily understood through the role of its powerful overseas networks which wield power in the Imperial State at the service of Jewish colonial settlers in Palestine.
In sum, US imperialism has sacrificed major economic interests including hundreds of billions in petroleum profits, by engaging in destructive wars against Iraq and Libya and imposing economic sanctions on Iran – a telling statement of the power of Israel in shaping the US imperial agenda. Militarism and Zionism have dictated the direction of US imperial policy, greatly weakening the domestic foundations of empire and hastening its economic decline.
Militarism and Criminality Abroad and the Police State at Home
In the past imperialism was seen as compatible with democracy at home: as long as imperial wars were short in duration , inexpensive to the Treasury , resulted in the successful extraction of wealth and was based on collaborator mercenary armies, the masses enjoyed the constitutional rights and the vicarious pleasures and illusions of being part of a superior race.
Contemporary US-EU imperial expansion has provided neither material nor symbolic gratifications: prolonged wars and occupations with no definitive victories, imperial armies surrounded by overwhelmingly hostile populations and facing daily attacks from fighters blending with the population has led to profound disenchantment among the public,and sadistic and self-destructive behavior(high ratesof suicides) among the imperial soldiers and unsustainable budget deficits.
Unreliable and corrupt collaborators and the bankruptcy of the anti-terrorist ideology has provoked wide-spread political opposition to overseas military wars. No longer convincing the public via propaganda, the US executive has instituted a raft of police state measures, suspending habeas corpus and culminating in executive decrees claiming Presidential prerogatives allowing for the extra judicial assassination of terror suspects including US citizens: Militarism and criminality abroad has spread and infected the domestic body politic.
Conclusion: Imperial Wars by Proxy and Domestic Decay
Imperialism today is profoundly linked to the domestic crises – transferring billions from domestic programs to imperial wars abroad. The bulk of wealth extracted from the pillage abroad is concentrated in the hands of the FIRE ruling class. The “aristocracy of labor”, which Lenin identified as a beneficiary of empire, has shrunken and is largely confined to the upper echelons of the trade union bureaucracy, especially those who sign off on austerity programs, tributary payments and bank bailouts. Imperialism has reshaped the class structured budgets and economies of the neo-colonies and tributary states. In the first instance it has proletarianized the middle class, polarized the classes, concentrating income in the hands of a parasitic criminal financial elite of 5% and reducing living standards for the 70% of workers, unemployed, semi-employed, public and private employees and self-employed.
Given the deepening global polarization between empire and masses and the tiny minority of beneficiaries, the entire imperial architecture depends on the central role of domestic collaborators to sustain imperial power, administer the transfer of wealth, ensure the extraction of wealth, provide a veneer of electoral legitimacy to the entire criminal enterprise and where necessary apply muscular repressive force.
Faced with prolonged downward mobility , a permanent ‘class war from above’ and, above all, the near universal recognition that welfarism and imperialism/capitalism are no longer compatible, the working classes have turned to direct action: repeated general strikes have replaced the ballot box for the millions of unemployed young workers,downwardly mobile employees, bankrupt small business people and those dispossessed of their homes in Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy. Millions of peasants,and artisan workers have shed the plow , the hammer and anvil, and picked up the gun to confront imperial powers and their political collaborators and mercenary armies in South Asia, the Middle East and Africa; Arab revolts, detoured from revolution by Islamic collaborators in the first round, are rising once again: the second round promises more consequential changes.
Imperialism with its powerful bankers and advanced arms, its hundreds of military bases and monstrous expenditures, rests on fragile foundations. Who now believes that the “war on terror” has replaced the class war? The overwhelming majority of people now recognize that Wall Street, the City of London and Brussels are the real criminals, pillaging billions, laundering illegal financial flows and extracting tribute from the public treasury. Who believes today that capitalism and the welfare state are compatible? Who believes that Israel is anything but a brutal police state administrating the world’s biggest open-air concentration camp for Arabs, administered exclusively by and on behalf of its Chosen People?
Today the struggle against imperialism is first and foremost a class struggle against the local collaborators: domestic politicians and business people who extract and transfer the wealth of a people to the imperial centers. Undermining the collaborators world-wide is already a work in progress. Conservatives, liberals,and social democratic collaborators in Europe have lost credibility and legitimacy – the task of the mass movements is to organize for state power.
The imperial offensive in Africa and Asia rests on unreliable mercenary armies and corrupt rulers: as the imperial armies retreat, their collaborator rulers will collapse.And out of the ruins, new anti-imperialist states will eventually emerge.
In Latin America, Venezuela, by defeating imperial military coups and electoral collaborators, demonstrates that a transition to socialism is still a historical possibility. In China the socialist revolution lives on in the hundreds of thousands of strikes and protests against imperial capitalists and their millionaire political collaborators. The capitalist counter-revolution was only a detour in the transition to socialism.