Imperialism’s New Course
The article below is taken from the latest edition of Prometeo, the theoretical journal of the PCInt (Battaglia Comunista), our sister organisation in Italy. It was originally translated for publication on the IBRP’s (International Bureau for the Revolutionary Party) internet site as part of our policy to make more of Battaglia’s articles available to a wider audience. In this instance, From Worker Aristocracy to Insecurity… provides a wider, global context for situating the ‘new economy’ of the UK – something which has concerned these pages for the past year or so.
The article is a reminder, if we needed it, that not just here, but throughout the advanced capitalist world, post-2nd World War conditions of employment and social services that a whole generation had once taken for granted have either already been thrown out of the window or continue to be dismantled. ‘Flexible’ workers, used to changing jobs and up to their eyes in debt, increasingly unable to afford to ‘retire’ are also becoming used to the idea that there is no natural right to free education, health care, or anything else.
If this is the situation of hitherto privileged workers – the so-called worker or labour aristocracy – how much worse are the living and working conditions of the majority of proletarians elsewhere on the planet. Despite the hype about China or India catching up or overtaking the US and the west, capitalism’s ‘advance’ has created a billion or so shanty dwellers existing for the most part outside of wage labour relations in unimaginable squalor and degradation and a further billion or more urban workers living from hand to mouth in outrageous slum conditions. If we add to this that the worst poverty of all is still in rural areas (the impetus for so many dispossessed peasants and land labourers to migrate to the cities) then the pressing need to find an alternative to capitalism is even more apparent.
The background to this grim situation is, of course, capitalism’s long-running economic crisis: The crisis which has been the impetus behind globalisation of production on the basis on easily transferable new technology and the exploitation of cheap labour power in what were once peripheral zones; the crisis which long ago pushed the US to de-link its currency from any connection with gold reserves and which, along with the globalisation of financial markets, has allowed it to survive on basis of a stupendous accumulation of fictitious capital. And fictitious capital is just that – capital which has a nominal monetary value but is not based on the real value produced by workers’ labour power, even though there is a massive flow of surplus value from the periphery to the centre. This is no solution to the crisis. On the contrary, it can only get worse and, as the article says, for the working class, wherever they may be, there is no longer any room for reformist politics. The working class now is undoubtedly a global class and despite the weight of capitalist ideology the material situation of workers – whether it be one of absolute exploitation or of declining conditions of life and work – ensures that the class struggle is far from over. And however much privileged sections of the working class have been ‘corrupted’ or ‘bought off’ politically in the past, it remains the case that it is from the ranks of workers whose condition of life allows them time and space to reflect on what’s going on – whatever part of the world they are in – that the communist programme will initially take life again in the shape of the world party of the proletariat. As the article says, “without the guidance of a party all struggles, even the most radical and genuine ones, are unfortunately destined to be defeated”. It is this perspective which we share with the comrades of Battaglia Comunista.ER
Over the last three decades the working and living conditions of the international proletariat have worsened disastrously. In many parts of the globe capitalist exploitation is so savage that the slavery of the ancient Greeks or Romans seems a paradise on earth by comparison. In order to fully understand the economic dynamic which has led to the reappearance of such forms of absolute poverty, with hundreds of thousands of human beings struggling daily to avoid dying of hunger, it is necessary to investigate the modern forms of imperialist domination which involve the appropriation of a growing portion of surplus value through an extraordinary increase in the production of fictitious capital. Imperialism is not immutable. It is not something which never changes once it has made an appearance. Rather it continuously adapts the instruments it uses to parasitically extort the surplus value produced by the international proletariat. We would be poor historical materialists if we did not get to the heart of the dynamic nature of imperialism, defined by Lenin as the highest phase of capitalism; if we did not recognise its capacity to adapt to the changing conditions in which the structural contradictions of the capital-labour relationship are manifested. Inevitably this dynamic also has repercussions for the class struggle between bourgeoisie and proletariat. In fact the passivity of the proletariat at an international level – demonstrated by a supine acceptance of the choices imposed by capitalist interests – has allowed imperialism to refine all its instruments for uninterruptedly sustaining the accumulation process which at the same time has led to the impoverishment of the great majority of humanity.
It is not the intention of this article to go into the economics of imperialist domination (1) but to underline the effects such new aspects of imperialism have had on the composition of the international proletariat and of the difficulty any single proletariat has in perceiving that it is part of a single social class. Imperialism has changed profoundly since Lenin’s day. It is therefore vital to study the modern aspects of imperialism and the consequences for class composition at a world level in the difficult attempt to find political responses when the proletariat does not even recognise itself as a social class. All this obliges us to study and understand every aspect of the social repercussions of the ways modern imperialism imposes itself.
Imperialism and Workers’ Aristocracy
In his work on imperialism, written during the 1st World War, as well as analysing the principal economic characteristics of the new phase which the capitalist mode of production had entered into, Lenin sought to comprehend the new elements in the composition of the proletariat and the political consequences for the class struggle.
For the Russian revolutionary the principal economic characteristic of imperialism is the success of monopoly. The old economy based on free competition, if it had ever really existed, has been replaced by the supremacy of the monopoly concentrations. One of the peculiar characteristics of these great groupings is the breadth of their economic interests, in both the banking and the industrial sector, and it is really these interests which determine international politics. With imperialism the process of concentration and centralisation of wealth has assumed such an unprecedented dimension that it has led to a modification in the process of the formation of prices and consequently in the rate of profit itself. Lenin was perfectly aware of the new economic reality represented by the fact that, thanks to monopoly, the capitalists obtain an extra profit derived exclusively from the revenues they obtain from their market position. One of the aspects of imperialism in the time of Lenin is the capacity of the great monopoly groupings to obtain a higher rate of profit than they otherwise would have done in a free market economy. The existence of extra profits derived from the predominance of monopoly significantly sustained the process of capital accumulation. In this way the necessary preconditions were created for the accelerated formation of excess capital which can only find employment on the international markets. When they could not find remunerative employment for their capital on the internal market the great monopolies exported their capital abroad, thus unleashing a ferocious struggle amongst these great economic-financial conglomerates for control of the areas of capital export. From this starting point, the international conflict which exploded in 1914 is defined by Lenin as an imperialist war generated by the struggle of the great powers for the control of markets for the export of excess capital.
In terms of scientific analyses of the new forms assumed by capital at the beginning of the 20th century, that of Lenin was not entirely new. In fact, before him the argument had been widely examined by other economists, notably the Englishman Hobson and the German Social Democrat Hilferding. Lenin’s novel contribution consists in his full recognition of all the aspects that signalled the beginning of the decline of the capitalist mode of production. With imperialism there begins the phase where the process of capital accumulation is also sustained by factors external to the world of production in the proper sense. The extra profits derived from monopolistic revenues represent the first signs of decadence of the bourgeois social formation.
These extra profits, called such in so far as they are realised outside of and above the profit which the capitalists extort from the workers in their own country, beyond contributing to the process of accumulation, are in very small part utilised by the bourgeoisie to corrupt certain sectors of the working class. The original imperialism is mirrored in the composition of the class, creating the so-called workers’ aristocracy. Lenin identified the formation of this sector of the working class as one of the instruments by which the bourgeoisie sought to break the unity of the proletariat, corrupting it at the level of ideology and consequently linking it to the call to arms of the first world war. It is through the generous distribution of the crumbs of extra profit that the working class remains in many respects trapped in the vice of the reformist politics of the Second International. On the other hand, the question Lenin posed was how to understand the mechanism which allowed the bourgeoisie to involve the European proletariat in the first world conflict while the contradictions which were accumulating in the process of reproduction were such that the communist revolution was on the agenda in the most advanced capitalist countries. Imperialism, which had generated a workers’ aristocracy, allowed capital to ease the way for reformist politics, deluding the proletariat with the possibility of constantly improving its own conditions of life and work.
We leave it to Lenin to express his scornful verdict on the workers’ aristocracy:
And this stratum of bourgeoisified workers, of worker aristocracy, completely petty bourgeois by its way of life, by the wages it receives, by its philosophy of life, constitutes the principal support of the Second International; and in our days constitutes the principal social (not military) support of the bourgeoisie. These workers are really and truly agents of the bourgeoisie within the workers’ movement, real propagators of reformism and chauvinism. During the civil war of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie they necessarily put themselves, and in no small numbers, on the side of the bourgeoisie, on the side of the Versaillaise against the Communards. (2)
If, on the one hand, imperialism signals the beginning of the decadent phase of the bourgeois social formation in that it brings into force a whole series of mechanisms for parasitic appropriation typical of a society in decline, on the other hand, for some decades now those same mechanisms have allowed the bourgeoisie to redistribute part of these resources to certain sections of the working class in the central areas of world capitalism. For anyone in the habit of looking at reality through the distorted lens of idealism or from the standpoint of the old mechanical materialism, decadence and worker aristocracy appear to be two incompatible phenomena, since decadence cannot exist if the conditions of a significant portion of the working class are improving. Superficially there seems to be a paradox, but a correct application of marxism, at the precise level of abstraction, allows us to understand that improved living and working conditions for the working class, for the workers’ aristocracy, is perfectly compatible with the appearance of parasitic forms of appropriation of surplus value and therefore of the decadence of bourgeois society.
Imperialism and Growing Insecurity
The economic mechanism which had underpinned the workers’ aristocracy in the advanced areas of capitalism functioned up until the beginning of the Seventies. From the Second World War, and for at least three decades, a tiny part of the extra profits realised by the big European monopoly groups were dished out as higher wages, in return for which there was substantial social peace. (Also thanks to the unions.) Large-scale industrial production called for the direction of the entire productive cycle and in this context it was useful to capital to maintain a stable relationship with labour. Assembly line production, the realisation of economies of scale, all these elements furthered the ‘contractualisation’ of the capital-labour relationship over the medium and long term.
The economic crisis of the early Seventies – a consequence of the fall in profits caused by the increase in the organic composition of capital – definitively changed the previous economic and social framework. Within the new context of economic crisis there emerged a new outlook which would lead to a radical change in the mechanisms for the parasitic appropriation of surplus value and in the composition of the international proletariat. Modern imperialism has radically broken with the course it took in the past, including the extension of its tentacles into every corner of the planet. If it is true that at the beginning of the last century the capitalist economic system dominated the planet, in reality there were still vast areas where pre-capitalist economic and social systems remained in existence. Essentially, in the first phase of imperialism capital succeeded in subordinating the entire planet to its own accumulation process but at the same time many parts of Africa and Asia still had large areas with pre-capitalist productive systems. In these countries it was once a difficult task to find representatives of the working class, so far were they from being complete examples of the capitalist economic system. The export of capital opened the way towards the internationalisation of the proletariat, but the process has lasted several decades so that its completion has not been according to any of the schemes envisaged in Lenin’s day. In fact, whilst capitalist development at the centre of the system has brought improved conditions for the proletariat in absolute terms, the same thing has not occurred in the periphery. Imperialism has ensured that capitalist development in the backward countries does not run the same course as in the advanced capitalist countries. Capitalism has definitively destroyed the old productive structures but has not generated the same extensive development that materialised for a whole historical period in the advanced capitalist countries. Pre-capitalist areas, not even ones subordinated to the interests of capital, no longer exist. The entire planet is dominated by the capitalist mode of production but by far the largest part of the proletariat in the backward countries live in terrible conditions. The single example of China in recent years will serve to clarify this. Economic growth unparalleled anywhere in the world has not been translated into improved conditions of life for the proletariat, but has directly led to a continual process of impoverishment. The worldwide destruction of the old peasant economic infrastructures has provoked a race towards the urban conurbations by people trying to escape from hunger. This in turn is fuelling an unprecedented rise in the proletarianisation of hundreds of thousands of human beings. The conditions in which the proletariat of the great mega-cities live resemble Dante’s Inferno and they are a direct consequence of modern imperialism. (3)
Spurred on by the economic crisis, the mechanisms for the parasitic appropriation of surplus value have been refined with the production of fictitious capital. The breakdown of Bretton Woods, the deregulation of money markets, the birth of new, highly speculative, financial instruments such as derivatives; these are the steps which heralded a radical change in the forms of imperialist domination. To paraphrase Marx and his schemes of capitalist reproduction, in recent decades the formula M-C-M’ – where capital in the form of money transforms itself into industrial capital (commodities) and again, through the sale of the commodities, is turned into an increased sum of money as a result of profits – has been insistently accompanied by the formula M-M’, where capital in the form of money, even though it has not transformed itself into industrial capital, claims that, by virtue of its existence as capital, it is being rewarded with the same profit rates. The predominant way of appropriating surplus value is by means of fictitious capital, or rather by means of capital which does not enter directly into the world of production but which in any case claims to receive a return. Lenin defined imperialism as the monopoly phase of capitalism where finance capital dominates, in other words, banking capital which, in the form of money, is invested in the world of production. Today, though, reality compels us to update this definition and to replace finance capital with the more appropriate concept of fictitious capital. In fact, up to the Seventies the principal mechanism for the parasitic appropriation of surplus value was as Lenin described. However, by the beginning of the Eighties of the last century forms of appropriation based on the production of fictitious capital were assuming more and more importance. By definition, fictitious capital does not in any way contribute to the production of a single atom of surplus value since it never enters directly into the real world of the production of commodities. Ever greater amounts of capital – a reflection of the enormous height reached by of the process of concentration and centralisation of wealth – trawl the international markets seeking out the maximum returns without dirtying its hands in the production of commodities. However, it is not by divine grace that the outlay of such capital reaps a profit, but by the simple fact that in some far flung corner of the planet exploited proletarians are producing surplus value.
In social terms the expansion of parasitism based on the production of fictitious capital has devastated every corner of the planet. The new forms of imperialist domination inexorably accelerate and accentuate exploitation of the workforce, since a constantly growing amount of capital does not enter directly into the production of commodities yet at the same time demands to be rewarded. What we are witnessing is an exponential growth in parasitic activity, a growth which necessitates super-exploitation of the proletariat. These, then, are the reasons lying behind increasingly insecure employment conditions in the advanced countries and the proletarianisation of enormous numbers of human beings in capitalism’s periphery. In the space of a few decades the citadels of imperialism have passed from worker aristocracy to underpaid and insecure labour. All this has been made possible by the formation of a single market for labour power, a process which began in the nineteenth century and which has only recently been completed. This unification of the labour market has engendered a tremendous drive to lower wages at the same time as forcing more flexible employment of labour power thus emphasising the absence of any stability in labour relations. Finally, if we take into account that new employee organisations no longer think in terms of a fixed structure we can begin to appreciate the full impact of all the forces which have led to the insecurity of the workforce today. The context of work has changed dramatically. The assembly line where thousands worked side by side no longer exists. With this changed context so also the relationship between capital and labour has changed compared to the situation that existed up to the end of the Seventies. The way has indisputably opened up in favour of highly flexible labour relations serving the interests of capital.
If, in the areas of advanced capitalism, ever wider sectors of the proletariat face greater insecurity, in the peripheral zones hundreds of thousands of proletarians live in more extreme poverty. Proletarians who find it difficult to recognise each other as a class since they do not live through the reality of the factory as in the past. There are new forms of imperialist domination which have a profound determining influence on the composition of the international proletariat. The exceptional increase in parasitic activity via the generation of fictitious capital means that in the advanced capitalist areas the industrial proletariat is smaller than the tertiary sector. This has radically changed the conditions for the maturation of class consciousness. (4)
In the peripheral areas the growth of fictitious capital has underlain the total destruction of the old economic structures. In the process hundreds of thousands of human beings are being proletarianised as they converge on the great urban conurbations: proletarians who for the most part exist outside of real productive activity and who have to resort to whatever type of work they can in order to survive.
In this new context the opportunity for reformist politics has definitely disappeared. Capital no longer concedes any room for manoeuvre, not just in terms of picking up more crumbs from the extra profits, but also with regard to preserving the living and working conditions of the international proletariat. In order to satisfy its voracious appetite for profits capital is forced to keep on attacking the working class. Given the scale of the attacks, the proletariat has so far responded inadequately. The reasons are to be found in the changed composition of the class in recent years by virtue of the appearance of modern imperialism and from the difficulty the proletariat has in recognising itself as a social class. Even though the proletariat has become more numerous over recent decades, it is spread through every corner of the planet and basically does not perceive its own identity as a social class with a precise position in capitalist society. Over the last few years the bourgeoisie has got rid of so many workplaces where class consciousness could develop, they have destroyed social spaces, factories and even the living quarters of the proletariat have been demolished in order to make way for new financial temples or mega-retail parks. In the periphery millions of abruptly proletarianised human beings have inevitably brought with them a millenarian peasant culture, making the development of a proletarian class consciousness that much more difficult. If we add the immensity of the bourgeoisie’s ideological grip to these difficulties, then it is possible to understand the problem of the maturation of a proletarian class consciousness.
The sporadic episodes of proletarian class struggle in recent years can help us put together some final brief political considerations on the present period of imperialist domination. Today, more than yesterday, because of the extraordinary ideological domination of capital and the changed conditions in which the proletariat finds itself, it is necessary to work for the construction of the international party of the proletariat; a party that is capable of providing the correct political course to the class struggle. The proletariat’s changed conditions of life press in the direction of a class struggle which is not always on the level of economic demands, but which can potentially and immediately begin on political ground. As we said earlier, in this epoch there is no margin left for reformist politics since the bourgeoisie no longer has even crumbs to distribute. This increases the potential for struggles to immediately assume a political significance. But without the guidance of a party all struggles, even the most radical and genuine ones, are unfortunately destined to be defeated, leaving capital more time to impoverish the entire world and at the same time to prepare more wars.Lorenzo Procopio
(1) We remind readers of the numerous articles which have appeared in Prometeo in recent years on the globalisation of capital. Several of which have been published by the IBRP and the CWO in the pages of Internationalist Communist and Revolutionary Perspectives respectively. [trans.]
(2) Lenin, Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism. Page 43, edition Editori Riuniti 1964.
(3) A splendid description of life in the megapolis is given in Mike Davis’ latest book, The Planet of the Slum (published in Italy by Feltrinelli as Il Pianeta degli Slum, November 2006).
(4) For a deepening of the argument see Lorenzo Procopio, ‘Insecurity and Class Consciousness’, Prometeo series VI, no.13.