March 2, 2013
Convergence and Divergence: A Reply to Comrade Hamerquist
Posted in Asia, Communism, Economics, Europe, Fascism, Imperialism, Politics, Social-Democracy, Theory, Trade, United Kingdom, United States tagged Antonio Negri, Arghiri Emmanuel, Economic History, Economics, Fascism, Giovanni Arrighi, Imperialism, Labor Aristocracy, Social-Democracy, Third Worldism, Zak Cope at 03:38 by Matthijs Krul
Since I recently wrote an extended, appreciative review of Zak Cope’s book of Third Worldist Marxism Divided World, Divided Class on this blog, some other radical commentators have provided reviews and replies as well. One of these is Don Hamerquist, who wrote what is in essence a review of my review. It can be found on the blog Sketchy Thoughts. Hamerquist’s commentary was critical of my analysis (on which it focuses more than Cope’s), but in a constructive manner, and has thereby given me occasion to restate and clarify some of the positions I have developed in recent times on this medium and elsewhere. Even though I don’t wholly agree, such focused, intelligent criticism as Hamerquist’s is of great value, and it would be foolish to dismiss it out of personal egocentrism or puffery.
The background to the debates over the Third Worldist thesis must be summed up for any of this to be meaningful. In essence, the issue is as follows: there has been an in many respects ever-widening gap between the countries subject to imperialism and the countries undertaking the imperialism, mainly European and ex-European settler states, since 1750-1800 or so. In the days of Marx and Engels, this was not itself much subject of attention of communist writers and theorists, as they opposed colonialism – especially from the 1860s onwards Marx and Engels became much more systematic critics of it, unlike their ambiguous interpretation of the 1850s, as detailed in e.g. Kevin Anderson’s Marx at the Margins. For them, and the generation after them, the evil of colonialism was simply the political oppression and forced subjection to capitalist social relations suffered by the many peoples outside Europe, and to be opposed as part of the wider class struggle against the ruling classes and the capitalist system which had spawned such colonial activity. But it was not seen as a theoretical problem in this way. It became such only in the 20th century, when other than in Russia the European working classes systematically failed to take any opportunity offered for preparing and attempting a serious anticapitalist revolution. There were close calls, such as in Germany (twice) and in Italy, but in all of these cases it was the organized social-democracy, the reformist wing of the working class, which betrayed and opposed the revolution in its crucial hour.
Not coincidentally, this reformist, legalist turn was the most pronounced and visible the earliest in Britain, the most developed imperialist country – to such a degree that Engels already despaired of the British working class. As he wrote, and I quoted in my review of Cope:
Do not on any account whatever let yourself be deluded into thinking there is a real proletarian movement going on here. I know Liebknecht tries to delude himself and all the world about this, but it is not the case. The elements at present active may become important since they have accepted our theoretical programme and so acquired a basis, but only if a spontaneous movement breaks out here among the workers and they succeed in getting control of it. Till then they will remain individual minds, with a hotch-potch of confused sects, remnants of the great movement of the ‘forties, standing behind them and nothing more. And–apart from the unexpected–a really general workers’ movement will only come into existence here when the workers are made to feel the fact that England’s world monopoly is broken.
Participation in the domination of the world market was and is the basis of the political nullity of the English workers. The tail of the bourgeoisie in the economic exploitation of this monopoly but nevertheless sharing in its advantages, politically they are naturally the tail of the “great Liberal Party,” which for its part pays them small attentions, recognises trade unions and strikes as legitimate factors, has relinquished the fight for an unlimited working day and has given the mass of better placed workers the vote. But once America and the united competition of the other industrial countries have made a decent breach in this monopoly (and in iron this is coming rapidly, in cotton unfortunately not as yet) you will see something here.
Lenin, too, reacted to the first great social-democratic betrayal, the war of 1914, by seeking its origins in imperialism, leading him to write (on the basis of the works of the bourgeois radical Hobson) his classic work on that topic. This book was not just a theoretical analysis of imperialism as “the highest stage of capitalism”, as Lenin saw it (rightly or wrongly), but as all of Lenin’s works also a major political intervention: a critique of the origins of reformism itself, and its betrayal of real revolutionary aspirations. However, all this is just one thing. Until the Second World War, it could still be maintained that imperialism was ultimately an extension of the power of the capitalist classes of Europe over other countries, a way of realizing value or extending capitalist markets to solve the contradictions of capitalism at home and to diffuse the natural militancy of the working classes. While a theoretically rather incoherent medley of political economic elements, it was in one form or another the standard narrative of the period and still is for many more ‘orthodox’ Marxists today.
However, everything changed with the defeat of fascism and the triumph of social-democracy in the West, and the victories of the anticolonial forces in most of the world. Now, for the first time, it became clear that the general trend was not one of the natural militancy of the European/American/ANZAC working classes, but rather of their decisive loyalty to reformism, one that for the first and only time in the history of capitalism seemed to promise not just full employment and a welfare state, but also continually rising living standards for those same working people. The natural militancy, it was proven in the 1960s, rested first and foremost with the anticolonial forces in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and with racially oppressed groups; emphatically not with the solid vanguard of the unionized working classes, largely male, in Europe and the US who were expected to be the font of revolution. In every situation where these groups were confronted with a decision between social-democracy with imperialism and revolution without it, they chose the former. The marches for Enoch Powell and the military coup of the pieds noirs were just a faint impression of this tendency, which also showed itself in the United States with the desperate support of the so-called ‘poor whites’ for the racial system in that country. The empires of the French and British had long made the idea that the metropole working classes had ‘nothing to lose but their chains’ a fantasy – and as became more and more clear over the course of the 20th century, the chains were not so much on them, but on people oppressed on their behalf, and the loss of such chains was keenly felt in the imperialist nations. The solidarity and internationalism of the working people of the West failed every time it was put to the test, with even the devastating defeat of the Vietnam War not sufficiently distinguishable from the experience of World War I in this regard.
It is in response to this that within Maoism originated the current of ‘Third Worldism’. Maoism was always most oriented toward the formerly colonized countries of all forms of Marxism, and with its often agrarian outlook it therefore followed a natural course in that direction. The Third Worldists developed out of the comments on the British oppression of Ireland and the creation of a reformist, pro-imperialist labor aristocracy through its spoils a more general thesis. Using the ideas of unequal exchange formulated by dissident Marxist economists such as Samir Amin and Arghiri Emmanuel, the Third Worldist thesis has posited that given a worldwide law of value (also the title of one of Amin’s books), flows of value from the Third World to the First, part of unequal exchange enforced by imperialism, account for the political aspects of the story of divergence. ‘The Great Divergence’, the ever-widening gap between The West and The Rest since 1800 or so, has been noted by many economists, strangely enough much more so in the liberal mainstream than in Marxism. It has been one of the driving forces of research in economic history, mainly by means of orthodox economic theory, and it has also led to the development of a non-Marxist long-term analysis of changes in structural patterns of global trade, known as World Systems Theory. There is a great and burgeoning economic historical literature on the Great Divergence, beginning with its coining by Kenneth Pomeranz, and much of it has remained entirely unused by all but a handful of the most innovative Marxist thinkers. Rarely for the social sciences, Marxist theory actually lags behind the liberal mainstream in this field in some respects.
What greatly strengthens the hand of the Third Worldist interpretation here is the systematic neglect of this phenomenon by most Marxist interpreters; there has been much Marxist writing on imperialism, the slave trade, and so forth, but rarely in the longer run histories is it presented as the central question of our time. Only for the economic historians and the Third Worldists is this so. With the 1950s-1970s showing the world’s only capitalist boom period, and this period leading to vast increases in the living standards of the West without corresponding improvements elsewhere, and this period inaugurating the definite defeat of the last waves of revolutionary activity among working people in the West (with the movements of 1968, the Hungarian and Czechoslovak revolts, the Italian uprisings, etc.), this seems more than an unpleasant coincidence. For all the talk of the interests of working people everywhere being in socialism and revolution worldwide, in revolution in permanence or whatever form else, this has fallen systematically on deaf ears among the ‘Actually Existing Working Class’ since the oil crisis. If anything, when confronted with major crisis, as it is today, the Western working class instinctively chooses the populist right or outright fascist movements. This is the pattern one expects of those benefiting from exploitation, not those suffering from it. It is not just a matter of a merely contingent ‘downturn’, as often presented in Trotskyist understandings, nor of a betrayal, as the ‘anti-revisionist’ crowd would have it. Only the Third Worldist viewpoint, it seems, even understands the fundamental significance of this phenomenon, and moreover provides a plausible explanation: this gives it a great theoretical value.
Revolution and the Death of Social-Democracy
All this having been said, I now turn to comrade Hamerquist’s concerns. Hamerquist raises a number of major objections, which I want to deal with in a provisional but serious way. As always, these are matters of ongoing theoretical concern to me and increasing numbers of young Marxist thinkers, and therefore serious, non-kneejerk exchanges of views and information are essential to moving forward. Nothing here is set in stone. But to get to the point: the first major problem comrade Hamerquist identifies is the seeming contradiction in my article, and perhaps in Third Worldism generally, between economic divergence and political convergence. This is an important point. I have strongly praised Cope’s analysis of the history of the emergence of the labor aristocracy, and its natural political form of social-democracy, through the colonization of Ireland, the genocidal settlerism of America, Canada and Australia, the conquest of India and China, the subjugation of Africa; none of which could fail to leave its mark on the inhabitants of the glorious empires of this short century, living on a small rock, third from the Sun. In my original review, I said that “the Western working class currently is not revolutionary, and in fact cannot be revolutionary without majorly violating the expectations of Marx and Engels’ theory of historical materialism.” As a generalization, I believe this to be true, on the basis of the above. But what could this mean? Is then all activity fruitless? Or was the Rote Armee Fraktion right, and is a manner of ‘propaganda of the deed’ in order to demoralize the Western ruling class the only possibility, however minute its impact?
To clarify this, I wish to draw together the Third Worldist strand of analysis summarized above with another viewpoint I have developed, in particular in my article on the death of social-democracy. That is to say, I think the Third Worldist view as described by Cope and others identifies a real and currently dominant trend in the political economy of the Western world, in fact it is what makes speaking of ‘the West’ meaningful in the first place. This involves a rejection of the viewpoint that the Western working class is simply deluded en masse, or held in thrall by false consciousness or the culture industry or media propaganda, which are arguments in bad faith to defend a failed theory; and it also involves a rejection of the idea that they must be revolutionary because they are the most ‘productive’ workers, or are most proletarianized as divorced from the means of production and massed into factories, both of which are simply empirically untrue.
However, that is not all. Simultaneously, there is another major political economic trend, a more recent one. The postwar world has seen the rise of what William I. Robinson has called the ‘transnational capitalist class’. Indeed, much of the recent economic history often summarized under the name of ‘globalization’ is merely a fulfillment of the Marxist promise of a true worldwide law of value, a world in which “the bourgeoisie makes the world in its own image”. This entails a worldwide labor competition and a worldwide capital competition, with that caveat that the former is infinitely more warped and superexploited by restrictions on immigration and labor movement than prevailed before. One consequence of this has been the export of the actual sites of the production of surplus value from the First World to the Third World. A successful planning strategy of development and hitching oneself politically and economically to this increasingly global wagon of the capitalist class allowed Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan a high level of living standards, comparable for the first time since the 1800s with that of Europe. Not all countries will be able to succeed in this way; as the ‘Asian Tigers’ discovered, competition is always, everywhere, a zero sum game. But what this does mean is this: as production of value happens more and more elsewhere, and the Western economies are more and more engaged in production that is not – from the point of view of accumulation of value – ‘productive’, both the ability and willingness of the ruling class to undertake the grand social-democratic bargain between capital and labor in the metropole will decline. With every case of ‘outsourcing’ and every case of autonomous development of Third World nations, the basis of social-democracy in the West is undermined, and its politics dies a slow death.
In this then I disagree somewhat with many of the Third Worldist theorists. As Hamerquist has rightly noted, there is a contradiction in the view that on the one hand, the Third World is the real locus of value-productive activity, and on the other hand, the idea that divergence can only extend further and further, and imperialism only become stronger and stronger. In fact, imperialism is a highly contradictory system. While Cope’s analysis to my mind rightly identifies the divergence tendency of political economy, dominant in roughly the century from 1880 to 1980, my attempt has been to simultaneously theorize the counter-tendency that I believe is slowly but surely gaining the upper hand since the 1980s. This corresponds to the flattening out of real compensation for the Western working classes, and to the rise of the new regional powers such as China, India, Brazil, and so forth. This corresponds also, not coincidentally, with the fall in the rate of profit for the major Western countries identified by Kliman (at least for the US) and others. Finally, that in turn corresponds to the subsequent explosion of financial speculation, ‘leveraging’, and debt, which is without historical precedent in its scope and scale. Not even the United Provinces’ ultimate collapse in speculative bubbles compares to what has been seen before the current depression, and what is still going on.
This then is, for now, my answer to Hamerquist’s query on this point: it is both true that the Western working class, organized in social-democracy, is nonrevolutionary and a labor aristocracy and that this same social-democracy is historically in its declining phase, undermined by global trends not of its own making and which it is unable to control. The first response to this will be either general fury and a sense of betrayal, as we see everywhere today, or a reliance on fascism and Poujadist phenomena, as we see in Greece and Italy. But it does not need to end there, and that means that there may actually be considerably more potential for real revolutionary activity in the West, soon, than has been the case in a long time. Comrade Hamerquist is confused with my presentation because I failed to emphasize sufficiently the temporal dimension of this, the contradiction between a long and a medium-term trend in time, contrary to each other.
Faith in Nation?
However, comrade Hamerquist raises another important point: the question of the nation-state. As I understand his critique, he argues that one major weakness of the Third Worldist viewpoint, and by extension mine, is its continuing reliance on the nation-state as the core political unit of relevance. Using the works of Arrighi, a world systems theorist, and Antonio Negri in an innovative and creative way, Hamerquist argues that the traditional Maoist view of the countryside/periphery waging prolongued war ‘from the outside’ against the city/center is out of date, and that the central contradictions are no longer between nations, but between different groups of the working class both inside and outside of the metropole. Here Hamerquist points to the gender dimension of labor in the Third World, as well as the withering away of the territorial nation-state logic of capitalism under the pressure of American decline, as the last great empire (the way Arrighi sees it). I am sympathetic to these critiques, and they deserve serious examination.
I would first set out that my view is decidedly not just one of nation-against-nation, or of the classic argument that “the working classes must first deal with their own bourgeoisie”. As we can learn from Aijaz Ahmad and other writers, it is highly dangerous to speak undifferentiatedly about nations, including ones subject to imperialism, as if they have no class and gender contradictions of their own. Arguably, much of the unreflective ‘anti-imperialism’ of Third Worldists stems from this mistake, often leading to dishonest endorsements of petty tyrants in foreign countries in the kind of parody of Orientalism that gave so much munition to critics like Christopher Hitchens. Instead, I would venture that the right view is precisely to recognize that the realization of ‘globalization’, a trend always latently inherent in capitalism, creates a transnational capitalist class, and thereby creates new class oppositions. There is not just the struggle between the workers and their national bourgeoisies, nor just the struggle between the workers of the East against the workers and capitalists of the West; there is also the struggles of the national bourgeoisies against the transnational ruling classes, insofar as these increasingly come into competitive contradiction with each other, which in turn creates new opportunities for transnational working class internationalism. The gender aspect, too, is not just a coloration of events – patriarchal structures predate capitalism in (almost) all parts of the world, and it is no coincidence that the working class’ most revolutionary and oppressed elements are increasingly women. It is interesting to note that here, too, transnational capitalism and the decay of social-democracy both have caused a convergence of sorts, more than a divergence: the average militant unionist in the West today is quite likely to be a woman, often an ethnic or ‘racial’ minority at that.
However, as Robinson and others have hasted to point out, all this does not mean the decline of the significance of the nation-state. It means its transformation into a new role in global capitalism. As the United States as hegemon declines, its role as policeman of the interests of capital, its role as global state in the sense of “the executive committee of the whole bourgeoisie” declines with it. This means a vacuum of power. It not only gives rise to regional powers and potentially a new balance of powers system (though still under American overlordship, as once it was under British rule); it also means that the practical enforcement of capitalist rule revolves more and more on the various state and regional actors, which cluster together in order to effectively create the new ‘concert of nations’ required to impose and reproduce capitalism in their own spheres. Transnational capitalism does not yet have its own bodies of armed men, yet requires a global competition and therefore a global Gleichschaltung of economic and social relations. This creates a need for increasing, rather than decreasing, state power. This is strengthened further by the need for national bourgeoisies to destroy the weakened social-democratic and anti-colonial compromises to an ever greater degree, whether in Europe or in China, if they are to keep up competition with one another and survive the rule of the transnational capitalist class. All in all, this means the need for an arrangement of strong states and regional forces, which can enforce the Thomas Friedmanite ‘flat world’ in their own domains, while simultaneously having the ability to destroy the old social-democratic order and impose new markets and commodifications in every sphere in order to equalize capital accumulation. This is the reality of neoliberalism, not its own rhetoric of empowerment, small government, and the soft death of the nation-state.
It is in response to this new political constellation that there arise two new trends: on the one hand, new regional nationalisms and separatisms, from the Welsh to the Basque, and regional militant movements, such as the Naxalites, all of whom resist the deeply felt hijacking of their nation-state identity by the interests of transnational capital – in other words, a response to the undermining of the nation-building process the 18th and 19th centuries constituted. On the other hand, the creation of powerful regional and international blocs in the style of the European Union, the Gulf Cooperation Council, ASEAN, OPEC, and so forth, which not only intend to represent the interests of transnational capitals where American power no longer suffices to guarantee it, but which also create new competitions between each other along the lines of the old states system. The contradictory attitudes to the European Union within the UK’s political system are clear examples of this: many elements of the right despise the European Union as they feel Britain’s own capitalist interests are best served outside it, whereas at the same time the sections of the British ruling class attuned to the transnational capitalism, via global financial capital, are strongly in favor of it as it can enforce the (re)imposition of fully capitalist social relations within all of Europe, and form a much safer sphere of operations than a single country’s capital would on its own. These groups only agree within the Conservative and Liberal-Democratic parties (and some of the Labour right) when the EU seeks to impose restraints on Britain’s pre-eminent position as speculator-in-chief; but outside this, they have ever less in common. Similar phenomena, including confusion and divisions within the ranks of the social-democrats, are visible throughout Europe and mutatis mutandis even in the United States.
For these reasons then, the nation-state is not on its way out, but it is gaining a new role and becoming considerably more contradictory as a state form – in the full sense of the locus of physical power – than it has perhaps been since 1648. I am sympathetic to Hamerquist’s use of Arrighi and Negri to point to the transnational and sub-national contradictions, but I do not believe these are separate phenomena over and against the ones at the level of (groups of) nation states. Rather, they are one. Therefore when I speak of a rule of the West, rather than the United States – something my critic objects to – it is in the context of the first great tendency of contemporary political economy, the one analyzed by Cope. Within the other tendency, a rule of the West is much more contingent and subject to many uncertainties and internal fractures. The West maintains itself, for now, at least as an identifiable military alliance and political bloc, as it was hammered out by American power in order to resist the Soviet Union – not much unlike the ‘friendly alliance’ of city-states the Athenians forced against the Spartans, which included the famous sacking of Melos. From this viewpoint, as opposed to the Cope one, it is no more an organic entity than the Delian League, and no more likely to last.
That comrade Hamerquist forces us to think about the interaction between the status of the nation-state under globalized capitalism and the interpretations of the Great Divergence is, notwithstanding all this, a valuable impetus. His use of Arrighi and Negri here is telling, because it is precisely the world systems theorists as well as Negri and Hardt who have, fairly uniquely among radicals, attempted to theorize precisely this interaction. The Third Worldist thesis has done much for our understanding of the latter, more (to my mind) than Negri and most Marxist thinkers, but not much for the former. Moreover, there is still much empirical material to be integrated. The world systems theorists have as their weakness an understanding of political economy that is ultimately inferior to the Marxist, as it is unduly focused on exchange rather than production, and fails to comprehend capitalism as its own self-expanding system of social relations. At the same time, they have integrated the empirical knowledge provided by many mainstream economic historians, including radical liberals like the contemporary John Hobson (grandson of Lenin’s inspiration) and anthropologists such as Sir Jack Goody; this is a task I suspect has not been adequately taken up by Marxist thinkers yet. With the Third Worldist critique of the lazy, hand-waving dogmatism of much Marxist understandings of the ‘downturn’ understood, we can move on to a new phase of synthesizing and integrating these different strands into our theoretical comprehension of reality. With the majority of the world for the first time ever being urban workers; with fascism once more on the rise and the social-democratic consensus disintegrating; with new powers and regional rivalries threatening the world with nuclear annihilation; with religious reaction sweeping the globe in response to the disintegration of the developmental state model; and with economic divergence and political convergence in ever-increasing contradiction, there is a great amount to be done for Marxism today.