As the Soviet Union and our historical memory of it disappear in the rear-view mirror, ideological clarity about socialism disappears with it. It is not that the Soviet Union had a monopoly on socialist thinking-- there were certainly contributors from within and without the then-existing socialist world who reflected different times, different circumstances, and different traditions-- but the Soviet Union represented a historical constant, an evolving constant that connected the rise of revolutionary Marxism in the early twentieth century to later socialist thought.
One didn’t have to agree with Soviet socialist theory in the late twentieth century, but one had to reckon with it; one had to locate one’s thinking longitudinally and latitudinally from that pole.
Because it served as a frame of reference for other leftist movements-- purported Communist, non-Communist, and anti-Communist leftism-- there was a certain logic to the politics of the global left, best expressed by the division between the Communist, revolutionary left and the social-democratic, reformist left. These two trends captured left politics, with various wrinkles and departures playing a lesser role.
Subsequent to the demise of the Soviet Union, left ideology became unhinged. Social democracy retreated to applying a modest, slightly more human face to capitalist triumphalism, reaching full-expression with the self-described Third Way of Clinton, Blair, and Hollande. Without competition from the historical legacy of revolutionary Marxism (Marxism-Leninism), a rightward swing was inevitable.
Within the Marxist-Leninist movement, frustration and disappointment led to bitter fights, splits, and retreat to what Lenin described so well as “the years of reaction” after the defeat of the 1905 Russian revolution:
All the revolutionary and opposition parties were smashed. Depression, demoralisation, splits, discord, defection, and pornography took the place of politics. There was an ever greater drift towards philosophical idealism; mysticism became the garb of counter-revolutionary sentiments… It is at moments of need that one learns who one’s friends are. “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder
Many academic Marxists-- theorists whose ideas never took root in the working class, but who commanded much influence, nonetheless-- abandoned revolutionary socialism for social criticism, spurred on by a shiny new intellectual toy, postmodernism. The ideology that coalesced around the idea of class was shattered into the politics of individual identities and varied interests. Too often this thinking seeped into left-wing politics, confusing younger comrades, by nature, enthralled with the new.
Other academics believed that they had found a more rigorous foundation for Marxism in the neo-positivism of optimized choice, self-interest, and individualism, the growing intellectual consensus of bourgeois social science. After sterile debates-- often couched in formal language-- proponents concluded that the most interesting, most original ideas in Marxism could not be reduced to statements about isolated individuals maximizing their self-perceived, narrow, immediate interests. So Marxism must be abandoned to preserve the beloved method, a patent absurdity!
In the last decade of the 20th century, a process of soul searching had begun in major sections of the left, especially in the West. Both the centrality of class politics and the legacy goal of constructing socialism receded in the newly minted approaches of the broad left.
In the wake of the 2007-2009 global economic crisis, the idea of class reemerged, albeit in a simplistic, primitive way. In 2011, activists, organizing around the slogan “Occupy!”, introduced the dichotomy of the 1% and the 99% as an expression of the great and growing inequalities of wealth and income in the US. Lacking any grasp of the complexities of class and strata, the slogan “the 99%” was bound to conjure an illusory unity of the supposed have-nots that was naive and unattainable. And the idea of “the 1%” reduced the historically evolved power and rule of the capitalist class to a mere actuarial number.
The retreat from class (as Ellen Meiksins Wood so aptly characterized it) continued unabated. And the retreat from any real advocacy of socialism accompanied it.
Dissatisfaction with a soulless Democratic Party increasingly catering to a more affluent, petty bourgeois base, revived an interest in social democracy in the US. This new interest grew from the campaign of independent Democrat Bernie Sanders who refused to renounce the moniker “socialist.” Young people, in particular, were drawn in great numbers to a ‘legitimized’ socialism, energizing a number of leftist organizations and electoral campaigns.
Ironically, this new social democratic moment occurred in the US when social democracy in Europe-- its traditional address-- was discredited and marginalized.
While acceptance of the word “socialism” in the US was welcome, it was attached to a tepid, incremental socialism deeply embedded in the Democratic Party and virtually indistinguishable from its 1930s New Deal precedent.
Certainly, this leftish turn was welcome, and the freeing of the word “socialism” from its Red Scare chains marked progress.
But so-called democratic “socialism” was not socialism by any measure, but a brand associated with the left-wing of the Democratic Party.
The retreat from the real-- real-existing and real-theoretical-- socialism and the abandonment of the tool of class analysis disables and disarms the left in every way, leaving it vacillating between accommodating capitalism with patchwork reforms and surrendering the socialist project all together until a time off in the distant future.
My own advocacy of socialism has often been met with the patronizing dismissal: “Sure, but tell us how we get there from here.”
But we can’t get anywhere unless we settle on where we want to go. And surely, we must choose our route collectively.
The signs that our left has abandoned the goal of socialism, along with class partisanship abound… unfortunately.
The contradiction-- and the Marxist term is most appropriate-- between surging inflation and shrinking growth has capitalist policy makers in a bind. Their consensus-- and their consensus follows from bourgeois theory-- is that spending must be retarded. The conventional way to do this is through restraining economic activity, exactly what the Federal Reserve’s interest-rate increases are meant to do.
Given that a hard braking of the economy will inevitably produce widespread and deep pain on an already struggling working class, one would think that this would be a powerful, unassailable argument for socialism. Given that this moment in US history presents a seemingly intractable problem for the ruling class with only two possible and disastrous outcomes-- escalating inflation or a deep recession-- that the left would lay the portended disaster at the doorstep of capitalism.
But, no, that is not happening.
Instead, the left is blaming the Federal Reserve or searching vainly for ways to save capitalism from its dilemma.
● A headline in Jacobin-- a journal of “socialism”-- and reposted in Portside states ominously: To Fight Inflation, The Fed is Declaring a War on Workers. No, it is not the Federal Reserve declaring war on workers. The Federal Reserve is a capitalist institution. It is always at war with workers-- that’s its job. It is-- as it always is-- capitalism that is at war with workers. Say it! C-a-p-i-t-a-l-i-s-m…
The article ends by suggesting how capitalism could “forge” an alternative path to reducing inflation-- a brief suggestion unrelated to the dilemma that capitalism finds itself facing, but having the merit of evading the elephant in the room.
● Then there is Michael Hudson’s response to the Federal Reserve's interest-rate action, The Fed’s Austerity Program to Reduce Wages, found on numerous websites from Counterpunch to TeleSur. Hudson commands a huge following, despite having no history or connection with the organized left aside from apparent youthful happenstance with Trotskyism. His long history as a financial industry insider and his loquaciousness seem, somehow, to bolster his popularity.
Again, it is not capitalism that is responsible for the mess facing working people, but “neoliberalism,” “the tunnel vision of corporate managers and the One Percent,” and “Biden’s Cold War.” Hudson punches the explanation up by invoking his two favorite bêtes noires: debt and the rentier-class. But not capitalism.
I have no quarrel with the term “neoliberalism” if it is shorthand for the socio-politico-economic adjustment made by and for capitalism during the 1970s stagflation crisis and after the failure of Keynesian solutions. But today it is used far too often and with zeal to conjure an evil malignancy that attacks otherwise stable and enduring capitalism and imposes onerous conditions on a disgruntled, but somewhat-satisfied-with-capitalism working class.
This is sheer nonsense, of course, but it is the latent assumption behind the obsession with neoliberalism held by most left punditry. If only we could expel neoliberalism… Again, capitalism as an all-determining socio-economic formation gets a free pass.
● Professor Richard Wolff is an impressive expositor of many Marxist ideas. He is the go-to interview when center-left media, like Democracy Now!, wants to hear from Marxism. But Professor Wolf is no Marxist. Nor is he a socialist, though he might challenge this claim. While he is unquestionably dedicated and earnest, it is not to socialism that he is dedicated. Instead, he advocates for a snail's-pace assault on capitalism through small-business-like consumer and producer cooperatives, a persisting utopian strategy of nipping away at the edges of capital. That strategy has no answer for monopoly capitalism, the capitalism of our ages.
Like so many others, Wolff demonstrates an aversion to locating capitalism as the material, formal, efficient, and final cause of today’s crises, preferring to find the reparable flaws in capitalism and to search for a fix.
In his Three Anti-Inflation Alternatives to Raising Interest Rates appearing in Economy for All, In These Times, Popular Resistance, and other places, Wolff signals more interest in finding a way to manage the inflation-stagnation crisis than attacking its cause.
Wolff proposes not one, but three alternatives available to capitalism to escape the clutches of inflation.
First, he proposes a wartime solution: ration cards. One can only imagine how that would be received by a citizenry already divided by masks, vaccines, and lockdowns, not to mention guns. Indeed, this proposal might unwittingly be a stealth spark for further misunderstanding and mindless conflict.
Second, Wolff revives the Nixon-era tactic of the wage-price freeze. Like rationing, a freeze-- including Nixon’s brief wage-price freeze-- freezes injustices as well and merely temporarily bottles up the growing, deep-seated inflationary pressures. In Nixon, Ford, and Carter’s case, those pressures exploded for the rest of the decade to no relief or benefit to working people. Like rationing, price freezes give the impression of action, while leaving the cause of economic distress-- capitalism-- untouched and unspoken.
While not mentioning socialism, Wolff’s third “alternative” invokes its spirit with the possibility of “[t]the socialization of private capitalist enterprises…” But before one can anticipate Marx’s call in The Communist Manifesto for “the abolition of bourgeois property,” Wolff dashes our hopes. He is not calling for the end of “the exploitation of the many by the few” but something else entirely. Instead, he says, let’s borrow from the history of public utility commissions that have failed so miserably to protect consumers from fraud, unjustifiable price increases, and other abuses:
Across the United States, insurance, utility, and other public commissions limit private capitalist enterprises’ freedom to raise their prices in the markets they regulate. Private capitalists in such markets cannot raise prices without the permission of those commissions to do so. A government could establish all sorts of commissions in all sorts of markets with criteria for granting or refusing such permissions. Suppose, for example, that some or all food items were socially (democratically) deemed to be basic goods, such that no producer or seller could raise its prices without approval by a federal food commission. Fighting inflation could be among the approval criteria in this case (just as that is a criterion now for the Fed’s monetary policies).
Is this less utopian, less fabulist, less unrealistic, more promising than the call to abolish bourgeois property? Is championing socialism a more remotely possible solution than establishing “commissions” that would regulate capitalist prices and, accordingly, profits? Wolff simply issues a fanciful wishlist to address an impending disaster.
A survey of the various “solutions” to the contradiction of exploding capitalist prices and slowing economic activity offered by prominent left thinkers shows that they have no solution at all. Moreover, the offered “solutions” all portend to manage capitalism better than its bourgeois managers. They all seek to improve capitalism, to make it friendlier, to tame its “excesses” while guiding it through its internally generated crises.
If today’s left refuses to seriously discuss socialism, deferring it to another time and place, it consigns the people to eternal wandering in the biblical wilderness.
It is not another half-hearted attempt at reformist or utopian change (after centuries of disappointing attempts), but a commitment to revolutionary socialism that will deliver the working class “out of the hands of the [capitalists], and to bring them up out of that land unto a good land and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey…” (with apologies to Exodus 3:8).
The working class deserves better than another thirty years of wandering through the wilderness of misdirection, muddled ideas, and fear of socialism.
In late November of last year, I wrote of the dangers of stagflation-- stagnant or declining growth and price inflation-- suggesting that the global economy was heading for a history-repeating reckoning: “The crisis of the 1970s bears some similarities with today’s turmoil.”
In January, I explained the source and persistence of inflation, thusly:
…the Federal Reserve engaged in a massive inflation of financial assets to fend off the deflationary pressures inherited from the 2007-9 catastrophe, presenting investors and bankers with the gift that kept on giving: perpetual asset inflation and an assurance that the Fed would always have their back… It is a misconception to see inflation as only arising in 2021. The first signs of fast-rising consumer inflation were indeed in 2021, but artificially induced asset inflation had preceded this for nearly a decade.
At the end of May, I wrote that these projections were proving to be accurate and ominous and the available tools placed policy makers in a tenuous situation:
The raging inflation that emerged late in 2021 places the masters of the capitalist economic universe in a policy vice. To stem inflation, they must raise interest rates, which invariably dampens economic growth. But economic growth has already slowed-- indeed, turned negative in the US for the first quarter of this year. With so many economic indicators declining or going negative, rising interest rates will only accelerate the slowdown of consumer spending, productivity, wage growth, investment, and social spending, while increasing debt and its costs.
Since then, Jamie Dimon, the head of the US’s largest bank and a celebrity financial pundit, has declared before investors and analysts that it is time to prepare for an economic “hurricane”: “That hurricane is right out there down the road coming our way. You just have to brace yourself.” His counterpart at Goldman Sachs, David Solomon, sees a reasonable risk of a recession. And Solomon’s predecessor at Goldman Sachs and Elon Musk also joined in pointing to the growing danger of recession. Talk of a “soft landing” -- avoiding a deep recession-- has dissipated.
It’s fair to say that today a majority of economists, politicians, even TV stock market cheerleaders expect continued inflation and likely recession-- a cruel brew for all, but especially the working class.
As mid-year approaches, the foretold crisis appears even more inevitable and more severe.
While the growth figures for the second quarter won’t be in for several weeks, the Atlanta Federal Reserve optimistically projects US Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to grow by a mere .9% (annualized). Couple that with the 1st quarter drop of 1.5% and we technically already are in recession.
Both the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the World Bank have recently drastically lowered their global growth estimates for 2022, by a third and more than a quarter, respectively.
Stock markets continue to deflate, losing trillions of dollars in nominal value. US equity markets have lost value for ten of the last twelve weeks. As of Monday, June 13, the Standard and Poor’s market index fell 21% from its January high, officially becoming what investors call a bear market, associated with recessions. Equity losses affect most those who are farther up the economic ladder; they create a negative wealth effect, discouraging spending on the part of the upper income, wealthiest sector. A bear market also applies pressure on middle and lower strata retirement funds, especially for those employed in the public sector.
Inflation continues to rise unabated, hitting another four-decade high with a May annualized growth of 8.6%. Prognosticators thought that the slight drop in April might signal a peak, but the May acceleration put an end to their wishful thinking.
Galloping inflation again took a big bite out of real average hourly wages, with the average dropping .6% from April to May, or 3% for the last twelve months. The 3% May-to-May comparison actually amounts to a 3.9% drop in real average weekly earnings, given a drop in the hours worked.
For the first time this year, consumer spending is down, dropping .3% from April to May. Consumer spending-- by far the largest component of total national economic growth-- was the last bastion of optimism available to the few remaining academic and media pollyannas.
The first signs of a deteriorating housing market are appearing, with mortgage demand at the lowest level in 22 years. For the week of June 5th, applications for home mortgages were down 7%, and 21% against the same week in 2021. And refinancing was down 75% against the same week a year ago.
A revealing, but seldom explored, set of statistics addresses the US economy from the perspective of the capitalist or the investor. Non-farm business sector labor productivity dropped 7.3% in the first quarter, the most since the 3rd quarter of 1947. And unit labor costs increased 12.6%, the highest increase since the 3rd quarter of 1982.
These two results describe the costs of the commodity--labor-- in terms of how much the capitalist pays for that commodity relative to what the capitalist acquires from the use of that commodity, a rough measure of the rate that labor is exploited. Further, taken together, they are an indicator of profit expectations when taking account of the cost of the commodity, labor. Put simply, when labor productivity drops and the cost of labor to the capitalist rises, profits are expected to drop.
In the first quarter of 2022, even though workers worked 5.4% more hours, they produced 2.3% less (reflected in the 7.3% productivity decline). At the same time, their hourly compensation, not adjusted for inflation, rose 4.4%.
So, capitalists paid workers more, worked them longer hours, while the workers produced less. This is not a happy result for the capitalist class.
How could this happen?
With an extremely tight, competitive labor market, capitalists are paying more to acquire and retain workers-- they are hoarding labor, just as they might any other commodity-- even though they are getting less production from them. This has and will result in lower profits.
The Wall Street Journal notes on June 13 (Weaker Earnings Pose New Threat to Markets): “...recent days have cast doubt on the durability of corporate profit growth, further darkening the outlet for stocks. Companies from Target to Microsoft Corp. have warned that their results will be lower than expected, while analysts have trimmed earnings forecasts across industries.”
As in previous downturns with sinking labor productivity, the capitalist class will respond with layoffs in an attempt to discipline labor, to squeeze more from the workers. The resulting unemployment, absent a fighting labor movement, will undermine labor's bargaining power, tend to restore the rate of exploitation, and increase capital’s share of the economic product.
Forced unemployment will surely be the coming corporate response to falling profit.
Though the strategy will remain behind a veil of official obfuscation, the captains of industry and the lieutenants of capital understand the mechanism. A revealing article in the June 14th edition of The Wall Street Journal tells us that: “Federal Reserve officials are beginning to signal that higher unemployment rates might be a necessary consequence of their efforts to damp inflation by raising interest rates.”
A commentator cited in the article advised his clients: “We should prepare ourselves for projections intended to communicate the Fed’s resolve to reduce inflation by targeting a higher level of unemployment.”
Once again, pundits are discussing the mythical “natural rate” of unemployment. The WSJ reminds us that a decade ago, the “natural rate” was seen as between 5 and 6% (it currently is 3.6%). Prepare for more unemployment!
So workers are working more for less, with their wages eaten away by galloping inflation. A recession is here or looming on the near horizon. They have depleted their savings and are maxing out their credit cards. And rising unemployment is imminent.
In the US, neither political party offers any relief for workers. The Republicans preach the ugly, stale, and counterproductive sermon of austerity. The Democrats pretend that everything is or will soon be better.
Both parties obsess over symbols, cultural choices, and manners, while the material foundations of social life rapidly deteriorate. Both parties worship at the altar of individualism and herald the singular value of free choice, while the conditions necessary for informed choices and wise decisions are swept away by a cynical, corrupted capitalist media. Both parties place the claims of capital ahead of the urgent needs of the working masses and oppressed peoples.
With economic storms battering the people for the third time in twenty-two years, as inequality continues to expand, as the quality of life is threatened and vulgarized, as stresses erupt in violence and nihilism, as war continues to be the constant of daily life, one must wonder if this is the time for new ideas, new approaches-- out with the old, in with the new.
Are the dominant political parties and organizations in the capitalist world up to these challenges? Are the old social democrats or their new incarnations addressing these catastrophic crises? Do the rising populists of the right or left offer solutions or distractions?
Time is running out.
The war in Ukraine is a propaganda war, with all of the belligerents, sponsors, and their allies churning out-- through an abjectly subservient media-- masses of lies and disinformation. In this regard, they resemble other wars, but with an added dose of shamelessness.
For that reason, it is difficult to discern how the war is being conducted or who has the military advantage at any time. Like all modern wars, atrocity stories abound and losses are wildly exaggerated.
But what separates this war from wars in the recent and not-so-recent past is the near-absence of an organized anti-war movement. It is more than a curious oddity that there are few actions in the streets or campaigns of influence or resistance to stop the mayhem of this brutal war. Sure, there are generic appeals to cut military budgets or oppose war philosophically, but little action to stop this particular war. In spite of the so-called “fog” of war, everyone knows that soldiers and civilians alike are dying in significant numbers, that bodies are ripped apart, homes destroyed, and people dislodged from their homes. No amount of “fog” can hide this.
Of course, there are a few prominent voices-- Pope Francis, even Henry Kissinger-- who have called for a cessation of fighting and negotiations. And Communists and trade unionists in Italy, Greece, and Turkey have blocked NATO weapons shipments, staged demonstrations, and picketed embassies.
But in most cities, states, and countries, there are few actions directed against the war in Ukraine. And most surprisingly, the leftists in Europe and the Americas, usually leading the way against war, are largely silent. They haven’t even minimally demanded that their own countries stay out of this war.
Instead, they have tacitly or openly sided with one belligerent or another. I have written and spoken on different occasions against taking sides in the conflict. Moreover, I have sought to place the war in the context of classical imperialism and suggested that the left’s support of either belligerent or its sponsors is misplaced, akin to the collapse of left opposition at the beginning of World War I. In that case, the left succumbed to narrow nationalist appeals. In this case, the left is succumbing to a muddled concept of imperialism and anti-imperialism.
Rather than repeat the argument, it might be useful to look at how and why leftists justify their support for one side or the other and refrain from adding their voice to the cause of peace in Ukraine.
It is easy to dismiss those who uncritically support Ukraine. Apart from the rabid nationalists of the “Glory to Ukraine” crowd, who welcome the conflict and hope to draw the Western capitalist countries into a crusade against Russia, there are those who simplistically see the war as a naked aggression with no back story. From ignorance of the post-Soviet Ukrainian history of corruption, reaction, Western meddling and aggression, or from willful collaboration with US and NATO intrigue, these new Cold Warriors seek a Russian defeat and have no interest in an immediate peaceful settlement or concern about the mayhem.
Against them are the more measured comrades who, remembering the Cold War standoff between the US and its allies and the Soviet Union and its allies, conflate today’s Russia with the Soviet Union. They recognize how the Soviet Union constituted a pole of resistance that countered and sometimes reversed the Cold War imperialist alliance’s designs on the world. US imperialism, the dominant imperialist power at the time, was effectively checked by the Soviet Union from 1945 until the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991. These anti-imperialists see Russia, in its war on Ukraine, as a similar emerging pole against US imperialism and see Russia’s invasion as an expression of a break-up of the absolute military and economic US dominance of the world established after the departure of the Soviet Union. For them, a multipolar world is in birth.
There are shards of truth in this view, but Russia is not the Soviet Union. It does not share its ideology; rather, its motives replace Soviet internationalism with an aspiring great power nationalism. While it exploits cracks in US global hegemony, it does not offer an alternative vision or unconditional assistance to the victims of capitalism and imperialism. In that regard, Russia is no Cuba, either.
Russia’s foreign policy is capitalist opportunism: friends with Turkey or Israel one moment, in conflict the next moment. Russia aligns with Saudi Arabia when it's economically profitable, while fighting Saudi proxies in Syria. There are no consistent principles guiding it. Nor can there be for a country that rejected socialism for capitalism. Those who see Russian foreign policy and alliances as progressive are very selective in their examples.
Russia’s leaders readily embrace the capitalist ethos and reject the Soviet project, though they appeal, when needed, to Soviet symbols and traditions when useful.
It may be true that the Russian invasion ultimately will achieve the goals sought by its ruling class. And it may be true that these gains will come at the expense of US imperialism and its ruling class, but how does that move us any closer to a world of peace and social justice? The rivalries remain, the goals of the respective ruling classes remain uncertain and unstable, despite their claims of peace-loving and democracy-seeking; and the danger of conflict remains high or even higher.
There are others who envision the war-- insofar as Russia is challenging US power-- as a blow for those on the bottom of what we might envision as the imperialist “pyramid” -- the developing countries. Jenny Clegg, for example, writing in The Morning Star, sees the development of “competitors” to US dominance as establishing the first steps toward a multipolar world. She correctly notes that multipolarity “is not a policy but an emerging objective trend…”
Further, she sees unequal exchange between the highly developed countries and the developing countries as the principal contradiction-- the contradiction defining imperialism and anti-imperialism.
While this center-periphery distinction was popular and influential among independent Western “Marxists” in the era when the working classes in the center-- the West-- were generally tamed by social democratic opportunism, it was neither particularly insightful nor of continued relevance. Marx went to great lengths to show that exchange, under capitalist relations of production, was not generally unequal-- values exchange for values. But those same relations of production always produce and reproduce inequality. The locus of inequality-- capitalist exploitation-- is embedded in the capitalist system, not in the thievery of unequal exchange.
As Lenin elaborated, uneven development is a feature of relations between people, social institutions, firms in the same industry, between industries, and between countries, and even continents. It is not unequal exchange that accounts for the uneven development, but differences in the pace of development, cultural and social practices, political and other institutions, and most importantly, especially in the epoch of imperialism, the stunting effects of colonialism, neo-colonialism, and their legacy.
In the last half-century, technological developments have freed capitalists to move, access, and service the material productive forces-- factories, transportation networks, resources-- in order to gain access to formerly inaccessible labor markets, cheapening labor in general. At the same time, this development created rising living standards in some developing countries, while lowering them in some advanced capitalist countries.
Consequently, some capitalist countries-- like India, Turkey, Brazil, Indonesia-- have become powerful rivals to the late-twentieth-century great powers.
The concept of “unequal” exchange as an explanation for the inequality between developed and developing countries (and for the difference between imperialism and anti-imperialism) fails because it implies that should exchanges become equal, that same inequality between states would evaporate. Even more importantly, it suggests that equal exchange-- and not an end of capitalism-- would signal the demise of imperialism.
To understand imperialism as a conflict between advancing and lagging development based upon the unequal terms of economic activity-- a kind of organized thievery-- is to misunderstand the nature of exploitation under capitalism. Intense competition between players-- big and small-- for markets, resources, labor, and capital are the essence of capitalism and imperialism. There is no sharp line between this competition and war.
Clegg wants us to believe that in a multipolar world, with US power diminished, establishing equal exchange will bring forth a period of civil, well-behaved, respectful competition. She insists that this contrast with today’s dangerous world is captured by the distinction between competition and rivalry, a distinction that I think few will find satisfying. In an aside, she explains: “competition is not the same as rivalry-- think competing in a race as opposed to deliberately tripping over your rival in that race.” To think that sporting competition doesn’t evolve commonly into no-holds-barred conflict and into violence is surely out of touch with the history of both sports and international politics in the twentieth century.
From the reliance on the now intellectually fashionable and prominent rational choice or game theory to the behavior of capitalist enterprises, from the constant haggling over borders, sea lanes and territorial waters to establishment of military and economic alliances, there is little evidence that capitalist countries are striving for a fair economic playing field with fixed, transparent, and respected rules. "Win-win" is not part of the capitalist vocabulary.
Clegg writes of “the old-- US hegemonic power” as having “been in relative decline” and the “new-- a more equal distribution of wealth and power” as developing, albeit slowly. While one might happily concede that aspects of US power and influence have been challenged and dampened, while one might add that the US shows many signs of economic, political, and social decline, it does not follow, nor is it likely, that any “new distribution of wealth and power” will be more equitable or just. And most importantly, even if wealth and power were more equitably distributed between countries, there is little reason to believe it would be more equitably distributed within those countries. Clegg’s multipolarity can make no such promises to the working classes.
Finally, there are those on the left who have carried on a lifelong struggle against US imperialism and can only see an enemy of our enemy as our friend. There are few people on the righteous left now alive who can remember a time when the US was not the leading great power and the anchor for the capitalist alliance against socialism, socialism as a legitimate political current, as a rival to global capitalism, and as a pole rallying the forces of anti-imperialism.
Therefore, it is hard to envision the world not benefitting from the defanging of US imperialism, from its fall as a great power. No great power in our time has caused more deadly mischief. But that surely displays a weak understanding of capitalism and its stages of development.
There were nationalist leaders in various countries under the boot of British imperialism in the interwar period who welcomed the rise of Hitler and Tojo, greeting them as possible saviors from hundreds of years of suppression by the British Empire, the leading imperialist of the time.
Subhas Chandra Bose, for example, an Indian nationalist leader who was once president of the Indian National Congress, was so deeply committed to overthrowing British rule in India that he actively and unapologetically collaborated with the Nazis and Japanese in World War II. This myopia is an extreme version of the blinders worn by many anti-imperialists who fail to understand the logic of imperialism and its unbreakable link to capitalism.
Chandra Bose demonstrates the hollowness of narrow nationalism and obsessive self-regard over viewing the world through the lens of class and class solidarity.
The struggle against US imperialism, like the struggle against its predecessor, the British Empire, will ultimately be resolved at home when the people finally refuse to continue paying the price for their rulers’ grand designs. Of course, those oppressed by imperialism play an equally important role, that of resisters; though imperialism like rust, never sleeps. It is an imperative, a demand made by capitalist accumulation-- if it is defeated in one place, it will surely find another place to satisfy its lust. This dynamic only finally ends when our world finds socialism. The wishful thinking of a benign capitalism with all participants peacefully on an even playing field is just that-- a wishful thought.
Multipolarity-- a notion first discussed by bourgeois academics looking for tools to understand the dynamics of global relations-- has been adopted by a segment of the anti-imperialist left. While it assuredly describes an actual trend emerging, as Jenny Clegg acknowledges, it has often been presented as an anti-imperialist stage shifting the world balance of forces in the direction of a better world.
I have argued that this is a retreat from classical imperialism as understood by VI Lenin and his followers. In the context of an unstable world in ideological disorder and suffering untold crises, there are no guarantees that the poles that emerge or challenge the post-Cold War super-pole are a step forward or a step back simply because they are alternative poles. Undoubtedly, any resistance that weakens the asymmetry of power that the US holds should be welcome. But we should not presume that every opponent will become a force for stability, justice, and peace. Knowing what we know about the history of capitalism from its first expansionist era accumulating involuntary human capital to exploit the riches of the new world should chasten our expectations about new rivals to US imperialism.
With the fall of the Soviet Union as a backdrop and the uncertainty left in its wake, we should be cautious about anointing any new candidates for the role of arch-rival not only to US imperialism, but to all imperialism as well as its genesis, capitalism.
While the left futilely disputes the victim and the victimizer, working people are dying unnecessarily, suffering horrific wounds, homelessness, and despair-- all the products of modern war. Working class lives should not be proxies in ideological debates. Events will decide who has the correct understanding of imperialism, but history will not be kind to those who failed, in the meantime, to oppose the war and to seek a peaceful solution.