Federico Fuentes interviews William I. Robinson
Posted November 15, 2023
Federico Fuentes: Over the past century, we have seen the term imperialism used to define different situations and at other times be replaced by concepts such as globalisation and hegemony. You yourself have written that “the classical image of imperialism as a relation of external domination is outdated.” Why is this the case? Does this mean the concept of imperialism as a whole is outdated too?
William Robinson: Colonialism and imperialism are historic processes through which world capitalism expanded outward from its original birthplace in Western Europe and conquered the world. Capitalism by its very nature is an outwardly expanding system. It must continuously conquer new spaces and expand the frontiers of accumulation, commodifying everything and obliterating anything in its way. By imperialism we mean this violent outward expansion of capital, with all the political, military and ideological mechanisms that this involves. Given the profound transformations in world capitalism over the past half century, it could not be clearer that we need to reconceive how we understand imperialism in this age of capitalist globalisation.
Vladimir Lenin argued in Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, written in the midst of World War I, that the conflagration was as a battle among European states for colonial zones of influence to secure, in competition with rival states, raw materials, labour pools, markets and outlets for surplus accumulated capital. He was clear that this conflict among states expressed a more fundamental underlying conflict among nationally-organised capitalist classes. Therefore, the essence of imperialism was rivalry among these national capitalist classes for world control.
But Lenin was analysing world capitalism at an earlier moment in its ongoing and open-ended evolution, where capitalist classes were organised nationally. The world he and his generation of Marxist revolutionaries looked at was very different from the world we live in. The idea predominant among leftists is that Lenin advanced a nation-state or territorially-based theory of imperialism. This is fundamentally wrong. He advanced a class-based theory. A nation cannot exploit another nation — that is just absurd reification. Imperialism has always been a violent class relation, not between countries but between global capital and global labour; a class project mediated, however, through a world economy politically divided into national jurisdictions.
Our challenge as Marxists is to understand the changing relationship between class (and capital) and state in the context of transnational class exploitation. The worldwide organisation of capital has changed over the past century through the transnationalisation of the leading fractions of capital. This has been so broadly documented empirically that it should no longer be controversial. The transnational capitalist class (TCC), as the hegemonic fraction of capital on a world scale, is not tethered to territory, and while it has to rely on and also contend with states it does not identify with any one nation-state.
But transnational capital is not just “Northern” or “Triad” capital. It includes the rise of powerful transnational corporate conglomerates from the formerly colonised countries that now export their capital around the world in the same way as European imperial powers did in Lenin’s day. The Brazilian-based transnational conglomerate Vale, one of the world’s largest integrated mining companies, ceased being a “Brazilian” company in the 21st century. It has operations on every continent and exploits tens of thousands of workers in the traditional North American and European core. But there are countless other examples. The Indian-based Tata conglomerate is the single largest employer (and therefore capitalist exploiter of labour) in Britain. Chinese-based corporations operate in every continent, including in North America, where they exploit US and Canadian workers. Mexican-based transnationals invest throughout Latin and North America and beyond, exploiting workers of all nationalities. Gulf-based capitalists export capital around the world. Moreover, when we analyse the structure of global capital we find a very high degree of transnational integration, especially through the circuits of global finance and cross-corporate investment.
Economically, imperialism has historically referred to the appropriation of resources and the exploitation of labour across national borders, and the flow of the surplus value back across borders. Now this takes place all over the world. It does not resemble the earlier structure where metropolitan colonial capital simply syphoned out surplus value from the colonies and deposited it back in colonial coffers.
There is nothing intrinsically — as distinct from historically — Western about imperialism. It historically had a Western identity because capitalism was born in the West and expanded out from there. We are now in a new epoch of global capitalism. Many Marxists lose sight of the fact that historically imperialism refers to an economic relationship facilitated by extra-economic (political, military, etc.) processes. They focus on the extra-economic processes alone, such as US interventionism around the world, without showing their relationship to transnational class exploitation as it actually takes place. For instance, the US props up repressive governments in Latin America, whereas in these same countries Chinese or other transnational investors exploit labour but do not intervene politically to prop up repressive states. What is the relationship here between US intervention and Chinese capitalist exploitation? As socialists should we be opposing not just the political (and sometimes military) intervention but also the class exploitation that it makes possible?
Global capital controls resources and exploits global labour through a globally-integrated production, financial and service system. How should we understand the political and military processes that facilitate these worldwide relations of exploitation? As socialists we oppose imperialism because it is the vehicle of barbarous capitalist dispossession, exploitation, oppression and degradation. We cannot oppose imperialism while embracing or excusing capitalist exploitation. I am still sifting through these matters and do not have all the answers. But it is clear that we need a very great deal of rethinking and there is just so much I can say here.
FF: You referred to a transnational capitalist class (TCC). How do you see the relation between this class and nation states evolving? Can this TCC operate successfully without an institutional anchorage in, and political backing from, an imperialist power?
WR: Capital cannot reproduce or expand without the state. That has been true throughout the whole history of world capitalism and remains true today. In this age of globalisation, the world has to be pried open to transnational capital and then kept open to it. All threats to its freedom to exploit and accumulate have to be suppressed. How is this achieved? It requires political, military and economic instruments, ranging from coup d’états and military interventions, to economic sanctions, structural adjustment programs, free trade agreements, the mechanisms of debt and financial leverage, lawfare, and so on. In speaking about the TCC’s anchorage in states, we need to focus on two aspects: first, how the TCC has sought to impose its class power over the past four decades of capitalist globalisation through a dense network of national and supranational institutions around the world; and second, the preponderant role to date of the US state in capitalist globalisation.
Regarding the first, as far back as the 1970s, with the formation of the Trilateral Commission and the World Economic Forum, an emerging transnational elite sought to develop transnational networks to coordinate policy and impose worldwide conditions for capitalist globalisation. I have put forth the concept of transnational states (TNS) apparatuses, not as a “world government” but as an analytical abstraction that refers to the loose networks of inter- and transnational institutions together with national states. Through these institutions, the TCC attempts to exercise its class power over the global working classes, leveraging the structural power of transnational capital over the direct power of states. I have discussed these matters broadly elsewhere. But, for instance, when the IMF imposes as a loan condition that local labour markets be deregulated or fiscal austerity be applied to assure the macroeconomic stability that transnational finance requires, the IMF is acting as a (transnational) state institution insofar as the capitalist state establishes the conditions for exploitation to take place, in this case within the larger global capitalist system.
Regarding the second, most Marxists today assume that US intervention and aggression around the world — if we want to call this imperialism, fine, but not without qualification — should be understood as competition with other powers. But let us recall that the British and French sealed off their colonial empires in earlier centuries to capitalists from other countries. US-led capitalist globalisation, however, has sought in recent decades to open up the world to capital from all over, irrespective of national origin. When the US invaded and occupied Iraq in the early 21st century, it opened up the country to global investors. In fact, the first two oil conglomerates that took advantage of the US military canopy to invest in Iraq were French-based Total and the Chinese state oil company — even though the French and Chinese governments opposed the invasion. Chinese private and state corporations control most of the production of cobalt in the Congo (in the process brutally exploiting Congolese miners and plundering the country). That cobalt goes back to industrial circuits in Asia where iPhones and other electronic equipment is manufactured by transnational capital and marketed around the world.
Phrases such as “national interests” (as in “defending US interests”) are meaningless and have no place in Marxist analysis. What we really mean is what are the class interests behind what the US state does around the world? The US state has served over the past four decades as the imperial anchor to which you refer. It acts as the most powerful instrument in the arsenal of global capitalism through which the mass of the world’s poor and working peoples are contained and controlled, the world is opened for transnational corporate plunder, and states that impede the unfettered accumulation of capital are attacked.
Now, however, things are changing rapidly. There is a general crisis of capitalist rule. Any effort at transnational capitalist unity is undermined by the escalating crisis of global capitalism. TNS apparatuses are breaking down. The World Trade Organization trade rules are being disregarded by the very US national state that so forcefully pushed for them at the height of neoliberal globalisation. Escalating geopolitical conflict has more to do with challenges to the global capitalist order and competition among state elites as they face mounting crises of accumulation, political legitimacy, social reproduction and control, than with competition among national capitalist groups. No one national state, no matter how powerful, has the ability to serve at this time as the anchorage that you ask about, to stabilise the global economy or control global accumulation. We are in a period of global chaos without a coherent political centre to stabilise global capitalism.
FF: In light of the changes experienced during the past century, what relative weight do the mechanisms of imperialist exploitation have today, as compared to the past?
WR: This is a very important question. World capitalism is still organised through an international division of labour and a centre-peripheral structure of transnational class relations forged through centuries of colonialism and imperialism. Labour is more intensely exploited in the former Third World and the absolute savagery of capital is more fully on display. But here is the key point: most on the left see the greater intensity of exploitation, or what some Marxist theorists describe as superexploitation, as something that benefits only capitalists from core countries or, worse still, they see it as something that benefits nations.
But who is superexploiting workers in the former Third World? Most on the left see the exploiter as an “imperialist nation”. This is a reification insofar as nations are not and have never been macro-agents. A nation cannot exploit or be exploited; classes exploit and are exploited. With the rise of powerful contingents of the TCC in many countries of the former Third World, transnational capitalists from all over the world are able to take advantage of the conditions of superexploitation where those conditions exist. Transnational capitalists from Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, India, Nigeria, and so on — from supposedly “oppressed nations” — are able to superexploit workers in their own and in each other’s countries, just as capitalists from the US, European Union or elsewhere are able to. In other words, it is not (or no longer) just core-based capitalists who, in pursuing accumulation strategies, benefit from the combined and uneven accumulation of capital on a world scale and distinct spaces and political jurisdictions. The relationship of the core-periphery structure of the world economy to global capitalism cannot be understood in terms that correspond to earlier centuries. It especially cannot be understood in terms of some capitalists in peripheral regions being oppressed by metropolitan capital and prepared to join class alliances with workers and peasants of the countries where they (but not necessarily their capital) reside.
On the other hand, states in the former Third World have to manage the tensions and conflicts of underdevelopment. This includes more acute inequalities and deprivations as well as sharper social conflict. More powerful states of the traditional core are better equipped to displace the acute contradictions of the crisis to countries in the historic periphery. However, transnational capital is an internal class relation around the world. The global capital-labour contradiction undergirds the “North-South” contradiction.
FF: In your writings you have also referred to the rise of a global police state that is increasingly dependent on militarised accumulation. Could you outline what you mean by this?
WR: The global police state refers to the ever-more ubiquitous systems of warfare, mass social control, surveillance and repression. It aims to contain the global working classes and criminalise surplus humanity at a time when worldwide inequalities and mass deprivation have never been so acute, when the ranks of surplus labour are swelling exponentially, and when popular rebellion is breaking out everywhere. The ruling groups are turning towards authoritarianism, dictatorship and even fascism as consensual mechanisms of domination break down. States may be in fierce competition over expanding the frontiers of global accumulation, yet every capitalist on the planet needs a global police state to control and discipline the working and popular classes. Every capitalist state serves this mandate.
But global police state also refers to militarised accumulation and accumulation by repression. The political goal of control and domination come together with the economic goal of accumulation. The problem of surplus capital is endemic to capitalism but over the past couple of decades it has reached extraordinary levels. The TCC has been in a desperate search for outlets to unload its accumulated surplus. Historically, wars have provided critical economic stimulus and served as outlets for surplus accumulated capital but there is something qualitatively new with the global police state. As I showed in my 2020 book, The Global Police State, the global economy has become deeply dependent on the development and deployment of systems of warfare, social control and repression as a means of making profit and accumulating capital in the face of chronic stagnation and the saturation of global markets.
In recent decades, states have seen an unprecedented fusion of private accumulation with state militarisation. The so-called wars on drugs and terrorism, the mass control of immigrant and refugee populations, mass incarceration, border walls, and so on, are enormously profitable enterprises outsourced to corporations. An array of capitalist groups have developed an interest in generating and sustaining social conflict and expanding systems of warfare, repression, surveillance and control. Endless low- and high-intensity warfare, simmering conflicts, civil strife, policing, and so on, have helped keep the global economy afloat. This requires conjuring up one contrived threat after another, from “drugs” to “terrorism” and, more recently, the US-instigated New Cold War. As the post-World War II international order crumbles, the game is changing. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the US-NATO response have paved the way for a more sweeping militarisation of the global economy and society. It has legitimated an expansion of military and security budgets, as well as surveillance and repression around the world, not just in North America and the NATO countries.
FF: Following the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, global politics seemed dominated by wars that sought to reinforce US imperialism’s role as the sole global hegemon. However, in more recent years, a shift appears to be taking place with the US’ decline and China’s concurrent rise. In general terms, how would you understand the current dynamics at play within global capitalism?
WR: The global political and economic orders are severely out of sync. We have a globally integrated economy that operates within a postwar international order that is anachronistic and utterly incapable of stabilising the system. The political and economic architecture of the postwar international order was already crumbling prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. That invasion, and the West’s radical political, military and economic response to it, was but its coup de grâce. The US is no longer the market of last resort, nor can it continue to serve as the liquidity provider of last resort. The political control afforded to the US state by a dollar-denominated global economy is at odds with increasing political multipolarity and with global trade and economic integration. Trading in alternative currencies is a sign of the transformations underway. Yet as US hegemony unravels no new nation-state, at least at this time, can provide the authority or structure to stabilise the now-inextricably integrated global economy.
Meanwhile, we have to acknowledge the reason why capitalists based in China and other nations now exporting their capital around the world can invest in Latin America, Africa and elsewhere, without having to use military force or organise coup d’états. It is because five centuries of colonialism and imperialism have already opened up the world to transnational capital. Until recently, the US imperialist machine has kept it open. To take one example, Vietnam was bombed back into the stone age by the US. It was left utterly destroyed by French and US imperialists, then subject to devastating sanctions. The country then had no choice but to open up to transnational capital and integrate into the new circuits of global accumulation. Due to this, Chinese-, Western-, Indian-, Saudi-, Mexican- and Brazilian-based capitalists, along with Vietnamese capitalists, can trade and invest in Vietnam and exploit Vietnamese labour. The traditional Western core already did the dirty work. This may be a very tough analysis for some on the left to swallow but that does not make it less true.
FF: The growing conflict between the US and China seems to point towards the end of globalisation and a turn towards protectionism and rival trading blocs. How can we best understand this growing rivalry? In light of this, how do you view the concept of multipolarity promoted by some on the left?
WR: If by globalisation we are referring to the rise of truly transnational capital and the integration of every country into a globalised system of production, finance and services, we are surely not seeing an end to capitalist globalisation. Rather we are seeing its intensification, along with its geopolitical reconfiguration. In fact, trade in intermediate goods constitutes more than half of all global trade and according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, worldwide trade actually reached an all-time high in 2021. No national or regional economy can survive outside of its integration into the larger global economy. As I already discussed, the national bourgeoises of larger countries, and even many smaller ones, in the former Third World have been in a process of rapid transnationalisation. There is a massive new wave of capital exports out of countries, such as China, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and others.
Even if it wanted to, the TCC is too dependent on an open and integrated global economy for the continued accumulation of capital and power on a world scale to withdraw back into the confines of national economies. The corporate managers of the global economy are entangled in geographic restructuring according to how political winds shape opportunities for and constraints on accumulation around the world. Transnational capitalists (including Chinese transnational capitalists) are relocating from China to Vietnam, for instance, because of Chinese state constraints on their freedom, US state pressure or, most often, simply for cheaper labour. Some Chinese-based transnational capitalists are also investing in the so-called industrial renaissance in the US directly or indirectly by investing in Mexico to get around tariff walls and political restrictions.
We therefore need to focus on the contradiction between a globally integrated economy and a nation-state-based system of political domination and capitalist reproduction. This contradiction is becoming ever-more acute. It contributes to escalating international tensions and throws states around the world into spiraling crises of legitimacy. Transnational capital has only one objective: endless accumulation. But states must deal with the fallout of global capitalism’s crisis. They must achieve legitimacy and reproduce the national social formation of the countries over which they rule, keep the domestic order from fracturing, sustain growth, maintain stability and social control, and compete with other states to attract transnationally mobile capital. States must keep positive trade balances, whereas transnational capital could not care less so long as it is able to freely trade and invest. Unlike global capitalists, state and political elites reproduce their status within the nation-state and its relation to other states and the international system. In the more powerful national states, these elites seek aggrandisement. Theoretically speaking, states and state elites, in order to reproduce themselves, must reproduce capital. While states come under pressure from capital to serve its accumulation imperative, they also come under pressure from working and popular classes, especially as class struggle and political conflict heat up as we are now seeing.
Not every national state has the same capacities to juggle such destabilising contradictions while reproducing capital. Stronger ones attempt to sublimate and externalise social and political tensions to other countries and regions. The Chinese state, intent on keeping a lid on rising discontent, announced recently that its goal was to reduce inequality. But the Chinese state must also reproduce capital inside China. The contradictory mandates of states may place them in conflict with one another and with transnational capital. As the global capitalist crisis intensifies, it pushes states towards nationalism, populism and protectionism, whether this refers to US protectionism or the Chinese state’s crackdown on tech billionaires.
Moreover, there are local, national and regional capitalist fractions that do not have the same capacity as transnational capitalists and compete over local policies and regional control. The temptation here, however, is to make some inappropriate distinction between “national capital” and “imperialist capital”, which is an utter analytical and ideological confusion. Capital has only one intention and that is to exploit labour so as to accumulate. Some capital are able to do so across multiple borders and in the global system at large. Others are more limited in their scope, yet they enter global circuits through the financial system and other mechanisms of integration. It is a matter of empirical investigation as to whether more local and nationally-grounded fractions of capital are able to influence states in their interests or in their competition with transnational capital.
The impulse towards nationalism, populism and protectionism comes from states facing the destabilising conditions of capitalist globalisation and crisis, yet there is no evidence that the TCC supports this protectionism. The principal capitalist conglomerates based in the US and China have experienced an ongoing process of cross-penetration and integration in recent decades that has actually deepened even in the midst of the New Cold War. The US and Chinese states have been taking measures to undercut this integration against the wishes of the TCC. It should come as no surprise that the US Chamber of Commerce has opposed US tariffs and other restrictions on the free movement of transnational capital. The TCC wants access to the whole world without state interference.
Protectionism is a policy of states to attract transnational investment and to appease domestic political unrest. Transnational capitalists will invest wherever they find the best conditions to make profit. State subsidies are on the rise around the world to attract transnational capital in search of investment opportunities. Both the Trump and Biden governments have pursued subsidies, tax credits and tariffs to entice transnational investors. This has triggered subsidy and protectionist wars with the EU and China. Biden has restricted investments in Chinese entities involved in semiconductors, microelectronics and artificial intelligence systems. But the giant tech transnationals do not support these policies. Elon Musk, Tim Cook and Bill Gates have been among a flood of high-profile business executives who have visited China in recent months to discuss their expanded presence in China.
We are moving into a multipolar or polycentric world polity within a single integrated global economy with several centres of intense transnational accumulation. These include the North American free trade bloc, the EU, and a Sino-centric Asian economic region. As I noted in an essay in summer 2023, “The Unbearable Manicheanism of the ‘Anti-Imperialist’ Left”, the emerging global capitalist pluralism may offer greater manoeuvring room for popular struggles around the world. However, a politically multipolar world does not mean that emerging poles of global capitalism are any less exploitative or oppressive than the established centres. Naturally I am simplifying things. There are many levels of mediation and political considerations beyond these broad generalisations.
FF: Do you see any possibilities for building bridges between anti-imperialist struggles internationally? What should a 21st century internationalism that is both anti-imperialist and anti-fascist look like?
WR: We face an empire of global capital. I do not think that anti-imperialist struggles can be separated from anti-capitalist struggles. Speaking in generalities, the US state as an institution remains the greatest threat to the world’s people. However, it is beyond me why any socialist would think that to oppose US interventionism we must turn a blind eye to capitalist exploitation and oppression in other countries around the world, or fail to support those resisting such exploitation and oppression. Why should the left support one or another capitalist country or bloc in place of a revitalised proletarian internationalism based on supporting working and popular class struggles in each country and bloc?
Nationalism is intended to obscure transnational class interests and fuels competition among the working classes of different countries. It is, as Rosa Luxemburg noted long ago, an instrument to betray the working class, a tool of counterrevolutionary class politics. We see hyper-nationalism on the rise around the world — in the US, China, Russia, India, and Turkey, for instance. It often comes with an ethnic component, precisely at a time when global capitalism faces a severe crisis and mass discontent is rising. Socialists have to combat this nationalism. Fascism is always founded on militaristic and chauvinistic nationalism and in response to capitalist crises. We are in a tragic situation around the world in which a popular revulsion with the global capitalist status quo and mass rebellion from below is breaking out everywhere at a time when the organised socialist left is weak or nonexistent in many countries. The lack of a clear socialist message and project opens space for authoritarian populists, fascists and warmongers to manipulate the legitimate grievances among popular sectors facing despair.
We are at an urgent historical juncture. Global capitalism is in a structural crisis of overaccumulation, a political crisis of state legitimacy, capitalist hegemony and international conflict, and an environmental crisis of the planetary ecosystem. Our survival hangs on a thread. The biggest immediate danger we face, apart from the collapse of the biosphere, is fascism and World War III. The breakdown of hegemonic orders in earlier epochs of world capitalism were marked by political instability, intense class and social struggles, wars and ruptures in the established international system. This time, however, the stakes are higher.
LINKS International Journal of Socialist Renewal, October 19, 2023