[OPE-L] _Capital_ and Empire: An Interview with John Bellamy Foster

From: glevy@PRATT.EDU
Date: Sat Mar 24 2007 - 07:27:02 EDT

Capital and Empire: An Interview with John Bellamy Foster
by Joćo Aguiar

Q.  2007 is the 140th anniversary of the publication of Volume One of
Marx's Capital.  In your opinion, what is its main contribution to
understanding contemporary capitalism?

Marx's object in Capital was to explain capital as a social relation in
the fullest dialectical sense and in the process to describe its law(s) of
motion.  I think he was in large part successful at this.  He himself said
that the "best parts" of his work were the distinction between use value
and exchange value, between labor and labor power, and the analysis of
surplus value independent of its particular forms as profit, interest, and
rent.  These contributions served to separate his analysis from earlier
classical political economists.  However, it was the concept of the rate
of surplus value (rate of exploitation) that I think was Marx's crowning
achievement.  Next to this I would emphasize his notions of the incessant
revolutionization of production (requiring a more and more detailed
division of labor), the reserve army of labor (or relative surplus
population), and the concentration and centralization of capital.  Marx's
contributions to the understanding of contemporary capitalism are best
appreciated I believe by starting at the back of volume 1 of Capital where
he presents the results and preconceptions of his analysis -- i.e., the
absolute general law of accumulation (including the reserve army and
concentration, the polarization of income and wealth, and concentration
and centralization of capital) and primitive accumulation.  Nowadays I
would also emphasize Marx's concept of metabolic rift, first introduced in
the final section of his chapter on Machinery and Modern Industry, since
this was the basis of Marx's ecological critique.

Q.  In the Preface to the first German edition of Capital (1867), Marx
says: "The country that is more developed industrially only shows, to the
less developed, the image of its own future."  Can we infer from it that
Marx thought the capitalist world-system would become more or less uniform
and homogenous, without the major polarization between core and periphery
that exists today?  Was Marx thinking that what happened in the transition
to capitalism in England would happen all over the world, following the
exact same steps of economic development?

It is worth remembering the context of this statement in Marx's preface.
He was telling his German readers that although the analysis was based
directly on Britain, the most advanced capitalist country, it applied to
Germany as well.  Here he quoted from the Roman poet Horace's Satires
(Book I, Satire 1), where Horace, in his critique of the pursuit of
riches, says to those who think this critique does not apply to them:
"Change the name, and the tale is told of you."  Germany, Marx insisted,
would follow the same basic developmental course as Britain, reflecting an
"iron necessity" of capitalist development.

This passage has frequently been quoted to indicate that Marx thought of
capitalism as following one linear set of stages, through which all
nations would inevitably pass.  Marx, however, did not himself adhere to
such a rigid interpretation and pointed in his later writings to uneven
and distorted development and alternative paths.  The best known of these
alternative paths was the Asian mode of production, which, whatever its
demerits as a conception, pointed to Marx's departure from any simple
linear pattern.  From the late 1860s on, he increasingly took into account
relations of dependency in the cases of Ireland and India, in particular,
learning from resistance movements in those countries.  At the end of his
life he argued that the next revolution would first take place in Russia,
which was still a semi-peripheral power.

Still, the notion "the tale is told of you" clearly dominated most Marxist
thinking until the 1950s.  By that time it was clear (since the
underdeveloped world's share of total industrial output had declined
steadily from more than 60 percent in 1830 to something like 7 percent in
1950) that the notion that all countries would develop along the line of
the original capitalist powers was false.  Fifty years ago in 1957, Paul
Baran wrote The Political Economy of Growth which introduced a new Marxist
approach to imperialism and development, inspiring the radical dependency
and world system traditions.  Baran observed that while Marx's notion that
the less developed countries would follow the path of the more developed
countries had been right for Western Europe and the European settler
colonies in North America and Australia, the manner of the imperialist
penetration of Latin America, Asia, and Africa had created a different
reality: an imperialist system in which the peoples and territories of the
periphery were in a seemingly perpetual condition of dependency.  Indeed,
these conditions could be expected to persist , Baran argued, apart from
some break with the imperialist status quo, either on the lines of the
Japanese state-led, authoritarian Meiji restoration/revolution (an option
now closed to most of the periphery), or socialist revolution (of varying

Q.  What main theoretical contributions did Marx make to the development
of theory of imperialism (by Lenin, Luxemburg, Bukharin, etc.)?

Marx's analysis of concentration and centralization of production led to
the concept of the monopoly stage of capitalism, which was fundamental to
Hilferding, Bukharin, Lenin, Baran, Sweezy, and many other thinkers.
Lenin defined imperialism in its briefest possible definition as the
monopoly stage of capitalism, giving a historical specificity to what
might be called the classic imperialism of his era.  Marx's scattered
writings on colonialism/imperialism, including the growth of the world
system in the context of the genesis of industrial capital, exercised an
influence on both Lenin and Luxemburg.  Later Marxist theorists (for
example, Kenzo Mohri [Monthly Review, April 1979], Suniti Kumar Ghosh
[Monthly Review, January 1984], and Teodor Shanin [Late Marx and the
Russian Road] were to point to many of the crucial components of
dependency and world-system analysis foreshadowed in Marx's later

Q.  Nowadays, everywhere we see a wave of privatizations, destruction of
public services, attacks on workers' social, economic, and political
rights.  How is neoliberalism linked to imperialism?  What is the
significance of combining both concepts?

Marxist political economists increasingly see neoliberalism as the
ideological counterpart of "The Financialization of Capitalism" (see my
article on this subject forthcoming in the April 2007 issue of Monthly
Review, as well as my earlier article on "Monopoly-Finance Capital" in the
December 2006 Monthly Review).  The dominant realities of the capitalist
world system (both in the center and for all but a few economies
worldwide) over the last three decades or more have been: (1) the slowdown
of the rate of growth (or the reemergence of economic stagnation), (2)
increased monopolization with the continuing rise of multinational or
global corporations, and (3) the financialization of capitalism.  These
three phenomena are in fact interrelated.  Monopolization contributed to
stagnation and financialization arose from stagnation (as capital sought
to find ways to park its excess money capital, which could not find
sufficient profitable investment opportunities in the productive economy).
 This has generated a new phase of monopoly capitalism which I have
referred to as monopoly-finance capital or global monopoly-finance
capital.  It gave rise to neoliberal ideology, which reflects the leading
role of finance in this period, and also the distinctive aspects of the
latest phase of globalization, which are closely related to the spread of
world finance.  This period is also a period of declining U.S. hegemony.
Declining hegemons always resort increasingly to military and financial
power to try turn things around and to strengthen their diminishing
productive power.  This is certainly evident in the current phase of
imperialism where the object is openly said to be the creation of a "New
American Century."  But the underlying reality is one of stagnation and
financialization in the capitalist core.  This is not a product merely of
cycles of global hegemony but of the logic of monopoly capitalism itself.

Q.  We are confronted by a world of wars promoted by US imperialism, in
Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. You, as well as Paul Sweezy, Harry Magdoff, Samir
Amin, and other authors, have written in Monthly Review against the
arguments of some leftists that reduce those imperialist wars to the will
of just the present American Administration without connecting George W
Bush and his Administration to the imperialist system, against the idea
that the war in Iraq was just the result of one man's madness.  Could you
explain how, in fact, it is imperialism -- as a social, political, and
economical system -- that is the real cause of the invasions of Iraq and

No informed observer, whether left or right, doubts that we are seeing a
resurgence of "Naked Imperialism" (see my book by that title).  Some,
however, see it merely as a policy and an aberration, attributable to
neoconservatives and militarists.  Often there is the suggestion that a
junta or a cabal has taken over the U.S. administration.  The most famous
advocate of this view, which is very popular among liberals, is Gore
Vidal.  But Michael Mann and many others have argued the same thing.  It
has emerged as the dominant view among liberal critics of the war.  Such
an interpretation, however, presumes a very sharp detour in U.S. policy
and a split in the ruling class.  Neither is the case.  A more adequate
explanation points to five central facts of our time: (1) economic
stagnation, (2) financial globalization, (3) declining U.S. hegemony, (4)
the disappearance of the Soviet Union, and (5) a renewed race for
resources.  This has created a strong imperative for a resurgent
imperialism and a thrust by the United States to create a true global
hegemony, putting itself in the place of a supranational state.  This
impulse is supported across the board by the U.S. ruling class (including
the dominant elements in both parties) and has transnational support among
its allies (most notably Britain).  It is bound to fail but in the process
is unleashing unprecedented destructive potentials worldwide.  In one
Monthly Review article that I coauthored with Brett Clark, based on a talk
presented in Portugal, we called this "The Empire of Barbarism."

Q.  Within the actual context of the United States, how do American
intellectuals resist and fight imperialism?  At the same time, can you
give us a picture of the American labor movement, especially what roles it
is playing in the peace movement against the Iraq War?

American intellectuals mostly support U.S. imperialism.  Liberal
intellectuals, however, oppose certain imperialist adventures at certain
stages and are more favorable toward economic than open military
imperialism, often dissenting up to a point when it comes to the latter.
So there are contradictions.  A genuine left response that questions the
system itself exists in pockets but has no real political presence at the
moment, other than its capacity to raise more critical issues.  Still,
there is the potential in this context for the rise of a new radical left
in considerable numbers.  Opposition to imperialism is of course the
number one responsibility of radicals in the United States at the center
of the imperialist system.  Even in small numbers such opposition makes a
difference in the belly of the beast.

The U.S. labor movement is in decline at present, but it is full of
contradictions, and there have been new leftist possibilities developing
in the womb of labor, promising new radical phases.  So far labor has not
had a strong influence in the movement against the war in Iraq.  A
majority of the population is now opposed to the war -- and even more
amongst those associated with the Democratic Party and presumably with
labor.  But much of the opposition is not so much opposition to
imperialism as to what is perceived as a failed war effort.  Needless to
say, the hope in this area as in so many others is for the rise of a
radical labor movement perhaps allied with the global justice
(anti-globalization) movement able to challenge capitalism itself.  But
there are few real signs of this on the horizon in the U.S as yet.  Hence,
the current phase of U.S. imperialism is likely to continue until the
contradictions sharpen even further and new forces of opposition emerge.
It is not too much to say that such an outcome is inevitable.

Joćo Aguiar is a sociology student at the Faculty of Humanities of Oporto
University (FLUP) in Portugal.  The Portuguese version of this interview
will appear in O Diįrio: odiario.info.
URL: monthlyreview.org/mrzine/aguiar230307.html

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