Re: [OPE] capitalist states, imperialism, and militarism

From: Dave Zachariah (
Date: Sun Mar 02 2008 - 16:28:49 EST

on 2008-03-02 14:46 GERALD LEVY wrote:
> "Capitalist nations have no goals or rationality"???!!!

That was a misstatement on my part. What I meant to say was that 
economic systems --- especially uncoordinated ones --- do not behave 
like agents with rational goals. At best one can say they behave like 
regulatory control systems, but this is an emergent behaviour from 
various goals pursued by its agents. Anyway, these are deep theoretical 

It is fair to say that an entire population can set up and pursue 
unified goals, e.g. in mobilisation for total war or catastrophes. But 
these actions are coordinated by the state apparatus.

> I think this fundamentally misconceives the relation between nation
> states and capital.  If one is referring to an imperialist nation (do
> you think that imperialism is a reality, btw?) then that nation
> certainly does have (imperial) goals and its behavior normally is, at
> least to a significant degree, rational in the sense that its behavior is
> generally consistent with its (real) goals.
> If, for instance, a nation state seeks imperial expansion and a 
> territorial
> re-division of the world that benefits that nation's economy and the
> interests of  the ruling class, then militarism has an important and
> logical/rational role as part of that project.  E.g., it is entirely 
> rational
> for US imperialism to use the military to attempt to preserve US
> hegemony in the world capitalist system.

(a) I follow Hobsbawm's analysis of nations which can be summarized as 
"Nations do not make states and nationalism but the other way around." 
Nations to me are 'imagined communities'.

(b) I take 'imperialism' as a phenomenon that pre-dates capitalism, when 
a state tries to control or subjugate communities outside the territory 
in which it was constituted.

Consequently, I would say that it is an 'imperial state' that has goals. 
It can specify them and rationally pursue them. It has its own economic 
interests, being a surplus appropriator in its own right. Therefore its 
relation to powerful mechants, industrial capital and the rentier class 
throughout history is not as simple as saying that it acts on the behalf 
of the ruling class as a whole.

I lack a deeper analysis of it, but I think the particular interests of 
the state and members of the ruling class are two distinct but 
overlapping sets. During some periods the sets converge, other periods 
they diverge. If one thinks they are identical, then European, and 
especially Scandinavian, politics in the 20th century becomes 

It is not that wars waged by states have no economic goals, it's that 
they cannot simply be derived from "capital in general" but rather from 
the intersection of the two sets of interests given above.

> I guess we'd have to look at
> particular wars to evaluate these contrary claims more concretely.

I agree. I plan to study some theories of the state and imperialism when 
I find time.

> I guess you are talking about the war against Iraq. While it's
> true that some segments of capitalists from the US  would benefit to a
> greater degree than the US capitalist class in general, I think the
> intent of the war was to benefit US capital and the state as a whole.
> Of course, developments there haven't proceeded in exactly the way
> planned by the US government .... 
> It should not be forgotten that wars have historically been a means
> through which the economies of individual capitalist social formations
> have been fueled and an economic crisis overcome.  Military spending
> in the US,  Germany, and Japan all had a role in stimulating capitalist
> expansion in those countries.   This should not be forgotten - especially
> because the bourgeoisie has not forgotten that lesson.
> I guess the larger question implied by this discussion is this: does
> imperialist rivalry _necessarily_  require a role for militarism or is 
> that simply
> one way in which imperialist  rivalries have historically often been 
> expressed? 
> Note that I have asked this question but haven't asserted an answer (yet).
> As a _practical_ matter, taking into consideration the current relation
> among nations, I don't see militarism becoming less of a factor in the 
> immediate
> period ahead.  And, I don't think the historical trend has been for 
> militarism
> to be diminished in importance for individual states and capitalist 
> economies.

I think imperialist rivalry between states necessarily requires a role 
for militarism because state power is ultimately coercive power. The 
primary imperialist rivalry today is between the US and Iran over the 
Middle East. But the one that most likely will dominate the 21st century 
is between the US and China.

//Dave Z
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