[OPE-L:8407] Samir Amin interview

From: rakeshb@stanford.edu
Date: Wed Jan 29 2003 - 12:51:04 EST


I believe Samir is or has been on OPE-L. Here is a recent interview 
which was forwarded to me by a friend. I found most interesting 
the analysis of the limits of Lenin's theory of imperialism for the 
analysis of contemporary accumulation. 
rb 


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 	Volume 20 - Issue 02, January 18 - 31, 2003
India's National Magazine
from the publishers of THE HINDU 

Home  Contents 	
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COVER STORY
For struggles, global and national 

Interview with Samir Amin, political economist and director, Third 
World Forum. 



V. SRIDHAR 
 


The antecedents of the World Social Forum (WSF) can be traced to 
January 2000 when a small group of about 50 activists, 
representing trade unions, intellectuals, peasant organisations 
and other social groups, gathered in Davos. Samir Amin, an 
intellectual who is regarded as one of the foremost thinkers on the 
changing dynamics of capitalism, was among those assembled 
at the "Anti-Davos in Davos". Since then he has been actively 
associated with not only the WSF but also the regional forums that 
have evolved as a challenge to imperialist globalisation. He is 
director, Third World Forum (TWF), located in Dakar (Senegal) and 
Cairo and in Belgium, a network of social scientists and 
intellectuals from developing countries. Amin has also played a 
key role in the formation of the World Forum for Alternatives, which 
was launched in 1997. The WFA aims to service the needs of 
social movements that are engaged in challenging the dominant 
discourse on globalisation. It is also involved in the search for 
alternatives by developing the tools for "the globalisation of 
resistance and struggles". 

Amin's seminal work, Accumulation on a World Scale, first brought 
to the attention of the English-speaking world in 1970, came as a 
whiff of fresh air to the nascent field of development economics 
because it challenged the then-ruling orthodoxy propounded by the 
American economic historian W.W. Rostow in 1960. Rostow had 
argued that the economically backward countries could be on the 
road to development if there was infusion of capital, in the form of 
foreign investment or aid. Amin first propounded the concepts of 
"centres" and "peripheries", linking the issue of development to the 
nature of capitalism and imperialism. He turned the ruling 
orthodoxy on its head by pointing out that the problem of 
underdevelopment was itself a result of the nature and dynamics 
of capitalism on a global scale. 

He spoke to V. Sridhar in Hyderabad, where he participated in the 
Asian Social Forum (ASF). He spoke about the changes in the 
nature of imperialism and globalisation and its consequences for 
the countries of the South. Articulating an alternative vision for the 
peoples and countries of the South, he pointed out that the plurality 
of visions against globalisation is a positive feature in the search 
for social change. He argued that any alternative system must 
allow each country and society to negotiate the terms on which it 
engages with the rest of the world. Excerpts from the interview: 

What is the significance of the WSF-ASF and the regional fora that 
have emerged in the last few years as a challenge to imperialist 
globalisation? 

I consider these events important. I do not mean that there are no 
problems with them. There are many, and growing, social 
movements around the world. They are very different in nature, 
struggling either on social fronts, for the defence of labour and of 
the rights of the popular classes, or on political fronts for basic 
political rights. There are the feminist movements, ecological 
movements and many more. What is characteristic of the present 
time is that these movements are fragmented, in the sense that 
they are mostly national-based, or, in many cases, local-based. 
Most of them deal with a single issue or with a single dimension 
of the problem, without articulating it into an overall alternative 
political project. 

This is the result of recent history. Social organisations that 
emerged after the Second World War gradually reached their 
historical limits. I am not only referring to the Soviet pattern of the 
alternative, but also what has happened and is happening in 
China, and the erosion of the social democratic pattern in the 
developed capitalistic West. I also refer to the erosion of the variety 
of what I call the `national populist' alternatives in the South... 

You mean those such as the Nasserite and Nehruvite types... 

Yes. As a result of these developments we have moved into a 
period characterised by fragmentation. There will be no alternative 
to the present powerful system, neo-liberal globalisation or 
imperialist globalisation, which is a new phase of imperialism, 
unless these movements come together to articulate an overall 
alternative. You cannot fight on a single front. Even if you are 
successful on that front, the success will be limited, fragile and 
vulnerable because things are inter-related and because, in the 
final analysis, we need an overall alternative in all its dimensions. 
The alternative vision obviously has to have an economic 
dimension. But the political, social, and cultural dimensions will 
also have to be addressed. 

The WSF is not an organisation with a common political platform 
for devising strategies. But it is also not a forum that is open to 
everybody. It has a charter to which participating organisations 
must adhere. They must make it clear that they are opposed to 
neo-liberalism, not necessarily to capitalism. They must also be 
opposed to militarisation of globalisation - not necessarily 
imperialism, which means much more. 

I think that it is a duty of all people, who think they should articulate 
an alternative, to participate, and not to boycott... I saw some 
people calling for a boycott of the ASF. They are wrong and 
sectarian. There might be a number of NGOs [non-governmental 
organisations], about which I personally have doubts. Some may 
be corrupt and may also be manipulated by imperialism. Okay, but 
that is life. We must realise that such organisations do not 
represent a major force. The major forces are the popular 
organisations such as the trade unions, peasant organisations, 
organisations of professionals, feminist movements, ecological 
movements and many other social groups. We have to respect 
diversity of concepts and views. Different points of view also need 
to be articulated at different levels - at the national level, but also at 
the global level, because globalisation is a reality. Imperialism 
has been a reality for a long time (laughs). 

You have said that a unified movement of the peoples of the South 
is a prerequisite for change in the present situation. What is the 
role of the peoples of the North in this? 

I am an internationalist. I am a Marxist, socialist, internationalist 
and a universalist. I am not a chauvinist, certainly not a Third 
Worldist. The world is one, but a very unequal one. Capitalist 
development, which has shaped the modern world, has done it on 
the basis of growing inequality among nations, and within them as 
well. For the last five centuries there have been countries at the 
centre and, there have been countries that have been at the 
periphery. Thus, one of the major elements of the global system is 
its imperialist dimension. Imperialism is synonymous with 
growing polarisation among nations. It is based on the rationality 
of capitalist profitability. The awareness of popular forces in the 
South, which is at the periphery of the global system, is a 
fundamental prerequisite for any change. 

After the Second World War there was a gigantic movement of the 
peoples of Asia and Africa for national liberation. They had one 
target: independence. This was correct, because it was the first 
step. But the forces that united around this demand represented 
different classes. In countries such as China, Vietnam, and Cuba, 
the leadership was with the radical Left. But in countries like India 
the leadership was with the middle classes during the fight 
against British imperialism. In Africa and in the Arab countries, a 
variety of forces led the movement. The leadership in these 
countries understood that they not only needed to support one 
another but also build a common front after independence, based 
on their common demands vis-a-vis the global system. That is 
how Bandung happened in 1955. 

The common front did yield results. It created a space for these 
countries to achieve several decades of relatively high rates of 
economic growth. There was industrialisation and also gigantic 
efforts in education and in other fields. In political terms, it enabled 
these countries to transgress ethnic, local and national 
chauvinisms. The alliance among nations was based on politics, 
depending heavily on the countries' position against imperialism. 
That explains why someone like Nasser in Egypt was an ally of 
India, and not Pakistan. It was because India had an 
anti-imperialist position, unlike Pakistan. The fact that Pakistan 
was predominantly Muslim, like in Egypt, was not of any 
importance. 

During the last 20 to 30 years, the visions that came out of 
socialism, whether of the Russian or the Chinese kind, and out of 
the more radical of the national liberation movements, reached 
their historical limits. 

Were these countries also not bargaining between the two camps 
- imperialism, on the one hand, and with socialism, on the other? 

Sure, that is true. The Soviet Union could provide ideas - good in 
some cases, but bad in many cases - and, in some cases, good 
armaments (laughs) to these countries, which acted as a check 
against imperialism. It was not possible for the U.S. to act like a 
gangster as it does today, when it can unilaterally decide to bomb 
any country in the world. 

But owing to the erosion of the leaderships' support bases, these 
countries entered a vacuum, resulting in regression on all fronts. 
Afro-Asian solidarity was also eroded. This has opened the way for 
other patterns of pseudo-solidarities, which are very reactionary, 
based on ethnic or pseudo-ethnic chauvinisms or, on religious 
fundamentalism. Let me put it polemically: If the majority of the 
Indian people accept Hindutva, if the majority of people in the 
`Muslim' countries accept the nonsense of political Islam, there 
will be no change on the world scale if these are not transgressed 
by another vision of human solidarity. 

How were the limits in these countries reached? 

There was some room for development because colonialism 
resulted in low levels of industrialisation in a few countries, and 
none at all in many others. So, there was room for industrialisation 
after national liberation. But as they moved along, it became 
costlier, in terms of cost of investment and technology. These 
countries also inherited social systems with very low levels of 
education, which offered enormous room for upward mobility for 
people, through education. As long as the children of the popular 
classes (the lower middle class and the peasantry) could move up 
through education - and this happened in a huge scale in India, 
Egypt and many other countries - the system benefited from 
legitimacy. Even if they were not democratic, they were seen as 
delivering something. Countries that had high rates of economic 
growth, accompanied by not-increasing levels of inequality (I do 
not mean socially just), and those that offered upward mobility for 
large sections of society, enjoyed credibility and legitimacy. Some 
of these countries were semi-democratic, like India. Others, like 
Nasserite Egypt, were not democratic at all. But they were equally 
legitimate and credible because they delivered. Once the system 
reached a point where it could not progress within the same logic 
and on the same basis, the political system became more corrupt 
and lost legitimacy. This created a vacuum, which reactionary 
forces started to occupy. 

How do you characterise the current phase of globalisation, in 
contrast to previous ones in history? 

Globalisation and imperialism are nothing new. The history of 
capitalism since the very beginning has been the history of 
imperialist expansion. And, the system was always global. The 
contention of some people that globalisation is something new is 
laughable. After all, what was the colonisation of India, if not 
globalisation? The building of the Americas since the 16th century 
was globalisation. The slave trade, which played a crucial role in 
the building of the Americas, was globalisation. Later, colonialism 
was globalisation. And globalisation has always been imperialist 
globalisation. It has never been achieved by peaceful and equal 
negotiations between peoples. That is history. But we would be 
wrong if we think that it is the same old story. We cannot develop 
an efficient counter-strategy if we do not focus on what is new. 

The dominant discourse, the Rightist one, says: "Well, change is 
always for the better and happens spontaneously. Change is 
always painful, but it is only transitional. The market, that is, 
capitalism, will by itself solve the problem in the long run (when 
everybody is dead)." That is not even ideology. It is propaganda. 
But this is what is repeated daily by the politicians, written everyday 
in the newspapers, shown daily on television and even presented 
as There Is No Alternative (TINA). 

We have to look at what is new in a different way. How can the 
popular forces reorganise to reduce the damage associated with 
global capitalist expansion? What can they do to impose their own 
agenda in the short run, to create the conditions for an alternative? 
The alternative, in my opinion, has a name. It is socialism. It had 
the same name in the past and will remain the same in the future 
too. But the way we imagine socialism will not be the same as our 
fathers imagined it to be. 

You said that the nature of imperialism today is different from that 
of the past. Has it anything to do with the way globalisation is 
different today? 

Yes. Imperialism had always been characterised by rivalry among 
the major powers. The Spanish and the Portuguese, against the 
Dutch in the 17th century; the British against the French later; and, 
the German-Japanese against the others, still later. Rivalry among 
the imperialist nations had been a major feature. It was on this 
basis that Lenin - correctly at the time before the First World War - 
thought the system must lead to a revolution because it will lead to 
war, which the proletariat, being the victims of the war, will revolt 
against. History proved Lenin right. There was a revolution. 
Whatever happened afterwards is another story, but there was a 
revolution. 

After the Second World War, the U.S. and Japan became allies, 
Japan in a subaltern position. The U.S. and Western capitalist 
Europe came together after the Marshall Plan and the formation of 
the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). In geographical 
terms, the world capitalist system includes the U.S. and its outer 
province, Canada; capitalist Europe, at that time limited by the Iron 
Curtain, now a little further east; and, Japan. At that time (after the 
Second World War), we had an explanation, an easy one, but one 
which was only partly true. The imperialist powers put an end to 
their rivalry because they had a common enemy, the Soviet Union. 
They paid more attention to their common interests rather than the 
rivalry among themselves. 

Since then, however, though the Soviet Union disappeared, these 
countries have not become rivals again. This is reflected in the 
economic management of the global system - the functioning of 
the G-7, a group of the most powerful nations, the World Bank, the 
International Monetary Fund and the WTO [World Trade 
Organisation]. These are not global organisations; these are 
organisations of the Global North - of the capitalist centre. We also 
do not see any major differences among these countries within 
these organisations. We ought to ask ourselves a number of 
questions. First, why are we in this situation? Second, does this 
mean there are no contradictions among these countries? Third, if 
there are contradictions, in what ways are they different from 
contradictions of the earlier period, in which imperialist countries 
were in rivalry? Fourth, how do the contradictions relate to 
North-South relations? 

I am suggesting - as I said at the WSF in Porto Allegre, at the 
Egyptian Social Forum in Cairo, and at the ASF - that capitalism 
has entered a new phase, of a higher level of centralisation of 
capital. This has laid the basis for the solidarity of capitalist 
interests at the global level. During Lenin's time, before the First 
World War, and continuing till about 30 to 40 years ago (I shall not 
put a date to it), monopoly capital needed a large market that could 
be accessed as an empire. A capitalist centre or metropolis with a 
number of colonies or areas of interests was thus the norm. That 
was the basis on which rivalries among the imperialist powers 
existed - on the sharing or re-shaping of colonies and the control 
of the global system. Now it is being said - not only by us, but by 
the bosses of big business - that in order to be efficient, 
transnational corporations (TNC) need to access markets on a 
global scale. They cannot be successful even if they enjoy 
overwhelming market shares of even the big regional markets 
such as the European Union or in North America or other parts of 
the global market. Therefore, the globe is the terrain on which 
competition among them is fought out. 

But these monopolies also need a global system to operate. The 
change in the nature of imperialism does not negate the 
importance of changes in the processes of labour and other 
dimensions, which need to be taken into account so that the 
popular classes can reinvent efficient forms of organisations. But 
in order to be efficient at the global political level, and in 
North-South relations, we have to take into account the basic fact 
that imperialism now operates collectively as a triad, represented 
by the U.S., the E.U. and Japan. 

Does this mean that there are no contradictions among these 
powers? I say there are. We can see them developing, but the 
nature of the contradictions is different. Basically, there is no 
common state. And, capitalism cannot operate without a state. The 
claim that capitalism is ruled by markets, without a state, is 
complete nonsense. There is no single state, even confederal, of 
the North. Even Europe with its Union is built on national states, 
which in many cases have deep historical roots. Therefore, how is 
the political dimension of collective imperialism to be run? That is 
an unsolved question. 

You have said that there is a tendency for the "centres of gravity" of 
countries to fall outside the domain of nation states. What does 
this mean for the peoples of these nations, in terms of a search for 
an alternative? And, how does such a system operate and what 
are the contradictions in such a system? 

I would like to think I am right, without appearing to be arrogant. 
But yes, the centre of gravity has moved from inside nations to 
somewhere else. This has happened to all the nations - to the 
U.S., the European nations, and to the big and small nations of the 
Third World. This change is related to the size of dominant capital, 
which is global in scale. Since these are major decision makers, 
they cannot be submitted to a national logic. That creates 
problems. The issue was discussed at the European Social 
Forum, in Florence. Many people felt that a new Europe should be 
built. They said that a political Europe was needed, not necessarily 
with a unified state because, for historical reasons, there are 
nations with a long history of a common language and culture. 
Some suggested a kind of confederation. The point is that such a 
Europe cannot be based only on a common market; it also has to 
have a common political reality. Another Europe, like another Asia, 
is possible. This new Europe ought to be based on a social 
compromise between capital (because we cannot imagine the 
end of capital immediately) and labour and other popular classes. 
But I also believe we cannot achieve this other Europe without 
changing its relationship to the South. Europe cannot change if it 
continues to be a partner in the collective imperialist system. 

Regionalisation will enable the countries of the South to 
strengthen their capacities vis-a-vis the global system. This can be 
based on, for instance, history and culture, as in Latin America. 
The countries of Latin America have a lot in common. Two closely 
related languages, Spanish and Portuguese, link these countries 
together. The other common factor is a common enemy for over 
two centuries - the U.S. I do not think Islam can provide the basis 
for such regionalisation. But the Arab countries, with a common 
language, could be the basis for unity among nations. There has 
never been a history of these countries being unified by a single 
state, except in the imagination of the nationalists. But this alliance 
among countries must be based on politics, not merely common 
market. 

Even the larger countries face the menace of imperialism. The 
Americans do not like large countries. China and India are too big. 
We need to recognise that there are differences within countries. 
Let me address frankly the case of India. There are different 
nationalities, languages and groups, apart from the fact that there 
are Hindus and Muslims. The way the power system is dealing 
with this diversity even in India - which is certainly not among the 
worst in the world (it is at least a semi-democracy) - there are 
problems such as the rise of communalism. 

What is the position of the nation-state in this search for the 
alternative? 

The need for a common front does not negate the crucial 
importance of the nation-state. For a long time in the future, we will 
need the nation-state. Markets have to be regulated. But markets 
cannot be regulated at the global level or even at the regional level 
if they are not first regulated at the national level. 

You have to fight on two fronts. I am of the opinion that the crucial 
front is the one at the national level. Nothing will change from 
above. Things will change only when the balance of political forces 
within countries creates the possibilities for changes at the 
regional and even at global levels. Change has to start from inside 
countries. That is why the nation-state is so important. 

What are the elements of an alternative to neo-liberal 
globalisation? 

I shall summarise the principles that could possibly govern 
another kind of global system. The first is the logic of the transition 
to socialism. This will combine the criterion of capitalism, that is, 
efficiency as measured by profitability; and, the criterion of social 
justice. Although the term social justice is very elastic, certain 
elements can be defined in concrete terms. I am sure any Indian 
citizen from the popular classes can tell you what he/she means 
by social justice. It would necessarily mean jobs, reasonable and 
decent wages, schools for his/her children and decent health care. 
That is social justice, not socialism. These are not going to be 
produced by the market, but these will be imposed on the market 
by a social policy of the state. This kind of system associates 
capitalistic criteria with social criteria, which will be in conflict. But 
the system recognises that they are conflicting and therefore must 
be managed without allowing the market to dominate society 
unilaterally. It also recognises the fact that the free play of markets 
creates problems for society. Therefore, society will solve the 
problem through the exercise of political power. If such a system 
obtains in several countries, then we can create the conditions for 
regional arrangements among them, and of changes in the global 
system. 

The second condition that is needed for substantial change is 
genuine democracy. Social change in the past - whether of the 
Soviet or Maoist type or of the national populist types in the Third 
World - had very little democracy or no democracy at all. But 
whatever their achievements, very little was left to the initiative of 
the popular classes. They were controlled and directed in many 
ways, with varying degrees of the negation of democracy. The fact 
that the people want progress but that they also want liberty is also 
progress from the earlier situation. We cannot have a remake of 
the Soviet Union or a remake of Nehru's India. There are no 
remakes in history. Democracy in the dominant discourse is 
based on delinking it from the issue of social justice. That does 
not work, because if democracy does not result in social progress, 
people no longer find it credible. The main reason for the move 
backwards towards religious fundamentalism, ethnic solidarities 
and so on is the failure of democracy. 

What is the role of religious and ethnic movements in the context 
of neo-liberalism and the search for an alternative? 

Imperialism and cultural fundamentalism go together. Market 
fundamentalism needs religious fundamentalism. Why is this so? 
Market fundamentalism says: Subvert the state and leave it to the 
market at the global level to run the system. How can such a 
system be run? It can be done only when states are 
disempowered completely; and, within states, if the popular 
classes (the victims) are disempowered by the negation of their 
class identity. Moreover, the system can be run politically if the 
South is completely divided, with nations and nationalities hating 
one another. Religious fundamentalism and ethnic 
fundamentalism - they are similar - are perfect instruments for 
ruling the political system. This is the reason why they are 
supported - ideologically, politically, even financially - by 
imperialism. The U.S. has always supported Islamic 
fundamentalism. It has always supported the Saudi Arabian 
regime, just as it has always supported Pakistan and the Taliban. 
It continues to support such regimes even today, though they are 
now compelled to do this in a covert manner. In Europe it uses 
ethnic movements to achieve its goals, as in Yugoslavia. 

Can you tell us the ethos in which you grew up to be an 
intellectual? 

I am a Marxist and have always been a part of the communist 
movement. That is not a secret. As a child, during the Second 
World War, I was enthused by the Soviet resistance against Nazi 
Germany. In those days, Egyptian society was highly politicised; 
even 13-14 year-old youth were quite politicised. While in 
elementary school, only about 20 per cent of those in my age 
group were non-political. The rest were distributed equally in two 
camps, communists and nationalists. The nationalists used to 
say that the main enemy of the Egyptian people was Britain; but 
the communists said that capitalism, operating through Britain, 
was the enemy. Egyptian society is not as politicised now. Many of 
my contemporaries were or are communists. I came from a 
relatively privileged family. I came from a family of the intellectual 
bourgeoisie, a family of doctors. My father belonged to the Waqf 
party, very much like the Congress party here. My mother owed 
allegiance to the radical socialists, the Jacobins, in France. 
Incidentally, my great great-grandfather was among the first 
republicans in Egypt, in the 1860s. 

As a student in Paris, between 1947 and 1956, I was associated 
with organisations of students from Third World countries. This 
created a strong link with many youth who later became leaders of 
national Left movements in Africa and West Asia. 


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