The last century saw some remarkable developments that shaped the world we are living in. There is no direct engagement in wars between superpowers. we experience an interconnected world where nations are cooperating with each other to maximize their interests. Sometimes, we see some types of tensions between powerful, developed or developing countries concerning various aspects but those have not been escalated to war, unlike the last century when we saw two full-fledged world wars and several regional wars over the domination of the world. Apart from the decline of wars and conflicts, we have experienced the demise of colonial domination through independence of former colonized states dominated by powerful imperial nations. The process of decolonization has been completed by 1960s. Imperial expansion having already come to an end with two world wars, the theory of imperialism now seemed to have finally lost its object.
In the 21st century however, there are various debates about whether the theories of imperialism are still relevant or valid to understand the present world or not. As we see there are no visible colonies dominated by imperialist nations. No wars are being fought to capture new territories. however, we cannot cast away the theories as we are not observing the basic characteristics of imperialism. Several debates have shown that imperialism has not been faded away. Though we don’t have wars over the territories and existence of colonies, several other tenets of imperialism still dominate the policies of states.
The question we have needs a rigorous examination. Before going into main discussion, it is necessary to glance over the attributes of imperialism which were presented by Vladimir I. Lenin along with Rudolf Hilferding and Rosa Luxemburg.
Theories of Imperialism
Rudolf Hilferding has invented the term “Finance Capital” which means bank capital would be turned into industrial capital and finance capital would supersede free trade and competition. Finance capital needed state to pursue protectionism for domestic markets, expansionist policy to conquer foreign markets and annex new colonies.
Rosa Luxemburg argued imperialism is a consequence of the functioning of capitalist accumulation. To obtain cheap labor and raw materials and to create consumers for surplus value, capitalists exported goods and capitals abroad but she claimed the same problem would arise for what they established colony-under-consumption. So, for her, imperialism would transform capitalism into a “period of catastrophe”
The most significant development of theory of imperialism was done by Vladimir Lenin. His “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism” foresaw that it was with imperialism that the decline of capitalism would begin. According to Lenin, the imperialist epoch is the epoch of the monopolies, inseparably associated with the epoch of colonial oppression and of subordination of poor countries to imperialist countries. According to this theory, capitalist exploitation walks hand-in-hand with colonial oppression, reinforcing each other.
Another significant feature in his book is his mention of “parasitism” that means exploitation of increasing number of weak nations by small number of rich, powerful nations. He also claimed that a section of working class could be bribed by monopoly elites so that they turned into supporters of imperialism. The petty number of the leader of working class then tamed the resentment of their fellow exploited workers.
Theories of Imperialism for today?
When we examine the relevance of the theories of imperialism, mainly we can do this by assessing Lenin’s theory of imperialism whether is working today or not because his theory more or less encompasses the views shared by Hobson, Hilferding and Luxemburg, as his analysis has theoretical foundation on Hilferding’s and Hobson’s work.
The predictions Lenin made in his theory in the period of imperialism have not been taken place completely as he foresaw the coming decades. He defined the last century would be an era of wars, revolutions and colonization, a complete chaotic world. Kautsky defied his idea by saying that the formation of multinational corporations (MNCs) would lead to the harmonization of the global economy and to a democratic peace and improvements of living conditions for the working class. The rise of the USA as hegemonic power and the welfare states of Europe restricted wars among imperial nations and interconnected the world. After more than a hundred years, there are various debates that justify his logics and others that rejected as obsolete in globalization period. Here, we need to reassess the attributes he attested to imperialism and verify them in the present stage of globalized world.
When Lenin presented the truth of imperialism in his “Imperialism: highest stage of capitalism”, that was the time when imperialism was blooming. Now we are living in post-imperial globalization era. It is obvious that imperialism in Lenin’s era and imperialism in post-Lenin era would not be same. We cannot write off imperialism because it is coping with changing situation. As Lenin suggested, imperialism was going to its grave with highest and thus last stage of capitalism, that didn’t happen. We still experience a dominating capitalist economy in such a way that even former Soviet Union-today’s Russia and China who fitted communism-socialism in their system are now following capitalism to support their economy to be flourished. So, Imperialism, maybe not with its own gigantic face but is still dominant in the guise of globalization and free market economy. Critics of Lenin’s theory claimed imperialism has become more powerful, aggressive and desperate than ever. So, the relevance of Lenin’s theory or theories of imperialism have become bones of contention. Because of changing situation of today’s world, Lenin’s thoughts on imperialism were rejected by many- from the schools of capitalists to Marxists to post-modernists.
Imperialism means war as we know. In order to capture world market and establish dominance, imperialist countries are bound to engage in wars or conflicts. This is how Lenin characterized imperialism. So, peace in capitalist-imperialist world after the first world war was quite impossible. But what he predicted that proletarian revolution would repel capitalism. We see the opposite. Only one nation that tasted this failed to function in the era of flourishing capitalism back in 1970s or 1980s period thus socialism collapsed. As was mentioned earlier, Kautsky’s thought challenged Lenin’s idea that instead of competition, imperialist nations would establish alliance among themselves on the basis of finance capital that lead to “Ultra-imperialism”. Therefore, imperialism would create world peace not chaos through this world power unity. The rise of America in post-cold war period has materialized Kautsky’s thought that we are seeing former imperial powers are united and thus harmonizing their interests together siding their past antagonism.
It has been argued by many who challenged Lenin’s theory that the possibility of war has been dismantled from inter-imperial competition. Globalization has made peace accord among powerful nations. Together they take attempt to maximize their political and economic goals. They are now exploiting or with using Luxemburg word, accumulating world resources through various agreements among themselves.
Post-modernist critics of imperial theories rejected Lenin’s thought on imperialism by terming it irrelevant. According to Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, there is nothing like imperialism in the world at present in Lenin’s sense. They argued we are living in post-imperialist era. In this period, a new political system has been developed on the basis of globalization. They have provided an important insight that a new sovereign empire has been emerged in place of several imperialist nations. This empire does not conquer any land through military means. It establishes control over resources rather than taking them through coercion. Bio-political power is the foundation of this empire. It not only controls the whole world but also control psychological world of mankind. Humans accept the supremacy and passionately work for this empire and its masters willingly. Now the real challenge cannot be posed by proletariats, because as Lenin said a part of them are bribed by the centre of the central, this global empire confronts, instead, feminist, environmental, human rights or various civil movements.
Some analysts predicted state to be disappeared in the pace of globalization. Kenichi Ohmae said state is now a dying dinosaur. So, imperialism has no state identity like US or British empires. Therefore, imperialism does not need state to exercise power anymore. Multinational companies, international organizations and their principles, agreements and science and technology are the weapons of imperialism. What imperialism achieved something through guns before now is doing so with United Nations, World Bank, IMF and WTO etc.
Lenin’s export of capitals beyond own boundary got criticism that Lenin claimed that because of over-ripe of capitalism in its own country, monopoly exports capitals in other countries. For profitable outcome, imperialist nations invest capitals in poor, developing countries but we have seen that they invest money mostly in developed capitalist countries, i.e. European countries, China, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea etc.
In today’s perspective, when we evaluate theories of imperialism, we must consider some aspects. Lenin and others shared their views and thoughts on imperialism to counter theoretical and practical crises that had arisen in that particular time- during first world war period. Another point to be mentioned, Lenin mainly focused on its economic aspects when explaining imperialism. in the preface of his book, he thus mentioned that he would try to present main economic features of imperialism briefly and precisely. He admitted the failure to discuss external issues of economics.
We could not agree more that today’s imperialism in the guise of globalization carries the fundamental characters but it has transformed quantitively and qualitatively. Today capital has become internationalized. Capitals from many more countries have become merged and gain profits, same as monopoly he predicted. The quantity of finance capital has a boom. For example, according to data in 2000, the amount of foreign direct investment was about 11,67,987 million dollar which surpassed the last century by about 484%! Some big names in multinational companies have control on these finance capitals. At present, the ownership of these companies is based on developed western countries and headquarters are also situated there.
The fundamental characterization of imperialism as the era of monopolies which is continued to be maintained over the past 100 years. A research carried out in Swiss Bank showed that 147 corporations controlled 40% of the world’s wealth. 75% of them are financial institutions (J.P. Morgan, Citigroup, Bank of America, Merril Lynch, Goldman Sachs, Black Rock, Barclays, Deustche Bank, BNP, HSBC, Credit Suisse, etc.).
The Forbes magazine reported that the sales of the 1,000 biggest enterprises in 2013 reached US$ 31.7 trillion, twice the size of the USA GDP and around 45 per cent of the world GDP. 60 per cent of these sales are concentrated in companies which are based on the 5 major imperialist countries and 40.3% of their profit remained in American companies. According to the above quoted magazine, 122 among the 200 largest companies in the world have their headquarters in 5 of the richest countries in the world, representing 61% of the total. Poor counties have nearly 36 firms, representing 18% of the total.
It is interesting that 10 traditional families have links with big banks and multinational companies and they control the capitalist world economy together. The Rockefeller family partly control the following banks: J.P. Morgan, Citigroup, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, Lehman Brothers and Prudential. These banks are the biggest shareholders of the following companies: AT&T, GM, GE, Dupont, Exxon, British Petroleum, Chevron, Shell, Freeport McMoran, United, Delta, ITT, Xerox, Boeing, Westinghouse, HP, Honeywell, International Paper, Pfizer, Motorola, Monsanto, etc. The Rothschilds have connections with the Rockefellers through J.P. Morgan and Bank of America. In one way or another, these are the families that control the banks and multinationals that control world economy. We see the merge of bank capital with industrial capital and business companies and industries are dependent on those international banks, as Hilferding suggested that industry would be dependent on banks.
Today, therefore, monopolies function like in Lenin’s day but on much higher level on territorial domination of the world but they are not sharing the world by establishing colony through military means but by opening of subsidiaries in third world underdeveloped countries. Army is now considered last option.
On the other hand, the character of finance capital has transformed. These capitals are not productive. Lenin maintained only surplus was used for investment in industry but now full capitals are invested to make profits. So, it is believed that capital has become globalized. Thus, in this globalized period, the dictatorship of finance capital has been established through globalization and some tycoon and big families are at the centre.
Globalization of finance capital has lessened competition and conflicts between imperial powers. Inter-imperial dispute has been considered obstacle for free market economy. Therefore, it is necessary to be united for the powers to exploit mutually. Because of national identity of finance capital, inter-imperial conflicts were prevalent in the past era but the very national identity has been replaced by international identity. It does not mean the full reduction of their competition has been completed. What happened is now they resolve their crisis through dialogue not by military means like before. To cover various countries under finance capital, these powerful states impose wars or instability in third world countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt, Africa and so on.
Imperialist globalization has unified the whole world in capitalist economy. Economies of every states more or less integrated in world economy. Multinational companies and the owners of finance capital of former imperial powers are dominating the economy. States are now patronizing these groups and companies to function properly. Thus, third world countries cannot prevent imperialist policies. The relationship of central of the centre and the central of periphery is weakening the capacity to revolt. The role of state is becoming weaker day by day because of globalization. States are playing the role of police state for the sake of globalization. They use World Bank, IMF, WTO and other international organizations. For this purpose. If all attempts go in vain then they use military power in the name of establishing so called world peace and freedom of people. For the sake of free market economy, they exploit and expose the resources of third world countries. As a result, wealth institutions of nations go under the hands of new “democratic” imperialist powers. In the age of globalization, imperialism has become more desperate, more aggressive and more advanced than that of Lenin and others’ era. As direct colonialism is ceased to exist and that’s why direct political and military interventions are now controlled but imperialist exploitation of the third world in various ways is now more omnivorous than ever.
At the end, it is necessary to argue that the fundamental features of imperialism that Lenin, Hilferding, Luxemburg presented may not exist in today’s world. But one cannot disregard it if one applies their thoughts to understand whether imperialism is existing or not. Imperialism has been emerged in new forms with the name of globalization. features have been transformed. Exploitation is still there and monopolies are controlling economy, only war between powers has reduced but no guarantee it does not happen. We see verbal confrontation, proxy wars, trade wars and various types of competition that are developing day by day in present situation. state identity is becoming predominant among nationals after Trump has come to power. So, the theories of imperialism are still relevant more or less both theoretically and practically. We cannot write it off even after more than 100 years of their birth.