The Real History of Imperialism: A Comment by James Parisot on Recent Debates

By James Parisot,

The continuing debate over contemporary imperialism triggered by John Smith’s criticisms of David Harvey has been wide ranging and brought forth many important questions for 21st century global capitalism. The discussion was primarily centered around insights from Smith’s book Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century regarding questions of economic exploitation between those countries which continue to have wealth stripped from them based upon highly exploited and lowly valued labor, and those, such as the United States, whose companies generate great profits through transfers of value to what Smith calls the ‘imperialist countries.’

The central questions in the discussion are centered around transfers of value: to what extent are ‘imperialist countries’ generating wealth through the super-exploitation of the global labor pool? To what extent are the profits of this accruing to capitalists in the global north? What has the rise of East Asian capitalism meant for this?

The tendency, though, particularly in Smith’s conceptualization, has been to economize the concept of imperialism. In other words, imperialism is primarily seen as an economic process through which a particular country extracts profits from exploited countries. This is similarly repeated in a different way in Usta Patnaik and Prabhat Patnaik’s recent book A Theory of Imperialism (also here) wherein imperialism is seen as primarily an economic project.

In both cases the goal is to develop a concrete understanding of imperialism and update classical Marxist theories of imperialism for capitalism today. As Patnaik and Patnaik put it, ‘economics does not look at capitalism as it has really existed.’ They aim to correct this. But, I would argue, both accounts ultimately fall back upon a non-historical, economistic variation of historical materialism that, in reducing capitalism to the capital-wage labor relation, end up doing injustice to the history of imperialism in itself. Most importantly, the history of imperialism is also a history of capital exploiting a wide variety of racialized and gendered labor forms along a complex gradation ranging including ‘free’ wage laborers, chattel slaves, and unpaid housework.

More generally, Marx’s goal in Capital was famously to criticize political economy in order to superseded it. Instead, many variants of Marxism have been caught within an alternative political economy, as E.P. Thompson pointed out decades ago. To keep moving forward and expanding the ‘level of abstraction,’ though – and moving towards the concrete -also requires moving beyond a conception of capital centered around wage labor and capital.

Patnaik and Patnaik hint at this in a certain way when they argue that ‘in addition to the capital-wage labor relationship’ imperialism works to immiserate the petty commodity producers of the world. This could potentially lead to an argument in which other forms of labor besides wage labor are seen as historically part of capitalism. But much of the rest of their account falls back on discussing, for instance, the ways that the ‘metropolitan’ wage labor class depends upon a lesser paid wage labor class in the periphery. Thus while the authors could potentially expand on the question of capitalism’s diverse labor forms, they instead fall back on an analysis abstracted purely to the level of economics, in doing so they tend to fall back to what historical materialism has the potential to criticize.

In Smith’s account he defines capitalism primarily along the classic Marxist circulation of capital M-C-M prime discussion. For Smith, merchant capital is characterized by ‘buy cheap sell dear’ as oppose to real capitalism, defined by surplus value extracted by capital from wage laborers. Again, capitalism is defined abstractly, essentially as the capital-wage labor relationship. And imperialism in this regard is primarily about how capital in ‘imperialist countries’ exploits labor in different parts of the world to different extremes.

Harvey’s account, written a decade and a half ago, presents a somewhat more nuanced approach. Most importantly, he tries to bring together the question of capital’s drive for profit with an analysis of the state’s drive for territorial control and expansion. Harvey’s account also moves past economism by examining issues of militarism, nationalism, and racism in more or less detail, and sees these all as historically specific aspects of imperialism. The Marxist framework Harvey uses throughout his work – not just this book – again focuses capitalism on the wage labor-capital relationship. Additionally, historically speaking, the distinction between a territorial logic of politics and an economic logic of capital may not be so clear cut, as will be discussed below.

Capitalism and imperialism beyond wage labor

As Jairus Banaji has written, modes of production are not the same as relations of exploitation. In other words, capitalism has not historically exploited only one type of labor, but a variety. This has included, as Marxist feminists have discussed since the 1970s, gendered unpaid household work, and also a wide variety of forms of coerced labor from indentured work to chattel slavery. Historically, capital has subsumed pre-existing labor forms, brought them ‘formally’ into its control, and gradually remade them to create profits through the exploitation of different types of social labor.

More generally, within historical materialism this is a historical problem. Too often, the lessons of Marx’s Capital have been extrapolated and forced upon capitalism’s ‘actually existing’ history. The result has been that the ‘origins of capitalism’ are pre-framed as a search for the generalization of the wage labor-capital relation and market dependence. This has also led to the overly-sharp distinction between so called merchant’s capital and productive, industrial capital. But in the case of, for instance, the colonization of (what became) the United States, the divisions between merchant and industrial or productive capital were never so clear cut. The joint stock companies that brought over white settlers – or what might be better called European settlers in the process of inventing ‘whiteness’ – did so to profit. In the case of Virginia, the Virginia Company was not simply ‘merchant capital’; the company itself, early on, actually ran the colony with the goal of generating profit regardless of what type of labor form was dominant. And when the Dutch West India Company started New Netherland (eventually lost to the British, becoming New York) the goal was to build a profitable colony using a variety of labor forms including indentured and indebted hired out wage laborers and slaves.

And while slavery was an uneven type of labor, as slaves worked in conditions ranging from having been purchased by small, partly self-sufficient farmers to large plantations, so on plantations slavery was a form of calculated capitalism. Additionally, not all slavery was agrarian; in some cases, slaves worked in factories, built railroads, and so on. In these cases, it was not unusual for companies to use both wage laborers and slaves interchangeably, or else assign different jobs to each work category, as for capitalism firms, the goal was profit regardless of the particular labor form. To a certain extent racially organized chattel slavery could even be seen as an unusually ‘pure’ form of capitalism as the entire body of the slave is entirely owned by the capitalist, not just their labor power and time.

And it was a mixture of capitalism and complex labor forms that drove imperialism across the expanding American Empire. For much of this history until the decades before 1900, different social forces pushed westward expansion. Capitalism was always there, especially in the plantation south, but was somewhat less dominant in the north. A ‘society with capitalism’ became a ‘capitalist society’ as, over time, northern petty commodity producers were pushed into capitalist relations. This occurred in a variety of ways, from debts pushing farmers towards commodity production, to rising land costs and decreasing land availability, to capitalist speculators taking control of western land, and so on. And – of course – empire was built through the racially organized elimination of native peoples.

But in the American south, for example, the questions of imperialism and capitalism are inseparable from the question of slavery. States including Texas were brought into the expanding American Empire as slave states as capitalist plantation slavery moved west to generate profits: here capital pushed to acquire new land, which drove war and imperialism against Mexico and native American groups in the area.

Similarly, much of the far west, places like Montana, Colorado, and California, were incorporated into empire through capitalist driven imperialism. In particular, the state sought out and worked with capital to locate profitable zones of resource extraction in, for example, the mining industry. Thus the imperial conquest of space was pushed by capital. But the types of labor used in building this region included for instance Chinese coolie labor as, again, capital sought out whatever most effective and profitable racialized labor forms it could, not just traditional wage labor.

In this regard, also, the question of a distinct political-territorial logic of expansion and a capitalist logic of power remains blurry. Very often, political actors and economic actors were not separate, nor were the institutions that engaged in expansion. While Harvey has suggested that the agents of politics and economics in capitalism are different, and politicians aim to increase their power via other states, while capitalists seek our profit (and imperialism is driven by the interconnections between these) in practice these lines remained historically blurry. In the history of American expansion very often the speculators and capitalists moved west were the same people who build governments in new areas, and political authority was built with the goal of stabilizing their capitalist interests. In other words, just as it cannot really be said that Donald Trump’s political interests as President are distinct, exactly, from his business interests, so records show speculators moving to the frontier and forming states and becoming politicians with the overarching goal of generating profits from land acquired from dispossessed native Americans.

What this history shows, then, is that some of the analysis discussed above has too narrowly framed the question of imperialism as primarily driven by capital and the state using wage labor. In other words, an economistic view of capitalism derived from Marx’s Capital has substituted an actual historically grounded perspective on the history of capitalism and imperialism. The result is, essentially, an anti-historical, flawed concept of imperialism.

And while in our era it does appear, to an extent, that wage labor has become the dominant form of capitalist labor, slavery continues to persist in different ways. Capitalist labor, for that matter, rarely lives up to the level of ‘pure’ freedom economic perspectives suggest, workers tended to be forced to work through debt, state control, and coercion. The International Labor Organization for instance estimated in 2016 that almost 25 million people across the world continue to work as forced laborers in slave-like conditions. These are primarily people living in poor countries and often working in resource extraction jobs, as in these cases it may be possible to examine the ways that imperialism in the global north benefits from forced labor in the global south. In other words, even today, a theory of imperialism needs to account for the persistence of coerced and non-waged or indentured forms of labor.

In summary, this blogpost has suggested that the questions of capitalism and imperialism debated on roape.net are inseparable from the history of the racialized and gender labor forms including and beyond wage labor that capital has historically exploited. Imperialism remains a process structured beyond wage labor, and accounts that overly-economize this miss, in many regards, the deepest and most malignant aspects of capitalism’s exploitation: the ways capitalism conquers not only the labor time of the world’s people but all aspects of their lives. Not all workers under capital have even the luxury of spending 40 hours a week exploited directly by capital, and the rest of their lives consuming for capitalism to continue functioning. Rather, historically, capitalism and imperialism have rested on a bedrock of racialized and gendered entirely forced labor, and continue to do so.

originally posted here