Liberals, neo- or not, tend to dismiss Marxist theory as voluntarist drivel, a reflection of evil intentions, not analysis amenable to verification. Hence my surprise the other day in reading this excerpt from the Financial Times in a series on China’s Great Game in Central Asia:
“Lenin’s theory that imperialism is driven by capitalist surpluses seems to hold true, oddly, in one of the last (ostensibly) Leninist countries in the world. It is no coincidence that the Silk Road strategy coincides with the aftermath of an investment boom that has left vast overcapacity and a need to find new markets abroad.” (13 Oct 2015, p. 9)
The debate over the economic causes of imperialism survived the crisis in orthodox, state-sanctioned Marxism, in part because it had been incorporated into Third World and World Systems theory then embraced by the anti-globalization movements which taddress the inequities among the most, the more, the less and the least economically developed societies around the globe. Inequities also prevail within each of those sectors.
Here, in what we persist in calling the West, prolonged stagnation of income, pervasive impoverishment and creeping lumpen-proletariatization have meant slumping internal markets. To export their surplus of profit, corporations based in the capitalist democracies now need foreign consumers — the unbridled creation of credit, aka debt, to feed domestic consumption having revealed its shortcomings in 2008.
In China, given its recent boom, the problem is similar, though more acute.
Beijing must find sufficient external demand for its products and goods to avoid recession, depression or even collapse, of the economy first, then of the regime. This is why China must expand into Central Asia. Its province of Xinjiang (New Frontier 新疆, or in its other official, Uyghur transcription شىنجاڭ) as well as the hinterland in the Stans are as important to this recently established, naturally continentally-minded dynasty as its maritime zones of influence, both the seas adjacent to the western Pacific which bear its name (East China Sea, South China Sea), and the “String of Pearls” which connects its prosperous coast through the Strait of Malacca to the Middle East and Europe. From a Leninist, though even from a purely merchantilist perspective, the Trans-Pacific Partnership which excludes China from crucial east Asian and west Pacific markets will push China even more strongly into central Asia.
Lenin’s argument was initially directed against his rival Karl Kautsky’s 1914 typically social-democratic bout of wishful thinking that capitalism’s tendency towards cartel monopoly would lead to a phase of ultra-imperialism in which the great powers subsume their nationalist antagonisms and cooperate jointly in the exploitation of the periphery, thus avoiding war. Lenin correctly saw — retrospectively in 1917, let us note — that the ever-shifting balance of powers among competitive capitalist states precluded such co-operation. Put another way: state politics trump economics.
So it is not odd, in fact the odds favour that the capitalist powers, soon prima inter pares China, will be drawn into military conflict in a tragic reprise of the internal contradictions which engendered the First World War, but also the first explicitly anti-capitalist revolution, the one associated with Lenin’s name. The next anti-capitalist revolution remains to be imagined. If the past is any measure, it will follow upon a cataclysm unavoidable as long as the logic of capitalist accumulation prevails as international law.
The Financial Times article can be accessed in on the Uyghur Human Rights Project / UHRP website (no firewall). http://uhrp.org/featured-articles/china’s-great-game-new-frontier-old-foes
Lenin’s theory of imperialism: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imperialism,_the_Highest_Stage_of_Capitalism
World Systems Theory: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World-systems_theory
Kautsky’s Ultra-imperialism: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ultra-imperialism
China’s Silk Road initiative: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Silk_Road_Economic_Belt_and_the_21st-century_Maritime_Silk_Road
China’s String of Pearls strategy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/String_of_Pearls_(Indian_Ocean)
The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trans-Pacific_Partnership