Book Review: The New Imperialism By William Bowles

17 March 2004

The New Imperialism’ by David Harvey. 2003, Oxford University Press

“Military interventions are the tip of the imperialist iceberg”

“Almost certainly those European governments, such as Spain and Italy, that have supported the US against the clear wishes of their peoples will fall”
David Harvey, “The New Imperialism

“It is firm and continuing policy that Allende be overthrown by a coup…We are to continue to generate maximum pressures toward this end utilizing every appropriate resource. It is imperative that these actions be implemented clandestinely and securely so that United States Government and American hand be well hidden.”
CIA cable to the US State Department cited in “Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire” by Chalmers Johnson

For most, mention the word economics and eyes glaze over and turn elsewhere, but without some basic understanding of economics, making sense of our world is all but impossible. The corporate media rarely, if ever, mentions economics as intrinsic to politics in its coverage of events unless it’s about interest rates, taxes or employment. Delving deeper into the mechanics of capitalism as relevant to events and most importantly, the reasons behind events is forbidden territory. The media’s role is to project the view that the capitalist system with all its faults is still the best solution available. And what better proof of this approach could we have than the common reaction in the corporate press to the suggestion that oil could have something to do with the invasion of Iraq. By dismissing the idea as a conspiracy, oil is relegated to the nether regions, along with flying saucers and telepathy.

And for the most part, analysis in the corporate media of the ‘neo-con’ agenda of Bush/Blair avoids the issue of its connection to economics except in broad terms – greed, evil men and so on – but it does little to explain why people do the things they do and the degree to which they are driven by forces over which they have little or no control.

Which brings me to the book I’ve just finished reading, “The New Imperialism” by David Harvey. Interesting firstly because although written by an academic, it’s actually readable (ie, it’s not written in the usual impenetrable and mostly indigestible prose that academics feel it’s necessary to use) but much more importantly, it attempts to sum up what’s been happening these past three decades or so, especially since the fall of the Soviet ‘Empire’.

It is necessary in order to comprehend the thrust of Harvey’s thesis, to have some grasp of economics, for which I make no apology, for without at least a basic understanding of what’s been going on for the past one hundred or so years, events make no sense. Events are reduced to some kind of ‘natural order’ of things over which we have no control let alone an understanding. A process for which the mass media – let alone our so-called education system – must take the blame.

Is there a new imperialism?
Some visitors to this site may have wondered why I put the new in the title of this website in quotes. In other words, is the imperialism of the US and the UK really new? According to Harvey it’s not, indeed he echoes what I (amongst others) have asserted, that far from being new, the imperialism of the ‘Project for the New American Century’ is in fact, more akin to the British imperialism of old, or as Harvey puts it:

“The American bourgeoisie has, in short, rediscovered what the British bourgeoisie discovered in the last three decades of the nineteenth century, that…it [is], ‘the original sin of simple robbery’…. If this is so, then the ‘new imperialism’ appears as nothing more than the revisiting of the old, though in a different place and time. [my emph.]”

Many have wondered why the Bush government embarked on the Iraq adventure, after all, why would a one-time client of the US suddenly become part of an ‘axis of evil’? Why the desperate attempts to connect the terrorists to Saddam Hussein?

I think it’s also important to deal with the role of the corporate and state media/propaganda organs in projecting the ‘war on terror’ as part of the process of projecting the capitalist agenda. Hence the crimes of Enron (or ‘simple robbery’) are treated as an ‘aberration’ of the ‘market’ or of an individual’s ‘failings’ rather than something intrinsic to the nature of capitalism. But in order to understand what is happening it is necessary to place before you some explanation of economics, for without this understanding, it is impossible for us to propose some alternative to the present madness, a madness that Harvey describes as ‘accumulation by dispossession’.

Capital Accumulation
The classical Marxist interpretation of history sees the forces of production – how we stay alive – as the driving force. Marx also asserted that history – in fits and starts and importantly, in an uneven way – was one of gradual ‘progress’, that is, society developed through different stages, with capitalism (in his day) as the end product.

Before the advent of industrial capitalism, Marx described the process that preceded it as primitive accumulation that included:

“the commodification and privatisation of land and the forceful expulsion of peasant populations; the conversion of various forms of property rights (common, collective, state, etc) into exclusive private property rights; the suppression of rights to the commons; the commodification of labour power and the suppression of alternative (indigenous) forms of production and consumption; colonial and neo-colonial, and imperial processes of appropriation of assets (including natural resources); the monetization of exchange and taxation, particularly of land; the slave trade; and usury; the national debt, and ultimately the credit system as radical means of primitive accumulation.”


“The state, with its monopoly of violence and definitions of legality, plays a crucial role in both backing and promoting these processes [my emph.]”

Capital accumulation to quote Rosa Luxemburg rests on two processes:

“One concerns the commodity market and the place where surplus value is produced–the factory, the mine, the agricultural estate…with its most important phase a transaction between capitalist and the wage labourer [the worker]…. The other…concerns the relations between capitalism and non-capitalist modes of production…. Its predominant methods are colonial policy, an international loan system—a policy of spheres of interest—and war. Force, fraud, oppression, looting are openly displayed without any attempt at concealment, and it requires an effort to discover within this tangle of political violence and contests of power the stern laws of the economic process. [my emph.]”

Luxemburg wrote these words over eighty years ago, so has anything changed? Does disentangling the political violence and contests of power that we see openly displayed in the invasion and re-colonisation of Iraq reveal whether anything has changed?

The Neo-Liberal Agenda
Harvey argues that seeds of the current situation lie in the economic crisis of 1973 that was brought about by the high price of oil, and a:

“world-wide collapse of property markets followed shortly thereafter by the virtual bankruptcy of New York City; the beginning of the decade-long stagnation of Japan in 1990 was a collapse of the speculative bubble in land, property, and other asset prices, putting the whole banking system in jeopardy”

Following on from this crisis came the neo-liberal agenda most closely expressed in the US and the UK but if realised, brought with it what Harvey expresses as follows:

“that market liberalization—the credo of the liberal and the neo-liberals—will not produce a harmonious system in which everyone is better off. It will instead produce ever greater levels of social inequality (as indeed has been the global trend over the last thirty years of neo-liberalism…. It will also, Marx predicts, produce serious and growing instabilities culminating in chronic crises of overaccumulation (of the sort we are now witnessing).”

In other words, neo-liberalism was a return to an earlier age of capitalism, what Marx called primitive accumulation of the kind described above by Marx and Luxemburg but what Harvey calls accumulation by dispossession, driven by the demand to maintain and increase profits and to find outlets for the vast accumulation of capital.

Accumulation by Dispossession
So what is accumulation by dispossession? Following the capitalist crisis of 1973 the neo-liberal agenda was an attempt to essentially ‘roll back the clock’ to an earlier time of imperialist plundering of the planet, its peoples and its resources or accumulation by dispossession. This was achieved through two processes:

  • The privatisation of resources held in common (electricity, water, communications, energy and so forth)
  • The role of the IMF and the World Bank through the policy of ‘structural adjustment’ that effectively re-colonised the poor countries of the world.

In many ways the depredations of the last thirty years outdid anything of the Victorian period as entirely new areas of accumulation had been opened up including intellectual property theft, theft of genetic material or ‘biopiracy’ as Harvey calls it and:

“the escalating depletion of the global environmental commons (land, air, water) and proliferating habitat degradations that preclude anything but capital-intensive modes of agricultural production…the wholesale commodification of nature in all its forms. The commodification of cultural forms, histories, and intellectual creativity entails wholesale dispossessions…”

The Cold War was part of this process as regardless of whether or not the various socialisms were successful, it was (and is) necessary to present any alternative to capitalism as unworkable even ‘un-natural’. The ‘free market’ must be presented as the only viable means of organising our economic systems.

Following on from this came the boom of the nineties and the subsequent bust that rivalled or even surpassed the crisis of 1973 but this time its effects were far greater, impoverishing countries such as Thailand, South Korea and Indonesia, whose devalued assets were bought at ‘bargain basement’ prices by the large Western corporations.

The Keynesian model that addressed the issue of overaccumulation of capital through internal reform (the Welfare State, the New Deal or other kinds of massive public projects) has been abandoned. But as Harvey says:

“Even before the events of 9/11, it was clear that neo-liberal imperialism was weakening on the inside, that even the asset values on Wall Street could not be protected, and that the days of neo-liberalism and its specific forms of imperialism were numbered.”

Finally, the election of George W. Bush brought the neo-cons to the centre of power. Harvey describes their rise as follows:

“Its primary objective is the establishment of and respect for order, both internally and upon the world stage. This implies strong leadership at the top and unwavering loyalty at the base, coupled with the construction of a hierarchy of power that is both secure and clear.”

Behind it all lurks China, the only force with the potential to challenge the US hegemon, hence the eastward march of the US.

“The neo-conservatives are, it seems, committed to nothing short of a plan for total domination of the globe.”

But will it work, Harvey asks? There are as Harvey says, forces within the US administration who are not convinced. And furthermore, neo-conservatism’s belief that free markets in commodities and capital will deliver freedom and well-being to all is clearly false. The Reagan doctrine of ‘low intensity warfare’ has been transformed into direct confrontation and is meant to resolve the issue once and for all. But the US economy is technically on the verge of bankruptcy.

“Foreigners now own over 1/3rd of US government debt and 18% of corporate debt…and the US now spends $2 billion a day of net foreign investment inflow to cover its continuously rising current account deficit with the rest of the world.”

Capitalist logic, without state intervention has had the opposite effect on the US economy, for instead of an inward movement of investment, the opposite is happening much as happened to the economies of Thailand, Indonesia and Argentina that caused capital flight and collapse.

Ultimately, the logic of capital will seek a ‘regime change’ in Washington, dominated as it is by a “coalition of the military-industrial complex, neo-conservative… [and] fundamentalist Christians… as necessary to its own survival.”

If this doesn’t happen then Harvey foresees a clash of forces comparable to that of the 1930s and 1940s in a crisis of global capital. And if China succeeds in its own form of ‘primitive accumulation’ that can absorb the world’s surplus of capital, this will lead to ‘structural adjustment’ for the US economy and austerity:

“the likes of which have not been seen the Great Depression of the 1930s. In such a situation, the US would be sorely tempted to use its power over oil to hold back China, sparking a geopolitical conflict at the very minimum in Central Asia and perhaps spreading to the rest of the world.”

Ultimately then, the neo-con agenda has to be defeated in the US and a more interventionist role for the state is adopted, that abandons the speculative powers of finance capital, that curbs the overwhelming powers of the oligopolies and monopolies, especially the military-industrial complex and its control over the media.

Of necessity I have skated over much that this book has to offer but I hope I have given the reader a taste that will inspire you to buy it (or get it from your local library). Nevertheless, “it [still] requires an effort to discover within this tangle of political violence and contests of power the stern laws of the economic process” to make sense of the apparent chaos that surrounds us.

The New Imperialism’ by David Harvey. 2003, Oxford University Press £9.99.


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