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Untitled Document
Is Imperialism Obsolete?
Dr. Akmal Hussain
Newspaper: The Daily Times
Dated: Thursday, 3rd July, 2003

In the earlier two articles we analyzed the nature of the economic dynamic of capitalism and the various phases of its development during the last five centuries. We showed how imperialism was a particular political tendency associated with a specific phase of capitalism in the period stretching from the 19th to the early 20th century. In this article the question posed is whether imperialism is necessary in the new phase of capitalism that has emerged since the late 20th century.

The earlier phase of capitalism (from the late 19th century to early 20th century) was characterized by competition between large national corporations, which pitted their respective states against each other in the quest for securing exclusive control over sources of industrial raw materials and markets for finished goods. By contrast the current phase between the late 20th century to the contemporary period is characterized by large multi national corporations, competing within a highly integrated and fragile global economy. Accordingly there is considerable interpenetration of capital between the advanced industrial countries. Within such an economic structure, collaboration rather than conflict amongst the advanced industrial countries is necessary in order to secure the conditions of economic growth and stability. If any one country on the basis of its superior military might seeks to pursue its national interests through imperialism, it would risk destabilizing the global economy and the structure of world peace, thereby undermining its own national economic interests. Therefore even in a unipolar world where the U.S. is the pre-eminent military (though not economic) power, the pursuit of national economic interests much less ‘democracy’, through military might, and the establishment of an exclusive domain of power, may not be feasible in the contemporary period.

Through much of history, hunger and deprivation had pitted individuals and states against each other and therefore constrained the human quest of actualizing the creative potential of the individual. Capitalism with its capacity for a rapid improvement in the material conditions of society based on science and individual freedom, created the possibility of human liberation. Yet the very process through which historically unprecedented improvements in technology and levels of material production were achieved, also created a world order based on dominance and dependence. While it provided hitherto unimaginable material well being to large numbers of people in the industrialized countries, it engendered the conditions of systemic poverty, human misery and conflict to even larger numbers in the underdeveloped countries.

Today after over three hundred years of capitalist development, of the world’s 6 billion people, almost half (2.8 billion), live in poverty (earning less than $ 2 a day per person). In poor countries where the majority of the world’s population resides, as many as 50 percent of children below the age of 5 are malnourished, thereby stunting their mental and physical growth. While there has been an impressive growth in technologies and production, the gains are grossly unequal. The average income in the richest 20 countries is 37 times the average in the 20 poorest countries, a gap that has doubled in the last 40 years. The poor countries are in many cases under such a heavy debt burden that the debt servicing expenses are greater than their foreign exchange earnings, so that debt servicing itself has become a mechanism of resource transfer from the poor countries to the rich.

The problems of mass poverty and debt threaten the sustainability of growth in a highly integrated global economy, which we have suggested, is both fragile and unstable. At the same time economic destitution, illiteracy or in some cases a sense of political injustice is tearing apart the fabric of society in some countries and giving rise to extremist tendencies that violate human values and threaten the economic and political stability of the world. Overcoming poverty and debt will not only require changes in institutions and the structures of the economies of poor countries but will also require large net resource transfers from the developed to the developing world, and rectifying the asymmetry of global markets with respect to the rich and poor countries. These changes can occur, not through imperialism but rather international collaboration based on a shared human responsibility towards the global community and its future.

The rapid and continuous growth of production over the last three centuries has been associated with environmental damage, which is now threatening the life support systems of the planet. The problem of environmental degradation results from a level and composition of economic growth that is based on a private profitability calculus that does not adequately take account of the social costs of production. A market based regime of tax incentives and disincentives, together with regulatory institutions, are of course necessary for reducing the environmental cost of growth. Equally important is the rapid development and adoption of environmentally gentle (“green”) technologies. Yet this may not be enough. The level of growth itself may need to be adjusted to make it consistent with the conservation of the environment. In view of the fact that currently almost 85 percent of the world’s resources are being consumed by less than 10 percent of the world’s population, the burden of reduced growth in per capita consumption may have to be borne by the rich countries. This will require new forms of social life and a post imperialist sensibility characterized by a responsibility of individuals and states towards the present and future human community.

In the 19th century the projection of state power was characterized by military force, political control and resource extraction within exclusive domains of individual states. If the U.S. on the basis of its current military pre-eminence, pursues such a version of state power, it is likely to induce the emergence of countervailing military power blocs elsewhere in the world, with a further erosion of multi lateral institutions that had been established in the post second world war period for the maintenance of global peace and economic stability. Such a world would be much more dangerous and unstable in military, political and economic terms. The threat of global war would increase. At the same time, any foreseeable multilateral efforts to protect the life support systems of the planet, to reduce poverty and to provide peace and security to the citizens of the world would be undermined.

After over three hundred years of growth, capitalism now functions in a highly integrated and fragile global economy whose sustainability is threatened by environmental degradation, poverty, and deprivation. Overcoming these challenges means building a new relationship between human beings, nature and growth. It will require not conflict between states but international collaboration, not the maximization of individual gains but the ability to love and reason. In an interdependent world, sustaining life and achieving human freedom requires human solidarity, not imperialism. Can the human community rise to these challenges?

[This is the last in a series of articles, which are based on the author’s paper on Imperialism, being published in the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Capitalism, Golson Books, New York]

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