Saturday, October 21, 2017

Who is the modern bourgeoisie? Pt. II: Imperialism

This is the second in a three-part series on the modern bourgeoisie.

The laws of capital are binding all over the word, and they guarantee, Marx writes, a common fate: the international exploitation of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie. Even in his time, Marx saw this happening all over the world:
National differences and antagonism between people are daily more and more vanishing, owing to the development of the bourgeoisie, to freedom of commerce, to the world market, to uniformity in the mode of production and in the conditions of life corresponding thereto.
And yet today, those differences have decidedly not vanished, as wealthy countries continue to exploit the third world. A quick comparison of the purchasing power of your average resident in any given country tells the story:


Pool the wealth of your average resident of every country, and those from the 30 wealthiest countries will have as much as those from the other 159.

Marxists, of course, insist that all of this can be explained in the course of ordinary class analysis - but for Marx's critics, the division of the world into rich and poor countries proves that something more is at work than a struggle over the means of production. Arghiri Emmanuel writes:
as a result of some historical changes which Marx could not forecast...The proletariat, the true party to the cause of the socialist revolution, has practically disappeared in the affluent countries of the centre. It continues to exist in the periphery.
Meanwhile, "the population of the rich countries constitutes the upper class of today's world." This, quite explicitly, is not the upper class of Marxist theory; here, the bourgeoisie is defined, at least in part, by nationality. Some variation on this point can be found among liberals, third-worldists, and sundry other leftists: Marx's formulation of class is wrong because it fails to account for something about imperialism.

The autonomous interests

Michael Hudson, writing on the central role of the United States in the imperialist system, hones in on the fundamental issue:
...the real question that called for examination by scholars, and was not examined, was what it portended for the world that a leading government would subordinate the interests of its national bourgeoisie to the autonomous interests of the national government.
Here, we see the precise point of conflict between orthodox Marxism and certain theories of imperialism. If Marx is correct, then bourgeois control of the means of production should be a sufficient explanation of the first world's exploitation of the third world. If something like Hudson's analysis is correct, however, Marx's theory is insufficient, since the interests of the bourgeoisie can be (and has been) subordinated by "autonomous interests". In that case, we should be able to find a theory of imperialism that defines a ruling class other than the bourgeoisie.

Liberalism, of course, insists that there are all kinds of political factions that are neither defined nor driven by economic forces - and this provides some obvious candidates in our search for a ruling class other than the bourgeoisie. Before we abandon the materialist perspective entirely, however, consider a typical attempt to define this ruling class through an economic analysis. In Unequal Exchange and the Prospects of Socialism, Denmark's CWG lays out a typical explanation:
[U]nder developed capitalism – imperialism – the appropriation of other people's abstract labour does not only take place in the relationship between capitalists and labourers. The high wage level of the population as a whole in the rich countries means that also the labourers are able to appropriate the surplus-value created in the poor countries so that the labourers are able to appropriate more value than they create themselves. This is a characteristic of the position of the working class in eastern Europe and North America today.
Thus, in addition to Marx's bourgeoisie, there are also first world workers, who allegedly "appropriate the surplus value created in the poor countries."


Privilege without power

Certainly, workers of the first world are - to borrow the liberal term du jour - privileged; an unjust system has given them economic benefits denied to the third world proletariat. And undeniably, first world workers have an interest in defending this imperialism against alternative distributions of capitalism's misery.

Nevertheless, the question remains: do first world workers actually exercise power? In addition to benefiting from the imperial system, and perhaps even endorsing it, are first world workers causing imperialism? They may be a lucky class, and perhaps even a malevolent class - but are they actually a ruling class? With what political or economic leverage do they impose imperialism?

Here, in my view, the case against Marx begins to break down. Consider in particular the United States, generally held to be the heart of the imperialist system. Liberalism may still dream of a political order in which ordinary citizens control the US government through democratic channels, but this vision has become so implausible that even bourgeois elites like Jimmy Carter routinely dismiss our government as "more of an oligarchy than a democracy". An extraordinary body of research and literature affirms this point; in particular, a 2014 study by Benjamin and Page is worth quoting at length:
Marxist and neo-Marxist theories of the capitalist state hold that economic classes—and particularly the bourgeoisie, the owners of the means of production—dominate policy making and cause the state to serve their material interests...[they] make predictions resembling those of theories of Biased Pluralism: that interest groups and corporations representing “large scale business” tend to prevail...
...our evidence strongly indicates that theories of Biased Pluralism are more descriptive of political reality than are theories of Majoritarian Pluralism...When the preferences of economic elites and the stands of organized interest groups are controlled for, the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy...
Even if we conclude that first world workers enjoy prosperity at the expense of the third world, it is simply not the case that they are the agents of appropriation - that the imperialist system is imposed through their power, perhaps even despite the preferences of the bourgeoisie. The study continues:
To be sure, this does not mean that ordinary citizens always lose out; they fairly often get the policies they favor, but only because those policies happen also to be preferred by the economically-elite citizens who wield the actual influence.
The first world bourgeoisie

Identifying these "economically elite citizens who wield the actual influence" has proven to be a more complicated matter - in part, I suspect, because most relevant research relies on income and wealth as exclusive indicators of economic power. Even these imperfect measures, however, are suggestive. In a joint study of political spending and influence, The Sunlight Foundation and the Center for Responsive Politics report
a growing dependence of candidates and political parties on the One Percent of the One Percent...Overwhelmingly, they are corporate executives, investors, lobbyists, and lawyers...Unlike the other 99.99% of Americans who do not make these contributions, these elite donors have unique access...[they] effectively play the role of political gatekeepers. Prospective candidates need to be able to tap into these networks if they want to be taken seriously. And party leaders on both sides are keenly aware that more than 80% of party committee money now comes from these elite donors.
Since 2012, donors in this .01% have contributed at least $10,000 per election cycle. And even if we examine contributions as low as $200, it is clear that the most active political investors are, even by first world standards, extremely rich:


Here, more than half of all donors come from the 2% of Americans who make more than $250,000 a year. One does not need to specify any particular income threshold to observe that donor participation and investment skyrockets dramatically somewhere in the very upper percentiles of the American economy. Thomas Ferguson, in his seminal Golden Rule, makes this point quite clearly:
Essentially the investment theory of political parties postulates that a strong relationship exists between the extremes (or "tails") of two different distributions: the distribution of investors in political action and the distribution of investors in the circumambient economy. In testing the theory nothing important depends on the exact values of the cutoff points used to indicate "large" investors in each distribution - the top 5 percent, 10 percent, 12 percent, or whatever. 
Elsewhere, Ferguson suggests that "the best and most practical way to define 'large' investors makes reference to (whoever controls) the largest corporations and banks in the country" - returning us once again to the standard Marxist conception of a ruling class defined by its control of the means of production.

Just as Marxist theory predicts the political dominion of the bourgeoisie, it also explains the political limitations of the first world working class. As Marx put it long ago:
In countries where modern civilisation has become fully developed, a new class of petty bourgeois has been formed, fluctuating between proletariat and bourgeoisie, and ever renewing itself as a supplementary part of bourgeois society. The individual members of this class, however, are being constantly hurled down into the proletariat by the action of competition...
Under capitalism, even the wealthiest workers can at any moment be fired, lose sources of household income, lose investors, and face any number of immiserating economic shocks. This is precisely why the wealthier working class is so obsessed with the problem of precarity - why elite liberals fixate on capitalist welfare tweaks, and why elite reactionaries try escape into the safety and stability of the bourgeoisie.

Thus, Matt Bruenig notes, one popular conception of the modern bourgeoisie defines them as "anyone whose capital ownership allows them to receive the average annual wage without having to work...assuming 5% return on capital, that puts the bourgeois at those with $1.2 million in capital". Freed from the need to sell their labor, freed from dependence on the whims of their bosses, these Americans can turn their priorities elsewhere.


The origins of imperialism

This strikes me as a logical place to look for the origins of imperialism, but here we must be careful. Once we return to bourgeois exploitation of the proletariat as the essential feature of capitalism, it is tempting to think of imperialism as an accidental development - a technique of domination that the bourgeoisie does not need to rely upon, and that it could abandon at any moment. And quite easily, this logic merges into the liberal dream of a more just capitalism: one that distributes opportunity, prosperity, (and misery) equally, without regard for categories of identity like nationality.

More than a hundred years ago, Lenin was already quite stridently warning against this tendency:
Kautsky's definition is not only wrong and un-Marxist. It serves as a basis for a whole system of views which signify a rupture with Marxist theory and Marxist practice all along the line...Kautsky detaches the politics of imperialism from its economics, [and] speaks of annexation as being a policy "preferred" by finance capital...It follows, then, that monopolies are compatible with non-monopolistic, non-violent, non-annexationist methods in politics. It follows, then, that the territorial division of the world...which constitutes the basis of the present peculiar forms of rivalry between the biggest capitalist states, is compatible with a non-imperialist policy...the result is bourgeois reformism instead of Marxism.
In fact, there is every reason to believe that imperialism is a direct, necessary, and inevitable consequence of bourgeois control of the means of production. David Harvey observes that in
the geographical landscape that capital makes...some regions tend to become richer while poor regions get poorer. This happens because of what Gunnar Myrdal calls circular and cumulative causation. Advanced regions draw new activity to themselves because of the vibrancy of their markets, the greater strength of their physical and social infrastructure and the ease with which they can procure their necessary means of production and labour supplies....
Contradictions arise because these new dynamic spaces of capital accumulation ultimately generate surpluses and need to find ways to absorb them through further geographic expansions...[this leads to] increasingly fierce competition within the international division of labour as multiple dynamic centres of capital accumulation compete on the world stage in the midst of strong currents of overaccumulation (lack of markets for realisation) or under conditions of competing scarcities for raw materials and other key means of production. Since they cannot all succeed, either the weakest succumb and fall into serious crises of localised devaluation or geopolitical struggles arise between regions and states. The latter take the form of trade wars, currency and resource wars, with the ever-present danger of military confrontations...
Capitalism does not, in other words, simply guarantee the exploitation of the global proletariat; it guarantees that this exploitation will be regionally inflected, and imposed with constant violence. As long as capitalism is still with us, these dynamics will always overpower antiwar activism, gestures towards conscientious consumption, "fair trade" pacts and initiatives, humanitarian charity, and so on. In order to ensure imperialistic exploitation under global capitalism, all the bourgeoisie needs to do is fight for global capitalism.

Still, even if orthodox Marxism can explain regional disparities of violence and exploitation under capitalism, a significant question remains: why is the first world disproportionately white? Why is the third world disproportionately black and brown? Why, in general, are the injustices of capitalism so often inflected by forms of identity like race, gender, and so on? And does this not suggest that the bourgeoisie must be defined by categories of identity which have nothing to do with ownership of the means of production?

As promised, in the third part of this series on the modern bourgeoisie, I'll discuss this intersectional challenge to Marxist economics.