Samir Amin: The Liberal Virus
“The virus caused among its victims a curious schizophrenia. Humans no longer lived as whole beings, organizing themselves to produce what is necessary to satisfy their needs (what the learned have called “economic life”) and simultaneously developing the institutions, the rules, and the customs that enable them to develop”
In The Liberal Virus Samir Amin diagnoses the world with a case of chronic liberalism. Most acute at the metropolitan capitalist centres, this epidemic has rampaged through the world, causing innumerable deaths, immeasurable suffering, and a tragic distortion of human life as it ought to be lived. Liberalism for Amin names not just the jelly-kneed social liberalism of North America but the overarching ideological justification for the capitalist mode of production. Capitalism fractures people into atomized units and submits society to a crude, worshipful economism, placing the entire economic life of society into the hands of “market logic.” Meanwhile, liberalism severs political life from the economy, ensuring a complete lack of democracy in the regulation of economic life. Technocrats and monopolists govern societies with golden fists, and even the so-called market is not free but constantly hemmed in by monopolies and imperialist distortions. Within liberalism’s feverish dream world, the United States becomes exalted as the world’s fountain of genius. Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth, though the liberal imagination can only imagine the continuation of capitalism into eternity.
Amin begins this short volume in a hopeful future where liberalism has been overcome by socialism and works back through the present to the origins of liberal ideology before outlining a “battle plan” against liberalism in the final section. In the second chapter, he generalizes his Marxist critique of this system by noting that, while liberalism imagines capitalism to produce desirable equilibria in society, it is actually “synonymous with permanent instability” (14). Liberalism’s purpose within capitalist relations is to obscure capitalism as it really exists in order to legitimate it as a “transhistorical legitimacy” that will forever be the gold standard for social organization. Postmodernism fits into this scheme as an account for imperialist capitalism’s obvious disarray without striking at the heart of the political problem. It reproduces the logic of liberalism rather than undermining it. Though it might produce valuable insights, Amin believes its only praxis is to cope with the situation, to refrain from radically questioning capitalist logic. Its rejection of “progress” and Enlightenment of any kind fits into this narrative, creating a defeatist cynicism that plays well with academics and First World malcontents but ultimately soothing people into complacency. It is, in short, the siren song of American hegemony, a project that, though in this author’s opinion retains some descriptive value, heralds the present as the crowning moment in history.
Most importantly, however, the liberal virus pretends that the world can “develop” its way into universal prosperity. Amin discusses the new obsession with eliminating poverty (think the UN Millennium Development Goals) that merely globalizes charitable giving from imperialist surpluses. Amin notes that one of the foundational contradictions of capitalism rests in “the gap between what [its] development would potentially allow and the actual use made of this development” (30). Instead of harnessing the economy to rationally solve social problems, the anarchy of imperialist monopoly polarizes the world into an exploiting centre and an exploited periphery. Populations are run over roughshod, their economies warped until they serve the needs of their neocolonial masters. His account here is all too brief but compelling, wrestling with the material problems that our polarized world presents to the left, including the lack of democratic management that plagued actually existing socialism in the USSR (despite Stalin’s attempts to solve this problem) and the creation of a society of consumers and spectators in the liberal West. Robbed of agency in the economy and reduced to passive observers in the democratic process (even many liberals in America have now awakened to the fact that elections and legislation are bought and paid for by the upper slice of the capitalist class), there is no longer any room for progress, nor even more than the attenuated notion that there could be.
In his chapter on the origins of liberalism, his story runs on familiar lines: liberalism develops alongside capitalist production in Europe, inspiring radicals in the French Revolutions (among whom the Jacobins were far ahead of their time in attempting to push the revolution further than the times would ultimately allow) and permitting a gigantic leap forward in production before curdling into imperialism and monopoly during the nineteenth century. Europe managed to hold onto a more egalitarian social conception because it was not subjected to waves of immigration that stifled class consciousness in the United States and permitted what Amin calls “communitarian” politics.
The book is more of a manifesto than a detailed analysis of capitalism and imperialism. At the same time, it is an essential introductory text for those who are beginning to read Amin. Reading his other writings will clarify some of his terminology, especially his use of a term called “underdetermination” that is meant to supplant the Althusserian “overdetermination” in defining social relations. His formula for the destruction of the liberal virus is twofold: redefining the European project at the expense of Atlantic cooperation with the United States and reestablishing a unity of peoples in the Global South. Though he admits that prospects for the first appear dubious, and he wrote the book before the EU began its recent round of disintegration. Nevertheless, Europe (and Japan) take the junior positions relative to an almost absolute American hegemony. Even though that supreme position has been seen as eroding in the face of new challenges from China and elsewhere, America’s military might alone will continue to prop it up as the center of global imperialism for some time now. For the South, the concept of “delinking” becomes vital, liberating nations from the global market economy and forming pacts with each other to foster independent development and starve the United States of its surpluses. Because this section is the most hypothetical, it is also the most debatable. It is probably unwise for the global Left to count on a split between the United States and its subordinate imperial partners. Additionally, its usefulness might be lessened because Amin wrote it before the great financial crisis, but I believe its general framework is still largely applicable to the world today.
Though Marxism remains weak in most of the world, especially in the metropolitan centres, the current century is shaping up to be a critical one. Environmental catastrophes, imperialist violence, and inequality and exploitation feel more threatening than ever before. Crisis seems to follow crisis with increasing frequency, and though no one can tell if the result will be socialism or barbarism, the worldwide Left should take this opportunity as an honorable burden, the opportunity to open up the road to a new future where the exploitation and suffering of the past is left behind as a mere memory.