Robert Biel’s New Imperialism

by tigermanifesto

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Having already done a piece on the brilliant 2012 book The Entropy of Capitalism, I quickly got ahold of copies of Biel’s other two books, The New Imperialism and Eurocentrism and the Communist Movement, which together form a loose trilogy progressively exploring a coherent set of themes.

  1. Capitalism as a complex international system with a parasitic centre and exploited peripheries. Implies class as an instance that unifies a person or group’s status relative to racial, gender, and proletarian peripheries. These constitute the internal contradictions of concrete capitalism.
  2. Capitalism in relation to the environment. External contradictions between capitalism leeching off of all of human society and the nonhuman natural world.
  3. Agriculture as the ultimate basis of human civilization. This theme does not appear much until the second and third books, but it has formed arguably the core of his practical and published work for a decade plus.

One caveat for no. 3 is that the version of Eurocentrism and the Communist Movement that I read is the recently published revised edition that updates the content in light of Entropy of Capitalism. Because of this, I sense a better defined continuity between the three books.

In my writeup of EntropyI indicated that the most compelling thread in that book was:

how the notion of entropy and the concept of peripheries in imperialism studies overlap throughout the book. In Biel’s political ecology, the environment and the Third World––along with enclaves within the First World and women and minority populations––are sites of both extraction, the outsides that capitalism can use for resources, and dumping sites for entropy.

New Imperialism is a true predecessor to this book. Looking over my marginal notes, I notice that I make several references to the fact that Biel would fortify insights made in this middle book with concepts developed in the third. Reading New Imperialism casts a light on just how powerful the thermodynamics concepts and systems perspective are in unifying and strengthening the arguments Biel advances. Considered on its own, however, this book contains keen insights of its own. Despite its advancing age and the fact that many of its chapters are aimed squarely at concerns that existed circa 2000, it still produces some impressive analysis of capitalism as a heterogeneous world system.

In contrast to Entropy, where the analysis was mainly present and future-oriented, New Imperialism’s meatiest sections are on the historical development of capitalism throughout the 20th century. Biel does not merely summarize changes in the mode of production in a reductionist or economistic way, however. Rather, his eye is trained on the adaptation of capitalism as, shall we say, a whole organism.

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This does include various changes in the technological base and the “economy” proper, of course. He covers a swathe of issues ranging from financialization and the growth of the speculative economy, the industrialization of the South, the destruction of full employment in the North, the emergence of what were then the NICs (Newly Industrializing Countries, which has been replaced in international relations and econo-speak by the BRICS), and the complicated position of Japan. But rather than focus mainly on such changes, he demonstrates how capitalist powers instituted new control mechanisms and navigated tricky impasses. Defusing the idea of an omnicompetent imperialist bloc, he explores the real dangers faced by capitalism after World War II and during the 1970s. He identifies the central task of Northern capital in these periods: continue to exploit the South for cheap labour and natural resources while preventing it from developing to the point of gaining too much political power.

For example, I had never before considered the gigantic risks that capital takes when weakening the state apparatus in the name of faster accumulation. Yes, privatizing services and state enterprises does free them up for greater exploitation and narrows the terms of acceptable social debate, but it also leaves the states of the North prey to bankers and bondholders. The erosion of national sovereignty even within the European Union is an astonishing development in this past decade, as capital turns states over to the direct management of the financiers. Biel explains this as a weakening of the political centre for capitalism, cannibalized by the very capitalist forces it was protecting.

Other highlights include a discussion of Cold War bipolarity as a system set up to use the USSR to crush popular social movements––or to co-opt and neutralize them––while undermining Southern solidarity. But because of my professional interest in Japan, I want to spend the rest of this little review discussing the way the book deals with this “honorary Aryan” economic power.

Japan:

Japan’s position within the capitalist world had already shifted greatly by the time Biel published this book in 2000. It had been dragging through almost a decade of its ongoing stagnation, a far cry from the beacon of growth and social coherence it had appeared to be in the 1960s through the 1980s. Allowed to develop fully because of strategic considerations and the industrial demands of the Korean War, it had managed by the 1980s to command an immense amount of wealth through an intense state-driven focus on GDP growth and the establishment of a national government that was effectively run through collusion between bureaucrats and big capital. Biel notes that its success also depended on a highly hierarchical system of subcontracting. Male workers at the top of the pyramid, employed by big monopolies, were guaranteed high wages––over double those of lower ranking workers––and lifetime job security. Below this stratum were two layers of firms employing cheaper and more precarious labour, which since the slump has become more generalized in Japan.

At its apex, however, this system and the management techniques created to groom effective and loyal workers commanded such respect that they were made use of in the larger Northern transition to neoliberal regimes in the 1980s and 1990s. Effectively, firms could open leeway for more human initiative while leaving employees with direct responsibility for the quality of their work, in effect exploiting themselves while management positions proliferated in an attempt to prevent slacking. Europe and the United States forced the Japanese currency to appreciate in value, which is what fueled the foreign buying frenzy and property boom in Japan in the 1980s (the infamous “bubble economy”).

What Biel notes is that the Asian countries that have been allowed to industrialize––Japan, the ROK, Taiwan––have all been able to do so purely because the United States had strategic reasons for doing so. He notes that this status as part of the Global North might be tenuous. This guess came at the end of the Asian crisis of the late 1990s, so it makes more sense then than it might now. Still, I suspect that there is a germ of truth in this since these countries are also all dependent on American arms support for their defense, and therefore possess limited true autonomy.

Conclusion:

If you must read one Robert Biel book, make it Entropy of Capitalism. That book incorporates the basic theoretical and concrete concerns and methods from New Imperialism and makes them far better and more pertinent. At the same time, New Imperialism, despite being out of date and possessing a rather vague strategic vision for the future––a common feature for books written on the left––brings its points home well. In largely avoiding economist reductions and bringing gender, race, and the environment into the discussion it sets itself apart from a great deal of Marxist discussion of capitalism as a world system. And its insights in agriculture, which I did not have space for in this post, are almost worth your time in themselves.

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