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Opinion Imperialism, US hegemonism and multipolarity

Not every international conflict is some form of inter-imperialist rivalry, argues JENNY CLEGG — we must recognise and support the rise of developing countries and the alliances they make that are slowly creating a more equal world

IN HIS RECENT ARTICLE “‘Is Russia an imperialist country?’ is not the right question” (Morning Star, March 29 2022) Zoltan Zigedy does well to point out that imperialism, as a new stage of capitalism, is a historically developing system and not a policy.

But somewhere along the line the baby gets thrown out with the bathwater: by effectively dismissing multipolarisation as a system of inter-imperialist rivalry, drawing an equation between now and 1914, he overlooks the crucial factor of the emergence of the developing world.

Despite subordination under neo-colonialism, that developing countries still have a certain counter-imperialist agency has been demonstrated by the abstentions to the US-initiated UN general assembly motion deploring Russia’s aggression on Ukraine.

Some 140 countries mostly in the developing world — whether led by right-wing, progressive or neutral governments — are now clearly unwilling to follow the US diktat on imposing sanctions.

The multipolar trend does indeed contain inter-imperialist rivalries, but it is essentially driven by the rise of developing countries and regions. Marking a new era, its basis was laid in the last years of WWII in the multiple-pole framing of the UN security council and collapse of the old colonial empire which followed.

Developing nations, potentially, could pursue policies of national development and regional organisation promoting the gradual emergence of further poles to influence the world trajectory towards a more equitable order.

According to Zigedy, imperialism “tends to engage all economies in relations of dominance and dependence” as if nations fight endlessly for position on the ladder of power leaving no room for unity in resistance.

Actually imperialism, as based on monopoly and finance capital, involves mechanisms of unequal exchange which continue to see hours and hours of unpaid labour drain from developing economies to the centres of capital in the most advanced economies in the world.

Monopoly has elevated competition between the major capitalist countries into rivalries as they vie for leadership positions, but the main contradiction is between imperialism and the anti-imperialist forces.

Over the decades, in order to maintain unequal exchange, a system of rules, institutions and practices of investment and trade centred on the US dollar and US financial institutions has evolved. Under US-monopoly power, both inter-imperialist rivalries as well as anti-imperialist resistance have been subdued with the subordination and incorporation of Europe and Japan and of many of the elites of the developing nations.

In the G20, where important struggles over rule-making have taken place, whilst the former generally align their interests with the hegemon, the latter, with a lesser voice, have struggled to find more space to pursue theirs.

There are course different forms of capital and the dominance in particular of US monopoly and finance capital squeezes the rest. But whilst potential rivals such as Europe and Japan have preserved their privileges as US power holds up the unequal order, the capitalists of the developing states face an unequal competition against imperialist monopolies (note: competition is not the same as rivalry — think competing in a race as opposed to deliberately tripping over your rival in that race).

On the question of Russia, Zigedy is correct in saying that, despite ranking only 12th in world GDP, it remains a major capitalist power, one of the “big 5” along with the US, Europe, Japan and China. But being an active participant in competition with others, even vying for position as a leading force, is not equivalent to being imperialist.

Locked out of the US-dominated system, Russia certainly has used and abused its military muscle — not least in invading Ukraine in violation of the UN Charter. However to compete and survive against hegemonic power it has also joined efforts to coordinate with developing countries, for example in the BRICS and the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation.

For Zigedy, Russia’s engagement with Syria, Cuba and Venezuela is reduced simply to rivalry with the US. But how likely is it that these countries, having stood up against one superpower at huge cost, would fall into another unequal relationship this time with a far weaker power? Are they so devoid of agency that they can’t gain some benefits for themselves, forging external relations of a non-imperialist nature, otherwise known as “win-win?”

China’s experience has shown that if internal class contradictions are handled correctly, a developing economy’s capitalist class can contribute positively to economic development.

Zigedy seeks to remind us of Lenin’s criticism of the petty-bourgeois reformist tendency to separate imperialism from capitalism, but in doing so he reduces imperialism to capitalism such that the only forms of resistance are socialist.

The power rivalries between the US, Nato and Russia, Zigedy claims, have “little bearing on the interests of the Russian, Ukrainian or European working classes.” But in fact for Lenin it was obligatory to use “any, even the smallest, rift between the enemies, any conflict of interests among the bourgeoisie of the various countries and among the various groups or types of bourgeoisie within the various countries” and to take “advantage of any, even the smallest, opportunity of winning a mass ally, even though this ally is temporary, vacillating, unstable, unreliable and conditional.”

Multipolarisation today — again this is not a policy but an emerging objective trend — is a complex mix of contradictions: between hegemony and anti-hegemony; monopoly and competition; imperialism and anti-imperialist nationalist forces; as well as between capitalism and socialism.

These form the objective basis for change, but conditions also are influenced by subjective (political) factors. So with the multipolar trend. Whilst objectively the old — US hegemonic power — has been in relative decline, the new — a more equal distribution of wealth and power — has been slow to develop and amidst the consequent instability, a tendency of “strongman leadership” has emerged, including right-wing populists and nationalists who have hindered rather than helped co-ordination amongst developing states.

War and sanctions are producing a global crisis of such a scale now that developing countries, hit the hardest by the rising global prices and shortages, are being forced to look independently to their own economic self-interest. The US meanwhile is left relatively unscathed.

Abstention is not yet a counter-hegemonic non-alignment but it may indicate a turning point, a moment of reawakening for the global South. To emerge further into a united, transformative effort to make global rules fit for development and the elimination of world poverty requires a progressive vanguard.

It is then for the socialist current to rise to the challenge, to decipher the cracks as international and national contradictions deepen so as to seize any and every opportunity to neutralise opposition and strengthen progressive forces and movements, be they counter-hegemonic, anti-imperialist or socialist.


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