Introduction, the Conclusion
Who could argue with John Smith's Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century: Globalization, Super-Exploitation, and Capitalism's Final Crisis (Monthly Review Press, 2016)?
Who would want to argue with John Smith when he writes:
The vast wave of outsourcing of production process to low-wage countries, enabled by the fortuitous arrival of ICT and rapid advances in transportation technology, was a strategic response to the twin crises of declining profitability and overproduction that resurfaced in the 1970s in the form of stagflation and synchronized global recession.Show of hands anybody? I know of at least one hand not clapping for this. I know of at least one hand, arm, head, trunk, etc that argues the "fortuitous arrival" of ICT and transportation technology (by which Mr. Smith means containerization of maritime merchandise traffic) was not fortuitous, and moreover could not have been both "fortuitous" and strategic-- ("adj. Latin, fortuitus, from forte, by chance, from fors chance, luck + ous: That is due to or produced by chance, accidental, casual." OED); that both had been a long time coming, a long time in the making, and had been part of the very process of declining profitability and overproduction.
The "strategy," such as it was, such as it ever is and can only be with the bourgeoisie in charge, was to drive down costs, to reduce the proportion of living labor engaged in and by the "advanced" countries, to restrict the amount of money paid in wages in relation to the mass of capital values created, transported and realized; and that creation, transportation, and realization took place, in the main, in the advanced countries themselves. Dreams of a world of maquiladoras, of off-shored, "floating," capitalism were not the force behind containerization and digital technologies. The only strategy was profit. The tactic was cost-reduction. Put those two together and you're half a heartbeat away from the the truth of "economics." That truth is class struggle, with them as the ruling class maintaining themselves as the ruling class.
I know of a least one hand that thinks the accelerated application of these technologies, changing the technical and value compositions of capital, changing the relations between the living and objectified, accumulated, elements of production, required an initial, and then sustained assault on the working conditions, employment levels, and living standards of workers in the advanced countries.
Who can argue with Mr. Smith when he contends:
This course was conditioned by imperialists' reluctance to reverse the expensive concessions that helped convert the workers of the Global North into passive bystanders, or even accomplices, to their subjugation of the rest of the world.Hands up? Hands not clapping? Heads not nodding in agreement? Voices not raised singing the praises of this "new" theory of imperialism that boils itself down to the same-old same-old conclusions of the 40 year old, 50 year old, 100 year old "theories" of imperialism; the same-old, same-old conclusion from the same-old, same-old theories that says workers in advanced countries are accomplices of the bourgeoisie in the exploitation of workers, subsistence producers, small capitalists, peasants, in less advanced countries?
Who would want to be so disagreeable as to argue that in fact the history of advanced capitalism over the last 40 years has been exactly the opposite of what Mr. Smith claims: that in fact that history is the history of the reverses to the "expensive concessions" awarded to the workers of the "Global North"? Hands up.
Who could be so disagreeable as to deny that Thatcher, and Reagan were positively reluctant to confront the workers of "their" advanced capitalisms; hesitant, stumbling, equivocating in opposing and dismantling regulatory agencies and requirements designed to protect the privileged status of workers in the Global North? Hands up.
Who can doubt that the bourgeoisie positively trembled when liquidating, privatizing, de-regulating, free-marketing their way away from the "city on the hill" and back to the gated communities that are the pride and joy of this modern world? Hands up.
Who can doubt that outsourcing has produced greater benefits and higher standards of living for workers in advanced countries? That defined benefit pensions aren't better funded, more secure, more widespread, covering more workers with greater benefits than they were 20 or 30 years ago? Hands up.
Who can deny that poverty rates have declined in the US since 1979, since Deng's 4 Reforms, since the proliferation of the "special enterprise zones" throughout the world? Hands up.
Who can doubt that workers real wages have annually increased and are higher than ever? Hands up.
Who would disagree that Thatcher caved in the face of the miners' strike in the UK? Ran away from the confrontation? Refused to target unions during her wishy-washy equivocating decade in office?
Who would be so churlish to argue that "equality"-- that is to say shares of national income-- in the advanced countries hasn't improved over the last 40 years, and that improvement is the direct result of outsourcing? Hands up.
Who could argue that incomes and wealth hasn't "flattened" in the advanced countries with more equitable distributions of both throughout the population? Hands up.
Hands up, because the decertification and decline of unions apparently did not precede, accompany, or occur during the "new imperialism."
Hands up because the decline in real wages can't have taken place as the bourgeoisie utilized outsourcing to avoid challenging the concessions made at home, and in fact use outsourcing to maintain those concessions.
Hands up, because apparently the reductions in medical coverage, the attacks on medical coverage for poor and workers launched at the corporate and the state levels, haven't really happened.
Who could disagree with Mr. Smith, with this from the conclusion into his investigation into the new imperialism of super-exploitation:
...profits, prosperity, and social peace in the imperialist countries have become qualitatively more dependent upon the proceeds of super-exploitation of living labor in countries like Vietnam, Mexico...So hands up if you think any of this, this real world we live in now, this real world of high-wage capitalism and low-wage capitalism, feels anything or anywhere like "prosperity" and social peace?
How about you young unemployed people of Spain, Greece, Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Britain? You digging the prosperity you have captured as accomplices to your bourgeoisie?
How about you young employed people in the United States, so lucky to earn almost enough to not quite be the working poor, and not always need food stamps and other supplements? Grooving on the prosperity that is so synonymous with my-country-tis-of-thee?
How about you, all you workers, white collar, blue collar, teachers, mechanics, laid off, dismissed terminated let-go to find jobs, if you're lucky, that will pay you 25-30 percent less, and which will never pay you enough to overcome that gap, to recuperate to the level of your previous earnings? How's being an accomplice working out for you? Good, you think? Prosperous are you? Hands up.
Do all you still living at home with your parents, or forced to return home, are you feeling just the least bit guilty about enjoying those concessions allotted you from the super-exploitation of workers in Vietnam, Cambodia, Brazil? Hands up.
Hands up, indeed, and up against the wall. Someone, somebody, some bodies, some class has just been robbed of the last 40 years of its real history.
Hands up if you think I'm being unfair to Mr. Smith. Maybe he's exaggerating for effect. Maybe he's overstating a truth. Maybe he means, workers in the advanced countries are in general still much better off than workers in low-wage countries. Maybe, but no one has ever denied that. No one has ever claimed that's not the case. Maybe he means the living standards, working environments, social conditions are worse for workers in low-wage countries than in advanced countries. Maybe, but again, no one has ever claimed anything else. Maybe he means the toll taken of workers not just in workplace accidents but in the demands made upon those workers in low-wage countries is greater than the toll taken on workers in advanced countries. Maybe, but again no one has ever claimed anything to the contrary.
Maybe he means that "things" would be worse for workers in advanced countries if the bourgeoisie didn't super-exploit low wage labor in the 'Global South.' Maybe. Except there's no material basis in the needs, mechanisms of accumulation for such speculation. The bourgeoisie do what they do to reproduce themselves as the bourgeoisie, as capitalists, as the ruling class. The bourgeoisie could not have dispersed production globally simply through technical means. Capital is not a technology, a technique, an advance in the means of transportation. It is a social means. It could not have transferred assets to low-wage countries without first confronting, and repeatedly defeating the workers in the advanced countries.
The "things would be worse" argument isn't really that without access to low-wage labor, capital would have imposed harsher conditions on labor in the "Global North." The argument is actually claiming that if the workers had not be pushed back, had not had their wages reduced, had not lost benefits, didn't experience greater unemployment, did not suffer reductions in the labor force in some sectors measuring more than 50 percent, then things would have been worse.
Maybe we just take him at his word. Maybe we just accept that he means what he says, and he meant to say it.
Maybe there's much more to his book than the conclusion. Indeed there is, there's a lot more. There is a lot in the book that is really, really good. Really thought provoking. But, we are dealing with the conclusion he draws from all the previous investigations that make up the book; we're supposed to be dealing with the result, the condensed expression of everything that has gone before. The conclusion is supposed to be, as Marx made clear in his own critiques of capital, that moment of transition, of transformation, where the unveiling of the "economics" of things exposes the relations of classes, exposes the actual history of the conditions of labor. That history is lost here, in Smith's book, sacrificed once again to an ideology.
But we're only at the beginning with these conclusions, and there's a lot more to be done. Count on it.
Hands down, we're only at the beginning.
August 29, 2016
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