Paddy Gibson looks at the turmoil and renewed power games across the Middle East, Ukraine and Asia and what drives conflict among the world’s major powers.
The Marxist theory of imperialism was developed to explain the butchery 100 years ago during the First World War. It holds many insights that can help explain the world today.
Fundamental to the theory is an understanding of imperialism as an extension of capitalist competition, resulting from the tendency built into capitalism for the concentration and centralisation of capital.
Over time small firms either grow larger or are taken over by rivals. Firms must grow if they are to effectively compete, continually investing in more sophisticated technologies and means of production in order to cut their prices low enough to compete with their rivals.
Lenin and Bukharin argued that in the lead up to the First World War firms had grown so large that they had begun to expand outside their national boundaries and therefore needed their local state to fight for their interests on a global scale. They needed guaranteed flows of raw materials to feed their factories, and guaranteed markets where they could sell their products.
Competition between large, monopoly firms based in different countries also led to imperialist competition and war between states.
As Nikolai Bukharin wrote, “the competitive struggle between monopolies becomes a struggle between states to control different parts of the world”.
Toward the end of the 19th century there was a scramble for colonies as the different colonial powers tried to seize different parts of the world. In 1875 only 10 per cent of Africa was under direct European colonial rule, but by 1900 this had reached 90 per cent.
As Lenin pointed out, the imperialist powers were not simply interested in controlling territory for direct economic benefit, but also for its strategic value and to deny access to rivals. As he put it, “An essential feature of imperialism is the rivalry between several great powers in striving for hegemony i.e. for the conquest of territory, not so much for themselves as to weaken the adversary and undermine his hegemony”.
When all the available territory had been seized they turned to fighting each other for the re-division of existing colonies, resulting in the European powers waging war on each other in 1914—both for control of industrial centres within Europe and global hegemony.
The formal colonial empires have ended, but most of the world’s states continue to rely on the support and patronage of one of the major imperialisms.
The fall of the Soviet Union and the weakening of Russian imperialism provided what is known as the US’s uni-polar moment. It emerged from the Cold War as the world’s sole super-power.
With the rise of a global market some have claimed that the age of imperialist competition is coming to an end. But the last few decades have seen an increase in the efforts by smaller imperialist powers to flex their muscles in inter-imperialist rivalry with the US.
The recovery of the Russian economy has seen its re-emergence as a competitor, but more important has been the rise of China as a new economic power-house.
China’s rise has created particular problems for the US. Firstly the US imports far more from China that it exports there, producing a major trade imbalance.
There is an associated flow of funds from China into the US. Martin Wolf of the Financial Times wrote before the invasion of Iraq, “the US current account deficit is 50 per cent bigger than its defence spending… indirectly the rest of the world pays for the exercise of US power”. China in particular is funding the military spending of the US.
There has been a long-term decline in the US’s economic might and share of global economic power. The US economy’s share of total global production declined from 36 per cent in 1969 to 31 per cent in 2001 and 23 per cent in 2010 in the aftermath of the economic crisis.
But US military spending remains higher than the next five countries combined. So it has tried to use its military power as a way to compensate for its economic decline and maintain the dominant position that US firms enjoy in the world.
The last four US presidents have all bombed Iraq as a message to the rest of the world about US superiority. George W Bush went further and occupied the country.
The war in Iraq was about oil. But it was about controlling the flow of oil that other powers like China and to Europe need to power their economies.
It was also aimed at maintaining US hegemony in a series of other ways—as a show of force to ensure that the rest of the world continued to accept US policies when it comes to the IMF, the World Bank, and global trade rules.
The attempt to control Iraq failed spectacularly. Central to that was resistance from the Iraqi people to the occupation.
In the process the US did a huge amount of damage, with around a million people killed, and an estimated $1.5 trillion spent on the war.
The borders of the Middle East today—and countries like Syria, Jordan and Iraq—were all created by imperialism at the end of the First World War. Britain, France and Russia drew up the Sykes-Picot agreement to divide between them the old Ottoman empire in the Middle East. That map that was drawn up is now in crisis.
When the US realised it had to retreat from occupying Iraq, it fell back on a strategy of sectarianism to try and maintain control.
The initial insurgency in 2004 was across all of Iraq. There were Sunni strongholds such as Fallujah, but Shia resistance was also very strong, particularly in the poorer areas, led by Madhi Army of Moqtada Al Sadr. Prior to the occupation Iraq was not a sectarian society, with intermarriage between Sunni and Shia common. Many individual tribes had Sunni and Shia branches.
The US deployed a very conscious strategy of divide and rule. They distributed political power along sectarian lines. They armed and encouraged Shia death squads that carried out massacres and executed Sunni resistance leaders on a sectarian basis.
Imperialism is not just about domination by big powers like the US. Smaller sub-imperial powers also have their own interests. Imperialism needs to be understood as the clash and competition between many states. None of them will be consistent anti-imperialists.
The instability across Iraq and Syria has allowed sub-imperial powers to exert influence. Iran’s influence in Iraq has increased significantly. If the partition of Iraq is the outcome of the current crisis this will produce an Iranian controlled area in the south, a Kurdish state in the north with the remaining area for the Sunnis.
The Kurdish regional authority in the north has significant Turkish support and investment, despite the persecution of the Kurdish minority inside Turkey, as well as significant investment and military assistance from Israel and the US.
Some of the Gulf regimes like Qatar and Saudi Arabia have attempted to fund proxy forces inside Syria to weaken the Assad regime. Russia has provided crucial military and financial support to the Assad regime to keep it in place.
The two other major global faultlines, between the US, the EU and Russia in Eastern Europe, and between the US and China, both show the interplay between economic interests and imperialist interests.
The EU offered Ukraine an economic assistance package to help pay their debts that would have tied them to the EU. Putin responded by offering cash on better terms. The split in Ukraine’s ruling class about whether to look to Russia or the EU sparked upheaval on the streets that brought down the government, and which has led to war and the potential partition of Ukraine. Underlying this is the crucial strategic importance of the Ukraine for Russian imperialism.
The US’s problems in Iraq and the impact of the economic crisis has elevated further China’s role in the global system.
China became the fifth largest economy in the world in 2004, and by 2010 had passed Japan, becoming the second largest. In the next ten to 20 years many believe China will eclipse the US to become the world’s largest economy.
It is now the largest trading partner of both South Korea and Japan, with big implications for the region. The global economic crisis further boosted China’s foreign currency reserves, to $US1.5 trillion.
Chinese loans and aid have enabled countries such as Pakistan, Jamaica, Angola and Ecuador to move away from US influence.
Through working with Russia in the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation they were able to force the departure of US troops from Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan in 2005-2006.
China’s military expenditure has tripled in the last ten years. It is focused particularly on building up its naval power. China feels vulnerable due to its reliance on shipping routes, with 80 per cent of its oil coming through the Strait of Malacca. Ninety per cent of its export trade goes through the South China Sea.
China is not about to eclipse the US as a military power—its overall defence spending is still only 20 per cent of the US’s. But it has become more assertive, seen in territorial disputes with Japan over the Senkaku-Diaoyu islands, and with the Philippines and Vietnam.
The US is doing its best to find allies in the region to counter China. There has been significant redeployment of US naval power as part of its “pivot to Asia”.
It is a mistake to back one power or the other in the scramble for profits, influence and military dominance.
The world’s imperial states are not fighting in the interests of working class people. Our job is to oppose their efforts to ramp up military spending and take us into new wars.