Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism

Notes from Lenin's (1916) book "Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism":

  • "Imperialism emerged as the development and direct continuation of the fundamental attributes of capitalism in general. But capitalism only became imperialism at a definite and very high stage of its development… Economically, the main thing in this process is the substitution of capitalist monopolies for capitalist free competition. Free competition is the fundamental attribute of capitalism, and of commodity production generally. Monopoly is exactly the opposite of free competition; but we have seen the latter being transformed into monopoly before our very eyes, creating large-scale industry and eliminating small industry, replacing large-scale industry by still larger-scale industry, and finally leading to such a concentration of production and capital that monopoly has been and is the result" (p. 88)
  • "uneven development and wretched conditions of the masses are fundamental and inevitable conditions and premises of this mode of production. As long as capitalism remains what it is, surplus capital will never be utilized for the purpose of raising the standard of living of the masses in a given country, for this would mean a decline in profits for the capitalists" (p. 63)
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A History Not Told: American Slavery & Capitalism

What is the half of the story we've not been told about slavery? Baptist explains that "America's first generation of professional historians were justifying the exclusions of Jim Crow and disenfranchisement by telling a story about the nation's past of slavery and civil war that seemed to confirm, for many white Americans, that white supremacy was just and necessary. Above all, the historians of a reunified white nation insisted that slavery was a premodern institution that was not committed to profit-seeking" (p. xviii). Historians "of Woodrow Wilson's generation imprinted the stamp of academic research on the idea that slavery was separate from the great economic and social transformations" (p. xix). The half not told, is how integral slavery was the rise of American power, and how it was driven by capitalism. However, the "idea that the commodification and suffering and forced labor of African Americans is what made the United States powerful and rich is not an idea that people necessarily are happy to hear. Yet it is the truth." (p. xxiii-xxiv). The "the expansion of slavery in both geography and intensity was what made American capitalism" (p. 421).

This is the argument made by Edward E. Baptist in "The Half has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism" (2014). The book is just well researched and extremely well written. The author uses narrative to bring to life statistics and uses the art of storytelling to convey this history in meaningful and powerful ways. A book this well researched, and this length (522 pages), is impossible to justly summarize in a short post. I am hopeful this peak into the book will inspire readers to pick it up. A highly recommended read.

Baptist draws on a wealth of historical records in telling the story of how slavery and financial capitalism became the "driving force in an emerging national economic system that benefited elites and other up and down the Atlantic coast as well as throughout the backcountry" (p. 33). It is a story about how an economic system push for the expansion of slavery, and how a much broader population benefited from that – be they financiers far distanced from plantations or those engaged in the international trade of cotton. It is a story that challenges us to think about how injustice is not just by the one with the whip, but those who enable that system, benefit from it, and support its continuation. It also connects acts of oppression to the driving force of capitalist expansion – as indigenous peoples' lands were confiscated by the government, , including those for which they held title, "in order to launch expanded cotton-and-slavery-induced booms" (p. 227). Investors and bankers played an enabling role from afar; "People who have money want to lend it if they can make still more money doing so, especially if they can feel certain about repayment. Lending to the South's cotton economy was an investment not just in the world's most widely traded commodity, but also in a set of producers who had shown a consistent ability to increase their productivity and revenue" (p. 245). He writes:

  • "For seventy years, southern and northern economic and political elites – and many average white citizens – had cooperated to extract profit and power from the forced movement and exploitation of enslaved people's bodies and minds. Always, the proslavery forces had made the rest of the United States choose between profitable expansion of the slave country or economic slowdown. Between slavery and disunion. Between supporting a party turned into a colonized host for viral proslavery dogma, or defeat in national elections. Between bills for expanding slavery into Kansas, or passing up the opportunity to build a transcontinental railroad" (p. 385).

As a story about slavery, this book is also about the brutalities – how torture was used as a factor of production. "For many southwestern whites, shipping was a gateway form of violence that led to bizarrely creative levels of sadism. In the sources that document the expansion of cotton production, you can find at one point or another almost every product sold in New Orleans stores converted into an instrument of torture: carpenters' tools, chains, cotton presses, hackles, handsaws, hoe handles, irons for branding livestock, nails, pokers, smoothing irons, singletrees, steelyards, tongs. Every modern method of torture was used at one time or another: sexual humiliation, mutilation, electric shocks, solitary confinement in 'stress positions,' burning, even waterboarding. And descriptions of runaways posted by enslavers were festooned with descriptions of scars, burns, mutilations, brands, and wounds." (p. 141). Even in moments of hope, such as the emergence of anti-slavery actions, the reality was less than hopeful. Baptist shows that freeing slaves and advocating for the abolishment of slavery was not "because of a belief in black equality" but to strengthen the political might of northern elites in response to the political bullying of southern politicians.

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Capitalism vs The Climate

Naomi Klien's "This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate" (2014) is not a case for how climate change is real or important to consider, it is a call to action. From a research perspective, I was not overly impressed with the book. However, a few chapters into my reading I realized I had approached the book incorrectly. This is not a research book by a researcher; Naomi is an activist and this book is calling for action. It is a book about how the author thinks the public can change the ways things work. It is not the pragmatic, middle of the road argument. It is to "move the ideological pole far away from the stifling market fundamentalism that has become the greatest enemy to planetary health" (p. 26).

The main reason why action has not yet occurred, despite the consensus about climate change, is "those things fundamentally conflict with deregulated capitalism, the reigning ideology for the entire period we have been struggling to find a way out of this crisis" (p. 18). The solution, Klien argues, "is not simply that we need to spend a lot of money and change a lot of policies; it's that we need to think differently, radically differently, for those changes to be remotely possible. Right now the triumph of market logic, with its ethos of domination and fierce competition, is paralyzing almost all serious effort to respond to climate change" (p. 23). While the author makes a clear argument for the challenges that are value based, much of the book is a collection of examples of how we can transform not just those values, but also translate new values into actions.

Yet, it is not just climate change that is at issue. It is the ability for citizens to express their will using democratic systems. "The process of taking on the corporate-state power nexus that underpins the extractive economy is leading a great many people to face up to the underlying democratic crisis that has allowed multinationals to be the authors of the laws under which they operate – whether at the municipal, state/provincial, national, or international level. It is this corroded state of our political systems – as fossilized as the fuel at the center of these battles – that is fast turning Blockadia into a grassroots pro-democracy movement." (p. 361). Change is possible, and change on this scale has happened before, and the author specifically highlights the responses made to the Great Depression, the abolition of slavey and the independence movements against colonial powers, as these not only included political shifts but also economic ones (p. 545-545).

The book makes two arguments for action: support the smallscale efforts (and many examples of this are given) and use your collective power as citizens to change the system (policies and programs). Where to start? "That means cheap public transit and clean light rail accessible to all; affordable, energy-efficient housing along those transit lines; cities planned for high-density living; bike lanes in which riders aren't asked to risk their lives to get to work; land management that discourages sprawl and encourages local, low-energy forms of agriculture; urban designs that clusters essential services like schools and health care along transit routes and in pedestrian-friendly areas; programs that require manufacturers to be responsible for the electronic waste they produce, and to radically reduce built-in redundancies and obsolescences" (p. 91). Doing so "requires visionary long-term planning, tough regulation of business, higher level of taxation for the affluent, big public sector expenditure, and in many cases reversals of core privatizations in order to give communities the power to make the change they desire." (p. 95).

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Kicking Away the Ladder

Cambridge professor of development studies, Ha-Joon Chang, is likely more known is the 'Global South' than within universities in North America or Europe – mainly because his writing takes a different approach, sometimes rather boldly so. Of his long list of publications, "Kicking Away the Ladder: Development Strategy in Historical Perspective" (2002) is the most cited. The book explores policies and institutions that were used by 'now developed countries' in order to reach their current position, and compare that with what the international development community recommends / demands of currently developing countries. In many ways, Chang challenges an entire sector with this book – the findings "will undoubtedly disturb many people, both intellectually and morally" (p. 12), as assumptions and myths are busted. In this review I focus on policies (the institutions component is also good, but has been developed by others significantly since – to be explored in future posts).

The author summarizes the objective, and the main finding, in the first two pages, writing: "There is currently great pressure on developing countries from the developed world, and the international development policy establishment that it controls, to adopt a set of 'good policies' and 'good institutions' to foster their economic development… As we shall see later in the book, there have been heated debates on whether or not these recommended policies and institutions are in fact appropriate for today's developing countries. Curiously, however, many of those critics who question the applicability of these recommendations nevertheless take it for granted that these 'good' policies and institutions were used by the developed countries when they themselves were in the process of developing" (p. 1). "This book pieces together various elements of historical information which contradict the orthodox view of the history of capitalism, and provides a comprehensive but concise picture of the policies and institutions that the developed countries used when they themselves were developing countries. In other words, what this book is asking is: 'How did the rich countries really become rich?' The short answer to this question is that the developed countries did not get where they are now through the policies and the institutions that they recommend to developing countries today. Most of them actively used 'bad' trade and industrial policies" (p. 2).

The title of this book comes from Chang's description of how nations gain advantage, and then seek to disable other nations from attaining a level of comparative status to prevent competition. Change writes "the current policy orthodoxy does amount to 'kicking away the ladder'. Infant industry promotion (but not just tariff protection, I hasten to add) has been the key to the development of most nations, and the exceptions have been limited to small countries on, or very close to, the world's technological frontiers, such as the Netherlands and Switzerland. Preventing the developing countries from adopting these policies constitutes a serious constraint on their capacity to generate economic development" (p. 10). The basis of the argument draws from the fact that "virtually all NDCs [now developed countries] actively used interventionist industrial, trade and technology (ITT) policies that are aimed at promoting infant industries during their catch-up periods" (p. 18), but current 'good' policy bars such policy.

What role do the interventionist policies play? Primarily they serve to level the playing field. Chang writes "the common problem faced by all the catch-up economies is that eh shift to higher-value-added activities, which constitutes the key to the process of economic development, does not happen 'naturally'. This is because, for a variety of reasons, there exist discrepancies between social and individual returns to investments in the high-value-added activities, or infant industries, in the catch-up economies. Given such discrepancies, it becomes necessary to establish some mechanisms to socialize the risk involved in such investments" (p. 126).

The main finding of the book – that currently recommended policies for developing countries are not what now developed countries used to develop – begs an important question: "aren't the developed countries, under the guise of recommending 'good' policies and institutions, actually making it difficult for the developing countries to use policies and institutions which they themselves had used in order to develop economically in earlier times?" (p. 3). Chang further explains: "Once a country gets ahead of other countries, it has a natural incentive to use its economic and political powers to pull ahead even further. Britain's policies, especially those of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, are the best examples of this. What is disconcerting is that these policies have so many parallels with those pursued in our time by developed countries in relation to their developing counterparts" (p. 51). "The plain fact is that the Neo-Liberal 'policy reforms' have not been able to deliver their central promise – namely, economic growth. When they were implemented, we were told that, while these 'reforms' might increase inequality in the short term and possibly in the long run as well, they would generate faster growth and eventually life everyone up more effectively than the interventionist policies of the early postwar years had done. The records of the last two decades show that only the negative part of the prediction has been met. Income inequality did increase as predicted, but the acceleration in growth that had been promised never arrived" (p. 128).

Chang does not leave readers to read between the lines in suggesting parallels with current and colonial practices. "By demanding from developing countries institutional standards that they themselves never attained at comparable levels of development, the NDCs are effectively adopting double standards, and hurting the developing countries by imposing on them many institutions that they neither need nor can afford' (p. 135). The author concludes that "the currently recommended package of 'good policies', which emphasizes the benefits of free trade and other laissez-faire ITT policies, seems at odds with historical experience" (p. 127) and that in numerous accounts the 'good' development policy is, in fact, 'kicking away the ladder' and hindering economic growth in developing countries.

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Logan Cochrane

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