Monday, December 29, 2014

The second age of imperialism

As we enter 2015, it is not useless to look backwards in order to try to guess the trends of the future. I would  argue that the age that we are, to some extent exiting now, and which extended from the early 1980s, can be called the “second age of imperialism”--the first one, in the modern history, having been the age of high imperialism 1870-1914. 

            I will focus here on some of its key manifestations in the ideological sphere, in the areas I know, history and economics. But it should be obvious that ideology is but a manifestation of the underlying real forces, which were twofold: (i) the failure of most developing countries by 1980 to become economically successful and self-sustaining after decolonization and the end of Communism as an alternative global ideology, and (ii) the relatively solid economic record of Western countries (masked by the expansion of borrowing for the lower classes), and regained self-confidence of the elites in the wake of the Reagan-Thatcher (counter-) revolutions and the fall of Communism.  The violent manifestations of the second age of imperialism were invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, brutal war in Libya, and the defensive imperialism of Russia in Ukraine and Georgia. But here we are concerned with the superstructure.

            In history, the paradigmatic example of the ideological change is the explanation for the outbreak of World War I. This is the most significant event since the French revolution, and thus represents an ideological litmus test for how different epochs and historians see it. The standard explanation, started by the left-wing writers and politicians like Hobson, Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg and Hilferding, and reaching its full form in the work of Fritz Fischer in the late 1960s, was  that it was an almost inevitable conflict driven by the struggles of national bourgeoisies as to how the world would be carved up. It was domestic class conflict plus the need for local bourgeoisies to expand production in order to stave off declining rate of profit that produced the clash between the old imperialists (the Western Allies and Russia) and the aspiring ones (Germany and Austria-Hungary). 

            Now consider the new books published recently, and especially in 2014 on the occasion of the centenary of the Great War. I wrote here about one of them, Niall Ferguson’s “Pity of War”, written 10 years ago, but which I think is the best among the “revisionist” literature. The remarkable feature of these books is that they are unable to offer any theory as to why the War happened at all. In lieu of imperialism, they propose a series of useless contingencies: one minister failed to reply to the telegraph, another was travelling in the North Sea, a politician went on vacation. The title of Christopher Clark’s book “The sleepwalkers” says it all: just if a few good men paid more attention. The explanations represent the ultimate in nothingness: they support neither a theory of great men, nor of great ideas, nor of social forces. It is a puerile “theory” of trivial events piled upon each other which is offered as the explanation for the most momentous event in the past two centuries. It represents the bankruptcy of alternative or “revisionist” theories to engage with the fact of the War. 

           In social sciences, the celebration of ahistorical “neo-imperialism” took its key shape in Francis Fukuyama’s “End of history”, which of course should not be understood as the end of conflict, but as humanity having reached a terminus in finding the most appropriate form of social organization: liberal capitalism. “The end of history”, in turn, justified (whether its author would have approved  or not) the military adventures in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya where this final form of human organization were to be imposed on the heathens. When this became too difficult or costly, the “Fukuyamistas” withdraw, perhaps to regroup before trying again.

            In economics, the second age of imperialism was best reflected in many doctrines and concepts that became discredited during the Great Recession (efficient markets, rational expectations, costless transactions, representative agent, “trickle-down” economics), but even more so in the  Washington consensus. While the Washington consensus, the list of ten desirable economic policies to be implemented in the Third World, drawn by John Williamson and reflecting the views of the Washington establishment, had valuable insights, it provided a template for mindless imposition of policies that often, within the context of countries that were forced to implement them, were counterproductive. The Washington consensus was a perfect complement to Fukuyama’s “end of history” because it offered the ultimate economic policies to go together with Fukuyama’s ultimate political organization.

            It is a great virtue, if one could say so, of Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson to have combined these two strands of neo-imperialist thought, into their institutional approach. The so-called inclusive institutions are just what your get when you put Fukuyama and the Washington consensus together. So, in Acemoglu and Robinson, on the one hand, and Niall Ferguson on the other, we have the perfect, and I would venture to say, the final intellectual products of the second age of imperialism. 

            But how will things move henceforth?  The second age of imperialism was a  splendid construct that has however stumbled on several obstacles. In the economics, it was severely shaken by the Great Recession, and almost a decade of no growth in Europe and Japan. Multi-decennial zero growth of median wages, that is, of the middle-class which is so crucial for these theories to hold, was a further refutation of its neo-imperialist “inclusiveness”. The unexpected success of China was another. No matter how strongly Fukuyamistas and Acemoglu-Robinson (FAR) either deny that China represents an example showing that different institutions can deliver an even superior growth, or vociferously call for the inevitable end to the Chinese miracle, the success of China stands singly as a great refutation of the FAR view of economics and politics. 

            Domestically, more than 30 years of the second age of imperialism have brought  first, segmentation of the populations into the very rich, and the middle class, most of whom have zero net wealth and stagnant wages, and second, discrediting of the traditional center-left, center-right politics.  Both outcomes are sharply at odds with what FAR expected: under liberal capitalism neither has the middle class grown, nor have institutions of the liberal political order been affirmed in daily actions, as John Rawls required of any self-sustaining political system. This has led to the rise of “heterodox” parties of the left and the right, and the real threats to democracy by populism, xenophobia and plutocracy.   

            Neo-imperialist international balance-sheet is even worse. It has produced unnecessary and, apparently, endless wars, tribalization of nation-states, the rise of violent and most retrograde forms of religious intolerance, all of that having been, at the origin, justified by “the end of history“ and the nebulous doctrine of “the right to protect” which togerher played the same role as the ideology of the European “civilization” of other continents did in the late 19th century. The latter gave us King Leopold and the Congo; the former, George W. Bush and ISIS. The second age of imperialism leaves the world in the year 2014, in a state, in many ways reminiscent of the one in 1914, and in a turmoil that may produce either another religious One Hundred Year war or World War III…or both.

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