Saturday, April 8, 2023

Multipolarity and So-Called Ultra-Imperialism


What do we mean when we say “Multipolarity”? Is this term analytically useful and commensurate with Marxist analysis and the critique of political-economy? The trouble is that the pre-eminent Marxist analysis of Imperialism, Lenin’s Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, was written and released during the First World War, and therefore its analysis pertain to a situation in which there was only Imperialism. This situation changed, partially by Lenin’s own hand, with the foundation of the Soviet Union. Suddenly there existed a situation which was irrevocably different to Lenin’s own analysis, precisely because something unique had come into the world: a state which reflected the interests of the working classes, namely, industrial labourers and small peasant farmers. In some respects Lenin’s analysis of Imperialism remains exactly true, eerily true, right down to our present day, and yet in a crucial respect – the existence of a Proletarian State – it is always-already obsolete, and has been since shortly after it was written.

What is the risk of dismissing the analysis of multipolarity? What interests does it serve to deny the analytic utility of multipolarity? Well, for example, a churlish ultra-leftist might reject the analysis of multipolarity, and advocate for a biblical exegesis of Lenin’s original text, because they either denied the class character of the Soviet Union, or, later, because they denied the class character of the People’s Republic of China. For such an ultra-leftist, a literal and unreconstructed reading of Lenin’s text is advisable because the situation remains simply a contest between competing imperialisms. But such a reading is not possible, and crucially at odds with Lenin in a different way, in its jettisoning the exact class character of imperialism which Lenin articulates. While Lenin was writing in a situation in which no proletarian state existed, their coming into existence would have altered Lenin’s analysis of the situation, because imperialism is the highest stage of capitalism, and a territorial-power configuration dedicated to the abolition of the capitalist modes of production and exchange in the last instance would, naturally, function differently.

At the same time, can the analytic of multipolarity be abused or used in a manner which is either analytically useless, or harmful? Of course. It does so in instances where it is deployed as synonymous with what Lenin rebuked in Kautsky, the belief in the possibility of perpetual and enduring ‘super-imperialism’ or ‘ultra-imperialism,’ which is either the dominance of one imperialist hegemon, or an agreement between and among imperialists for the joint division and exploitation of the earth. Ironically, this supposition, or postulate, becomes most prevalent in an era of inter-imperialist rivalry, because during an era of untrammeled hegemony it is not even a question. It only becomes a question for social theorists as changes in the development of the forces of production alter the balance of power between imperialist powers, such that what hadn’t needed to be negotiated previously, because of an established balance of power, becomes unsettled, and suddenly comes into question. It goes like this: in spite of relative changes in the balance of geopolitical power as a result of technological development, capitalist powers can be politically persuaded to adopt mutually beneficial and peaceful arrangements for the continuation of the human species. Lenin said, correctly, that this was absolutely impossible, that it was a pleasing fiction meant to delude and distract the working class from their own salvation.

"In the realities of the capitalist system, and not in the banal philistine fantasies of English parsons, or of the German ‘Marxist,’ Kautsky, ‘inter-imperialist’ or ‘ultra-imperialist’ alliances, no matter what form they may assume, whether of one imperialist coalition against another, or of a general alliance embracing all the imperialist powers, are inevitably nothing more than a ‘truce’ in periods between wars. Peaceful alliances prepare the ground for wars, and in their turn grow out of wars; the one conditions the other, producing alternating forms of peaceful and non-peaceful struggle on one and the same basis of imperialist connections and relations within world economics and world politics." (295)

In Lenin’s time, a single dominant economic hegemon, had been in decline, but nevertheless was able to ensure what it asserted was a relatively peaceful division of the world. In another article Lenin emphasizes how false these supposed periods of “peace” actually are, writing of the breakdown of so-called "“peaceful” capitalism" that “even in that period, roughly between 1871 and 1914, “peaceful” capitalism created conditions of life that were a very far cry from actual “peace”, both in the military and the class sense. For nine-tenths of the population of the leading countries, for hundreds of millions in the colonies and backward countries, that epoch was not one of “peace” but of oppression, suffering and horror, which was the more terrible, possibly, for appearing to be a horror without end." In such a period, the point is not that the so-called “peace” of “peaceful imperialism” is real, as much as imperialism is in a position to ensure its continuation irrespective of its falsity and oppression. An era of the breakdown of the rule of a dominant economic and geopolitical hegemon is, by contrast, “much more violent, spasmodic, disastrous and conflicting, an epoch which for the mass of the population is typified not so much by a ‘horror without end’ as by a horrible end." (104)

In our time, the United States is progressively declining as the world economic hegemon, and its geopolitical relationships are becoming belligerent, brittle, and warlike. There are open and loud calls from prominent voices in the United States to enforce its ‘rules based international order’ by the same gunboat diplomacy that the British had conducted the Nineteenth Century Opium Wars. Is it a progressive development that, as a result of the development of the forces of production and exchange, and the concomitant international balance of power, the United States is less and less able to unilaterally assert its dominance over the face of the globe? Maybe, but not necessarily on its own, if it only meant that this power fell into the hands of other imperialist poles equally or moreso committed to the capitalist modes of production and exchange. Power being distributed in the hands of several capitalist imperialisms, each with their accumulated layers of chauvinism and reaction, is not necessarily an improvement or progress from fiat dominance by one capitalist imperialism and its layers of chavinism and reaction. The ‘peace’ which results from each of these kinds of arrangements, for the overwhelming preponderance of humanity, is equally false.

The emergence of the People’s Republic of China as a competing economic hegemon, however, is genuinely novel and unique, just as the emergence of the Soviet Union had been novel and unique. Economic, social, and civilizational success by a Proletarian power formation is not reducible to an analysis which only features Imperialisms precisely because its development works at cross purposes to those of Imperialism. Its emergence reflects a genuine, inspiring, noble effort towards the transcendence of the capitalist modes of production and exchange. And sometimes people deploy the term ‘multipolarity’ to reflect the declining ability of the United States to guarantee these modes of production and exchange in the face of a power bloc coming into existence around a state which is dedicated to their abolition. That is analytically unique, and worth indexing in a manner which social scientists can refer to as a delineated phenomenon.

So, if what is meant by ‘multipolarity’ is simply a hope in imperialism being attenuated because of the emergence of inter-imperialist rivalry, then this is exactly synonymous with what Lenin correctly pilloried as Kautsky’s ‘superimperialism’ or ‘ultraimperialism’ and ought to be dismissed as a bourgeois chauvinist fantasy. However, if what is meant by multipolarity is a concrete analysis of the world system focusing on the element which was not present when Lenin was writing, namely a Proletarian State in its own development, where that Proletarian States is able to challenge the economic domination of the Imperialist States, then it is a vital and necessary analysis. In this latter case, Multipolarity is not synonymous with ‘peaceful’ ultra-imperialism, but rather synonymous with the epoch of the transition from capitalism to communism, the becoming obsolete of the capitalist modes of production and exchange.

So the problem is that the term ‘Multipolarity’ can imply both something which is erroneous and already correctly rejected by materialist analysis, the theory of so-called ‘ultra-imperialsm,’ as well as something which is correct and novel with respect to our most thorough materialist analysis, the emergence and development of a Proletarian power formation, which challenges the continued existence of the capitalist modes of production and exchange. The tension between the former, banal, erroneous connotation, and the latter, novel and vital substance, makes the handling of the term “Multipolarity” in a materialist manner a challenge.

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