John Smith opens his study Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century with a flashback to the collapse of Rana Plaza in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in April 2013. With more than 1000 garment workers killed, it was “one of the worst workplace disasters in recorded history” (p. 2). Smith emphasizes that its occurrence in a country with some of the most exploited workers on the planet is hardly coincidental. Rather, it is a stark reminder of a brutal global regime serving the interests of capital and disregarding the lives of millions of people feeding it, most of whom live in what was once known as the “Third World” and is today commonly referred to as the “Global South”.
Smith’s book joins a number of recent volumes redirecting our attention to the global North-South divide after a couple of decades that saw anti-imperialist politics in decline due to shifts in geopolitical power structures, confusion within the metropolitan (Global North) left, and new political actors in the periphery (Global South). We have reviewed Immanuel Ness’s "Southern Insurgency: The Coming of the Global Working Class on this website. Other notable contributions are Zak Cope’s Divided World Divided Class: Global Political Economy and the Stratification of Labour Under Capitalism, the 2015 Monthly Review special issue on “The New Imperialism”, and non-English titles such as Torkil Lauesen’s Det globale perspektiv.
While indicating a common trend, all of the mentioned books have their own characteristics and qualities. In Smith’s case, the outstanding feature is a thorough investigation of global economics based on Marxism’s classic texts, an engagement with Marxist (and other) economic theory of recent decades, and the interpretation of current data.
Reading Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century, I was reminded of my own academic background, which lies in political philosophy rather than political economics. In other words, there is plenty in Smith’s study that I read with great interest but feel unable to comment on, such as his take on global labor arbitrage, unequal exchange, or the law of value. For reviews that address these questions in more detail, I recommend the ones by Michael Roberts or Andreas Bieler.
My personal shortcomings in political economics did not mean that I got nothing out of Smith’s book – far from it. I learned a lot about wage differentials and the pros and cons of Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) conversions, the “GDP illusion” and the manipulative statistics it provides, the fallacies of linking low wages to low production, the roots of the so-called financial crisis of 2007-2008, and much more. Smith uses tangible examples to illustrate the dense economic theory he presents. This begins in the opening chapter with a “forensic examination” of three of the global market’s key commodities: the t-shirt, the iPhone. and the cup of coffee, and ends with staggering examples of statistical deceit, for example when basketball superstar Michael Jordan receives 45 Million dollars for appearing in a Nike ad and the money – the equivalent of 30,000 annual wages for Indonesian workers producing Nike shoes – is counted toward the company’s labor share, or when the tax haven of Bermuda boasts the world’s highest per capita GDP although “apart from cocktails in beach bars and other luxury tourist services, and the output of some 1,500 Bermudians employed in agriculture and fishing, nothing is produced in Bermuda” (p. 260).
Other particularly strong aspects of Smith’s book are his focus on female labor, which is not only shaking up the international workforce with far-reaching consequences but also social norms and expectations worldwide, and his repeated references to ecological destruction and climate change, which he thinks should more accurately be called “the capitalist destruction of nature” (p. 10). Perhaps most engaging for me was Smith’s strong emphasis on the intrinsic connection between imperialist politics and migration. He calls the militarization of First World borders “the most large-scale, round-the-clock exercise of coercive violence by states in the global political economy” (p. 199).
With migration having become the single most contested issue in Europe in recent years, it is mandatory to understand migrant justice not (only) as a humanitarian and ethical matter, but as a political one aiming at the core of the current world order. A radical approach to studying migration is as much needed as a connection between the struggles of migrant workers, the new proletarians of the Global South, and the progressive sectors of the working classes in the Global North. This also challenges traditional trade unionism, which nowadays far too often seeks refuge in protectionist policies, a problem raised by Smith: “Union officials and social-democratic politicians in imperialist countries have long sought to protect their workers from ‘unfair competition’ from workers in poor countries, hiding behind feigned concerns for human rights in oppressed nations.” (p. 20)
Trying to emphasize the importance of migration control for global capital, Smith makes a drastic comparison: “Just as the infamous pass-laws epitomized apartheid in South Africa, so do immigration controls form the lynchpin of an apartheid-like global economic system that systematically denies citizenship and basic human rights to the workers of the South and which, as in apartheid-era South Africa, is a necessary condition for their super-exploitation.” (p. 104-105) This is a strong statement, but Smith rarely minces his words. His summary of longstanding dependency theory debates – “the Marxist proponents of dependency theory were right and their orthodox critics wrong” (p. 223) – is as categorical as his demand for a “process of demolition of prevailing theories and the construction of a new one” (p. 132).
As far as future prospects are concerned, Smith, on the one hand, appears pessimistic. He says that “a decades-long economic depression … is now unavoidable” (p. 38), and predicts “competitive currency devaluations, and therefore … vicious trade wars and sharpening inter-imperialist rivalry” (p. 313). On the other hand, he offers one of the most encouraging outlooks I’ve read by any leftist theorist in quite a while: “The southward shift of the working class, the reinforcement of the working class in imperialist countries through migration from oppressed nations, and the influx of women into wage labor in all countries means that the working class now much more closely resembles the face of humanity, greatly strengthening its chance of prevailing in coming battles.” (p. 314)
In the end, Smith reduces our options to two, with a last-second twist: first, borrowing from Rosa Luxemburg, he gives us the choice between “socialism or barbarism”, but only to adjust the phrase in the book’s very last paragraph, where, with a nod to the Cuban revolutionary Raúl Valdés Vivó, he speaks of “socialism or nothing” (p. 314-315). Whatever the second option, I’ll take socialism.