Stephen Gowans is the author of The Killer's Henchman: Capitalism and the Covid-19 Disaster (2022); Israel, A Beachhead in the Middle East: From European Colony to US Power Projection Platform (2019); Patriots, Traitors and Empires: The Story of Korea's Struggle for Freedom (2018); and Washington's Long War on Syria (2017).
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Empiric, a word infrequently used these days, refers to a quack. This seems odd, considering that empiric and empirical (based on observation) are related. In antiquity, empirics were physicians who relied on their experience and observation rather than on the texts of Aristotle and other philosophers to treat patients. Medicine based on the thinking of philosophers was the realm of the scholastics, or schoolmen, the established medical authorities of their day. Challenging the pure reason of Aristotle with facts was considered an act of quackery.
Soon after writing a blog post titled Why China Is Not Socialist, whose title expresses a conclusion based on the same empirical method the established authority of the ancient world so reviled, I received a rebuke, in the form of an e-mail, from a scholastic, citing chapter and verse from Chinese Communist Party texts. Had I not read any of these texts, the outraged schoolman demanded?
According to my correspondent, my quackery was based, not in any of the following observations, which I was assured the omniscient Chinese CP, endowed with an Aristotelian authority, had already taken into account and factored into its plans.
China’s development is proceeding along capitalist lines.
Capitalism is in command.
China is integrated into the world capitalist economy of exploitation, as one of its most important players, if not the most important.
The vast fortunes of such Western billionaires as Elon Musk, and the wealth of such Western CEOs as Tim Cook, is minted out of the exploited labor of Chinese workers.
As a major power integrated into the world capitalist system, China vies with other capitalist powers for access to markets, raw materials, investment opportunities, and strategic territory, i.e., is part of an imperialist system.
China is not socialist.
But if my observations were already well known to China’s CP, and factored into its plans, why was I being excoriated by an agitated scholastic? After all, I was being censured for the alleged sin of “assuming that 100 million small oriental minds could not figure this out themselves,” another way of saying I was only stating the obvious.
The answer appears to be that while these observations are apodictic, making them is considered bad form. China may be a capitalist power fully integrated into an imperialist system as a major participant, but you’re not supposed to say so.
Having objurgated me for my lapse in etiquette, my schoolman sought to instruct me on proper form. The rules for polite discourse, it turns out, are contained in Chinese CP texts (the one’s my aggrieved correspondent demanded to know whether I had ever read.) Therein one learns that the word socialism can be made infinitely plastic. Indeed, where it was once the antithesis of capitalism, correct form demands it now be used as a synonym of capitalism. In short, Chinese scholastic etiquette redefines capitalism as various stages of socialism, from primary, to intermediate, based on the degree of capitalist prosperity. This allows the schoolmen in Beijing to approach the problem of a capitalist and imperialist China run by Communists as a branding problem. Simply call Chinese capitalism and the country’s integration into an imperialist system of rivalry among capitalist states, “socialism”, and poof, the branding problem disappears.
No longer is it necessary to cast about vainly for an answer whenever someone asks, “How can a capitalist behemoth be run by Communists?” All you have to say is “What do you mean? China is socialist. Haven’t you read the CP documents? C’mon, get an education!”
If one were to observe the punctilios of Chinese proper form, China would be referred to as “primary stage socialist China.” If anyone as unversed in proper form as I am, were so bold as to ask, “What does primary stage socialism mean?”, the honest answer would be “capitalism at a low level of development.” In other words, if you read Chinese CP texts closely, China ought to be referred to as “capitalist China at a low level of development.” You can call “capitalist China at a low level of development” “socialist China” if you like, but then again, you can also call moon rocks Swiss cheese.
In short, “socialist China” is a euphemism for “capitalist China,” in the way “lavatory” is a euphemism for “crapper”. Euphemisms are useful for concealing delicate truths you don’t want mentioned publicly (such as that this vampire, who Beijing has indulged with innumerable subsidies and advantages, is accumulating profit on a Pantagruelian scale on the backs of cheap labor supplied by Chinese workers, or that Chinese President Xi Jinping is in the habit of justifying the exploitation of proletarians in the same manner every Republican does, namely, by invoking the aphorism ‘a rising tide lifts all boats.’)
I replied to my aggrieved correspondent with this:
You remind me of Christians who scream at me that I should read the bible. I have read the bible, which is why I’m not a Christian.
I have also read Chinese CP plans. Having done so, I know that even Chinese Communists do not consider China socialist. Not yet. At least not in any ordinary meaning of the word.
You mention plans. In 2100, when China expects to have achieved a fully publicly-owned, fully-planned economy, our grandchildren can have a conversation about whether the plan has been achieved. If it has, I’m sure they will be quite happy to call China socialist. Until then, the term “socialist China” is purely aspirational and until the time China achieves its goal, if indeed that time ever arrives, I’ll call China what it is, and what the Chinese acknowledge in their plans their society is, and will continue to be for quite some time: capitalist.
Long before 2100, and long before the day arrives when we can assess whether China actually arrives at the destination its Communists have mapped out for it, we can have a conversation about whether there are roads to socialism other than those that follow the path of capitalist industrialization; that is, other than the one the Chinese CP has chosen to follow.
Is there a path of socialist industrialization, following along the lines explored by the Soviets, one, which, unlike the Chinese path, isn’t based on integration into the world capitalist economy of exploitation; one that doesn’t compel a people to participate in the project of minting the wealth of billionaires like Elon Musk out of their exploited labor; one that doesn’t enmesh a country in a system of imperialist competition for raw materials, investment opportunities, export markets, and strategic territory?
One senses that you are embarrassed about the capitalist path the Chinese CP has chosen to take, with all its ugliness in exploitation and imperialist rivalry, and that you seek to assuage your embarrassment and burnish China’s reputation by transposing an aspirational distant socialist future onto the present. It’s an exercise in deception. There is no socialist China. All that exists at this point is a China that hasn’t eliminated the exploitation of man by man but embraces it; a China that doesn’t plan to eliminate exploitation fully for decades to come, and may never eliminate it; all that exists today and will continue to exist until the next century is a capitalist China which exhibits all the ugliness that capitalism contains within it.
Have I read the Chinese CP texts? Yes. My question to you is, have you understood them?
Colonial politics and imperialism are not healthy, curable deviations of capitalism…they are the inevitable consequence of the very foundations of capitalism. Competition among individual entrepreneurs either to become ruined, or to ruin others; competition between individual countries places before each of them the alternative of their remaining behind, running the risk of [falling behind], or ruining and conquering other countries, thus elbowing their way to a place among the great powers. – V.I. Lenin, “Imperialism and Socialism in Italy”
May 12, 2022
By Stephen Gowans
From The Wall Street Journal we learn that China’s President Xi Jinping has hammered home the need for tighter party control over the economy with a wider role for state enterprises. Under Xi, China’s Communist Party has tried to transition from ‘economics in command’ to ‘politics in command.’
But now “China’s economy is struggling, and its financial markets are suffering. Some economists expect growth to contract this quarter. Millions of graduates are struggling to find jobs.”
Premier Li Keqiang is “helping press Xi to dial back some measures that have contributed to China’s economic slowdown.”
“As a young man, Li pursued a doctorate in economics under a prominent Chinese economist known for advocating Deng Xiaoping’s market-reform agenda and privatizing state firms.”
“Under Mr. Li’s influence, Beijing recently eased a regulatory crackdown on private technology firms, loosened lending to property developers and home buyers, and acted to help some manufacturers”, including Tesla, controlled by Elon Musk, the world’s richest person, “resume production when much of China has been forced into lockdowns by Mr. Xi’s zero-Covid approach.”
As the Marxist sociologist Albert Szymanski once pointed out, communists, like Xi, who choose to operate within the capitalist system soon discover that state policy is structured by capitalism, not by their policy preferences. Decision-makers who defy capitalism’s imperatives find their actions precipitate crises. Humbled, they quickly back peddle.
In a Chinese idiom, economics, i.e., capitalism, is in charge.
“The political orientations of the people who hold high-level positions in the capitalist state are largely irrelevant. The logic of capitalism structures the policy boundaries within which policy- and decision-makers operate, forcing conservatives, liberals, social democrats, and even communists who elect to work within the capitalist system, to operate within the same narrow pro-capitalist policy space. The prosperity and stability of a capitalist society depends on the private owners of capital accumulating sufficient profits. If they cannot generate enough profit, they cease to invest, and economic activity grinds to a halt. To maintain stability, governments must pursue policies to support the profit-making activities of their business communities. If they choose not to, their only option is to mobilize popular support to bring the economy under public ownership and control, so that investment decisions can be transferred from private hands to the public sphere, from profit-making as its goal to satisfying public needs as its end. There is no middle ground, where working-class interests can be robustly and continually expanded within a capitalist framework at the expense of the capitalist class.”
Capitalism structures state policy, not only in the realm of domestic matters, but in foreign relations, as well. Communists who elect to operate within the capitalist system are constrained to compete with other capitalist states for markets, raw materials, spheres of investment, and strategic territory, vital to their investors and profit-accumulating enterprises. If they are to play the capitalist game, states can no more absent themselves from rivalry with other states— with potential to escalate to war—than a private firm can absent itself from rivalry with its competition.
As two Bolsheviks wrote in their ABC of Communism, each “producer wants to entice away the others’ customers, to corner the market. This struggle assumes various forms: it begins with the competition between two factory owners; it ends in the world, wherein capitalist States wrestle with one another for the world market.” And in the struggle of capitalist states for the world market—in arms, oil and natural gas, rare earths, vaccines, robotics, supercomputers, AI, autonomous vehicles, 5G, and other commodities—lies the potential for war.
There is no doubt that Beijing has chosen to play the capitalist game. It is the centerpiece of its development project. There is, therefore, no option for China to excuse itself from imperialism. If it is to develop along capitalist lines, it must behave as a capitalist state, including by vying with other states for capitalist advantage around the world and indulging billionaires like Elon Musk and Apple’s Tim Cook, capitalists who have grown immensely wealthy by exploiting cheap Chinese labor.
That China’s capitalist development project is under the command of communists, neither negates the reality that the project is one of integration into a world capitalist system based on exploitation, or that, as Xi is finding out, politics in command can be checked by capitalism in command.
As political science professor Minxin Pei told The Wall Street Journal, Xi may be a “leftist deep down, but he has to make tactical compromises over the economy.” That is, the world capitalist economy.
In sum, despite the Communist Party being nominally in charge, and the president being a leftist “deep-down,” China is integrated into the world capitalist economy as a major, if not the major player, by the choice of China’s Communist Party rulers. State policies are not structured by communists seeking to end the exploitation of one human by another, but by the imperatives of the capitalist system Chinese communists have consciously embraced.
The United States would not bring the virus to heel through vaccines anymore than it would defeat, through drugs, any of its other public health problems—from obesity to type 2 diabetes, heart disease to cancer. These problems are largely the unwelcome consequences of capitalism. The food industry lards its products with fat and sugar to delight taste buds, with predictable consequences for the waistlines and arteries of consumers. Diet, exercise, weight loss, and reduced exposure to carcinogens—the solutions to these public health problems—are anti-capitalist, in the sense that they displace profit-generating pharmaceutical interventions. Likewise, the non-pharmaceutical public health measures that can bring pandemics to heel, and prevent them in the first place, are anti-capitalist too, so far as they displace therapeutics and reduce the need for vaccines. As one of the public health figures featured in Michael Lewis’s book The Premonition, put it: “From the point of view of American culture, the trouble with disease prevention [is] that there [is] no money in it.”[i] The expert had used “American culture” as a euphemism for “capitalism.”
The incentive structure underlying capitalist healthcare favors drugs to manage chronic conditions rather than prevention to stop them. As a result, the response to the Covid-19 threat was predictable. While China, and a handful of other countries, emphasized aggressive containment through non-pharmaceutical public health measures, most governments limited their response to managing infection levels to prevent the number of cases from exceeding hospital capacity, while awaiting a vaccine. The response was shaped, not by what was best for the health of the public, but what was best for the health of the business community. For governments enthralled to capitalist imperatives, it was far better to minimize the impact on business activity of pandemic control measures, avoid costly public health expenditures, and support profit-making opportunities in vaccine development, than to implement stringent measures, as China did, to stop the outbreak.
The WHO’s assessment of the world’s response to the pandemic noted that “while much of the early response to COVID-19 involve[d] missed opportunities and failure to act, there [were] some areas in which early action was taken to good effect, most notably in research and development (R&D) and, in particular, vaccine product development.” This invites a question: Why did much of the world fail to incur the costs necessary “to curtail the epidemic and forestall the pandemic,” but succeeded so notably in “vaccine product development”?
To answer that question, it is necessary to address four topics, which I do in the chapters to follow.
The first topic concerns who it is that made the decisions on how to respond to the pandemic (if to respond at all) and what their interests are. In most countries, governments are dominated by members of a billionaire class and by politicians indebted to them. Not only do these decision-makers make decisions with capitalist class interests in mind, they operate within a capitalist framework which limits the range of decisions that can be made without impairing the smooth functioning of capitalist economies. Even if decision-makers aren’t already inclined to formulate policy to comport with capitalist class interests—and they very much are—the structure of the capitalist economy compels them to act in ways that protect and promote capitalist interests. Capitalist interests discouraged the pursuit of Chinese-style zero-Covid measures, for their perceived injurious effects on business activity and profit accumulation, and encouraged the development of vaccines as a profit-making opportunity.
The pharmaceutical industry—central to the pandemic response of most capitalist states—is the second topic. Like the state in capitalist society, Big Pharma is dominated by wealthy investors, whose interests come first. The industry, like government, operates within a capitalist framework. All decisions must ultimately serve one aim: the profitable production of drugs. While advantages to public health may follow as a by-product of the pursuit of profit, they are by no means necessary. Enlarging the interests of the industry’s capitalist owners is the industry’s sole mission. As a consequence, the production of useless and even harmful drugs is tolerable, so long as profits are produced. The pharmaceutical industry, with the complicity of Washington, fast tracked the development of Covid-19 vaccines with little regard for their safety, arguing that safety protocols needed to be circumvented to address a public health emergency—one that need not have happened and was of Washington’s own making.
The third topic is Bill Gates, a significant member of the US capitalist class. Gates uses his vast wealth to pursue pet projects under the guise of performing charitable works, including promoting vaccines and capitalist pharmacy as the solution to the world’s most significant public health problems. Gates offers a concrete example of how members of the capitalist class use their wealth to shape political agendas to expand their own interests at the public’s expense.
The final topic is Operation Warp Speed, Washington’s Covid-19 vaccine program, which used public money, and capitalized on publicly-funded research, to develop vaccines and therapeutics in record time. Washington transferred these publicly developed goods to the private sector for private commercial gain. Many decision-makers and influencers in Washington had stakes in the vaccine makers that profited from this transfer. Firms such as Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca made a killing, thanks to billions of dollars in publicly-funded research and advance purchase orders from governments. The model of “socialism for the rich”—taking money out of the pockets of taxpayers and putting it into the pockets of private enterprise—is the basis, not only for capitalist pharmacy, but for capitalist economics as a whole.
[i] Michael Lewis, The Premonition: A Pandemic Story, W.W. Norton & Company, 2021, p. 299.
“To me, this feels honestly more about economics than about the science.” – Yonatan Grad, associate professor of immunology and infectious diseases, Harvard University[i]
“COVID-19 remains a global disaster. Worse it was a preventable disaster.” — WHO Independent Expert Panel[ii]
Pandemics are not inevitable.
To be sure, the emergence of new infectious diseases is a near certainty. Pathogenesis—the birth of a new disease—is a necessary condition of pandemics, but it is not a sufficient condition. That pandemics are optional and not inevitable is provable by reference to one word: China. By following a zero-Covid strategy of eliminating local transmission of the novel coronavirus, the Communist-led country avoided overwhelmed hospitals, limited fatalities to extraordinarily low levels, and escaped significant economic hardship. While the pandemic danced a macabre waltz around it, China, along with a handful of other countries that followed a similar strategy, failed to show up at the ball.
Public discourse outside China and other zero-Covid countries accepted the pandemic as an inevitability. The narrative was highly influenced by people such as billionaire Bill Gates, who advanced the view that pandemics are unavoidable, and that vaccines and drug therapies should be developed in anticipation of their ineluctable arrival. CEPI, the Center for Epidemic Preparedness and Innovation—a non-profit organization that played a leading role in the fight against Covid-19 among countries in the US orbit—was born as a vehicle for promoting Gates’ views and approach to emerging infectious diseases. Needless to say, the reality that the emergence of a novel pathogen is not a sufficient condition for a pandemic, and the fact that China demonstrated that a pandemic could be avoided by using mass testing, contact tracing, and isolation to break the chain of pathogenic transmission, refutes Gates’ view.
While Gates is a major funder of the World Health Organization, the organization’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, rejected the erroneous Gates’ idea that vaccines ought to be the principal tool used to fight pandemics. “Vaccines are not the only tool,” Tedros announced. “Indeed, there is no single tool that will defeat the pandemic. We can only defeat it with a comprehensive approach of vaccines in combination with proven public health and social measures that we know work” (emphasis added.)[iii]
On the same day Tedros told the world it would need to combine vaccines with non-pharmaceutical public health measures to beat Covid-19, Eric Lander, at the time US president Joe Biden’s science adviser, promulgated a different view. He wrote in the Washington Post that “Coronavirus vaccines can end the current pandemic.” Lander made his prediction at a time vaccines were available to any US adult who wanted one, but when US case counts—already high by world standards—were climbing. The vaccine strategy clearly wasn’t working, though Lander appeared not to notice. Ignoring the reality that the United States’ own experience impugned the ability of vaccines alone to end the pandemic, Lander—a multimillionaire who has substantial investments in the pharmaceutical industry—announced that “the scientific community has been developing a bold plan to keep future viruses from becoming pandemics.” Would it involve the proven public health and social measures Tedros said we know work and that China had demonstrated do work? No. Instead, it would be based on vaccines—the tool wealthy US Americans with stakes in drug companies, like Gates and Lander, continued to tout as the pathway of escape from pandemics, current and future. In the United States, and the countries that orbit the imperial center, all belief was for vaccines as the main route out of the pandemic, and all evidence was against.
The US government, according to Lander’s plan, would see to it that vaccines were designed, tested, and approved within 100 days of detecting a new pandemic threat and would arrange to manufacture enough doses to supply the world within 200 days.[iv] The folly of the approach was evident. First, there is no guarantee that effective vaccines can be developed for every pathogen, let alone in 100 days. There is no vaccine for AIDS, for example, despite the decades of effort scientists have invested in trying to develop one. Second, it’s impossible to test a vaccine for safety in 100 days. Since the very short testing window allows scientists to follow test subjects only over a very brief period, it would be impossible to say whether the vaccine was free from any but immediate adverse side-effects. This would pose an enormous health risk to the billions of people who would be inoculated, perhaps greater than the risk of the novel pathogen itself. Third, even if the extraordinarily ambitious goal of manufacturing enough doses to supply the world within 200 days was met, the logistical difficulties of administering the vaccine to billions of people worldwide would take more than 200 days to overcome; it would likely take years. In the meantime, the only way to prevent the pandemic pathogen from running out of control, killing millions, collapsing healthcare systems, and devastating economies, would be to implement the proven public health and social measures we know work. It would seem, then, that the best way of meeting the challenge of future pandemics is, in the first instance, to figure out why most countries failed to implement the proven public health and social measures that could have prevented the Covid-19 pandemic, so that the impediments that blocked an effective response can be overcome the next time the world confronts a novel pathogen. Why was a strategy that worked in China, South Korea, and New Zealand, as well as in Vietnam and North Korea, rejected everywhere else? And why was it eventually rejected in South Korea and New Zealand as well?
Despite China having every pandemic risk factor, it is one of the few countries that has escaped a Covid-19 catastrophe. It has the world’s largest population, close to one hundred cities with populations of one million or more, high-speed trains to whisk passengers from one part of the country to another, innumerable airline connections to the rest of the world, and yes, scientists who collect coronaviruses from the wild and study them in laboratories. All the same, China has not been struck by disaster. The numbers of infections and deaths per million have been held to astonishingly low levels, the healthcare system has not collapsed, and economic activity recovered quickly after an initial setback. What’s more, China may very well have been ground zero for the virus. It was the first country to identify the new infection—and while that doesn’t mean the virus originated there—there’s a good chance it did. And yet the Communist-led country has emerged mostly unscathed. If ever there were an answer to the question of whether pathogenic catastrophes are optional, China is it.
In May 2021, more than a year into the pandemic, the World Health Organization released a report by an independent panel on the performance of the world’s governments in responding to the Covid-19 health emergency.[v] The panel arrived at a stunning conclusion. The pandemic could have been avoided. It wasn’t inevitable, even as late as January 30, 2020, the day the WHO declared a public health emergency of international concern, and two to three months after the virus likely first began to circulate. Even at this late date it was “still possible to interrupt virus spread, provided that countries put in place strong measures to detect disease early, isolate and treat cases, trace contacts and promote social distancing measures commensurate with the risk.” But that didn’t happen. By March 11, 2020, the virus had spread far enough that the global health organization declared a pandemic. How had an avoidable pandemic become a catastrophe on a world scale?
The answer was simple. Inaction. “On 30 January 2020, it should have been clear to all countries from the declaration of the” public health emergency of international concern “that COVID-19 represented a serious threat,” the panel averred. “Even so,” it continued, “only a minority of countries set in motion comprehensive and coordinated Covid-19 protection and response measures.” The result was that February 2020, a month “when steps could and should have been taken to” prevent a controllable outbreak from irrupting into a pandemic, was lost to history. Governments tarried, and their foot-dragging plunged the world into the dark abyss of a pulmonary pandemic.
Not all governments were content to sit tight until it was absolutely certain they were staring disaster in the face. “China, New Zealand, Republic of Korea, Singapore and Thailand and Viet Nam,” the panel noted, all acted quickly and decisively to contain the emergency, and all with exemplary success. These countries, the panel reported, pursued an aggressive containment strategy that involved mass testing, robust contact tracing, and quarantine, with “social and economic support to promote widespread uptake of public health measures.”
While the panel failed to mention North Korea, the East Asian country also acted swiftly, sealing its borders on January 21, even before the WHO declared a global health emergency. The country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, called pandemic control North Korea’s “top priority” and “most important work.”[vi] The Washington Post noted that Pyongyang had taken the pandemic “hyper-seriously,”[vii] while the New York Times observed that “North Korea has taken some of the most drastic actions of any country against the virus.”[viii] These reports accorded with the country’s claim to have experienced not a single Covid-19 case. Howard Waitzkin, a physician with a Ph.D. in sociology, critically examined North Korea’s Covid-19 claims, concluding that Pyongyang’s report of zero cases and zero deaths “is plausible” and the DPRK may, in fact, lead the world in the fight against COVID-19.[ix]
Most other countries, by contrast, waited far too long to act. And when they did act, they failed to do enough, never fully implementing the measures needed to bring their outbreaks under control. What’s more, they almost invariably dialed back measures too soon, with catastrophic consequences for the health of their citizens.
“Countries with the poorest results,” the panel found, “had uncoordinated approaches that devalued science, denied the potential impact of the pandemic, delayed comprehensive action, and allowed distrust to undermine efforts. Many had health systems beset by long-standing problems of fragmentation, undervaluing of health workers and underfunding.”
So, why did most countries do too little, too late? The panel pointed to cost. Most governments judged concerted public health action—the aggressive test, trace, and isolate measures implemented by China and a handful of other countries—as too expensive. Three costs were central to their concerns:
The direct expense of testing, contact tracing, the construction of isolation facilities, coordinating quarantine, and providing financial support to the quarantined.
The indirect cost of business disruptions.
The impact on the stock market.
Concerning the first cost, according to best selling author Michael Lewis’s study of the US response to the Covid-19 pandemic, The Premonition: A Pandemic Story, the “people inside the American government who would be charged with executing various aspects of any pandemic strategy … believed none of these so-called non-pharmaceutical interventions”—the kind China pursued to great effect—”would contribute anything but economic loss.”[x]
Concerning the cost of business disruption, the Great Influenza offered an anticipatory model. Studies of how the United States responded to the 1918-1920 flu pandemic found that government decision-makers were under incessant pressure from businesses to lift public health measures. Now as then, capitalist governments were highly influenced by business communities and finely attuned to their needs. Minimizing the cost to business was the top priority of governments working out how to deal with a global health crisis.
Finally, US president Donald Trump deliberately downplayed the public health emergency, repeatedly declaring that it would magically resolve itself, because he feared that acknowledging the danger would result in untold stock market losses.[xi] “Trump grew concerned that any [strong] action by his administration would hurt the economy, and … told advisers that he [did] not want the administration to do or say anything that would … spook the markets,” reported the Washington Post.[xii] What the WHO panel perceived as “a wait and see” attitude on the part of many governments was actually a “take no strong action to avoid spooking the markets” attitude. The contrast between China’s aggressive response and the United States’ “see, hear, and speak no evil” approach, is revealingly summarized in the comments of the countries’ respective leaders: China’s Xi Jinping: “Infectious disease control is not merely a matter of public health and hygiene; it’s an all-encompassing issue and a total war.” The United States’ Donald Trump: “One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear.”[xiii]
China’s success in protecting the health of its citizens from the ravages of Covid-19 is perhaps the greatest public health accomplishment in human history. By contrast, the United States’ dismal Covid-19 performance is perhaps one of the greatest public health failures of all time.
Despite the fact that the first Covid-19 cases were identified in China, and the country’s population is over four times the size of that of the United States, the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in the United States surpassed China as early as March 26, 2020, only two weeks after the World Health Organization declared a pandemic. By March 29, US deaths due to Covid-19 had already inched past China’s, and would continue to climb, with the gap between the two countries unremittingly increasing. The disparity between the US and Chinese figures—little mentioned in Western public discourse—is astonishing. By December 31, 2021, some 23 months after Chinese authorities reported a cluster of unusual pneumonia cases in Wuhan, there were nearly 55 million confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the United States, compared to slightly over 100,000 in the far more populous China. The number of people that had tested positive for Covid-19 was over 164,000 per million in the United States compared to only 71 per million in China. Incredibly, deaths per million in the United States were over 770 times greater than in China. Over 800,000 US Americans had died from Covid-19, making the outbreak the greatest death event, measured in absolute numbers of deaths, in US history, exceeding fatalities from World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Great Influenza of 1918-1920, and even the Civil War. Meanwhile, in China, fewer than 5,000 had died, less than six-tenths of one percent of the US figure. At 3.2 people per million, Covid-19 deaths in China were less than two-tenths of one percent of the United States’ 2,480 deaths per million. When it came to pandemic control, China and the United States inhabited different planets.
Was China the anomaly or was the United States? In fact, both were, though compared to the world at large, China performed anomalously better and the United States anomalously worse. On December 31, 2021, confirmed cases per million were over 500 times better in China than the world average and over four times worse than the world average in the United States. Confirmed deaths per million were over 200 times better in China but over three and a half times worse in the United States. The United States, with only four percent of the world’s population, accounted for 19 percent of cases and 15 percent of deaths, while China, comprising 18 percent of the world’s population, accounted for less than one-tenth of one percent of the world’s cases and a similarly infinitesimal fraction of the world’s deaths.[xiv]
The United States’ utter failure by comparison with China, and failure even by comparison with the world at large, was a taboo subject, judging by the virtual absence of discussion of the numbers, despite the fact that the figures were readily available for inspection by anyone with access to the Internet. Our World in Data, a collaborative effort between researchers at the University of Oxford and the non-profit organization Global Change Data Lab, assembled a vast storehouse of Covid-19 information by country, from morbidity and mortality figures, to vaccine uptake statistics, and more. The yawning chasm between Washington and Beijing in pandemic performance was immediately evident to anyone who cared to inspect the data. No country or jurisdiction, with the exception of a handful of sparsely populated nations, had accumulated fewer cases or deaths per million than China. By comparison, the United States’ record was among the worst in the world. All the same, journalists and academics in the US orbit mainly avoided Sino-US comparisons, and, on the rare occasions they did make comparisons, grossly understated the disparity. By avoiding quantitative comparisons, or obscuring them when they were made, the Western media prevented important questions from being asked. Why had China performed so much better, not only in comparison to the United States, but relative to virtually every other country in the world? Why hadn’t China’s approach, a manifest success, been emulated except by a few other countries? How many lives might have been saved had governments learned from the experience of the East Asian colossus?
Washington failed in multiple ways.
To avoid spooking the markets and to preserve investor wealth, it refused to acknowledge the seriousness of the threat.
It refused to emulate the successful approach of China to stop the outbreak, rejecting non-pharmaceutical pandemic control measures as too costly.
It eschewed successful non-pharmaceutical pandemic control measures, even after it became unavoidably clear that China’s approach was the most effective way to safeguard the health of US citizens.
These failures precipitated a pandemic and produced avoidable death on a scale never before seen in US history. How many lives were needlessly sacrificed to the stock market and Washington’s desire to spare the business community the expense and inconveniences of public health measures?
It’s possible to answer this question. Had Washington emulated China’s approach, an estimated 1,067 US Americans would have died from Covid-19 by December 31, 2021 (equivalent to the number of Covid-19 deaths per million China experienced, adjusted to the size of the US population.) That is 823,173 fewer deaths than the actual US Covid-19 death toll to that date. In other words, to protect the stock market and avoid the costs of implementing stringent non-pharmaceutical public health measures, the lives of more than 800,000 US Americans were sacrificed. Had Canada emulated the Chinese approach, an estimated 122 Canadians would have died from Covid-19, compared to over 30,000 that actually did die. In the United Kingdom, 216 would have died compared to more than 146,000 whose lives were cut short by London’s failed pandemic response.
What if the world as a whole had followed China’s lead? Had that happened, an estimated 25,239 people would have died from Covid-19 by December 31, 2021, compared to over 5,428,000 that actually did perish, a difference of over 5,402,000 people. The failure of the world’s governments to act in a manner that China, early on, had demonstrated was an effective means of controlling the outbreak, created in excess of 5.4 million preventable deaths, some two years after the world became aware of the novel coronavirus.
[i] Benjamin Mueller, “Will shortened isolation periods spread the virus?”, The New York Times, December 28, 2021.
[ii] Grant Robertson, “The world’s ‘lost month’ in fight against COVID-19,” The Globe and Mail, May 12, 2021.
[iii] WHO Press Conference on Covid-19, August 4, 2021.
[iv] Eric Lander, “As bad as covid-19 has been, a future pandemic could be even worse — unless we act now,” The Washington Post, August 4, 2021.
Carlos Martinez, a friend of what he believes to be a socialist China, but is in reality a very capitalist China, has a very simple view of imperialism, or, to be more precise, a view that clashes with what I consider to be more complex.
According to Martinez, “’the imperialist system’” is expressed as “’an imperialist alliance led by the U.S. (and incorporating Canada, Western Europe, Australia and Japan) which engages precisely in a global ‘process of domination guided by economic interests.’ This takes the form of a network of 800 military bases; unilateral sanctions against dozens of countries; wars of regime change; proxy wars; destabilisation campaigns; structural adjustment programs; nuclear threats; and more.” In other words, imperialism is a specifically US alliance of domination based on military and economic power.
My view of imperialism follows along the lines of those developed by Hilferding in Finance Capital, Bukharin in Imperialism and World Economy, and Lenin in Imperialism, the Highest State of Capitalism.
In the era of advanced capitalism, imperialism is a world economic system of rivalry among states for access to markets, raw materials, investment opportunities and strategic territory on behalf of their capital accumulating enterprises. Importantly, in this view, imperialism is defined as a system of rivalry, in which all major capitalist powers are compelled to take part by the system’s imperatives.
Carlos views the United States as a capitalist behemoth that has taken an aggressive attitude toward China, which it seeks to contain. I agree with this assessment. Where I disagree with Carlos is in this: He sees China’s defense against US predation as anti-imperialism, rather than as an expression of the antagonism that is inevitable between two large capitalist powers competing in a global capitalist system. The rivalry touches competition for markets, raw materials, investment opportunities, and strategic territory (including maritime routes.) China’s actions may be defensive, and those of the US and its satellites aggressive, but China’s actions, defensive though they may be, are nonetheless competitive actions, part of the capitalist-driven rivalry between the two powers.
As a major, and by some accounts the major, actor in the global capitalist system, China has no option but to compete against other capitalist powers for profit-accumulating opportunities around the world. Its compulsion to engage in capitalist competition on a global scale is all the stronger for the Chinese Communist Party pursuing a model of raising China and recovering its greatness through capitalist, and specifically Listian, methods.
While China may face fierce and aggressive competition from the United States (and other major capitalist powers) it is not outside of that competition. Carlos has essentially defined imperialism as highly aggressive competition led by the United States based on military and economic power. In excluding economic antagonism and focusing exclusively on the strength of the US and its satellites (and excluding two major actors in the world economic system, China and Russia), Carlos’s view is at odds with the model developed by the three Marxists cited above. Curiously, he defines this model as “pseudo-Marxism.”
One embarrassing implication of Carlos’ definition, in my view, is that it excludes the Axis powers as imperialists. 1930s Germany, Italy, and Japan complained bitterly that the major imperialist powers of the day, Britain, France, and the United States, sought to contain the trio’s development and deny them their place in the sun. In other words, they argued for greater multipolarity. To be sure, in the capitalist competition for profit-making opportunities around the world, the Axis powers fared poorly by the standards of their more powerful rivals. Their bristling against US, British, and French encroachments on what they viewed as their neighborhoods and spheres of influence were seen in Axis capitals as imperialist predations. By Carlos’s definition, the efforts of the Axis powers to recalcitrate against the stronger powers (to defend themselves, they said) and redivide the world was anti-imperialism, not the expression of antagonism between one set of weaker capitalist powers against another set of stronger ones.
Carlos’s definition of imperialism emerges from a view that the world would be a better place were the overwhelming power of the United States checked by the emergence of peer competitors. This is, in a way, a simple inversion of Washington’s view. Washington sees the re-emergence of great power rivalry as a threat. In the view of the multipolar advocates, whatever is a threat to the United States must be a blessing for the people whom the dominant power tyrannizes.
The problem with this view is that it fails to take the context of a world capitalist economy into account. If three yahoos engage in fisticuffs in a small room in which tens of people are entrapped, and one yahoo is very strong and the other two are weaker, and as they fight, they trample and fall upon those who can’t escape, then building the strength of the weaker two at the expense of the stronger isn’t going to make the people in the room any safer. The only way to bring calm and safety to the room is to bring the fighting to an end. In less metaphorical language, that means ending capitalism and its ineluctable antagonisms among classes and states, not seeking a more equal development among capitalist powers to continue their war of capitalist rivalry.
Far from being a step forward, a midpoint on the road to revolution, as some seem to think, a multipolar world is in fact a return to conditions that brought us the industrial exterminations of two world wars. It is a regression, a worsening of existing conditions. The answer is not a return to a more intense antagonism among equally balanced capitalist states, a more perilous world even than the one in which we’re already mired, but an end to classes and states altogether.
A nonpolar world in which imperialism has been transcended, in contradistinction to a multipolarity of roughly equally balanced capitalist powers, is not, pace Carlos, a pseudo-Marxist aspiration. It is the very essence of Marxism.
“Moscow wanted ‘to claim complete control of Mariupol by May 9, with Russian propagandists recently arriving in the city to set conditions for further claims of a Russian victory.‘” The New York Times, May 5, 2022*
Eva Bartlett, called by some an independent journalist, has close to 100,000 followers on Twitter. On her Twitter profile she says “I go to the places I write about.”
I’ve met Eva and talked to her. She is warm, amiable, polite, funny, combative, smart, and considerate. A delight. I have no doubt that she is extraordinarily courageous. There are great many people who like her, and for good reason. She has many shining personal qualities.
When I recently described a report Eva wrote from Mariupol, I said it was propaganda for the billionaires’ government of Russia.
I do believe that that is what it is. I don’t mean, however, that she is in the employ of the Russian government; only that her agenda is the same.
My motive in impugning Eva’s report was to raise legitimate questions that are all too infrequently asked about the kind of journalism Eva practices, and about journalism more generally.
The first question is how do we know that any of what Eva tells us is true? This isn’t a nasty insinuation that it isn’t true, only, how do we know it is? How should we test its veracity?
I suspect Eva’s answer would be that, one, she’s independent, and two, she goes to the places she writes about. Therefore, what she writes is true.
But “independent” is a vague word. Almost every journalist says they’re independent, but independent of what? Reporters for privately-owned media say they’re independent, because they’re not on a government payroll. But that doesn’t make them independent of the media owners on whose payroll they depend.
Freelance journalists say they’re independent, but they’re not independent of the agendas of the media outlets they sell their stories to.
Eva could say she’s independent if her reports are self-published. But she’s not independent of the agendas of the web sites that post her material. RT, a news outlet founded to propagate a Russian point of view (or at least a point of view that is highly critical of Russia’s rival, the United States) features regular contributions from Eva. That doesn’t mean she’s tailoring her writing to what pleases Moscow; only that the Moscow line and her writing are simpatico, which is why RT publishes it.
Eva’s Mariupol report was posted on the web site Internationalist 360, which has its own agenda, and is unlikely to publish reports that are inimical to its particular objectives. (Internationalist 360 appears to be associated with the Gaddafi family.)
I said I knew what Eva would find in Mariupol before she even arrived in the city. I said this because I know her biases, evidenced in RT frequently publishing her work.
Eva may be called an independent journalist, but the word “independent,” as far as journalism is concerned, is largely meaningless. Eva is more accurately called an advocate for people fighting US imperialism, including Washington’s imperialist rivals, who poses as an independent truth-seeker. (Mainstream journalists can also be described as advocates—in their case on behalf of the business community that owns the publications they write for—who also pose as independent truth-seekers.)
What about me? Am I independent? I wrote a book on Syria for Baraka Books. I would never have been asked to write the book had the publisher not had a pretty good idea, based on my previous writings, that what I would say would be consistent with his own agenda. The late Louis Proyect, one of my critics, could have said that he already knew what I would write before I had ever written the book. He would have been right.
Promotion of the book billed me as an independent analyst. Leaving aside that I wasn’t independent of Baraka and its agenda, it was true that I had no institutional affiliations. I could, therefore, be described reasonably as an analyst who is independent of any connection to governments, businesses, universities, thinks tanks, and so on. While this might have proved that I wasn’t a gun for hire, it didn’t in any way demonstrate that what I wrote about in my book was accurate. Independent doesn’t mean right. Likewise, dependent doesn’t necessarily mean wrong.
The idea that a report is legitimate simply because the reporter travels to a place she reports on—Eva’s claim to legitimacy—is meaningless. Even if we assume that a reporter doesn’t have a political ax to grind, and is highly perspicacious, does visiting a place suddenly make one an expert on all of its variegated complexities? It’s possible to poll 10 different Syrians who have lived in the country all their lives and get 10 different views on events since 2011. But if being in a place gives one special insight into the place, as Eva claims, how is it that 10 different people who have lived in the same place all their lives can have multiple, conflicting insights about the same place? The reality is that many people with experience of one place can have conflicting views about that place. Judging whether a view is sound on the basis of whether a person has experience of the place is impossible.
Eva’s Mariupol report consisted of “on the ground” interviews. But it’s possible for anyone to travel anywhere and find a number of people who express opinions that match the particular point of view one wants to emphasize. And while it is a technique commonly used by journalists, its value is approximately zero. More compelling would be a methodical, unbiased, opinion poll, designed and analyzed by someone sitting in a downtown Toronto office who has never visited the place in question. Hence, not only is it impossible to judge whether a view is sound on the basis of whether a person has experience of the place, it’s possible that a person who has no experience of the place has a better view.
As an aside, Vanessa Beeley, another advocate who poses as an independent truth-seeker and who also fetishizes travelling to the places she writes about, had no reservations about pontificating on Ottawa’s Freedom Convoy from thousands of miles away, going so far as to dismiss the points of view of people who were actually there, myself included. Based on her conduct and sympathy with the convoy’s anti-vaccine agenda , I would surmise that had Vanessa actually travelled to Ottawa, she very likely would have interviewed only Freedom Convoy supporters and ignored everyone else.
A basic question one ought to ask of any reporting is how do I know it’s true? Some people say they know Eva’s reporting is true because it matches what they already know to be true. Of course, this invites the question, how do they already know the truth? And why do they need a reporter to tell them what they already know? The reality is that they don’t know the truth, but like the version of reality Eva presents.
Regarding Eva’s Mariupol report:
How do we know she didn’t selectively cull opinion to satisfy a pre-determined narrative? I’m not saying she did, but how do we know she didn’t? And even if she selected her interviewees at random, the methodology of interviewing a handful of people and then making sweeping generalizations is invalid.
Is it even thinkable that Eva could have returned from Mariupol with a story that wasn’t simpatico with the Moscow line? If she had, how would her many admirers have treated her? Would they have believed her? Or would they have denounced her as a traitor and immediately unfollowed her? My guess is that they would have discarded her—and that she knows it.
Another guess: It’s not independent journalism that Eva’s many followers seek, but merely someone to tell them what they want to hear. Telling people what they want to hear is a great gig. If you satisfy your followers’ need to have their views validated, they treat you as a hero. And they certainly don’t ask tough questions like, “How do I know any of this is true?”
We should be asking tough questions. We demand too little of the people who write articles and books and conduct interviews, and who lead our political parties and peace groups. And the result is that the quality of our politics is subpar. Sadly, it will always be so, if we prefer the soothing caress of people who tell us what we want to hear, rather than the challenge of people who tell us what we need to know.
We also ask too little of our advocates. If they’re going to be effective, we better be sure the material and arguments they produce are sound and compelling, and not shot through with holes. The only way do achieve this outcome is to ask hard questions and demand work be held to a high standard.
*Michael Schwirtz, “Putin’s Forces Battle in East Ukraine to Feed His Hunger for a Victory,” The New York Times, May 5, 2022
In what does the contest between the US and Russia originate?
It originates in a struggle over the questions of whether:
The profit-making opportunities of Ukraine will belong to the EU or a customs union with Russia.
Europe will depend for its energy on US-controlled suppliers or Russia.
Which side do you want to be on?
The side seeking Ukraine’s integration into the EU and Europe’s energy dependence on US-controlled suppliers?
The side seeking Ukraine’s integration into a customs union with Russia and Europe’s continued energy dependence on Russia?
In other words, whose billionaires are more important to you? The US’s or Russia’s?
Or are billionaires, and their contests for profits on a world scale, the problem? And is choosing sides in their contests, rather than eliminating them altogether, a grave error?
The war in Ukraine offers no benefit to ordinary people that I can think of.
But it does present multiple harms:
Higher energy and food costs.
A migrant crisis.
Supply chain disruptions.
A significantly heightened risk of nuclear war.
Higher government expenditures on arms at the expense of spending on health care, education, housing, and addressing the climate emergency.
Ordinary Ukrainians face the threats of death, injury, homelessness, and economic harm. The standard of living of ordinary Russians is declining, and will decline further. There is nothing good in this war for ordinary people, anywhere.
What’s more, based on the way the war is unfolding, it appears that the United States and NATO will emerge stronger. Anyone who thinks this war will be a blow to US primacy is sorely mistaken.
Who could possibly support this war? The answer is:
Investors in arms and energy companies.
Investors in businesses that stand to gain from securing new profit-making opportunities in Ukraine.
Operatives of any of the belligerent states.
Alongside these bourgeois supporters of the war, stand a few proletarian supporters. Among them are:
People who pose as socialists, peace-activists, or “independent journalists,” but are in reality propagandists of the belligerent governments.
The only wars worth supporting are wars against oppression. The struggle between Washington and Moscow for control of Ukraine and the supply of energy to Europe does not fall into this category. Ukrainians are not oppressing Russians.
Choosing sides in a contest between national groups of billionaires vying for business opportunities in Ukraine and Europe is, for ordinary people, an exercise in self-harm. If we’re going to chose a side in a war, let it be the side of you and me, not the side of billionaires.
And let the war be a battle against the menaces of climate change, precarious work, unaffordable housing, exploitation, racial oppression, and pandemics, not a contest over whether US billionaires or Russian billionaires will dominate Ukraine’s profit-making opportunities and the European energy market.
In Lenin’s view, imperialism is immanent in capitalism as a global system. Inasmuch as China is one of the most significant players in this system, if not the most significant, the implication of Lenin’s view is that imperialism is also immanent in China.
A number of people who claim to be anti-imperialists and to understand the concept thoroughly, to the point of holding workshops, participating in panels, and writing articles to instruct others on what it means, have, despite their professed knowledge, defined the concept in a manner that departs significantly from the way in which imperialism has been understood historically. Until Russia invaded Ukraine, there was little mystery about what imperialism is. Now, it has become altogether different from what it has always been understood to mean. And while many of these same people claim at least a passing knowledge of Lenin’s view of imperialism, the Bolshevik leader would have been baffled by their understanding.
In opposition to commonly accepted definitions and the Leninist tradition, the anti-imperialist docents have developed a view of imperialism that resonates less with Lenin and more with a view developed by Shintoist Japan in the 1930s. According to this view, imperialism is North American and Western European domination of the world. Anti-imperialism is the effort of a rising power to liberate its neighbors from this domination by folding nearby states into its own (declared or undeclared) regional empire (the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere in Japan’s case.)
Hence, Russia’s efforts to “liberate” Ukraine from the United States and Europe, and to incorporate parts or all of it into a palingenetic Russian empire, is viewed as anti-imperialist. Likewise, China’s new security agreement with the Solomon Islands is seen as anti-imperialist—a weakening of US and Australian domination of the islands. While it certainly is this, it is also an effort to define a security architecture that allows Beijing to protect Chinese investments abroad and to safeguard shipping routes that are vital to the unimpeded access of Chinese billionaires to foreign markets and sources of raw materials.
The Leninist view of imperialism as inherent in a globalized capitalism can be used as a lens to parse the New York Times’ reporting on the recent China-Solomon Islands security agreement. According to a leaked draft of the accord, Beijing is empowered to dispatch police, troops, and warships to the islands to protect Chinese investments and Chinese citizens, an agreement that resonates with multiple similar accords struck between Washington and countries in Latin America and beyond.
The Times, tacitly defining US ruling class interests as humanity’s interests, presents the accord as a danger to the world. “China’s leader, Xi Jinping, and his army now have a foothold in an island chain that played a decisive role in World War II and could be used to block vital shipping lanes,” the newspaper warns. What isn’t mentioned is that the United States and its satellites control the shipping lanes. The deal allows China to challenge US control of the maritime routes on which it depends—or more precisely, on which its capitalist economy depends—for access to foreign markets and sources of raw materials. The deal doesn’t threaten humanity so much as it threatens US leverage over a capitalist rival.
The Times continues its diatribe against the accord by noting the pact’s imperialist features, all the while avoiding any mention of the similar accords Washington, London, Paris, and other imperialist capitals have signed with numberless governments around the world for centuries, sometimes at the point of a gun.
“To start,” the accord “provides a broad mandate for China to potentially intervene when its foreign investments and diaspora are under threat, as it stretches its projection of military power.”
The newspaper quotes Richard Herr, a law professor at the University of Tasmania, who observes that “With the pact, China is essentially trying to establish a principle of using military force to protect its economic presence in places where it claims the government does not have the capacity.” In this, China acts no differently than the United States.
“What the Solomons’ deal tells the world, at the very least,” he adds, “is that China believes that if its major projects are threatened, it wants a right to protect them.” Again, this is standard US procedure, or, to put it another way, standard procedure for major capitalist powers. Consider also France’s intervention in Africa to protect access to and investments in uranium mines, vital to an important form of French energy.
“The lesson for the rest of the world is that China is looking to rebalance the global order in its favor,” Herr continues. “And whether that means opening trade routes, establishing a military facility or signing a security agreement, Beijing will act to benefit its own interests.” Herr goes on to say that Beijing will do so at the expense of “democracy and an open and free world”, euphemisms for the US empire. In other words, the expansion of a Chinese empire comes at the expense of a US empire.
What the Times’ article shows, albeit in a clearly chauvinist way, is that large capitalist powers and blocs—the United States and its satellites, Europe (to the extent it acts independently of the United States), China, and Russia—seek to fashion the world order in their favor. They seek to bring as much of the world economy as possible under their own control. This means security arrangements and treaties to protect their investments abroad, and to safeguard their access to foreign markets, sources of raw materials, strategic territory, and investment opportunities. To be sure, the United States is by far the strongest of the rivals, but that doesn’t mean that Russia and China are not driven by capitalist compulsions to dominate the planet every much as strong as those that drive US expansion—a compulsion to settle everywhere, to nestle everywhere, to establish connections everywhere.
With multiple capitalist power centers existing within the framework of a globalized economy, rivalry for profit-making opportunities is inevitable. The rise of one power center at the expense of another may appear to be anti-imperialist, but only so far as the declining power is erroneously viewed as the sole imperialist, i.e., as the lone capitalist power in search of investment opportunities, markets, and raw materials. The decline of US and Western European influence in East Asia with the rise of Japan beginning in the 1930s may have appeared to the naïve as an anti-imperialist victory—this was certainly the illusion Tokyo aimed to create—but it was an illusion all the same. So too is China’s rise an illusory anti-imperialist victory. It may be a victory against China’s domination by the United States, as the rise of the United States was a victory against US domination by Britain, or Germany’s rise was a challenge to British hegemony, but it is in no way a victory over the persistence of capitalist rivalry for markets, raw materials, investment opportunities, and strategic territory. It is simply a continuation of this process.
Imperialism within a globalized capitalist economy can be envisaged along two axes. One axis concerns the process of large countries exploiting profit-making opportunities in smaller countries. The anti-imperialist docents err in thinking of imperialism in these terms alone. The other axis concerns the rivalry among large countries for profit-making opportunities within the borders of the countries its rivals dominate and within the borders of its rivals themselves. The first axis is one of large countries dominating weaker ones. The second is of large countries competing among themselves to monopolize the sum total of the world’s profit-making opportunities—to shape the global order in their favor, to use terminology favored by the New York Times.
The security pact between China and the Solomon Islands is a manifestation of imperialism, in three acts:
In China seeking to create a security architecture to protect its tycoons’ investments beyond China’s borders.
In Beijing’s efforts to counter US domination of shipping lanes important to China’s capitalist economy.
In the opposition of the United States (and its sub-imperialist partner, Australia) to China’s challenge to US-led control of maritime routes.
Capitalism need not be invoked to define China and Russia, along with the United States, France, and Great Britain—the permanent members of the UN Security Council—as imperialist states. As victors of WWII, these self-defined “model” nations have assigned to themselves rights and privileges senior to those of all other nations. Russia, for example, can test a new ballistic missile with impunity, by virtue of its permanent membership on the council and access to veto powers, while participating, along with China, in the imposition of international sanctions on a small country, North Korea, for doing precisely the same.
Large countries, including the largest of all, China, have historically dominated their weaker neighbors, even if some of them, China not excepted, were dominated themselves. A fortiori, we would expect large capitalist countries, driven by an expansionary capitalist logic, to continue in this manner. China shows no evidence that it is an anomaly or a departure from expectation.
The first is that the “entire world is caught up in the decline of one capitalist empire and the rise of yet another.” The declining capitalist empire is the United States and the rising capitalist empire is Eurasia, at the center of which lies capitalist China and capitalist Russia. The decline of one capitalist empire and the rise of yet another can be characterized as the emergence of a multipolar capitalist world, to supersede one of US supremacy. This is the condition sought by the multipolaristas, a gaggle of people united by little more than a common abhorrence—not of capitalism, or imperialism, or wars of aggression—but of US foreign policy.
Wolff’s second point is that “a different economic system not driven by a profit motive offers a deeper solution to any on offer at present.” Lenin’s solution is a nonpolar world free from imperialism, in contrast to the multipolaristas’ cheerleading the rise of one capitalist empire as it challenges another.
Among Lenin’s “various definitions of imperialism, one of the most significant characterizes it as the claim of a few chosen nations to base their own prosperity and primacy on despoliation and domination of the rest of humanity. They regard themselves as model nations.” (Losurdo, Class Struggle, 2016, p. 158) We might think, for example, of the “model nation” which launches a crusade against what it says is neo-Nazism in a neighboring country, one intended to impose a Quisling government and integrate the country’s economy into that of the aggressor, or which pursues a humanitarian intervention under the pretext of arresting genocide.
A subsidiary point: Losurdo challenges a commonly held misconception that the Bolshevik leader’s understanding of imperialism can be reduced to a check list of characteristics that define individual states—that Lenin had one definition of imperialism, rather than several. These characteristics have been misrepresented in various places as criteria for determining whether a country is imperialist. In point of fact, they were Lenin’s descriptions of capitalism as a globe-girding economic system in what he called its highest stage—a stage in which capital had become highly concentrated; finance capital is dominant; the export of capital (as opposed to goods and services alone) is important; gigantic international corporations compete across the globe; and a few great powers have divided the whole world into spheres of influence. To repeat: This is a description of an economic system, not of individual countries. Another point: In a world economy of monopoly capitalism, imperialism is inevitable.
Lenin did not reduce imperialism to the export of capital or define it as an exclusively monopoly capitalist phenomenon. Consider these words from Lenin’s volume on imperialism: “Colonial policy and imperialism existed before this latest stage of capitalism and even before capitalism. Rome, founded on slavery, pursued a colonial policy and achieved imperialism.” (V.I. Lenin, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, International Publishers, 1939, p. 81-82)
Or this, a shock, perhaps, to those who believe Russia cannot be considered imperialist in any Leninist sense: “[Among] the six powers [that had divided the world], we see, firstly, young capitalist powers (America, Germany, Japan) which progressed very rapidly; secondly, countries with an old capitalist development (France and Great Britain), which, of late, have made slower progress than the previously mentioned countries, and, thirdly, a country (Russia) which is economically most backward, in which modern capitalist imperialism is enmeshed, so to speak, in a particularly close network of pre-capitalist relations.” (V.I. Lenin, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, International Publishers, 1939, p. 81)
To sum up. A country doesn’t have to be capitalist to be imperialist (imperialism, i.e., empires, existed long before capitalism.) Nor does it have to export capital (imperialism also antedated monopoly capitalism.) To be imperialist, all a nation must do, as Lenin explained, is oppress another nation. The essence of imperialism, wrote Lenin, is the “division of nations into oppressor and oppressed.” (V.I. Lenin, Declaration of Rights of The Working and Exploited People, 4 January, 1929 in Pravda No. 2 and Izvestia No. 2.)
Who exactly is hurt most in the struggles of capitalist empires? The answer is the class Lenin championed: ordinary working people.
In Ukraine, workers are plagued by invasion, displacement from their homes, the danger of death or injury, and the loss of jobs and incomes.
Ordinary Russians will soon struggle with rising prices and lost employment, if they aren’t already.
The working class in Europe, already careworn with declining purchasing power, will soon pay even higher rates for energy, and will be hurt further by higher taxes or reduced services or both as growing military outlays stress government budgets.
Worldwide, the struggle of empires puts upward pressure on prices, for food and energy especially. Hunger will increase. The difficulties of making ends meet will grow.
Finally, the struggle of capitalist empires carries with it the risk of a regional war escalating into a global conflagration. It’s something none of us—most all, ordinary working people—want.
Lenin’s solution, a nonpolar world free from imperialism, is not achievable by choosing sides in the struggles of competing capitalist empires. It’s only possible by doing away with capitalism and empire as institutions of domination and exploitation. And that won’t happen by cheerleading the rise of yet another capitalist empire, or supporting Russia’s efforts to reassert a sphere of influence in Ukraine and carry out a war of aggression on ordinary Ukrainians on the backs of ordinary Russians at the expense of ordinary people in Western Europe, North America, and the whole world over. Nor will it happen by encouraging the co-belligerent actions of the US government and its NATO subalterns in pursuing the US goal of fighting Russia to the last Ukrainian.
As governments representing bourgeois interests compete for markets, investment opportunities, strategic territory, and spheres of interest, it may be fitting to recall an observation of Marx and Engels: “The workers have no country.” Not Russia. Not China. Not the United States.
Some radical socialists practice a politics that carries over from the days when to be a revolutionary meant supporting the Soviet Union or China. With the Soviet Union gone, and socialist China a distant dream (and perhaps one never to be achieved under the direction of the current communist party), socialists of this persuasion have cut reality to the Procrustean bed of what being a revolutionary socialist used to mean. If the Soviet Union and socialist China are gone, they’ll be recreated. Russian imperialism is transformed into Soviet anti-imperialism and Chinese billionaires are turned into socialists with Chinese characteristics. The reality of a world of inter-imperialist rivalry is conjured into a world as it once was – divided by a capitalist, imperialist camp, on the one hand, and a socialist, anti-imperialist camp, on the other.
But the latter camp, notwithstanding the socialists’ need to create a nostalgic fantasy, today comprises countries that are neither socialist, however much they once were, nor anti-imperialist, despite their rhetoric. All the same, the socialists’ anachronistic politics demand that they have a state to support, and if a state can’t be supported on the basis of its current actions, it will be supported on the basis of its former actions, or delusions about what its current character is.
The alternative idea that socialists might actually do what they’re supposed to do, namely, promote the interests of a class, the proletariat, is dismissed as anachronistic, an antique idea that may have made sense in Lenin’s day, but is no longer current, or is the refuge of cowards who refuse to take sides in struggles between states. Devotion to the class war is understood to be a distraction from participation in wars between nations.
However much it is difficult for anachronistic radical socialists to understand, Russia is not the Soviet Union, is not socialist, and has not escaped the capitalist logic and raisons d’état that compel large capitalist states to dominate and exploit other states, especially their weaker neighbors, and to engage in struggles with other capitalist states for markets, spheres of influence, investment opportunities, and strategic territory.
And while it may be difficult to understand that China’s growing prosperity has less to do with socialism and far more to do with capitalism, especially the country’s emulation of the mercantilist policies that built the capitalist West, this is the reality. There is no socialist China. There is a capitalist China, which, in its industrial planning and state owned enterprises coexisting with privately-owned business, merely recreates what other successful capitalist countries did to lift their millions out of poverty. If we’re going to talk of a socialist China we might as well talk of a socialist Germany and a socialist Japan and a socialist South Korea, for all of these countries, and more, relied heavily on industrial planning and state owned enterprises to lift their millions out of poverty, as capitalist China is doing today. It’s not by accident that the conflict in the years leading up to WWI between an ascendant Britain, and a rising Germany, whose development was nurtured by a dirigiste state animated by the goal of catching up to the world’s hegemon, is looked to as an historical analogy to understand the current conflict between today’s hegemonic power, the United States, and a rising China.
According to the Chinese Communist Party’s August 2021 statement of its mission, socialism is effectively capitalism (releasing and developing the productive forces, the party says) under the direction of the Communist Party. In other words, to the Chinese Communists, socialism is another word for capitalism, but under Communist dirigisme (emulating mercantilist methods.)
With China now well down the capitalist road, anachronistic radical socialists sing rhapsodies to capitalism in China, while deploring it elsewhere, except in Vietnam. Docilely following wherever their hero state leads, they repeat in celebration of Chinese “socialism” the stock phrases Republicans once reliably used to justify their regular assaults on the working class—phrases such as “a rising tide lifts all boats” and “hundreds of millions lifted out of poverty.” To say they make themselves into laughing stocks is to say more than is necessary.
Deluded that Putin’s Russia is Stalin’s Soviet Union and Xi’s China is Mao’s People’s Republic, the anachronistic radical socialists dream of a multipolar world in which the United States is counterbalanced by China and Russia. Multipolarity, in their fantasy, is a return to the original Cold War, one pitting US-led capitalism and imperialism against Soviet-led socialism and anti-imperialism. But multipolarity in reality means a return to a vigorous inter-imperialist rivalry, one which gave rise to the industrial extermination of WWI, followed by the even greater exterminations of WWII. The praxis of the multipolaristas is solidarity with anti-US poles of attraction for no other reason than they’re anti-US poles of attraction. Baby imperialisms are to be nurtured and supported so they grow up to become big imperialisms that can compete with the one big imperialism, that of the United States—like supporting Germany in the runup to WWI, so it could compete against Britain, in a multipolar world. Somehow, this is supposed to deliver us all to a better place. In Lenin’s view—one which anachronistic radical socialists now scorn—a better place is a nonpolar world free from imperialism, to be achieved, not by supporting this national bourgeoisie or that, but by overthrowing them all.
To help midwife the birth of the emerging multipolar world, the anachronistic radical socialist turns skepticism of US pretexts for imperialist assaults into a need to believe the very same pretexts Moscow recycles for its own imperialist assault on Ukraine. NATO’s humanitarian interventions in the former Yugoslavia and Libya to prevent claimed genocides are scoffed at, for good reason. The proposal to mount a humanitarian intervention in Xinjiang to prevent a claimed Chinese genocide against the Uyghurs is denounced correctly as an imperialist plan backed by a black legend. But Moscow’s pretext of humanitarian intervention in Ukraine to prevent an alleged genocide is accepted uncritically, even though Moscow has not invoked the Genocide Convention, something it would do if it genuinely believed what it claims. The pretext is also accepted without skepticism despite the fact that Moscow has already displayed a manifest willingness to lie to advance its aims in Ukraine; after all, the Kremlin insisted Russia would not invade Ukraine, going so far as to mock anyone who said it would. And then it did what it swore it wouldn’t do. You would think, having been misled once, the radical socialist Russophiles would learn, but their need to have a state (in place of a class) to support militates against their learning of lessons.
Gullible, they turn socialist praxis into Russian information warfare, aping Moscow’s narrative as ardently and faithfully as CNN mimics Washington’s, right down to euphemizing Russia’s war of aggression on Ukraine—the supreme international crime—as a mere “crisis”, or a “special military operation”, or worse, not a conflict between Russia and Ukraine at all, but “a hybrid US war.” In their minds, their devotion to radical socialism is proved by their fidelity to the hero state’s message and the zeal with which they propagate its fictions. Questions are discouraged, thought frowned upon, skepticism denounced as betrayal. They are good soldiers, and will not stray from the narrative of the hero state, will not refuse to accept its word on all matters, will not question its mendacities nor deplore its absurdities. In this, their eagerness to make themselves into laughing stocks knows no limits.
Radical socialists used to say that they practiced a scientific socialism. It was scientific because it tried to adapt to reality, not obfuscate it or fit it to a Procrustean bed. But what many radical socialists practice today cannot be called scientific, or indeed, even coherent socialism. Their practice instead is based on a detachment from reality and a construction of a pleasing fantasy of a world that once was but is no longer; in other words, it is little more than mental illness.