Originally published ภาษาไทย
There is virtually no material production in the north, only service capital— debt and foreign holdings. The material existence of the northern proletariat is dependent on global south labour and continued material extraction. This raises the question of whether successful proletarian revolutions in the north could create economies that supplant the current global bourgeoisie or would they constitute a new global ‘proletarian bourgeoisie’? And is there any way to avoid this?
Part 1 – There Are No Means of Production In The West
The Financial Sector
The size of the financial sector in the UK economy is around 500% of GDP**. Almost all of this vast capital is made up of both debt and foreign assets (which is how it can be more than 100%), furthermore, this doesn’t account for the tremendous amounts of undeclared capital which would likely significantly increase the ≈500% figure. Meanwhile, actual material production within the UK is minute, making up just around 1.8% of the economy (when adjusted to the financial sector’s capital).
The primary mode of production in the UK today is clearly financial services, as such the entire economy is geared towards it. The vast majority of labour in the UK is merely paid reproductive or immaterial labour in the service of the financial sector. That is to say, this labour, while not performed directly in the financial sector, is indirectly orientated towards making the country a safe, stable and comfortable place to store masses of capital. While these numbers are particularly stark in the UK, all of the post-industrial service economies follow a similar trend. For the purpose of this article, we’ll refer to these economies as ‘the north’.
This reality of capital leads to an uncomfortable question for ‘northern’ anti-capitalists. That is to say; how can you seize the means of production where there is no production? There is only debt and existing capital tied to material assets primarily supplied by the rest of the world (the global south – including China). These are the places where the vast majority of material production occurs and where raw materials are extracted from. This is the material extraction and production that makes life not only comfortable but possible in the north. The survival of northerners is entirely dependent on the south to provide them with both their luxuries and basic necessities.
The only answer to the aforementioned question is for the northern proletariat to ‘seize the means of reproduction’, the machinery that surrounds finance, and essentially hold it hostage to claim the vast amounts of capital it supports. If this mammoth task is achieved and socialism is somehow instituted in the northern world, it creates a new dilemma. These new worker-controlled northern economies would still hold those assets in the global south, which they depend upon for their material survival, which is made possible by the existing global material supply chain, instituting a form of socialism only for the global bourgeoisie. This would apply regardless of whether it was in a socialist nation-state or a series of autonomous communes, they would still rely on exploitative global south labour for their survival.
Sticking to their principles of worker ownership, the only way to resolve this would then be a massive wealth and ownership transfer from the northern economies to the south, cancelling all debt, releasing those assets to the workers and shutting down the exploitative supply chains. Undoubtedly, this would result in the total evisceration of living standards in the north which, as mentioned above, has almost no material production of its own to sustain itself. Indeed, much of the foundations of material production have been destroyed in the north since the financialization of the 1970/’80s (particularly in the UK), hence this wealth transfer would plunge the north back to something akin to pre-industrialisation era conditions, but with a post-industrial sized population. Notably, the UK’s agricultural sector is just 0.1% of the national economy (again when adjusted to the financial sector’s capital), with the country needing to import more than 80% of its food and over 75% of its consumer goods. The result of such a wealth and ownership transfer would be some kind of inverse perestroika leading to mass suffering and undoubtedly counter-revolution.
Avoiding Inverse Perestroika
Even factoring in that the new proletarian north would act to eradicate the tremendous waste in their economies, both of essentials and the huge sums of capital placed on materially worthless goods, (the UK’s most valuable import is currently gems), this still wouldn’t address the aforementioned issue of material production, specifically the lack thereof in northern economies. Furthermore, the assumption that the north would “drop the debt” that’s currently imposed on global south countries, is also implausible. Debt is part of the supply chain, part of the ownership of the means of production, as such it functions as both the carrot and the stick for global south countries. Dropping the debt is identical to releasing assets, which as we know, the bourgeoisie will never do without force.
Guillotine Their Own Necks
Ironically, the reactionary argument of “socialism will make you poor” is absolutely correct for the north in a global context. So now we are faced with an inconvenient truth; that however liberatory or anti-imperialist they claim to be, northern leftists are not going to release their grip on global south labour and drop the guillotine on their own necks. One basic tenant of anti-capitalism is that the bourgeoisie doesn’t simply hand over the means of production. Even today, the material interests of the average UK wage worker are directly opposed to the southern proletariat. As such we reach the uncomfortable conclusion that true proletarian change seems to be impossible in the north, and seizing the means of production (at the point of production) in the global south is the only kind of revolutionary technique possible for worldwide proletarian emancipation.
Here we must also consider the role of non-state economic institutions such as the World Bank and IMF, which are located in and operated by northern capital and what effect a proletarian revolution would have on them. Again, like the capital held in northern financial sectors, these institutions form part of the global means of production. If they were now owned by the new northern worker economies, it would solidify their position as the global bourgeoisie, inheriting the south’s debt and assets. We must therefore treat northern anti-capitalist calls for their dissolution post-revolution to not be fully developed.
We could rightly assume that any mass political shake up in the north would have some kind of knock-on effect in the south, however, there is no framework for interpreting what that effect would be. If this global south emancipation were to be actualised, northerners can only hope that those who they have exploited for so long take pity on their former masters and allow some kind of transitional period. Once again, however, ask any northern leftist if they would permit the bourgeoisie to have a transitional period of handing over capital and you’ll most likely be laughed at and told several guillotine jokes.
Part 2 – Obfuscation
This polemic seems to go unrecognised in the north by the vast majority of leftists. The most concerning matter while researching this topic was not the horror of its findings, but the difficulty in actually tracking down the economic data. It’s out there, but it’s extremely hard to find and interpret (we had to source an economics specialist to understand it). It seems the northern left has completely failed at the most primal element of anti-capitalism, which is understanding capital. While researching the raw numbers behind the UK economy there was zero coverage from supposed anti-capitalist media outlets on these terms. The only place they were published was in the Bank of England journals and a handful of financial blogs. Perhaps the research and analysis are out there, but if so, paywalled in academic libraries, not available for the commoners.
Economic Productivity & Its Obfuscation
Perhaps, if we’re assessing the situation in good faith, it’s the complete obfuscation by contemporary economic figures that has led to this misinterpretation. For example, the UK appears, under the current capitalist economic system, to be the 10th largest exporter in the world, despite its minuscule material production capacity. This of course is due to the export of services, that is to say, immaterial products made through immaterial labour. Some of which may be essential “knowledge creation” like medical research, but the vast majority of the country’s exports are useless unproductive economic services.
There is further obfuscation when assessing economic output vs GDP. Economic output is the level of productivity of an economy (how much capital it generates), while GDP is just the amount of capital within an economy. As such, when you Google “How large is the UK financial sector?” you’ll find endless citations of the sector’s economic output, which is relatively small at just 6.9% annually. This is because capital alone doesn’t generate more capital per se and the UK financial sector primarily just hoards capital, rather than creating any actual significant output of wealth.
Other forms of immaterial labour, such as the arts, media, journalism, R&D, etc are of course productive in their own ways, as well as vital service or reproductive sectors like transportation, hospitals and schools. However, under the current structure of economies like the UK’s these areas merely amount to paid reproductive labour in service of the financial sector, absorbing all output and utilising it for the purpose of reinforcing the economy itself. In short, financial services underwrite and direct the entire economy, with no room to manoeuvre outside of it, again the primary mode of production is financial services. The coffee shops, the busses, the hospitals, the tv channels, the clothes shops, merely take care of the northern proletarians, providing them with a safe and relatively comfortable life, on top of which these masses of capital are stored with their tacit mandate.
Even the UK’s material exports tell a twisted tale, supposedly the country’s main material exports are machinery, vehicles and computers. However, these goods are merely assembled in the UK, with the raw materials and the labour needed to extract those raw materials coming from elsewhere, as well as their processing and transport. Without a large funding budget, it is impossible to find out what the numbers behind these raw or ‘semi-refined’ pre-assembly imports actually are. We can confidently say, however, that without those exploitative supply chains to sustain the UK’s assembly role, its entire production industry would cease to exist.
Ironically the UK and other northern countries, primarily English-speaking ones, imports (or outsources) a huge amount of immaterial service labour as well as material labour, primarily to India through banking, telecommunications and media services. These services are then imported back to countries like the UK (though not officially considered to be imported) and are marketed as their own domestically produced immaterial goods.
The UK’s main source for imports, unsurprisingly, is China, following that however is Germany, The USA, The Netherlands, France and Belgium, much of this accounts for yet more services but also, significantly, material goods integral to the survival and comfort of UK workers. Once again though, the raw materials in these goods come from the same sources and follow the same global supply chain mentioned above, one which relies on cheap global south labour and material extraction.
Ironically, through the current metrics used to analyse wealth, global south regions where raw materials are extracted and processed, are considered to be areas with ‘undeveloped economies’. An interesting comparison is Myanmar and Luxembourg, whose national GDP is almost identical. The microstate of Luxembourg is one of the few examples of a country with a larger financial sector than the UK. Myanmar, an average to large-sized country, rich in natural resources and a large labour force is considered to be economically undeveloped due to their major exports being entirely material. Internationally, Myanmar sits on a par with Luxembourg in GDP despite Luxembourg having just 1% of the population of Myanmar’s and 0.3% of the land. On an individual level, however, the average citizen in Myanmar holds just 1% of the wealth of the average Luxembourgian (GDP per capita). As such, to put wage workers from these two countries in the same class is clearly absurd. This comparison is not to say that the local proletariat in Luxembourg are not proletarians but it makes clear the complete obfuscation of the reality of the global material and immaterial productivity disparity. If wealth was to be evenly distributed in each nation or regional economic bracket, despite some domestic improvement, there would still be this tremendous global divide.
This highlights the clear role of global labour aristocracy in today’s hegemonic economic system. Indeed, the vast majority of northern leftists seem to completely deny or not even consider labour aristocracy, which is the concept that the working class in Luxembourg and Myanmar are not equally exploited, even this was recognised by Lenin in 1917. Anyone from the global south or even those who have spent time there would recognise this denial as absurd.
Assessing how dependent the north is on raw material necessities from the global south is again extremely challenging. This is because food, as well as all goods, are measured in their worth at the capitalist market value, as such trade statistics are measured in currency, rather than labour exerted or material necessity. So, a luxury (unnecessary) item like high-quality wine from France is considered far more valuable than a ‘basic’ essential item like rice from Thailand. It is due to this obfuscation that in all contemporary economic statistics France is by far the UK’s largest source of imported food*. It is near impossible, however, to assess exactly how much of these imports are luxury items or, more importantly, essential items that have been processed in France, with the raw materials coming from elsewhere. Here we would also have to factor in the machinery used in processing, more specifically the labour and raw materials used in constructing and maintaining that machinery.
Even food grown domestically in France is often dependent on the labour of seasonal workers from lower-income regions, typically north Africa, while in Sweden it’s typically Thailand. There are also strict conditions attached to seasonal work programs, to ensure that those lower-income labourers are not permitted to remain in the north’s imperial core, an ironic inverse of the old serfdom model where labourers weren’t permitted to leave their land, today they are not permitted to stay.
Today’s increasingly globalised supply chain should in fact play to the south’s advantage. The northern states’ increasing dependency on the south makes them more vulnerable to southern uprisings, which has more potential to cripple northern economies. This is particularly significant at the many supply chain choke points like the Suez and Panama canals, the Straits of Hormuz, Bab al-Mandab and Malacca as well as all the major ports that ship goods intended for northern markets. There are also highly localised sources of essential material extraction like the coltan mines in Congo and Brazil, as well as lithium mines in Chile and Bolivia, the latter of which is an excellent example of the north’s increasing inability to project its power after it’s 2019 coup was defeated just a year later.
Perhaps one aperture for change on the horizon is that potential moment of conflict, whereby the decline of northern military projection along with an increase in material northern dependency combined with organised agitation around supply chain choke points could lead to a drastic realignment of the world order. Whether that realignment is in favour of the global proletariat significantly depends on the form of southern class consciousness at that particular moment of crisis.
Part 3 – A Reality of Capital
Globalisation Is Not The Problem
This is not to say that every localised region must become materially self-sufficient. Some form of globalised food network would be beneficial for everyone on the planet, allowing variety and stability in case of low crop yields in certain regions, the same goes for all sectors of material production. The issue, however, is how the market values and distributes those materials, who supplies and who owns the labour.
To put it simply, the north does not generate material wealth and cannot support its current living standards without exploiting labour and materials from the south through a hegemonic global economic system where the north ultimately controls both the capital and labour. The northern proletariat are not materially productive, the rich do not eat northern labour, northern labour just serves it.
There is also the added irony that the northern proletariat currently forms the global vanguard of the bourgeoisie. That is to say, it is with their electoral mandate, in their supposed democracies, that their imperial empires span the globe, orchestrating coups, counter-revolutions and invasions of any global south country or region that tries to break free from their exploitative supply chains.
Some may argue that automation is either emancipatory or the cause of northern industrial decline, some argue both simultaneously. Regardless, it is telling that basic automation, such as the tractor, has not yet reached “upper middle-income” economies like Thailand, where the buffalo and plow is still a common sight. While now, new global developments in automation are, of course, geared towards automating the service sector, supposedly liberating the northern proletariat from immaterial labour, as southern workers still toil the land.
Who is the proletariat?
This is not to hold up those in the global south as the only pure proletarians of the world, nor to say that northern workers are the petite bourgeoisie. Today the northern proletariat are absolutely still just that, the proletariat. And sadly, broadly speaking, class consciousness in the global south is hardly more developed than in the north. The south too has its business owners, entrenched political powers and local exploitative mechanisms. Pulling the lens back, however, it is clear who these mechanisms ultimately work for and who sits atop the global class structure. The issue is not whether the northern proletariat are true proletarians, the issue is that if those northern proletarians seized the means of production and the capital that came attached to it, they would simply become the new global bourgeoisie.
This polemic isn’t intentionally fatalistic. It is merely pointing out a reality of capital that has been largely ignored by northern anti-capitalists. So what is the northern left to do? Certainly, the first step is to come to terms with the reality of the economic landscape it finds itself in. Following that, a thorough re-conception of anti-imperialism needs to be launched to address the vast economic and material imbalance between the north and the south and the supply chains on which that relationship depends. It’s time to get real about what anti-capitalism means for capital and for those who capital serves.
Endless Spiral of Crises and Stagnation
Jeremy Lim – Malaysia Muda
To start off, I wholeheartedly endorse this essay’s assessment – that proletarian revolution in the Global North is a prospect that demands sober reflection given the significant lack of material means of production in many European countries and sections of North America. The Western or ‘Northern’ Left needs to seriously consider what coming to power, either through parliamentarism or revolution, would require them to do as far as economic restructuring is concerned. What I hope to contribute to this discussion is to provide a short history of how we got here and then argue that any social democratic effort to continue propping up financial capitalism – even with more egalitarian redistribution and labour rights – is ultimately futile. Capitalism is doomed to stagnation because of the tendencies inherent in the economic system. Any hope for renewed economic prosperity in the West will be short-lived.
From the Golden Age of Capitalism to Financialization
At the height of working-class power in the West in the 1960s, capitalism was hit by a crisis of overproduction while undergoing a fall in profits and a rise in inflation, resulting from organised labour actions since the end of the Second World War. Social democratic governments in the West, instead of taking the side of the workers, capitulated to the threats of the capitalist class and began to repress labour. The crises of capitalism still nonetheless intensified with the oil shocks and stagflation throughout the 1970s.
As the forces of neoliberalism began to consolidate, it emerged victorious by the 1980s with the election of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. The US and UK would introduce a new form of capitalism driven by finance. The deregulation of the banking sector and crippled industrial sector paved the way for finance to now play a central role in capitalist reproduction. More mobile capital meant that Western firms could outsource production, beginning the long-running trend of deindustrialisation and the rise of the service economy.
Monopoly-Finance Capitalism and Stagnation
It would be incorrect to say that finance capital did not have a prominent role in capitalism before the 1970s, but now it would take centre stage with the rise of monopoly-finance capital. The previous stage of monopoly capitalism, characterised by giant firms that could set prices, was already destined for endless crisis and stagnation due to tendencies inherent in capitalism – overproduction and underconsumption. Aside from military spending, finance was seen as the other way out of capitalism’s death spiral. But it is becoming increasingly clear that finance offers no solution, just a temporary drug high with severe withdrawals. Theorists of monopoly capital, Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy, knew back in the 1960s that: the normal state of monopoly capitalism is stagnation.
Though still more heavily centred in the US and UK, the current explosion of finance capital in the North typifies this trend. The dominance of finance is why much of North America and Western Europe have been growing on average below 1 or 2 per cent since the start of the 21st century. Monopoly finance capitalism – best exemplified in the real estate and speculation bubble across the ‘developed’ world leading up to the 2007-8 Global Financial Crisis – has no ability to restore growth or bring about mass prosperity, just the further concentration of wealth at the very top.
Where could we go from here?
The answer being socialism is likely obvious to this audience, but what would that mean concretely? I’d like to draw your attention to the start of this article where social democratic governments failed to overturn capitalism even as labour’s strength was reaching new heights in the 1960s. A compromise between labour and capital is not tenable, especially when capital’s back is to the wall. The working class – however you may choose to define it – needs to be in the front seat if any confrontation with monopoly-finance capital is going to be viable.
In addition to the essay’s call to cancel the Global South’s debt and shut down exploitative supply chains, I would like to suggest the Global North pay fairer prices for Southern commodities in any re-established trade relations. Dating back to the New International Economic Order brought forth by the Non-Aligned Movement in 1974, developing countries, particularly primary product producers, have demanded more equitable prices for their goods. This raising of prices would go a long way in rectifying the previously unequal relations of exchange under global capitalism. More than that, this would allow Global South countries to further develop productive capacities on their own terms. Liberated Global North states could transfer technology – for far below its use-value – in exchange for relieving developing countries of its ‘burden’ to produce essential goods for Northern countries. A new global arrangement would have to be designed for societies such that each would have some level of self-reliance and technological capacity while maintaining a healthy mutual interdependence with others.
Gabriel Ernst – Din Deng
I see no answer to this polemic, other than stressing that change only has the potential to come from the global south. The proletarian revolution in the global north is essentially a lost cause. Even the widely held assumption that the north is currently in decline is perhaps too eagerly accepted. How do we even measure decline? When it comes to US military projection, then perhaps there is evidence of decline. However, as the article makes clear, hegemonic global capitalism is by no means purely based on military projection, rather a complex series of economic mechanisms which, for the time being, seem to be functioning fairly well, even strengthened by the global pandemic.
Again, the assumption that climate catastrophe will accelerate the process is also by no means certain. Three billion climate refugees are three billion non-citizens who can be paid next to nothing for their labour and simultaneously be used to rile up the north’s reactionary labour aristocracy. Of course, capitalism is a contradiction and will ultimately consume itself. However, what will replace that system is by no means certain, nor is how long it will take for that process to see itself through.
One way the economic evidence from the article can be applied is to examine the social character of the western proletariat. As capitalism advances so too does the alienation of the proletariat, our tools evolve but our chains evolve faster. Today’s proletariat in advanced capitalist economies are not looking up at their bosses from the factory floor, nor are they even paying cash to their landlord. They’re sitting alone at home, staring at a computer screen while their rent is automatically transferred by direct debit to an invisible lettings agent, sitting behind their own screen at home. Or perhaps they’re sitting by their bicycles waiting for the app to send them off on a delivery, where, fleetingly they catch a glimpse of their temporary boss, the aforementioned solitary computer screen worker.
Their political education was focused on learning the values of liberal freedoms. They’re free to speak, to scream directly into the void, where their words lose all consequence. Ask them who they’re oppressed by, many will tell you the patriarchy, white supremacy or perhaps they’ll say ‘the woke agenda’ some might even say “capitalism”. While most of these oppressions are obviously legitimate, efforts to confront them directly is almost spectral.
In the north, not only are the proletariat increasingly alienated from their labour, which is ever more likely to be immaterial service labour, but they’re even alienated from their oppression by the capitalist state and its superstructure. Meanwhile, ask workers in Thailand who oppresses them— as an experiment, I did, with a group of young Thai’s, and “The king, the military and my boss” was the unanimous answer. For many in the global south, it is far more evident who are the oppressors and who are the subjugated, they are not “free” to stand up and criticise their overlords, such criticism bears consequence, while in the west it’s just a scream into the vacuum of nothing, stripping northern workers of even the agency of consequence.
As such, I think we need to focus on a conceptualisation of hyper-alienation as a unique form of subjugation, in that they are alienated from both their labour and their subjugation. This conception, along with the staggering advance of service capitalism can start to explain many of the social phenomena we see in “the global north”, as well as explain the weakness of the left in those regions.
Ewan Cameron – New Multitude
‘Capital is dead labor, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks’ -Karl Marx
Proletarian Revolution in the West is Impossible will be uncomfortable reading for Northern and Western leftists. It’s somewhat de rigueur to acknowledge that the wealth of Europe is built on both colonial plunder and neocolonial extraction, yet strategy and activism has rarely turned the lens to how this mode of exploitation has transformed their own countries into something akin to the vampires of Marx’s metaphor.
As the article notes, countries such as the UK have hollowed out their own productive capacity and the blunt admission that anti-imperialism, taken to its logical conclusion, would leave rich countries in poverty and presumably open the door for a rebounding fascism. This reactionary effect would come from the fact that the “the material interests of the average UK wage worker are directly opposed to the southern proletariat”. This statement will be challenging to many, but nevertheless I concur with the authors that it reflects reality, with the caveat that it is only true insofar as they accept the rules of the game, the game being capitalism.
In moving towards a ‘thorough reconception of anti-imperialism’, we must, as the article notes, be realistic. Western activists must choose between maintenance of lifestyles and anti-imperialism. Capitalist development ideology, from Rostowian stageism to modern day INGO paternalism, imagines a world of hermetic island nations responsible for their own growth. Forms of anti-imperialism that ignore global capitalism imagine that the world’s poorest countries can all rise to the level of OECD nations if only the latter would stop intervening, also fall prey to this stageist ideology. The slums of the global South are not being preventing from joining the capitalist world order; they are being created by the capitalist world order.
At one level then, all countries need to begin the process of delinking from the network, not, as the article notes to become autarchic hermit kingdoms, but to made trade on their own terms. However, to prevent a reactionary rebound that would almost certainly lead to global war, the left, especially the Northern left, need to reimagine value quite literally from the ground up. If and when the North’s parasitic relationship to the South is cut off, then what would be left in the North but a dead parasite? Northern soil, literally the means of producing nutrition, then, may become one of the most strategic sites of anti-imperialism. Such a strategy would go some way to centring the production and safeguarding of use-values (especially what Max Ajl has called the ‘ultimate use value’, our material environments, the ecology that produces us all) instead of our current regime with its death drive towards exchange values.
Though I started this response with a Marx quote, I felt at times the article got a little too tangled up with Marxian categories. Setting ourselves tasks of defining who is and isn’t proletarian risks being blinded to the much more complex lives and relationship that exist below these surface categories. This isn’t to say that relationship to the means of production isn’t the key site of struggle, but confronting capital in its own terms may be inadequate for the task ahead.
An Experience of the Left in the Global North
Samaidaeng Thungdin – Din Deng
The global north plays an essential role in the global political economy and the global economy of knowledge. Theorists like Johan Galtung would point out that there is a shared harmony of interests between the elites of the global north and the elites of the global south, as well as a simultaneous conflict of interests between the proletariat of the global north and the global south for the exact reasons identified in the original article. As such, the greatest challenge for leftists in the global north is devising a political strategy that doesn’t undermine the position of the proletariat in the global south.
Many assume that the proletariat of the global north would be the vanguard of a global revolution due to its economy being generally more advanced, hence the same for its understanding of class consciousness. Then surely it is they who must be working to mobilise the rest of the global proletariat — including those in the global south. However, as I understand it, leftists of the global north are, on the whole, honest and true comrades of those in the global south, though even as they hold the concept of solidarity and internationalism in their hearts, they struggle to sometimes understand its realities.
Since I moved to the global north over a year ago, I have seen a fair few examples of what I would call ‘western leftist moments’. Not to completely lean into the meme angle, but I would even go as far as to say that there have been some situations that toe the line between “cringe” and concerning.
A branch of one of the anti-capitalist organisations that I’m part of has recently disappointed me due to a recent ideological disagreement that went too far. They seemingly dismissed a Somali comrade’s suggestion about cooperating and organising with mosques and community leaders in the local Muslim community. When the comrade reported that one of the main criticisms of the idea was that “Marxism is anti-religion” and that the rest of the meeting’s participants generally shrugged in agreement with that, I was disgusted. But not as disgusted as I was when I found out that it went further. Apparently, branch members are now embroiled in public disagreements over social media taking potshots that only amplified the disunity.
Is the goal of the revolution not to completely touch every aspect of society with a supportive hand? Are we not supposed to try and include every community in collective action against the bourgeoise’s structures? If the result of capitalism is the atomisation of society, why would actions that work to interweave leftists with the fabric of communities be undesirable? There are a few learning points from this moment, but my biggest realisation is that even when we have reached what we think is a mature understanding of Socialism, Revolution, Class, Marx, etc, we still have to ensure that our learning is not stagnant, but constant. I fear that there is a dangerous dogmatism that exists in the western left, the likes of which I never witnessed in the global south.
The second western leftist moment I’d like to mention is when, during a demonstration that I attended (with the same organisation as before) against a conservative political party, a member of a different anti-capitalist org started publicly jeering and accusing us of reformism and social democracy. Apparently, they decided that the best time to stir up conflict amongst the left was at a demonstration against the right. I don’t quite understand the rationale, this is incredibly poor timing and the wrong context.
As far as I understand it, there really isn’t room for infighting amongst the left in a place where it’s only just about treading water. The left in Thailand seems to be far better allied against common enemies. For us in Thailand it’s common to see Marxist Leninists carrying out direct action and mutual aid, I hear Maoists and Anarchists supporting each other, I hear of vaguely left-leaning people continuing to throw in with openly communist organisations, and it makes me smile. But since living in the global north all I see is an endless stream of sectarianism and public infighting.
Whilst I can’t speak to a specific solution to the original polemic posited by the article, I think the most important thing for the west to do is to work with and take cues from the proletariat of the global south to better develop the material and superstructural means for advancing a global revolutionary cause. This would bring more opportunities to the western left to learn from the global south where a more diverse collection of revolutionaries are devising fresh approaches to building socialism. Despite worrying about some parts of the western left, most of the western left that I do know work to advance a struggle that is against dogmatism and factionalism. Self-criticism, open discussions, and sustained interactions with every extremity of the left will hopefully allow for theoretical truths to become self-evident through debate and praxis.
It is said another world is possible, but first, another revolution is needed.
Rhys Brophy – Praxis Malaysia
In recent years David Harvey has argued that the category of imperialism is no longer useful for Marxists. He suggests that capitalism is today a global system and that a structural division between east and west or north and south isn’t sufficient to understand the dynamics of contemporary exploitation. On the one hand, he suggests that capitalist wealth is increasingly being concentrated in states like China, on the other, that the conditions in labour markets in the global North and global South are converging. This position fundamentally denies Lenin’s early-20th century argument regarding the links between capitalism and imperialism, and the role of imperialism in privileging the working classes of developed Western countries. Rather, for Harvey, neoliberal capitalism is today exploiting workers on a global scale.
Others like John Smith have argued that the category of imperialism and the exploitation of the global South remain important. This perspective suggests that with the offshoring of production to the global South from the 1970s, the global North has become dependent upon high rates of exploitation, often termed super-exploitation. of southern labour. This leaves large parts of the northern middle and working-class dependent upon the global domination of capital, and with only a corporatist class consciousness.
The Global North’s Control of Production
Yet on what does this northern hegemony rest? The essay emphasises finance capitalism in the West, yet too much focus on finance capitalism may also overlook the role of the global North and its corporations in the organisation of material production, labour and supply chains across the global South. As John Smith argues, it is necessary to root financialization within transformations in production. And, with this, the growing imperialism of production.
Central to this is the development of globalised production in the 1970s, as Western corporations offshored labour to the global South to slash wage bills. This produced whole new systems for the exploitation of labour on a global scale. This hasn’t only relied upon the dominance of finance capital but also of technology, knowledge production, intellectual property, law, the state, the means of violence – all of which Western corporations have used to remain hegemonic over the organisation of production.
At the same time, in the period after the 1970s, production has become increasingly dispersed, giving power not only to those who control the means of production but to those who possess the means to organise and coordinate production. Hence the increasing focus on logistics in anti-capitalist discourse. In this context, capitalist imperialism has not only become more extensive but also more flexible, with complex value chains often obscuring the dynamics of imperialist exploitation.
Thinking Anti-Imperialist Politics
Yet in such a context, what can anti-capitalist politics look like? One argument is for workers of the global South to seize the means of production. Yet the dispersal of capitalist production makes this increasingly difficult. The fact is that in many parts of the world if workers seized a copper mine in Peru, an electronics plant in Malaysia or a software development office in India, they would be able to continue supplying global supply chains dominated by Western corporations, but they would be unlikely to successfully decouple from northern capitalism. A potential exception to this has been growing in China where alternative systems of technology and knowledge production have been developing, but this notably hasn’t been developing in other states of the global South where dependency is still the norm.
Is it then the case that we need a revolution in the global North to challenge the power of global corporations? Yet this also overlooks the complicity of northern labour in the running of a global system of imperialism. From knowledge workers whose salaries rely upon regional monopolies over technology and knowledge-production, to the service workers who manage offshored labour, or who repackage offshored labour as northern knowledge work to realise a surplus: the day-to-day reality of the exploitation of Southern labour is far more present in the North than the Left ever discusses.
This in turn generates all kinds of chauvinisms around the superiority of northern labour and knowledge work over that of the south, which is present in every office engaged in outsourcing and offshoring in the global North, which is a lot. This in turn produces all kinds of racisms which hinder all forms of class solidarity and leaves northern workers seeking to protect their privileges and to increase the exploitation of Southern labour. As the essay argues, the fact is that global socialism may well make them poorer and many know it.
Challenging the Global North
For the South, we can suggest that it is important not only to think of seizure of the means of production in the local or national sense, but also to think about how the monopoly of the North on knowledge, technology and the technical means of production can be broken. It is notable that a significant part of the trade war between China and USA was over forced technology transfers through which China, with a per capita GDP well below that of the USA’s, has sought to appropriate Western technology for its national economic development. China has obviously been the most successful developing nation at this, yet how completely China has broken its dependence on the North and whether it is embarking on new forms of imperialism, or sub-imperialism, itself is open to question.
Yet the principle that the northern domination of production needs to be broken is an important one, and through the transfer of technology, breaking the dependence on northern states for knowledge and greater economic democracy, this can increasingly become a reality. In the context of contemporary globalised capitalism, this is most likely to take place through forms of south-south cooperation, which don’t rely on northern workers.
The original article was written as a collaborative effort by Din Deng editors and contributors.