Debating imperialism

Issue: 144

Adrian Budd

A review of Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin, The Making of Global Capitalism: The Political Economy of American Empire (Verso, 2012), £20

As the world commemorates the centenary of the First World War (with limited awareness of its meaning) a book by two leading Marxists that explores contemporary imperialism demands our careful assessment.

A century ago there were two broad Marxist approaches to imperialism. Firstly, there was Karl Kautsky’s theory of “ultra-imperialism” which suggested the potential for the replacement of rivalry by an alliance of the imperialist countries against subordinate parts of the world. The second approach, the classical Marxist perspective of inter-imperialist rivalry developed by Lenin and Bukharin, argued that competitive capital accumulation produced giant firms that operated increasingly internationally and enlisted their home states in their conflicts with other nations’ capitals. The bloodshed and horrors of the war and subsequent decades showed that rivalry provided a superior explanation of international capitalist dynamics.

By 1971 Bob Rowthorn noted the emergence of an additional perspective. He argued that a new US super-imperialism had developed in which the US dominated other capitalist powers and had become the “organiser of world capitalism”, able to contain such antagonisms as did appear.1 Panitch’s and Gindin’s work sits squarely in this camp, with occasional nods towards ultra-imperialism.

Based on earlier collaborative work and an impressive amount of research, The Making of Global Capitalism (henceforth TMGC) provides a comprehensive history of US capitalism and the economic statecraft mobilised to open the global economy to US influence over the last century or so.2 TMGC’s focus is captured in its first two sentences:

This book is about globalisation and the state. It shows that the spread of capitalist markets, values and social relationships around the world, far from being an inevitable outcome of inherently expansionist economic tendencies, has depended on the agency of states—and of one state in particular: America.3

What has emerged from the US state’s role in the development of globalised capitalism, including the imposition of US-designed rules for the global economy, is “the American informal empire, which succeeded in integrating all the other capitalist powers into an effective system of coordination under its aegis”.4 This is not Michael Hardt’s and Toni Negri’s Empire, within whose post-national space the idea of rival national imperialisms is outdated.5 Nor does it neatly correspond to the transnationalist perspective developed by Marxists like William Robinson, because neither a transnational capitalist class nor a global state based on the International Financial Institutions (IFIs) is emerging. In the first place, TMGC notes that capital’s national roots and institutional linkages remain important, and that US multinational corporations, however international, remain American rather than transnational.6 Meanwhile, the IFIs were an expression of US post-war power and remain sites of negotiation and coordination between separate “national systems of regulation among the advanced capitalist states”.7 Nevertheless, TMGC shares with these perspectives the view that US hegemony has so successfully contained conflicts within the West that the idea of inter-imperialist rivalry is no longer helpful.

Appearance and essence

Most of this review concerns Panitch’s and Gindin’s understanding of imperialism, but other aspects are worthy of comment. Their argument that states, particularly the US state, remain central to globalised capitalism is a welcome riposte to wilder claims about the retreat of the state before the power of capital. But the relation of states to capitalism’s wider social relations and the underlying dynamics of capitalist relations of production are somewhat under-explored, and certainly under-theorised. Therefore the US state appears relatively unconstrained in its ability to oversee and transform other states and the world system. While the US has been very successful in orchestrating other states, globalised capitalism is not simply the product of US state planning.

The overestimation of agency over deeper structural determinations is repeated in the analysis of economic crisis. Marxism explains capitalist crises (for all that each has specific features and immediate causes) by reference to underlying social relations, particularly by the competition between capitals that helps to generate the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. Panitch and Gindin, by contrast, highlight the actions of social forces. While they register a decline in profit rates from the late 1960s, they explain the 1970s economic crisis chiefly by reference to workers’ rising confidence and ability to increase wages in the advanced capitalist states after over two decades of the long post-war boom.8 Similarly they contend that the post-2007 crisis was caused by financial volatility rather than “a profit squeeze or collapse of investment due to general overaccumulation”, since “profits and investments had recovered strongly since 1982”.9 The danger of this focus on agency is that it carries the possibly unintended message that capitalism can stay healthy, and profit rates high, if the working class share of national income remains subdued and better policies or regulations are pursued.

A focus on immediate agency not adequately rooted in underlying relations may also explain TMGC’s over-estimation of the incorporation of the working class into US capitalism. Given workers’ experience of exploitation, the argument that neoliberalism has “materially integrated” US workers via debt-driven consumerism that renders them dependent on rising stock markets and asset values (if they own property) tells only part of the story. Workers may indeed be fatalistically resigned to consumerist fantasies to some extent, particularly after the defeats for the unions that preceded (and enabled) the neoliberal turn. In the short term this may have “had a profoundly negative impact on working class organisation and culture” but it is hard to see that “individualised consumerism rather than collective services and a democratised state and economy became the main legacy of working class struggles in the 20th century”.10 Aside from its pessimism, this perspective underplays the persistence of, and popular support for, welfare states and suggests that consumerism can provide more than a mere short-lived smoothing of capitalism’s antagonistic class relations. A better and more dialectical starting point in explaining the relative lack of labour-movement resistance to neoliberalism is Gramsci’s concept of contradictory consciousness. A similarly dialectical and many-sided appreciation of the antagonisms and contradictions at its heart would also greatly help Panitch’s and Gindin’s analysis of the American empire.

Contemporary imperialism

Panitch and Gindin argue that the US that has successfully organised other capitalist powers behind its globalising project has not suffered relative decline, as many others claim. This argument has some powerful elements. The US still has the world’s largest economy, continues to account for roughly half the world’s research and development, and US corporations remain leaders in most strategically important high-tech industrial sectors.11 The US state remains strategically vital to the rest of the world, capable of influencing the decisions of and imposing rules (on banking and accountancy, etc) on all others, and the US dollar is central to the world’s financial and trading systems.

A key part of the construction of the American empire that TMGC highlights has been the US’s ability to “internationalise” other states, which thereby “accept some responsibility for promoting the accumulation of capital in a manner that contributed to the US-led management of the international capitalist order”.12 This sometimes demonstrates US structural power—setting domestic rules (on tax, banking regulation, etc) that others feel compelled to accept—and sometimes the use of a disciplinary power designed to send a message to other states, as when the US mobilised the IMF against Britain’s Labour government in 1975-6. In internationalising other states, TMGC argues, the US managed to “largely efface the interest and capacity of each ‘national bourgeoisie’ to act as the kind of coherent force that might have supported challenges to the informal American empire”.13

Many of Panitch’s and Gindin’s arguments about relative decline and internationalisation challenge received wisdom and methods of measurement. If the US is in decline, how can its capitals dominate virtually all key industrial sectors? Why, if China is on course to displace the US as the world’s major power, as many argue, does Chinese capital barely register in these key sectors? How is hegemonic decline squared with the US ability to set rules for the global trade and financial systems? These questions suggest that we need nuanced thinking on decline, but they do not demand that we simply deny it: the US economy does account for a slowly declining share of world output (the EU is declining far more rapidly), which imposes pressures on the US state in terms of its domestic legitimacy and ability to mobilise resources to maintain its global primacy. For all that the US has managed to slow its decline in the quarter century since Paul Kennedy warned of “imperial overstretch”, and although US primacy seems likely to persist for many years, the world is increasingly multi-polar.14 This is barely registered in TMGC.

TMGC’s account of internationalisation also tells only part of the story. In a world of plural states, underpinned by the economics of competitive accumulation, each state seeks to influence others, their economic and strategic environment, the world’s major powers, and the rules governing international relations of various kinds. This lies behind US attempts to internationalise other states, but they too have their interests. Subordinate states do not passively accommodate superpower demands and even among strategic allies there is negotiation, consultation, compromise and occasional resistance.15 These various forms of conflict are under-played in TMGC’s account of internationalisation. They are not equally significant, and perhaps too much is made of minor intra-Western squabbles over trade or state support for the capitals operating on particular national territories.16 But these conflicts of interest point to a structured competitive rivalry, albeit within limits, that is quite marginal in the image TMGC presents of a relatively smoothly and consensually integrated American empire. That competitive rivalry is the basis for the persistence of inter-imperialist rivalry.


Having successfully internationalised other states, and facing no “coherent challenge” to its informal empire, Panitch and Gindin see the US as “the ultimate guarantor of capitalist interests globally”.17 Consequently, they argue, the West’s ruling classes are now so integrated under the US empire that they no longer have antagonistic interests and the classical Marxist perspective of inter-imperialist rivalry is outdated.18

The continued defence of the classical Marxist theory of imperialism is disparagingly labelled “economism”. Logically, therefore, the superiority of Panitch’s and Gindin’s approach would be spelled out, but there is a significant omission in their work, which offers no developed theorisation of why politics should be prioritised in the analysis of empire, or of the relationship between capital and states, economics and politics.19 Indeed, the focus on US financial power, albeit aided by the actions of the US state, gives TMGC an economistic flavour of its own. This is underlined by the neglect of the area of geopolitics, and specifically that most political of acts—war. This in turn means that TMGC is almost silent on one key (and in recent years very visible) aspect of the US state that is at the heart of its enquiry, namely its military power projection and strategic planning.

It is unclear from TMGC’s analysis of the apparently pacifying power of the US informal empire why the US accounts for approaching half the world’s military spending. Nor does it address the shared commitments of US geostrategists: there are certainly tactical differences between, say, Zbigniew Brzezinski, one of Barack Obama’s key advisers, and the neoconservatives who shaped the foreign policy of Bush junior, but there is a bipartisan commitment to the strategic goal of securing American global primacy and deterring the emergence of peer competitors. A key aspect of that primacy, for Brzezinski, is US control of Eurasia (including its “enormous concentration of natural gas and oil reserves”) in order to prolong political fragmentation and “prevent the emergence of a hostile coalition that would eventually seek to challenge America’s primacy”.20 That others shared Brzezinski’s perspective was demonstrated by the almost complete elite consensus around the Iraq war of 2003, albeit that it eroded slightly once the occupation began to face Iraqi opposition. Yet TMGC contains only four entries on Iraq, none of them dealing with the war and its significance, which was to assert US leverage over energy supplies to other major powers, including its allies, and demonstrate that it is the rule-enforcer of last resort.

Also missing in TMGC is any discussion of the geopolitical aspects of China’s rise. But, as recent and continuing events around China’s land and sea borders (with Japan, Taiwan, North and South Korea, India, Vietnam, in the South China Seas, etc) indicate, China has not simply been internationalised to support the US informal empire but defends and projects its own interests. It does so within a structured framework of rivalries, and it is an awkward fact for TMGC that China’s increasing articulation with the global economy has been accompanied by its own military modernisation and aggrandisement on the one hand, and Obama’s “pivot to Asia”, which entails a military reorientation towards the Asia-Pacific region to contain China, on the other. The perspective of inter-imperialist rivalry seems best suited to explaining this.

The geopolitical and military dimensions of world order remain significant because capitalism’s fundamentally anarchic and competitive nature ensures that it can never be anything other than uneven and uncontrollable. As the size and market power of separate capitals constantly rise and fall, the pecking order of capitalist states is subject to constant change, even within the most integrated Western core of the system. Who, for instance, could have predicted after the USSR’s collapse, the deepening of US-led globalisation and, in 2003, the rapid destruction of Saddam Hussein’s regime, that the US would later suffer the debacle in Iraq that contributed to its relative powerlessness over Crimea, Syria, Israel’s attack on Gaza, and the rise of the Islamic State in 2014? But states do not react passively to unevenness and setbacks, and it is inconceivable that US strategists are not planning their response to these vicissitudes. As the astute transnationalist theorist Kees van der Pijl argues (against Kautsky but also applicable to a lesser extent to Panitch and Gindin), “the argument against the idea of a stable, collectively managed capitalist world order remains valid”.21


TMGC is an important book. It contains a wealth of illuminating material and perceptive arguments and repays careful reading. I have criticised it not to score points but because those who would change the world must look reality in the face, comprehend it as accurately as possible and fashion appropriate methods to transform it. Much of TMGC helps us to do that, but its core argument is one-sided and lacks a dialectical appreciation of how inter-imperialist rivalry has been both transformed and preserved as the US has risen to a position of primacy.22

The inter-imperialist rivalry of a century ago was modified by the mid-20th century by one of its own consequences, namely the emergence of superpower imperialism during the Cold War. Today the global economic integration and primacy of a single superpower that TMGC explores signal a further modification. But, while US power contributes to the satisfaction of the world’s ruling classes’ common interest in the stability and reproduction of global capitalism, and helps to keep conflicts between them in check, competition between national ruling classes has not disappeared, and the US is a participant in that competition. The US, then, is subject to what Doug Stokes calls “dual national and transnational logics”, promoting its own interests while simultaneously seeking to secure a world order safe for capitalism as a whole.23 Thus the contemporary world order is best understood as an inter-imperialist system modified and conditioned by the primacy of a pre-eminent (but not always dominant) superpower. Within this framework there is a persistent dialectic of cooperation and competition, accommodation and rivalry.

To understand the contemporary world order in this way is not to underestimate capitalism’s capacity to contain conflict and absorb shocks, but neither is it to overestimate its coherence and strength. The latter error, which I believe Panitch and Gindin fall into, risks missing opportunities to present a socialist alternative to the horrors of empire that they too would like to see consigned to the history books.


1: Rowthorn, 1971, p31. Rowthorn refers only to the West since, unlike the tradition of this journal, he did not see the USSR as capitalist or the Cold War as a form of inter-imperialism.

2: See Panitch and Gindin, 2004, 2005a, 2005b, 2005c.

3: Panitch and Gindin, 2012, pvii.

4: Panitch and Gindin, 2012, p8.

5: Hardt and Negri, 2000.

6: Panitch and Gindin, 2012, p345, footnote 26. See also Jones, 2006.

7: Panitch and Gindin, 2012, p235. On transnationalism see Robinson, 2004. For a critique, see Budd, 2007.

8: For critiques of this theory of crisis see Brenner, 1998, and Harman, 1984.

9: Panitch and Gindin, 2012, p20. This is part of their wider claim that neoliberalism has “resolved” US capitalism’s 1970s profitability crisis, which “came to an end” after 1982 (p164). This is hardly supported by their own table (pp182-183), which shows a recovery in after-tax profits in 1982-3 but further declines in five of the next nine years. More generally, many leading Marxist economists demonstrate that profit rates have barely risen over recent decades-see Choonara, 2012.

10: Panitch and Gindin, 2012, p339.

11: Starrs, 2014, updates this argument.

12: Panitch and Gindin, 2012, p8.

13: Panitch and Gindin, 2012, p11.

14: See Kennedy, 1989.

15: Hannes Lacher’s concept of the national/global dialectic, whereby all states defend their interests by projecting their powers into the international system while being simultaneously subject to the pressures of that system, provides a useful way of understanding the limits of “globalisation” and the context within which all states operate. See Lacher, 2003.

16: In one sense the 2014 spat between Germany and the US over electronic espionage was a minor issue. But imagine how we might feel on discovering that someone we had a shared interest with-say a partner or work colleague (let alone a manager!)-was intercepting our emails.

17: Panitch and Gindin, 2012, p11.

18: Indeed, they suggest that past inter-imperialist rivalry resulted from “the role of pre-capitalist ruling classes”, thereby absolving capitalism of responsibility for the horrors of war-Panitch and Gindin, 2012, p5.

19: For important attempts at such theorisation by writers in the tradition of this journal see Callinicos, 2009, and Harman, 1991.

20: Brzezinski, 1997, p198.

21: Van der Pijl, 2006, pxi.

22: There is a parallel with monopoly-a consequence of competition that formally transcends but simultaneously preserves it.

23: Stokes, 2005, p230.


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