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Harvey, David (2003)  The New Imperialism. : -.

To celebrate the 20th anniversary of Baltimore's Progressive Action Center, co-founder David Harvey gave the First Annual Ric Pfeffer Lecture to an audience of 100 activists and intellectuals on October 25, 2002. The year the PAC was born was also the year Harvey published The Limits to Capital, a book the New Left Review described as a "major work of economic theory." With the publication of this work and through seven more books, most famously The Condition of Postmodernity, Harvey developed a Marxian theoretical approach he calls "historical-geographical materialism" focusing analysis on the "spatial fix" in the process of capital accumulation. David Harvey's work can help us understand the dynamics of imperialism and his keynote speech was on "The New Imperialism." What follows is the text of his speech (transcribed by Jean Cushman).

I have fond memories of this place. I used to teach Capital upstairs a lot and even at some point or another insisted that the students from Johns Hopkins come over here. If they wanted to take Capital, they had to come here to do it. It was a lot of fun doing it that way.

Of course it's a terrific privilege to be here during the first year giving the first lecture in Rick's memory. Rick was a tremendous friend and colleague over the years. Baltimore doesn't seem the same without him, but it's great to see so many people who knew him and we can get together and talk to friendly faces.

What I wanted to do today was throw out some preliminary thoughts and get your reactions. Partly about the current situation and how to think about what is happening. Just in terms of sort of the background.

In the 70's, 80's, and 90's, what we really saw globally was tremendous expansion in foreign trade and foreign exchange--a tremendous expansion of capital flows across the face of the earth. A sort of a progressive shift toward the financialization of everything ... tremendous absorption of the population into a wage labor force ... lots of mini wars all over the place. And lots of sorts of conflict all over the place ... a really fairly spectacular phase of reconsolidation of capitalism.

Now you're all very familiar with that. The only thing I would want to say is I'm actually talking about a period from 1870--1900. Well, I think that's very important because there's an issue here about how capitalism re-creates itself --many of the features which happened during that period have happened again. As Marx once commented, you know, "when history repeats itself it usually turns the first time of tragedy into the first time of farce."

So we can kind of say, what we've been through in the most recent period is something different. Of course what happened during that period throughout all of those years from 1870 to 1900, nobody had any problem at all about talking about imperialism. Everybody knew they were into imperialism. It was sort of a project that was unashamedly trotted out and utilized and there was something else to recognize about it - it was as much a liberal project as it was a conservative project. In fact, much of the opposition to imperialism came from conservative circles.

In fact, there's a long history of conservative opposition to imperialism and liberal pursuit of imperialism. And that's something that we always ought to remember. For instance, one the of the most fantastic critics of imperialism, if we go back far enough, Edmund Burke, who hated the French Revolution and ideas of progress but if he was reading about the imperial project in India you find that Edmund Burke--he was just going crazy--"we shouldn't be doing this." It was absolutely outrageous--just something that was not reasonable.

Now the critique of imperialism at the end of 19th century was really a critique within liberalism, that is, it pitted one wing of liberalism against another wing of liberalism. It wasn't really about conservatives versus [liberals]--it was really that kind of way.

Of course the United States at that time got into its imperial mode with McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt and eventually sort of its own form--the liberal form of it in Wilson. We have this sort of overt imperial project which led to the left picking up the idea in the famous statements of Bukharin and Lenin and Luxemburg and the tremendous debate. And we also know the political history which, in some ways if we bracket 1914 to 1945, we kind of have to say its half a century of inter-imperialist wars.

So there is that history of imperialism and what's intriguing to me in the last 30 years no one has really used the "I" word at all, until the last couple of years. And in the last couple of years people start to use it. One of Blair's chief advisors, a man called Robert Cooper, has been writing about the necessity for a new kind of imperialism. You see it coming out in the Wall Street Journal. We've seen it coming out in some surprising places like writing about Afghanistan and saying, well you know, the trouble is America thinks it can get away with imperialism "light" and the only kind of imperialism that's going to work is imperialism "heavy" and so we've really got to take this notion of imperialism very, very seriously.

So suddenly we find ourselves in a situation where people are using the language of imperialism as if there is something to be said about it. And it leads immediately back to the question of do I pull out my Lenin and re-read my Lenin, and say, "Hey, OK we're going through this all again and it's farcical this time around." And so the question arises what is different from back then 'til now?

Well, I think there are some very significant differences from back then 'til now, and the most significant difference I think is this: back then there were a number of capitalist powers sort of vying with each other. There was Britain, there was the rising power of the United States, there was Germany. There was rivalry over empires--there was a French empire, there was a British empire. There were these sorts of struggles going on in Africa, Southeast Asia, and the like.

Since 1945, it seems to be the big strategy of the United States is to prevent at any cost inter-imperialist wars. And to do it in a variety of ways. Now it was relatively easy to do it all the time the Cold War was on because the United States could sit there and say, "Well we're the big force that is protecting you against communism." Therefore there is a balance of power between the Soviet Union and the United States. And the capitalist powers were forced in various ways to tow the line and make sure that everything was okay.

All of that changed, of course, with the collapse of the Soviet Union. And what we're looking at now is a new era. As I see it, the collapse of the Soviet Union opened up a whole set of new problems, but also a whole set of new opportunities. I think the present government in Washington saw a whole set of opportunities at the end of the Cold War. And actually had plans as to what to do with those opportunities. The only trouble was they didn't win the election [in 1992]. Clinton got into power and they've been seething ever since over the fact that Clinton had wasted this tremendous opportunity--this new opportunity to re-organize the world in very specific kinds of ways.

And what's emerging now with these documents sort of coming out in the Atlantic Monthly and New York Review of Books and various other places is that a line of thinking was developed out at the end of the last Bush administration--a line of thinking which we're now seeing implemented. What is happening now is not something new--it's something that's been thought through and has been actually a part of the whole agenda of that wing of government. And this is different from before because, as I mentioned before, a lot of imperialism has been liberal imperialism. The kind of thing we've got now is a neo-liberal imperialism which is also at the same time a conservative imperialism.

It puts together a conservatism and a free market neo-liberal ideology in a specific way which seems to me really quite different than the ways which were characteristic at the end of the 19th century. And this then leads to what I think is a the fundamental difference. And the fundamental difference is that the United States is now the central singular power. There is no other power center. And this is what was clearly seen at the end of the last Bush administration. Having no other challenging power center, it was in a position therefore to actually set up the world economy in such a way as to guarantee its position for the next 50 years. And I think that this was the kind of thinking that was going on.

One of the things that's very odd to me is that this project got disrupted in the Clinton administration because the Clinton administration, while it sort of is traditionally liberal imperialist, that is, it was able to engage in low negotiation, it was multilateral--it was working through multilateral institutions. But nevertheless it was imperialist. It didn't use the word, it talked about multi-nationalism, it talked about things like the Washington Consensus, it talked about setting up these new institutions like the WTO and using the IMF in certain ways. So it was imperialist, but it didn't use that word, it was always trying to talk about multilateralism and it was always trying to talk about the multilateralism as a means to try and guarantee the stability of the global economy.

That agenda, it seems to me, started to run into serious difficulty. It ran into some serious economic difficulties--with the sort of crises that existed in Asia, well first in Russia and then in Asia. It also started to find that some of the multilateral institutions it was setting up had the possibility of being utilized against the United States. The WTO, for example, although it was fundamentally biased in the way it was set up against most of the Third World--most of the developing countries--it was nevertheless something that could be used by the Europeans, or could be used by Japan, against the United States. I think the sort of litmus test of this would be something like the World Court on Crimes Against Humanity.

What you suddenly see here is something being set up and the United States wants to haul people from all around the world into this court and then suddenly looks at situation and says, "Oh, my God, they could come after Henry Kissinger or it could come after these kinds of people. We can't allow that to happen, therefore we have to be exempt." So instead of multilateralism, you suddenly get unilateralism which starts to emerge as being fundamental. And when you look at the record of the Bush administration, you see unilateralism all the way down the line. Bang, bang, bang. Abandon Kyoto, abandon the ABM treaty, abandon all these kinds of things. And what we've now got emerging, it seems to me, is a very clear, imperialist doctrine.

And I want to talk a little about that imperialist doctrine. Talk about some of its weaknesses and possibly some of its limits.

Militarily, the last defense statement made very clear what the doctrine was. No other country, or no other group of countries is to be allowed--is to be permitted was the language-- is to be permitted to have a military force which could rival that of the United States. Simple as that. And that gets connected, of course, to the notion of pre-emptive action, which says if some place does threaten them, we have a right pre-emptively to stop that. And you can see, actually, a very interesting negotiation going on in Europe right now.

Europeans want to develop their own rapid reaction deployment force. The United States is all in favor of it, provided it's under NATO command. The Europeans want it to be outside of NATO command. And the US is putting all kinds of pressure on to make absolutely sure that it's under NATO command, and that means, of course, under US command. So militarily, we know what this means. It means the United States is the dominant power and nobody else. The United States wants other people to pay for the military. It wants them to pay for the peace-keeping forces. It wants them to pay for the Gulf wars, to pay for Iraq, or pay for something like this. It wants them to do this but nevertheless it doesn't want them to develop any power which could challenge that of the United States. And that, now, is official doctrine that was laid out in the last Defense [Department] paper. That came out in December.

Economically, I think the project is to insure that no other country, or group of countries, will be able to rival the United States on economic grounds That is, there will be no challenge to US hegemony in the economic sphere. Now on this point, you have a certain amount of difficulty. Because it's one thing to insure militarily that you do this, but it's rather more complicated to insure it on the economic front. And here I think there's just one piece of the story that seems to be crucial and the one that I want to dwell upon. It's not the only piece of the story, but the one that seems to be pretty central. And I'll put it pretty simply. Whoever controls the global oil supply controls the global economy. At least for the next 50 years. And what the United States is concerned about is controlling global oil supplies. And it wants to control them.

And I think a lot of what's going on in the Middle East right now has a lot to do with exactly that question. But it's a complicated question because the United States is not actually dependent upon Middle Eastern Oil. The United States gets most of its oil from the Americas, which explains something. They are not only into regime change in Baghdad, they are also into regime change in Venezuela.

That's what they're after. Now, when you look at that you say, why are they after Venezuela? Well, Venezuela has one important voice in OPEC. What are the other important voices in OPEC? Well, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran. So you have Iraq, Iran, and Venezuela who are not terribly friendly towards the United States.

Ever since OPEC started out, OPEC has always been stabilized by the fact that there has been a special relationship with Saudi Arabia. Seems to me that the Saudi Arabia relationship is going a little sour. Things are not going well. There's a lot of coolness there. It's not clear that the United States is going to be able to maintain its special relationship with Saudi Arabia. And it seems if Saudi Arabia goes funny in any way then OPEC can be actually controlled--the global oil supplies--in ways which are not viable in relationship to US interests. That's part of the story.

The other part of the story is, who is dependent upon Middle Eastern oil? Europe, Japan. Now, then, why should the Europeans and Japanese be in charge of Middle Eastern oil? The reason they can't be in charge of Middle Eastern oil is because the US wants to control their economies through the oil spigot if necessary.

So I think there something going on here around this sort of strategizing about oil which is absolutely crucial to all these plans which are being pushed about the Middle East. For instance, the invasion of Iraq was one of the things that was set out in the last years of the last Bush administration. It's not something that's suddenly come up. And, in fact, things are surfacing now--sort of memos to Bush saying, "As soon as you get elected one of the first things you've got to do is go after Iraq that's one of the things you've got to do."

So this then becomes one of the key cards which the US has, its seems to me, in it's determination to control the global economy and make absolutely sure that there's no economic rivalry to its position in the world economy.

There's another piece to this story. The oil reserves in the Middle East are very substantial. Everybody knows that. The oil reserves in Central Asia are also very substantial. Nobody knows quite what they are but the suspicion is they may be even more substantial than they are in the Middle East. In the long run, the reserves of oil in Central Asia are incredible. But notice how the Afghanistan action led to American troops in Uzbekistan, Kazakstan--the US already has its feet firmly in Central Asia close to that oil. If that is the case, and the oil has to be gotten out, the only way that it can really be feasibly gotten out is through Afghanistan and Pakistan. So you've got to make sure that Afghanistan and Pakistan are also in your column.

So there seems to me there's a geopolitical push right now to try to control the whole region. Now this is something that bothered me at first when I started thinking about the Iraq situation. I thought, "Don't these people, don't these jesters down there...." One of things we on the left sometimes do is to think that they are all idiots. Well, some of them are--they may be mad but they've also got a bit of method in their madness. I thought to myself and I was saying to someone, "Well, look, you go to Iraq, don't you realize there's a danger of destabilizing the whole of the Middle East--from Pakistan to Lebanon and Egypt?"

And then you start to look at some of the statements coming out of the administration and you realize that they don't think that would be a bad thing, necessarily. And here you go with a bit of history. How were those states initially set up? They were all set up as a sort of side bar of the Versailles agreement, mainly at the behest of both the British and the French colonial powers. I mean Iraq was created as a state out of nothing. Kuwait was made as a special little state because the British wanted a culling station, you know, to control the route to Africa. So all of those states there, you know, were created in that period between 1921 -25.

And they were created in this sort of arbitrary way around colonial interests, around the political interests of the British and the French. And it seems to me that those state configurations look pretty dysfunctional. And it would not at all surprise me if the US may not actually plan to have a conflagration throughout the whole region. But, if that happened, it wouldn't be such a bad thing because you could--after all the mess has happened and everything--you could end up with some comprehensive agreement in which case you could re-territorialize the whole region. In other words, re-do what was done back in the 1920's but do them now in a completely different way around a completely different agenda that would be largely set, of course, by US military power.

It may even be--I don't know this--but it may even be that the dream of this administration is to actually solve the Palestinian-Israeli problem that way. To form a new state--a greater Palestine or something like that--you'd merge Jordan with the West Bank and a chunk of Saudi Arabia or something of that kind, and you try and solve things in that way. In other words it's almost like you could imagine complete re-territorialization of the whole region.

Now this may sound a bit fantastic, but then when you actually look at what's been happening over the last 10 or 15 years, there's been a lot of re-territorialization going on. Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union. You've got the European Union forming, you've got NAFTA forming. You've got an actual reorganization of the territorial structure of the global economy. You're seeing it happening all over the place. You've got secessionist movements--the Northern Italians want to get themselves away from the Southern Italians. You've got all kinds of territorial movements....

And it seems to me that we've gone from a situation of relative stability in the political organization of the world to a situation where a lot of that seems to be in flux. And, of course, the argument here is often about well, the nation state is irrelevant anyway. I mean as far as capital flow is concerned, nation-state borders tend to become much more porous. So there's a whole wing of argument now going on in academia that says that the nation state is irrelevant--don't worry about it. You find it on the Left and on the Right. You find it in Hardt and Negri's Empire, and you find it on the Right. The result of that is that you want to re-territorialize the world in a fundamentally different way. Now this seems to me to be one of the things that's going on from the standpoint of the economy. The US has a strategy. And its strategy is to control much of the world that way. And, at the same time, not only be able to control it, but to be able to utilize that control to its !
own very specific advantage.

Now, just a sidebar on that. When you start to think about specific advantage. When the US went in after World War II and reconstructed Japan and Germany, it went in and it lent a lot of money and it gave a lot of money and it said, "OK you can pay it on a long term basis and you can pay it off at the rate of about 3%." Guess how much countries like Brazil and Argentina are paying today to the US? They're paying roughly 25% rate of interest.

So what we're finding now again are these financial institutions. The whole structure of financial institutions is about actually sucking in surpluses from the world at a rather frantic rate. I mean New York City, what does it live on? It's a great parasitic city, actually. It's a financial center living off of sucking surpluses all over the world. The financial sector in New York City is in a lot of trouble now. The result is that we have a budget crisis in New York City that is worse than it was in 1975. And we're in a real terrible mess.

Now, we've got to get back to sucking that surplus more and more and more as much as we can via these kinds of mechanisms. Which, by the way, these are some of what I think is a very important issue. You know, Marx in Capital had a category called "primitive accumulation." Primitive accumulation was about the violent expropriation of assets of some kind from somebody who already had them to the capitalist class. Marx made it sound like that had happened in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. And once capital got in motion, once it got moving, it didn't need primitive accumulation anymore. It was a historical phase, but the argument I want to make here is that imperialism has always been about primitive accumulation. And when capitalism gets into trouble in its own dynamics of accumulation, one of the things it does is it goes off and engages in primitive accumulation. And I think one of the reasons we are now seeing this talk about new imperialism is that again, the only way the US economy can sustain itself is precisely by engaging in a new imperialism which engages in this process of what we call a new round of primitive accumulation. And what I prefer to call it "accumulation by dispossession." By that I mean accumulation by dispossession of
common property rights, dispossession of agricultural resources, dispossession of natural resources, dispossession of labor resources, and dispossession through this flow through the financial systems. Because remember this, the US is the biggest debtor nation that's every been.

It's an extraordinary debtor nation. I mean this is the one country that should really go through structural adjustment by the IMF. But since the US is the IMF, of course, it's a bit like the International Court on Crimes against Humanity. You are outside of the rules. The rules apply to everybody else, but not to you. But, this means the US economy is incredibly vulnerable. If money starts flying out of the US for any reason, then the economy will just go down the chute. So again, the imperial presence of the US is very much not only about insuring that you control what other countries are up to, but absolutely controlling the situation .... This is what the heart of the new imperialist project is about from an economic standpoint.

I want to talk about this project from two other standpoints. First, the political standpoint. It would be nice to think that somehow economy and politics just go together. I mean I like the category of political economy and it should go together. But the fact is, there's a mismatch here. And the mismatch is around a lot of history and a lot of problems. For example, I don't think [there's a] sort of economic solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. There are many other conflicts of that kind. Ethnic conflicts, religious conflicts, around the world which seem to me to be not easily captured in terms of the economic arguments I've made.

Geopolitically then, the US is then in a position of trying to cultivate alliances across all kinds of boundaries. For example, its historical alliance with Saudi Arabia. I mean if you took the American political tradition and kind of said, "You should be in alliance with Saudi Arabia," people would think that's about as daft as thinking Hussein is in alliance with Al Queda.

So what we have is a much more complicated political situation with political interests vying with each other in very complicated ways. For instance, if you look at the way Britain has separated itself from Europe around this Iraq thing. I think it's interesting that Britain is the one country in Europe that is not dependent upon oil from there. And I would not be at all surprised if that part of the discussion between Bush and Blair isn't saying "Well, in some comprehensive settlement after the thing has gone down, we've privatized all of the Iraqi oilfields, and we've broken OPEC. We're going to give part of the action to British Petroleum." This wouldn't be uncommon because remember, British Petroleum was kicked out of Iran by Mossadegh in 1950.... When the CIA engaged in its coup and put the Shah of Iran in there, it didn't bring BP back, it was Gulf Oil and Amoco who went in there. So these things go on and you'll also find if you go back to the Biafra civil war, which had a lot to do with oil, the European powers were playing games against the US - all kinds of geopolitical things were going on. So it's a very complicated geopolitical thing.

And much of what is going on right now is the US trying to set up political alliances across a whole set of very disparate regimes. Who's it going to be in an alliance with? Where's it going to be in an alliance with? Can it deal with Russia? How will it deal with China? China is going to be very difficult in the long run. Because China has a great interest in the Central Asian oil. A tremendous interest. I can't imagine that the Chinese will sit there very happily and say to the US, "Oh, yeah, you can have all that Central Asian oil, we'll buy it at inflated prices from Gulf Oil or Amoco." I can't imagine they will sit there for that.

So there's a lot of potential tension in the world around the politics. And I think this new imperialism is at that level likely to lead into some very very difficult kinds of conflicts. Of course, the US has the military might. It also has a lot of the economic institutions in its pocket right now. So that seems to me something that is not quite consistent with the economic picture, therefore is a potential source of instability for the whole project.

The final point I want to make is really a psychological point. In World War II, there was a very serious discussion in the State Department, as I recall reading, over the issue of whether the US should come out of World War II with territorial gains or not. And at the time there were some primitive polling techniques and sounding of public opinion. Public opinion was resolutely against that. And there's an interesting question from all this--I'd really like some help from you as well. I don't think most of the people in the US are pro-imperialist. I'm not talking about us. I'm talking about most people in the US.

I mean, I'm serious. I think most people are not pro-imperialist. And you can almost sense this in some of the things that are being said now. "Yeah, you've got to go deal with Saddam, I suppose," but people don't really understand the issues involved. "Yeah, we've got to deal with Saddam, because maybe he's a threat, but we've got to do it with UN support, we've got to deal with it collectively." There's a nervousness about this unilateralism--a real nervousness at all kinds of levels. And you even see it within members of the Republican Party. I mean some members of the Republican Party have been saying those other members of the Republican Party in government are crazy--they're off their rockers, you know. They think they can go around doing what they're doing. And they're very nervous.

So I think there is a point here which seems to me we ought to be able to capitalize upon. That this country, if the basic sentiment is anti-imperialist, and we are moving now into this thing of rather blatant imperialist practices, then it seems to me that we are given a tremendous possibility to move into the mainstream of sentiment and to say that, "This is the sort of thing that should not happen." But I'm not sure about that. I really am not sure about that. And there are many other issues here around the sort of psychology of all this because also the way politics is working these days is so much about emotion and visceral manipulation and almost instantaneous manipulation. And at that level there is a tremendous battle to be fought and one of the battles I think we can engage with is to take up this question of the new imperialism and try to talk about what it's all about. I'm not sure I've got it all straight, but, collectively we can try to figure out something about what it's about and try to say, "This is deeply antagonistic to the US tradition." "This isn't what we're about. We've never been about this." I mean there have been phases when we went off and did things - Philippines and Hawaii and stuff like that. There've been phases, but by and large this is not what we've been about. We may be about neo-colonialism and economic domination, by those kinds of financial institutions, and all of that but we're certainly not about engaging in these sort of practices. In the way we seem to be headed right now.

So this gives us an opportunity which I think comes back to what Chuck was saying earlier. You know, I think regime change is a great idea but we should do it here. So what do you think?

(Formerly a professor at both Johns Hopkins University and Oxford University, David Harvey is now at the City University of New York Graduate Center.)

For a discussion of "The New Imperialism" go to
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