Intellectual Origins Of America-Bashing Part 4 Immiserization Goes Global
Introduction see Intellectual Origins Of America-Bashing
From Part 3: Immiserization. By the twentieth century the immiserization thesis was already beginning to look shaky. Empirical evidence, drawn either by impressionistic observation or systematic statistical studies, began to suggest that there was something wrong with the classical version of the thesis, and an attempt was made to save it by redefining immiserization to mean not an absolute increase in misery, but merely a relative one.
This gloss allowed a vast increase in empirical plausibility, since it accepted the fact that the workers were indeed getting better off under the capitalist system but went on to argue that they were not getting better off at the same rate as the capitalists.
The problem with this revision lay not in its economic premises, but its political ones. Could one realistically believe that workers would overthrow an economic system that was continually improving their own lot, simply because that of the capitalist class was improving at a marginally better rate? Certainly, the workers might envy the capitalists; but such emotions simply could not supply the gigantic impetus required to overthrow a structure as massive as the capitalist system. Before the workers of a capitalist society could unite, they had to feel that they had literally nothing to lose, nothing to lose but their proverbial chains. For if they had homes and cars and boats and rvs to lose as well, then it became quite another matter.
In short, the relative immiserization thesis was simply not the stuff that drives people to the barricades. At most it could fuel the gradualist reforms of the evolutionary ideal of socialism, a position identified with Eduard Bernstein.
The post-World War II period demolished the last traces of the classical immiserization thesis. Workers in the most advanced capitalist countries were prosperous by any standard imaginable, either absolute or relative; and what is even more important, they felt themselves to be well off, and believed that the future would only make them and their children even better off than they had been in the past.
This was a deadly blow to the immiserization thesis and hence to Marxism. For the failure of the immiserization thesis is in fact the failure of classical Marxism. If there is no misery, there is no revolution; and if there is no revolution, there is no socialism. Q.E.D. Socialism goes back once more to being merely a utopian fantasy.
Yet those who still claim to derive their heritage from Marx are mostly unwilling to acknowledge that their political aims are merely utopian, not scientific. How is that possible?
There might be several reasons advanced for this, but certainly one of them is Paul Baran. A Polish born American economist and a Marxist, Baran is the author of The Political Economy of Growth (Monthly Review Press, 1957). In it, for the first time in Marxist literature, Baran propounded a causal connection between the prosperity of the advanced capitalist countries and the impoverishment of the Third World.
It was no longer the case, as it was for Marx, that poverty, as well as idiocy, was the natural condition of man living in an agricultural mode of production. Rather, poverty had been introduced into the Third World by the capitalist system. The colonies no longer served the purpose of consuming overstocked inventories, but were now the positive victims of capitalism.
What needs to be stressed here is that, prior to Baran, no Marxist had ever suspected that capitalism was the cause of the poverty of the rest of the world. Not only had Marx and Engels failed to notice this momentous fact, but neither had any of their followers. Yet this omission was certainly not due to Marx's lack of knowledge about, or interest in, the question of European colonies. In his writing on India, Marx shows himself under no illusions concerning the brutal and mercenary nature of British rule. He is also aware of the "misery and degradation" effected by the impact of British industry's "devastating effects" on India.
Yet all of this is considered by Marx to be a dialectical necessity; that is to say, these effects were the unavoidable precondition of India's progress and advance, an example of the "creative destruction" that Schumpeter spoke of as the essence of capitalist dynamics. Or, as Marx put it in On Colonialism: "[T]he English bourgeoisie . . . will neither emancipate nor materially mend the social condition of the mass of the [Indian] people . . . but . . . what they will not fail to do is to lay down the material premises for both" the emancipation and the mending of this social condition.
The radical nature of Baran's reformulation of Marxist doctrine is obscured by an understandable tendency to confuse Baran's theory with Lenin's earlier theory of imperialism. In fact, the two have nothing in common. Lenin's theory had evolved in order to explain the continuing survival of capitalism into the early twentieth century, and hence the delay of the coming of socialism.
In Lenin's view, imperialism is not the cause of Third World immiserization, but rather a stopgap means of postponing immiserization in the capitalist countries themselves. It is the capitalist countries' way of keeping their own work force relatively prosperous, and hence politically placid, by selling surplus goods into captive colonial markets. It is not a way of exploiting, much less impoverishing, these colonies.
It was rather a way, to bribe the upper strata of the proletariat, and . . . to . . . strengthen opportunism, as Lenin put it in Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (International Publishers, 1933).
This gives us the proper perspective from which to judge the revolutionary quality of Baran's reformulation. For, in essence, what Baran has done is to globalize the traditional doctrine of immiserization so that, instead of applying to the workers of the advanced capitalist countries, it now came to apply to the entire population of those countries that have not achieved advanced capitalism: It was the rest of the world that was being impoverished by capitalism, not the workers of the advanced countries.
Baran's global immiserization thesis, after its initial launch, was taken up by other Marxists, but it was nowhere given a more elaborate intellectual foundation than in Immanuel Wallerstein's monumental study The Modern World-System (Academic Press, 1974), which was essentially a fleshing out in greater historical and statistical detail of Baran's thesis. Hence, for the sake of convenience, I will call the global immiserization thesis the Baran-Wallerstein revision. Go to Part 5: America as "root cause".
- Introduction: The Intellectual Origins Of America-Bashing
- The Intellectual Origins Of America-Bashing
- Part 2: Marx's political realism
- Part 3: Immiserization
- Part 4: Immiserization goes global
- Part 5: America as "root cause"
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