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‘Capital & Imperialism: Theory, History and the Present’ review: The long reach of imperialism

Literary Review

Literary Review

The Patnaiks are a renowned scholarly duo and emeritus professors of Jawaharlal Nehru University. More importantly, they have been keeping leftist fires aflame with their contributions over the years. Their book, A Theory of Imperialism , published in 2016 was provocative. It offered a framework for the emergence of imperialism and the causes for its persistence. The endeavour in that book was to “establish... continuity between the colonial period and now, notwithstanding the fact that countries of the Third World are no longer ruled by foreign powers.”

Capital & Imperialism adopts the same or similar economic rationale or matrix but seeks to extend the scope to cover a longer historical horizon. They divide the years into five periods as narrated in Chapter 6. The first is the pre-World War I period of colonialism. The second is the interwar years. The next is the post-World War II years, the ‘Golden Age of Capitalism’. The fourth encompasses the era of globalisation. The last relates to the recent years, which also mark the dead-end of globalisation. Within this period, they narrate the march of capitalism, aided or abetted by imperialism. Though they take the view that there is an unchanging relationship between the metropolis and the periphery, they tweak the matrix, at times, to prove the continuity.

An open system

Unlike capitalist economists and even Karl Marx, the authors argue that capitalism is not a closed system. It is an open and ever-expanding system and needs a pre-capitalist periphery to support it through the supply of primary produce. Their supplies are not elastic or inexhaustible. There will be consequent price rises and inflation that can be brought down only by deflationary policies. Moreover, capitalism needs a special setting as described in Chapter 4. There are other requirements like keeping the economy open to trade, capital freedom, the pursuit of deflationary policies, etc. As they contend, “This arrangement is an integral part of ‘imperialism’, which entails the subjection of the periphery.” Though in recent years, some of the constituents governing their relationship, like dependence on primary produce, the metropolis’ reach, etc. are weakened, the authors argue, “It continues to be essential for capitalism, not just as a legacy of their past but as a requisite for the present as well.”

The Patnaiks do not agree that capitalism has changed, as also its role and methods of operation or exploitation. In recent years, many leftist authors have been taking a soft view and hold that imperialism has lost its relevance. Prabhat Patnaik himself bemoaned this in an earlier article. (‘Whatever happened to imperialism?’, Monthly Review , November 1990.) It is discussed in this book too, as he asserts that capitalism has not changed and has to be fought by a coalition of peasants and workers. His fear is that such an ideological retreat would strengthen the rightist forces, e.g. fascism, in the global South. The authors advocate the need for vigilance and aver, “Though the content of this relationship has remained unchanged, the form of it has changed over time.” This book is an attempt to keep the debate on imperialism alive. How do they do it?

Changing global trade

The introductory chapters posit an approach to money or wealth which is unique to capitalism. It is rigorous and scholarly. However, it fades in importance as they move on to deal with other aspects of capitalism. The setting for capitalism, as described earlier, falls back on an earlier history and seems frozen in time. There is no reckoning of the rise of the Asian tigers, of India and China, or with the changing structures of trade flows, the rise of supply chains and, lastly, the emergence of multilateral and bilateral free trade agreements. Their argument does not capture the dynamics or the complexity of current trade.

The analysis of colonialism before World War I is a close study of the exploitation (drain) of India by Britain. The modality was to intercept the entire external earnings and pay the rupee equivalent to producers/exporters out of taxes raised in India. The account on ‘colonial transfers’ (Chapter 10) is meticulous and offers an estimated value up to 1947 of $1.95 trillion. More distressingly, they offer an account of the Great Famine in Bengal which was caused by “the extreme compression of mass demand to raise forced savings” to fight the war.

This reviewer has misgivings over the role of imperialism in the post-war years as narrated in the book. If the Patnaiks had given up the straight jacket approach and applied the tenets of Realist and Conflict Resolution schools, they would have arrived at different perceptions about imperialism. Even the stubborn IMF/World Bank had to change their loan conditionalities under pressure from developing countries. The IMF doesn’t swear any longer by “austerity” or “fiscal deficits.” These changes have come about due to changes in power structures and the declining power of the U.S. along with growing power of the South, especially India and China. While I may differ with them on some of their arguments, it does not take away from the fact that the book is a scholarly contribution on imperialism and its long reach.

Capital & Imperialism: Theory, History and the Present; Utsa Patnaik, Prabhat Patnaik, Tulika Books, ₹1,200.

The reviewer writes on economic and strategic issues.


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