New circuits of imperialism

First published in Race & Class, 30/4, April 1989


Imperialism is still the highest stage of capitalism – only, the circuits of imperialism have changed with the changes wrought in capital by the revolution in the production process. The magnitude of that revolution, as fundamental as that of the Industrial Revolution, and as comprehensive and cumulative, can only be quantified when it finally comes to rest. But even its initial tremors, like those of the Industrial Revolution, have challenged the social order, shifted the gravitational pull of employment from one sector (industrial this time) to another (the service sector) and pointed to the end of the existing polity (today, the nation state) as a viable economic unit. And it has jolted the ‘socialist’ states of the Soviet Union and China into modernising their economies, into putting economics back in command. What beggars comparison, however, is that where once steam and subsequently electricity replaced muscle power, today micro-electronics, in Sir Ieuan Maddock’s grand metaphor, replaces the brain.’ Hitherto it has largely been the energy component of labour that was being replaced, today it is more the skill component. The ‘dead labour’ that goes into computers is not so much labour by hand as labour by brain.

And Prometheus is unbound again. Capital is freed from the exigencies of labour. Not only can it do with less labour now – but with less variety of labour – with the unskilled or semi-skilled at one end of the production process and the highly skilled at the other. The skills have been taken into the machines, leaving it to the unskilled to operate them and the highly skilled to programme them. Different skills, besides, can be combined and fed into the same computer – as in the diagnostic machines used in medicine. Different crafts can be merged together as in the newspaper industry, where the arts of the compositor, the typesetter and the printer have been collapsed into a VDU and computer thereby also reducing the space required to house them from a factory floor to a desk-top. Faced with labour ‘troubles’, TV companies are resorting to news-gathering equipment which can combine the functions of sound, lighting and camera into one unit, and so do away with ‘the crew system.’

The heavy labour-intensive industries of the period of industrial capitalism iron, steel, ship-building are dead or or dying or have been passed on to the ‘newly industrialising countries’ of the Third World where labour is still cheap and plentiful or could be made to be so. Coal is a-dying. Industries, that is, which employed thousands of workers on the factory floor and in the pits and bound them in communities of resistance to capital are gone or going from the centre – and traditional labour organisations rendered ineffectual and effete. 

Even in those industries that are left behind, such as ship-building computer-aided design (CAD) and computer-aided manufacture (CAM) have taken over a considerable part of the work of construction. Some of the construction, in fact, takes place not in the dock but in the factory. At the Harland and Wolff shipyard various parts of the ship are pre-constructed before being welded together in the dock. In coalmining face-workers’ skills are now being built into machines and the supervision of these machines then transmitted to the surface via MINOS (mine operating system) and MIDAS (machine information display and automation system). And in the car industry robots are taking over much of the assembly line work of factory production. In Japan robots make robots.

The factories themselves can now be broken down into smaller units and scattered all over the world – in global assembly lines – stretching (in the micro-electronics industry, for instance) from Silicon Valley in California or Silicon Glen in Scotland to the Export Processing Zones (EPZs) of Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, Sri Lanka. Or, in the car industry, different parts of a single motor can be made in different factories spread over Europe across the Atlantic through to the Pacific before being assembled and re-assembled and pre- assembled in any given city of the world. ‘The Ford Fiesta assembled at Dagenham’, wrote Robin Murray in 1987, ‘used transmissions from Bordeaux, road wheels from Genk, body panels from Spain and suspension components from West Germany. And Mitsubishi cars assembled as Lancers in Thailand, with transmissions from the Philippines, doors from Malaysia and sundry other parts from Indonesia and rebadged as Dodge and Plymouth Colts for delivery to Chrysler in Canada.

The growing use of flexible manufacturing systems (FMS), where-by plants can be orientated from one type of product to another without re-tooling, allows capital to gear production to the needs of the market. In Pirelli’s new electric-wire-making factory in Wales, for instance, FMS has enabled production to be switched from one type of wire to another or one colour casing to another within minutes. And the introduction of FMS in Boeing’s Renton plant in Seattle has enabled it to turn out a 737 every one and a half days. Changes in the production process, that is, have freed industrial capital (industrial, banking, they are all one now* except in the way they are deployed) from spatial strictures, given it mobility of plant and flexibility of production, enabling it to move the factory to the market, custom-build the product for the consumer or, as in the garment industry, come back to its home-base when the design, lay-out and cutting techniques have become incorporated into a computer and do not need the cheap labour of the periphery any more. Machina volente, capital can take up its factory and walk any time labour gives it trouble or proves costly. Ford has recently moved its Sierra plant out of Dagenham, with its culture of trade union militancy, to the folding colliery town of ‘quiet, conservative, Catholic’ Genk to produce twice the number of cars with less than a fourth the number of shop stewards and twice the number of robots.7 And in the Midlands Asian garment-makers have combined new manufacturing techniques with cheap Asian female labour to undercut garment imports from Asia.

Hierarchies of production

It is not enough to understand these changes in terms of the globalisation of production and the new international division of labour any more without also examining the hierarchies of production in which these are set-with the developed countries (DCs) holding on to the new high technology industries while ‘devolving’ the older industries of steel manufacture, ship-building and the like to the newly industrialising countries (NICS) and relegating light industries (textiles, toys, footwear) and the unskilled, ‘back-end’ work of assembling and testing chips to the under-developed countries proper (UDCS).*

*’Some large MNCS develop and control their own transnational banking networks. There are large Swiss banks which are subsidiaries of US MNCS (Dow Banking, Bank Firestone, Bankinvest, Transinfer Bank, Philip Brothers). . . The Schnieder group has shares in Belgian, West German and Italian banks, and its own bank, BUE, has subsidiaries in Switzerland, Luxembourg and the USA . . . Dow Chemical has a network of eight banks covering nine countries.’

**These countries have been under-developed, in Walter Rodney’s use of the term, by Europe and the USA, and to describe them as less developed countries (LDC8) is to overlook the responsibility for under-development and to obscure the difference between them and the NICS – a distinction which is necessary not for taxonomic purposes but for evolving correct strategies of struggle. I have, however, left out oil-producing NICS and those UDCS not central to my argument here.

It is not, of course, a fixed water-tight division: there is constant movement and overlap, especially as between the DCs and the NICS, in terms of the commodities produced and, to that extent, of their respective functions. But the gap between them never closes. Today’s NICS do not become tomorrow’s DCs – and if they do, it will be only because the DCs have moved on to higher things, become HDCS (highly developed countries)-and the chances of the UDCS becoming NICS are even more remote. A country or two might escape its particular category especially those that are into an industry as escalating as electronics – but the category itself cannot move out of its appointed station in the hierarchy of capital. If there is movement, it is no more than the movement of a conveyor belt that runs on fixed stations. It is the belt that moves, not the stations; if they did, the whole system would collapse. There cannot, in other words, be a world of classless capitalism, where all the nations are equally capitalist. 

‘Unrealistic aspirations’. . .

Countries like South Korea and Taiwan, for instance – even after long years of proving themselves relatively stable, reliable, hospitable (to American capital) and cast in America’s image – have not been able to break out of the impasse of low and medium technology because of American and Japanese refusal to forego technological superiority and/or market control. South Korea, the more advanced of the two countries, has been into wafer fabrication,* ‘the front-end’ of the industry, for some time, but the memory chips it produces do not have the range or the market that the Japanese have – and South Korea is not going to be given them because of ‘intellectual property problems, trade barriers and a reluctance to talk about exchanging ideas, not to mention technology’. Similarly, America has refused to countenance South Korea’s ambitions to take off into the aerospace industry and has suggested it sticks to making components instead.

*Wafer-fabrication or ‘fab’ is the etch-printing of integrated circuits (ICs) on to a wafer of silicon.

Taiwan set up a whole science park seven years ago to woo ‘high-tech’ entrepreneurs into helping it ‘leapfrog’ from a low- to a medium and hi-tech economy’. But, despite enticing seventy-three research based companies (most of them in electronics, most of them American) into the park and ‘allaying the fears of US companies about having their designs or technology, or both, being ripped off by bringing in a ‘US semi-conductor industry veteran’ to run the the company, Taiwan seems to have leapfrogged into making chips ‘imitating animal sounds-barks, bleats, miaows and roars- in toys.’

Singapore, after twenty years of assembling and testing chips in the ‘back-end’ of the industry (and twenty years is a long time in electronics), has just about made it into wafer fabrication – as has Hong Kong. But they are both alleged to lack the expertise and the market to inveigle sizeable foreign investment on which to take off. 

Brazil and India are the other two NICS that are said to be headed for the big time – because of their export capacity in heavy industry such as iron, steel, ship-building and machine tools. But Brazil is strangled by debt ($115bn) and inflation (934 per cent), while India though comparatively debt-free and in advance of other NICS in terms of traditional industry, is still to enter the silicon age.

And Mexico, though it has shown sustained growth over the past thirty years, seems to have owed much of its success to the discovery of oil, on the one hand, and its border economy (based on in-bond,assembly plants, maquiladoras, literally ‘golden mills’), on the other – neither of which can be counted on for permanent prosperity, one being subject to the vagaries of nature, the other to the vagaries of American car production. For although the maquiladoras – an EPZ by any other name . . . – also host the manufacture of various electronic goods such as TVs and air-conditioners, their real importance is that, by providing access to a cheap off-shore labour reserve in-shore (‘just 1,546 miles from Detroit’), they help to maintain the competitive edge of the American car industry. ‘The bottom line is this,’ declared Rex Maingot of American Industries Inc to a conference of business executives at Expo Maquila ’86, ‘your cost per Mexican worker is 69 cents an hour versus at least $9 an hour in the States – a saving of $15,000 a year per worker. You can see how down here a GM car can be made competitive with the Japanese.’ And judging from Mexico’s slow death by debt ($104bn) and negative growth (-0.5 per cent in 1988), it is more likely that the country instead of ascending to the DCs is sinking into the UDCS. 

…and realistic development

But ‘unrealistic aspirations’ apart, the DCs do not mind the NICS excelling them in yesterday’s industries. Brazil, Mexico, South Korea and Taiwan have all become major exporters of steel in the last fifteen years and Brazil today is the third largest in the world. Over half the EEC’s iron ore needs, besides, is met by Brazil – at ‘banana prices’, it might be added. South Korea has recently overtaken Japan as the foremost ship-building nation, with Taiwan following close behind. Mexico, Brazil, Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan are all manufacturers and exporters of electrical goods and transport equipment. And almost all the NICs have taken off, and are able to fall back  on, textile and garment manufacture – a fact curiously reminiscent of Britain’s own take-off into the Industrial Revolution on cotton.

‘In 1960’, comments Nigel Harris, ‘the old-established core of the world system in North America and Western Europe produced 71 per cent of the world’s products and 78 per cent of manufacturing output. Twenty-one years later, those respective shares had fallen to 60 and 59 per cent. The shares of the United States and Britain – 49 and 53 per cent in 1960 were by 1981 down to 35 and 33 per cent.’ The World Bank, he concludes, ‘estimates that the trend will reduce the share of Western Europe and North America in manufacturing to under half by 1990.’

Judged on the basis of industrialisation, the NICS of Latin America and South East Asia have doubtless leapt into the twentieth century in a bound. But to argue that they are in competition with the DCs is to overlook the fact that the DCs, having entered into a whole new ball game, have willingly ceded their old ball-park to the NICS.

Judged on the basis of their export capacity in manufactured goods, the NICS could even be seen as ‘fast closing the gap with the more developed countries’. The point, however, is that the DCs have moved into a whole new era, a whole new realm of production – with electronics and lasers and bio-genetics and nuclear power, and synthetic ‘raw’ materials replacing cotton and steel and copper – and the gap between them (the DCs) and the NICS is become epochal.

Judged on the basis of their GDPS,* the NICS, of South East Asia in particular, may be seen as displaying accelerated growth. But how has that growth benefited the mass of people? Where has it lifted them from the morass of poverty and hunger and hopelessness in which previous centuries of subjugation had sunk them? Where (with apologies to Eliot) is the development we have lost in growth?

*Between 1973 and 1984 the annual growth rate of GDP for South Korea for instance, was 7.2 per cent, Taiwan 8.5 per cent, Hong Kong 9.1 per cent, Singapore 8.2 per cent

Debt and dependency

The path of capitalist ‘development’ brings us ‘nearer to death . . .nearer to God’. Because it is a dependent capitalist development – a development that subjects itself to the demands of metropolitan capital, the exigencies of metropolitan need. It is tied development tied to the purse-strings of the multinational corporations, the transnational banks and, in the final analysis, to the directions and directives of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. So that even when it advances in its own cause, it is led into advances for the few at the expense of the many. It is a development that creates a species of mutant capitalism that has to consume its own environment to survive.

Brazil’s rapid industrialisation owes not a little to what Peter Evans calls the ‘triple alliance’ of multinational capital, state capital and ‘elite local capital’, but it is also to the same combination of forces that it owes its people’s poverty, its ecological devastation and its slow death by debt (at $115bn, the highest in the world). A case in point is the proposed construction of the Kararao hydro-electric dam in the Amazon, which, while providing badly needed power to run the industries that will provide the exports to pay off debt, will also mean the wholesale destruction of the country’s rain forests and the annihilation of its Indian peoples.

Already vast areas of Amazonia have been ravaged and moonscaped by the search for gold (Brazil is the fourth largest producer) the mining of iron ore (on which the EEC and Japan rely for their steel) and the cutting down of trees that have taken 500 years to grow (to provide hardwood for the First World). South Africa’s ConsGold Britain’s Rio Tinto Zinc and a number of Japanese and American corporations are involved in the mining projects (which also extend to bauxite and manganese) along with local big-time capitalists, small time land speculators and sundry parasites such as money-lenders and garimpeiros (gold-diggers). And the Brazilian government, having got into debt to get into development, can only get out of debt by getting further into ‘development. But that ‘development’ – in the Xingu river dam has now come up against the united resistance of the Indian peoples across Brazil and into North America, the Green Movement and, strangely enough, the World Bank (ostensibly in the interests of ecology, but probably in the hope that the plans of the Indians and the environmentalists to raise funds to buy off the Brazilian government and pull it out of debt will also help to keep the Bank from throwing good money after bad*).

*Brazil has also put itself outside the ‘good boy’ rules of the World Bank by refusing sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty

Mexico’s industrialisation, like Brazil’s, also took off on the basis of alliances between foreign and local capital (state and private). By 1980, the amount of foreign capital (mostly American) invested in the country (mostly in manufacture) totalled $27bn. ‘Foreign companies were said to control over half the output of private mining. . . 84 per cent of the rubber industry, 80 per cent of tobacco, 67 per cent of chemicals, 62 per cent of machinery and 79 per cent of electrical equipment.’ And although the country’s emergence as an oil producer should have kept it economically afloat, it only served to drown it in debt- since most of the money borrowed to develop the oil industry ended up in the Swiss bank accounts of corrupt officials and (allegedly) ex-President Lopez-Portillo, while most of the oil revenue went into the coffers of the right-wing Oil Workers’ Union and its leader, Joaquin Hernandez Galicia.* And Mexico has had to borrow again to recover from its debt crisis. 

*Joaquin Hernandez Galicia and fifty-one other union officials were put under arrest by the new President Carlos Salinas de Gortari in January this year.

In South East Asia industrialisation was (with the obvious exception of Hong Kong) fostered and fashioned by the state before being ‘handed over’ to private capital. The state occupied ‘the commanding heights’ of the economy, controlling the banking system, public spending, investment – and the labour market. And it provided the infrastructure and climate that would attract foreign capital. It was the sort of combination of central planning and robber baron enterprise** that seemed particularly suited to the specifically export-oriented industrialisation of the South East Asian NICS. 

*The phrase derives from ex-President J.R. Jayewardene’s invitation to capital- ‘let the robber barons come’-when he opened the first EPZ in Sri Lanka.

Today there is hardly an industry (and a lot of them are in electronics) in these countries which is not a joint venture with multinationals or is not controlled by them. To a certain extent, this is predicated by the nature of the electronics industry itself with its convergences, integrations and mergers – but it largely stems from metropolitan capital’s need to keep both the technology and the markets within its own domain. And the only way that NICS can keep on ‘growing’ is by toeing the MNC line. Hyundai’s repeated attempts to produce more sophisticated memory chips, for instance, were able to take off only on the basis of a joint venture with Texas Instruments. Over half the companies in Taiwan’s science-based industrial park are either subsidiaries of US companies (‘such as the telecomms giant AT&T, the semi-conductor equipment manufacturer Varian and the disk-drive maker Priam’) or joint ventures. The first wafer-fabrication plant to be set up in Singapore five years ago was SGS-Thomson Microelectronics, a private joint venture between Italian and French conglomerates. Hong Kong is all joint venture.

There is nothing independent about these countries. There is no autonomous growth, no development that speaks to the needs of the people. But then, export-oriented industrialisation is metropolitan-governed industrialisation. Domestic capital is constrained by metropolitan capital, is servile to metropolitan capital. It owns but does not control, it produces but cannot sell; both production and market are in the gift of the centre.*

*There are no foreign mother countries anymore, only mother multinationals. Which is partly the reason why South East Asian multinationals are beginning to emerge – but even these are tied to the ‘mother multinationals.’

Whereas the NICS of Latin America have been tied to dependency through debt, the NICS of South East Asia accept dependency ‘mode’ of production, a way of life.

Hierarchies of labour

The trajectory of the UDCs is different and is set not so much by capital’s design for production as by its drive for accumulation. We are dealing here with the crude, nasty end of capital, not with the refined urbane aspect of its NIC adventures. It is not here in the UDCS to woo lesser capital but to gobble up resources. If capital inveigles the NICS into the deathly embrace of its own purpose, it lays waste the UDCS,with all its pristine voracity. 

And what changes in the production process have done is to deliver these countries up to such exploitation in different and more absolutist ways than before – not least in the labour-intensive ‘back-end’ of the electronics industry itself. Capital does not have to import cheap labour any more, with all its attendant social cost. It can move instead to the captive labour pools of the Third World and from one pool to another, choosing its locale of exploitation, its place of greatest profit, grading it according to the task in hand – which itself is a variable given the exponential changes in the electronics industry and the market-bound fate of an ever depressing light industry (the only industries that the UDCs can claim as their own). Thus there is a hierarchy of labour stretching from the centre to the outer periphery, not as between the highly skilled and the unskilled only but as among the unskilled themselves – so that the arduous, toxic work of bonding, for instance, tiny, hair-thin wires to circuit boards on wafers of silicon is done by the unskilled female labour of South East Asia, while the cleaner, safer, more straightforward task of operating the machinery into which the integrated circuits go is done by the de-skilled workers at the centre. Capital is still dependent on exploiting workers for its profit, only now the brunt of that exploitation has shifted to the under-developed countries of the Third World, and the increasing intensity of exploitation there more than compensates for its comparative loss at the centre. Only the blind chauvinism of Eurocentric marxism which mistakes its working class for the whole working class could bid the class farewell. 

To put it differently, the technological revolution has allowed capital to shift the burden of extracting surplus value from the workers at the centre to the workers at the (outer) periphery. And that surplus value is not relative, as at the centre, but absolute. Capital does not need to pay peripheral labour a living wage to reproduce itself: it does not need labour on a long-term basis when technology is all the time catching up to replace it and, unlike at the centre, there is no social wage below which labour cannot fall, and what there is is readily abrogated by the government to let foreign capital in. And, in any case, there are enough cheaper and captive labour reserves in the periphery for capital to move around in, discarding each when done.

And the governments of the UDCS, desperate not for development as such but to end the unemployment that threatens their regimes, enter into a Dutch auction with each other, offering the multinational corporations cheaper and cheaper labour, de-unionised labour, captive labour, female labour and child labour – by removing whatever labour laws, whatever trade union rights have been gained in the past from at least that part of the country, the EPZ, which foreign capital chooses for its own.* These are the only terms on which capital will come in and, once it is allowed in, it makes other demands – infrastructural demands, to begin with, such as unencumbered land electric power. And if the power generated is insufficient to work its factories and/or takes away from the power available to the civilian population, it will dam up the rivers for you and develop hydro-electric schemes – and lend you the money to do it with, treat you to foreign experts (who know everything about damming-up rivers but damn-all about your country) – and irrigation schemes to open out your dry zones to landless peasants. And before you know where you are, it has taken over your land for agribusiness, to grow sugar cane and pineapple where once you grew rice, and transformed the ordinary fare of the people, the fish from the seas and the fruit from the trees, into tourist delicacies to be fed into the maws of the Hiltons, the Intercontinentals and the Holiday Inns. In the meantime, you are in hock to the gills, everything you own is in pawn: your land, labour, raw materials, mineral reserves, the lot. 

*The Dominican republic has put La Romana Zone under the control of foreign capital for thirty years.

**With all that, Sri Lanka is still ahead of a number of even more under-developed countries in South Asia, Africa and the Caribbean – which are, however not germane to my argument here

This is not a fanciful scenario, but one that obtains in Sri Lanka today. Admittedly, Sri Lanka – despite its previously high literacy rate (83 per cent), previously free education and health service and previously high turn-out at general elections (70-80 per cent) (previously meaning before the World Bank got to it)- is somewhere near the bottom of the UDC table.** But even countries at the top, like Malaysia and Thailand, have scarcely graduated out of labour-intensive semi-conductor assembly and light industry. Malaysia’s plan to lift off into heavy industry with car manufacture and iron and steel production has since had to be ‘rationalised’ due to ‘the prevailing weak financial position of local assemblers as well as the declining market for motor vehicles’. And its attempts to move up into wafer-fabrication from integrated circuit assembly – which it is being priced out of by Thailand’s cheaper labour force – have been ‘hobbled by infrastructural constraints’. The government is now falling back on traditional manufacture in palm oil, rubber, tin, etc., and even in these has had to renege on its bumiputra (Malayanisation, literally ‘sons of the soil’) policies and permit foreign ownership and investment.

Thailand has also got an edge (not only on Malaysia but other South East Asian countries) in the matter of joint venture car assembly and export, but it is currently being challenged by the Philippines’ Car Development Programme, an all-Japanese affair. Indonesia is now catching up with Malaysia and Thailand (but being rich in oil has fallen into debt!).

All these countries are, of course, involved in the ‘back-end’ of the electronics industry and in garments manufacture to one extent or another, but Thailand now leads the way in agribusiness and food processing. Pineapple and tomato plantations and ‘agro-food’ industries (such as animal feed for chickens for export) have taken over from ‘traditional’ agriculture; tuna and shrimp farming have become big business, and processed meats (such as sausage and ham) are being re-directed from local consumption to export markets. For the Thai middle class there is instant noodles, frozen meat balls, processed dim sums and Indonesian satays ‘on tap’. And all this with the help of agribusiness and food-processing conglomerates from the USA, Japan, Europe and even Taiwan. Dole has the largest pineapple plantation and canning operation in the country. Mitsubishi is involved in pineapple canning and prawn farming. Oscar Meyer has joint ventures in processed meats. Arbor Acres Farm Inc has been a long time in the business of breeding and feeding and freezing chickens for export.p

Thailand is today the world’s largest exporter of canned pineapple and tuna and frozen food, it is estimated, will soon be a multi-billion dollar export earner. In the meantime, Thailand imports food.

So far from these countries resolving their unemployment problems and rising to the status of NICS, their more likely course seems to be a gradual slide into stunted growth and a different pattern of unemployment – with more and more small farmers becoming seasonal wage-labourers in commercial agriculture, more and more rural workers being thrown up into the ‘informal economy’ of the cities and more and more women being mobilised into short-life electronic assembly work and abandoned. But the drive for export-oriented growth and the competition of other UDCs implicates these governments even further in the designs of multinational capital, the strictures of the IMF and the strategies of the World Bank – till their (the governments’) interests are no longer the interests of their people but of metropolitan capital, of which they are now the servitors. And what keeps them there is American imperialism.

To come at it from the opposite direction: what keeps Third World labour cheap and captive for industrial conglomerates and enables land to be taken away from the peasants and handed over to agribusiness and the mineral resources to mining companies and brings whole countries within the economic jurisdiction of the agents of multinational capital, the IMF and World Bank, is the installation and maintenance of authoritarian Third World regimes by western powers. 

Setting up the new order

Trade no longer follows the flag; the flag follows trade. Capital has broken its national bounds, technology allows it, and governments must follow in capital’s wake to set up the political and social orders within which it can safely and profitably operate – if needs be with force, but with culture first. 

Via culture

Today that culture is transmitted not through education or through a genteel propaganda of superiority (British Council style) but subliminally, subcutaneously: in the food you eat, the clothes you wear, the music you hear, the television you watch, the newspapers you read.  You do not eat a hamburger, the universal ‘food’, without taking in the American way of life with it:* you do not watch television (and it is mostly American in the Third World) without accepting the American world view; you do not listen to pop music – your pop, their pop, it’s all pap-without losing your ability to hear other voices, your ability to reflect, weigh, meditate; you do not read the newspapers without losing your sense of truth. 

*Fast foods are becoming a way of life’, acclaimed Business Week, as McDonalds’ peak ‘Americanisation of the Japanese…confirmed that fast food ‘is the food of the jeans generation, the new looking to a common culture. South East Asians a generation ago thrived on Coca-Colanisation. Now their children are in the middle of a hamburger happening.’

Fast food for the culture of cooking, ready-made cliches for the act of thinking, style for content, sound in place of music, noise in place of sound, reading shorn of reflection, an easy superficiality for uneasy depth, sentimentality passed off as love, individual greed in place of collective good – corporate American culture is culture. It dwarfs the mind, limits horizons, warps the imagination, impoverishes passion – consider the impact of Murdoch-culture (his nationality is irrelevant) on a country like Sri Lanka, which is still to recover from the cultural imperialism of another occupation – and smoothes the way for American hegemony.*

*The destabilisation of UNESCO through the withdrawal of American (and British) financial support is an appreciation by the multi-national culture industry that M’Bow’s attempts to promote Third World culture were undermining the industry’s message and challenging its domination and profitability. 

And tourism is not just a vehicle of that culture, but its vanguard: defoliant that destroys the native culture as it advances, clears the ground for corporate industry to replace it with theirs. 

Tourism is not travel: search, curiosity, attachment. Tourism is reified leisure designed to relieve you (for a time) of your reified life. So, what it carries with it is the desperate excesses of its own culture and what it adopts and fetishises is the creative aspects of the native culture. Sri Lanka’s beaches, a few years ago, were recommended by a paedophilia group in Britain as a good tourist venue for procuring children. And India which once had sanyasis* galore now has Swamis Inc. 

Tourism transforms personal relationships into commercial relationships, use value into exchange value, breaks down the last vestiges of communalism and replaces it not with bourgeois culture but with post-bourgeois nihilism.

Via War

But if culture fails to win subject peoples to their own subjugation under regimes ordained by imperialism, there is always force, war not necessarily direct, though that too, as in the invasion of Grenada, but indirect, through low intensity warfare or conflict (LIC) aimed at subverting resistance and preventing revolutionary movements from coming into being. LIC, according to the US Joint Chiefs of Staff’s the will to resist, but at the other it is hard war, using terrorism and counter-insurgency and armed force. PSYOP (psychological operations), for instance, was the ‘primary component’ of LIC in El Salvador for a while and combined propaganda based on Coca-Cola selling techniques with precise dis-information put out by an Institute for Popular Education set up by the CIA in the Ministry of Communications and Culture. ‘Descending upon remote villages’, reported Dan Siegel and Joy Hackel, ‘with mariachi bands, multicolored leaflets, clowns and candies for children, and taped advertisements targeting their parents, the military engaged in a major public relations blitz across the country.’ At the same time TV, radio and newspapers carried on a sustained campaign to ‘undermine the image of the guerrillas while enhancing that of the government’. And on the international front carefully doctored material was ‘leaked’ by the National Security Council to selected reporters ‘to change the country’s image abroad and persuade the US Congress to continue to supply aid’.* 

declaration in 1985, is protracted war involving ‘diplomatic, economic, and psycho-social pressures through terrorism and insurgency which, spelt out, means ‘insurgency and counter-insurgency operations, terrorism and counter-terrorism, surgical direct action military operations, psychological warfare, and even operations by conventional general purpose forces’. At one end of the spectrum, LIC is or soft war, concealed war at the grass-roots level, a war of paralysis of

**The media efforts to portray General Noriega of Panama appear to be such a CIA/NSC-led disinformation campaign

In Nicaragua the CIA PSYOP manual urged “political proselytism” and civic-action operations working side-by-side with peasants. . . building, fishing, repairing etc’. But this was to be coupled with ‘the selective use of violence’, whereby ‘contra provocateurs “armed with clubs, iron rods, placards, and if possible small fire arms” would instigate mob riots in the cities’.

Besides fomenting ‘preventive counter-revolution’ (the phrase is Marcuse’s), LIC also aims at de-stabilising ‘unfriendly’ Third World regimes such as Mozambique, Angola, Nicaragua by providing ‘diplomatic, military and economic support . . . for an insurgent force seeking freedom from an adversary government’39 – insurgent forces such as MNR, UNITA and the Contras. In the case of Nicaragua however, LIC has also involved the sowing of mines in the country’s harbours ‘to disrupt the flow of shipping essential to Nicaraguan trade during the peak export period’ (Oliver North in a ‘top secret memorandum) and the destruction of its oil facilities – both operations conducted by a specially trained force of ‘unilaterally controlled Latino assets’ (UCLAS)*. But in 1983 the LIC merchants combined with the World Bank to stop Nicaragua getting a loan to build a fleet of fishing boats on the grounds that the oil that was necessary to operate the boats (a condition imposed by this non-political Bank specially for Nicaragua) had run out in the meantime – thanks to the setting fire of its oil tanks by ‘unknown’ raiders from a mother-ship off-shore.

*We are in the rarified world of military lingo here – in itself a sort of covert operation.

The fomentation of insurgencies and local wars also helps western powers to sell even more arms to Third World countries – to fuel the wars that fuel the arms sales – and get them deeper and deeper into debt and dependency. ‘Without these sales’, commented Tom Gervasi, Director of the Center of Military Research, in a TV programme recently, the developing nations cannot maintain the industry, and unemployment and bankruptcy will follow.’ Besides, ‘in order to arm ourselves properly, we have got to arm the world; to get the price down to what we can afford, we must sell more.’

Of course, the whole point of LIC, in the final analysis, is to provide multinationals with a climate hospitable to trade and investment – all sorts of trade and investment – or, as Colonel Motley put it in the Military Review, ‘to influence politico-military outcomes in the resource-rich and strategically located Third World areas’. In Latin America the desired ‘politico-military outcomes’ have led to a variety of military juntas, from the savage in Chile (where the monetarist theories of Friedman’s ‘Chicago boys’ were first practised) to the confused in Bolivia. In South East Asia they have resulted in all sorts of authoritarian regimes, from the dictatorships of South Korea and (till recently) the Philippines to the parliamentary oligarchies of Singapore and Sri Lanka. The NIC8, both of Latin America and South East Asia, seem, by and large, to have the outright dictatorships (mutants perhaps of their own socio-political history), while the UDCS appear to sport varieties of parliamentary authoritarianism. Which would point to the theorem that the greater and/or faster the growth of Third World countries, the quicker their graduation into fully-fledged dictatorships. Or even that totalitarian regimes are as much the form of government ‘tolerable’ to silicon age imperialism as mock-Westminster was to industrial colonialism. Except that in recent years the United States has shown a certain flexibility in changing dictatorships around to ‘friendly democracies’, as in the Philippines, or re-cycling them through democratic processes such as elections and referenda, as in Chile and Haiti – so as to keep US interests in place. 

Casualties of imperialism

The economic depredations of multinational capital*, the political repression of the regimes that host it and the LIC waged by western. powers to keep these regimes in situ all combine to effect the brutal dislocation and displacement of people all over the Third World and force them to flee their countries. Whether as economic refugees or as political asylum-seekers is no matter – for, however their arrival at the centre may be categorised, their ejection from their countries is, as I have shown, both economic and political at once. To distinguish between them is not just to wilfully misunderstand the machinations of imperialism today, but to pretend that the struggle against imperialism is not also here, at the centre, or has nothing to do with workers’ struggles here. 

For, apart from everything else, these – the refugees, migrants and asylum-seekers, the flotsam and jetsam of latter-day imperialism- are the new under-class of silicon age capitalism. It is they who perform the arduous, unskilled, dirty jobs in the ever-expanding service sector who constitute the casual, ad hoc, temporary workers in computerised manufacture, who provide agribusiness with manual farm labour even touched on its ecological depredations.  They are the invisible workers in the service industries, serving in the up-front kitchens at McDonalds, as porters and cleaners in hospitals and shops, as waiters and petrol pump attendants, security guards and night watchmen, servants and slaves. They are the peripheral workers in manufacture, peripheral in the manufacturing sense too, because modern production processes do not require a permanent work force but a functionally flexible ‘core group’ which can adjust to changes in technology and a numerically flexible ‘peripheral group’ which can be adjusted to changes in the market. They are the sweat-shop workers in the primitive putting-out system of the garment industry. They are tomato-pickers for agribusiness. They are, in a word, the cheap andcaptive labour force – rightless, rootless, peripatetic and temporary illegal even – without which post-industrial society cannot run. 

Their condition has been graphically described in Ganz Unten (published recently in English investigative journalist, Günter Wallraff, who in the guise of a Turkish labourer, Ali, lived through a year of a migrant worker’s life. And like any migrant worker, Wallraff/Ali is hired and fired at will, sat upon and spat upon, used and abused, vilified, reified and thrown upon a heap (in Turkey for preference) when he is done with. At first he hires himself out – to all sorts of menial jobs in restaurants and building sites and construction works – but soon discovers that he can continue to work only if he comes under the aegis, the protection, of a sub-contractor who hires him out to a contractor who contracts to do the dirty work for reputable firms who do not want to know that they are doing it. And that work ranges from clearing frozen sludge from massive pipes on high buildings in 17 degrees of frost and shovelling hot, grimy coke dust hour after hour below ground level to being hired out as a human guinea-pig to a pharmaceutical firm and cleaning out a nuclear power station, the carcinogenic effects of which would show only after Ali has returned to Turkey (the condition on which he got the job in the first place).

And the firms that get his work have no responsibility for him. For Ali is hired out to them by labour contractors who have obtained him as part of a labour gang from sub-contractors and sub-sub-contractors and so on down the line. And all that Ali gets is what is left of his wages when everybody above him has taken his cut. He has no national insurance, no pension rights, no right to health care and social security, no right to a fair wage – and if he baulks at it, he is handed over to the police and deported home to a worse fate. He is the apotheosis of captive labour, dispensable, disposable, yielding absolute surplus value – right here in the centre. 

You do not have to go to Germany to find the Alis of this world, though. They are here in Britain too, among the refugees from Colombia, Chile, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Eritrea, Iran, the Philippines Ghana from every part of the world where imperialism has set foot. 

The moment of socialism

But if these are the new circuits of imperialism made possible by the revolution in the productive forces, it is that same revolution that allows us to break the circuit and move towards socialism. The liberation of the productive forces must mean the liberation of man and woman kind – all men and women in the Third World, the First wherever not the greater liberation of a few at a greater cost to the many. But to do that we have got to seize the technology, put ourselves in command of it, not let it run away with itself into capital’s terrain. 

It is inconceivable that when we can produce more food that we should throw it away, that when we can run factories without debasing workers that we should debase them, that when we have found the leisure to be more creative in we should turn ourselves into mindless junkies, that when we have invented the ultimate weapon of destruction we should not live in peace, that when we have learnt to master nature we should not let nature put out its thousand blooms, that when we have reached the summit of individual freedom we should not be working for the collective good.

Socialism is a moral creed, a secular faith – tolerant, loving, creative, increasing all to increase the one. It is that morality above all that the movement of workers has garnered and fostered and kept alive all these generations to in-form and fashion our societies when Prometheus had been unbound again. What we have learnt from the labour movement, what we must hold on to, are not the old ways of organisation, the old modes of thought, the old concepts of battle against capital, but the values and traditions that were hammered out on the smithy of those battles: loyalty, solidarity, camaraderie, unity, all the great and simple things that make us human.

That is the morality of socialism that the working-class movement, the peasants’ movement, the women’s, black and gay movements, the green and anti-nuclear movement – all the movements of liberation have sung out. Technology can now make it flesh and we cannot let capital take it away from us.

We can now ordain our societies so that there is greater productivity with less labour, improved consumption for all and more time to be human in. When our problem is no longer the production of goods as such, we should be looking to their more equitable distribution; when large numbers of workers are no longer necessary for such production, we should be looking to the more equitable distribution of work. If the same number of goods can be produced by half the work-force, it follows that the whole work-force need work only half the time rather than leave the other half unemployed. Not because work itself is sacrosanct, but because the culture of self-esteem and worth erected on the notions of working and earning will be a long time a-dying. We can set the process in motion, however, by providing everybody with a minimum wage irrespective of whether he or she works or not – so assuring effective demand, on the one hand, and replacing the work ethic with the leisure ethic, on the other. But such leisure will be active, creative leisure – not reified or nuclearising of us, but growing organic, connecting us to people again: old people, children, the sick and disabled, the oppressed and the exploited. And education will be geared not just to jobs but to using leisure intelligently and creatively to working things out for ourselves – for the technology that does all the thinking for us in the machines we produce is also the technology that requires us to return to the basic principles that produce such thinking: it requires that we not only know that 2 and 2 make 4, but why. It enables us to return to fundamentals, to holistic thinking, to an authority over our own experience and so removes us from our captive submission to the media, politicians, the video civilisation. We have cultures of resistance to create, communities of resistance to build, a world to win. Now is the moment of socialism. And capital shall have no dominion.