A Seamless Trajectory
Moggallan Bharti
THE CHANGING FACE OF IMPERIALISM: COLONIALISM TO CONTEMPORARY CAPITALISM by Sunanda Sen and Maria Cristina Marcuzzo Routledge, 2018, 2018, 338 pp., 995
July 2018, volume 42, No 7

The evolution of capital, the corresponding spread of western imperialism, the exploitation of the colonies, fuelled by the industrial needs of the West, anti-colonial struggles against the abject exploitation of the colonies and the subsequent formation of the sovereign independent government in the new nation states is all but one seamless trajectory, wherein also lie the voices of resistance as well. Such resistance or for our purpose, the alternative economic model—of socialism or welfarism—continued to be an aberration in the world where economics as a discipline has been tailored to be studied and understood in isolation from politics. It is in this milieu of the dominant model of neoliberal economy being pushed world over that the book under review becomes central to enhance our understanding on the changing nature of imperialism. The editors, Sunanda Sen and Maria Cristina Maracuzzo, provide the readers a wide range of essays from an equally impressive set of varied scholars on the subject covered.

Through its condensed scholarly papers, arranged thematically, the book traces the growth of imperialism and the ever widening economic rift between the global North and the South.

The book is arranged in four parts. The first, comprising five essays, addresses the theoretical work on imperialism and its present evolution and the location. In the very first essay, Satyaki Roy underlines the near total eclipse of the world through capitalist relations—what Slovenian philosopher Zizek call as the ‘worldwide triumph of capitalism’. This overarching presence of capital, for Satyaki, increasingly blurs the lines between the ‘core and periphery or North-South or First, Second and Third Worlds’, leaving the structure of the nation state irrelevant if not completely redundant. The essay succinctly underlines that with the advent of neoliberalism the ever present class conflicts have become sharper and the new imperialism consistently paddles the discourse of development that seemingly obfuscates the boundaries of the nation and the global, while the unambiguous reality is the emergence of a global bourgeoisie serving the interests of the global capital.

Underscoring the ‘global wage differentials’, John Smith in the next essay investigates the differences in the workers’ lives in the North to the working class lives in the South. Deploying interesting statistical analysis, Smith shows that the ‘northern firms’ are not in conflict or in any direct competition with the firms of the South, rather they both complement each other—an important insight that explains the near identical class interests of the Southern and Northern bourgeoisie. This complex phenomenon that rests on the exploitation of the workers from the global South and actually feeds into the living standards of the citizens of the North, is described as the ‘new imperialist stage of capitalist development’. Smith invites the readers’ attention to the rising conflict between the interests of the workers from the North and the South which, fanned by ‘labour leaders in imperialist countries’ leads to xenophobia and its logical conclusion in fascism.

In the next essay, commenting on the widening socio-economic gap both within and outside of India’s economy, Prabhat Patnaik underlines the development trajectory of the world and especially that of the postcolonial world, now weathering the monopoly of the global finance capital which has led to the meteoric rise in the wealth of the wealthy few and has pushed the toiling masses to the brink of starvation and to the status of a totally impoverished and dispossessed lot. Patnaik explains the character of finance capital, which has ‘no special interest in production’ and hence only operates in maximizing the ‘speculative gains’ with no particular stakes in the nation state as such. Under financialization of the economy, the nation states do not withdraw from the former—as is commonly understood—but become more interventionist in ‘favour of the interests of finance capital’. This changed role of the state favouring the global capital is particularly telling when it comes to the acute devastation of livelihoods of the petty producers and peasantry in the Third World, especially India. Patnaik concludes that any credible resistance to imperialism must have a worker-peasant alliance and the Left must make ‘proper use of this conjecture’ in mobilizing the two classes for the struggles against imperialism.

Anjan Chakrabarti explores the ‘circuits of global capital’ which gives rise to the ‘world of the third’ with no specific geographical location and then gets mutated into the Third World with obvious roots in the Third World economy. Chakrabarti understands imperialism with both its external rootedness and the internal character wherein the absence of class in the language of economics makes the former invisible.  For him if imperialism is to be ended, it can only happen by ending capitalism and the politics to realize this cannot be class deficient. In the final essay on conceptualizing imperialism, Shubhanil Chowdhury with his focus on economic growth in the Third World countries, especially that of China and India, explains how despite the amassing of the massive wealth by its capitalist class, the workers do not gain, when compared to the workers in the advanced countries. He maintains that in the current conjuncture finding a single theory that could capture the mechanisms of modern-day imperialism is difficult and one should rather take insights from the theories, which in turn result from the changing nature of global capitalist development. The essay explains the reasoning behind the continuance of the hegemony of the dollar, despite the US running massive current account deficit, whereby, the global trade done in US currency becomes crucial in maintaining its hegemony, and this hegemony of the US is maintained through ever increasing defence expenditure and military intervention in the Third World countries.  

The second part of the book highlights the patterns in contemporary imperialism and its impact on the working classes in the Americas and its general impact on the economy therein. In their respective essays, Noemi Levy Orlik along with Amiya Kumar Bagchi tells us about the history of colonial plunder in the Latin America and the ongoing financialization of the economy that has only added to the ‘imperialistic domination’ that has existed right from the colonial period. Orlik in his work explains the financialization and the rising neomercan-tilism and how in the Latin American and the Caribbean region, they are the two sides of the same coin resulting in the extreme concentration of wealth among the ‘richest 0.1 percent’. Orlik’s essay complements the previous essays in underlining the role of the dollar as an ‘international unit of account’ that has sustained US economic growth, despite the slowdown in its domestic economy. In the next essay, Gerald Epstein makes a significant intervention by asking, ‘Did US workers gain from US imperialism?’ With its rich data analysis the essay shows the natural consequences of the neo-imperialist politics of the United States—a working class suppressed, if not totally impoverished in the advance countries.

In the third part of the book, the authors investigate the roots of imperialism and its impact on India during the colonial period. The legacy left by the anti-colonial movements was largely claimed by the ruling elites on the promise of forming a new nation, entirely absolved of its colonial past. However, barring a few honourable exceptions, the writ of the colonial past is written all over the postcolonial state. In the first essay, Utsa Patnaik sheds light on the economic reasons, benefitting western colonialism for centuries, in great detail. Calling out the fallacy in Ricardo’s theory of trade for what it is—logically incorrect—she exposes the assumed understanding behind ‘both countries produce both goods’ and hence mutually beneficial as deeply flawed and defies the material reality of the world trade. In this backdrop, ability of the British empire to be an imperial hegemon—despite running the trade deficit with the then sovereign nation—was entirely owed to the naked exploitation of colonies. The massive gains accrued to Great Britain were collected through ‘taxes’ and what Utsa correctly calls as ‘a pure transfer’. Sunanda Sen in the subsequent essay looks into the role played by the indentured labour supplied by colonial India to the sugar plantations in the British colonies, catering to some of the ‘richest capitalists in Britain’. The role of Britain compensating the sugar barons for the loss of slave workers—caused due to the abolition of slavery—by supplying indentured labour as a historical inevitability, is akin to the bailout packages doled out to the chieftains of the banking sector during the 2008 financial recession.

In his essay on the ‘Labour laws and welfare in India’, Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, digs into the legislative history of colonial India. Exploring the role of labour and its representation in the legislative forum, Sabyasachi’s work looks into the interlinkages between the then international labour movement, the role of ILO and the Labour opinion in England. His essay maintains that most of the labour related legislation during the period was partly brought in due to the threat posed by the availability of cheap labour in India. Commenting on the representation in the legislative bodies, Sabyasachi expresses that they were barely class centric and were by and large the ‘interest representation’ that includes ‘depressed classes’. This is something that could have been probed further to realize the significant role played by the depressed classes and Ambedkar in the labour laws of the country. However, Ambedkar’s role and the labour reforms in the country is the subject of a different book altogether.

In the final part of the book Sukanya Bose and Abhishek Kumar’s co-authored essay explores the financialization of capitalism as the growth of finance, insurance, real estate and business services—to what they collectively call as FINREBS. The authors maintain that the finance driven economic growth in India is actually not ‘embedded in the real economy’, ipso facto the growth in the FINREBS has not been able to strengthen the Indian economy. The essay raises a sharp question of sustainability of the finance led growth at the cost of weakening of the other sectors in the Indian economy. The research helps an informed reader to understand the general crisis in the banking sector in India and how the maddening drive of the deregulated economy has only added to an already fragile banking system. In the subsequent essay of Byasdeb Dasgupta, the question of labour in contemporary capitalism has been investigated. The author underlines that global capital owes it thriving success to the ‘flexible labour regime’ which in turn has been necessitated by the global capitalist accumulation. The essay is a sharp reminder of the rising contrac-tualization of labour in India along with its casualization and the flexibilities in the labour wages—all cumulatively making an already vulnerable working class further insubstantial.

In the final essay, Surajit Mazumdar underlines the ‘emergent’ nature of the Third World economy and probes whether a corresponding growth could be seen in the rise of the capitalist’s autonomy in India. Surajit reminds that the putative growth of India’s capitalists, since the beginning of liberalization in the year 1991, has been inversely proportional to the incomes of the working class and farmers in India. Underlining the lack of ‘industrial character’ in India’s economy and hence its sharp difference from China—another ‘emergent’ economy—the former is now classed as ‘experiencing premature de-industrialization’. The newly emergent nation state through its domestic bourgeoisie has mainly been a catalyst in the spread of global capital, as the former lacked the infrastructure of ‘capital’ which, of course, continued to be centered in the West.  The emergent bourgeoisie enabled the ever growing network of economic growth driven by finance capital, ensuring the establishment of a class which has its own economic interests at stake in preserving the same order. This however, has failed to bring any corresponding autonomous agency to India’s capitalists and also failed to democratize the world economic order. Surajit’s analysis helps the readers in locating the probable cause of the fading of India’s foreign policy despite the ‘emergent’ nature of its economy.

The collected papers in this work have argued the continued presence of imperialism in a new avatar driven by finance capital monopoly. The erstwhile colonies may not be under the direct political control of the colonial powers now, but are in fact cripplingly predisposed to the economic and the strategic alliances with the same. Colonialism of the bygone era has now been replaced by the ‘invisible hand’ of the free market.


Moggallan Bharti is Assistant Professor in the School of Development Studies, Ambedkar University, New Delhi.

Through its condensed scholarly papers, arranged thematically, the book traces the growth of imperialism and the ever widening economic rift between the global North and the South.


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Review Details

Reviewer name: Moggallan Bharti
Author name: Sunanda Sen and Maria Cristina Marcuzzo
Book Year: 2018
Publisher Name: Routledge, 2018
Book Price: 995
Book Pages: 338