Imperialism and Resistance - Book Review

There are three great powers in the modern world: the power of nation-states, of the international economy and of working people on whom all states, armies and corporations, ultimately depend. Many of the most important events in the modern world take place at the intersection where these three forces collide.

Title: Imperialism and Resistance
Author: John Rees
Publisher: Oxford: Routledge,

Reviewed by: Dr. Klejda Mulaj, Senior Researcher

John Rees starts his analysis with the observation that there are three great powers in the modern world: the power of nation-states, of the international economy and of working people on whom all states, armies and corporations, ultimately depend. Many of the most important events in the modern world take place at the intersection where these three forces collide.

Imperialism and Resistance seeks to offer an interpretation of the new imperial age. Every set of ideas contains an imperative to action. Rees thinks that this is especially true of an analysis which describes an unstable and contradictory social system, contradictions which can only be resolved by political action. The stated purpose of this book is to assist in ensuring that such contradictions are solved by, and to the benefit of, the mass of people, not in the interests of the masters of war.

The end of the Cold War has left the US in a position of unparalleled military predominance. The author states that in the 1990s the US ruling elite began using this strategic asset to redraw the imperial map of the world, first in the Gulf War and then in the Kosovo war. Moreover, he asserts that the full realization of a new imperial design did not become clear until the rise of the neo-conservatives and the victory of George W. Bush in the presidential election of 2000. Even then this scheme awaited the conditions in which it could be implemented. The attack on the World Trade Centre in 2001 created those conditions.

The invasion of Iraq in 2003 has, however, served to underline the limits of US power in a more general sense. These limits, in John Rees' view, are in part the result of the resistance to the US government's colonial occupation both in Iraq and across the globe. But the limits are also imposed by the relative economic weakness of the US that has become apparent in the past half-century or so. The analysis considers the state of the US economy during this period and assesses the strengths and weaknesses of its competitors. It is the critical meeting point between overwhelming military strength and relative economic decline which explains the motivation of the US to rely increasingly on its military capacity to discipline both its allies and its competitors on the world stage.

The author argues that the US may still be the most powerful economy in the world but it is no longer so powerful that it is capable of sustaining a long period of stable capitalist development in the way that it did for a generation after the Second World War. The end of the long boom and the rise of other advanced economies make the world market a much more competitive environment than before. This economic condition has now combined with renewed instability in the state system following the end of the Cold War to create an environment more volatile than any other since the 1920s and 1930s.

This new instability is nowhere more obvious than in the Middle East. The author examines the struggle of western imperialism to control the region and its most valuable commodity, oil. He opines that the interrelation of the military powers of states, the economic interest of corporations and popular resistance has determined the history of the last century.

John Rees thinks that the Middle East is crucial to western imperialism for both economic and strategic reasons. Oil, which is highly profitable, is at the heart of all modern economies in the sense that without it they would not function. Even a state that does not need it for its own purposes can use control over oil to exercise power over other states. In fact, the US has all these reasons for wanting as much control as it can obtain over the oil of the Middle East.

Moreover, the Middle East is a crucial strategic area in the political geography of the post-Cold War world. It stands at the heart of the Eurasian landmass with Europe to its west, Russia and the Central Asian states to its north and India, Afghanistan and, further, China to its north east. Popular resistance in this part of the world has never been long tolerated by imperial powers.

Globalization has reshaped relations between the state, the economy and the people in every corner of the globe, including in the advanced countries. Rees states that the effects of the end of the long post-war boom and the rise of the new imperialism are not limited to the Middle East.

The mid-1970s was a period of slow economic growth and the neo-liberal offensive, which increased inequality both in the Third World and the developed world. This economic weakness at the heart of the system is considered by Rees to be the root cause of greater global conflict and greater social division in the advanced countries. Indeed, the recomposition of the state so that it has progressively lost some of its social welfare functions has exacerbated these tensions.

Imperialism and Resistance implies that opposition against neo-liberalism is global. In the heartlands of the system such opposition is eroding traditional social democratic organization. It is also now combining with a popular rejection of the new imperialism which is accelerating this process. In some parts of the globe these same developments have produced revolutionary challenges to the existing order. These revolts have from 1989 onwards often taken the form of democratic revolutions, hailed by sections of both the political left and the political right.

John Rees thinks that where the left is weak the imperial powers and their local accomplices are able to impose their own solution on an emerging social crisis. There are occasions when these 'managed revolutions' would be farcical if they were not tragic. In his opinion, the low point - so far - is the borrowed iconography of the East European revolutions that the US army deployed on the day in 2003 when Saddam's statue was pulled down in Baghdad.

The democratic revolution is one of the predominant forms of social change in the modern world. Revolutions always take place at the intersection of the economic and the political, the imperial and national lines of determination. Today the outcome of revolutions is decided by a huge contest between, on one side, the imperial powers and the national ruling classes and, on the other, the working class, urban poor, agricultural labourers and peasants. The analysis of this book suggests that who wins, and how much they win, is decided to a significant degree by the organizational and political capacities of the left.

The contemporary capitalist system remains one in which economic competition gives rise to military competition between states. Neither globalization nor the new imperial order has sufficiently transformed the nature of the system so that divisions between corporations and between states can be suppressed. Nor has it resulted in a system that can manage conflict without recourse to violence. It is unlikely that, over time, such violence will remain outside the metropolitan centres of the system.

Working people and the poor internationally have neither been replaced by a socially indistinct 'multitude' nor lost the capacity to resist the system. The problems that they face in exercising this capacity are not to do with changes in their sociological or economic profile. Instead, they arise from the contours of the class struggle in the last 25 years.

Resistance to imperialism and capitalism is by no means homogeneous. Even among socialists, reformist and revolutionary alternatives exist. And socialism, however defined, is by no means the only or the major set of ideas contending to express resistance to the system. Nationalism and Islamic ideas, to mention only two of the most prominent trends, command the support of many millions of workers, peasants and the poor around the globe. Nevertheless, socialists -- in Rees' opinion -- have a better chance to build support for their views.

Globalization has created an international working class bigger than at any time in the history of capitalism but failed to create a system that can sustain an acceptable livelihood or, in many parts of the world, even the very lives of millions of workers. One consequence of this is a renewed drive to war characteristic of the contemporary imperial structure. The fall of Stalinism means that there is no 'external' enemy to blame. This situation has, therefore, created a crisis of confidence in the system. The physical expression of this crisis is the international anti-capitalist and anti-war movement.

John Rees claims that it is in this movement that socialists can begin to win a much wider audience for the idea that working people have the power to transform their world. Moreover, socialists can begin to successfully advance the view that the system can be replaced with an international system of cooperative labor so organized that it meets the needs of those who produce social wealth. For Rees, the alternative to this project is unacceptable.

Published: 15 Jan 2007


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