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Sam Ashman
Symposium on David Harvey’s The New
Imperialism: Editorial Introduction

The renewal of serious theoretical debate about


imperialism is now much remarked upon. It has been
produced by real-world events since the end of
the Cold War, above all by the Bush administration’s
wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in response to 9/11
and, more recently, its support for Israel’s war in
Lebanon and sabre rattling against Syria and Iran.
And, if the Left has discovered new saliency in the
term, so too has the Right, from Niall Ferguson’s
populist defence of empire to Andrew Bacevich’s
dissection of the US’s ‘war for the imperium’.1
Many questions are raised by this new discussion.
How do we situate immediate events in relation to
deeper theoretical understandings? How does the
present relate to the past? What is the role played
by oil in current events? There is general agreement
that the classical theorists of imperialism, whose
accounts are now nearly a hundred years old, may
be important reference points but they are not an
adequate guide to the contemporary world – and, for
some, they were not an adequate guide to the world

1 Bacevich 2002; Ferguson 2002 and 2004. For a direct critique of the latter see

Chibber 2005 and, for a proleptic one, see Davis 2001.

Historical Materialism, volume 14:4 (3–7)


© Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2006
Also available online – www.brill.nl
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of their time. There is far less agreement on how developments in capitalism


impact upon understandings of imperialism, particularly the uneven and
unequal global geographic spread of capitalism and the system of nation-
states in the period since 1945. How precisely has the world moved on?
Two short responses to these questions were published in 2003: David
Harvey’s The New Imperialism and Ellen Wood’s Empire of Capital. The editors
of Historical Materialism began with the idea that Harvey and Wood might
each agree to review the other’s book. The range and importance of the issues
raised led us subsequently to widen that discussion and in this issue we print
a number of responses to Harvey’s analysis, including that from Ellen Wood,
whilst, in a future issue, we will print a number of responses specifically to
Wood’s account of what she calls ‘imperial capital’.
Harvey’s account deals with nothing less than the nature of global political
economy in the twenty-first century. As such, many issues are raised. Perhaps
three stand out. First, there is the thorny question of the state and of the
relationship between the state and capital. Interest in Marxist state theory has
revived, initially in the context of debates about globalisation and the alleged
demise of the nation-state, but now the discussion of imperialism has taken
this further. The contributions below point to different ways of approaching
the relationship between the state and capital and the possibilities for the
emergence of a world state.2 Harvey borrows from Arrighi and conceptualises
capitalist imperialism as arising from ‘a dialectical relation between territorial
and capitalistic logics of power. The two logics are distinctive and in no way
reducible to each other, but they are tightly interwoven’.3 What are the strengths
and weaknesses of such an approach? Is the former not really subordinated
to the latter?
Second there is the issue of oil, its role in the Iraq War, and the nature and
status of global geopolitics. Harvey suggests that the occupation of Iraq, and
the control of large reserves of this strategic commodity is one way the US
can compensate for its declining economic power and so hold off its rivals.
The Bush administration’s actions in Iraq are thus designed to send a message
to its geopolitical rivals, particularly China. Yet how robust is Harvey’s claim
that ‘whoever controls the Middle East controls the global oil spigot and

2 For a clear statement in defence of the world-state thesis, see Robinson 2004.
3 Harvey 2003, p. 183.
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whoever controls the global oil spigot can control the global economy, at least
for the near future’?4 How sufficient is this as explanation?
Third is the role of what Harvey calls ‘accumulation by dispossession’ in
the current phase of capitalist development. For Harvey, imperialism over
the last thirty years reflects a desperate search for surplus-value in the context
of a prolonged crisis of overaccumulation. Accumulation by dispossession –
the predatory opening up new arenas for accumulation either through selling
off state assets in the developed world or forcing developing countries to
privatise, commodify and marketise areas of social life that previously resisted
the logic of capital – is a major form through which capitalism has sought a
‘spatial fix’ to its crisis tendencies. This has both created vast areas for the
absorption of surplus capital and allowed for costs of devaluation to be visited
upon the weakest and most vulnerable. But is Harvey’s understanding of
these processes adequate? Might it not be too general and all encompassing?

The symposium
Not all the contributions which follow chose to focus solely on the issues
raised in The New Imperialism. Some use the opportunity to discuss more
broadly David Harvey’s contribution to Marxist scholarship over a period of
more than three decades.5 Noel Castree – after providing a clear summary of
the book’s contents which there is no need to repeat here – opts to assess
Harvey’s intellectual trajectory more broadly, situating it within the fate of a
generation of postwar academic Marxists and the difficulties of being a Marxist
public intellectual. His prognosis about the future reproduction of Marxism
as a radical current is both thought provoking and pessimistic. He suggests
that the legacy of leading figures, many of whom are represented in this
symposium (Harvey, Brenner, Fine and Callinicos), ‘may last only a further
generation at best’ in the Anglophone world.
Bob Sutcliffe combines a discussion of both Harvey and Wood, contrasting
their accounts to each other and to Hardt and Negri’s notion of Empire. He
argues that Harvey’s emphasis on capitalism’s crises of overaccumulation
understates the extent of recovery in recent years, in particular China’s
extraordinary economic growth in the last quarter century. China is not simply

4 Harvey 2003, p. 19.


5 For a general treatment of Harvey’s work see Castree and Gregory (eds.) 2006.
For a succinct account of his trajectory and influence see Merrifield 2002, Chapter 7.
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a site where surplus capital is absorbed and so crisis is held at bay. It is a


dynamic pole of accumulation and economic development in its own right.
A new period of capitalist expansion may well be underway, centred in Asia,
one which will only intensify the difficulties of sustaining US hegemony.
Ellen Wood offers an alternative account from Harvey’s ‘two logics of
power’, based on the centrality of the separation of the economic and political,
which she sees as constitutive of capitalist social-property relations. The state
is critical to the extra-economic reproduction of capitalism and, as capitalism
has become more global than ever before, the state has become more rather
than less important. The fragmentation of political space persists, a global
state is ‘all but inconceivable’ and the organisation of capitalism through
multiple states entails military projects to ensure an international order suited
to capital. Military force is thus an ongoing necessity for ‘imperial capital’ as
are oppositional struggles at the level of the national. For Harvey, in his
response specifically to Wood, this suggests too much detachment of capital
from the state: it suggests ‘placeless capital now roams across the mosaic of
differentiated and unevenly developed nation-states using them at will for
its own nefarious purposes’.
Robert Brenner also takes issue with the distinction between a territorial
and a capitalist logic of power, arguing that Harvey’s own account actually
demonstrates the subordination of the territorial logics to the capitalist logic
of power. For him, the issue of whether or not there is a conflict between the
interests of capital and the interests of states is better addressed through
understanding how the state undertakes the political functions necessary for
the reproduction of capital but that the form the state takes (a system of
multiple national states) is not accounted for by the capital relation itself but
by the historical process through which capitalism emerged from a system
of multiple feudal states, transforming them in the process but not the
multi-state character of the system. A world state would better suit global
capital, however unlikely such an emergence may be.
Sam Ashman and Alex Callinicos are more sympathetic to Harvey’s
distinction between territorial and capitalist logics of power, suggesting that
imperialism be understood as the forms in which geopolitical and economic
competition have become interwoven in modern capitalism. They argue that
this conception of imperialism needs to be supported by a theory of the state
and capital that treats them as interdependent. They too question the catch-
all nature of accumulation by dispossession, suggesting instead that it be
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broken down into distinct processes of commodification, recommodification


and restructuring.
For Ben Fine, it is not simply that Harvey gives undue empirical weight
to accumulation by dispossession but that he gets the dynamic upside down.
Fine sees these varied phenomena as a response to the slowing of accumulation
and the deadening effect of the predominance of finance, not as the basis
of sustaining accumulation. Fine’s tour de force assesses the role of value
theory and its current prospects by setting Harvey’s work in the context of
understanding method, methodology and value theory and, secondly, in
relation to broader developments across the social sciences. Finally, Harvey
provides a brief rejoinder to the commentaries.
As all the contributors agree, there is much room for further theoretical
development and debate about all of the themes signposted above. We hope
that discussion will continue in the pages of Historical Materialism, as well as
beyond, as the Left globally strives both to understand and to resist an era
marked by neoliberalism and war.

References
Bacevich, Andrew 2002, American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of American
Diplomacy, Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press.
Castree, Noel and Derek Gregory (eds.) 2006, David Harvey: A Critical Reader, Oxford:
Blackwell.
Chibber, Vivek 2005, ‘The Good Empire’, Boston Review, February/March: 30–4.
Davis, Mike 2001, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third
World, London: Verso.
Ferguson, Niall 2002, Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the
Lessons for Global Power, London: Allen Lane.
Ferguson, Niall 2004, Colossus: The Price of America’s Empire, London: Penguin.
Harvey, David 2003, The New Imperialism, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Merrifield, Andy 2002, Metromarxism: A Marxist Tale of the City, London: Routledge.
Robinson, William 2004, A Theory of Global Capitalism: Production, Class and State in a
Transnational World, Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press.