Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 29, 2006

Samir Amin’s “Beyond U.S. Hegemony”

Filed under: socialism — louisproyect @ 6:30 pm

(Third in a series of posts on “Does Socialism Have a Future?”)


Although world systems theorists are united in their opposition to capitalism and their preference for socialism, somehow the question of revolution tends to get lost in the shuffle. Furthermore, since the unit of analysis is the entire planet viewed from the geopolitical stratosphere rather than a specific country (why bother with such petty details), there is a tendency to use the discourse of hegemonic and subhegemonic nations/blocs rather than ruling class and ruled. Finally, the emphasis is on redressing imbalances between hegemons and subhegemons rather than figuring out ways to eliminate these categories entirely. While nobody would deny the Third World a larger slice of the pie, isn’t the job of socialists to think past such a schema?

Perhaps the most extreme form of this tendency was Andre Gunder Frank’s “Re-Orient”, the last book that this great dependency theorist wrote. It argued that finally after 300 years or so, China would emerge as a new hegemon and take the place of the United States, which leads me to wonder, as the old Peggy Lee song put it, “Is that all there is?”

In some ways, this approach overlaps with what Hugo Chavez has dubbed an “axis of good,” referring quite rightly to the alliance between Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia. For many, this might be extended to all those countries in Latin America that have remained willing to collaborate with the “axis of good”, including Brazil, Argentina and Chile. But why stop there? If the goal is to unite all those countries or blocs that can potentially be recruited to a global alliance that rejects the extreme violence and predation associated with the bogus “war on terror,” why not look toward India, Russia and China, countries that while clearly committed to capitalist growth appear less crazed?

That in essence is the argument found in Samir Amin’s “Beyond U.S. Hegemony: Assessing the Prospects for a Multiplural World.” As opposed to the hegemonic bloc constituted by the U.S. and Great Britain, Amin explains in his introduction that “other hegemonic blocs are possible”, a formulation that obviously owes something to “another world is possible” but dispensing with its ambitiousness. According to Amin, “Such alternative blocs will not necessarily be called upon to make a radical break with the requirements of capitalism, but they may very well force capitalism to adapt to certain demands that do not conform to its peculiar logic.” Not quite the stuff easily translated into a slogan, but certainly well-meaning.

Perhaps sensing the possibility that his ideas might be confused with those put forward by Hardt and Negri, Amin takes pain to disassociate himself from the two theorists of Empire, who he dismisses as putting forward alternatives that “are limited to a few segments of triad societies and are always subject to the dominant capitalist logic.” I am not sure that there is that much of a difference between Amin and Hardt-Negri, based on the evidence of a July 13, 2006 Nation Magazine Michael Hardt article titled “From Imperialism to Empire”, where he writes:

The internal dynamic of Empire is analogous to a collaboration between a monarch and a group of aristocrats. The monarch in most cases today is the US government, but in some cases it’s the IMF or other powers that act monarchically. The aristocratic powers in this analogy include the other nation-states of various levels, the corporations, the supranational institutions and various nongovernmental organizations. This analogy helps, first, to draw attention to the hierarchies among these powers in the ruling structure and, second, highlights the fact that the monarch cannot act unilaterally, depending constantly on the aristocrats, among other things, to finance its wars and pay its debts. The Bush Administration thought it could dictate the terms of global order unilaterally, but it was a monarch who failed to gain the support of the aristocrats and was thus doomed to failure.

This analogy also helps us understand the progressive strategic role of some of the regional alliances of nation-states that have emerged in recent years. The aristocrats can in many ways, especially when they band together, dictate to the monarch the terms of the imperial arrangement. One of the most visible and successful operations of this sort was carried out by the so-called Group of 22, led by Brazil, which blocked the 2003 WTO meetings in Cancún. The recent coalition of Latin American states that blocked the FTAA is another example. Indeed, the “Bolivarian” strategy of the Venezuelan government seeks to capitalize on the election of progressive governments in so many countries in Latin America by forming partnerships from Uruguay and Argentina to Brazil and Bolivia, and perhaps in the future also with Ecuador or Mexico. Acting alone, of course, none of these nation-states has the power to confront the United States or the IMF and transform the imperial arrangement. Acting together, emphasizing their strategic interdependence, they clearly can.

Stepping back some distance from both Amin and Hardt-Negri, one can gain some perspective and evaluate their respective recommendations in some ways as a recasting of Cold War polarities. Back in the 1950s, the USSR was the counter-balance to the USA but today it is Amin’s “alternative hegemonic blocs” or Hardt-Negri’s “aristocrats”. At least during the Cold War, one might embrace the Soviet side as standing for a more advanced social system. But today, the substitute players have very little to offer other than the fact that they are not the United States. Amin, like Hardt-Negri, finds Europe much more amenable to his purposes but I am afraid that his Europe is an idealized version of the real thing, which is dripping in blood. As he puts it:

Since the French Revolution, the political cultures of France and continental Europe, though existing within a perfectly capitalist framework, have been considerably different from the one we have just described. [U.S. racism, inequality, etc.] Here, the values of liberty and equality have from the beginning been placed on an equal footing, and this has required social management of the conflict between the two, and state action to regulate the deployment of capitalism in that light. This different approach opens up the possibility – if social struggles make it necessary – of making a start on participatory democracy. By their very nature, such moves accentuate the conflict with the inherent tendencies of capital accumulation, since a majority of citizens may then oppose the minority of ‘property-owners’ who alone count as real active citizens under the exclusive logic of capitalism. The way is thus opened to a recognition of positive social rights, which the American liberal model ignores in principle on the grounds that they require active intervention by the legislative and executive, as opposed to mere political and civil liberties that require the state only to refrain from impeding their use.

With all due respect to Samir Amin, who has written ground-breaking studies of the accumulation of capital on a world scale and whose dedication to social justice is second to none, this is sheer nonsense. Anything that is good in Europe owes more to the presence of long standing Social Democratic and Communist parties rather than “political culture”. “Positive social rights,” such as they are, were won through struggle not through persuasion. For example, Sweden’s generous social legislation came into existence not because the Swedish bourgeoisie has a sense of noblesse oblige, but because the Swedish workers waged a bitter struggle culminating in a general strike in 1931 and then the election of a Socialist government. Prior to that point, workers were gunned down just as brutally as in the U.S.

Even more shocking is Amin’s contrast between a supposedly racist America and the more enlightened Europe:

The other formative elements of American political culture – slavery and its racist legacy, the Indian genocide and the contempt for other peoples that it expressed – are equally specific and have no parallel in Europe. Whether based on slavery or not, Europe‘s colonies (though often associated with massacres) remained outside its own continent.

I am not sure that all the Congolese men and women who had hands hacked off as punishment for not working hard to tap rubber enough would have appreciated this distinction. Furthermore, it is somewhat of a moot point since the entire continent was Caucasian to begin with. If we extend the concept of racism, however, to include the persecution of religious and ethnic groups that are considered less than human, the Europeans have even less to be proud of. Many scholars view the Elizabethan conquest of Ireland and the reign of terror and plunder that succeeded it to be a model for the conquest of the American Indian. Furthermore, when every last Jew was expelled from Great Britain and Spain in the early capitalist epoch, one can hardly fault a Jew for questioning the merits of the European “political culture.”

For those who will probably not find themselves motivated to read “Beyond U.S. Hegemony,” I can recommend a briefer exposition of his ideas in an article titled ” Beyond Liberal Globalization: A Better or Worse World?” that appeared originally in Monthly Review.

In the conclusion, Amin tries to make clear that his anti-imperialism is different from that of the old left:

In its time, the third Leninist then Maoist International formed global alliances which–in theory and to some extent in practice–responded to an analogous challenge formulated within the conditions and limitations of the time. It is not a question of producing a remake of this chapter of history, which is definitively closed. The new structure of the anti-imperialist struggles in the North and South have still to be invented almost from A to Z.

As I stated in my last article in this series, it is a mistake to try to dismiss the lessons of the socialist movement, which were gained through blood and sweat. To speak in terms of a chapter of history being closed might make sense if you are speaking of the USSR or Mao’s China. Since Samir Amin was at one time a Maoist himself, one wonders if this attempt to close the chapter might reflect his own anxiousness to put his own past behind him. For the rest of us, the Soviet Union was much more about its promise rather than its achievements, impressive as they were. Looking back at that experience and trying to extract some meaningful lesson from it is not an exercise in “ostalgie” but rather a determination not to excise a memory that can serve to guide future action, especially in a time of deepening capitalist criss.


  1. I just read Amin’s piece in MR a few days ago and I thought he was actually much toughter and more pessimistic on Europe than your quotations would indicate. Nor do I think his use of the term “political culture” is meant to belittle the role played by class struggle and working class parties in the shaping of the European welfare state. His somewhat dismissive view of the prospects for progressive change in the States struck me as the standard American exceptionalism, but I do think that “race” has played a significant role in diminishing class consciousness in America, limiting the formation and growth of mass working class parties, and inhibiting the degree of welfare statism seen in Europe. Finally, his notion of counter-hegemonic blocs and his willingness to “unite all who can be united” against U.S. hegemony, while not without merit, seems oversimplified and not so very far removed from his Maoist/Bandung past. Nevertheless, I found the essay, even where I disagreed with it, to be sober and not as inclined to jettison the lessons of history as you suggest.

    Comment by burghardt — December 30, 2006 @ 12:01 am

  2. “Ruling class” is a populist term, not a Marxist one.

    Comment by Tony — December 30, 2006 @ 12:14 am

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