Unboxing Imperialism of Our Time: Five Books on Imperialism with Vijay Prashad

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IMPERIALISM occupies a special place in Marxist analysis, from Rosa Luxemburg to Lenin, from Grossman to Wallerstein. For a number of contemporary Marxist theorists, however, the notion of imperialism inadequate to understand how the world works today. On the other hand, especially in the humanities, “imperialism” has so frequently been invoked to make sense of wide range of phenomena from the Western cultural hegemony (“cultural imperialism”) to the rise of China in the world stage.

In the last week of January 2021, Two IndoPROGRESS editors, Fathimah Fildzah Izzati and Windu Jusuf interviewed Vijay Prashad about books on imperialism. A journalist, historian, and Marxist intellectual, Prashad is the  author of 20 books including The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World (2007), The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (2012), and Red Star Over the Third World (2017).

His latest work Washington Bullets: A History of the CIA, Coups, and Assassinations (September 2020), a collection of essays narrating US-backed plots against popular movements and governments, and assassinations of socialists and communists all over the Third World, was written in the wake of a right-wing coup that toppled Evo Morales.

As the former Bolivian President writes in the preface of the book, “It is a book about the shadows; but it relies upon the literature of the light.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Indonesian edition: “Unboxing Imperialisme: Lima Buku Terbaik tentang Imperialisme Menurut Vijay Prashad”

Windu Jusuf

Vijay Prashad, thank you for having us. So, we invite you to talk about books on imperialism for a section in IndoPROGRESS, Batjaan Liar (“Wild Readings”). Batjaan Liar was originally a colonial term for radical left-wings books published by anti-colonial activists but we appropriate it.

Vijay Prashad

All terms should be appropriated, because we are not embarrassed of that term. When I was younger, people sometimes told me that I behave like a hooligan. There is a story when Vladimir Lenin was confronted with the great Mayakovsky, the terrific poet. You know, Mayakovsky, the phenomenal poet so important in Russia because he tried to create a new language. So, some people said to Lenin “Mayakovsky, he is just a hooligan.” But Lenin said, “He is a communist hooligan. He is our hooligan!” He was important. He was shaping culture. And that’s important. Take the term back.

Windu Jusuf

We would like to know how imperialism becomes a central theme in your works. You can tell us a bit about your intellectual journey.

Vijay Prashad

Well, you know there is always intellectual journey and political journey, and these journeys for people like us are intertwined. It’s not possible to separate it. Let’s say I was a young kid and I saw Lenin’ Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism and I was convinced. No, it’s never like that. You never read the book and then it interrupts your weird thinking. It has to be combination of your political, personal experiences and your intellectual journey. They have to collide in some ways.

I grew up in Calcutta, in West Bengal. And I was born in 1967, 20 years after India was made into independent country. When I was quite small, India fought a war against Pakistan, the only war India really fought on the Eastern Front. That is to say, where the front line was the east Pakistan. And this was a war in 1971 that produced Bangladesh. Refugees came into our city. But even as a little boy I recall, quite vividly the US Seventh Fleet was sailing up to Calcutta to bomb our city, to prevent India from continuing prosecuting the war against Pakistan. The memory was that the Americans ships were coming in and we had to put black paper on the windows. I don’t know exactly why we had to do that because, hey, it’s not like they had a difficulty finding where the city was. But anyway, I remember this practice as a child: you needed to put black paper on a window and close the curtain. It has an impact on you. It’s not trivial but actually much more than that.

I was very much radicalized by the US war on Vietnam. I was a young child. Calcutta was important place. The US consulate and British Consulate were on the same road. In my childhood, we had a coalition of government of the left in power in my state. And the government decided to rename the street to “Ho Chi Minh Road” [from Harrington Road]. So, the US consulate and British consulate were on Ho Chi Minh Road. And they are still on Ho Chi Minh Road. All through my life this was the talisman of how we stood up against the terrible, terrible crime; crime against humanity conducted by United States against the people of Vietnam.

At that time, I didn’t know anything about Indonesia. I was born in 1967 and the events of 1965 were opaque to me. Those stories came much later. The story that one got was of course from Vietnam, and then, there after I got re-involved my friends around issues of Cuba and Israel-Palestine. So, I would to say that there were three parts of the world that I got interested. In 1982, again I was very young, I saw the front page of a mainstream corporate newspaper in Calcutta. I saw a photograph of something that happened in Beirut, in Lebanon 1982. And the pictures hit me very hard. One of the first articles I wrote for the student newspapers was about the event of Sabra and Shatila, when the Israelis had basically taken Beirut. They allowed Phalange fascist militia to go inside the Palestinian camp and executed the Palestinians. This really impacted me a lot. United States backed the Israeli. So, my initial entry to imperialism was the politics of imperialism, not the economics. It was basically the simple fact there was a country in the world, or a group of countries—let be fair, it wasn’t only the United States—that was behaving with great violence in the world to get their way. And I didn’t understand economically why this was so. Why would this country? Was it a cultural problem? Why they used to be dominant?

I don’t think there was no real explanation from my early period of why they were doing this, but I knew it was wrong. So, I knew the Vietnam War was wrong. I knew that what they were doing to Cuba was wrong, and there were a lot of pro-Cuba solidarity in India this time. Castro came to India and was greeted at the airport by Indira Gandhi.

And the third was the question of the Palestinians. I focused on that quite early and I have to say it was the mainstream coverage of the assault in Sabra and Shatila. In those days—I want to put it like this for young people—in those days, the mainstream press covered these issues. They covered a massacre in Beirut. They covered terrible violence in Vietnam conducted by the US government. They covered the suffocation of Cuba. Today, there is almost no coverage anymore of what is happening in Afghanistan. A continuing war. There is almost no coverage. I don’t even know if young people know there is a continuing war in Afghanistan. I didn’t mean young people who are aware of everything. I mean young person like myself who just wanted to find out the scores of crickets matches but came across a photograph [of Sabra and Shatilla massacre] and look at it. I don’t think the mainstream or the corporate media today covers what is happening in Venezuela or even Cuba. I don’t think the corporate media properly cover what happens to the people of Western Sahara.

A few months ago, I was talking to somebody in Papua New Guinea, which is near you. And he was telling me about the mining companies in Papua New Guinea. He was himself a mining leader. He was telling me about how his brother was buried alive by the private security of the mining company. They threw him a pit and buried him and he died. This is the repression the miners faced in Papua New Guinea. He told me that the Papua Island is the second largest rainforest in the world after the Amazon. And I said, “What? I didn’t know that”. And he said, “Yes. And the violence by the mining company is extreme”. I said, “I have not read about this anywhere!”

How you get interested in imperialism? Well, it’s through those events. But also, I want to say there used to be a time when the corporate media covered some of this stuff because some of editors had integrity. Today the editors have… I don’t know, but they just don’t cover the event. I didn’t ask the question why aren’t they doing this. I just remember being angered by the fact that this is happening.

Fathimah Fildzah Izzati

I read your works, for example, The Red Star Over the Third World. I’m curious about what you think of the debates on imperialism, such as the commentary by David Harvey [that “”the historical draining of wealth from East to West for more than two centuries has … been largely reversed over the last thirty years”] and also the latest one, Intan Suwandi’s work Value Chains: The New Economic Imperialism. Now I want to know what do you think of the current debates on imperialism?

Vijay Prashad

So, that’s a very good question, because it’s going to force me to say why these countries are doing these things. I started by saying I was upset by this war in Vietnam, why was the US prosecuting this war in Vietnam, what was the need? Underneath that was a theory and I think it’s important to put the theory forward.

Well, what is imperialism? Imperialism is a very simple process. I’m gonna give you simple way and then make it a little more complicated, twice complicated. Some countries in the world, through their immense military power, seek to have extra economic advantages in the world. So, if two people trading with each other, then I say to you, I have a pencil that I want to barter with you. And you say, “Well, fine, I have a zip drive, and it takes twenty pencils or hundreds of pencils to exchanges the two.” We come up with social convention history, we come up with the formula to exchange them. Right? So much for one commodity to exchange with so much for another.

Over course of the last two hundred years, as capitalism has developed, certain countries, France, Britain, but also Spain and Portugal and so on, have come in and they shaped in the world in such a way to advantage them decisively. So, what appears to be a merely economic exchange of equals is actually already constructed in an unequal way.

For instance, the British arrived in India in 1600s. In 1757, they conquered India and governed for almost two hundred years from 1757 to 1949. When the British left India, the literacy rate raised 13 percent. 13 percent. They came to India, in what is now Bangladesh, one of richest places in the world. Bangladesh was the center of textile production—not raw material production, but textile production. The British destroyed and de-industrialized the textile industry. Now, what they did was they deflated the incomes. So, they held back social development and they deflated incomes. Income deflation is the key part of imperialism.

What it means is that there is part of world like in India and Indonesia. You create an idea that Indonesian and Indian people can survive on [such and such amount of] money, so that basic wage rates, even if you look at a purchasing power parity, wage rates are so much lower in India than they are in Germany. Germany’s wage rates are higher. Standard of living is higher. The purchasing power parity is not comparable at all. Indian workers just get enough money to have just about… not even sufficient nutrition. Because hunger rate is endemic. It’s just a little enough to get some shelter. That’s also a struggle because, let’s say, five of them are left to stay together in little place, like boarding house for industrial workers. They are like ship workers; they share beds and so on. They get no health coverage so they are often sick.

This income deflation in our part of the world allows commodities produced in our parts of the world to have artificially suppressed low prices. And this enables corporations to make a huge killing. Imperialism is not just monopoly capital fighting each other and going abroad to secure markets and resources. Imperialism is also about wage deflation. This is important point made by Prabhat and Utsa Patnaik. In their long work on imperialism, they make an argument about income deflation. What happens is that [David] Harvey misses all this. Harvey looks through too macro perspective? Harvey looks at this like “Where is the Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) from?” Just because FDI enters Indonesia doesn’t mean that Indonesia is now a “coal country” in the world system? FDI came to Indonesia for all kinds of reasons, maybe to create some infrastructures. Intan Suwandi’s book is a very good book. Because she looks at these two printing companies and she sees how basically they are integrated into global commodity chain.

But the key part of that kind of study is income deflation because the workers in those factories are paid nothing. The managers or the owners of that factory are squeezed. Let’s be fair, they are not heroes but they are being squeezed by the commodity chain. Because if they don’t supply products for low price, then you go to Malaysia or Vietnam or somewhere else. That is a race to the bottom that impacts the workers.

Even the managers are stressed out. Intan’s book captures the stress of these managers. It’s a very good study because she interviews these managers at length and she finds that the stress takes periods. And of course, they can go out to business tomorrow. It’s a real stress. It’s not like, “Oh, I’m so stressed I can’t buy Lamborghini.” No, it’s not that kind of stress. The managers are not fabulously wealthy. They are middle class people as well. But the real stress is faced by the workers and the workers’ families. Because often—and I’m sure this is similar in Indonesia—an industrial worker is a peasant who works in a factory. And often their families subsidize them. So, let’s say I’m an industrial worker working in the outskirts of Delhi. My family member comes back by train or bus from rural area and carries a big sack of rice for me. When I go back home to visit my family, I come back to the city with the rice, with provisions because I just can’t buy a food in the city. I’m hungry most of the time. So, I’m sending cash wages home but I’m getting food from the country because I’m starving.

So, this income deflation is the key thing. David Harvey and so on miss this point. They look at imperialism at too macro level. I find it quite silly when they say China is an imperialist power. In what way China is imperialist? I don’t believe China is imperialist power at all, actually. At all. But the final thing is that when globalization becomes a policy. Globalization has been there for hundreds of years as a sociological phenomenon. Let’s take Indonesia. Japan had been there; the Dutch had been there. Who else has been there? Indians had been there, because we share some cultural phenomena and our cultures have been intertwined. Islam came there. Globalization is a sociological fact, not from the 1990s. But as political and economic phenomena, there is something specific, that is, the globalization as a consequence of massive changes in technology. You know, satellites, computer technology, better shipping and containerization, factories could be broken up. They created what Japanese called “just-in-time production”. They could create big factories in different countries.Therefore, they suppress the bargaining power of labor that creates this “just-in-time” problem.

And key there to this commodity chain imperialism is intellectual property rights. So, two aspects of modern imperialism that needs to be highlighted: one is income deflation, and the other is intellectual property rights. Because if you don’t have intellectual property rights, all these small subcontracting firms can start producing stuffs based on your pattern and sell it and you need to control the chain. Those saying there’s no imperialism anymore just miss out on income deflation and intellectual property rights. They are still looking on the old definition. Harvey and company are looking at a nineteenth century’s Hobson’s definition of imperialism, that was even pre-Lenin. They are looking at that.

We have to look at what Lenin called concrete analysis of the concrete condition, not taking a definition from a hundred years ago and see if it applies today.

Windu Jusuf

It’s a category mistake.

Vijay Prashad

Yes, it is a category mistake. And by the way I’m embarrassed to accuse David Harvey of a category mistake. I’m embarrassed to do that. He’s a senior person.

Windu Jusuf

Can you list five books on imperialism that you recommend and what do you think about them?

Vijay Prashad

This is a book by John Smith, Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century: Globalization, Super-Exploitation, and Capitalism’s Final Crisis (2016) from Monthly Review Press It’s been highly influential for me. John Smith is an English trade unionist and, in this book, he attempts to take seriously the question of super-exploitation, by which he means the international division of labor. So, he argues that Marx in Capital suggests two strategies for surplus value extraction. The first strategy is by absolute surplus value, by increasing the length of the working day, by being much more ruthless against workers, including using violence. That is the extraction of surplus value, that process Marx called absolute surplus value.

Secondly, relative surplus value. Marx argues that the better use of mechanization, the better productivity of labor—It’s a simple thing like arranging your desk in a more efficient way, so you will not lose your stuff and spend fifteen minutes looking for it. That increases the productivity of labor. Marx calls it relative surplus value. Third, Smith’s argument—which is not in Capital, but there is evidence in Marx and he goes over there—is that there is extraction of surplus value through super-exploitation. Now, for instance, the wage arbitrage: taking advantage of differences in prices of labor. So, at the certain immediate point, labor in Indonesia is cheaper than labor in—let’s says—China. Then a Swiss company moves its operation to Indonesia. And it can do this because of the nature of the commodity chain. Each part of the commodity production is less complicated now. The complexity is broken up by along the commodity chain. Previously you had one giant factory, where you do all your different aspect of production. Let’s say you are building a car. Now you build tires here, dashboard here, this here, that here. So, you can set up a factory pretty fast, because all you are making is the tire. You are not making the whole car. You don’t have to setup the whole car factory. So, you can move the tire factory from Shenzen to Indonesia in two months. You get a shed, you can ship the machinery, you train the workers while the machinery is shipping, and you only have two months delay. Not more than that. That’s nothing in industrial production.

So, Smith notes that this taking advantage in differences in wages, or wage arbitrage, is a key aspect of imperialism: super-exploitation. It’s a really good book. I use this book a lot in our Tricontintental Institute. In the first study we did, In the Ruins of the Present, there is a section where we basically develop, deepen, and make Smith’s point easier to read.

The second book, I already mentioned is A Theory of Imperialism (2016) by Utsa and Prabhat Patnaik. In fact, it has a commentary by David Harvey. It’s interesting because Harvey was the critic and they invited him to comment. They [Utsa and Prabhat Patnaik] are formidable Marxist intellectuals from New Delhi, India. This is the book where they make the argument that there is a geographical belt, the tropics, which produce certain commodities which can’t be grown elsewhere. And in this belt, wage deflation, income deflation, is considerable. And income is held down in this belt by artificial means in order to ensure the cheapness of the price of this raw material or food commodities. So, if John Smith points out wage arbitrage and super-exploitation, the supplement that comes from them is income deflation.

In 2013 I wrote The Poorer Nations in which I make the argument that intellectual property is a key instrument of 21st century imperialism. If you don’t understand the role of intellectual property, then you don’t get it. After the 1978 reform, China very cleverly signed contracts that ensure technology transfers. That’s the key to the emergence of China. None of our countries did that. Indonesia said, “Please come and set up your factory. Take advantage of wage arbitrage, income deflation, and you can maintain intellectual property rights. We don’t want anything. You just come and just give us a little FDI, and hire some of our people.” So, basically you are taking advantage of them. But Indonesia didn’t say “Transfer science, train our people, transfer technology, show us how it works.” But that’s what the Chinese said after the 1978 reform: “Okay, you can come here, [there is an] income deflation. But our workers are healthy because of the Mao’s reform. You can come here, take advantage of wage arbitrage. But give us the science and technology.”

Today, China in so many areas—robotics telecommunications, green energy—is way ahead of the West. Two generations ahead. Chinese companies like Huawei, ZTE are two generations ahead. So, intellectual property is my argument in Poorer Nations. This book is actually written as an implicit critique of Harvey’s book on neoliberalism. Because Harvey argues that neoliberalism begins as a New York City… and British Thatcher, Reagan, and so on. It’s like as if it’s to solve the municipal problems and crisis in the West. I don’t agree with that. I believe that neoliberalism emerges out of the way to control the South, to maintain income deflation, to maintain wage arbitrage advantages, and then intellectual property is the third instrument. So, that’s the third one.

Windu Jusuf

So, that’s the third book?

Vijay Prashad

Yes, that’s the third book. Then the fourth book is by my colleague, Emiliano Lopez. It’s an edited collection. It’s called The Veins of the South are Still Open: Debates Surrounding the Imperialism of Our Time (2020). And I highly recommended this book for Indonesian readers. Emiliano Lopez works for Tricontinental. He is from Buenos Aires, Argentina, and this collection actually brings all these themes together, because it has an opening from Utsa and Prabhat Patnaik called “Imperialism in the Era of Globalization”. It has John Smith’s “Exploitation and Super-Exploitation and the Theory of Imperialism”. It has one work by our chief economists at Tricontinental from Turkey, E. Ahmet Tonak. Atilio Boron and Gabriel Merino from Argentina write about geopolitics. So, this summarizes from our perspective, because we are more on the Smith-Patnaik’s view on imperialism than on the Harvey’s view. So, this summarizes it. And the title is play on Eduardo Galeano’s book [The Open Veins of Latin America].

The fifth book—well, I am not recommending this book—but I am recommending books about finance capital. This is by Cedric Durand, and this is called Fictitious Capital (2017). Now, I actually don’t believe the term financialization. I think it’s inaccurate to think about some of phenomenon called financialization, because I think capitalism always has financialization in it. Financialization isn’t a new phase. Because what happens is as people start talking about financialization, they omit the fact that there are hundreds of millions of people working to produce surplus value, or they omit the fact of wage deflation, income deflation, tropical zones, wage arbitrage, they omit this entire intellectual architecture of 21st century imperialism. They just look at finance, and once again the workers disappear. And some people believe that finance creates surplus value. It doesn’t. Finance simply rearranges surplus value. Surplus value is only created in the labor process, in the production process. I am a very conventional Marxist on that. I don’t believe that in finance, you move money around and you make surplus value. You move money around, you make money, and that’s an optical illusion that gets some people rich. Not entirely an optical illusion. But I still think people need to read about fictitious capital and the sophistication of it and so on. Well, I guess that’s five.

Actually, I recently published a book, Washington Bullets. The Indonesian translation will come out soon. This is the history of CIA and it starts in 1945 and goes all the way to the present in 150 pages. It’s based on CIA materials, interviews with CIA agents, interviews with some people who are the victims, but mainly it’s CIA’s own stories, interpreted by me. It has a lot of poetries, songs, and so on. I refer to things that are not remembered, like the CIA or the US military intervention in Thailand. You know, when there was a big protest wave in Bangkok, the US military intervened…

Windu Jusuf

In the 1970s?

Vijay Prashad

In the 1960s. Of course, Thailand has a military coup in 2013. But who even pays attention to that? There is coup government still there. And Thailand is governed not by the monarchy. It’s not even governed by the bourgeoisie. It’s always been governed by the military. It’s a military dictatorship from God knows when. They say it’s the monarchy. No, the monarch is just the figurehead of the military. This monarch lives all his life in Germany. And the small Thai elite centered around Bangkok is not an independent elite. It’s dependent on the military for its strength. So, this and behind them military is the United States government.

And inside Thailand is massive manufacturing of petty commodities. Go to Bangkok, it’s chaotic city. But ringing around Bangkok are these factories—which you see in Indonesia—you know, the small-scale production, which is not. And it looks miserable. These are the people, these small factories that Intan studies. But they are not producing for the local market. They are producing for international commodity chains. So, it’s not some parochial thing that the chain of events in Thailand is linked to goods, very cheap goods being sold all over the world. So, yes, those are the five books.

Fathimah Fildzah Izzati

Actually it’s at least five books, but it’s okay.

Vijay Prashad

Wait a minute. I’m sorry I forgot to mention the classics, you know the Lenin’s Imperialism, and so on. I forgot the classics but I don’t want to concentrate on the classics, because I think it’s important to see who’s developing the theory forward. You know, Samir Amin, my guru Samir Amin, and so on. I just wanted to talk about contemporary things.

Fathimah Fildzah Izzati

It’s okay, and now I just want to know, from these five books, do have an order from the first to the fifth to be read first by Indonesian readers especially the beginners?

Vijay Prashad

No, no, I would like to encourage Indonesian publishers to bring The Veins of the South are Still Open out in Indonesia because this book is, it has essays by the Patnaik, John Smith and so on. It carries the debate into the book. And it’s debate from our perspectives. What do I mean by our perspectives? I mean the perspectives of let say anti-colonial thinking. Anti colonial Marxism. Anti-colonial liberation thought and so on. This is our perspectives you know. I mean the Patnaik’s book is an excellent book. It’s a little more technical and it’s also longer. But it’ll require some technical skills. John Smith’s book is very easy to read. But it’s longer. It’s a good introduction. I mean I just think these 150 pages is a good introduction to the debates. It’s called “debates around imperialism of our time”, so it’s a good introductory text. I would recommend this absolutely. And I hope it gets translated, hopefully.

In fact, I should talk to Ronny [Agustinus of Marjin Kiri] about it first. You know Ronny published my Red Star Over the Third Word. It’s very nice. I like the font here. It looks Cyrillic. Very clever. It’s beautifully made book and Ronny translated it himself. ***

Batjaan Liar’s special edition team:
Transcript: Haris Prabowo, Daniel Sihombing, Fathimah Fildzah Izzati
Copy editing: Windu Jusuf
Visual: Deadnauval

In the early 20th century, the Dutch colonial government made a coordinated effort through its publishing arm, Balai Pustaka, to disrupt the distribution of “batjaan liar” (wild readings), i.e., books and articles published by anti-capitalist and anti-colonial activists which had successfully helped raise class consciousness in the colony. We reclaim the colonial term for IndoPROGRESS section of reading lists organized thematically in response to relevant issues. Working as a journalist at Tirto.id, Haris Prabowo is the guest editor for Batjaan Liar.


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