When Karl Marx popularized a phrase he borrowed from Friedrich Engels about history repeating itself, first as tragedy and then as farce, he was referring to the tragedy of Napoleon and the subsequent farce of his “grotesque mediocrity” of a nephew, Napoleon the Third. Marx might as well have been writing about monopoly capitalism, as we are now witnessing a repeat of the capitalist grotesqueries of the early twentieth century. But ignorance is bliss, and such mental oblivion precipitates the crude repetitions of time.
Now that that poison trifecta of the intelligence community, social justice tribes, and the Democratic Party are censoring the alternative press, even fewer readers will become aware of the manner in which capitalism follows a predictable behavioral arc, fortunately covered in some detail by Vladimir Lenin in his excellent critique, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. Take just a few chapters from Lenin’s study and consider some of the familiar trends he and others identified as endemic to capitalism:
● The Certainty of Monopolies: The foundational characteristic of imperialism is monopoly capitalism. In the corporate press, the monopoly question is simply bantered about like a question of regulation, of judiciously debated legal restraint. As they write their specious bourgeois rationales, the media consolidates into ever fewer conglomerate hands (currently five) and censorship on a mass scale becomes feasible, and the spectrum of democratic thought shrivels to a stump of clichéd repetition.
● Economic Stagnation: “Like all monopoly, it inevitably engenders a tendency of stagnation and decay.” Has anyone noticed that the country’s economy grew between 3-4 percent for the entirety of the long post-war boom, as it was called, and that it currently struggles to grow at 1-2 percent, and has since neoliberalism was implemented in the ‘70s and the era of mergers and acquisitions continues to inflate?
● Capital Concentration: On a global scale, do we not now live in a world where, “ . . . imperialism is an immense accumulation of money capital in a few countries”? Have we noticed the American economic hegemony through its ‘dollar imperialism,’ the SWIFT transaction platform, the outflow of TBTF banks and IMF and World Bank capital to ‘emerging’ nations and the reverse flows of debt service back to the core that kneecaps economy after economy across the global south, and increasingly in Europe?
● The Idle Class: Don’t we notice the bourgeois class or “stratum of rentiers, i.e., people . . . who take no part in any enterprise whatever, whose profession is idleness”? (The ones whom Trump gifted a trillion dollar tax break, only to use the deficit argument weeks later to stifle a federal wage increase.) Have you seen their congeries of empty luxury flats dotting the airscape of Manhattan, as rich foreign nations launder money through the Midtown skyline? And, ironically, as rental prices stagnate for lack of mass consumer economic capacity?
● Debt Servitude: Don’t we live in a society in which, “The export of capital, one of the most essential economic bases of imperialism, still more completely isolates the rentiers from production and sets the seal of parasitism on the whole country that lives by exploiting the labour of several overseas countries and colonies”? How cleverly the global financial class withdraws its capital when some far-flung production zone is infected with a strain of socialist thought. See the promises to global finance Brazil’s Lula had to make to gain the presidency there. Structural adjustment loans typically come with nearly twenty conditions.
● Widening Inequality: Don’t we see in the abyss opened up between Wall Street and Main Street that, “The income of the rentiers is five times greater than the income obtained from the foreign trade of the biggest trading country in the world! This is the essence of imperialism and imperialist parasitism”? Where finance makes profit off of exotic derivatives conjured from triple A mortgage tranches certified by the rating agencies paid by the lenders themselves, by the securitizers anxious to offload their toxic assets.
● A North/South Divide: Isn’t it obvious by now, given the immense outflows of capital from the global south to northern banks, that, “The world has become divided into a handful of usurer states and vast majority of debtor states”?
● Currency As A Weapon: Do we not notice that, when independent nations fail to toe Washington’s imperial line, the beltway bullies use financial and then military means to force their will on those nations (Syria, North Korea, Venezuela, Russia)? Lenin notes several such tactics, including shutting down supplies of raw materials, foreclosing avenues of labor supply, quitting deliveries, blocking trade outlets, forming exclusive trade agreements, price cutting, and other vicious economic attacks. Likewise, the control of capital itself, in the forms of credits and interest rates, is another signal feature of monopolist aggression. (Think of the Volcker Shock.)
● Threat of Force: Lenin quotes the “non-Marxist Hobson,” who says of England, “Her navy plays here the part of bailiff in case of necessity. Great Britain’s political power protects her from the indignation of her debtors.” Note today the influence of financial manipulation on the fate of the BRICS and auxiliary threat of military force that ever accompanies the financial vice.
● Exploiting the Needy: Haven’t we recognized how dependent the infamous troika of the European Commission (EC), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the European Central Bank (ECB) are on those they’ve enslaved in debt for their superprofits? Indeed, “The creditor is more firmly attached to the debtor than the seller is to the buyer.” Especially considering how much of the debt the global south ‘owes’ the north is odious debt. See Vijay Prashad’s The Poorer Nations if you continue to harbor any illusions that Washington has the slightest good intentions regarding the Latin America, Africa, or South and Southeast Asia.
● Decay in the Metropole: Don’t we sense that our “rentier state is a state of parasitic, decaying capitalism”? Haven’t we witnessed the collapse of manufacturing, offshored to slave labor destinations in Asia, while the American working class is abandoned and then chided in the press for its entitled attitude, for demanding such luxuries as healthcare, living wages, time off, guarantees of employment, and other splendors? Or lambasted for its racism, xenophobia, sexist, transphobia and piously condemned for voting for the beltway outsider? A recent study showed a clear correlation between communities whose members had suffered battlefield casualties and a propensity to support Donald Trump.
● Emergent Plutocracy: Isn’t it obvious that we live beneath a plutocratic ruling class that has bought off the professional class, who help misinform and condition the ocean of precarious workers beneath them? Or, as Lenin quotes Hobson, “There is first the habit of economic parasitism, by which the ruling state has used its provinces, colonies, and dependencies in order to enrich its ruling class and to bribe its lower classes in acquiescence.” He adds that “the economic possibility of such bribery, whatever its form may be, requires high monopolist profits.” Or, as Lenin puts it, “ . . . monopoly profits for a handful of very rich countries, makes it economically possible to bribe the upper strata of the proletariat.” In turn, the bribed bourgeoisie evangelize the elitist worldview (‘trickle-down economics’) to the masses.
● War by Proxy: Haven’t we observed how the Obama administration launched a proxy war on Syria using imported mercenary jihadists to do the dirty fighting that become politically untenable after the Bush administration’s bungling adventurism in Iraq and Afghanistan? How Bush sacrificed American soldiers to the cause of higher profits, something delicate Americans sheltered from the brutal realities of war could not stomach? Lenin quotes a British historian, “Most of the fighting by which we have won our Indian Empire has been done by natives; in India, as more recently in Egypt, great standing armies are placed under British commanders; almost all the fighting associated with our African dominions, except in the southern part, has been done for us by natives.” Note how Bush, too, recognizing his mistake, dramatically increased the scope of mercenary engagement in Iraq as the occupation progressed. To the boon of Blackwater, which subsequently rebranded itself for much the same reasons as Al-Qaeda in Syria.
● Exploiters Unions: What about this farsighted paragraph: “We have foreshadowed the possibility of even a larger alliance of Western states, a European federation of great powers which, so far from forwarding the cause of world civilization, might introduce the gigantic peril of a Western parasitism, a group of advanced industrial nations, whose upper classes drew vast tribute from Asia and Africa, with which they supported great tame mass of retainers, no longer engaged in the staple industries of agriculture and manufacture, but kept in the performance of personal or minor industrial services under the control of a new financial aristocracy.” Fairly accurate, wouldn’t you say? Aside from missing the fact of Europeans exploiting each other, or the European elites preying upon the European populace, as in the instance of Greece.
● Geostrategic Hostility: Hobson also discusses the possibility of the subjection of China—an objective high on Obama’s agenda as he launched his vaunted “Asian pivot”—which might encompass, “ . . . draining the greatest potential reservoir of profit the world has ever known, in order to consume it in Europe” (or North America). Draining a reservoir being an apt metaphor for the epoch of accelerated climate change, which ironically enough is perhaps the greatest threat to corporate profits in human history, one so large and menacing that elite capital cannot tolerate it and has dismissed the entire phenomenon as a left-wing conspiracy.
● Enduring Xenophobia: Evidently the targets of western imperialism are much the same as they were 100 years ago. As Gerhard Hildebrand noted: the “great Islamic movement,” the “Sino-Japanese coalition” and the “African Negroes.” Although the Obama administration, following the Carter administration, chose to bring jihadists into western employ as . . .
● Parasitism: Haven’t we seen American corporations transform themselves into multi-nationals who increasingly prioritize foreign markets over stateside markets? Apparently it was ever thus, as imperialism might predict: “The national income of Great Britain approximately doubled from 1865 to 1898, while the income “from abroad” increased ninefold in the same period.” It has been a long time since what was good for Ford was good for America. Fordism is a buried notion in the neoliberal modern world where austerity and private equity rule the day. Offshoring has long replaced enriching the proles as a path to higher profits. Squeeze what you can from the coddled western publics while you steal the far superior surplus labor from better ‘disciplined’ peasants in defenseless ‘emerging’ nations.
● Reserve Labor: Haven’t we taken note of the declining percentage of the population engaged in the labor force? Lenin notes that in Britain, “The percentage of the productively employed population to the total population is declining.” Offshore markets are increasingly attractive as domestic workers no longer have income from the production work sent abroad, and debt deflation driven by loans on top of loans on top of loans begins to tighten its vice.
● Forced Migration: He also points to, “One of the special features of imperialism” which is “ . . . the increase in immigration into these countries from the more backward countries where lower wages are paid.” Have we not witnessed the migration of migrants fleeing the countries of Honduras and Nicaragua and Haiti and Brazil and Mexico, just to name a few, in which we’ve done our utmost to derail economic prosperity for the benefit of monopoly capital? Or note the mass migration from the rubble heaps of Syria and Libya and Iraq and Afghanistan into the heartlands of Europe, as those migrants flee our imperialist war zones for the semi-open borderlands of our European supplicants.
● Class Divisions: Also note the divide-and-conquer feature of imperialism, “ . . . the tendency to create privileged sections also among the workers, and to detach them from the broad masses of the proletariat.” Isn’t the once hardy middle class being shattered in ever-more stratified elements of professional class strivers and working class survivors? As Engels points out about Britain, “ . . . that this most bourgeois of all nations is apparently aiming ultimately at the possession of a bourgeois aristocracy and bourgeois proletariat alongside the bourgeoisie.” And this bourgeois proletariat results in the bizarre situation where, “ . . . workers gaily share the feast of England’s monopoly of the world market and the colonies.” And whether they are former proles or not, the corporate media certainly “gaily share” in the imperial feast.
● Media Propaganda: Lenin opens a late chapter, “Critique of Imperialism,” with a comment that defines the corporate media and the professional class from which it comes and to which it preaches: “’General’ enthusiasm over the prospects of imperialism, furious defence of it and painting it in the brightest colours—such are the signs of the times.” As he says, “’Social-Democratic’ Party of Germany are justly called “social-imperialists,” that is, socialists in words and imperialists in deeds.” “Bourgeois scholars and publicists usually come out in defence of imperialism in a somewhat veiled form . . . do their very best to distract attention from essentials by means of absolutely ridiculous schemes for “reform,” such as police supervision of the trusts or banks, etc.” Don’t we daily read in our corporate media a raft of nuanced arguments for humanitarian interventions, debilitating sanctions, and other forms of censure against nations that coincidentally happen to be vainly pursuing an independent path outside of the Washington’s strictly defined, “international community”?
It is hard to page through Lenin’s insightful work, overflowing with shrewd insights, one after another, and not find modern parallels. Yet the corporate media, loath to draw lessons from sensible Marxist critiques, continue to uphold the ideology of Goldman Sach’s Too Big To Fail (TBTF) policy, Reagan’s trickle-down theory, Thatcher’s There Is No Alternative (TINA) to market capitalism, and the merger-happy politics of Bill Clinton and his legacies in the defunct Democratic Party.
As far as one can tell in America, the penetrating communist insights of history are remembered, if at all, as iconic imagery rather than revolutionary vision. Like the modern image of Martin Luther King Jr., the revolution is distilled into a branded symbol, emptied of its fire, repurposed and sold as ideological commerce to restive consumers. Lenin is a sharp goatee and a sable mariner’s cap, with indistinct red flags waving against a blurred backdrop of crimson. Marx himself exists as a bushy beard, an illustration of a face that represents a convoluted canon of economic theory and research and study. He is the butt-end of a joke when someone wants to represent political extremism. We all laugh with enlightened condescension and reflect on how some still haven’t grasped the settled outcomes of the last century. Then the mobile buzzes with its relentless banalities, and the train of thought is lost as the engines of consumption snap our consciousness back to attention. But as long as the books exist, the possibility of revolution does, smuggled into the future, buried somewhere between tragedy and farce. Grab a spade, comrade.
Jason Hirthler is a veteran of the communications industry and author of The Sins of Empire and Imperial Fictions, essay collections from between 2012-2017. He lives in New York City and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.