By Sam King
The following was presented on the panel: The Need for Anti-Imperialism in Australia, which took place on day one of Red Ant’s Peace and Liberation Conference in August 2022.
The working class in China carries on its backs a great part of the labour of the whole world. For that reason, it is generally assumed that the Chinese capitalist class (or the Chinese state) will soon hold in its hands the fate of the whole world.
Yet at the same time, the great divide between rich and poor countries is hardly mentioned or known. Almost everybody knows on some level that most parts of the world are very poor and only a few are far, far richer. Yet this highly important fact is almost never outlined, or even mentioned by academics, journalists or other establishment forums.
The divide is extremely stark. Fully eighty five percent (85%) of the world’s population lives in countries that are poor. Only thirteen-point four percent (13.4%) live in countries that are rich.
These are two very clearly divided and distinct groups. It’s not that we just draw a line somewhere on the income spectrum. The grouping at the top is generally five to ten times richer than bottom grouping. Five to ten times richer measured in US dollars per person.
The enormous division between the two groups of countries in the world is getting wider not smaller. These two groups are the Global North and the Global South.
China is the largest, though not the richest, among the Global South countries that make up the eighty five percent.
Now, I want to pose a question for us to think about: is it possible, under capitalism today, to have a powerful poor country? And if that were possible, what would it really mean?
In the capitalist system, power equals money. Almost all forms of social power under capitalism are ultimately converted into money. If a region, or indeed a person, is poor under capitalism it is because they lack the social power to be otherwise.
I would argue the very idea of a poor imperialist country has no meaning. What is the purpose of imperial conquest and domination except to make possible exploitation, which results in profits which are ultimately measured in… money. The idea of a poor imperialist country is like talking about a “poor rich country” – nonsense.
Let’s look at GDP per person in the US, Australia and China according to the World Bank’s 2021 figures:
- United States – $69, 000
- Australia – $60,000
- China – $12,600
On this measure, the United States is five and half times richer than China. Australia is close to five times richer than China. And this is a measure in money – international money – USD.
But this is not just the case for the US, Australia and China. The same is true for all of the imperialist countries (that is all the rich countries – like UK, Germany, France, NZ, Japan, Spain, etc.) compared to all the Global South Societies (i.e. India, Indonesia, Brazil, Turkey, Egypt and so on – the eighty five percent).
This reveals a lot. Income per person, as above, is a surface measure that reveals the underlying balance of power between capital – in this case the US, Australia and China.
It shows that Australian capital is in fact far, far stronger than Chinese capital – in what must be the most important senses. How else would Australia be able to secure five times the income if it were not stronger?
It reveals the strength of all the imperialist countries in the following sense:
Despite China (and many other parts of the Global South) carrying on its back a disproportionate, high burden of global labour – capital in Australia and the imperialist societies nonetheless takes the highest profits (and can pay the biggest wages – we can’t forget wages either).
In other words, although China does a very large part of the world’s work, it fails to secure a proportionately high share of the world’s income. The same remains true for wealth.
Is the Situation Changing?
There is an almost universal perception that China is threatening to overrun the imperialist powers in the future. This perception serves to cover over the actual, ongoing rich-poor country exploitation and oppression – including, especially, the exploitation and oppression of China.
That same perception, of some sort of a Chinese peril, works to obscure the real aims of imperialist economic policy towards China – which are not defensive, but predatory.
Almost everybody believes that this situation of Chinese subjugation is rapidly changing. Actually not everybody believes it, some businesspeople more familiar with the weakness of Chinese capital see things more clearly – but they are an exception.
Generally, the overwhelming public view is that contemporary China has surely become an exception to the historical pattern of the last 100 years. Surely China will break through the imperialist stranglehold.
In fact, it can’t.
It’s not possible to prove here, in the available time, the key economic and technical basis for continuing and indefinite domination over the world economy, including over China, by the small group of incumbent imperialist societies.
Quite a bit of key evidence has already been published on Red Ant, for example: Why China Cannot Win a Trade War Against the USA, Why World Polarisation between Rich and Poor Societies Keeps Deepening and Is China an Imperialist Country?
As well as my book, Imperialism and the Development Myth: How rich countries dominate in the twenty-first century.
Here I will make just a few comments.
First, Chinese growth has been slowing down for the last ten years. Exceptionally high growth rates in China appear to be over. GDP growth in China is now similar to India, Vietnam and other fast growing Global South economies in Asia.
But we still need to understand why China did experience exceptional growth over the last 25-30 years.
The most important thing to understand is that recent historical growth reflects China moving from the bottom to the top of the Global South group of countries. This is crucial.
Imperialist monopoly does not preclude Global South countries changing places and displacing one another as relatively competitive, but still poor, countries. It prevents them from making the giant leap from the poor group – the eighty five percent – to the top.
Having reached close to the top of the Global South – reflected in income similar to Mexico, Russia, Brazil and Turkey – China has started to hit a ceiling and its economy is slowing.
What is Imperialism’s Monopoly?
So what is the nature of imperialism’s economic and technological monopoly that keeps not just China, but the whole of the Global South, from breaking out of their position as exploited and oppressed societies?
Essentially the answer is imperialist monopoly over the highest technology aspects of the labour process.
During neoliberal globalisation, non-high technology, ordinary / standardised labour processes where offshored from the imperialist states, so that they could be carried out by the cheap labour of the Global South – especially China.
That much is well known. However the equally important flip-side of this globalisation is virtually unknown. While offshoring ordinary / standardised labour processes, the imperialist societies did not offshore the most sophisticated, high-technology and scientific labour processes.
For this reason, on the one hand, an increasing volume of the world’s necessary labour processes fall to the Global South. However, because this work is mostly made up of ordinary / standardised labour – it can’t achieve high monopoly rates of profit for the capitalists that control it.
In today’s world, it is only the sophisticated, high-technology labour processes that can consistently command high surplus profits – and these are concentrated in the Global North.
Here is why (crudely):
If you own a factory that produces standard items – say standard plastic bottles – but Japan sold you the machines and you rely on the United States for parts and Australia for servicing, then Japan, the US and Australia will take most of your profits.
Our expertise constitutes a technological monopoly. You can’t get it elsewhere, so we will charge you through the nose, leaving you just enough to continue operating and continue paying us.
You, or another Global South capitalist may open more factories – in fact you may expand rapidly (which would be recorded as rapid GDP growth) – but the growth will be on the same terms as your factory – with most of the profits (which are actually generated by your workers) going to the Global North monopolists.
If your workers contribute only standardised labour processes, you will have no ability to set high prices when you sell the products of their labour. You are forced to deliver your products to the market at very low prices.
Over the last 4 decades, we have seen a flood of the products of cheap labour onto the world market such as cheap clothing, electronics, cars, furniture, steel and so on.
This increases the profitability of capital in the imperialist centres by cheapening imperialism’s costs and thereby allowing imperialist societies to invest greater resources in deepening their monopoly of scientific development and technology.
So, we have an increasing global specialisation: specialisation in non-high technology ordinary labour in the Global South, and specialisation in high-technology in the Global North.
This specialisation in the global labour process exactly reflects and explains – in fact is the reason – for the global polarisation between rich and poor countries.
If we don’t understand how imperialism has monopolised and divided up the global labour process, then we can’t understand anything about how modern imperialism works.
Chinese Development in the Neoliberal Period
Over the last four decades, China has inserted itself into the global economy and the world capitalist market. To do so, it has been forced to integrate with global capitalism in accordance with this existing pattern of specialisation.
It could only compete on global markets by utilising its chief competitive advantage – i.e. its relatively cheap, well educated, disciplined and massive-sized labour force.
China’s economic development over the last four decades has been in accordance with this logic, the logic of the market. For this reason, its fundamental economic structure remains essentially similar to other Global South countries and the opposite of the imperialist states.
This is the reason why numerous previous attempts by the Chinese state, since the 1980s, to overcome the technological gap with the imperialist states have failed in industry after industry.
In reality, China has made significant achievements in its technological development, especially considering the consistent imperialist hostility it faces. However, the idea that Chinese development has come anywhere near close to bridging the technological gap with the imperialist states is badly misplaced.
Current and future Chinese programs will continue to fail to bridge the technological gap with imperialism, so long as Chinese development remains subservient to the logic of the capitalist world market.
We can see the degree of Chinese technological dependence on imperialism more clearly if we ask the question, what technological monopoly does China possess?
Under Trump, the US implemented important technological bans against China. These were bans on exporting American technology to China and they badly undermined the global position of Chinese companies such as Huawei.
The Chinese government was unable to respond with any technology bans of its own. This is because unlike imperialist states, China does not produce and export technology.
There are many ways the imperialist system is becoming more unstable. To respond effectively to these, to turn the actual ruptures into gains for the working class and the left – we must understand how the capitalist system works.
A starting point is that we do not get fooled any longer by the imperialist propaganda that China is going to take over the world.
Only once it is realised that China is still exploited and oppressed by the real imperialist countries – the rich countries – will it be possible to develop real solidarity with the Chinese working class.
Until then, all talk of international solidarity will remain empty.