the new imperialism

Amory Starr

panel on “the new imperialism”

with Leo Panitch, Sam Gindin, Michael Hardt, Peter Gowan

Socialist Scholars Conference

Cooper Union

New York City

13 April 2002


What i’m going to do is a little tour of what i’m going to call ‘anti-imperialist policies’. i know that ‘policy’ is kind of a strange term to use when we need a revolution, but the reason that i want to use it is to sort of move from high theory of imperialism to what the anti-imperialist struggles on the ground are doing. It’s an activist briefing if you will. Now i am leaving off policies regarding us militarism because it’s been so well addressed already in this conference and we’re only ¼ of the way through.

Also i want to note that i’m presenting the policies from a third world perspective. Anti-imperialism is their movement. i’m a black power type, so i try to take my cue from the people most affected. i’m going to do 7 policies.

  1. debt: Dot Keet used the phrase ‘repudiation of the debt’ last night. I want to expand on that issue. The South-South Summit in Gauteng, South Africa in 1999 demanded restitution and reparations “in the spirit of Jubilee”. In the Dakar 2000 Declaration, debt is conceived of as “fraudulent, odgious, illegal, immoral, illegitimate, obscene, and genocidal” and the Declaration asserts that the debt is actually owed in the other direction. Jubilee is now promoting the phrase ‘don’t owe, won’t pay. There are also increasing murmurs of a debtors’ cartel, which would be very powerful.
  2. biotech: In the terminator genetic process patent, not a single nutritional or agronomic benefit was cited. The only benefit cited in the patent application was that it would “prevent third world farmers from saving seed.” You may have heard that the terminator process is not being marketed, but that’s because they have something cooler called ‘traitor’. Traitor technology allows the biotech company to turn on or off any trait of the plant and these traits can only be turned back on with the application of a specific chemical. During the negotiations for the Biosafety Protocol, the Like-Minded Group embraced the concept of ‘no patents on life’, which would protect not only from agribusiness patents but also from bioprospecting and biopiracy of genetic material and indigenous science. Now “no patents on life” is part of the proposed Treaty to Share the Genetic Commons for Rio+10 this year.
  3. land reform: The simplest and most effective way to address hunger in the third world is land reform. Many postcolonial nations included land reform in their independent constitutions. But now when their trade ministers show up in Geneva at the WTO, they’re sent to the Technical Assistance Department, where they’re handed revised versions of their constitutions and one of the common requirements is to eliminate land reform. The loss of land reform measures through free trade policies is hugely devastating. Sem Terra is a great model, now apparently being copied elsewhere, of working both legally and extra-legally to expand land reform.
  4. food sovereignty: i don’t know why it didn’t get a lot of press coverage, mainstream or alternative, but in September 3-7, 2001 something called the World Forum on Food Sovereignty met in Havana with 400 delegates from 60 countries. They issued a nice Declaration on September 7 which defines food sovereignty as “the people’s right to define their own policies and strategies for the sustainable production, distribution, and consumption of food that guarantees the right to food for the entire population, on the basis of small and medium-sized production, respecting their own cultures and the diversity of peasant, fishing, and indigenous forms of agricultural production, marketing, and management of rural areas, in which women play a fundamental role.” It asserts that the central concern of agriculture should be “human beings” and assert the advantage of small-scale, family-based, peasant, and indigenous agriculture and that the “autonomy and culture of indigenous peoples is an imperative prerequisite for combating hunger and malnutrition and guaranteeing the right to food for the population.” It also asserts that “access to food should not be viewed as a form of assistance or charity” and encourages people around the world to share their traditional agricultural and food culture.
  5. national sovereignty: i’m not going to get into the debate about whether national sovereignty is being lost or not with globalization, except to say one thing. We often think that sovereignty issues are only a concern for first world environmentalists concerned about dolphin safe tuna or MTBE or hormones in beef. But there are small WTO machinations that have huge effects. Recently the Indian Congress passed a new law requiring that cooking oil be packaged. And we might think this is a good progress for India, that it’s an improvement of health and safety. But there was no popular movement with India demanding this, it was done at the pressure of the WTO. And what is the effect? Well formerly, you took your oilseed and a vessel to the local oil presser. These were tiny, sustainable businesses which did not have the capital to handle packaging. So overnight, millions of these tiny businesses are gone, overnight. In addition, some corporations are making phone calls threatening to take countries to the WTO Court if they don’t change certain laws. Gerber Baby Food has gotten Guatemala to change its law regarding the advertising of infant formula. And we don’t know how many of these cases there are. Now the left doesn’t like nationalism. We can not like it, but right now it is providing some protections given the different modes of insertion into the global economy.  It’s also crucial to indigenous peoples’ ability to say “no” to oil development and other global projects.
  6. livelihoods: We need to recognize the sustainability and unalienated labor inherent in livelihoods, which also often are fighting for decommodification and embrace rurality. We need to look at how this kind of approach is not so different from some of the things we’re fighting for as socialists.
  7. and a new one; there’s no consensus on it yet: In Argentina the new slogan is “get rid of them all”. That includes the party and the union leaders. According to James Petras’ reports, the piqueteros won’t even send representatives to the city to negotiate. They make the elites come to the road blockade and deal with the whole blockade. Also the neighborhood councils are being created in which people are acting directly to address their needs in their communities. Now this looks anarchist. And we usually think about anarchism as a first world phenomenon, but it’s huge in Latin America. Unfortunately we don’t have that perspective represented on this panel. In fact there isn’t any anarchism in the whole conference. i expected to learn when i read the program here that the conference had decided years ago not to include anarchism, but it doesn’t say that at all, so i don’t know why they’re not here. i’m a new anarchist and i don’t feel qualified yet to represent an anarchist perspective on imperialism.

Now what I have a hard time with is figuring out how to talk about these kinds of projects that i’ve mentioned, which are clearly useful and very radical in the binary framework of reform versus revolution, particularly in the context of the renewed need to focus on imperialism.

Nobody, least of all ATTAC, thinks that the Tobin Tax is “enough”, yet ATTAC is constantly dismissed as reformist. Likewise Jubilee. And we know that we’re not going to shut down capitalism at a mass action and because of that there’s a North American perspective saying it’s not worth doing these mass demos, go home and work on local issues.

So i’d like some help from my colleagues here in thinking about how to be anti-imperialist, which I believe we need to be. So far it looks like working on as many of the relevant issues as possible, prison industrial complex, neoliberalism, militarism. It looks a lot like what I was doing before.

audience questions:

What can the labor movement do when it gets militant and sanctions are placed against it?

Move away from export-based economies and import-based consumption. Build regional economic autonomy in basic needs. This is really different from how unions have understood their work.

What’s going on in education?

I can only talk about what’s happening where I am, but the faculty are useless. They can’t say two facts about the WTO. We can’t even get anybody to debate free trade or industrial agriculture with us. They’re not interested in keeping up with this stuff. The students are doing all the work. I don’t know why they’re still paying tuition. And high school students are calling me, asking for help with resources and they say some of the websites are blocked from their schools.

good comments:

Sam Gindin suggested that we can use civic nationalism as the framework for struggling for bilateral debt repudiation and to reject biotech patents. He said we need to focus on things that actually happen in our countries and use that leverage.