Gabriel Kuhn's Blog

Adam Smith with a Spin

By Gabriel Kuhn

A review of Zak Cope, The Wealth of (Some) Nations: Imperialism and the Mechanics of Value Transfer (London: Pluto, 2019).

Belfast-based author Zak Cope has in recent years made a name for himself as a foremost analyst of the imperialist system, past and present. In 2012, his comprehensive study Divided World, Divided Class was published by Kersplebedeb, and in 2015, the Palgrave Encyclopedia of Imperialism and Anti-Imperialism appeared, edited by Cope in collaboration with U.S. labor historian Immanuel Ness.

Ness calls Cope’s latest book, The Wealth of (Some) Nations: Imperialism and the Mechanics of Value Transfer, “the most significant book published on the political economy of imperialism in the 21st century”. It’s a bold move by the book’s publisher, Pluto Press, to put the quote on the cover, as it pushes the reader’s expectations to dizzying heights.

Luckily, Cope is able to deliver. Tying thorough economic analysis to political reflection, he turns The Wealth of (Some) Nations into an engaging and surprisingly readable call for a true socialist and anti-imperialist movement.

I am no economics expert and must leave the evaluation of Cope’s calculations, tables, and relevant conclusions to people more qualified. In any case, Cope provides explanations for an undeniable reality: the vast differences in income and living standards between workers in the global South and the global North.

Cope insists that these differences are downplayed, or simply ignored, by large parts of the European left. He doesn’t hold back in his judgment, speaking of “imperialist socialists”, the “hegemonic social- imperialist views of the mainstream metropolitan left”, and the “mass xeno-racism of metropolitan labour”. For Cope, a particular stumbling block for the development of revolutionary socialist movementsin the global North is the “labor aristocracy”. After a concise overview of the historical usage of the term,Cope concludes that “the labour aristocracy in each case involves itself in colonial and imperialist political structures insofar as it attempts to enforce its advantages” (121).

Setting aside rhetorical details, and perhaps the selection of primary targets, I concur with Cope’s (admittedly discouraging) assessment: imperialism has been neglected by the global North’s left in close to half a century (and even longer by the institutionalized and parliamentary left). Today, significant parts of the left attempt to counter its own demise by emulating the protectionist and anti-migration sentiments of the far right. Particularly unsettling is Cope’s suggestion that “imperialist left nationalism … provides right populism with a pseudo-socialist patina of democratic respectability” (195).

Cope also deserves much credit for his chapter “The Native Labour Aristocracy”, which illustrates how much the political significance of migration is tied into the imperialist reality. It is also heartening to see an analysis that situates what has become known as the “imperial mode of living” (Ulrich Brand/Markus Wissen) into an imperialist system, rather than treating it as the result of unfortunate historical circumstances, supposedly curable on an individual consumer level.

However, as a labor organizer in the global North (currently, a central committee member of Sweden’s syndicalist SAC), I feel the need to comment on (at least implicit) presumptions that workers’ struggles in the global North cannot be part of a true global socialist movement. I think such presumptions are based on boundaries that are drawn too strictly; a clearly defined line that divides the oppressors from the oppressed, with the workers of the global North having moved to the side of the former.

But said boundaries aren’t always that clear. Transnational corporations, the relocation of production, global supply chains, and, not least, migration have made them porous and blurry. Organizing migrant workers, for example, undercuts the reactionary conflict between “nativist” unions and “foreign” workers, and concrete collaborations between unions from the global North and the global South challenge the assumption that no such collaboration is possible. In the SAC, we know this from experience, focusing on migrant laborers in Sweden and maintaining close ties to grassroots unions such as CSAAWU that brings together agricultural workers in South Africa. Furthermore, the symbolic significance of workers – no matter how relatively privileged – standing up against their bosses and demanding a fairer share of the wealth can inspire workers far beyond their own confines. In short, I believe there is more to gain for labor militants in the global North than what Cope seems to deem possible.

Cope himself raises the crucial question when he contends that “fighting for higher wages and better living conditions for First World workers is reactionary outside of the struggle against imperialism” (100, my emphasis). If that is true, then how do you ensure that these fights are tied to the anti-imperialist struggle?

We cannot blame Cope for not providing an answer. Such answers can only take shape in practice. Where Cope is certainly right is in his conclusion that “the workers and farmers of the global South are economically predisposed to lead the global struggle against imperialism and for socialism” (218).

(October 2019)

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