Translated by K. Philippe Gendrault
First iteration 3 January 2020
The year 2019 was marked by popular movements unprecedented for decades in many countries around the world. From Algeria to Sudan via Lebanon, France or Haiti, these movements brought millions of demonstrators into action. This same year, coups d’état and reactionary offensives multiplied, as well as the attempts at instrumentalizing and diverting these great popular movements. The chronological perception of these struggles disseminated by the media prevents us from taking stock of the common issues represented by these mobilizations. Likewise, the pervasiveness of a Euro-centric reading framework masks the beginning of a new historical period of the world imperialist system and the resumption of popular initiatives that accompany it. How can we understand this new cycle of struggle? Can we link these movements to a common material foundation? Are these disconnected from the dominant ideological discourses? Etc.
Capitalist globalization and proletarianization of the world
The dominant discourses on globalization present it as the result of progress in science and technology, placing the different spaces of the planet into unprecedented interactions. New Information and Communication Technologies would, according to this international ideological fiction render obsolete nation-states as well as the “great narratives” of emancipation (socialism, anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism, etc.) and would abolish the class struggle. Such discourse masks the nature of this globalization and its origin. Far from being a logical consequence of technical progress, this so-called “globalization” is the result of the strategies of the great imperialist powers, the triad United States, European Union and Japan, for the redivision of the world.
We are not in the presence of a “globalization” but of a “capitalist globalization” reproducing and accentuating the division of the world into dominant centers and peripheries dominated on a global scale and the polarization of social classes in each country. Capitalist in nature and born from precise political and economic decisions (through the G8, the IMF, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, etc.), “globalization” represents a generalized offensive against all social and political gains made by people throughout the world since the end of the Second World War in light, contextually, of the disappearance of balances and power relations resulting from that World War and decolonization. The disappearance of the bipolar world with the fall of the USSR was perceived and analyzed by the ruling classes as an opportunity to rid the capitalist and imperialist logic of all the concessions wrested by popular struggles of the twentieth century. The project of returning to a “pure” capitalist and imperialist logic has become the rallying cry of these dominant classes and ultra-liberalism has been its economic translation. The massive popular movements shaking the planet constitute, regardless of their diversity and the specificity of national triggers, an attempt to oppose this programmed counter-revolution. If the triggers of each revolt are specific, the causalities are largely common, namely the refusal of the massive pauperization caused by the aforementioned “globalization”. To better understand our present time, it is imperative to take into account the material basis of today’s revolts.
Far from being just movements for “democracy”, against the “system” or for “freedom”, these massive popular movements reflect, in our opinion, an unprecedented movement of proletarianization of the world produced by this “globalization”. The latter is deployed under a logic calling for the disappearance of all obstacles to the free movement of capital, calling for the destruction of obstacles to free trade, the eradication of customs barriers and legislative “weight” to “free competition. “. Behind these formulas rehashed at length in our media simply hides a generalized deregulation driven by the fall in labor costs as a mechanism for increasing the rate of profit. The dominated peripheral countries have been “prepared” for this process by the structural adjustment plans imposed onto them by the IMF and the World Bank over the past three decades. To access credit, these peripheries were forced to liquidate their customs protection, to free prices, to privatize public services, to facilitate foreign investment, and so on. The consequences are now obvious. It has led to a deindustrialization in imperialist centers due to massive relocations and a proletarianization in dominated peripheries with a common denominator characterized by the pauperization of popular classes.
Only the pervasiveness of a Euro-centric vision maintained by the dominant media was able to reframe this vast movement of labor forces redistribution as the sign of the end of the working class and of the class struggle, to define it as the proof of society’s entry into a post-industrial era, as an indicator of a profound transformation of capitalism. However, if one no longer solely focuses on imperialist centers but extends one’s point of view to the whole planet, it becomes clear that not only has the working class not decreased but it keeps increasing. A few numbers suffice to demonstrate this. In 1950 the share of industrial workers employed in a country of the dominated periphery was 34%. This number was 53% in 1980 and 79% in 2010 (or in absolute terms 541 million workers in the periphery vs 145 million in the central countries). If one focuses on manufacturing labor, then the transfer of labor force is even more significant; “83% of the world’s manufacturing labor force lives and works in countries of the south[i],” according to the economist J. Smith. Moreover, this increase in numbers in countries of the periphery took place against the backdrop of a significant increase in the “effective world workforce” between 1980 and 2006 according to the IMF’s own figures [ii] . This workforce increased from 1.9 billion in 1980 to 3.1 billion in 2006.
In his excellent work “Modernity, religion and democracy. Criticism of Eurocentrism, Criticism of culturalisms [iii], ” Samir Amin synthesized the link between development at one pole of the planet and underdevelopment at another pole. This global polarization of the past is today experiencing a new age resulting in a proletarianization of the world at large. While it increases the working class of peripheral countries, capitalism keeps on destroying these countries’ agricultural jobs. The opening of markets and the liberalization of foreign trade imposed by structural adjustment plans thus brought down the share of agricultural employment in the working populations of peripheral countries from 73% in 1960 to 48% [iv] in 2007. An unprecedented increase in the number of industrial workers and an equally impressive increase in the number of unemployed people crammed together on the outskirts of large cities, due to the destruction of agriculture and the resulting rural depopulation, are the two characteristics of the proletarianization of dominated peripheral countries. In the countries of the imperialist center, the situation is hardly better. Contrary to the myth of a “service economy” taking over from an “industrial economy”, the decline in industrial jobs is reflected in growing structural unemployment. Here too we are in the presence of proletarianization. From Algiers to Paris and from Khartoum to Beirut, from the Yellow Vests to the Hiraks (Algerian popular movements) [v], this proletarianization is reflected in the massive popular anger throughout the year 2019.
The debates on immigration, the repressive policies accompanying them and the human tragedies resulting from these policies are at the service of this proletarianization of the world. The barriers to immigration are unprecedented in the history of capitalism. The “overpopulation” of peripheral countries unable to migrate to countries of the center gathers in giant slums [vi], which are reminiscent of Engels’ descriptions of housing for the English working class in 1845 [vii]. Emigration restrictions are aimed at keeping this “overpopulation” captive so that it remains available for the jobs of mass relocation. The armed border closures do not reflect any fear of some “great displacement” but reflect a cold economic calculation transforming the Mediterranean and the Mexican borders into giant coffins. The height of cynicism is reached with the discourse on “selective immigration” which is nothing more than the decision to empty peripheral countries of their qualified workers without bearing the costs of training this complex labor force. Here too, the figures speak for themselves as evidenced by a 2013 study on the “flight of African doctors” to the United States: ” The flight of physicians from sub-Saharan Africa to the United States began in earnest in the mid-1980s and accelerated in the 1990s during the years of application of structural adjustment programs imposed by [… ] the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank [viii] . “ The presence of Algerian or Middle Eastern physicians in French hospitals reflects the same process in Europe.
“Brain drains”, increasing pauperization in the center and even more in the periphery, restrictive migration policies and the increase in institutional mass murder in the Mediterranean and on the Mexican border are inseparable facets of said globalization. This is what Fidel Castro recalled in Durban in 1998:
The fore coming free movement of capital and raw materials must also apply to what imperatively must come above everything else: human beings. Gone are those bloodstained walls like the one being built along the US-Mexico border, where hundreds of people lose their lives every year. The persecution of migrants must end! Xenophobia must end, not solidarity! [ix]
From exploitation to super-exploitation
The proletarianization of the dominated periphery has brought with it no improvement. The decline of purchasing power of workers in the imperialist centers did not translate into an increase of purchasing power of workers in the periphery, but instead, in an increase in profits. This represents the transformation from exploitation of labor power to super-exploitation or we could say, the passage from domination of one form of surplus value to another. Let us turn to K. Marx’s ideas, which remain essential for understanding the barbarism of our contemporary world.
Marx, let us recall, considers that under capitalism, labor power is a commodity which, like any other, has a value corresponding to the quantity of labor necessary for the production of goods allowing its production and reproduction (food, housing, clothing training, etc.). This value has a monetary expression which is the real wage. By paying this wage, the capitalist buys the right to use this labor power for a certain period. This duration makes it possible both to produce the equivalent of the worker’s salary and a surplus (surplus value) which will turn into profit at the time of sale of the goods produced. Each working day is therefore divided into two durations: necessary work (corresponding to wages) and surplus work (corresponding to surplus value). The interest of capitalism is therefore to maximize surplus labor or to minimize the necessary labor. Exploitation for K. Marx designates this surplus labor or this surplus value. Even when the wages are paid at their worthy price, there is nevertheless exploitation. The second contribution of Marx is to have formalized the means by which the capitalist tries to maximize surplus labor or surplus value. In particular, he studies two of those means, which he calls “absolute surplus value” and “relative surplus value.” The first is maximized by lengthening the working day and the second by increasing the productivity of workers.
If Marx studies only these two forms at length, it does not mean that there are not others. He explains this on numerous occasions by specifying that he makes an assumption, namely that the labor force is paid at its value. In other words, its objective is to analyze the logic of the capitalist system (independently of the concrete forms it takes in such and such country or at such and such a time) and not capitalism as it actually exists. The capitalist does not hesitate, whenever the balance of power allows it, to lower the salary below the value of labor power, that is to say below the minimum necessary to live with dignity. ” The size of surplus labor, Marx stresses, [could only be extended] by reducing workers’ wages below the value of their labor power. […] Now, although this practice plays a most important role in the real movement of wages, it has no place here where it is assumed that all commodities, and therefore also labor power, are purchased and sold at fair value [x ] ”. The whole of chapter 8 of the first volume of Capital is devoted to concrete examples of situations where the labor force is remunerated below its value with consequently “the exhaustion and premature death of this force [xi] “. In these situations, we are no longer simply in the presence of exploitation but we are in the face of super-exploitation.
Among the examples given by Marx, two are of significant relevance in the context of current capitalist globalization; the first is that of immigrant labor forces strongly affected by super-exploitation and the second is that of slavery, colonial and semi-colonial situations in which super-exploitation is the rule. The first example will lead Marx to insist on the importance for unions to “pay attention with the greatest of care to the interests of the least remunerated trades” in order to counter the disunity of workers “generated and perpetuated by the inevitable competition arising between them. [xii] “. The second will lead him to an increasingly virulent denunciation of slavery and colonialism, the latter constituting in a way the ideal type of capitalism in terms of fixing the price of labor power: “As for the capital invested in colonies, etc., on the other hand, they are in a position to return higher rates of profit because, due to less development, the rate of profit is generally higher there but it is also higher because of the employment of slaves, coolies, etc. [xiii]” Marx recalls. These two examples underline the futility of an anti-capitalist struggle that would exclude from its program the fight against racial discrimination on the one hand, which affects immigrant workers legal or illegal, and internationalism on the other.
In his analysis of imperialism, insisting on its parasitic character, Lenin takes up Marx’s analysis of capitalism in its monopolistic form. The export of capital in search of a maximal rate of profit, explains the author, leads to the emergence of “rentier” and parasitic behaviors by the owners of capital:
The monopoly ownership of particularly extensive, rich or well-situated colonies acts in the same direction. Further, imperialism is an immense accumulation of money capital in a few countries, amounting, as we have seen, to 100 to 150 billion francs in securities. Hence the extraordinary growth of a class or rather, of a stratum of rentier, i.e., people who live by “clipping coupons”, who take no part in any enterprise whatsoever, whose profession is idleness. The export of capital, one of the most essential economic bases of imperialism, still more completely isolates the rentiers from production and set the seal of parasitism on the whole country that lives by exploiting the labor of serval overseas countries and colonies [xiv].
Repeated relocations following variations in labor costs, closures of profitable businesses that do not return maximum rates of profit, pressures from structural adjustment plans (to reduce labor costs, the intervention of the State and removing obstacles to the circulation of capital) etc., characterizing our contemporary era, are an illustration of this now generalized parasitism. These characteristics of capitalist globalization are the sign of a form of capitalism no longer centered on simple exploitation but on a tendency towards generalized super-exploitation. Although generalized, this super-exploitation is nonetheless unequal between the imperialist center and dominated peripheries. In his analysis of the parasitism of imperialism, Lenin already emphasized that the surplus profits from the colonies gave the ruling class significant leeway to buy social peace by redistributing crumbs when the balance of power dictates.
This is what Fidel Castro expresses in the following terms: “In a Third World country, exploitation has a much more terrible connotation than in a developed capitalist country, because it is precisely out of fear of revolution, out of fear of socialism that developed capitalism has come up with schemes of distribution which, to some extent, got rid of the great famines that were common in European countries in Engels’ time, in Marx’s time[xv] . “
Of the three forms of surplus value approached by Marx, only two are designated by a name, namely the absolute surplus value for that obtained by lengthening working hours and relative surplus value for that resulting from increase in labor productivity. The third is mentioned several times but is not part of the analysis for the reason mentioned above. We will call it surplus value of overexploitation obtained by paying for labor power below its value. The current capitalist globalization tends to generalize it for a growing number of workers in the countries of the imperialist center and even more intensely for the workers of the dominated peripheries.[xvi]. The surplus value of super-exploitation that characterizes “senile capitalism,” to use Samir Amin’s expression, succeeds to the domination of absolute surplus value of early capitalism and to the relative surplus value of mature capitalism. Capitalism, thus, seems to complete a cycle and returns to the beginning of its emergence, that is to say to the period when the conditions for its rise were met through the barbaric destruction of indigenous civilizations in the Americas and slavery, through the labor of children and the super-exploitation of the first proletarians issued from the dispossessed peasantry. Capitalism seems to find a “pure form”, namely the form it had prior to the organization of workers who imposed the transformation of super-exploitation to exploitation, that is to say prior to the imposition of payment of labor power at its value.
The centrality of border policy
Globalized capitalism centered on surplus value from super-exploitation operates on the basis of global value chains. The same final product can thus be the result of assembling elements from several geographical sites spread over several continents. What distinguishes the productions of the dominated periphery and the imperialist center is not a difference in productivity but a difference in wages. According to economist John Smith, for a tendentially equivalent productivity, the same labor force will be paid differently depending on whether it is employed at the center or at the periphery [xvii].
It is at this level that the question of borders and border policy comes into play. There are two vectors for gaining access to this underpaid labor force: to relocate production to the dominated periphery or to relocate labor to central countries. As the international Monetary Fund concludes, “Advanced economies can access the global labor pool through imports and immigration [xviii] ». Before this now famous “globalization” (that is to say before the new phase of globalization inaugurated by the disappearance of the bipolar world and its balance of power), immigration was the main vector and outsourcing was the secondary vector. Since then, things have been turned around, outsourcing is the main vector and immigration the secondary one. It is by taking this inversion into account that we can grasp the logic of border policy:
- Mandated opening of borders for goods and capital by the IMF, the World Bank, the WTO and the dominant central countries through Structural Adjustment Plans – PAS, Economic Partnership Agreements (the famous EPAs of the European Union), conditionalities for accessing “aid”, etc.;
- Opening of borders for “brain power” in the form of discourses on “selective immigration” linked to the conditional imposition of privatizing public services (main employer of these “brains” until then) of the SAPs in the countries of the dominated periphery;
- Brutal and military closure of borders leading to mass institutional crimes in the Mediterranean and the Mexican border legitimized by the legend of a “migration crisis;”
- Management of survivors of border closures for the benefit of economic sectors that cannot be relocated or outsourced by the production of “undocumented” emigrants forced to sell their labor force below its value.
The significance of this new phase of capitalist globalization, triggered by the change in the balance of power resulting from the end of the bipolar world, brings capitalism back to its “pure” form, that is to say to its form existing prior to the social victories obtained from the social struggles and liberation struggles (abolition of slavery, national liberation struggles, social rights of nationalist policies in dominated peripheral countries for the first two decades after independence), which tendentially imposed a sale of labor power to its value. Current capitalist globalization expresses the domination of surplus value from super-exploitation through a global arbitration of labor or wages enabled by suitable border policies. The rest is just a logical consequence: massive impoverishment at the center as well as at the periphery but in an unequal manner, transformation of the Mediterranean and Mexico into mass cemeteries, creation of a mass of new “wanderers” in the form of “undocumented” or “refugee” figures. It is this overall movement, which constitutes the basis of the massive revolts of the year 2019. For such a regression to be possible, it had to be accompanied by a large-scale ideological offensive. This was the function of postmodern ideology, which we will discuss in our next article.
[i] John Smith, L’impérialisme au XXIème siècle, Editions critiques, Paris, 2019, p. 144.
[ii] Fond Monétaire International, World Economic Outlook, avril 2007, p. 162.
[iii] Samir Amin, Modernité, religion et démocratie. Critique de l’eurocentrisme, critique des culturalismes, Parangon, Paris, 2008.
[iv] Bureau Internationale du Travail, Indicateurs Clés du Marché du Travail, Genève, 2007, chapitre 4.
[v] The term « Hirak » literally means « movement » is a term used by mass grassroot movements to self-identify in countries using Arabic as one of their languages.
[vi] Mike Davis, Le pire des mondes possibles. De l’explosion urbaine au bidonville global, La Découverte, Paris, 2007.
[vii] Friedrich Engels (1845), La situation de la classe laborieuse en Angleterre. D’après les observations de l’auteur et des sources authentiques, Éditions sociales, Paris, 1960,
[viii] Akhenaten Benjamin, Caglar Ozden, et Sten Vermund, Physician Emigration from Sub-Saharan Africa to the United States, PLOS Medicine, volume 10, n° 12, 2013, p. 16.
[ix] Fidel Castro, discours au douzième sommet du mouvement des non-alignés du 2 septembre 1998, http://www.fidelcastro.cu/es/discursos/discurso-pronunciado-en-la-primera-sesion-de-trabajo-de-la-xii-cumbre-del-movimiento-de, consulté le 1er janvier 2020 à 13 h 15.
[x] Karl Marx, Le Capital, livre 1, éditions du Progrès/éditions sociale, Paris, 1976, p. 306.
[xi] Karl Marx, Le Capital, volume 1, op.cit., p. 258.
[xii] Karl Marx et Friedrich Engels, Instructions pour les délégués du Conseil central provisoire de l’AIT sur les différentes questions à débattre au Congrès de Genève (3-8 septembre 1866), in Jacques Freymond, La Première Internationale: Recueil de documents, Volume 1, Droz, Paris, 1962, p. 34.
[xiii] Karl Marx, Le Capital, livre 3, éditions du Progrès/éditions sociale, Paris, 1976, p. 253.
[xiv] Lénine, L’impérialisme. Stade suprême du capitalisme, Editions sociales, Paris, 1945, p. 89.
[xv] Fidel Castro, discours de clôture de la IVème Rencontre Latino-américaine et des Caraïbes du 28 janvier 1994, http://www.fidelcastro.cu/fr/citas/28-janvier-1994-0, consulté le 3 janvier 2020 à 9 h 00.
[xvi] Samir Amin, Au-delà du capitalisme sénile, PUF/Actuel Marx, Paris, 2002.
[xvii] [xvii] Mike Davis, Le pire des mondes possibles. De l’explosion urbaine au bidonville global, op. cit., p. 264.
[xviii] FMI, Perspectives de l’économie mondiale 2007, Washington, p. 180.
Said Bouamama is a sociologist activist of Algerian nationality who presently lives in France. He is one the founders and leaders of the United Front for Immigrants and Working-class Neighborhoods. Besides his many political engagements, he is the author of over 15 books, among which, Racial Discriminations, Weapon of Mass divisions (2011) Figures of the African Revolution (2014), The Tricontinental, people of the third world’s struggle for Heaven (2016), Strategic Manual for Africa, (2 volumes, 2018). While none of his writings have yet been translated into English; we hope the articles below will serve as an introduction to the work of this scholar-activist and further international communications.
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