Samir Amin, a marxist theoretician

by Rémy Herrera (*)

Samir Amin always described himself as a Marxist. While not uncritical, he drew on the theories of imperialism, notably those proposed by Paul Baran, Paul Sweezy and Harry Magdoff, as well as on pioneering works about development (such as those of Raúl Prebisch or, to a certain extent, François Perroux). But his work differs very clearly from that of “orthodox” Marxism. Like the other major theoreticians who analyze the capitalist world system, including Immanuel Wallerstein, Giovanni Arrighi and André Gunder Frank, Samir Amin produced a series of global analyses that intertwine relations of domination among nations and relations of exploitation between classes. These see the modern world as a concrete socio-historical entity forming a system, i.e., an assemblage — that is structured by complex relations of interdependence where several elements of a reality come together as a coherent and autonomous whole by positioning themselves so as to express their role.

One of Samir Amin’s major scientific contributions is that he shows that capitalism, as a really existing world system, is something completely different from the capitalist mode of production functioning on a global scale. The central point driving his work is that of knowing why the history of capitalist expansion can be characterized as that of a polarization on a global scale between social formations in the center and those in the periphery. [By the “center,” Amin means the imperialist countries in Western Europe, Japan and the United States; by “periphery,” what one calls the “Third World” or the “Global South,” plus the “East.”]

His answer tries to grasp the reality of this polarization in its entirety, to incorporate its laws into historical materialism, striving to combine both theory and history and to integrate economics, politics and ideology. Unity of analysis for understanding the major problems of societies is, therefore, the world system — which permits a study from a coherent, holistic, scientific perspective — allowing an improvement over examining the individual social formations of which it is composed. For Samir Amin, polarization is an inherent consequence of worldwide capitalism, the contemporary result of the law of accumulation of capital on a global scale — a law that is more than just the extension of the theory of accumulation in the capitalist mode of production to a global level.

While placing all of his writings within the methodological and theoretical perspective of Marxism, Samir Amin sharply diverges from some of the long dominant interpretations within this current of thought. His originality lies, first of all, in rejecting an interpretation of Marx that concedes that capitalist expansion homogenizes the world by leading to a global market integrated in its three dimensions (commodities, capital, labor).

Since imperialism takes commodities and capital out of the national arena and uses them to conquer the world, but at the same time immobilizes labor power and locks it up within the national framework, the problem is indeed that of a global distribution of surplus value. The functioning of the law of accumulation (or of impoverishment) no longer operates at each national subsystem, but at the scale of the global system.

Hostile to any determinism, Samir Amin also rejects an economistic interpretation of Marxism that, by underestimating the gravity of the implications of polarization, poses the problem of transition to socialism in inadequate terms. If today’s centers do not project the image of what the peripheries will grow into tomorrow and that development can only be understood in relationship to the system as a whole, the problem for the peripheries is no longer that of “catching up” (through the rise of productive forces reproducing the characteristics inherent in capitalism), but that of building “another society.” For Amin, a real return to Marx (and Lenin) would offer the elements for a reflection on the possibilities of “doing something else” and of “transforming the world.”

“Underdevelopment” is thus considered here as the product of the polarizing logic of the world system, which contrasts the centers with the peripheries by a permanent structural adjustment of the latter to the requirements of the expansion of the capital of the former. This logic is what prevented, from the outset, the national bourgeois state in the countries in the periphery from taking a qualitative leap in the construction of national capitalist, auto-centered industrial production systems.

From this perspective, these economies in the periphery appear not as particular local segments of the world system, even if they might be “underdeveloped” (and even less as “backward” societies), but rather as overseas projections of the economic structures in the center; they are branches of the capitalist economy which are not autonomous or disarticulated. The productive forces in the peripheries have been shaped to serve the accumulation of capital in the center, within the framework of a productive system that has become truly global and reflects the global nature of the creation of surplus value.

As a matter of fact, the world system is based on the capitalist mode of production, the nature of which is expressed in market alienation, that is, the pre-eminence of generalized value, which subjects the economy as a whole (commodification of production, labor, natural resources, etc.) and the social, political and ideological life, etc. The underlying contradiction of this mode of production — opposing capital (as a social relationship by which the bourgeois class appropriates dead labor crystallized in the means of production) and labor (of “liberated” individuals who are forced to sell their labor power to live) — makes capitalism a system that generates a permanent tendency to overproduction.

Samir Amin shows that realizing surplus value requires an increase in real wages in proportion to the growth in labor productivity. This is the source of the theory of unequal exchange — distinct from that initially proposed by Arghiri Emmanuel — as a global value transfer by deterioration of the double factorial terms of trade: at the center, wages increase with productivity; at the periphery, not.

Polarization, inseparable from the functioning of a system based on an integrated world market for goods and capital, but excluding labor mobility, is thus defined by the difference in wages, lower in the periphery than those at the center, under conditions of equal productivity. At the global level, Fordist regulation at the center is ensured by a state with real autonomy — such a regulation being less social-democratic than “social-imperialist.”

In a world where two thirds of the people live in the periphery, the unequal relationship between centers and peripheries will be reproduced. Without the regulation of the world system, the destructive effects of the law of accumulation will continue. The contrast between centers and peripheries is thus organized around the following axes: production of the means of production / production of consumer goods (which defines the capitalist economies in the center) and export of primary products / consumption of luxury goods (which characterizes the behavior of the elites in peripheral social formations).

Under these conditions, polarization cannot be eliminated within the framework of the logic of really existing capitalism. Samir Amin sees the attempts at development put into practice on the periphery in their different versions of neocolonial liberalism (unconditional opening to the world market), or radical bourgeois nationalism (modernization in the Bandung spirit), or even Sovietism itself (priority given to industrializing industries over agriculture), not as a challenge to globalization, but as its continuation. Such experiences could only lead to the general “bankruptcy” of development — the “success” of a few newly industrialized countries (such as South Korea and Taiwan) should be interpreted as a new and deeper form of polarization.

Indeed, the industrialization processes of the countries of the South, enabled by the victories of national liberation movements, have modified the relations between the centers and the peripheries, without however changing their foundations or undermining the great monopolies of the North (on armaments, finance, the media, technology, etc.). For those who believed in the mirage of the “global village” or who doubted the existence of a polarization of the system, the repeated financial crises since the 1990s have in fact served as a lesson in recalling the strong trends of globalization.

His criticism of development concepts and practices is, however, accompanied by an alternative: disconnection, or delinking. The latter is defined as the submission of external relations to the logic of internal development — thanks to the selection by the state of nondisadvantageous positions in the international division of labor. This is the exact opposite of the structural adjustment of the peripheries to the constraints imposed by the polarizing expansion of capital. It is thus a question of developing systematic actions towards the construction of a polycentric, or multipolar, world, alone capable of opening spaces of autonomy to progress toward a peoples’ internationalism, to allow transitions towards “a place beyond capitalism” and to tend towards a world socialism.

The elaboration of a theory of accumulation on a world scale, reintegrating the law of value within historical materialism, calls forth at the same time a history of social formations. Rejecting the thesis of the “five stages” [Primitive communism, slavery, serfdom, capitalism, socialism] just as much as the multiplication of the modes of production, Samir Amin retains only two successive stages: community and tributary. The different “modes of production” therefore find their place as variants of these two categories. Social systems prior to capitalism all present relations reversed when compared with those which characterize capitalism (a society dominated by the instance of power; economic laws and exploitation of labor unhidden by market alienation; an ideology necessary for the reproduction of the system having a metaphysical character…).

The internal contradictions of the community mode of production method have found their solution in the transition to the tributary mode. In tributary societies, with differentiated degrees depending on the organization of power — by which the extraction of surplus was centralized by the exploiting ruling class — the same fundamental contradictions operated and prepared the passage to capitalism as an objectively necessary solution to the latter. However, in the more flexible peripheral formations, as was once the case of feudalism in Europe, the obstacles to the transition to capitalism presented a lesser capacity for resistance; hence, the evolution towards a centralized form in the mercantilist era through the use of the political authority at the service of capital; and thus the “European miracle.”

Samir Amin’s theoretical work therefore invites historical Marxism to be self-critical of its Eurocentrism, and to fully develop its “Afro-Asian vocation.” Carried by the groundswell of popular movements for national liberation in the Third World, this theoretical framework, which transcends the theses of imperialism while preserving them, could find only a favorable echo in African, Arab and Asian countries, but also, of course, in Latin America (which neo-Marxist and Western progressive researchers would gain so much from working with).

…committed and militant

In addition to the Third World Forum he led in Dakar, Samir Amin chaired the World Forum of Alternatives, a network of think tanks from North and South that brings together critical intellectuals from many countries, contributing together to the development of alternatives to capitalist globalization. On the possibilities of renewing South-South solidarity, he declared, at the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Bandung conference, that the reconstitution of an anti-imperialist front of the peoples of the Global South remains a priority in the face of the aggressiveness of the collective imperialism of the United States (the hegemonic state power)/Europe/Japan triad.

At present, the solidarity of the peoples of the Global South, expressed vigorously in Bandung (1955), then in Cancún (1981), both politically — with nonalignment — and economically — through the common positions of the Group of 77 at the United Nations (UNCTAD in particular) — no longer seems to exist.

The integration of the countries of the Global South promoted by the trio of international institutions in charge (the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization) is undoubtedly largely responsible for the weakening of the Group of 77, the Tricontinental and the Non-Aligned Movement. The aggravation of development inequalities within the countries of the Global South is also at the origin of this evolution. But really existing capitalism has little to offer the popular classes of the South, nor indeed to their countries, whose affirmation it does not allow as equal partners, in a position analogous to those of the centers in the world system.

It is, therefore, once again from a political point of view that the awareness of the need for solidarity from the Global South is beginning. The arrogance of the United States and the implementation of its project of military control of the planet are at the origin of recent positions taken at Non-Aligned summits, courageously condemning this imperialist strategy. The Global South is thus becoming aware that world neoliberal management is called upon to resort to military violence to impose itself, playing into the hands of the U.S. militarist project. The Movement becomes that of nonalignment with neoliberal globalization and with the hegemony of the United States.

According to Samir Amin, the guidelines for the possible renewal of a southern front can be seen. At the political level, this means condemning the new principle of “preventive war” and demanding the evacuation of all foreign military bases in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Washington’s choice of its region of uninterrupted military interventions since 1990 now focuses, following the Balkans (Yugoslavia, presence in Hungary, Romania…), mainly on the Arab Middle East (Iraq, Palestine, Syria), the Caucasus and Central Asia (Afghanistan, Iran, former Soviet regions), with the objectives:

1. Control of the world’s most important oil-producing regions and, in so doing, pressure to subject Europe and Japan to the status of subordinate allies;

2. The establishment of permanent military bases in the heart of the Old World (Central Asia) and the preparation of other “preventive wars,” targeting the countries likely to impose themselves as partners with whom “negotiations” will be necessary: China in particular, but also Russia and, to a lesser extent, India. To achieve this objective, puppet regimes imposed by the presence of the U.S. army must be put in place in the region concerned. From Beijing to Moscow, it is increasingly clear that wars “made in USA” ultimately constitute a threat directed more against China and Russia than against their immediate victims, such as Iraq or Syria.

In the economic field, Samir Amin contended that the outline of an alternative that the Global South could defend collectively is taking shape due to the convergence of these countries’ interests. The view that international capital transfers must be regulated is reviving, as well as the need to establish systems of regional organizations ensuring relative exchange rate stability. Support for regulation of foreign investment also is making a comeback, with hosting arrangements again the subject of critical reflection. Similarly, the concept of intellectual and industrial property rights that the WTO seeks to impose is being contested. Almost everywhere, it is now understood that such a concept, far from encouraging “transparent” competition on open markets, tends on the contrary to strengthen transnational corporate monopolies.

The countries of the Global South also are recognizing that they cannot dispense with an agricultural development policy that responds to the imperative need to protect farmers from the devastating consequences of their rapid decline under the “rules of competition” that the WTO seeks to promote. These countries must try to regain national food sovereignty. Moreover, external debt is no longer perceived only as economically unbearable; its very legitimacy is beginning to be called into question. In this regard, demands are being voiced to unilaterally cancel odious and illegitimate debts and to initiate an international debt law.

For Samir Amin, the reconstruction of Front of the Global South implies the real and active participation of its peoples, moving through a profound process of democratization that will be long and difficult. The countries of the Global South must return to the inescapable idea that all authentic development is necessarily self-centered.

To develop is first and foremost to define national objectives that allow for modernization of productive systems and creation of internal conditions placed at the service of social progress. And then it means submitting the modalities of relations between the nation and the developed capitalist centers to the requirements of this own internal logic. Such a definition of “disconnection” or delinking — which is not autarky — situates it as the precise opposite of the prevailing neoliberal principle of structural adjustment to the demands of capitalist globalization.  This neoliberal principle is itself subordinate to the exclusive imperative of big capital expansion, which deepens inequalities on a global scale.

In these conditions, self-centered development presumes five conditions of accumulation:

1. Local control over the reproduction of the labor force, which presumes, first, that the state’s policies ensure agricultural development capable of generating food surpluses in sufficient quantities and at prices compatible with requirements of profitability; and, second, that the production of consumer goods can simultaneously match the expansion of investment and growth of overall wages;

2. Local control over centralization of the surplus, which presumes not only the existence of national financial institutions, but also their relative autonomy with regard to transnational capital flows, thus guaranteeing national capacity to direct investment;

3. Local control of the market, reserved mainly for national production, even in the absence of strong tariff or other protections, and the complementary capacity to be sufficiently competitive on the world market, at least selectively;

4. Local control of natural resources, which presumes, beyond their formal ownership, the state’s capacity to exploit them or keep them in reserve; and

5. Local control of technologies so that whether invented locally or imported, they can be reproduced without having to import essential inputs.

Samir Amin argues that the current evolution of the global system requires the construction of large regional organizations, particularly on the periphery. From the perspective of a polycentric world, conditions exist that can fuse together Asian, African, Latin American and European peoples in a new internationalism.

This rapprochement can be crystallized, at the international diplomatic level, by promoting a Paris-Berlin-Moscow-Beijing axis, supported by a strengthening of friendly relations between this axis and the reconstituted Afro-Asian front, as well as by solidarity with the struggles of the Latin American peoples. Progress in this direction would nullify the criminal designs of the United States, which would be forced to accept coexistence with nations determined to defend strongly their own interests.

At present, this objective must be deemed an absolute priority. The deployment of the U.S. project overdetermines the stakes of all ongoing struggles: no social and democratic progress will be sustainable until this U.S. hegemonic and militarized project is defeated.

In recent years, Samir Amin has played a critical role, especially in developing the World Forum of Alternatives, organizing much-needed unity of progressive intellectuals from all continents to consider concrete actions for reconstruction of the Tricontinental, and building internationalism among the peoples of the North and South as they struggle in common against capitalism and imperialism.

(*) Rémy Herrera is a French economist, researcher at the Centre national de la Recherche scientifique (CNRS – Centre d’Économie de la Sorbonne, Paris). He was executive secretary of the World Forum of Alternatives when Samir Amin was its president. Together they have co-authored several publications, including “Fifty Years After the Bandung Conference: Towards a Revival of Solidarity Between the Peoples of the South,” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, vol. 6, no. 4, p. 546-556, New York, 2005; “A Propósito de las revueltas de los barrios periféricos en Francia,” Revista del Observatorio social de América latina (OSAL – CLACSO), vol. 6, no. 18, p. 93-106, Buenos Aires, 2003; “Quatro Intelectuais marxistas frente aos atentados de 11 de setembro” (with Yves Bénot, Georges Labica and Isabel Monal), Revista da Sociedade Brasileira de Economia Política, no. 9, p.107-124, Rio de Janeiro, 2001; “Le Sud dans le système mondial en transformation,” Recherches internationales, no. 60-61, p. 87-99, Paris, 2000.