24 - 30 October 2002
Issue No. 609
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Empire of chaos challenged

Who can explain the chaotic affairs of today's world? Samir Amin for one. Fatemah Farag interviews Egypt's most famous Marxist theorist

Samir Amin
Samir Amin
photo: Sherif Sonbol

As the world prepares itself for an imminent American/British military onslaught against Iraq, the "clash of civilisations" paradigm continues to hold sway. Be it Samuel Huntington or predominant Islamist discourse the message is one of the inevitable conflict between Arabs and Muslims on the one hand, and the West on the other. 9/11, Israel's brutal occupation and repression in Palestine, the mess in Afghanistan, which has spread into south and east Asia, the ongoing devastation of Iraq and its promised destruction, the rise of political Islam and the fundamentalist Christian right all play their part.

It is all nonsense, and Professor Samir Amin is the man who will tell you in great detail how and why; the current state of the world is not about culture, national identity and religion but about imperialism, capitalist development and underdevelopment and, ultimately, class.

Amin, along with such equally renowned names as Emmanuel Walerstein, Giovanni Arrighi, Gunder Frank and others, is viewed as among the founders of the "world systems" school of thought which gained tremendous influence in the late sixties and seventies, not just in academia but also as guiding framework to the left-wing activism that overwhelmed the world's campuses during those times.

For them, the basic analytical framework for the political, economic and social questions of any society is the world system.

A leading writer and thinker who has focused his life's work on theorising the increasing polarisation between the developed and developing world, Amin for all his international renown is a rare commodity in Egypt. Born in Port Said, he is one of a generation of Egyptian thinkers and writers who studied in Paris in the '40s -- among them Anwar Abdel-Malek and Ismail Sabri Abdallah. But since 1960 he has lived in self- imposed exile -- leaving the country after Nasser's major clampdown on the Egyptian communist movement -- only returning on occasional visits which began in 1982.

And so we went to see the man whose works include the early L'Egypte Nasserienne (1961); his most famous works: Accumulation on a World Scale (1970) and Unequal Development (1973); Delinking: Towards a Polycentric World (1989), Maldevelopment (1990) and The Crises of Arab Society (1985). Among the posts he has held are director of the Third World Forum and the director of the African Institute for Economic Development and Planning.

Thin with longish white hair slicked back, Amin pulls out his Gauloise cigarettes while his French wife makes us coffee. "I am totally against Huntington and religious fundamentalists. I am not at all the type who believes in the war of civilisations. The wars of the past four to five centuries have not been wars of civilisations but wars within civilisations," argues Amin adding the dismissive "The colonial wars were marginal."

So where to begin in considering the chaotic events of today's world? Looking back through history, Amin explains that "With World War II the major powers appeared to be totally unified with a boss: the United States. The argument was that they have succeeded in building a common front against communism. It appeared reasonable. But after the war the US had tremendous overweight in terms of power. US industrial production in 1945 was 50 per cent of global industrial production which gave it great economic advantage over the rest of the world. Also they had a monopoly on nuclear weaponry -- which they used (not like Saddam Hussein who if he has it has not).

"However, this advantage was cancelled over time by the gigantic progress made by Europe and Japan in the mid- '60s and so the issue of competition once again came to the fore. The first crises of capitalism on the cultural political level came in 1968. But the first blow to the economy came in 1971 when the link between the US dollar and gold was abandoned. When we look back at the literature we see that this was the time of the decline of the US.

"Now suddenly in the '80s and the '90s we have the come back of the United States in a very arrogant and aggressive manner. And the triad between Europe (Germany, France and Britain), Japan and the United States seems to continue to operate on both the economic and geo-political level (all accept neo-liberal patterns of economic development, all ascribe to the World Bank (WB) -- which I call the Ministry of Propaganda -- the International Monetary Fund (IMF) -- the Colonial Monetary Agency -- and the World Trade Organisation (WTO) -- the Economic Club of Transnationals). After the first war in Yugoslavia in April 1998, Europeans have accepted NATO led arrogantly by the US as an instrument for insuring governance at a global level."

The increasingly militaristic and aggressive nature of the US-led world system comes as no surprise to Amin. "The fall of the Soviet Union and the victory of capitalism on a global scale ushered in discourse to the effect that democracy equals the market. This is total nonsense and has nothing to do with the lessons of history or scientific analyses of the facts."

He goes on, "It is no surprise to me that the victory of capitalism led not to peace but to more wars and a retreat from democracy, even within the United States itself which is currently witnessing a new McCarthyism."

Amin refers to his 1991 Empire of Chaos, "the materials of which had been prepared even before the Soviet Union came down. My vision, explained in that book, is that over the many years of capitalist global expansion, imperialism has always been a component -- and not as Lenin argued a stage -- of capitalist development. Instead, it is the character of each stage of imperialism that has changed. The trend has been towards greater polarisation. It has taken different guises: the Cold War, North vs. South -- at the end of the day, however, what is essential is that there continues to be a growing gap between the centres and the peripheries."

What is new about this stage, argues Amin, is not summed up by the much touted technological and communications revolutions nor even the corporate management of the global economy. "This is a discourse from which the idea that the nation state is losing its power and legitimacy is derived as well as ideas related to our need of the growth of civil society, NGOs etc. All of the afore- mentioned are only aspects. The problem is that these aspects are brought together in a way that ignores the real questions, namely how the whole system works."

And how is that? "My argument is that there is a higher degree of concentration of capital and transnationals are incapable of developing within one market -- even if it is a very large market such as that of the United States or even Europe. They require a global market. Previously, within oligarchies or monopolies, there were basically national areas of influence: colonial or semi-colonial areas. But to compete and generate profit today, this is no longer sufficient."

And this is where US hegemony comes into the picture. "The world system is based on an increasing conflict between a unified centre and the rest of the world and yet there is the growth of contradiction -- a new imperialism if you will. Major areas in the peripheries, such as much of Latin American, have entered into industrialisation. And so the conflict centres on who is in control, which is not necessarily linked to ownership. The message is: you can cooperate, or you can be bombed. And this is a system that by definition will not move towards disarmament but in the other direction. So the system needs military power to keep global order and the US's real advance over its partners is military might."

Indeed, Amin is adament that the aggressive and military nature of US-led imperialism is in fact a function of US relative economic weakness within the centre.

"It is often said by people that the US has had a miraculous comeback in all fields. This is totally incorrect. The US 'economic miracle' of the nineties is nonsense. Growth occurred in the financial sector but in services, trade, and the social sectors growth rates have not been better than Europe and the trade balance has moved towards growing deficit.

The US economy is at a disadvantage, Amin argues, which is why the military card is imperative to assure a transfer of assets to the US. "Who is paying for US military aggression? The rich of the world and the poor of the world, even Burundi. So in fact the US is using its military prowess to finance the deficit and cover-up their decline. The military choice is not the result of strength, but a measure to balance a weakness."

According to Amin, military action is being resorted to by the US to mobilise its partners and terrorize the rest of the world; and that is the crux of the war against terrorism. The events of 9/11 are simply a conjuncture that serve the ongoing purpose. "I sometimes wonder if the whole thing [9/11] was not fabricated. I mean the fact that the FBI is unwilling to release information to the American Congressional Commission is an indication that there is much that is unclear. And then considering the degree of the stupidity of the likes of Bin Laden he was successfully exploited within the plan of the US military control scenario."

Part of that scenario is also the control of oil sources not only in the Middle East but also, and perhaps more importantly, in Central Asia. "The US also wants to give itself the advantage of controlling the sources of oil upon which Europe and Japan -- its competitors within the centre -- are dependent. This way they can put continuous pressure on both. Iraq is a gateway to Iran and Central Asia and this is a strategy decision taken by the American government as early as 1990."

Amin is frustrated that many intellectuals in the Arab world cannot see the war for what it really is. "Central Asia is Muslim but this is not a war against Islam -- it is for economic domination, profit and improved competitiveness. Bin Laden is not the target, Central Asian oil is. The target is not the Arab countries either. All of this talk of wanting to take control of the Egyptian market is unrealistic." He goes on to argue that "Cultural identity politics diverts people's attention from the real issues. Solidarity should not be argued for within the ranks of Muslims or Arabs in particular, but within the ranks of Arabs, Africans, Central Asians etc. Within the ranks of the people of the periphery countries. Otherwise, cultural identity politics are just compensation for desperate people. It works against what we need most."

Arabs are targeted not as Arabs or as Muslims but because they are weak. "The Region is made up of weak countries. We are reminded of this every day in Palestine," says Amin.

It does not have to be so, however. "If you ask me whether this is a viable system I will answer with an absolute no. It is very destructive and it is a system that will not come down by itself and will for some time in the future appear to be all powerful. They will bomb Iraq and kill thousands. Genocide will continue to take place in occupied Palestine. I am not optimistic about the short and visible future. But where does it all lead? In the end this course of action will not compensate for the decline within the US system."

It is a bleak scenario, even if it is only "short term". Amin, however, prefers to face the facts head on. He pulls on yet another cigarette and adds "In the near future I see the failure of US policy in Iraq. To run Iraq they must invade it. And while the Iraqi people will not fight to protect Saddam -- for very obvious and legitimate reasons -- they will not sit and accept US domination. What are the options? A Karzai-type puppet who will get assassinated sooner or later? The integral system will break down as these current measures are simply cosmetic measures."

Eventually, Amin sees new alliances developing. Closer relations between Russia and Europe for example. "Three- quarters of Russia's trade is with Europe and Europe is the major outlet for Russian oil. Also Russia, India and China are coming closer to resist the geo- political pressure of US presence in Central Asia."

Also, with regards to the situation in Europe -- in which Amin makes the distinction between governments and people -- he explains that "The United States is based on two values: liberty and property. When you put them together you get a cowboy. The Europeans also have two values: liberty and equality but these come into conflict. And so I think that a large sector of the European left will organise around a growing anti- Americanism."

This trend has already manifested itself in a growing anti-globalisation and anti-war movement. Not that Amin is comfortable with the label. "I personally do not like qualifying the movement as anti-globalisation which is unfortunately the term used, because it is short and appealing. It is in fact a very dangerous label. We are not anti-globalisation but anti the pattern of current globalisation. After all we are universalists both culturally and politically. Globalisation is as old as human kind. It is the neo- capitalist hegemonised militarily form that we are against."

Amin has been heavily involved in the movement since 1998 when the movement came to being in conjunction with the meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

"At the time we asserted the fact that we represent the real world. We are against liberal capitalist globalisation and we are against militarisation. Beyond that people think differently. There are socialists and progressive religionists. We will have to see."

Amin acknowledges that the movement "is weak in Egypt and in the region at large. Of course, this is a region which has governments that are less democratic than others in the world such as India for example. Also this is a region that has been polarised by the Palestinian question and of course there is Islamic political ideology. All of this combined does not help to build alliances. But this is the responsibility of the Egyptian left."

He is more than ready, however, to take on his share of the responsibility both locally and globally. Amin is tenacious. "Another world is possible", even more urgently today, than it was in the '70s when a then much younger Egyptian scholar and activist was in Paris authoring works that would be translated into most of the world's languages and provide inspiration and intellectual direction to tens of thousands of activists across the globe.

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