Imperialism makes a comeback

PIC The New ExtractivismThe New Extractivism: A Post-Neoliberal Development Model or Imperialism of the Twenty-First Century?
Edited by Henry Veltmeyer and James Petras
2014, Zed Books
308 pages, paperback


ONE thing that can be said about Henry Veltmeyer and James Petras is that they are consistent. Together, these intellectual giants of the left have written or edited more than 100 books on Latin American and world development, many of them together.

The clear-sighted nature of their analysis of capitalist development is as refreshing as the enthusiasm with which they construct their critiques of it and its many dimensions.

But what is most consistent of all about their work is the unreconstructed zeal with which they explore a term that has gone out of fashion in the study of the region since the oppressive advent of neoliberalism, yet which still has the potency to send a chill up the spine of all good Wall Street bankers: imperialism.

The New Extractivism, the latest volume within this pair’s vast corpus of literature (that should one day be brought together in one mammoth tome), mounts a withering attack on the latest incarnation of imperialism in a region that has, let’s be honest, been the target of rather more than its fair share of colonial adventures since 1492.

This work departs from a notion of the “post-neoliberal state” associated with progressive politics in Latin America through the “pink tide” of regime change in the region since 1999 and, perhaps, epitomised by the twenty-first century socialism of Hugo Chávez. While it is probably fair to say that most observers have interpreted the emergence of the “post-neoliberal state” as the beginning of the end of neoliberalism, Veltmeyer and Petras are among those who propose a very different understanding.

They argue that the pink tide regimes are clearly not what they seem, having mostly turned towards natural resource extraction and primary commodity exports as a national development strategy in a revival of the “predatory and backward” capitalism dominant in the 19th century.

Moreover, say the authors, the dependence of these progressive regimes on the bearers of “extractive capital” and other flaws in their strategies means they are never likely to deliver the promise of greater social inclusion and equity that they have pledged. In short, the “new extractivism” that the authors explore – a term much in currency in Latin America – is simply the most visible sign of a new phase of imperialism

Veltmeyer and Petras write: “… we argue that the post-neoliberal state, the supposed outcome of a sharp turn to the left in national politics, is merely the latest twist and turn in the politics of what we term ‘extractive imperialism’.”

It is beyond doubt that most of the left-of-centre governments that have come to power in the last 15 years have placed extractive practices at the heart of their economic strategies. High prices for commodities have sustained a trend for growth led by exports while global investment has flowed in floods into commodity extraction, from mining and oil to agro-food products. One outcome of this trend has been growing social conflict over territorial rights to natural resources, in some cases between marginalised groups and the very left-of-centre governments that in theory exist to empower them. Dispossession and environmental degradation are just two of the inevitable consequences of this form of pillage.

This is the “new extractivism”, and according to Veltmeyer and Petras it is the manifestation of a system in crisis. While this can be viewed through the prism of class struggle, political conflict and the resource wars that have accompanied the extraction process, the authors argue that at the centre of this dynamic is the “imperial state” – the capitalist state whose interventions to support extractive capital have a long and ignominious history. The apparently progressive states of the pink tide are in large part the product within global capitalism of a new manifestation of imperialism based upon extraction: “extractive imperialism”.

This book presents case studies on the new extractivism in Latin America, with a central focus on mining, mainly in South America. Mexico is also discussed, considered as it is by Veltmeyer and Petras to be a “paradigmatic case of neoliberal extractivism”. The chapters look at different permutations of the new type of state – Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru – which remain the subject of intense debates.

The New Extractivism should be an essential text for students of contemporary Latin American politics and economics because it explores the most important phenomenon driving economic growth in the post-Washington Consensus context.

But what is most encouraging about this book is its theoretical approach, which in an era of such drift and confusion on the left grounds the analysis in a tried and tested perspective on imperialism that retains all the force of early analysis by figures such as Lenin.

Notions of imperialism remain a potent fount of explanations for the momentous forces of capitalism that continue to shape our world, even if only a few brave scholars are prepared to challenge prevailing narratives by placing them at the heart of their enquiry.