Imperialism and Culturalism Complement Each Other

By Amin, Samir | Monthly Review, June 1996 | Go to article overview

Imperialism and Culturalism Complement Each Other


Amin, Samir, Monthly Review


Capitalism is always ready to reward academics and publicists who provide plausible exculpatory explanations for its crises, failures, and crimes. Frequently the most effective are those that play upon the prejudices and supersitions of the prescientific past but in modern (or "post-modern") and scientific form. Favored alternatives to historical materialist social science have been theories of world-historical process as the working out of closed and separate "civilizations" or "cultures." These "civilizations" and "cultures" are not explained by history, but instead explain history. One current version is that of the publicist (and Harvard Professor) Samuel Huntington, justifying the crimes of imperialism as the product of cultural "incompatibility." This is merely the most Authorized Version of a noise that can be heard today in all rhythms,, tunes, and dissonances, often with its origins in racial pseudo-science only slightly disguised. Other varyingly sanitized and fragmentary versions are sometimes presented as "identity politics" or "communicatarianism." The Egyptian journal A1 Ahram asked our good friend and frequent contributor Samir Amin to give his view of Huntington's theory of "clash of civilizations." His demonstration of why culturalism and imperialism reinforce each other, and how victims can be led to accept "difference" in place of equality and liberation, is today of potential utility everywhere.

Dominant ideologies are by definition conservative: in order to reproduce themselves all forms of social organization must perceive themselves as the end of history. However, the first step of scientific thought consists precisely in seeking to go beyond the vision that social systems have of themselves. The conservative dominant discourse acquires strength through the vulgar practice of tossing together the "values" that it pretends rule the modern world. Into this pot are thrown principles of political organization (notions of legality, of the state, human rights, democracy), social values (freedom, equality, individualism), and principles of the organization of economic life (private property, the "free market"). This amalgamation then leads to the false claim that these values constitute an indivisible whole, arising from the same logical process. Hence the association of capitalism with democracy, as if this were an obvious or necessary linkage. However, history shows the contrary: democratic advances have been won through struggle, and are not the natural, spontaneous product of capitalist expansion.

I

Unless we want the "end of history" to be the end of the history of humanity and the planet through their destruction, capitalism must be transcended. As opposed to previous systems, which took thousands of years to unfold before exhausting their historical potentials, capitalism may ultimately appear as a brief parenthesis in history. In this time the elementary tasks of accumulation were accomplished, but only to pave the way for a superseding social order characterized by a superior, non-alienated rationality and based on an authentic planetary humanism. In other words, capitalism did in fact exhaust its positive historical potential very early on; it ceased to be the means (if only the "unconscious" mean's) by which progress finds its path, and now it has become an obstacle to progress.

Progress is not here identified as an abstract involuntary product linked with the expansion of capital, but is independently defined through human criteria inconsistent with capital's real products, which are economic alienation, ecological destruction, and global polarization. This contradiction explains why the history of capitalism has been constituted from its origins by successive contrasting movements. During some periods the logic of capital's expansion is experienced as a unilateral force, and during others the intervention of anti-systemic forces limits the extent of the destruction inherent in its expansion. …

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Imperialism and Culturalism Complement Each Other
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