September 2015        

Samir Amin: A life that continues to be lived

Nicola Lawlor

Samir Amin is recognised as one of the most important and most inspiring living Marxist theoreticians and philosophers. I would strongly recommend that people read his regular articles in Monthly Review (posted on the MR e-zine) and his books, most notably his recent publications The Law of Worldwide Value (second edition, 2010) and The Implosion of Contemporary Capitalism (2013).
     Born in Cairo in 1931 and at one point a member of the French Communist Party, Amin deals with both deep theoretical issues, such as the Marxist law of value in contemporary globalised structures, and the most practical political questions, such as the recent Scottish referendum on independence. He has worked as an adviser to both the Egyptian government, 1957–1960, under the progressive moderniser Gamal Abdel Nasser, and the government of Mali, 1960–63, under the African socialist Modibo Keita. He is now a director at the Third World Forum in Sénégal and remains an incredibly fresh, original and responsive writer, in touch with his class and its movements, at the age of eighty-five.
     His analysis of the world, of inequality, power and class, is very much rooted in the anti-imperialist Marxism of the Leninist tradition but can be seen more clearly as part of the tradition, which includes Connolly, that stems from the anti-imperialist struggles of colonies and post-independence movements for socialism in peripheral countries, in particular in Africa.
     Two excellent expositions of Amin’s politics are available on line. The first is an interview with an American black radical web site, Black Left Unity Network,¹ and the second is an article celebrating Amin’s eightieth birthday in 2011 by John Bellamy Foster, editor of Monthly Review.²

The law of worldwide value

Amin doesn’t sit back and accept the past as dogma, but neither does he cast away what has been achieved and experienced. Both politically and theoretically he builds on the struggles, movements and lessons up to the present time. He looked at the traditional Marxist theory of value and sought to update it and place it in the context of an increasingly monopolised, centralised and financialised world, or what Amin describes as a system of “generalised monopolies,” where monopoly power is the rule, not an exception, with small and medium businesses largely locked in to a network of relationships determined by monopolies. Consequently, employment and labour are equally subject to monopoly power.
     Building on earlier works and experience, Amin published The Law of Worldwide Value in 1978 and revised and expanded it in 2010.
     He looks at the structure of capitalism that has created a centre and periphery and in particular the massive systemic underdevelopment of African and Asian society following formal independence. Based on Marx’s law of the value of labour power being related to the cost of reproducing labour in a given society at a given time, he analyses the hierarchical nature of the price of labour power (wages) and concludes that, in contemporary society, monopolies in the imperial centres, with their ability to control production around the world, extract an imperialist rent from the application of labour power in Asia and Africa. And this worldwide value continues to re-create the subject relationships of global colonial structures in a contemporary imperialist age, giving us empires with no colonies.
     As Amin puts it, “the capitalism of generalised and globalised monopolies is a system that guarantees these monopolies a monopoly rent levied on the mass of surplus value (transformed into profits) that capital extracts from the exploitation of labour.”

The triad of collective imperialism

Developing the tradition of Lenin, Bukharin, Hilferding and others in seeing imperialism as a development of capitalism in its competitive phase, through critical engagement with their theories Amin views the world as being dominated by three leading imperialist geo-political, economic and cultural forces, which compete but also co-operate, as distinct from the inter-imperialist rivalry of Lenin’s day. He calls this the collective triad of the United States, the European Union, and Japan.
     “This system of generalised monopolies is the product of a new phase of centralisation of capital in the countries of the Triad (the United States, Western and Central Europe, and Japan) that took place during the 1980s and 1990s.”
     Within the EU, which Amin sees as a bloc dominated by the imperialist interests of Germany and France, the leading powers have colonised most of central and eastern Europe and parts of southern Europe and are seeking to expand into Asian countries. But the EU is not itself a state and so is subject to the combination and interplay of the independent states’ ruling classes. So, for example, the German state represents the interests of German monopoly capital within the EU, and, given its leading position, the EU becomes a mechanism through which German interests can be imposed internally on member-states and externally on the peripheral world.
     Amin still sees the nation-state as the guarantor of monopoly capitalism and class rule. It is the state that militarily intervenes, both internally and externally, to safeguard the private accumulation of capital, and it also socialises capital’s losses through its political and legal system, again protected by the military should any protest or uprising threaten this.

The politics of change and anti-imperialism

This means that Amin sees the politics of change and transformation as necessarily anti-imperialist and the necessity of challenging the ruling class of the nation-state as well as the international system.
     Echoing Lenin and certainly Connolly, Amin also sees the momentum for change largely coming from the South and oppressed peoples. According to Amin, because of the imperialist rent that is extracted by the collective triad, largely, but not exclusively, off African and Asian peoples, the working class of the centre is “bought in” to the system. They often operate a managing, supervising or non-productive role (in an M–C–M sense), such as marketing, and so are paid for and through the exploitation of labour elsewhere, and the imperialist rent that Amin describes, affording them the ability to buy luxury goods and placing their short-term self-interest in the continued exploitation of labour elsewhere.
     In seeking change at this moment, and in understanding the nature of imperialism today, Amin does not see, nor does he desire, the conditions for a social compromise. This is again what makes Amin such a valuable radical thinker. He doesn’t use Marxism to try to manage capitalism better than the capitalists, as many on the left try to do: he uses knowledge and experience to try to chart a way out of underdevelopment and out of subjugation for the majority of people on this planet, and one that is actually necessary for securing the future of life on earth.
     “We are not living in a historical moment in which the search for a ‘social compromise’ is a possible option. There have been such moments in the past, such as the post-war social compromise between capital and labour specific to the social democratic state in the West, the actually existing socialism in the East, and the popular national projects of the South. But our present historical moment is not the same. So the conflict is between monopoly capital and workers and people who are invited to an unconditional surrender. Defensive strategies of resistance under these conditions are ineffective and bound to be eventually defeated. In the face of war declared by monopoly capital, workers and peoples must develop strategies that allow them to take the offensive.”

     1. Samir Amin, “Audacity, more audacity,” Pambazuka News, issue 560 (1 December 2011.
     2. John Bellamy Foster, “Samir Amin at 80: An Introduction and Tribute,” Monthly Review, vol. 63, issue 5 (October 2011).

Home page  >  Socialist Voice  >  September 2015  >  Samir Amin: A life that continues to be lived
Baile  >  Socialist Voice  >  Meán Fómhair 2015  >  Samir Amin: A life that continues to be lived