Global Networks, Imperial Culture

Rob Wilkie

In this essay I advance a theory of globalization that, to some, might seem controversial. I argue that globalization is best understood as the expansion of capitalism as explained by Lenin in Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism; namely the export of surplus capital and thus the universalization of capitalism itself produced by the exploitation of labor. What makes Lenin's view so controversial today is that while the image of globalization as the peaceful integration of global markets into what Malcolm Waters calls an "enormous bazaar" (228) has become culturally suspect—marked, for example, by the recent publication of four different books entitled Globalization and its Discontents
[1]—it still remains almost universally accepted, even among more "radical" social theorists, that the labor theory of value, which Lenin argues is essential to understanding why capital must expand globally and why it can be transformed into socialism, has no explanatory value when confronting what Manfred B. Steger calls the "fundamentally indeterminate character of globality" (8). Instead, cultural theory today generally takes as its starting point the view of globalization as a "social network": a Deleuzian rhizomatic set of relations in which the "fixities of nation, community, ethnicity and class", as Jan Nederveen Pieterse, argues, "have become fragments" dispersed in the flows of financial markets (83). 

In contrast, I argue that it is necessary to open a space within cultural theory for a critique of the concept of the "network" in thinking the political, economic, and historical dynamics of globality by returning to the labor theory of value as the basis for a theory of globalization as imperialism. In doing so, I maintain that the meaning of "globalization" is shaped at the level of property, in the division between those who own and control the means of production and those who own only their labor-power. On these terms, it becomes clear that the struggle over the meaning of globalization is in fact a class struggle over the direction of the future: between capitalism, more or less reformed, more or less violent, but founded on existing class divisions, or socialism, brought about by the collective struggles of the international proletariat.

It is said that the labor theory of value has lost its explanatory effectivity because globalization represents a fundamental transformation in the relations between capital and labor resulting from the shift from an industrial to a post-industrial and now to a technological society built not on the exploitation of labor but the generation of knowledge. For example, in his seminal book, The Rise of the Network Society, Manuel Castells articulates the basic premise of globalization as emerging from developments in technology that, he argues, are transforming "the material basis of society" (1) from the industrial age in which value is produced by labor to an informational age of knowledge and cultural exchange in which "value added is mainly generated by information" (243). He writes that as a result of the application of new scientific developments in communication and management technologies to production, capitalism has, for the first time, become global, shaping all social relationships. However, what is significant about Castells' argument, in the context of debates over capitalist development, is of course not only his claim that globalization constitutes the universalization of capital globally, but that the new universality of capitalism is founded on the interconnection of informational networks, the global flows of messages and images; in short, on cultural changes which blur the boundaries between owners and workers, production and consumption, labor and exchange. Instead of a class conflict over the control of the means of production, Castells describes global capitalism as defined by a cultural struggle over consumption between the "interacting" who, he argues, are able to "selec[t] their multidirectional circuits of communication" (371), and the "interacted", who are limited to "a restricted number of prepackaged choices" (374).

The most popular version of this narrative on the left is, of course, Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt's Empire. Negri and Hardt's theory of empire, which draws from Castells' theory of globalization as a social network, is based upon a similar assumption that with the growth of the productive capacity of capitalism and its expansion globally, the source of value has also shifted from productive labor to "immaterial labor", including service labor, knowledge labor, and labor that "produces or manipulates affects" (Multitude 108). Since, from their view, resources produced through the new forms of labor (such as "affect") cannot ever be "fully captured" by capital (Multitude 146) because they exceed the boundaries of the working day, the "multitude" whose labor this represents is becoming "an autonomous agent of production" (Empire 405) that is not dependent on capital to set it in motion. Thus, the site of contestation is no longer the extraction of surplus labor but rather the political control of this multitude and thus their creative powers. In other words, for Negri and Hardt, insofar as "proletarian internationalism" represents the "outside" of an earlier, "national" stage of capitalism (Empire 48), the globalization of production means that "there is no longer an 'outside' to capital" (Multitude 102) and thus workers whose surplus labor is exploited as a collective are no longer the agent(s) of change. Instead, Negri and Hardt posit an "impure politics" of the multitude based on finding "the potential for liberation that exists within Empire" (Empire 46) and thus, despite the radical rhetoric, that all that is necessary in the end for the development of what they describe as a "spontaneous and elementary communism" (Empire 294) is the formation of a counter-empire that only differs from the current social relations politically but not necessarily economically.

The deep influence of the work of Castells and Hardt and Negri in ideologically displacing surplus value as the basis of the expansion of capital and thus of the urgent need to transform the property relations at the core of capitalist production can be seen in the fact that this is a theory of globalization which is shared not only by critics of corporate globalization such as Naomi Klein, who argues that in the factories of the new global economy "the classic Marxist division between owners and workers doesn't quite work" (226). It is also the logic of globalization's most vocal supporters, such as Thomas Friedman, for whom it represents the potential end of any limits to capitalism, whether it is the geographic outside of the periphery, or the economic outside of class (The World is Flat).

In other words, despite their local differences what links all of these theories of globalization is that they represent globalization as largely "constituted" by cultural processes which, through technological advances, have escaped the determinacy of the economic. In doing so they suggest that the main terrain of struggle and freedom for workers rests in the legal, political, and cultural surfaces of capitalism rather than in changing the underlying economic relations that determine class inequality. The main crux of their argument, in other words, is to deny the continued existence of exploitation and therefore to deny the historical relation of globalization to class society by making it appear that changes in the "culture" of the workplace—for example, the shift from the rigid structures of Fordism to the "flexible" structures of Post-Fordism—bring about a fundamental material change in the class position of workers.

However, the problem with the idea that the relation between capital and labor is transformed through the introduction of new means of production that extend the capitalist system of production and consumption across the globe is that capitalism is defined neither by the kinds of technique used in the production of commodities nor by the geographic distribution of production across the globe. These are features of changes in the modes of accumulation used to extract surplus value but not in the underlying logic of how and why labor relations under capitalism result in the production of surplus value. In fact, the contradictions between labor and capital are actually exacerbated and not lessened by increased technological development because technological advances in production are the means by which capitalism increases the productivity of labor and thus the rate of exploitation. The computer does not change the logic of wage-labor, in other words, merely the speed and productive ability of the workers using it. In addition, it is precisely because the exploitation of labor is the source of surplus value under capitalism that developments in production also enable the geographical reorganization of production—what Castells' calls capitalism's "variable geometry" (475)—so as to maximize profits through such labor practices as outsourcing and subcontracting which are designed not only to create competition between workers to prevent them from collectively organizing against capital across national boundaries but to find or create cheaper sources of labor as a means of maximizing profit.

By denying the exploitation of labor as the source of the capitalists' wealth, in short, network theory acts as a negative knowledge of capitalism by cleansing from globalization its historical and material relation to capitalism and thus blocking the production of a red theory of globalization necessary for organizing the collective struggles of the international working class.

In this context, I argue that it is necessary to return to the labor theory of value in order to understand globalization because it explains why capitalism does not reach its limit either in the contraction of a "non-capitalist" outside with which to trade, which is the presupposition of the network as the elimination of geographic and economic boundaries, nor in terms of a cultural remaking of the politics of oppression from within the logic of capital. More importantly, it explains why the working class remains the agent of revolution: because it is on the exploitation of their labor that the capitalist system depends. In other words, the limit of capitalism is that it is a system based upon a fundamental and unequal relation to property in which some own and control the means of production and others own nothing but their labor-power, and, as Marx and Engels write, "cannot increase except upon condition of begetting a new supply of wage-labour for fresh exploitation" (498). Thus it is in the interests of ensuring higher rates of accumulation that capitalism becomes a universal system, driven to conquer every corner of the globe.

The path this universalization takes is what Lenin calls imperialism. Imperialism, Lenin writes, is the globalization of capitalist relations through the export of surplus capital. The export of capital is necessitated by the fact that, as he explains, it is the exploitation of the productivity of labor to create value above its cost that creates surplus value. As such, as dead capital replaces living labor in advanced industries the owning class is forced to find new areas of wage-labor to exploit. In other words, capital becomes more profitable by moving to less developed areas, in which "capital is scarce, the price of land is relatively low, wages are low, [and] raw materials are cheap" (241) than it does by remaining in highly developed and monopolized areas of production. Regardless, then, of whether this expansion occurs through direct political annexation as could be argued is occurring in Iraq, or by the financial indebtedness of the policies enforced by the World Bank and the IMF, globalization represents the most recent attempt by capital to overcome the contradictions that result from increasing costs of production and decreasing rates of profit by exporting surplus capital to the newly available markets formerly restricted by the existence of the Soviet Union and, with it, the fundamental social relations of capitalism itself. As Lenin argues, "The export of capital greatly affects and accelerates the development of capitalism in those countries to which it is exported" and thus "while, therefore, the export of capital may tend to a certain extent to arrest development in the countries exporting capital", as evident for example in the crisis of public education, health care, housing and the environment in the United States, "it can only do so by expanding and deepening the further development of capitalism throughout the world" (243). In other words, to propose that the technological developments which have enabled the expansion of capitalism across the globe will, by themselves, eliminate the exploitative relations between bourgeoisie and proletariat without having to change the underlying property relations which define capitalism is not simply historically naïve or politically foolish, it is an ideological defense of global capitalism that works in the interests of owners against workers.

What has ultimately made the theory of "networks" so popular, such that the concept of the "network society" is embraced by a politically diverse range of globalization theorists, is precisely because by substituting the form of the organization of capitalist production for its underlying logic network theory works to make natural highly unnatural conditions and thus keeps in motion what Marx calls the "social metabolism" of capitalism—the extraction of surplus value from the labor of the working class. By representing globalization as homologous to cultural changes, what "network" theorists are actually producing is a narrative of progress for workers within capitalism and that helps to update and adjust them to new developments of the means of production that operate under the same (old) relations of exploitation. Instead, I argue that globalization is imperialism, a world divided by the fundamental division of property between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat and thus any transformation of global capital from a society based on the private accumulation by owners of the surplus value produced by workers can only occur with the struggle for international socialism. 

[1] Globalization and its Discontents is the title of at least four recent publications on globalization, including works by: Joseph Stiglitz; Saskia Sassen; Roger Burbach with Orlando Nunez and Boris Kargarlitsky; and Stephen McBride and John Wiseman.

Works Cited 

Castells, Manuel. The Rise of the Network Society. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1996. 

Friedman, Thomas L. The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005.

Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000. 

____. Multitude : War and Democracy in the Age of Empire. New York: Penguin Press, 2004. 

Klein, Naomi. No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies. Toronto: Knopf Canada, 2000. 

Lenin, V.I. Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism. Lenin Collected Works. Vol. 22. 1964. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1977. 185-304. 

Marx, Karl and Fredrick Engels. Manifesto of the Communist Party. Marx-Engels Collected Works. Vol. 6. New York: International Publishers, 1976. 476-519. 

Pieterse, Jan Nederveen. Globalization and Culture: Global Mélange. New York: Rowan and Littlefield, 2003. 

Steger, Manfred B. Globalization : A Very Short Introduction. Oxford, UK and New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Waters, Malcolm. Globalization. 1995. London; New York: Routledge, 2001.

THE RED CRITIQUE 11 (Winter/Spring 2006)