The Liberal Virus: Permanent War and the Americanization of the World

Samir Amin, The Liberal Virus: Permanent War and the Americanization of the World, trans. James Membrez (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2004).

Those who have come to rely on Samir Amin’s penetrating critical analyses of the latest depredations of capitalism and its ruling classes will not be disappointed with The Liberal Virus. In this short but powerfully argued work, Amin attacks the ideology and practice of economic liberalism, in both its past and present (“neo”) incarnations. The title’s metaphor dramatically underscores the point that capitalism’s most recent “mutation” poses an increasingly grave threat, not only to its most desperate victims – the billions of “unvaccinated” peasants of the global South who face displacement and impoverishment courtesy of neoliberal economic practices – but also to anyone who opposes the policies of a militant US, which is the world’s most virulent proponent of neoliberalism.

In his first two chapters, “The Liberal Vision of Society” and “The Ideological and Para-Theoretical Foundations of Liberalism,” Amin exposes the delusional nature of (neo)liberal ideology, which promotes the view that, left to itself (that is, unfettered by state intervention), capitalism will create “an optimal equilibrium” and thereby the best of all possible worlds. For Amin, such nonsense should be viewed as a “para-theory” of “an imaginary capitalism” since, in the real world, “[t]he ‘competition’ between capitals – which defines capitalism – suppresses the possibility of realizing any sort of general equilibrium and thus renders illusory any analysis founded on such a supposed tendency.” As Amin notes,

The articulation between the logics produced by this competition of capitals and those which are deployed through the evolution of the social relations of production (among capitalists, between them and the exploited and dominated classes, among the states which form capitalism as a world system) accounts, after the fact, for the movement of the system as it displaces itself from one disequilibrium to another.. . . The idea that there exists an economic logic (which economic science enables us to discover) that governs the development of capitalism is an illusion. (14-15)

Of course, most apologists for neoliberalism would respond that, whether or not a capitalist utopia is possible, the material benefits of globalization are as evident as the differences between the economies of North and South Korea. In his discussion in chapter three of the consequences of really-existing globalized neoliberalism, however, Amin argues that the lives of the three billion people who subsist on food produced by “peasant agricultures” are not likely to be improved by the introduction of capitalist farming techniques and the adoption of “the principle of profitability.” Rather, if peasant agriculture is “integrated into the whole set of general rules of ‘competition’” (as the World Trade Organization demands that it should be), the likely scenario is that a relatively small number of “agribusinesses” will end up displacing most rural peasant producers (33). In an earlier period, Amin writes, the reserve army of laborers created by displaced peasants (from land enclosures in Europe, for example) was absorbed by growing urban industries or by colonies abroad. Today, however, the likely result of such displacement would be a “planetary shantytown of five billion human beings ‘too many’” (34).

To prevent this potential disaster, Amin argues, peasant agriculture must be preserved “for the entire visible future of the twenty-first century,” and the internal prices of agricultural products in developing countries should be delinked from those of the world market. This would allow farmers to increase productivity while at the same time the “population transfer from the countryside towards the cities” could be controlled (35). The real solution to “the new agrarian question,” though, “will be found by going beyond the logic of capitalism” and by making “the long, secular transition to world socialism” (35).

In the short term, though, Amin urges that new alliances be created to contain the liberal virus. The United States — whose history of “uncompromising liberalism” is reviewed by Amin in his fourth chapter (“The Origins of Liberalism”) — is of course the major obstacle to achieving the kind of world that Amin envisions; however, Amin suggests that “the old world” (i.e., Europe) offers some hope in reversing the current neoliberal trend. Although Europe is a partner in the “Triad” that includes the US and Japan, its political culture (which includes workers’ parties, a long history of class struggles, and social democracies) contrasts in many ways with that of the US. The “dominant segments of [European] capital,” Amin writes, “are of course defenders of globalized neoliberalism and as a result agree to pay the price of their subordination to the North American leader” (108); however, there are also in Europe “political, social, and ideological forces that support – often with lucidity – the vision of ‘another Europe’ (social and friendly in its relations with the South)” (109). Amin suggests that

[i]f this humanist and democratic political culture of “old Europe” prevails — and it is possible that it will – then an authentic rapprochement among Europe, Russia, China, Asia, and Africa would form the foundation upon which it would be possible to construct a democratic and peaceful pluricentric world. (108)

In his final chapter, Amin describes a number of the challenges that neoliberalism poses to those who would create such a world. These challenges include the redefinition of “the European project” so that Europe can begin to “disassociate itself on the international plane from the exclusive demands of a collective imperialism in its relations with the East and the South” (89); the “reestablishment of the solidarity of the peoples of the South,” who must condemn the U.S. policy of “preventive war” and “demand the evacuation of all foreign military bases in Asia, Africa and Latin America” (97); and the reconstruction of “a peoples’ internationalism,” which, as mentioned above, could be “crystallized at the international diplomatic level by stabilizing the Paris-Berlin-Moscow-Peking axis, strengthened by the development of friendly relations between this axis and the reconstituted Afro-Asiatic front” (111).

If the plan that Amin outlines here doesn’t exactly sound like socialism, it is nonetheless a necessary step toward that goal, he believes, since these new alliances would force the US “to accept coexistence with nations determined to defend their own interests” (111). Absent the threat of US military and economic intervention, the liberal virus would be contained and real strides could be made toward economic justice and true democracy – that is, democracy that reflects the will of working people rather than the fluctuations of the market.

Reviewed by David Siar
Winston-Salem State University

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