Book Review

Some time ago Spectre published a review of an interesting book by Petras and Veltmeyer on the subject of globalisation, which the authors argued is no more than a euphemism for imperialism. Below, Indian sociologist P. Radhakrishnan offers a further response to the book.

James Petras and Henry Veltmeyer Globalisation Unmasked: Imperialism in the 21st Century (London,, Zed Books,  2002) £12.95

AS the authors aver, ‘Globalization is at the centre of diverse intellectual and political agendas, raising crucial questions about what is widely considered to be the fundamental dynamic of our time – an epoch-defining set of changes that is radically transforming social and economic relations and institutions in the 21st century.’

Globalization is not global integration, turning the world in to what is often touted as a ‘global village’. On the contrary, it represents an insidious ‘usurpation’ agenda for the global hegemony of the Master World led by the US. The recent Bush-Blair blitzkrieg in Iraq to disarm and destroy weapons of mass destruction of a nation, weaponless and defenceless by any international reckoning, by a reckless use of weapons of mass destruction stockpiled by these two countries is one horrendous manifestation of this fast unfolding ‘usurpation’ by the artful ‘globalizers’. Underlying and integral to globalization are its artful charades and chicanery.

As both a description of widespread, epoch-defining developments and a prescription for action, it (globalization) has achieved a virtual hegemony and so is presented with an air of inevitability that disarms the imagination and prevents thought of and action towards a systemic alternative – towards another, more just social and economic order. The ‘inevitability’ of globalization is a critical concern. But a more critical issue, perhaps, is what the discourse on globalization is designed to hide and obfuscate: the form taken by imperialism in the current, increasingly worldwide capitalist system for organizing economic production and society.

The authors dismiss the above bogey of ‘inevitability’ – embedded in the burgeoning literature on globalization, especially from ‘establishment economists’, who have conjured up a seemingly fatalistic global agreement that it just happened and everyone must adapt to it – as part of yet another sinister imperialist agenda and lay bare with characteristic candour what the discourse on globalization is designed to obfuscate.

Of the eleven chapters of the book, the first three (‘Globalization’ or ‘Imperialism’?; Globalization: A Critical Analysis; and Globalization as Ideology) are on the ideological dimensions of globalization. Together they expose the class project behind globalization, namely ‘the attempt to obfuscate rather than accurately describe what is going on worldwide,’ and ‘the attempt to throw an ideological veil over the economic interests of an emerging class of transnational capitalists.’

The authors argue that globalization is not a structural part of the capitalist system, it is instead an ideological smokescreen used to divert attention away from the resurgence of imperialist powers. Accordingly, they contend that globalization is little more than imperialism in a new form. Seeing it as an ideological tool used for prescription rather than accurate description, they contextually counterpoise it with the term imperialism, which according to them has considerably greater descriptive value and explanatory power.

Using this concept, the network of institutions that define the structure of the new global economic system are viewed not in structural terms but as intentional and contingent, subject to the control of individuals who represent and seek to advance the interests of a new international capitalist class. This class is formed on the basis of institutions that include a complex of some 37,000 transnational corporations (TNCs), the operating units of global capitalism, the bearers of capital and technology and the major agents of the new imperial order. These TNCs are not the only organizational bases of this order, which also includes the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other international financial institutions (IFIs) that constitute the self-styled ‘international financial community’ and ‘the global financial network’.

In addition, the New Order is made up of a host of global strategic planning and policy forums such as the Group of Seven (G-7), the Trilateral Commission (TC), and the World Economic Forum (WEF); and the state apparatuses in countries at the centre of the system that have been restructured so as to serve and respond to the interests of global capital. All of these institutions form an integral part of the new imperialism – the new system of ‘global governance’.

As the new class project is admittedly for creating conditions for the free play of greed, class interests and profit making, the action goes well beyond what the authors have termed ‘renovation’. Nevertheless, they have brought out through an array of sources how this class project, especially its structural adjustment programmes, impacts on developed, developing, and the least developed countries.

How this project has been put into practice in Latin America, on the periphery of what has been termed the ‘world capitalist system’, is examined in chapter 4 (Capitalism at the Beginning of a New Millennium: Latin America and Euro-American Imperialism) by focusing on the machinations of Euro-American imperialism at the beginning of the new millennium. Privatization is a key component of the neo-liberal programme of structural reforms and policies designed to create optimal conditions for global capital, freed from the restrictions and regulations under which it has been operating. Its role is examined at length in chapter 5 (The Labyrinth of Privatization).

The political dimension of neo-liberal capitalism and its imperialist project is examined in chapter 6 (Democracy and Capitalism: An Uneasy Relationship). Chapters 7 and 8 (Cooperation for Development, and NGOs in the Service of Imperialism) ‘focus on widespread efforts to give the structural adjustment (and globalization) process a social dimension and human face: a more equitable form of community-based and participatory "development" based on the decentralization of government, the strengthening of "civil society", and the agency of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). At issue here are three modalities of economic development: (1) process insertion – electoral, globalization, modernization, development, etc. – by the state; (2) project implementation by NGOs, in partnership with central governments and international development and financial institutions; and (3) anti-systemic struggle by social movements.’ These chapters also review the dynamics of thought and practice associated with each of these alternative approaches and expose the hidden agenda behind the community-based and local forms of ‘participatory development’ that constitute the ‘new paradigm’ of development.

In this context, chapter 8 (NGOs in the Service of Imperialism) provides an incisive, important and interesting critique of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) which are widely viewed today by the social (versus political) Left, as well as governments and proponents of ‘another development’, as the most appropriate and effective agency of economic change. As the authors argue, the agency of the NGOs reflects the World Bank’s ‘cooperation for development’ and partnership strategy, exposing thereby the local face of imperialism.

The brief conclusion of this chapter, ‘Towards a Theory of NGOs’ is particularly important in unmasking globalization: ‘In structural terms the proliferation of NGOs reflects the emergence of a new petit bourgeois as distinct from the ‘old’ shopkeepers, free professionals and the "new" public employee groups… Politically the NGOs fit into the new thinking of imperialist strategists. While the IMF, World Bank and TNCs work with domestic elites at the top to pillage the economy, the NGOs engage in a complementary activity at the bottom, neutralizing and fragmenting the burgeoning discontent that results from the savaging of the economy… The NGOs have co-opted most of those who used to be the "free-floating" intellectuals who would abandon their class origins and join popular movements… The fundamental question is whether a new generation of organic intellectuals can emerge from these radical social movements, avoid the NGO temptation and become integral members of the next revolutionary wave.’

Chapters 9 and 10 (The US Empire and Narco-Capitalism, and The Practice of US Hegemony: Right-Wing Strategy) examine some of the complex political dynamics involved in the implementation of the globalization project. Once again, Latin America provides the context, illuminating a process that takes different forms in different parts of the world.

The concluding chapter (Socialism in an Age of Imperialism) provides a socialist perspective on the globalization project and the imperialist designs of capitalists in the U.S. and Europe. At issue here is the neo-liberal model of capitalist development and, across the threshold of a new millennium, the need to reconstruct a socialist alternative. The chapter also reviews possible conditions required for a socialist project in an age of imperialism.

The book is rich in scope and sweep and is perhaps one of a kind. The logically and thematically linked chapter titles and sub-titles themselves provide an overview of the book. Seen against the transmogrification of material and human resources development into a Frankenstein – which one can only hope will, true to the mythology, destroy its creator – this book, a powerful blast from the Left, merits great attention from all those who wish to see development with a human face. It is an active search for an alternative – a renewed, democratic, and revolutionary socialist vision that is capable of uniting people, and of being recognized by political movements that are committed to finding realistic strategies and achievable goals.

The authors, sociologists for a change, are last year’s winners (for this book) of the R.S. Kenny Prize for Marxist and Labour/Left Studies. Their book, as Noam Chomsky rightly observed, is a contribution of unusual value for those who hope not only to understand the world, but also to change it, drastically, for the better.


The reviewer, P. Radhakrishnan, is Professor of Sociology at the Madras Institute of Development Studies Chennai in India. He recently published an article on globalisation and religion in Economics and Politics Weekly. It can be read here