In a previous post, I argued that outside the three main value complexes of the global economy – Europe, North America, and East Asia – other parts of the world were essentially irrelevant to the immediate prospects for the expansion (or contraction) of global capital, except for what might happen in the commodities markets. The argument was both empirical – these two-thirds of the global population produce only one-fourth of global output – and conceptual: because the economic activity in these regions is small-scale, fragmented, and technologically backward, they are poor platforms for the accumulation of capital.
This was something of a provocation, because one of the noteworthy features of the neoliberal age has been a fascination among many critical and even many uncritical intellectuals with the peripheries and margins of capitalist society. It has often been taken as a progressive political act simply to pay attention to those parts of the world that are economically, and so politically and culturally, insignificant. Simply recognizing that these societies are insignificant is often considered unacceptable.
But their insignificance does not follow from racist or colonialist prejudice (though the existence of these phenomena is certainly bound up with it). Rather, it is a result of their marginality to the central processes of modern global society, above all the production and circulation of value. The inattention of the global media, the lack of representation in transnational organizations, the absence of global influence for their cultural products: these are all reflections of the real insignificance of peripheral countries as measured by the necessarily hegemonic standards of capitalist society.
Far from endorsing prejudice, this recognition contains a very strong critical potential: how can a form of social life that renders billions of people insignificant be considered even minimally desirable? To deny the insignificance of the periphery, then, is to address the problem only in thought, leaving the real horrors of this condition unchallenged.
Another problem with the affirmation of the periphery is that it fails to grasp how the periphery, though it seems to stand outside of or even against modern global society, is actually constituted within and as an effect of that society. The dependencia and world system theories popular in the 1970s were a crude attempt to grapple with this issue, but with the rise of East Asia as an important value complex over the last thirty years, the problems with these approaches became more and more glaring. While there was some good critical work on these issues related to the so-called antiglobalization movement of the late 1990s, it always remained rooted in an unsophisticated class struggle framework, which could only see the privileged and the exploited. It was never really capable of grasping global society as a totality that generates both sides of that dichotomy.
None of this is to say that analyzing peripheral societies on their own terms is pointless. But to fully understand what’s going on in these countries also requires a wider perspective that can situate them in the global processes of domination that shape life there – processes of domination that are both direct and immediately visible (“imperialism”) and abstract. Even recognizing this abstract dimension is very difficult, and it is generally grasped only through its reified (directly visible) forms such as “cultural imperialism”, nationalism, multinational corporations’ penetration of “domestic” markets, or the opposition between “traditional” and “modern” or “Western”. The deeper social forms that produce these directly visible manifestations – and set them crashing against each other – go unrecognized, leading to all kinds of counterproductive political responses.
If we wanted to end the insignificance of the periphery not simply in thought but in reality, what would we have to do? One route would be to end capitalist modernity, the form of life that itself establishes the criteria of significance. A worthy goal, but not realistic in the near-term.
The other possibility would have these societies follow the path blazed by the handful of successful late developers: constituting the people of the periphery as modern subjects – workers, consumers, citizens – by turning their countries into sites for the accumulation of capital. In its simplest form (though rarely very simple in practice!), this means industrialization.
Global neoliberalism is not capable of achieving such a transformation; it has, instead, forced most of these people to collect the scraps left by the rich world, to bargain over the sale of raw materials with some of the most powerful organizations in the world, or to scratch out a living in semi-subsistence agriculture, petty trade, or crime. The question is, on what terms will these societies be integrated into the world that succeeds neoliberalism? And will this world facilitate or frustrate the production and circulation of value in the periphery? This is a profoundly important question both for the future of capitalism and for the prospects of an alternative to it.