The Ottawa Connection

Symposium on Blood of Extraction: Canadian Imperialism in Latin America: Page 6

Blood of Extraction: Canadian Imperialism in Latin America. Fernwood Press, 2016.

Hegemony, Primitive Accumulation, and Anti-Imperialism from Below: A Response

Sincere thanks to all the contributors to this symposium, and to Tanya Andrusieczko for hosting this exchange in Briarpatch. It is a rare and gratifying privilege to have such serious interlocutors read and comment on our work. Each of these careful and judicious interventions has prompted us to think more deeply and further refine the arguments we make in Blood of Extraction.

U.S. and Chinese power in Latin America

Of the many important questions Jerome Klassen raises in his commentary, we are going to address two.

First, on the matter of the strength of U.S. hegemony in the region and how Canada fits into this broader picture: U.S. influence in the region needs to be understood in relation to other imperialist powers, such as China, and to Latin American countries themselves.

Without question, China’s influence in the world has grown over the last three decades, as Chinese capital (whether private or state-owned) has expanded beyond Chinese borders in search of raw materials to feed its rapidly growing industrial base and in search of markets for its manufactured goods. In one reflection of this phenomenon, Chinese foreign direct investment (FDI) has increased in Latin America, particularly in the extractive sectors. But as the latest report on FDI from the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean notes, in 2015, the U.S. accounted for over 25 per cent of FDI flows into the region. No country from outside the region has the scale of foreign investment stock in Latin America that the U.S. does.

China’s importance to the region as an importer of raw materials grew dramatically during the commodities boom of 2003–2011. This demand in fact played an important role in what some critics have described as the reproduction of a problematic Latin American development path based heavily on the export of primary products to foreign markets, and on foreign investment to manufacture those products in the first place. The danger of this path – of relying on a traditionally volatile global market in raw materials exports – has became painfully obvious since China curbed its demand sharply beginning in 2012. China’s trade influence has thus waned, while, at the same time, many Latin America countries, unable to extricate themselves from dependence on raw materials exports, are now faced with slumping economies, low profitability, and heavy foreign debt liabilities. This is particularly true of Venezuela and Ecuador.

So, we should be careful not to overstate China’s role in Latin America. Its economic influence is still relatively small compared to that of the U.S., and it has nowhere near the diplomatic or security weight that the U.S. does.

In terms of U.S. influence vis-à-vis Latin America, it has declined to some degree over the last two decades, but it is wrong to characterize the region as post-hegemonic. The pink- and red-tide governments managed through the 2000s to establish greater political distance from the U.S. than in the past, creating Latin American financial and political institutions that exclude the U.S. and Canada, such as the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), and the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA). Venezuelan and Bolivian governments, in particular, gained sympathy from many Latin Americans for their denunciations of U.S. imperialism.

Yet Mexico, the Central American isthmus, Colombia, and Peru never withdrew from the orbit of direct U.S. political or economic influence. These ties have remained relatively strong. But even with the pink-tide governments, serious cracks in their efforts at greater independence have appeared in recent years. Brazil, the largest driver of economic autonomy from the U.S. and the largest economy in the region, is mired in a deep economic crisis; moreover, the removal of Dilma Rousseff in a “white” coup this year, and her replacement with U.S. ally Michel Temer, has reinforced American power vis-à-vis Brazil. The rise of Mauricio Macri in Argentina added to the list of U.S. allies in the region, and the ongoing economic and political crisis of the Bolivarian project in Venezuela also forces us to cast a critical eye on claims of post-hegemony.

Canada’s objective independent interests

With respect to how Canada fits into the “changing structure of power,” again we want to be cautious not to conflate the decline in American power with the end of U.S. imperialism. Insofar as the U.S. remains a – or the – dominant imperial power in the world, and a longstanding ally and major trading partner of Canada, American power is important to Canadian interests. However, Canadian foreign policy isn’t reducible to what the U.S. does or wants, though their aims often coincide.

Canadian capital has its own objective interests. Canadian foreign policy is designed to promote and defend those interests, and it is especially active and independent in one-to-one relations with countries in which Canadian investment interests are strong. At the same time, viewed from the perspective of Canadian state managers, it also makes sense for Canada to align itself with U.S. hegemony given the latter’s role in Latin America (and globally). Such cooperation serves Canada’s self-interest. But when it comes to dealing with things like natural resources sector reform, such as a mining law, or supporting a particular investment project, Canada does so on its own initiative, whether or not its interests coincide with those of the U.S.

Militarism is one area where Canada is more explicitly aligned with and dependent upon U.S. leadership. Given the global scope of the U.S. military and, in relation to Latin America, its deep connection with militaries throughout the region, Canada benefits from close cooperation. Canada’s independent initiatives in the realm of militarism are small – though not insignificant – as we can see in the ties Canada has built with the Colombian military or funding security apparatuses in Guatemala and Honduras.

Decline of the North-South divide?

Second, Klassen encourages us to engage with the recent work of Laura MacDonald, particularly her suggestions that there is no longer a North-South divide in the world economy and that mining companies cannot be so easily identified with a nation, including in the case of Canada. As our response to the issue of U.S. influence in Latin America suggests, the claim that there is no longer a meaningful North-South divide in the world economy is wrong. Systematically, investment capital that moves between these regions moves from North to South, while profits move in the reverse direction. There are exceptions, but the broad trend remains. Nor is political intervention by countries of the South into the North remotely comparable to that of the North into the South. Even the largest Latin America economy, Brazil, cannot shape political outcomes or exert military influence in the U.S. or Canada in the way the latter countries, especially the U.S., do in Latin America, or in Brazil itself. Moreover, as we note in Blood of Extraction, there have been two violent coups in the western hemisphere since 2004: Haiti and Honduras. Canada played an active role in both of these. The North-South divide, while not exactly as it was 30 years ago, remains relevant.

With regard to the complexity of identifying the nationality of capitalist firms, while foreign mining capitalists set up company headquarters and place themselves on the Toronto Stock Exchange because of Canada’s permissive regulatory and tax systems for the extractives sector, the reason the systems have developed as they have is precisely because Canada has a strong mining sector with extensive international interests. Most mining capital that flows from Canada to foreign destinations, whether exploratory or for large projects, is still Canadian. We are careful to point out that by “Canadian” capital we mean capital that has a clear and identifiable Canadian owner, whether as an owner of a private company or as a majority or minority (with controlling influence) shareholder of a publicly traded company. In this strict sense, as Bill Burgess and Paul Kellogg have also pointed out, the notion of “Canadian capital” remains centrally relevant to any serious understanding of Canada’s national political economy as well as the international projection of Canadian capital. Some Canadian extractive companies establish foreign subsidiaries, it is true, but the subsidiary is still ultimately controlled by the Canadian parent. Subsidiaries are a business strategy for foreign operations, and a means to create legal distance from criminal practices abroad. In the garment sector, Canadian companies often subcontract to local capitalists, but the main investment capital (and thus the profit) is Canadian.

Primitive accumulation and “normal” capitalism

Kyla Sankey makes two central criticisms in her incisive and penetrating commentary on our book. The first turns on a claim that we fail to make a “clear differentiation between accumulation by dispossession and ‘normal’ processes of capitalist development.” In fact, we are careful to note in our introductory chapter that Harvey’s concept of “accumulation by dispossession” (his reworking of Marx’s “primitive accumulation”) is “perhaps rather too all-encompassing.” Still, we agree in hindsight that we could have been more precise throughout the book in delineating where this process begins and ends, and in identifying where exactly Harvey stretches the concept beyond reasonable bounds.

We would certainly not wish to suggest that “the relocation of production in the maquiladora” sector amounts on its own to accumulation by dispossession, as Sankey believes we argue. The theoretical ambiguity in our opening definition may have encouraged such a misreading. Where accumulation by dispossession was necessary vis-à-vis the growth of the maquiladora sector in Central America was specifically in the relatively recent wave of intensified de-peasantization and proletarianization (particularly of women), such that a reserve army of labour was made available for factory exploitation. Such a labour force is never naturally occurring – a given, static input for capital – but must be made and remade through various iterations across distinct moments of capitalist development. So, we thank Sankey for her observation and agree that our book would have benefited from more precision on this score.

However, when Sankey goes on to argue that in contexts where “capitalist social relations are already in place,” the “usefulness of the notion of accumulation by dispossession is unclear,” we encounter an area of actual disagreement. From our perspective, the error here is in thinking of primitive accumulation as merely a one-off precondition for the introduction of capitalist social relations, after which “normal” accumulation assumes the mantle. We would insist, rather, that primitive accumulation remains a continuous feature of “mature” capitalist development due to the ongoing conflictive character of capitalist social relations. Once made, the job isn’t over. Primitive accumulation doesn’t recede to the past. It plays an integral role in the ongoing reproduction of capitalist social relations.

Latin American transformations

The second criticism of Sankey’s rests on the claim that our book “fails to deeply or systematically examine the internal transformations taking place in these countries, both in terms of the realignments in the state apparatus and shifts in class relations.” In particular, Sankey calls for greater attention to the role of a capitalist class in Latin American countries, which is “increasingly linked to transnational capital,” on one hand, and “the power struggles of progressive or radical governments who have supported the ‘commodities consensus’ to a certain degree, but also engaged in struggle over the distribution of rent,” on the other.

Sankey’s argument in this area parallels the one objection made by Simon Granovsky-Larsen in his perceptive commentary. He also thinks Blood of Extraction lacks “information on the role of local elites,” and “leaves readers with an impression of Canadian-led imperialism rather than mutually beneficial alliances.”

It would have taken us well outside the subject matter of our book – indeed, it could easily have required an additional book altogether – to deal seriously with the complex transformations of class structures and state forms in Latin American countries in recent decades. Nonetheless, we agree that we that we did not take sufficiently into account the role of mutual (although asymmetrical) benefits, cooperation, and alliances between specific sections of Latin American capitalist classes and Canadian imperialism. Our argument would have been strengthened if we had spent more time unpacking “the ties between Canadians and Central American [and South American] economic, political, and military elites,” as Granovsky-Larsen points out. In future work, we may want to think about this more seriously through the theoretical prism of sub-imperialism, as well as Lenin’s links in the imperialist chain.

On Sankey’s point about the distinctiveness of “progressive or radical governments,” we actually pay significant attention to their contradictory relationship to Canadian imperialism, and their inconsistent relationship to rent distribution, especially in the extensive chapters on Venezuela and Ecuador. One of the novelties of our book was to treat Latin American history as deeply complex – never reducible to being a product of imperialism – and to depict Latin Americans themselves as much more than merely passive victims. This was our intent, at least, with the focus on social movement struggle that runs through our text.

Grassroots anti-imperialism

We also wanted to think more thoroughly through the question of anti-imperialism, which too often tends to be reduced to the activity of leftist governments. While these governments have sometimes come into conflict with Canadian imperialism, at other times they have worked together with Canadian capital and repressed dissident, radical sectors of their own populations.

For us, the real front lines of anti-imperialism in contemporary Latin America are grassroots socio-ecological movements, often Indigenous and peasant-based. These movements sometimes find themselves in the uncomfortable and paradoxical circumstance of facing repression from their own “anti-imperialist” governments for confronting multinational mining capital directly.

Let’s end on the same note as Nicole Fabricant’s intervention, on the question of North-South solidarity. What forms might this assume? For us this means, first and foremost, building an uncompromising anti-imperialist, eco-socialist struggle within the Canadian state. Initial signals of what this should look like can be seen in the militant direct actions of the Idle No More movement, the struggle against the tar sands, and the anti-mining coalitions springing up around the country. Just across Canada’s southern border, the recent heroism of the Standing Rock Sioux and the broader movement of solidarity against the Dakota Access pipeline also point us in the right direction. Our anti-imperialism, following José Carlos Mariátegui, must also be thoroughly and uncompromisingly anti-capitalist. We need to be sufficiently subtle in our analyses to be able, when necessary, to criticize Latin American leftist governments that unfold the banner of anti-imperialism as a cover for extractive capitalism, in alliance with multinational capital. As we write these words, this has come to mean lending our solidarity with the Shuar revolt against mining expansion in their Amazonian territories in Ecuador and condemning Rafael Correa’s militarization of the region on behalf of Chinese mining imperialism.


Page 1. Todd Gordon and Jeffery Webber, Introduction
Page 2. Jerome Klassen, Canada and the Changing Structures of Global Power
Page 3. Simon Granovsky-Larsen, Backroom dealings and kick-back schemes
Page 4. Kyla Sankey, Accumulation by Dispossession, Expanded Reproduction, and Class Transformations in Latin America
Page 5. Nicole Fabricant, Linking our consumptive lives to the trails of destruction

Jeffery R. Webber is a senior lecturer in the school of politics and international relations at Queen Mary University of London. He is the author of The Last Day of Oppression, and the First Day of the Same: The Politics and Economics of the New Latin American Left, Red October: Left-Indigenous Struggles in Modern Bolivia, and From Rebellion to Reform: Class Struggle, Indigenous Liberation and the Politics of Evo Morales.

Todd Gordon is a socialist and activist based in Toronto. He is a co-author (with Jeffery Webber) of Blood of Extraction: Canadian Imperialism in Latin America.

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