A book review of
Nemo Publishing, Copenhagen 2016
by Stein Lillevolden (social worker)
First posted at: https://radikalportal.no/2016/05/27/det-ulike-bytte/
Also published in the Danish newsletter Demos
In the late 1970s, I studied political science at Oslo University, by all evidence pretty half-heartedly. With half a heart — mostly because it was a deeply reactionary subject with a unilateral Western perspective on the world, though fortunately the activist students at that time were still able to squeeze into the syllabus theories about unequal exchange between the center and periphery of the imperialist system.
Theorists like Arghiri Emmanuel, Samir Amin, and Andre Gunder Frank saved my graduation (and continued student loans). They also gave compelling and inspirational insights into how poor developing countries were exploited in the world economy through unequal exchange, and provided a surprisingly revolutionary perspective on how such countries could liberate themselves from Western economic domination; this in a course where Henry Kissinger was seen as a credible statesman rather than a war criminal.
Activist Political Scientist
When I googled “unequal exchange” to see if it still has a place in the Norwegian Institute for Political Sciences curriculum, the first link was on the importance of changing hair shampoo based on different kinds of activity (jogging, partying, work, etc.), which might say something about Norway’s position in anti-imperialist discourse, given that the corresponding searches in Danish and English gave far more relevant results. Fortunately, there are still some activist and leftist political scientists outside of Norway. One of the most important is Torkil Lauesen, in Denmark, and his new book Det Globale Perspektiv, besides being a compelling survey of imperialist history, also provided a lovely reunion with my theoretical rescuers from poli-sci.
In this new book, Torkil Lauesen explains how global neoliberalism, with increased movement of goods, capital, and labor, simultaneously enhances a global racial hierarchy — a global system of apartheid. At the same time, the current economic and political crisis in this structure opens up opportunities for the progressive forces around the world to organize basic systemic changes through global analysis and cooperation, making resistance against imperialism as international as capitalism.
Struggle against Capitalism
Torkil Lauesen has spent more than 40 years politically active in very different forms of struggle against capitalism, and he does not hide the different strengths and weaknesses of these different forms of struggle.
Lauesen has a somewhat unconventional educational background. He completed his degree in political science while serving a 10-year sentence in a high security prison in the outskirts of Copenhagen. The sentence was handed down for participation in the so-called Blekingegade Group’s robberies to obtain money for liberation movements such as the PFLP in Palestine. After journalist Peter Øvig Knudsen’s highly dramatized and tendentious books on the “Blekingegade Gang” and the subsequent films and television productions, it comes as a relief to read Lauesen’s sober description of the theoretical background, political development, and illegal practice of the Blekingegade Group, all without any hint of glorifying their actions.
When Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri wrote Empire, another of today’s major books on imperialism, there were strenuous attempts to marginalize Negri because of his 30-year prison sentence, “reduced” to 13 years, for “promoting terrorism and insurrection against the state”. There have been similar attempts to marginalize Torkil Lauesen, following his release, in particular by the venerable and respectable section of the left. So his book will not be part of the curriculum at the Institute of Political Science, but that will not prevent it from becoming part of activists’ revolutionary curriculum.
Lauesen tells about his background in assorted “alphabet-organizations” like KAK and M-KA; the latter, the Manifest Communist Working Group, would later become famous as the “Blekingegade Gang”. The group´s worldview was inspired by Lenin´s so-called parasite-state theory, where the material wealth in our part of the world is built on imperialist exploitation of the Third World. From this theory, they drew the conclusion that the Western working class is a labor aristocracy without revolutionary potential. This was also rooted in Lenin’s theory of imperialism, where a portion of the superprofits Western capitalists acquire through exploiting the rest of the world are used to buy off and pacify the Western working class, making it into to an aristocracy of consumers who have no interest in ending the imperialist exploitation of the Third World.
Following this logic, the group concluded that their revolutionary practice had to be to support the liberation movements in the Third World, instead of the traditional left-wing practice in trade unions and left-wing parties in the North. To put it mildly, this is not my favorite theory, as it is demobilizing and strongly discourages any attempt to counter power and resist the conditions of life in our part of the world. That said, it’s much more interesting with the theories of imperialism that Lauesen derives from here on in, and there’s no reason for me to get into a big fight over the “correct line”, when his analysis of imperialism is so good. The book contains a few such attempts at “line battles” against long-extinct dinosaurs, but fortunately, the main analysis of the current situation is far more convincing than the theoretical and practical issues of the 1970s.
Easy to Read
The biggest strength of Torkil Lauesen’s new book is that he succeeds in writing about theory and imperialist history in a language that doesn’t require readers to have earned a black belt in Marxist theory. I can assure everyone with traumatic experiences from trying to follow the debates between Maoists, anti-imperialists, and Kapital interpreters during the 1970s — or, for that matter, from the 1980s and ‘90s autonomist mumbo-jumbo I myself partook in — that Lauesen’s book reads really well and is practically free of any dogmatic rhetoric. Considering the author’s political background, this is a feat unto itself.
It was also a minor stroke of genius that Lauesen left the discussion of Marx’s theory of value to a separate appendix in the back of the book. A “major nightmare” for everyone who ever participated in a study circle, which caused people to run away screaming after an endless review of the Marxist theory of value, before they ever got to the interesting philosophical, historical, economic, and political analyses, was redeemed here by the author in a sensible, elegant, and educational way. In addition, even his appendix on the theory of value is good and easy to comprehend, and is completely free of dogmatism tainting the historical and political analysis.
The core of Lauesen’s political and economic analysis consists of his rethinking of the theory of the unequal exchange, though still with clear references to the dependency theories of Arghiri Emmanuel and Samir Amin.
It is also a strength of the book that it combines theory with the art of putting concrete numbers on the size of unequal exchange and the global apartheid system in which international capitalism is organized. The annoyingly slow Dell notebook computer I write reports on when at work, is assembled by East Asian or South Asian workers who might earn only a few per cent of what I earn when I use it, and this is not just because I’m highly paid by Danish standards. The production of computers is globalized in transnational production chains, where each sub-process is located where production costs, infrastructure, taxes, wages, etc. are best for capital.
Moreover, the iPad I am so happy with and with which I am presently sitting in the sun and writing this article on, was produced under equally outrageous conditions. According to Lauesen, Apple management refers to the Foxconn factories in China, which produce their iPads, as “Mordor” – the name of the hell where the prince of darkness rules in Lord of the Rings. This insight does not stop Apple from taking out at least 45 percent of the sale price of an iPad in pure profit, while the wages of the person who assembles it can be measured in thousandths of the sale price.
Apple does not own a single factory, but gets everything produced by subcontractors in the South who brutally exploit labor. The same goes for many brand products that are part of our everyday lives, whether we’re talking about clothing, shoes, automobiles, furniture or electronics. The subcomponents in my beloved iPad are manufactured by companies such as Toshiba and Samsung. All the subcomponents are then transported to Shenzhen in China, where the company Foxconn has its huge assembly plants. Here iPhones, iPads, MacBooks, and other brand PCs are assembled by 400,000 Chinese workers who produce 12 hours each day, 6 days a week, sleeping and eating in the factory dormitory and receiving a salary which in 2009 was the legal minimum in Shenzhen, namely 83 cents an hour.
A Totally Changed World
We are part of an increasingly unequal world, where the working class in the South is exploited in ways that have not been since the early industrialization of Europe. Technological advances in the productive forces have led to an industrialization of the former periphery, which the dependency theorists never thought possible, as they believed the South would remain suppliers of raw materials. However, today 80 percent of the world’s industrial workers are located in the South, while the North has de-industrialized.
This has meant a totally changed world, with China being the most obvious example. Yet my daily wages are still equivalent to at least a week’s salary in China, so I can buy cheap goods from the South, which in turn allows me a far greater material consumption than what would be possible if everything was produced on a Danish wage level. This is a recipe for ecological disaster, in addition to the sweatshops, child labor, and appalling working conditions with which the international working class is exploited to the utmost. The consumer aristocracy in the North takes daily “advantage” of this disastrous course, when we with our salaries can buy cheap products created through the exploitation of humans and corresponding exploitation of nature via the consumption of undervalued raw materials.
In the theory of imperialism of the 1970s, political economists explained how the development of the periphery in the South depended on capitalism in the center. Today we in the “center” are dependent on the production of the “periphery”. Lauesen argues that today, the “producer economies” and “consumer economies” are closely connected through global production chains, and that unequal exchange within this system has altered relations in the global system from the 1970s model of center and periphery. Lauesen predicts this economic development will create revolutionary situations in the South, which it is our responsibility to ally with and support.
The Global Resistance
At a time when there is a tabloid consensus that it is no use trying get people to read more than tweets of at most 140 characters at a time, or else just enjoy the selfies on Facebook, it is obviously risky to recommend a 380-page Danish volume on imperialism. However, the fact is that people are reading theoretical and analytical political works to a surprising extent, and that it is more the subsequent organizational effort that is lagging behind.
For example, Negri and Hardt’s Empire and Pikettys Capital are sold in huge numbers, and they are read. Therefore, my recommendation of Lauesen’s book has to do with continuing these earlier debates. His book has caused me to jump up from my chair, to yell and scream in rage about globalized capitalism, and has set the rusty gears in my brain and my dormant anarchic attitudes in motion.
In many ways, Lauesen is starting where Piketty leaves off, and although Piketty is empirically impressive, unlike Lauesen he provides no figures about globalized capitalism. Whereas Negri and Hardt’s analysis leads us to a universal Imperium with neither center nor periphery, it is Lauesen’s great strength that he ends his book by sketching a theory of action for the coming revolutionary struggle. He draws on the lessons learned from the Zapatistas and other revolutions of the 20th century where people tried to build transnational alliances with like-minded movements.
Lauesen emphasizes that the struggle against globalized capitalism also provides opportunities to undo the distinction between “us” and “them” that characterizes the politics of nation-states and the West, whether in relation to refugees, racism or economic exploitation, and from there move in the direction of global awareness, concrete solidarity, and common struggle. Confronting worldwide unequal exchange will have consequences for our way of life, but is indispensable if we do not want predatory capitalism to wipe out all human existence. Torkil Lauesen´s book Det Globale Perspektiv is a good place to start studying in the increasingly necessary revolutionary curriculum.
In the 1970s and 80s, Torkil Lauesen was a member of a clandestine communist cell which carried out a series of robberies in Denmark, netting very large sums which were then sent on to various national liberation movements in the Third World. Following their capture in 1989, Torkil would spend six years in prison. In 2016, Torkil’s book Det Globale Perspektiv was released in Denmark. In it, he explains how he sees the world political situation today, and his thoughts about the future. This story of Torkil and his comrades’ activities that led to their arrest is recounted in fascinating detail in the book Turning Money into Rebellion: The Unlikely Story of Denmark’s Revolutionary Bank Robbers (edited and translated by Gabriel Kuhn, published by Kersplebedeb & PM Press in 2014) currently on sale at leftwingbooks.net. There is currently an Indiegogo fundraiser to be able to have Det Globale Perspectiv translated into English and published by Kersplebedeb in 2018. Please consider donating here.