Revolutionary Reads Review: ‘The Wealth of Some Nations’ by Zak Cope


Zak Cope’s latest book, “The Wealth of Some Nations: Imperialism and the Mechanics of Value Transfer,” can be viewed as a continuation of his far-reaching work on imperialism and global political economy.

What stands out from his latest publication is a clear examination of the particular forms that imperialism is taking in the present, drawing on tangible examples that take his theory from the abstract to the concrete. Cope proposes a different understanding of imperialism as a “permanent stage of capitalism,” rather than the definition Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin provided in 1917, when he said imperialism is the “highest stage of capitalism.”

If you’re put off by the phrase “mechanics of value transfer,” don’t fret. The author sketches out a succinct explanation of the phrase in the opening part of his book. We learn that colonial tribute, monopoly rent and unequal exchange are the three vessels that shape “the global class structure.” This is as vital to modern global capitalism as the Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria ships were to Christopher Columbus. The inclusion of dependency theory in this new publication is important, especially for those of us influenced by Latin American leftism.

A political cartoon depicting Uncle Sam imposing the Monroe Doctrine. | Source: Library of Congress

It demonstrates the power that the theory had in terms of bringing about tangible economic changes in the 1960s and 70s, as well as its limitations. As Cope himself says, “The Wealth of Some Nations” builds on the “key insight of dependency theory, emphasizing the fact that imperialism is the indispensable condition for the reproduction of imperialist societies as a whole, and not simply the financial wherewithal of particular groups of capitalists therein.”

While many see imperialism merely as a powerful state trying to enforce its will on weaker ones through aggressive acts like sanctions, blockades and war, Cope demonstrates how imperialism is in fact a more intricate financial process involving corporate state actors and the general population of imperialist countries. The imperialist states “import more value than they create nationally” through the exploitation of developing states that are forced to export their value, labor and resources. This process involves numerous schemes that are often hidden or overlooked.

Since the development of colonial value transfer between exploiter and exploited states, the empires of Europe succeeded in acquiring wealth, commodities and overall better material conditions for their populations. Cope points to the writings of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Lenin and Ho Chi Minh, who all point out the growing material benefits the workers of imperialist states acquired as their empires expanded. To this day, the parasitic relationship between the First World and the Third World enables all of the workers of the imperialist core to be bought off by the bourgeoisie.

“The Wealth of Some Nations” is filled with modern calculations of colonial imperialist profit, such as the mind-boggling fact that if the 100 million kilograms of silver taken from the Americas by the Spaniards “had been invested in 1800 at a five percent rate of interest, it would be valued at around $165 trillion today, more than double the world’s GDP in 2015.” Or the fact that the “uncompensated labor” of enslaved Africans in the “North American colony of Jamestown, Virginia, to aid in the production of lucrative crops such as tobacco … would be worth $97 trillion today.” Not only does “The Wealth of Some Nations” give us comparative insight into the wealth that has been stolen from the Global South throughout history. It also gives us concrete proof of the continuation of these practices in the present, and, crucially, the complicity of “socialist” movements in the Global North.

Cope explains in great detail how contemporary capitalism-imperialism is fueled by the historic economic devastation the Global South suffered at the hands of the Western empires and by the economic restrictions and sanctions placed on its regions in order to create an efficient market for imperialist corporations. Monopolies, according to the author, play a particularly key role in imperialism as they take capital from the Global North, invest it in the Global South and then send the profits back to imperialist states. These monopolies outsource manufacturing and production to the Third World in order to exploit cheap labor and a lack of business regulations in these states. They ensure that surplus value is transferred to the core at the expense of the periphery countries in which they operate.

Cope provides a clear example of the power of monopolies in the agricultural sector, where a few monopolies own large percentages of the market. He notes, for instance, that the top 10 seeds corporations own 75 percent of the market, while the top 10 fertilizer corporations own 55 percent of their market. In the context of Latin America, we see how devastating these monopolies are to economies. For many states, like Guatemala, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Honduras, a large portion of their economies are based on agricultural exports to the United States.

Banana workers in Haiti. | Source: Haiti Government Economy

The few corporate monopolies which own the necessary materials for agricultural production means that Latin American countries, largely dependent on agricultural economies, have no choice but to do business with them. The prices are dictated by these monopolies, which end up being extravagantly high relative to the cost of the agricultural goods produced by the people of the nations. This process not only weakens their economies, but also affects the lives of the campesinos who have to pay for these overpriced seeds and fertilizer. This further impoverishes them for the benefit of a few corporations and the imperialist states where the monopolies are based.

A topic that is strikingly absent from Cope’s analysis, however, is Latin America’s ongoing socialist project, which began during the turn of the century. Granted, the book does not go into any great detail about any particular region in terms of their revolutionary movement against imperialism and it is not the book’s objective either. However, it would be interesting to see Cope explore these movements, their effects on global capitalism and the strengths/weaknesses of the alternative economic models that they propose.

In conclusion, “The Wealth of Some Nations” is an excellent extension of the original thesis proposed by Cope in “Divided World Divided Class” and a paramount contribution to anti-imperialist theory in the 21st Century.

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