Interview with Professor John Bellamy Foster on October 20th at Marx2013 in Stockholm
John Bellamy Foster is a professor of sociology at the University of Oregon, US and also the editor of Monthly Review. His writings focus on the political economy of capitalism, the economic crisis, the ecological crisis, and Marxist theories. He has published over one hundred articles, written and edited over a dozen books, given over one hundred conference papers and invited to speak at lectures all around the world. He has received numerous awards and honors. His work has been published in at least twenty-five languages.
On October 20th, Professor Foster made a keynote speech, Marx and the Rift in the "Universal Metabolism of Nature": Capitalism and the Development of Ecological Crisis, for an international conference, Marx2013, in Stockholm, Sweden. This conference was organised by several leading Marxist and radical theoretical study groups, associations and periodicals in Sweden.
It is our great honor to have this opportunity to briefly interview Professor John B. Foster after the conference. During the interview, Professor Foster made a deep analysis of the current economic crisis, ecological crisis, imperialism, financialisation and globalisation, particular regarding China and the US. We believe that this interview will be very helpful for leftist and radical Chinese youths to understand the crisis, the system, the world and the problems we are facing.
The following texts were edited according to the live interview recording.
Q1: In your recent paper, The Epochal Crisis, while you compared the average annual per capita GDP between the developing countries and G7 (the US, Japan, German, France, the UK, Italy and Canada), you excluded China from the developing countries. Why did you make this decision?
I think it had to do with the UNCTAD data set we were using, which is not an uncommon practice. China was treated as an extreme outlier and was excluded from the data or set aside in some way. China is a special case. And economically it is quite different compared with India and the other developing countries. China has kept a very high, sometimes two-digit, annual economic growth rate going for the last three decades and its economic model and circumstances are very different from that most other countries. Also the Chinese economy had gone through a vast change in its economic model over the period being looked at so that the data was not strictly comparable between one period and another where it was concerned. I don’t think the inclusion of China would have altered the results much but it would have skewed them.
Q2: Some intellectuals, as well as governments in China and other developing countries, have argued or at least implied that the current model of economic development and neo-liberal policies are necessary for the developing countries to pull hundreds of millions of people out from poverty. For example, in China today there are still approximately 150 million people with a living standard below USD1.25 per day and around 500 million people living on less than USD2 per day, and so we need to put economic development first, and the ecological and environment issues are only side issues.
Sure, we have to support economic development in the poor countries, but it does not have to be the same as the economic development we’ve had within the last few decades. Poor people need to change their life, but the questions are always what kind of development is required and who benefits from the development.
The current development is very inefficient in terms of meeting peoples’ needs and ecologically destructive. We need a form of sustainable development to emerge in poor countries.
Actually, while the rich countries are still the main causes behind climate change and global ecological devastation in general, not to mention the global economic problems, those people in developing countries are really the ones who are most affected. Look at Haiti for example, how can they benefit from the current path of economic development?
Simple income figures cannot explain the reality of life for most people in the global South. The global poverty line is those below $2 a day (U.S). But this is not a very good measure. Peasants who have land may live with monetary incomes well below this but nevertheless be better off than the urban poor living on $2 a day. The access of means of production like land is very important. Actually the so-called poverty line, USD2 per day, is set up by the World Bank to justify and advocate their policies of depeasantization throughout the world.
The drive for profits causes massive economic waste and distortion of the exporting economy, and it is necessary to think about how to respond to the needs of the society and the environment. For example, regarding the land reform at the end of 1970s and early 1980s in China, I will say that this kind of policy changes was in many ways destructive. Today in China production is heavily dependent on 150 million people in the floating population (migrant workers) who work in extremely exploitative conditions.
The current economic development model in China creates an extraordinary wealth gap between the rich and the poor, and also massive environmental destruction. It leads to a distorted society, unrelated development and dramatic inequality for Chinese people. I will say that current economic policies and the development model in China are not sustainable.
Q3: On the 20th of September, the Financial Times published an article on perspectives of China with the headline ‘How long can the Communist party survive in China?’ Just a few days after that, the website of redchinacn.net, a prominent Marxist-Leninist-Maoist Chinese website published an editorial, How long can capitalism with Chinese characteristics survive?” The two articles both predicted a coming social and ecological crisis in China within the next few years from different angles. What do you think about the future of China?
This is also a big question. It is not easy to simply predict outcomes in China of course. China is still huge economy, and the government has control of some key industries and economic policies, including power over the banking industry. Compared with the United States, the Chinese government has a much more stronger direct influence on the economy and its development, and could characterized as semi-planned.
The big question is how long they could keep the Chinese economy going at this heated pace. The high growth rates can’t continue with out encouraging massive economic instability and environmental destruction.
One cannot exclude the possibility that, in an uncertain future, there will be a mass social upheaval in China.
Q4: In 1894, F. Engels wrote an letter to Friedrich A Sorge and stated, “...As soon as Chinese competition sets in on a mass scale, it will rapidly bring things to a head in your country and over here, and thus the conquest of China by capitalism will at the same time furnish the impulse for the overthrow of capitalism in Europe and America...” So, is the current capitalist development in China directly linked with the recent financial crisis? And does the rise of emerging economies, such as China and India, in the long run imply a global shift in the international strategic pattern?
Actually Marx also made similar expressions. No, the current financial crisis is not directly linked with the capitalist development in China, at least it is not a cause. Global economic shift and global labour arbitrage is a long-standing phenomenon. In the world capitalist market, industries always relocate to low wage countries and enhance related exports there.
In term of a shift of production, the effects are not entirely clear and quite complex. Because we are talking about global mass production, it does not necessarily matter where the production really takes place. What matters is how it organises more and more on the global basis, who gets the profits and who gets value added from the process.
Thus, for example currently iPhones are being produced in China. The whole process of production mainly occurs in China, but the western capitalists get high value added, while China only gets 3% of the whole revenue.
We are talking about countries, but if we look at the 500 largest global corporations excluding the state-owned enterprises, the 500 largest corporations account for 30-40% of global revenue. They are incredibly powerful and control most of the strategic technologies. And almost all of them are still based in the rich countries.
The Chinese economy has surpassed that of Japan and Germany, but in terms of the control of technologies and the benefits of production these are still being monopolized by the global north. Some countries, like China and India, grow rapidly, but the shift of production locations has not resulted in a similar kind of shift in the global power balance.
Q5: The former chief economist of the World Bank, Professor Justin Yifu Lin, puts the blame for the financial crisis on the US in his latest book, Against the Consensus: Reflections on the Great Recession, and several related speeches. He believes that the problem is the lack of regulation of financial markets in the US, and the global role of the US dollar makes the crisis global. Since the US has to borrow money to finance the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, this has also worsened the problem. Do you think that the US war policy is linked with the financial crisis?
It is part of what makes the system work. In this sense he is right, but he only looks at one aspect of the problem.
The US dollar is still the hegemonic currency. And the US is still able to centrally print money in order to maintain its imperialist policies and military presence abroad. All are derived from its global role and part of its hegemonic function. That has effects on the US debt and the finance of the entire world.
China has been expanding on the basis of the export to the US and the rest of the global north. Without that demand created by those means
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