Review (Part 2 of 3): Samir Amin, “The Surplus in Monopoly Capitalism and the Imperialist Rent.” Monthly Review. Vol. 64 No. 3. July-August, 2012.

Over the course of my work, I have inferred that the general rate of exploitation has increased along with the development and maturation of capitalist-imperialism, thus forestalling the tendency of the rate of profit to fall while allowing a minority First World section of the working class to have a ‘cut’ in imperialist superprofits and access to incomes above the abstract value of labor. The July-August 2012 issue of Monthly Review, which features a missing chapter of Monopoly Capital and several complimentary essays, provides an additional dimension of understanding within this line of inquisition. 1

In “The Surplus in Monopoly Capitalism and the Imperialist Rent,” Samir Amin considers this expanded exploitation through two particular categorical differentiations: imperialist rent and Department III. 2

Drawing on Baran’s work and his own, Amin offers a demonstration into the means by which these categories’ magnitudes grow over time. Department III results from the difference incurred as the rate of social productivity increases faster than incomes, leading to a general surplus of the social product which tends to get consumed in a wasteful manner as part of realization or maintenance processes. Imperialist rent is superprofits afforded through monopoly advantage, resulting practically in the economic stagnation and maldevelopment which occurs in vast peripheral and semi-peripheral zones of the capitalist-imperialist system and the “pauperization” of large sections of its population. 3

Amin himself is one of the more lucid writers dealing with political economy in a radical fashion today and has long offered intellectual support to critical inquiry into exploitation under imperialism. He is a pioneer in dealing with unequal exchange and imperialist rent, and he has long-championed the creation of a progressive anti-imperialist Fifth International. 4

Like Baran and Sweezy and a host of other writers, including those associated with Anti-Imperialism.com, Amin has sought to start from and going beyond Marx in addressing fundamental shifts within the capitalist system. Amin states,

“Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy dared, and were able, to continue the work begun by Marx. Starting from the observation that capitalism’s inherent tendency was to allow increases in the value of labor power (wages) only at a rate lower than the rate of increase in the productivity of social labor, they deduced that the disequilibrium resulting from this distortion would lead to stagnation absent systematic organization of ways to absorb the excess profits stemming from this tendency.

“This observation was the starting point for the definition that they gave to the new concept of ‘surplus.’ Baran then extended Marx’s analysis of the dynamic of capital accumulation in volume two of Capital, restricted to the two Departments of Production of means of production and of consumption goods respectively, by introducing a surplus-absorbing Department III.

“I have always considered this bold stroke a crucial contribution to the creative utilization of Marx’s thought.” 5

In regards to Baran and Sweezy’s analysis, Amin goes on to state, “The surplus at issue is the result of growth in the productivity of social labor exceeding the price paid for labor power.”

Rather than showing up directly as profit or surplus value for capitalists, the surplus is tied to the development of a “surplus-absorbing Department III.” And as time goes on, this surplus-absorbing Department III tends to take up a greater proportion of the total economy. 6

Amin goes on to trace the history of the growth of surplus under capitalism,

“Initially, that is, until the 1914 war, surplus amounted in practice merely to tax-financed state expenditures of at most 10-15 percent of GDP. It was a matter of spending to maintain the sovereign (public administration, police, armed forces) expenditure, linked to the public management of some social services (education and public health), and the installation of some infrastructural elements (roads and bridges, ports, railroad lines. […]

“We can thus estimate that without risk of major error that the ‘surplus’ (Department III) accounts for half of GDP or, in other terms, has grown from 10 percent of GDP in the nineteenth century to 50 percent in the first decade of the twenty-first century. So if- in Marx’s day- an analysis of accumulation limited to consideration of Departments I and II made sense, that is no longer the case.” 7

Amin notes that not everything included in Department III should be condemned as parasitic, but rather that under socialism the rational and democratic utilization of such surplus would be of increasing importance. 8

Though Amin doesn’t go into a full-length analysis, he implicates the manner in which the utilization of surplus being transferred from public to private hands creates more opportunities for the realization of value under imperialism, especially at its core or for those who otherwise enjoy some monopoly advantage. He concludes that much of the activity that is part of Department III is in fact parasitic and inflates the GDP while reducing its significance as an indicator of real wealth. 9

Amin counterposes the growth of Department III with the supposed transformation of capitalism into a so-called “knowledge economy.” He rejects the idea that this so-called “knowledge economy” is a progressive leap in capitalism and goes on to state, “in reality, the realization of capital, necessarily based on the oppression of labor, wipes out the progressive aspect of this development.” 10

Delving more deeply into the so-called knowledge economy, a recent essay translated by Matthijs Krul notes,

“Every single good that is used in the so-called ‘knowledge economy’ still has been made somewhere, by means of old-fashioned industrial processes. However, the elephant in the room is that this production has by and large been moved to Third World countries…. [T]he historical shift to a ‘services sector’ is in reality more like a historical shift of production to China, India, the Philippines, Taiwan and so forth. While we pretend here that producing stuff is a funny and outdated concept, eight year old girls manufacture our jeans and cellphones in Manila or Phnom Penh.” 11

Amin critiques the notion that Department III is the kernel of tomorrow’s society and states “socialism is not a more adequate form of capitalism, doing the same things but only better and with a fair distribution income distribution.” Rather, socialism is a “governing paradigm” involving the “socialization of management over direct production of use-values.” 12

As part of the highlight of the essay, Amin sets up the following hypothetical demonstration which shows how the magnitude of imperialist rent and Department III rises over time.

Table 2. The Surplus (Department III) and Imperial Rent 13

Center Peripheries World
Year 1
Gross Product 66 33 100
Wages 33 17 50
Profits 33 16 50
Year 15
Gross Product 132 68 200
Wages 56 17 73
Profits 56 17 73
Department III 20 20
Imperialist Rent 34 34

In this demonstration, wages and profits in the core grow at a slower rate than the productivity of social labor, and in the periphery these two components are largely stagnate whilst overall productivity grows at the same general rate. The difference is made up by the surplus-absorbing Department III in the core and imperialist rent in the periphery. Amin notes that while not all imperialist rent is directed back to imperialist countries, a majority proportion of it is. Thus, “the share of imperialist rent transferred from the peripheries to the centers” contributes to the center’s opulence and “forms an additional factor swelling the surplus to be absorbed.”14

Baran’s analysis of economic surplus and Amin’s interpretation and synthesis with imperialist rent offer an additional way to understand a) how imperialism extracts wealth from peripheral and semi-peripheral zones and b) the generation of surplus and its functional role within core zones. While not as direct as stating that the primary contradiction is between exploited peoples and the exploiter First World, the analysis presented by Amin does nonetheless add a degree of depth and nuance to this understanding.

While Amin does understand the economic function of imperialist rent and surplus to some regard, he underestimates the manner in which these have formed into a historic bribe which has co-opted the peoples, classes, and dominant nations of core-zone economies into oppressor bulwarks of the imperialist system.

The phenomenon of imperialist rent and economic surplus has not just transformed a portion of the First World working class into a global labor aristocracy. Rather, the term propertyless petty-bourgeoisie better suits a class of people whose income is derived both through their own labor but also the labor of others. This propertyless petty-bourgeoisie may act in different direction depending on the situation, but the fact nonetheless remains that it cannot be considered as a class to play a leading role in anti-capitalist revolution. Moreover, economic demands of this class often correlate with demands against the interest of the proletariat at large. And those amongst this class who do side with the revolutionary interests of the broad masses are struggling for what has been described in a different context as ‘class suicide.’ 15 Despite this relative insufficiency in Amin work, he has been instrumental in bringing forth the requisite knowledge which allows for a fuller appreciation of this phenomenon in all of its implications.

Revolutionary anti-imperialists have long sought to better understand the structural-economic connection between imperialism and the lack of revolutionary struggle in core-zone First World countries. As implicated by Paul Baran and Samir Amin, First World workers are less likely to struggle for revolution because their wages are enlarged with the proceeds of imperialist rent and in many cases supplemented or supplied by surplus. That is to say that First World workers have a material interest in preserving the overall balance of forces present today, if not strengthening ‘their own’ monopoly capitalists’ advantage over others and the proletariat in general. This helps explain the cause behind the chauvinism which is prevalent in core-zone societies both historically and today and the philistine attitudes displayed proudly by members the propertyless petty-bourgeoisie class. Imperialist rent and surplus have ideological functions as well as structural ones.

Despite these material prohibitions towards proletarian incentives for class struggle, First World workers themselves are hardly in a stable position and depending on the situation may have plenty of reasons to side with and struggle for socialist revolution. Oppression is one. The same structural/ideological mechanisms of national oppression and sexism which bind the proletariat to toil in the Third World operate to some degree even within First World societies. As well, a long-standing history of national oppression directed towards Blacks, Natives, and Mexicanos/Chicanos still plays out in the United States, for example, resulting in disproportionate rates of incarcerations, extra-judicial ‘race-motivated’ killings, and general social disadvantage vis-a-vis dominant national groups. Moreover, the general alienation from humanity and nature especially accentuated in imperialist societies may provide cause for some to look for alternatives (and this generally has given rise to bourgeois movements centered on environmentalism, animal rights, ‘peace,’ localism, etc). As of yet, both of these structural incentives (though tertiary to the clear and present ‘bread and butter’ questions which largely inhibit a natural, material impulse towards anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist struggle in First World countries) have gone underutilized in the cause of proletarian struggle. This has been in part due to a general mis-framing of questions of class in the First World by contemporary ‘Marxist’ and ‘revolutionary’ ideologies.

Revolutionary theory is what informs revolutionary practice. At the same time, revolutionary practice informs revolutionary theory. The lack of success of revolutionary movements in imperialist countries should be enough for revolutionaries the world over to take pause and recalibrate their theories to this history.

Samir Amin and the writers and activists surrounding Anti-Imperialism.com are part of a movement to re-frame these theoretical and practical positions accordingly: to understand the world so as to change it.

For various reasons, a large portion of nominal ‘Marxists’ and ‘radicals’ choose to ignore the obvious facts surround the development and impact of imperialist rent and surplus. In reality, this can only hold up the development of a revolutionary practice, such that can only be derived from a firm theoretical understanding of the world. While some of these nominal Marxists will undoubtedly be won over time, it is up to those who understand these questions to blaze forward with continued corrective discourse and to implement these understandings as practice in some form.

The phenomena of imperialist rent and surplus indicate a general growth of exploitation over the past 140 years, yet exploitation that may not entirely be realized as profit. Instead, these phenomena have prohibited a decline of profits while providing the conditions for the existence of the working propertyless petty-bourgeoisie class. Amin’s analysis in “The Surplus in Monopoly Capitalism and the Imperialist Rent” certainly won’t be the last commentary on these developments but it is an excellent and important intellectual contribution.

-Nikolai Brown

1Monthly Review. Vol. 64 No. 3. July-August, 2012.

2Amin, Samir. “The Surplus in Monopoly Capitalism and the Imperialist Rent.” Monthly Review. Vol. 64 No. 3. July-August, 2012. p 78-85. < http://monthlyreview.org/2012/07/01/the-surplus-in-monopoly-capitalism-and-the-imperialist-rent&gt;

3Amin, Samir. “World Poverty, Pauperization & Capital Acuumulation.” Monthly Review. Vol 55. No. 5. October 2003. <http://monthlyreview.org/2003/10/01/world-poverty-pauperization-capital-accumulation&gt;

4 “Pour une Cinquième Internationale.” Le Temps des Cerises, 2006.

5Amin. 2012. p 78.

6Ibid. p 79.

7Ibid. p 80-81.

8Ibid. p. 82.

9Ibid.

10Ibid. p 83.

11 “Economic Clichés: Is There a ‘Knowledge Economy’?” Notes & Commentaries. Trans. Matthijs Krul. 11 Sept. 2012. .

12Amin. 2012. p 83.

13Ibid. p 84. <http://monthlyreview.org/2012/07/01/the-surplus-in-monopoly-capitalism-and-the-imperialist-rent&gt;

In the original essay, Amin presents two charts. This is the second. In order to demonstrate how the magnitude of surplus and imperialist rent grows over time, I’d like to point out that in Amin’s demonstration, surplus and rent encompass 10% and 16% of the world GDP respectively during the 15th year. Carrying calculations to the 30th year, they become 19% and 25%; and at year 45, 27% and 29%.

14Ibid. p 85.

15Cabral, Amilcar. “The Weapon of Theory.” 1966.