chapter  4
21 Pages

Imperialism, trade and ‘unequal exchange’: the work of Arghiri Emmanuel

Controversy in history and the social sciences still continues about the nature and meaning of the term ‘imperialism’. Attitudes to this question have of course undergone considerable changes since the end of the last war and few writers, even the most orthodox, would now wish to deny that the term has a definite scientific content. It is not our intention to review this post-war work, but to examine a recent study which claims to derive from the Marxist tradition. Our treatment of Emmanuel’s work (Emmanuel 1972a, 1972b)1 will be focused not so much on the particular critique which he makes of other writers as on the wider questions of political economy which his work raises. It should also be made clear that it is not the aim of this chapter to present an alternative conception of imperialism to that which would appear to be implicit in Emmanuel’s work. Nor are we primarily concerned with an examination of the empirical data which he employs. Instead we intend to try and show that Emmanuel’s method and the categories he uses have little in common with those of Marx. Emmanuel’s principal thesis may be summarised as follows: the structure and functioning of the capitalist world market is determined by a definite law of price formation which has the effect of what he terms ‘an unequal rewarding of factors’ and notably the ‘labour factor’ which of necessity tends to produce an ‘inequality in exchange’ between ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ countries. This inequality in turn dictates an international division of labour which is detrimental to the interests of the latter group of countries. ‘Unequal exchange’, used in this sense, is thus Emmanuel’s key theoretical category which is designed to convey the notion that on the world market the ‘poor countries’ are obliged to sell the products of a relatively large number of hours of labour (both direct and indirect) in order to obtain in exchange from the rich countries commodities incorporating a much smaller number of labour-hours. More precisely, he argues that under capitalism prices are determined by what Marx called ‘prices of production’, which, according to Emmanuel, consist in part of wages. Given that wages are lower in colonial and semi-colonial countries, a product supplied thanks to a certain number of hours of labour on the part of these countries can be bought by the rich ones by giving in exchange a product that has cost a smaller number of hours of labour. For Emmanuel, these

unequal trading relations are the root cause of the ‘inequality between nations’ as well as the cornerstone of imperialism. This obliges him from the start to reject, albeit implicitly, any analysis of imperialism based upon the existence of capitalism as an international force, including Lenin’s conception of imperialism as a stage in the development of capitalism dominated by ‘finance capital’. Instead he prefers to begin from ‘mercantile imperialism’ which he takes as being logically and historically prior to finance capital.