Norms and Values
Capitalism, Coronavirus and War: A New Book by Radhika Desai

Radhika Desai, a permanent contributor to the Valdai Club, professor at the University of Manitoba and head of the International Manifesto Group, has published a new book, titled Capitalism, Coronavirus and War: A Geopolitical Economy. The book was published in the Rethinking Globalization series by Routledge.

The electronic text of the book is freely available and open to all. Many Russian readers are familiar with Desai’s previous book, which was translated into Russian: Geopolitical Economy: After American Hegemony, Globalisation and Empire. It is also in the public domain

Desai’s book develops modern left-critical political economics, which to a certain extent is consonant with the version of Marxism that older and middle-aged generations of Russian experts grew up with. For them, even if they do not share the views of the author, reading this book can be a very interesting (and for some, nostalgic) example of how to use Marxist methodology in the economic analysis of the modern world. In addition, readers from these generations will be able to find in this book the theses and arguments that they themselves actively used in the era of their youth, although many now try to forget it. For the younger generation of Russian experts, the book will be all the more useful, since it allows them to look beyond the negative stereotypes about Marxism that they may have formed under the mutual influence of both the official Russian narratives of today and the Western neoliberal mainstream. 

Desai focuses on the impact that the coronavirus pandemic, and then the global economic consequences of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, have had on the manageability and efficiency of the existing world economic order. At the same time, the author emphasises that neither the epidemic nor the military conflict in and of themselves became the causes of the crisis of neoliberal financial capitalism; they only strengthened the tendencies that were observed before.

The author at the same time dialectically closely links economic and political processes in the modern world. Radhika Desai focuses in her work on the anti-imperialist dynamics of global processes. This distinguishes her book from many texts of modern Western neo-Marxists, which are limited only to the theoretical analysis of certain economic problems.

The author emphasises that with such an approach, widespread in current neo-Marxist theory, the key part of the teachings of Marx and Lenin, its anti-imperialist pathos, practically disappears. The author reproduces this focus of classical Marxism on the central role of imperialism in the development of capitalism, as well as on the justice of the anti-imperialist struggle, in examining the conditions of the 21st century. On the one hand, they are strikingly different from the context of the 19th and early 20th centuries, when classical Marxism was taking shape. But on the other hand, imperialism, according to the author, although it has taken other forms, has not disappeared from world politics and economics even today. All this makes Desai’s book pronouncedly polemical. This reminds readers that Marxist theory, a priori, has (or should have) a militant applied character, presenting theory as a basis for practical anti-imperialist struggle. It should not degenerate into scholastic discussions about the theory of exploitation, cut off from life, which can sometimes often be seen in modern neo-Marxist texts.

This connection between economics and politics in Desai's concept is manifested in the fact that the difficulties and problems facing the capitalist world economy are the basic reason for the growth of aggressiveness and militarism in US global domination, which the author directly calls imperialistic. According to Desai, the tacit consensus that the hegemony of one state ensures the stability of the entire world economy is fallacious.

Along with this important aspect Desai’s book contains a critique of the position that modern financial globalisation, by definition, leads to the erosion of the traditional Nation State. This approach has also become part of the tacit consensus that accompanies modern mainstream theories. The author argues with this, emphasising that such a point of view serves only as a tool to consolidate inequality in the modern world. In such a conceptual framework, it becomes easier for the hegemonic power to exert its pressure on other states. Thus, such a theoretical concept serves well-defined political interests. This makes it ideologically determined and by no means neutral. Such an approach, the author argues, only masks the problems of interstate relations and contradictions in modern capitalism. The concept of geopolitical economy developed by Desai, on the contrary, argues for the continuing and growing role of states in the dynamics of global processes.

The Covid pandemic, from the author’s point of view, sharpened the contradictions between capitalism and imperialism. This manifested itself both at the domestic level and at the international level. The key issue here is inequality. The socio-economic gap between the rich and the poor, both within individual capitalist states and between the countries of the global North and South, in the context of the epidemic, has literally become a matter of life and death. Inequality in access to vaccines, to medicines, and to oxygen machines manifested itself very clearly at each of these levels. The author emphasises that this inequality did not arise out of nowhere during the pandemic and the administrative chaos that accompanied it. It was a direct consequence of the long-term inequality in states and in the world that always accompanies capitalism and its political superstructure.

In this regard, the part of Desai’s book, where the author refers to the public sentiments that were widespread during the pandemic is not only theoretically, but also psychologically very interesting; she insists that the current economic and political structure needs to be changed, since it could not withstand the stress test of the epidemic. All these expectations that the world should no longer be the same, that its recovery after the pandemic should be made more fair and equal (“build back better”), were quite typical. At the same time, the author emphasises that under the prevailing conditions of capitalism and imperialism there is no hope that such changes will be implemented; it is utopian and naive. Making capitalism “better”, according to the author, will not work. If global public opinion really wants to achieve equality in the world, then this can only be achieved through an anti-imperialist struggle.

Within the framework of the aforementioned logic, the aggressiveness of the hegemonic power intensifies in parallel with economic contradictions and its intolerance towards others. The author also analyses the current Ukraine-Russia military conflict, coming to very interesting and extraordinary conclusions.

In general, the new book by Radhika Desai is interesting and provocative in a good way. It presents critical political economics not as an abstract analysis, but as a program for real political action in the context of the anti-imperialist struggle. For us in Russia, where it has sometimes become commonplace to say that Marxism died with the collapse of the Soviet Union, her book is a real reminder of the fallacy of these views. Therefore, even if the reader is far removed from Marxism, reading this book will be very informative.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.