Imperialism and the World Order

KASHSHAF GHANI traces the origin as well as gradual evolution of imperialism, which is a centuries-old but still continuing phenomenon.

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KASHSHAF GHANI traces the origin as well as gradual evolution of imperialism, which is a centuries-old but still continuing phenomenon.

Imperialism has been the most powerful force in world history over the last four or five centuries, carving up whole continents while oppressing indigenous peoples and obliterating entire civilizations. Yet, it is seldom accorded any serious attention by our academics, media commentators, and political leaders. When not ignored outright, the subject of imperialism has been sanitised, so that empires become “commonwealths,” and colonies become “territories” or “dominions” (or, as in the case of Puerto Rico, “commonwealths” too). Imperialist military interventions then become matters of “national defence,” “national security,” and maintaining “stability” in one or another region. Therefore imperialism can be defined as a process whereby the dominant politico-economic interest of one nation is secured and in turn enriched through exploitation of land, labour, resource and economy of another resourceful, but weak, nation.
The growth of imperialism was in a sense necessitated by a growing need for abundant raw materials and vast markets, needed in order to maintain an industrialised economy. Raw materials such as iron and cotton can be turned into products such as steel and textiles. Finally, these products could be sold to the colonies in order to realise a profit. This has been the course throughout the 18th century and more so during the 19th. Today in the Marxist definition of the theory of imperialism the latter is most commonly equated with monopoly capitalism. Many believe that the meaning we have of imperialism today originated from Karl Marx and his views on capitalism. Marx believed that the mode of economic production (how goods and services are produced) determines all other political, social, cultural, and moral structures of a society.
However it was Vladimir Lenin who in 1917 expanded the definition of imperialism, most commonly used today, as being economic hegemony or capitalism. In 1917, during the World War I, Lenin wrote Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, in which he defined imperialism thus: “If it were necessary to give the briefest possible definition of imperialism we should have to say that imperialism is the monopoly stage of capitalism.” Lenin’s definition of imperialism was historically specific. For Lenin, imperialism was distinct because it represented – and was the product of – a new stage in the development of capitalism. Lenin’s theory captured a world economic, financial and military system where imperial powers competed to dominate the globe and carve it up among themselves. The big powers sent their armies around the globe – not only to conquer less powerful nations, but also to fight over the division of the world among themselves.
In this way, peaceful economic competition pursued through political and diplomatic means gave way to military competition and war. Lenin called this process of economic and military competition between the great powers, and the domination of less developed countries resulting from it, imperialism. “Capitalism has grown into a world system of colonial oppression and of the financial strangulation of the overwhelming majority of the people of the world by a handful of ‘advanced’ countries,” wrote Lenin.
“And this ‘booty’ is shared between two or three powerful world marauders, armed to the teeth – America, Great Britain and Japan, who involve the whole world in their war over the sharing of their booty.”
Lenin concluded that the scramble for empires and the clash between the great powers in the World War I was a direct result, and the only possible outcome, of the development of capitalism. The dynamics of imperialism that Lenin analysed are still present. His approach continues to offer the best framework to understand imperialism – and is an essential tool for revolutionaries today.
The interests of corporations and the state necessitated organised power and interests to secure their future. This in turn unleashed a shameless and ferocious competition internationally. Securing markets, territories and investment outlets for their corporations meant that governments of the most powerful countries were forced to spend more heavily on their militaries. This led to the formation of “narrow ‘national’ groups armed to the teeth and ready to hurl themselves at one another at any moment.” Thus, the age of monopoly capitalism accompanied the new scramble for colonies and empires around the world. In 1876, Africans controlled 90 per cent of African territory. By 1900, Europeans controlled 90 per cent of African territory. In the rush to build empires, the great powers were stamping on and crushing the world’s population under their imperial heel. Domination and occupation caused immense misery, which in turn gave rise to intense hatred of the foreign occupiers and sparked national aspirations and revolts – for example, by the Irish and Indians against the British colonisers.
The preponderant thrust of the European imperial powers was directed against Africa, Asia, and Latin America. By the 19th century, they saw the Third World as not only a source of raw materials and slaves but a market for manufactured goods. By the 20th century, the industrial nations were exporting not only goods but capital, in the form of machinery, technology, investments, and loans. The late 18th and the early 19th centuries witnessed a serious scramble by colonial powers to extend their domination and resources by moving into virgin territories. As a result of this “new imperialism” between 1750 and 1900 the gap in income disparities between industrialised Europe and America and the rest of the world grew at an astounding rate. Part of this was due, first, to a rearrangement of land use that accompanies western colonialism and to western success in preventing industrialisation in areas westerners saw as markets for their manufactured goods. White people came, therefore, to rule millions of black and brown people in Africa and Asia. The causes of the new imperialism are still hotly debated. Competition for trade, superior military force, European power politics, and a racist belief in European superiority were among the most important.
European powers initially exploited the discoveries of their explorers largely through trade; Europeans started to carry on trade from forts, acting as foreign merchants rather than as settlers. In contrast, early European expansion in the “West Indies,” (later known to Europeans as a separate continent from Asia that they would call the “Americas”) following the 1492 voyage of Christopher Columbus, involved heavy settlement in colonies that were treated as political extensions of the mother countries. Lured by the potential of high profits from another expedition, the Portuguese established a permanent base south of the Indian trade port of Calicut in the early 15th century. In 1510 the Portuguese seized Goa on the coast of India, which Portugal held until 1961. The Portuguese soon acquired a monopoly over trade in the Indian Ocean which was lost to the Dutch in the 17th century, and with this came serious challenges for the Portuguese. Rival European powers began to make inroads in Asia as the Portuguese and Spanish trade in the Indian Ocean declined primarily because they had become hugely over-stretched financially due to the limitations on their investment capacity and contemporary naval technology. Both of these factors worked in tandem, making control over Indian Ocean trade extremely expensive.
In 1605 armed Dutch merchants captured the Portuguese fort at Amboyna in the Moluccas, which was developed into the first secure base of the company. Over time the Dutch gradually consolidated control over the great trading ports of the East Indies. Control over the East Indies trading ports allowed the company to monopolize the world spice trade for decades. By 1669, the Dutch East India Company was the richest private company in history, with a huge fleet of merchant ships and warships, tens of thousands of employees, a private army consisting of thousands of soldiers, and a reputation on the part of its stockholders for high dividend payments. The English sought to stake out claims in India at the expense of the Portuguese dating back to the era of Queen Elizabeth I.
In 1600 Elizabeth incorporated the English East India Company (later the British East India Company), granting it a monopoly of trade from the Cape of Good Hope eastward to the Strait of Magellan. In 1639 it acquired Madras on the east coast of India, where it quickly surpassed Portuguese Goa as the principal European trading centre on the subcontinent. Through bribes, diplomacy, and manipulation of weak native rulers, the company prospered in India, where it became the most powerful political force on the subcontinent, and outrivaled its Portuguese and French competitors. The British East India Company, although still in direct competition with French and Dutch interests until 1763, was able to extend its control over almost the whole of the subcontinent in the century following the subjugation of Bengal at the 1757 Battle of Plassey. The British East India Company made great advances at the expense of a Mughal dynasty, seething with corruption, oppression, and revolt, that was crumbling under the rule of Aurangzeb (1658-1707).
France, which had lost its empire to the British by the end of the 18th century, had little geographical or commercial basis for expansion in Southeast Asia. After the 1850s, French imperialism was initially impelled by a nationalistic need to rival the United Kingdom and was supported intellectually by the concept of the superiority of French culture and France’s special mission civilisatrice – the civilizing of the native through assimilation to French culture. The immediate pretext for French expansionism in Indochina was the protection of French religious missions in the area, coupled with a desire to find a southern route to China through Tonkin, the northern region of northern Vietnam. By 1860 the French occupied Saigon. By the beginning of the 20th century France had created an empire in Indochina nearly 50 per cent larger than the mother country.
The last quarter of the 19th century saw the transition from the so-called “informal” imperialism of control through military influence and economic dominance to that of direct rule. The “Scramble for Africa”, also known as the ‘Race for Africa’, was the proliferation of conflicting European claims to African territory during the New Imperialism period, between the 1880s and World War I in 1914. The opening of Africa to Western exploration and exploitation had begun in earnest at the end of the 18th century. By 1835, Europeans had mapped most of northwestern Africa. However, on the eve of the scramble for Africa, Western nations controlled only 10 per cent of the continent. In 1875, the most important holdings were Algeria, held by France; the Cape Colony, held by the United Kingdom; and Angola and Mozambique, held by Portugal. Technological advancement facilitated overseas expansionism.
During the time when Britain’s balance of trade showed a growing deficit, with shrinking and increasingly protectionist continental markets due to the Long Depression (1873-1896), Africa offered Britain, Germany, France, and other countries an open market that would garner it a trade surplus: A market that bought more from the metropolis than it sold overall. Another inducement to imperialism, of course, arose from the demand for raw materials unavailable in Europe, especially copper, cotton, rubber, tea, and tin, to which European consumers had grown accustomed and upon which European industry had grown dependent.
While tropical Africa was not a large zone of investment, other regions overseas were. The vast interior – between the gold- and diamond-rich Southern Africa and Egypt, had, however, key strategic value in securing the flow of overseas trade. Germany thus became the third largest colonial power in Africa, acquiring an overall empire of 2.6 million square kilometres and 14 million colonial subjects, mostly in its African possessions (Southwest Africa, Togoland, the Cameroons, and Tanganyika). France occupied Tunisia in May 1881 (and Guinea in 1884), which partly convinced Italy to adhere in 1882 to the German-Austrian Dual Alliance, thus forming the Triple Alliance. The same year, Britain occupied the nominally Ottoman Egypt, which in turn ruled over the Sudan and parts of Somalia. In 1870 and 1882, Italy took possession of the first parts of Eritrea, while Germany declared Togoland, the Cameroons and South West Africa to be under its protection in 1884. French West Africa (AOF) was founded in 1895, and French Equatorial Africa (AEF) in 1910.
Britain’s occupations of Egypt and the Cape Colony contributed to a preoccupation over securing the source of the Nile River. Egypt was occupied by British forces in 1882 (although not formally declared a protectorate until 1914, and never a colony proper); Sudan, Nigeria, Kenya and Uganda were subjugated in the 1890s and early 1900s; and in the south, the Cape Colony (first acquired in 1795) provided a base for the subjugation of neighbouring African states and the Dutch Afrikaner settlers who had left the Cape to avoid the British and then founded their own republics. In 1877, Theophilus Shepstone annexed the South African Republic (or Transvaal – independent from 1857 to 1877) for the British. The UK consolidated its power over most of the colonies of South Africa in 1879 after the Anglo-Zulu War.
African colonies listed by colonising power are Belgium, Congo Free State and Belgian Congo (formerly Zaire, now Democratic Republic of Congo), Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, French West Africa, Mauritania, Senegal, Cameroon, French Sudan (now Mali), Guinea, Ivory Coast, Niger, Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso), Dahomey (now Benin) – to name only a few.
Of the various notions about imperialism circulating today in the United States, the dominant view is that it does not exist. Imperialism is not recognised as a legitimate concept, certainly not in regard to the United States. One may speak of “Soviet imperialism” or “nineteenth-century British imperialism” but not of U.S. imperialism. A graduate student in political science at most universities in USA would not be granted the opportunity to research U.S. imperialism, on the grounds that such an undertaking would not be scholarly. While many people throughout the world charge the United States with being an imperialist power, in this country persons who talk of U.S. imperialism are usually judged to be mouthing ideological blather. North American and European corporations have acquired control of more than three-fourths of the known mineral resources of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. But the pursuit of natural resources is not the only reason for capitalist overseas expansion. There is the additional need to cut production costs and maximise profits by investing in countries with cheaper labour markets. U.S. corporate foreign investment grew 84 per cent from 1985 to 1990, the most dramatic increase being in cheap-labour countries like South Korea, Taiwan, Spain, and Singapore. Because of low wages, low taxes, nonexistent work benefits, weak labour unions, and nonexistent occupational and environmental protections, U.S. corporate profit rates in the Third World are 50 per cent greater than in developed countries. Citibank, one of the largest U.S. firms, earns about 75 per cent of its profits from overseas operations.
While profit margins at home sometimes have had a sluggish growth, earnings abroad have continued to rise dramatically, fostering the development of what has become known as the multinational or transnational corporation. Rather than being directly colonised by the imperial power, the weaker countries have been granted the trappings of sovereignty – while Western finance capital retains control of the lion’s share of their profitable resources. This relationship has gone under various names: “informal empire,” “colonialism without colonies,” “neocolonialism,” and “neo-imperialism.”
U.S. political and business leaders were among the earliest practitioners of this new kind of empire, most notably in Cuba at the beginning of the twentieth century. Having forcibly wrested the island from Spain in the war of 1898, they eventually gave Cuba its formal independence. The Cubans now had their own government, constitution, flag, currency, and security force. But major foreign policy decisions remained in U.S. hands as did the island’s wealth, including its sugar, tobacco, and tourist industries, and major imports and exports. Historically U.S. capitalist interests have been less interested in acquiring more colonies than in acquiring more wealth, preferring to make off with the treasure of other nations without bothering to own and administer the nations themselves. Under neo-imperialism, the flag stays home, while the dollar goes everywhere – frequently assisted by the sword. In our modern world, we often think of imperialism as an artefact of the past.
While it is true that we do not really see the annexation of countries, there are those who argue that territory grabs have been replaced by extreme political and economic controls. As a current example, there are those who view the recent invasion of Iraq by the US as an imperialistic action. Many believe that imperialism today takes on a more subtle form. Instead of right out “taking over countries,” it is more of helping countries with corrupt leaders to form ‘more rational’ governments. Conservative imperialism today assumes because the U.S. is a world power it is important for them to be an imperial force within the world and help other countries despite possible ulterior motives.
The U.S. emerged as one of the world’s leading industrial, military and political powers after the Civil War. U.S., following the landslide election (1896) of William McKinley, is associated with the high McKinley Tariff of 1890. United States expansionism had its roots in domestic concerns and economic conditions, as in other newly industrialising nations where government sought to accelerate internal development. Advocates of empires also drew upon a tradition of westward expansion over the course of the previous century. Economic depression led some U.S. businessmen and politicians from the mid-1880s to come to the same conclusion as their European counterparts – that industry and capital had exceeded the capacity of existing markets and needed new outlets. The Panic of 1893 contributed to the growing mood for expansionism. Influential politicians such as Henry Cabot Lodge, William McKinley, and Theodore Roosevelt advocated a more aggressive foreign policy to pull the United States out of the depression. However, opposition to expansionism was strong and vocal in the United States. The U.S. became involved in the war with Spain only after Cubans convinced the U.S. government that Spain was brutalising them. Whatever the causes, the result of the war was that the U.S. came into the possession of Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. It was, however, only the Philippines that remained, for three decades, as a colonial possession. Although U.S. capital investments within the Philippines and Puerto Rico were relatively small (figures that would seemingly detract from the broader economic implications on first glance), “imperialism” for the United States, formalised in 1904 by the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, would also spur on her displacement of Britain as the predominant investor in Latin America – a process largely completed by the end of the Great War.
Imperialism has created modern office buildings and luxury hotels in capital cities instead of housing for the poor, cosmetic surgery clinics for the affluent instead of hospitals for workers, cash export crops for agribusiness instead of food for local markets, highways that go from the mines to the refineries and ports instead of roads in the back country for those who might hope to see a doctor or a teacher. Imperialism forces millions of children around the world to live nightmarish lives; their mental and physical health severely damaged by endless exploitation. A documentary film on the Discovery Channel (April 24, 1994) reported that in countries like Russia, Thailand, and the Philippines, large numbers of minors are sold into prostitution to help their desperate families survive. In countries like Mexico, India, Colombia, and Egypt, children are dragooned into health-shattering, dawn-to-dusk labour on farms and in factories and mines for pennies an hour, with no opportunity for play, schooling, or medical care. Therefore, the changeover from colonialism to neo-colonialism has little respite for the world today. For imperialistic forces continue to haunt us even today in different forms and under various garbs. The remedy, therefore, lies to a large extent in ‘unveiling’ these forces and limiting their exploitative hunger aimed at the ‘developing’ countries.
[The author is a doctoral fellow in History from the University of Calcutta. He is currently Research Fellow at the Asiatic Society, Kolkata and also the Assistant Editor of SEPHIS e-magazine. Email: [email protected]]