What is imperialism?

We’ve all heard the word, but what does it mean? Here, Dr. Andrew Robinson looks at the economic and social history of imperialism, examining the work of key thinkers, and asks whether imperialism is still around us. “Imperialism”… We’ve all heard it. But what is it? Something very old, yet also something very new. At […]

Ideas - Posted on Monday, July 21, 2008 17:13 - 4 Comments


We’ve all heard the word, but what does it mean? Here, Dr. Andrew Robinson looks at the economic and social history of imperialism, examining the work of key thinkers, and asks whether imperialism is still around us.

“Imperialism”… We’ve all heard it. But what is it?

Something very old, yet also something very new. At its most basic, domination of one society by another goes back as far as states – although not as far as humanity, being pretty much unknown in indigenous societies. But the depth of today’s imperialism is relatively new. The historic pre-capitalist empires, such as the Roman Empire, the Aztec Empire and the Chinese Empire, had a logic of “tribute extraction”, where subject-peoples were required to pay a tribute of money, soldiers or resources to the imperial capital. They were usually allowed to keep their local rulers, economies and ways of life. For this reason, “imperialism” as a term is usually reserved for the type of empire which arose with capitalism and modern society.

There were actually two waves of modern empire-building, the first in the sixteenth century when Spain conquered much of the Americas and white settler-colonies were formed in other places like what’s now the USA, Canada and Australia, and the second in the nineteenth century when European countries colonised most of Asia and Africa. In the first stage, indigenous peoples in the target colonies were mostly wiped out, with around 90% of the population killed throughout the Americas. Although some of the losses were from disease, a lot were caused by genocidal policies of attacking indigenous peoples and destroying their resources and environments. In the USA for example, indigenous people were driven from their lands to make way for cattle ranches and frontier farms. A policy was put in place to exterminate buffalo, the main source of food for the Native Americans of the Great Plains, and a series of brutal wars were waged against recalcitrant peoples. Black Africans were captured as slaves and shipped to America to work on plantations. Today the old settler-colonies in North America and elsewhere are established as part of the northern or First World. South and Central America, and the Caribbean, occupy a more ambiguous position in today’s world. The first wave of colonialism, which corresponds with the initial emergence of modernity in Europe, is often ignored in accounts of colonialism, partly because its motives were rather different from later phases.

What is more often thought of as classical imperialism was the colonisation of Asia and Africa in the nineteenth century. By this time, Europe – having accumulated wealth through plunder and foreign trade – had begun to industrialise massively, and on doing so, has gained an advantage over the rest of the world in terms of weapons. Taking advantage of this temporary situation, European states, with Britain and France in the lead, started invading and subjugating the previously independent societies of the rest of the world. The colonisers behaved with incredible brutality in establishing and maintaining colonial rule. The Germans killed hundreds of thousands of people in Namibia, the Belgians were known for cutting off hands in the Congo, and Britain is remembered for a litany of atrocities including the Amritsar massacre, where hundreds of anti-colonial protesters were trapped in a square and gunned down, and the forced resettlement of tens of thousands of people in Kenya and Malaya. This time, however, the goal was not to exterminate local populations entirely. Only a small layer of administrators and soldiers ever migrated from Europe to the new colonies (hence they always relied heavily on colonial subjects, from the same colony or a different one, to maintain control). Rather, this new empire was all about economics. India was initially colonised by the British East India Company, a private company whose existence was all about the “bottom line”. Britain banned clothesmaking and salt production in India, hence creating a massive market for its own exports. Later, Britain attacked China to force the Chinese rulers to accept opium imports from British colonies.

The colonial world came about by means of military force – not at all a matter of cultural superiority, indeed, a great historical low-point for humanity. But this success went to the heads of many Europeans. Colonialism was associated with the emergence of racist ideas, the idea of European “civilisation” as inherently “superior” to all others, the idea different “races” of humans, a European “destiny” to rule the world and so on. The colonies were deemed inferior places, to be reshaped in the image of the coloniser. They became sites for experimentation with technologies of control, violence and subordination.

Most of the colonised countries became independent following protests in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. India led the way in 1947, granted independence by a war-weary Britain in a great victory for the massive non-violent Satyagraha protest movement. Algeria and Vietnam soon followed, expelling the French in guerrilla wars. Decolonisation dragged on until 1975, when the Portuguese were finally forced out of Africa, and even later in a few cases (such as Zimbabwe). Even today there are a scattering of “dependencies” and “overseas provinces” of Britain, France, America and other countries, such as Diego Garcia, French Guiana, Puerto Rico, and New Caledonia/Kanaky. In these places, anti-colonial struggles continue.

It is often argued, however, that while colonialism ended with decolonisation, imperialism did not. Imperialism carried on in myriad new forms, sometimes termed “neo-colonialism”, “economic imperialism”, “cultural imperialism” and so on. In addition, military interventions in militarily weak Southern countries have been a constant feature of western foreign policies from decolonisation to the present day. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars are only the latest in a long series of invasions – in Guatemala, Panama, Vietnam, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Lebanon, Grenada and so on.

Theories of imperialism

The most influential theory of imperialism is the economic model first formulated by the liberal author Hobson, but made famous by the socialists Lenin, Luxemburg, Kautsky and Hilferding. According to this theory, imperialism arises from contradictions within capitalism. In particular, because it produces more than it can sell, capitalism produces a surplus which it needs to sell, or put to work in production (a situation known as overproduction or underconsumption). Having exhausted the options available within its existing hotbeds, it seeks new markets and productive resources abroad. This often involves what David Harvey has termed “accumulation by dispossession”. Local people have to be driven off their land and robbed of their tools and possessions so that both the people (as workers) and the land and objects (as productive resources) can be put to work by the capitalists. Hence for instance, in India, Britain found markets for surplus textiles, and products such as tea which could be marketed “at home”. Capitalism is thus viewed as paradoxically needing war and devastation. According to this theory, as long as there’s capitalism, there will be war and imperialism. (War also contributes to ending underconsumption by putting resources to work making weapons, and destroying some of the stock of surplus resources during the war itself).

Imperialism does not, however, mean that colonies are remade in exactly the image of the coloniser. Rather, they are demonised as inferior or “underdeveloped”, as fundamentally lacking whatever it is which makes the dominant society superior. According to anti-colonial psychologists Franz Fanon and Albert Memmi, the colonised subject is burdened with an impossible double demand – on the one hand the imperative to “develop”, to become like the coloniser, and on the other hand an assertion of her or his inability to do so, a refusal ever to recognise that such “development” has happened. The colonial subject who identifies with the coloniser and learns “white” or “European” habits ends up as a reject in both worlds.

In economic terms, a parallel phenomenon is what is known as “dependency”, or “combined and uneven development”. According to a series of scholars such as Prebisch, Baran and Sweezy, Cardoso, Frank, Wallerstein and Arrighi, western economic actions in colonies and post-colonies have taken the form of gearing the colonial economy to production for the colonising society. This happens on unequal terms of trade – western societies sell items they produce above their value because of a monopoly on the technology or knowledge needed for their production, and pay less than the value of the primary commodities assigned to the dependent societies of the South. According to this approach, different societies are not independent entities connected by external relations; rather, the internal dynamics of Southern societies have been altered at a deep level by the North, creating a single, interconnected world with unjust internal relations. This is supplemented by “cultural imperialism”, in which western society is upheld as a global ideal and western consumer images (McDonalds, Mickey Mouse) exported as bearers of capitalist culture.

The North makes it very difficult for dependent societies to break out of their dependency. In Andre Gunder Frank’s classic analysis of United Fruit in Guatemala, it is shown that Guatemalan “development” is driven by the needs of the company – roads, ports and so on are put in place to serve the fruit trade, with United Fruit’s agents in America acting as sellers. Hence, when Guatemala kicked out United Fruit, they were left with a highly skewed economy lacking the means to do anything else. Dependency theorists have suggested various approaches for breaking out of dependency. These include “delinking”, or withdrawing from the world economy; “import substitution”, meaning diversifying local production to meet local needs, producing things which are currently imported from the west; “appropriate technology”, or the deployment of lighter, more labour-intensive technologies to ensure wider distribution of resources and less dependent relations in the South; and a “new international economic order”, involving a redressing of global inequalities. Ideas of fair trade (paying the costs of production rather than the market price), sustainable development (concentrating on ecological and economic persistence over time instead of rapid economic growth) and human development (stressing issues like healthcare, infant mortality and life expectancy instead of economic growth) have also come partly from this approach.

Today it is often debated whether classical imperial relations still hold. For some theorists, ideas like humanitarian intervention, failed states, development, globalisation and neoliberalism are continuations of older patterns of imperialist control. Marxist authors such as David Harvey and Alex Callinicos argue for a basic continuity with classical imperialism. There is still rivalry between imperialist powers. Others such as Wood, Panitch and Gindin argue that imperialism is now largely an economic phenomenon, not relying so much on state power. There is now a single imperialism based on the American economic system. Other theorists argue that a new stage of capitalist control has been reached. William Robinson has argued that a transnational capitalist class now controls the entire world directly, while Hardt and Negri argue that imperialism has been superseded by capitalist “Empire” in which capitalist control is directly exercised everywhere, with the old unevenness smoothed out. Still others argue for a discontinuity between neoliberalism and the latest forms of American empire. Jan Nederveen Pieterse has argued that there is a disjunction between neoliberalism and American empire, viewing the latter as an aggressive attempt to compensate for the problems of the former. Arrighi has recently argued that American economic influence has unravelled, and America is using its one remaining asset – military force – to try to turn back the tide of history, which is pushing economic power towards East Asia.

The economic approach is not the only one. An alternative put forward by some historians blames aristocratic pursuit of prestige for colonialism, arguing that racist ideas are outgrowths of classist ideas of “breeding”, and that colonialism served as a safety-valve for junior members of the aristocracy, and upwardly-mobile “commoners”, to lord it over subject-populations abroad. Schumpeter analyses imperialism as an “objectless expansion” by a “warrior” class within society, which manufactures reasons to perpetuate its existence. Virilio argues further that the logic of colonialism, the dominance by the occupying army over the subject population, is now internalised back into the coloniser societies, as dominance by a military way of seeing and a kind of deep state apparatus. In international relations, it is often assumed that imperialism is a way to strengthen a state’s geopolitical position. This might for instance consist in grabbing and monopolising scarce resources such as oil, uranium and clean water. Military interventions are often highly selective, and sites of resource extraction, such as the Niger Delta, the Gulf oilfields, the uranium-rich areas of the Sahara, and Papua’s Freeport, are crucial sites of contestation.

More recently, increasing emphasis has been placed on the epistemological (knowledge) aspects of colonialism. According to postcolonial theorists such as Spivak, Bhabha, Shiva and Escobar, imperialism did not simply take over societies, but also dismissed and devalued entire systems of knowledge, identity, science, belief and narrative. It assumed that the “modern”, western way of seeing was universally valid, and imposed this way of seeing across the entire world. In doing this, it denied voice to other peoples and agents. Obviously this kind of imperialism is still very much alive today. Hence for instance, Vandana Shiva writes of the preponderance of capitalist monoculture as a threat to other ways of life, and Edward Saïd exposes the prevalence of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim stereotypes, with related ideas of cultural inferiority. Postcolonial theorists argue that the contact with other peoples and the self-definition through exclusion of colonised “others” is central to the way the West or North has constructed its identity. The modern world is also necessarily the colonial world, or the “modern/colonial world system” as Walter Mignolo terms today’s world. Hence, today’s world is very much a product of colonialism and has not escaped it. In a famous quote from Salman Rushdie, “the British don’t know their own history because it was made somewhere else”.

Against capitalist monoculture, postcolonial theorists often counterpose global dialogue, listening to other voices and revaluing other epistemologies (systems of knowledge), including indigenous epistemologies and “border thinking” arising from points of contact between different discourses. Some postcolonial theorists such as Shiva and Escobar argue against “development”, instead calling for an emphasis on local alternatives. Followers of the Brazilian educator Paolo Freire emphasise the importance of resisting “submersion” in the dominant categories, instead learning to “speak one’s own word”. Authors such as Badie, Chatterjee, Mbembe and Hecht and Simone question the universality of the western state-form, arguing instead for everyday practices. Reflexivity – thinking critically about one’s own assumptions, and not taking them for granted – is emphasised by authors such as Spivak. Postcolonial theory effectively calls for a decolonisation of culture and the mind, as well as of spaces and economies.

The legacy of imperialism

In addition to the persistence of imperial wars, economic imperialism and epistemological dominance, imperialism has effects running through the whole of the social life of the contemporary world. The modern-colonial world has created a world which is globalised, and yet highly uneven and uncertain of itself. Identities have been torn apart by violence, and reappear in mutilated forms, either as creative hybridities and reflexive subjectivities or as aggressive “predatory” identities. Colonial domination left a legacy of questionable boundaries along lines of historical convenience, cutting some populations in half and fusing others into illogical meta-states. It also left a social structure in which the military was extremely strong, laying the foundation for coups, corruption and human rights abuses across the world.

Migration is widely demonised in the west as a supposed symptom of social breakdown and invasion from the “outside”. In fact migration is built into the modern-colonial world. The problems of the South, the attractions of the former colonial power and the uneven distribution of economic resources are all products of colonial history. Colonialism left British and other western citizens scattered across the planet. Caribbean people were encouraged to view Britain as the “motherland”, and actively solicited by the government to migrate to fill labour shortages in the 1950s. But the racist attitudes encouraged by colonialism have also not abated. In many places, policing practices such as stop-and-search reproduce colonial forms of dominance within societies, creating a kind of internal colonialism. In other parts of the world, colonial powers played on existing ethnic divisions (such as Hutu and Tutsi, Sinhala and Tamil) or created new ones (such as African and Asian in Uganda or Guyana) as a way to control discontented locals through a middleman. This exacerbated what might formerly have been benign differences into the hatreds sometimes expressed in ethnic cleansing today.

People who call themselves anti-imperialist are typically opponents primarily of western states and their allies. But today, imperialism has become increasingly complex. Firstly there is the phenomenon of proxy war, where local groups seek the aid of, or are used by, external powers to serve their local interests. Often the proxy is not particularly imperialistic in itself, but simply ends up in a bad alliance. Secondly, there’s the ambiguity of whether societies like the Soviet Union and China can be “imperialist”. Some Marxists deny this, but it is undeniable that these states have subordinated other societies (Chechnya, Georgia, Xinjiang, Tibet) in recognisably imperialistic ways.

Thirdly, there’s the problem of Southern, post-colonial states which themselves invade neighbours or refuse to let parts of their territory secede – Iraq with the Kurds; Indonesia in East Timor, Papua, Aceh; Morocco in Western Sahara; Sudan in the South; India in the northeast and in Kashmir, and so on. Is this to be considered imperialism or not? It seems undeniable that postcolonial states inherited from the coloniser a lot of the colonial mindset, including western ideas of territorial integrity and nationality. So basically, the postcolonial state acts as a continuation of the colonial state in suppressing “insurgency”. But sometimes the issue is complicated because a second power, western or non-western, is backing the rebels. Morocco for instance often accuses the Sahrawi resistance group Polisario of being an agent of foreign powers (it has been documented as operating out of Algeria). At the limit, one comes up against cases such as Darfur – a local conflict between two groups (nomadic herders and farmers), complicated once over by the Sudanese regime’s war against rebels and the alleged involvement of Chad, and once more by the west’s hostility to Sudan and geopolitical ambitions in the region. It becomes almost impossible to tell, without crudifying, who is the coloniser and who is the colonised.

Another legacy of imperialism is the ongoing subordination of indigenous peoples. This takes diverse forms, from continued denial of political recognition to the devaluing of knowledge-systems and the theft of land. In America and Canada, there are large areas of unceded territory which was never taken over by the respective states, but which they now claim as their territory. In West Papua, the Niger Delta and Chiapas, indigenous peoples are in open rebellion against dominant states complicit in neoliberalism. The indigenous challenge is not just about local autonomy, however. It makes demands on people elsewhere to think otherwise. The revaluing of indigenous knowledges is also about learning other ways of seeing, relating in more inclusive and networked ways to the whole of existence (animals, plants, rivers, spirits), questioning industrialism and the western ideas which have been established as global standards.

Finally, there is also the question of whether colonialism has been ended, or rather, generalised to the entire world. On Virilio’s account, the security state is a kind of internal colonialism in which the colonial apparatus is applied backwards, onto the imperial society itself. An article titled “The Parting of the Ways” has shown one example of this in practice – the policing of anti-capitalist protests in London stemming from Metropolitan Police absorption of Peter Kitson’s counterinsurgency guide, written about the Malayan anti-colonial insurgency. Virilio has also claimed that our way of seeing is deeply marked by the military, colonial gaze – seeing as if through a camera or gunsight, instrumentalising problems like a military planner, mapping and counting like a colonial administrator. The fantasy of war against barbarian “others”, a product of colonial reason, is still a staple both of fiction and of politics. The “war on terror” is the most visible of its contemporary manifestations.

To conclude, imperialism is everywhere around us today – not only in the obvious places, in the Iraqi quagmire and the Foreign Office, but in less obvious ones too – in repressive policing and the security state, in stereotypes about black people and Muslims, in immigration “controls” and deportations, in the dominance of instrumental reason and the devaluing of nature, in a western “standard of living” built on unfair trade and global dependency. But if imperialism is everywhere, then so is the struggle against it. The struggle is therefore not just about decolonising Iraq, but also about decolonising our society, our minds, and our ways of seeing.



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Andrew Johnson
Jul 21, 2008 22:27

Imperialism is hidden & denied by the United States, but West Papua is the perfect example.

A Dutch colony which in 1962 was sold on behalf of the US government to Indonesia. Specifically the US threaten the Dutch with a trade embargo unless the Dutch sign the “New York Agreement”, the US help the United Nations with a $200m bond scheme for its signature to the New York Agreement.

The US government did this because its US National Security adviser McGeorge Bundy from April-1961 to Dec-1961 told Kennedy that Indonesia & Australia would become communist states unless the Netherlands traded West Papua to Indonesia.

McGeorge Bundy did this because his mentor & family friend was Robert A. Lovett.

Robert A. Lovett was a director of Freeport Sulphur Inc. and a principle architect of the Cold War which profited his business interests.

Freeport Sulphur, now known as Freeport McMoRan, had been trying to lay claim to West Papua’s gold & copper since August 1959.

The people of West Papua were sold like cattle because Freeport wanted to mine their gold.

Sen B
Jul 24, 2008 20:07

In the Jewish community I’ve noticed a lot of people make “aliya”, to the colonies. I see this as a desperate attempt to rescue their quality of life, at the expense of sustaining a community in the diaspora.

Support Hicham Yezza — From Ceasefire Magazine: What is Imperialism?
Oct 27, 2008 8:13

[…] What is Imperialism? […]

Jan 13, 2012 19:42

I have a hard time figuring out what iperialism. Can someone explain it to me?

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