What Causes Imperialism?

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Republished with permission.
Source: The Anarchist Library


In a word: power. Imperialism is the process by which one country dominates another directly, by political means, or indirectly, by economic means, in order to steal its wealth (either natural or produced). This, by necessity, means the exploitation of working people in the dominated nation. Moreover, it can also aid the exploitation of working people in the imperialist nation itself. As such, imperialism cannot be considered in isolation from the dominant economic and social system. Fundamentally the cause is the same inequality of power, which is used in the service of exploitation.

While the rhetoric used for imperial adventures may be about self-defence, defending/exporting “democracy” and/or “humanitarian” interests, the reality is much more basic and grim. As Chomsky stresses, “deeds consistently accord with interests, and conflict with words — discoveries that must not, however, weaken our faith in the sincerity of the declarations of our leaders.” This is unsurprising as states are always “pursuing the strategic and economic interests of dominant sectors to the accompaniment of rhetorical flourishes about its exceptional dedication to the highest values” and so “the evidence for ... the proclaimed messianic missions reduces to routine pronouncements” (faithfully repeated by the media) while “counter-evidence is mountainous.” [Failed States, p. 171 and pp. 203–4]

We must stress that we are concentrating on the roots of imperialism here. We do not, and cannot, provide a detailed history of the horrors associated with it. For US imperialism, the works of Noam Chomsky are recommended. His books Turning the Tide and The Culture of Terrorism expose the evils of US intervention in Central America, for example, while Deterring Democracy, Rogue States: The Rule of Force in World Affairs and Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy present a wider perspective. Killing Hope: US Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II and Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower by William Blum are also worth reading. For post-1945 British imperialism, Mark Curtis’s Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World andUnpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses are recommended.

Imperialism has changed over time, particularly during the last two hundred years (where its forms and methods have evolved with the changing needs of capitalism). But even in the pre-capitalist days of empire building, imperialism was driven by economic forces and needs. In order to make one’s state secure, in order to increase the wealth available to the state, its ruling bureaucracy and its associated ruling class, it had to be based on a strong economy and have a sufficient resource base for the state and ruling elite to exploit (both in terms of human and natural resources). By increasing the area controlled by the state, one increased the wealth available.

States by their nature, like capital, are expansionist bodies, with those who run them always wanting to increase the range of their power and influence (this can be seen from the massive number of wars that have occurred in Europe over the last 500 years). This process was began as nation-states were created by Kings declaring lands to be their private property, regardless of the wishes of those who actually lived there. Moreover, this conflict did not end when monarchies were replaced by more democratic forms of government. As Bakunin argued:

“we find wars of extermination, wars among races and nations; wars of conquest, wars to maintain equilibrium, political and religious wars, wars waged in the name of ‘great ideas’ ... , patriotic wars for greater national unity ... And what do we find beneath all that, beneath all the hypocritical phrases used in order to give these wars the appearance of humanity and right? Always the same economic phenomenon: the tendency on the part of some to live and prosper at the expense of others. All the rest is mere humbug. The ignorant and naive, and the fools are entrapped by it, but the strong men who direct the destinies of the State know only too well that underlying all those wars there is only one motive: pillage, the seizing of someone else’s wealth and the enslavement of someone else’s labour.” [The Political Philosophy of Bakunin, p. 170]

However, while the economic motive for expansion is generally the same, the economic system which a nation is based on has a definite impact on what drives that motive as well as the specific nature of that imperialism. Thus the empire building of ancient Rome or Feudal England has a different economic base (and so driving need) than, say, the imperialism of nineteenth century Germany and Britain or twentieth and twenty-first century United States. Here we will focus mainly on modern capitalist imperialism as it is the most relevant one in the modern world.

Capitalism, by its very nature, is growth-based and so is characterised by the accumulation and concentration of capital. Companies must expand in order to survive competition in the marketplace. This, inevitably, sees a rise in international activity and organisation as a result of competition over markets and resources within a given country. By expanding into new markets in new countries, a company can gain an advantage over its competitors as well as overcome limited markets and resources in the home nation. In Bakunin’s words:

“just as capitalist production and banking speculation, which in the long run swallows up that production, must, under the threat of bankruptcy, ceaselessly expand at the expense of the small financial and productive enterprises which they absorb, must become universal, monopolistic enterprises extending all over the world — so this modern and necessarily military State is driven on by an irrepressible urge to become a universal State... Hegemony is only a modest manifestation possible under the circumstances, of this unrealisable urge inherent in every State. And the first condition of this hegemony is the relative impotence and subjection of all the neighbouring States.” [Op. Cit., p. 210]

Therefore, economically and politically, the imperialistic activities of both capitalist and state-capitalist (i.e. the Soviet Union and other “socialist” nations) comes as no surprise. Capitalism is inevitably imperialistic and so “[w]ar, capitalism and imperialism form a veritable trinity,” to quote Dutch pacifist-syndicalist Bart de Ligt [The Conquest of Violence, p. 64] The growth of big business is such that it can no longer function purely within the national market and so they have to expand internationally to gain advantage in and survive. This, in turn, requires the home state of the corporations also to have global reach in order to defend them and to promote their interests. Hence the economic basis for modern imperialism, with “the capitalistic interests of the various countries fight[ing] for the foreign markets and compete with each other there” and when they “get into trouble about concessions and sources of profit,” they “call upon their respective governments to defend their interests ... to protect the privileges and dividends of some ... capitalist in a foreign country.”[Alexander Berkman, What is Anarchism?, p. 31] Thus a capitalist class needs the power of nation states not only to create internal markets and infrastructure but also to secure and protect international markets and opportunities in a world of rivals and their states.

As power depends on profits within capitalism, this means that modern imperialism is caused more by economic factors than purely political considerations (although, obviously, this factor does play a role). Imperialism serves capital by increasing the pool of profits available for the imperialistic country in the world market as well as reducing the number of potential competitors. As Kropotkin stressed, “capital knows no fatherland; and if high profits can be derived from the work of Indian coolies whose wages are only one-half of those of English workmen [or women], or even less, capital will migrate to India, as it has gone to Russian, although its migration may mean starvation for Lancashire.” [Fields, Factories and Workshops, p. 57]

Therefore, capital will travel to where it can maximise its profits — regardless of the human or environmental costs at home or abroad. This is the economic base for modern imperialism, to ensure that any trade conducted benefits the stronger party more than the weaker one. Whether this trade is between nations or between classes is irrelevant, the aim of imperialism is to give business an advantage on the market. By travelling to where labour is cheap and the labour movement weak (usually thanks to dictatorial regimes), environmental laws few or non-existent, and little stands in the way of corporate power, capital can maximise its profits. Moreover, the export of capital allows a reduction in the competitive pressures faced by companies in the home markets (at least for short periods).

This has two effects. Firstly, the industrially developed nation (or, more correctly corporation based in that nation) can exploit less developed nations. In this way, the dominant power can maximise for itself the benefits created by international trade. If, as some claim, trade always benefits each party, then imperialism allows the benefits of international trade to accrue more to one side than the other. Secondly, it gives big business more weapons to use to weaken the position of labour in the imperialist nation. This, again, allows the benefits of trade (this time the trade of workers liberty for wages) to accrue to more to business rather than to labour.

How this is done and in what manner varies and changes, but the aim is always the same — exploitation.

This can be achieved in many ways. For example, allowing the import of cheaper raw materials and goods; the export of goods to markets sheltered from foreign competitors; the export of capital from capital-rich areas to capital-poor areas as the investing of capital in less industrially developed countries allows the capitalists in question to benefit from lower wages; relocating factories to countries with fewer (or no) social and environmental laws, controls or regulations. All these allow profits to be gathered at the expense of the working people of the oppressed nation (the rulers of these nations generally do well out of imperialism, as would be expected). The initial source of exported capital is, of course, the exploitation of labour at home but it is exported to less developed countries where capital is scarcer and the price of land, labour and raw materials cheaper. These factors all contribute to enlarging profit margins:

“The relationship of these global corporations with the poorer countries had long been an exploiting one ... Whereas U.S. corporations in Europe between 1950 and 1965 invested $8.1 billion and made $5.5 billion in profits, in Latin America they invested $3.8 billion and made $11.2 billion in profits, and in Africa they invested $5.2 billion and made $14.3 bullion in profits.” [Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, p. 556]

Betsy Hartman, looking at the 1980s, concurs. “Despite the popular Western image of the Third World as a bottomless begging bowl,” she observes, “it today gives more to the industrialised world than it takes. Inflows of official ‘aid’ and private loans and investments are exceeded by outflows in the form of repatriated profits, interest payments, and private capital sent abroad by Third World Elites.” [quoted by George Bradford, Woman’s Freedom: Key to the Population Question, p. 77]

In addition, imperialism allows big business to increase its strength with respect to its workforce in the imperialist nation by the threat of switching production to other countries or by using foreign investments to ride out strikes. This is required because, while the “home” working class are still exploited and oppressed, their continual attempts at organising and resisting their exploiters proved more and more successful. As such, “the opposition of the white working classes to the ... capitalist class continually gain[ed] strength, and the workers ... [won] increased wages, shorter hours, insurances, pensions, etc., the white exploiters found it profitable to obtain their labour from men [,women and children] of so-called inferior race ... Capitalists can therefore make infinitely more out there than at home.” [Bart de Ligt, Op. Cit., p. 49]

As such, imperialism (like capitalism) is not only driven by the need to increase profits (important as this is, of course), it is also driven by the class struggle — the need for capital to escape from the strength of the working class in a particular country. From this perspective, the export of capital can be seen in two ways. Firstly, as a means of disciplining rebellious workers at home by an “investment strike” (capital, in effect, runs away, so causing unemployment which disciplines the rebels). Secondly, as a way to increase the ‘reserve army’ of the unemployed facing working people in the imperialist nations by creating new competitors for their jobs (i.e. dividing, and so ruling, workers by playing one set of workers against another). Both are related, of course, and both seek to weaken working class power by the fear of unemployment. This process played a key role in the rise of globalisation.

Thus imperialism, which is rooted in the search from surplus profits for big business, is also a response to working class power at home. The export of capital is done by emerging and established transnational companies to overcome a militant and class consciousness working class which is often too advanced for heavy exploitation, and finance capital can make easier and bigger profits by investing productive capital elsewhere. It aids the bargaining position of business by pitting the workers in one country against another, so while they are being exploited by the same set of bosses, those bosses can use this fictional “competition” of foreign workers to squeeze concessions from workers at home.

Imperialism has another function, namely to hinder or control the industrialisation of other countries. Such industrialisation will, of course, mean the emergence of new capitalists, who will compete with the existing ones both in the “less developed” countries and in the world market as a whole. Imperialism, therefore, attempts to reduce competition on the world market. As we discuss in the next section, the nineteenth century saw the industrialisation of many European nations as well as America, Japan and Russia by means of state intervention. However, this state-led industrialisation had a drawback, namely that it created more and more competitors on the world market. Moreover, as Kropotkin noted, they have the advantage that the “new manufacturers ... begin where” the old have “arrived after a century of experiments and groupings” and so they “are built according to the newest and best models which have been worked out elsewhere.” [Op. Cit., p. 32 and p. 49] Hence the need to stop new competitors and secure raw materials and markets, which was achieved by colonialism:

“Industries of all kinds decentralise and are scattered all over the globe; and everywhere a variety, an integrated variety, of trades grows, instead of specialisation ... each nation becomes in its turn a manufacturing nation ... For each new-comer the first steps only are difficult ... The fact is so well felt, if not understood, that the race for colonies has become the distinctive feature of the last twenty years [Kropotkin is writing in 1912]. Each nation will have her own colonies. But colonies will not help.” [Op. Cit., p. 75]

Imperialism hinders industrialisation in two ways. The first way was direct colonisation, a system which has effectively ended. The second is by indirect means — namely the extraction of profits by international big business. A directly dominated country can be stopped from developing industry and be forced to specialise as a provider of raw materials. This was the aim of “classic” imperialism, with its empires and colonial wars. By means of colonisation, the imperialist powers ensure that the less-developed nation stays that way — so ensuring one less competitor as well as favourable access to raw materials and cheap labour. French anarchist Elisee Reclus rightly called this a process of creating“colonies of exploitation.” [quoted by John P Clark and Camille Martin (eds.), Anarchy, Geography, Modernity, p. 92]

This approach has been superseded by indirect means (see next section). Globalisation can be seen as an intensification of this process. By codifying into international agreements the ability of corporations to sue nation states for violating “free trade,” the possibility of new competitor nations developing is weakened. Industrialisation will be dependent on transnational corporations and so development will be hindered and directed to ensure corporate profits and power. Unsurprisingly, those nations which have industrialised over the last few decades (such as the East Asian Tiger economies) have done so by using the state to protect industry and control international finance.

The new attack of the capitalist class (“globalisation”) is a means of plundering local capitalists and diminish their power and area of control. The steady weakening and ultimate collapse of the Eastern Block (in terms of economic/political performance and ideological appeal) also played a role in this process. The end of the Cold War meant a reduction in the space available for local elites to manoeuvre. Before this local ruling classes could, if they were lucky, use the struggle between US and USSR imperialism to give them a breathing space in which they could exploit to pursue their own agenda (within limits, of course, and with the blessing of the imperialist power in whose orbit they were in). The Eastern Tiger economies were an example of this process at work. The West could use them to provide cheap imports for the home market as well as in the ideological conflict of the Cold War as an example of the benefits of the “free market” (not that they were) and the ruling elites, while maintaining a pro-west and pro-business environment (by force directed against their own populations, of course), could pursue their own economic strategies. With the end of the Cold War, this factor is no longer in play and the newly industrialised nations are now an obvious economic competitor. The local elites are now “encouraged” (by economic blackmail via the World Bank and the IMF) to embrace US economic ideology. Just as neo-liberalism attacks the welfare state in the Imperialist nations, so it results in a lower tolerance of local capital in “less developed” nations.

However, while imperialism is driven by the needs of capitalism it cannot end the contradictions inherent in that system. As Reclus put it in the late nineteenth century, “the theatre expands, since it now embraces the whole of the land and seas. But the forces that struggled against one another in each particularly state are precisely those that fight across the earth. In each country, capital seeks to subdue the workers. Similarly, on the level of the broadest world market, capital, which had grown enormously, disregards all the old borders and seeks to put the entire mass of producers to work on behalf of its profits, and to secure all the consumers in the world.” [Reclus, quoted by Clark and Martin (eds.), Op. Cit., p. 97]

This struggle for markets and resources does, by necessity, lead to conflict. This may be the wars of conquest required to initially dominate an economically “backward” nation (such as the US invasion of the Philippines, the conquest of Africa by West European states, and so on) or maintain that dominance once it has been achieved (such as the Vietnam War, the Algerian War, the Gulf War and so on). Or it may be the wars between major imperialist powers once the competition for markets and colonies reaches a point when they cannot be settled peacefully (as in the First and Second World Wars). As Kropotkin argued:

“men no longer fight for the pleasure of kings, they fight for the integrity of revenues and for the growing wealth ... [for the] benefit of the barons of high finance and industry ... [P]olitical preponderance ... is quite simply a matter of economic preponderance in international markets. What Germany, France, Russia, England, and Austria are all trying to win ... is not military preponderance: it is economic domination. It is the right to impose their goods and their customs tariffs on their neighbours; the right to exploit industrially backward peoples; the privilege of building railroads ... to appropriate from a neighbour either a port which will activate commerce, or a province where surplus merchandise can be unloaded ... When we fight today, it is to guarantee our great industrialists a profit of 30%, to assure the financial barons their domination at the Bourse [stock-exchange], and to provide the shareholders of mines and railways with their incomes.” [Words of a Rebel, pp. 65–6]

In summary, current imperialism is caused by, and always serves, the needs and interests of Capital. If it did not, if imperialism were bad for business, the business class would oppose it. This partly explains why the colonialism of the 19thcentury is no more (the other reasons being social resistance to foreign domination, which obviously helped to make imperialism bad for business as well, and the need for US imperialism to gain access to these markets after the second world war). There are now more cost-effective means than direct colonialism to ensure that “underdeveloped” countries remain open to exploitation by foreign capital. Once the costs exceeded the benefits, colonialist imperialism changed into the neo-colonialism of multinationals, political influence, and the threat of force. Moreover, we must not forget that any change in imperialism relates to changes in the underlying economic system and so the changing nature of modern imperialism can be roughly linked to developments within the capitalist economy.

Imperialism, then, is basically the ability of countries to globally and locally dictate trade relations and investments with other countries in such a way as to gain an advantage over the other countries. When capital is invested in foreign nations, the surplus value extracted from the workers in those nations are not re-invested in those nations. Rather a sizeable part of it returns to the base nation of the corporation (in the form of profits for that company). Indeed, that is to be expected as the whole reason for the investment of capital in the first place was to get more out of the country than the corporation put into it. Instead of this surplus value being re-invested into industry in the less-developed nation (as would be the case with home-grown exploiters, who are dependent on local markets and labour) it ends up in the hands of foreign exploiters who take them out of the dominated country. This means that industrial development as less resources to draw on, making the local ruling class dependent on foreign capital and its whims.

This can be done directly (by means of invasion and colonies) or indirectly (by means of economic and political power). Which method is used depends on the specific circumstances facing the countries in question. Moreover, it depends on the balance of class forces within each country as well (for example, a nation with a militant working class would be less likely to pursue a war policy due to the social costs involved). However, the aim of imperialism is always to enrich and empower the capitalist and bureaucratic classes.



Freedom – Equality – Solidarity


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