Today, the world is for the first time truly an "empire of
capital" - capitalism writ large. Capitalism is
more universal than ever before.
Marx dated the first beginnings of capitalist production as far back as the 14th century. With the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th and early 19th century, capitalism became much more widespread and dynamic. But until the late 20th century, in much of the world, capitalist production was still a small foreign-connected enclave within societies mostly organised around pre-capitalist production on the land.
Peasants of one sort or another - working their own plots or paying dues to a landlord - are still a large proportion of the world's workforce, probably still almost as numerous as wage-workers.
In many poorer countries, the regularly and legally employed section of the wage-working class is still a relatively small minority, surrounded by and shading off into a vast social category of erratically-employed or semi-employed workers, which in turn shades off into another vast category of urban poor, petty traders, petty
But today, almost every country is integrated in complex and multiple ways into global capitalist markets. In almost every country, fully-fledged capitalist production - in factories, offices, mines, plantations, and farms - is the dominant dynamic sector of the economy. The working class is more numerous.
That does not mean that the world is being "levelled up" to a uniform prosperity. Far from it.
The ripping off of the workers and peasants of the ex-colonial countries continues, but with the Armani-suited international banker replacing the colonial soldier and tax collector. Today's "imperialism of free trade" is the domination of rich over poor and richer nations over poorer nations, achieved primarily (to use a
phrase from Marx) by "the dull compulsion of economic relations. Direct force, outside economic conditions, is still used, but only in exceptional circumstances" - rather than as the rule, as it was under the "high imperialism" of the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century.
The imperialism of free trade
Historians called British imperialism in the early 19th century "the imperialism of free trade". For example, in South America Britain had no need to establish its colonial rule in place of Spain's. The supremacy of British industry gave it economic dominance and, with that, political influence.
A new, multi-faceted, universal "imperialism of free trade" is the main form
"Free trade" is never the automatic, impersonal process depicted by the economic textbooks. It is brutal, gouging, corrupt, cut-throat competition.
In each country, the capitalist market economy, despite having "the dull compulsion of economic relations" at the core of its relations of exploitation, requires more police, more military and more government than pre-feudal or
tribute-paying economies. Globally, the political actions of IMF and World Bank officials, of World Trade Organisation negotiators and business executives who fly around the world requesting and giving bribes, and of the metropolitan administrators of military and economic aid programmes, all count for much. So do bribes,
diplomatic pressure, selectively-administered "aid", and, sometimes, direct military action.
But the basic goal of the big multinationals and banks is a world open to the free flow of their products and their capital. Weaker capitalist states either join such a world, in spite of the disadvantages for them, or are excluded, only to suffer even greater disadvantages.
Epochs of imperialism
There have been three distinct epochs of modern imperialism:
1) Between the 1870s and the end of World War Two, "imperialism" meant a world divided into
rival colonial empires. The big capitalist states ruled over millions of people in societies with
little capitalist development, using these countries as sources of raw materials, captive
markets for manufactured exports and sites where capital could be exported to win dividends,
interest and profits.
The big capitalist powers used colonial or semi-colonial rule because they could do so fairly cheaply. Having an army on the ground offered advantages to the colonial power as against other big powers. It gave teeth to local
administrations which allowed them to drive the population into the world-market economy,
squeezing out raw materials and making markets for exports from the "home country".
2) In the second epoch, between World War Two and 1989, the USSR practised direct, crude, military-political imperialism in its sphere of influence. To counter it, the USA promoted an "imperialism of free trade". Generally, the USA favoured the break-up of the old colonial empires controlled by Britain, France and other European powers. The US did this because its capital could dominate through economic clout, and because it feared that the emerging independence movements in the colonies would be pushed towards seeking alliances with the USSR.
The USA also used direct, murderous, often huge military force to police its sphere of
influence, if any country "went communist" or threatened to do so - Vietnam 1965-1975, Cuba in
the 1960s, Nicaragua after 1979.
And in its Central American "backyard", at least up to the 1960s, the USA was a semi-colonial power. The Marines were sent in to fight against reformist threats to the super-profits of the big American corporations
that dominated whole countries based on the export of bananas, coffee, or whatever.
When US strategists found a dictator who offered more stable, compliant local rule than a reforming alternative they backed him. The US line - "he may be a son-of-a-bitch, but he's our son-of-a-bitch" - was coined for Trujillo in the Dominican Republic and also used for Somoza in Nicaragua and Batista in Cuba. The USA used its military and/or intelligence forces to transform its pet dictators into pillars of what it called "the free world". The same sort of thing went on in Chile (Pinochet), Iran (the Shah) and in Indonesia (Suharto).
But the USA did not want governor-generals. It did not want trade blocs tying poorer countries to its economy. It
tolerated nationalisations and protective tariffs enacted by ex-colonial governments, so long as
they remained in its orbit.
South Korea, for example, was kept under US influence at the cost of a full scale war against Stalinist North Korea (1950-53). South Korea's industry was used as a supply base for the US war in Vietnam. Yet Korea had a
"nationalist" industrial policy, based on local ownership, and with more Japanese than US capital. South Korea's position in the US "imperialism of free trade" was very different from its position in the Japanese old-style
colonial empire before World War Two.
3) The collapse of the Stalinist bloc in 1989-91 allowed the USA to push for a whole world based on the "imperialism of free trade". At the same time, radically lower communication and transport costs; changes in manufacturing (especially of less bulky goods); and the strengthening of capitalism in several poorer
countries so that they now have the state power and the infrastructure to become sites for world-market industry, have helped a new structure emerge.
And it's not the work of the USA alone. Other capitalist powers - big and small - have joined in, because once the push is underway joining in means fewer disadvantages than staying out. Most poor countries now rely mostly on
manufactured exports rather than on the raw-material exports that dominated them in previous eras. The USA imports more manufactured goods from the "Third World" than it imports. The structure of world trade in agricultural products has changed, too. The biggest exporters of bulk, low-priced agricultural products are the USA and
Europe. Poorer countries' agriculture has shifted towards "agri-business" producing higher-priced speciality products for export to richer countries.
International bodies like the WTO, the IMF, the European Union, and the UN have increased their weight, although we are a great distance away from "world government". The pressures towards a world of three big trade
blocs (the Americas, Europe and Japan-centred Asia) have been subordinated to a more general
The basic shift from colonial "high" imperialism was made possible by economic shifts, but it had nothing to do with the metropolitan profiteers "mellowing". The social and political awakening of the peoples of Africa, Asia and Latin America, their transformation from populations with dispersed and illiterate peasant majorities into nations with big cities, substantial working classes, autonomous bourgeois classes and some industry of their own, made the risk and expense of colonial and semi-colonial rule too great for the metropolitan powers.
The end of imperialism?
Imperialism has seen many forms. It would be pedantic dogmatism to claim that today's "imperialism of free trade", led by the IMF, the World Bank, big commercial banks, transnational corporations, and flanked by the military power of the US and NATO, is not a form of imperialism.
Some argue that "imperialism" can be defined by rehashing the picture of the world given in a famous pamphlet by Lenin which described how the pre-1914 world of rival colonial empires had led to World War One. But that argument is no better when used to claim that the world today is not imperialist than when used to insist that, being imperialist, it must correspond to that "Leninist" picture.
Imperialism still destroys and oppresses, maybe on a larger scale than before. It is a system that conveys the fruits of the world's labour to the billionaires. Poverty remains. Inequality increases. Yet the shifts have immense political significance.
Today's "empire" of global capital must be fought by working-class struggle. Local capitalists are the first-line enemy. If local capitalists (as a whole, or factions among them) call on workers and peasants to rally behind them
in the name of "anti-imperialism" or "national independence", generally they're lying or promoting national chauvinism.
In the early and mid 20th century, when Marxists wrote about "driving imperialism out" of a country and wresting a country from "imperialism's grip", no confusion resulted. They meant the struggle for national independence from
the controlling colonial or semi-colonial power.
To continue that sort of usage in today's epoch of the "imperialism of free trade" is confusing. With a few exceptions, battles for "national independence" today are a snare. Most ex-colonial states have as much political
independence as is possible in a dog-eat-dog capitalist world. No extra measure of "independence" can undo economic dominance.
International banks have the dollars needed for global trade. Transnational corporations have the technologies needed for world-competitive production. To "wrest a country from the grip of the imperialism of free trade" would be to wall it off from the world market. This would be more destructive than integrating it into the world
And to use the word "imperialist" in the 21st century as a way of branding advanced capitalism as a particularly bad form of capitalism is misleading. What's to be fought in advanced capitalism is capitalism, not advance!
Old-style military-conquest imperialism is practised today most often by smaller, "sub-imperialist" powers who have to resort to risky methods because of their lack of economic strength. The term "sub-imperialist" has been
used since the 1940s to describe some of the strongest ex-colonial states.
Brazilian capital, for example, has acquired its share of "command points" largely by economic-based means. But it's not so easy for smaller states. In recent decades some ex-colonial countries have dominated their neighbours militarily while having little economic clout. They have used old imperialist methods. For example Turkey in Kurdistan and Cyprus. Serbia in Kosova. Iraq in Kurdistan and Kuwait. Indonesia in East Timor. Morocco in the
Western Sahara. Libya in Chad. Ethiopia in Eritrea. Argentina in the Falklands.
This "paleo-imperialism" is a small-scale parody of high imperialism in the late 19th century. It's not a progressive alternative to economic domination by big powers. It may clash with the "imperialism of free trade" and with the USA as chief policeman of this new order - or cooperate with it as a junior partner.
But even when it clashes with the USA, "paleo-imperialism" does not represent liberation. It does not tackle underdevelopment. It does not lead to a fairer, more equal society. Only independent working class struggle can do
this. And the good news isŠ the working class is growing in numbers and often in organisation, across the ex-colonial world.