A presentation by Bryce McMurtry to the Socialist Action U of T Club on October 25, 2023.
The common definition of imperialism is the extension of a country’s power into other territories for political and economic control. But there is more to it than that. This presentation is drawn largely from Cliff Connor’s “History of Imperialism: A Short Course on how Capitalism Came to Dominate the World.”
Early forms of imperialism, going back to 2334 BC with the Akkadian empire, were maintained by military force, for the purpose of tribute payment. Conquered city-states could voluntarily hand over their wealth, or could be sacked and looted. Soldiers, police, and bureaucrats used the threat of violence to coerce populations into submission—amounting to little more than, from page 2, “a much more sophisticated form of robbery.”
Fast forward to the 1400s—the Ming Dynasty’s armada of hundreds of massive ships with thousands of troops on board—unparalleled until World War I—controlled ocean routes necessary for long-distance trade, which amounted to world control.
At the same time, European society was comparatively backward. It was not unified and had no central political authority, which turned out to be an advantage. In 1435 the Ming Dynasty returned their boats to shore and scrapped them. The ocean routes were free for the taking.
While there was no emperor of Europe, small nations did have powerful and wealthy monarchs who bankrolled ocean expeditions in search of profit. Emerging out of feudalism and into capitalism, Europe’s relationship with land—private property as a source of productivity and profit rather than a source of life—was able to spread over the entire globe, with virtually no impediment. European nations came to dominate global trade by gunning down pirates and using the threat of violence to intimidate locals into compliance.
As the wealth of the merchant class grew, monarchs would not seize their wealth, but rather borrowed from it in the form of loans to finance imperial expeditions. The effects of European wealth compounded. New sailing and military technology allowed for further domination—local ways of life were violently replaced with a rapidly expanding capitalist economic system. Anywhere resources could be extracted and sold for profit, ships were sent, and local populations were subject to endless catastrophes, what Cliff Connor refers to as “demographic collapse.”
The deadliest part of contact was not violence but disease, oftentimes intentionally spread. Once that had done its work, genocide and slavery was used to take control of land and its people, extract its resources, and bring them back to Europe, with returns somewhat similar to winning the lottery today. In Charles W. Mills’ book The Racial Contract (1997), it is estimated that altogether there were around 100 million victims, or 95 percent of the Indigenous populations of the Americas (98). The population vacuum was filled by European settlers and African slaves, in a system that saw between 30 and 60 million Africans killed for profit.
It is not a coincidence that some of the wealthiest colonies are now some of the most ‘underdeveloped’ countries today. Those colonies were developed for the purpose of resource and wealth extraction, not development for the benefit of the inhabitants, who were often times forced to extract the resources under their own feet and give them to imperialist powers. With all the wealth leaving, local and Indigenous populations were mired in poverty, As imperialist outposts grew to cover vast land masses, governing immense territories proved difficult—so, systems of control were implemented. In India that included a small cadre of British civil servants, 20,000 European soldiers, and 150,000 local recruits who policed their own people for the British Empire. Using local populations to police themselves was a common method of social control.
China, an imperial holdout, was eventually forced into this capitalist system by British gunboat diplomacy in the mid-1800s, and China was finally able to be used by imperialist nations as a source of imperial wealth. On page 13 Connor describes how Western imperial powers “jointly propped up the existing Chinese dynasty government, but its function was to police its own people and make China safe for Western business,” effectively ending Chinese sovereignty. A similar process occurred in Japan, which found itself at the wrong end of American warships demanding Japan participate in the global capitalist system, or “free trade” as it is commonly called. Consider how “free” this system of trade really was.
By this time, in the 1800s, imperialism became less militarised and more industrialised—developments in industrial technology in Britain were able to increase productivity, which in turn increased economic needs. From page 14:
“First of all, new factories created a demand for more raw materials. Secondly, there was a need for more customers to buy the mountains of new products that the factories were churning out. And third, as the capitalists amassed more and more wealth, they found themselves with a new dilemma. They seemed to be running out of profitable ways to invest all the money—all that surplus capital—that they had piled up.”
To continue economic expansion, new materials, new resources, and new markets were required—and so were new workers. Luckily for them, there were endless workers in Asia, Africa, and Latin America to be exploited—what Marx called the industrial reserve army of labour. This reserve army ensures that the supply of labour always exceeds demand and keeps workers in competition with one another for low wages — an important feature of capitalism that maximises profit and minimises cost.
In Marxian terms, exploitation refers to the extraction, by the capitalist class, of surplus wealth from workers. In other words, the surplus value is the amount of profit made from sales after paying for the materials, the means of production, and workers’ wages, and other overhead costs.
With new markets opening up, by the early 1900s, the export of capital increased dramatically, and
“between 1910 and 1913, England was sending about half of its savings abroad as foreign investment. In 1914, it had about 3.7 billion pounds sterling invested abroad, about half of which was invested in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.”
By this time, imperialism had covered most, if not all, of the globe. The indirect or informal control of foreign territories became increasingly difficult to maintain given the high level of competition between Western imperialist nations, so more direct approaches were taken. European nations began to draw borders around territories that, in their eyes, were their property—-they ‘belonged’ to imperial powers—and territorial possessions were converted into formal colonies under direct European rule. Cliff Connor on page 15 describes the situation in Nigeria, where
“About 2,000 Englishmen made up a government that ruled 40 million Africans. Those 2,000 Englishmen … had to recruit and train a cadre of Africans to help them administer the country. It was European-trained Africans such as these who formed the pro-Western elites of the African nations that won their political independence after World War II.”
At the end of the 1800s, European nations engaged in the “Scramble for Africa” and partitioned Africa into pieces that suited imperial resource interests. We can see how these processes play out in the long term by looking at the recent coup in Niger. Niger is a uranium-rich nation and a French colony that France exploits for its national nuclear power system, run by the private company Orano (formerly Ariva). While the company is technically private, it is 90% owned by the French state. As one can see, material conditions for workers in France are better than the material conditions in Niger, and France is, effectively, taking Niger’s uranium to maintain its own power grid. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, with its own tragic history in dealing with Belgian imperialism, is a particularly egregious case, and is essentially a corporate slave state that supplies materials like cobalt for Northern consumers’ electric car batteries—a relatively unspoken casualty of the push to make things “green.”
With nations come nationalism. Through mass media, as happens today, capitalists were able to stoke nationalist sentiments at home and manipulate the public into believing “there was something glorious about their nation taking possession of other parts of the world.” Nationalist sentiment combined with racism, and with Indigenous populations around the world “officially” deemed as barbaric, savage, and uncivilised, just to name a few epithets that we still see deployed to this day, on the front page of the National Post this month, for example. Imperialism and colonialism were justified as “civilising missions,” for the benefit of Indigenous populations, to “lift” them out of their perceived sub-humanity.
At the same time, industrialisation created large unemployed populations in the imperial or colonial core, who posed a, quote unquote, “revolutionary threat.” To prevent this problem before it got too out of hand, “social imperialism” was proposed, and “excess populations [were] encouraged to emigrate to the colonies as settlers. Europe exported more of its own people to the United States than anywhere else, but in the case of Africa, as Connor quotes on page 17:
“Colonial governments intervened decisively on behalf of European settlers, took large areas of African land, and reserved it for exclusive white ownership. In Kenya’s ‘white highlands.’ some four thousand white farmers owned 7.3 million acres of the colony’s richest land. Even more extreme was the situation in South Africa, where the Land Act of 1913 legally reserved 88 percent of the land for whites, who constituted only 20 percent of the population.”
By 1914, Europe controlled about 85 percent of the land globally, and a North-South global division of labour had taken hold, a division still evident. Colonial rivalries ended up in two massive wars, with millions killed. In 1945 the United States had emerged as the new global superpower.
Lenin understood imperialism to be the domination of finance capital, and that when European countries were using imperialism not to develop nations, but rather to under-develop nations and inhibit their technological progress. He argued that “modern imperialism,” in its direct colonial form in Africa and its informal domination of Latin America, “is a natural extension of the development of capitalism—its ‘highest stage’—and could only be eliminated by means of a successful worldwide anticapitalist revolution.”
Over time, colonised nations sought to shake their colonial bonds. With nations of people rising up against colonial rulers, and the unsustainable costs of world domination, countries decolonised and by the mid-1960s many were, ‘officially,’ independent sovereign nations. The word ‘independent’ did a lot of heavy lifting—the former colonies were still subordinated under economic control to their industrialised masters. In fact, local populations had been basically brainwashed—educated and assimilated into European values and patterns of behaviour, speaking the language of the oppressor and holding skilled or professional jobs. In the Congo these folks—there were 175,000 of them in 1958—were called évolués, or “evolved ones.” In 1958, there were around 175,000 ‘evolved ones,’ all with good knowledge of the French language and Christianity. They were afforded special privileges, like being exempt from travel restrictions or being legally equal to Europeans. Systems like these helped maintain imperial control over distant territories. This new system was called “neo-imperialism,” but retained the same basic features as before.
In a rhetorical sleight of hand, European nations argued that imperialism no longer existed, and once-subjugated nations were now free to develop their own economies independently. If they were doing a poor job at growing their own economies, familiar excuses were made: they were incapable of self governance, they were better off under colonial rule, and the like. Of course this was not true, at least in part because of the systems I described earlier. Excuses like those also obscure the fact that these nations were held back at the starting line, while European nations stole their resources and profited from their theft, giving themselves a centuries-long head start—while still maintaining the same economic relationship.
Another problem emerged. Colonised nations, now (ostensibly) free to develop their own economies, had seen their resource wealth leave the country—their coffers were relatively empty, and they needed to industrialise to participate in the capitalist system. Not only is this a deadly process, it also requires significant amounts of capital. These nations tried to develop their own economies. As we all know, the cost of imported goods and materials only increases—it never decreases—and the price of the goods and resources newly independent nations were exporting was held low in what is known as “deteriorating conditions of trade.” Connor, on page 20, cites Fidel Castro’s example:
“In 1959, Cuba could purchase a 60-horsepower tractor for 24 tons of sugar, but by 1982 it needed 115 pounds of sugar to buy the same tractor.”
This indicates a lopsided system of ‘free trade’ that still served to benefit powerful nations at the expense of less powerful ones. The other alternative was to borrow money or capital; however, as a consequence of centuries of imperialism, these could only be obtained from Europe. Earlier I explained how colonies were developed for profit, not for the benefit of the local or Indigenous populations—this same dynamic marked this new investment process: money and capital are lent with the expectation of returns, not with the expectations of meeting human need or the benefit of the newly independent economies. Another issue faced the former colonial nations—“foreign investment tends to go into high-tech industries, which are capital intensive rather than labour intensive,” and despite capitalist reassurances of job creation, in reality few jobs were actually created. Connor on page 21 says
“The oil industry in Nigeria, for example, which accounted for 94 percent of its exports in 1978, generated fewer than 20,000 jobs for a population of more than 75 million.”
Investment does not go into projects that would benefit the formerly colonised nation, but rather into projects that would guarantee profit. One can see that this is the case with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund’s structural adjustment policies, or loans given to poor nations in need of financial assistance, under conditions that they restructure their economies to meet the needs of foreign markets. Nations are consequently forced into austerity, large portions of their national budgets are redirected to debt repayments, and whatever commodity they are coerced into growing gets exported and the wealth leaves with it—the cause, and not a solution, to Africa’s economic backwardness. If a nation exports all of its food, no longer sustainable local crops but instead crops meant to feed Northern markets, and even when productivity increases, and more food is grown that ever before, local populations are underfed.
Connor, on page 23, cites the example of famine in Africa:
“In the early 1980s, for example, there was a major drought and several African countries experienced a terrible famine; the hardest hit were Burkina-Faso, Mali, Niger, Senegal, and Chad. At the height of the famine, 1983-1984, ‘these countries produced a record 154 million tons of cotton’ for export.”
These countries are in a double-bind. If they do nothing, they will be exploited to oblivion. If they resist, and try to change their material conditions, they experience violence at the hands of imperial powers—this is how the system spread, and is how the system is maintained to this day—we can see it being played out in real time in the West Bank and Gaza.
Some countries fared better than others. Japan made it by becoming an imperial power—an option that is no longer in reach of other countries. Some Asian nations like Taiwan and South Korea have experienced significant economic gains, but as Connor argues on page 25,
“after China successfully broke the grip of imperialism and withdrew from the world system in the mid-1950s, and after the Korean War, the United States determined to make Taiwan and South Korea showcases of Asian capitalism, so a political decision was made to modernise the economies of these two countries. They were expected to play the role of outposts of imperialism in the Far East, very much as Israel was intended to function as an outpost of imperialism in the Middle East.”
Any hope of anti-imperialist success requires the active participation and solidarity of the working class that lives in the imperial core. The best possible option is an end to global capitalism as we know it and the implementation of a socialist system in its stead.