What causes imperialism?



In a word: power. Imperialism is the process by which one country dominates another directly, by political means, or indirectly, by economic means.

As we will discuss in the following sections, imperialism has changed over time, particularly during the last one hundred years (where its forms and methods have evolved with the evolving needs of capitalism). But even in the classic days of empire building imperialism was driven by economic forces. In order to make one's state secure, it had to be based on a strong economy; and by increasing the area controlled by the state, one increased the wealth available. Therefore states, by their nature, are expansionist bodies, with those who run them always wanting to increase the range of their power and influence. This can be best seen from the massive number of wars that have occurred in Europe over the last 500 years, as nation-states were created by Kings declaring lands to be their private property.

Here we will focus mainly on modern capitalist imperialism. As power depends on profits within capitalism, this means that modern imperialism is caused more by profit and other economic factors than purely political considerations (although, obviously, this factor does play a role). As will be seen in section D.5.1, imperialism serves capital by increasing the pool of profits available for the imperialistic country in the world market. This is the economic base for imperialism, allowing the import of cheaper raw materials and goods and the export of capital from capital-rich areas to capital-poor areas (in order to benefit from lower wages and fewer environmental and social controls and laws). Both allow profits to be gathered at the expense of the oppressed nation. In addition, having an empire means that products produced cheaply at home can be easily dumped into foreign markets with less developed industry, undercutting locally produced goods and consequently destroying the local economy along with the society and culture based on it. Empire building is a good way of creating privileged markets for one's goods.



Since capitalism, by its very nature, is growth-based, it must expand in order to survive. Hence capitalism is inevitably imperialistic. In pre-capitalist societies, there is often extensive cultural resistance to the attempts of foreign capitalists to promote the growth of the free market. However, "primitive" people's desire to be "left alone" was rarely respected, and "civilisation" was forced upon them "for their own good." As Kropotkin realised, "force is necessary to continually bring new 'uncivilised nations' under the same conditions [of wage labour]" [Anarchism and Anarchist Communism, p. 53]

Imperialism has always served the interests of Capital. If it did not, if imperialism was bad for business, the business class would have opposed it. This partly explains why the colonialism of the 19th century is no more (the other reason being social resistance to foreign domination, which obviously helped to make imperialism bad for business as well). 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 (see next section).

As Capital grew in size, its need to expand into foreign markets caused it to be closely linked with the nation-state. As there were a number of competing capitalist nations, however, tension and conflict developed between them for control of non-capitalist areas to exploit. It was this international competition between developed nations that led to both World Wars.

After the Second World War, the European countries yielded to pressure from the USA and national liberation movements and grated many former countries "independence" (not, we may add, that the USA was being altruistic in its actions, independence for colonies weakened its rivals as well as allowing US capital access to these markets). This process was accompanied by capital expanding beyond the nation-state into multinational corporations. The nature of imperialism and imperialistic wars has changed accordingly. Today, instead of direct rule over less developed nations (which is too costly), indirect forms of domination are now preferred, with force resorted to only if "business interests" are threatened. Examples of new-style imperialistic wars include Vietnam, the US support for the Contras in Nicaragua and the Gulf War. Political and economic power (e.g. the threat of capital flight or sanctions) is used to keep markets open for corporations based in the advanced nations, with military intervention being used only when required.

Needless to say, the Soviet Union also participated in imperialist adventures, although on a lesser scale and for slightly different reasons. As can be seen by Russia's ruthless policy towards her satellites, Russian imperialism was more inclined to the defence of what she already had and the creation of a buffer zone between herself and the West. Unlike most Empires, the flow of money was usually out of, not into, the Soviet Union. The Soviet elite also aided "anti-imperialist" movements when it served their interests which (along with US pressure which closed off other options) placed them within the Soviet sphere of influence

Obviously anarchists are opposed to imperialism and imperialistic wars. It is impossible to be free while dependent on the power of someone else. If the capital one uses is owned by another country, one is in no position to resist the demands of that country. To be self-governing, a community must be economically independent. The centralisation of capital implied by imperialism means that power rests in the hands of others, not with those directly affected by the decisions made by that power. Thus capitalism soon makes a decentralised economy, and so a free society, impossible.

This does not mean that anarchists blindly support national liberation movements or any form of nationalism. Anarchists oppose nationalism just as much as they oppose imperialism - neither offer a way to a free society (see sections D.6 and D.7 for more details)

D.5.1 How has imperialism changed over time?

Imperialism has important economic advantages for those who run the economy. As the needs of the business class change, the forms taken by imperialism also change. We can identify three main phases: classical imperialism (i.e. conquest), indirect (economic) imperialism, and globalisation. We will consider the first two in this section and globalisation in section D.5.3. However, for all the talk of globalisation in recent years, it is important to remember that capitalism has always been an international system and that the changing forms of imperialism reflect this international nature and that the changes within imperialism are in response to developments within capitalism itself.

Direct conquest had the advantage of opening up more of the planet for the capitalist market, thus leading to more trade and exploitation of raw materials and labour (and often slavery as well). This gave a massive boost to both the state and the industries of the invading country in terms of new profits, so allowing an increase in the number of capitalists and other social parasites that could exist in the developed nation. As Kropotkin noted at the time, "British, French, Belgian and other capitalists, by means of the ease with which they exploit countries which themselves have no developed industry, today control the labour of hundreds of millions of those people in Eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa. The result is that the number of those people in the leading industrialised countries of Europe who live off the work of others doesn't gradually decrease at all. Far from it." ["Anarchism and Syndicalism", in Black Flag number 210, p. 26].

This process of expansion into non-capitalist areas also helps Capital to weather both the subjective and objective economic pressures upon it which cause the business cycle (see sections C.7 - "What causes the capitalist business cycle?" for more on these). As wealth looted from "primitive" countries is exported back to the home country, profit levels can be protected both from working-class demands and from any relative decline in surplus-value production caused by increased capital investment (see section C.2 for more on surplus value). In fact, imperialism often allowed the working class of the invading country to receive improved wages and living conditions as the looted wealth was imported into the country. And as the sons and daughters of the poor emigrated to the colonies to make a living for themselves on stolen land, the wealth extracted from those colonies helped to overcome the reduction in the supply of labour at home which would increase its market price. This loot also helps reduce competitive pressures on the nation's economy. Of course, these advantages of conquest cannot totally stop the business cycle nor eliminate competition, as the imperialistic nations soon discovered.

This first phase of imperialism began as the growing capitalist economy started to reach the boundaries of the nationalised market created by the state within its own borders. Imperialism was then used to expand the area that could be colonised by the capital associated with a given nation-state. This stage ended, however, once the dominant powers had carved up the planet into different spheres of influence and there was nowhere new left to expand. In the competition to increase sales and access to cheap raw materials and foreign markets, nation-states came into conflict with each other. As it was obvious that a conflict was brewing, the major European countries tried to organise a "balance of power." This meant that armies were built and navies created to frighten other countries and so deter war. Unfortunately, these measures were not enough to countermand the economic and power processes at play. War did break out, a war over empires and influence, a war, it was claimed, that would end all wars. As we now know, of course, it did not.

After the First World War, the identification of nation-state with national capital became even more obvious, and can be seen in the rise of extensive state intervention to keep capitalism going -- for example, the rise of Fascism in Italy and Germany and the efforts of "national" governments in Britain and the USA to "solve" the economic crisis of the Great Depression. As protectionist methods increased and capital growth stagnated, another war was only a matter of time.

After the Second World War, imperialism changed under the pressure of various national liberation movements. As Kropotkin realised, such social movements were to be expected for with the growth of capitalism "the number of people with an interest in the capitulation of the capitalist state system also increases." [Peter Kropotkin, Op. Cit., p. 26] Unfortunately these "liberation" movements transformed mass struggle from a potential struggle against capitalism into movements aiming for independent capitalist nation states. However, these struggles ensured that capitalism had to change itself in face of popular resistance and the old form of imperialism was replaced by a new system of "neo-colonialism" in which newly "independent" colonies are forced, via political and economic pressure, to open their borders to foreign capital. If a state takes up a position which the imperial powers consider "bad for business," action will be taken, from sanctions to outright invasion. Keeping the world open and "free" for capitalist exploitation has been America's general policy since 1945. It springs directly from the expansion requirements of private capital and so cannot be changed.

Capital investments in developing nations have increased steadily over the years, with profits from the exploitation of cheap labour flowing back into the pockets of the corporate elite in the imperialist nation, not to its citizens as a whole (though there are sometimes temporary benefits to other classes, as discussed below). In addition, other countries are "encouraged" to buy imperialist countries' goods (often in exchange for "aid", typically military "aid") and open their markets to the dominant power's companies and their products. Imperialism is the only means of defending the foreign investments of a nation's capitalist class, and by allowing the extraction of profits and the creation of markets, it also safeguards the future of private capital.

So, imperialism remains intact, as Western (namely U.S.) governments continue to provide lavish funds to petty right-wing despots under the pseudonym, "foreign aid". The express purpose of this foreign aid, noble-sounding rhetoric about freedom and democracy aside, is to ensure that the existing world order remains intact. "Stability" has become the watchword of modern imperialists, who see any indigenous popular movements as a threat to the existing world order.

This is accomplished by channelling public funds to the wealthy business classes in Third World countries. The U.S. and other Western powers provide much-needed war material and training for these governments, so that they may continue to keep the business climate friendly to foreign investors (that means tacitly and overtly supporting fascism around the globe). "Foreign aid", basically, is when the poor people of rich countries give their money to the rich people of poor countries to ensure that the investments of the rich people of rich countries is safe from the poor people of poor countries!

(Needless to say, the owners of the companies providing this "aid" also do very well out of it.)

Thus, the Third World sags beneath the weight of well-funded oppression, while its countries are sucked dry of their native wealth, in the name of "development" and in the spirit of "democracy and freedom". The United States leads the West in its global responsibility (another favourite buzzword) to ensure that this peculiar kind of "freedom" remains unchallenged by any indigenous movements. Thus, the fascist regimes remain compliant and obedient to the West, capitalism thrives unchallenged, and the plight of people everywhere simply worsens. And if a regime becomes too "independent", military force always remains an option (as can be seen from the 1990 Gulf War).

D.5.2 What is the relationship between imperialism and the social classes within capitalism?

The relationship between the ruling class and imperialism is quite simple: Due to capital's need to grow, find markets and raw materials, it seeks to expand abroad (see section D.5). Consequently, it needs an aggressive and expansionist foreign policy, which it achieves by buying politicians, initiating media propaganda campaigns, funding right-wing think tanks, and so on, as previously described. Thus the ruling class benefits from, and so usually supports, imperialism -- only when the costs out-weight the benefits will we see members of the elite oppose it (as in the latter stages of the Vietnam war, for example, when it was clear that the US was not going to win).

The relationship between the working class and imperialism is more complex. Foreign trade and the export of capital often make it possible to import cheap wage goods from abroad and increase profits for the capitalist class, and in this sense, workers gain because they can improve their standard of living without necessarily coming into conflict with their employers. Moreover, capital export and military spending under imperialistic policies may lead to a higher rate of profit for capitalists and allow them to temporarily avoid recession, thus keeping employment higher than would be the case otherwise. So workers benefit in this sense as well. Therefore, in imperialistic nations during economic boom times, one finds a tendency among the working class (particularly the unorganised sector) to support foreign military adventurism and an aggressive foreign policy. This is part of what is often called the "embourgeoisment" of the proletariat, or the co-optation of labour by capitalist ideology and "patriotic" propaganda.

However, as soon as international rivalry between imperialist powers becomes too intense, capitalists will attempt to maintain their profit rates by depressing wages and laying people off in their own country. Workers' real wages will also suffer if military spending goes beyond a certain point. Moreover, if militarism leads to actual war, the working class has much more to lose than to gain. In addition, while imperialism can improve living conditions (for a time), it cannot remove the hierarchical nature of capitalism and therefore cannot stop the class struggle, the spirit of revolt and the instinct for freedom. So, while workers may sometimes benefit from imperialism, such periods cannot last long and "ultimately the more fundamental and lasting opposition of the working class must come to the surface. On this, as on other issues, the interest and policies of capital and labour are fundamentally antagonistic." [Paul Sweezy, Theory of Capitalist Development, p. 316]

Thus Rudolf Rocker was correct to stress the contradictory (and self-defeating) nature of working class support for imperialism:

"No doubt some small comforts may sometimes fall to the share of the workers when the bourgeoisie of their country attain some advantage over that of another country; but this always happens at the cost of their own freedom and the economic oppression of other peoples. The worker. . . participates to some extent in the profits which, without effort on their part, fall into the laps of the bourgeoisie of his country from the unrestrained exploitation of colonial peoples; but sooner or later there comes the time when these people too, wake up, and he has to pay all the more dearly for the small advantages he has enjoyed. . . [Imperialism means that] the liberation. . . from wage-slavery is pushed further and further into the distance. As long as the worker ties up his interests with those of the bourgeoisie of his country instead of with his class, he must logically also take in his stride all the results of that relationship. He must stand ready to fight the wars of the possessing classes for the retention and extension of their markets, and to defend any injustice they may perpetrate on other people." [Anarcho-Syndicalism, p. 61]

It is difficult to generalise about the effects of imperialism on the "middle class" (i.e. professionals, self-employed, small business people, peasants and so on -- not middle income groups, who are usually working class). Some groups within this strata stand to gain, others to lose. This lack of common interests and a common organisational base makes the middle class unstable and susceptible to patriotic sloganeering, vague theories of national or racial superiority, or fascist scapegoating of minorities for society's problems. For this reason, the ruling class finds it relatively easy to recruit large sectors of the middle class (as well as unorganised sectors of the working class) to an aggressive and expansionist foreign policy, through media propaganda campaigns. Since organised labour tends to perceive imperialism as being against its overall best interests, and thus usually opposes it, the ruling class is able to intensify the hostility of the middle class to the organised working class by portraying the latter as "unpatriotic" and "unwilling to sacrifice" for the "national interest." Hence, in general, imperialism tends to produce a tightening of class lines and increasingly severe social conflict between contending interest groups, which has a tendency to foster the growth of authoritarian government (see section D.9).

D.5.3 Does globalisation mean the end of imperialism?

No. While it is true that the size of multinational companies has increased along with the mobility of capital, the need for nation-states to serve corporate interests still exists. With the increased mobility of capital, i.e. its ability to move from one country and invest in another easily, and with the growth in international money markets, we have seen what can be called a "free market" in states developing. Corporations can ensure that governments do as they are told simply by threatening to move elsewhere (which they will do anyway, if it results in more profits).

While transnational companies are, perhaps, the most well-known representatives of this process of globalisation, the power and mobility of modern capitalism can be seen from the following figures. From 1986 to 1990, foreign exchange transactions rose from under $300 billion to $700 billion daily and were expected to exceed $1.3 trillion in 1994. The World Bank estimates that the total resources of international financial institutions at about $14 trillion. To put some kind of perspective on these figures, the Balse-based Bank for International Settlement estimated that the aggregate daily turnover in the foreign exchange markets at nearly $900 billion in April 1992, equal to 13 times the Gross Domestic Product of the OECD group of countries on an annualised basis [Financial Times, 23/9/93]. In Britain, some $200-300 billion a day flows through London's foreign exchange markets. This the equivalent of the UK's annual Gross National Product in two or three days.

Little wonder that a Financial Times special supplement on the IMF stated that "Wise governments realise that the only intelligent response to the challenge of globalisation is to make their economies more acceptable" [Op. Cit.] More acceptable to business, that is, not their populations. This means that under globalisation, states will compete with each other to offer the best deals to investors and transnational companies, such as tax breaks, union busting, no pollution controls, and so forth. The effects on the countries' ordinary people will be ignored in the name of future benefits. For example, such an "acceptable" business climate was created in Britain, where "market forces have deprived workers of rights in the name of competition" [Scotland on Sunday, 9/1/95] and the number of people with less than half the average income rose from 9% of the population in 1979 to 25% in 1993. The share of national wealth held by the poorer half of the population has fallen from one third to one quarter. However, as would be expected, the number of millionaires has increased, as has the welfare state for the rich, with the public's tax money being used to enrich the few via military Keynesianism, privatisation and funding for Research and Development. Like any religion, the free-market ideology is marked by the hypocrisy of those at the top and the sacrifices required from the majority at the bottom.

In addition, the globalisation of capital allows it to play one work force against another. For example, General Motors plans to close two dozen plants in the United States and Canada, but it has become the largest employer in Mexico. Why? Because an "economic miracle" has driven wages down. Labour's share of personal income in Mexico has "declined from 36 percent in the mid-1970's to 23 percent by 1992." Elsewhere, General Motors opened a $690 million assembly plant in the former East Germany. Why? Because there workers are willing to "work longer hours than their pampered colleagues in western Germany" (as the Financial Times put it) at 40% of the wage and with few benefits [Noam Chomsky, World Orders, Old and New, p.160]

However, force is always required to protect private capital. Even a globalised capitalist company still requires a defender. Therefore it makes sense for corporations to pick and choose between states for the best protection, blackmailing their citizens to pay for the armed forces via taxes. For the foreseeable future, America seems to be the rent-a-cop of choice. Therefore, far from ending imperialism, globalisation will see it continue, but with one major difference: the citizens in the imperialist countries will see even fewer benefits from imperialism than before, while still having to carry the costs.

This is an inherently revolutionary situation, which will "justify" further intervention in the Third World by the US and other imperialist nations, either through indirect military aid to client regimes or through outright invasion, depending on the nature of the "crisis of democracy" (a term used by the Trilateral Commission to characterise popular uprisings).

In addition, with the advent of a "global market" under GATT, corporations still need politicians to act for them in creating a "free" market which best suits their interests. Therefore, by backing powerful states, corporate elites can increase their bargaining powers and help shape the "New World Order" in their own image.

To sum up, globalisation will see imperialism change as capitalism itself changes. The need for imperialism remains, as the interests of private capital still need to be defended against the dispossessed. All that changes is that the governments of the imperialistic nations become even more accountable to capital and even less to their populations.

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