The Changing Face of Imperialism: Colonialism to Contemporary Capitalism

By Sunanda Sen and Maria Cristina Marcuzzo

How is imperialism relevant today? How has it mutated over the past century? What are different theoretical and empirical angles through which we can study imperialism? These are the questions we deal with in our edited volume on The Changing Face of Imperialism (2018).

We understand imperialism as a continuing arrangement since the early years of empire-colonies to the prevailing pattern of expropriations, on part of those who wield power vis-à-vis those who are weak. The pattern of ‘old imperialism’, in the writings of Hobson, Hilferding and Lenin, were framed in the context of the imperial relations between the ruling nations and their colonies with political subjugation of the latter, captured by force or by commerce, providing the groundwork for their economic domination in the interest of the ruling nations. Forms of such arrogation varied, across regions and over time; including  the early European invasions of South America, use of slaves or indentured labour across oceans, and the draining off of surpluses from colonies by using trade and financial channels. Imperialism, however, has considerably changed its pattern since then, especially with institutional changes in the  prevailing power structure.

The essays in the volume offer a renewed interpretation, which include the alternate interpretations of imperialism and its changing pattern over space and time, incorporating the changing pattern of oppression which reflects the dynamics underlying the specific  patterns of oppression. The pattern can be characterised as ‘new imperialism’ under contemporary capitalism as distinct from its ‘old’ form under colonialism. The varied interpretations of imperialism  as in the literature do not lessen the significance of the common ground underlying the alternate positions, including the diverse pattern of expropriations under imperialism.

The volume offers fourteen chapters by renowned authors. In this blog, we organise them in the following manner: the first five of those deal with the conceptual basis of imperialism from different angles, the next three chapters deal with contemporary imperialism, and then the rest six chapters of book deal with India, colonialism and contemporary issues with imperialism.

The conceptual basis of imperialism: different angles

Satyaki Roy’s Imperialism: the old and the new, departures and continuities sets the tone of the volume by making the point that we do not have a single theory of imperialism applicable to all times, but several which correspond to multiple historical manifestations of imperialism in the contemporary phase of capitalism. Roy sees in earlier theories of imperialism a focus on the conflicts between nations representing interests of national capitals, while nation-states  currently are no longer the organizing unit in the context of globalisation and universal capitalism. Thus, the characterisation of imperialism today cannot be limited to a rivalry between advanced capitalist countries nor as an expression of conflict between developed and underdeveloped nations. Rather, it has to encompass the power structure and internal articulation of global capitalism.

Above is followed by a paper on Marx’s capital and the global crisis by John Smith dwelling on the current status of the working class worldwide (workers as ‘global labour’). The paper looks at the cost-cutting exercises by Multi-National Corporations, which displaces the domestic workers by cheaper foreign labour, achieved either through emigration of production (“outsourcing”) to overseas or through immigration of workers. This so-called neoliberal globalisation is the new imperialist stage of capitalist development, where imperialism is characterised by the exploitation of “southern” labour by northern “capital”.

The next chapter is on Reflections on Contemporary Capitalism by Prabhat Patnaik. It takes us from the original formulation of imperialism by Lenin, who associated imperialism with centralisation of capital in industry and among banks, along the different phases of imperialism since then, to its present form marked by the hegemony of international finance capital, globalisation and neoliberal policies. Interestingly, Patnaik takes issue with interpretations of imperialism as a political project undertaken by the ruling state of US, through enlisting the support of other advanced capitalist States. For him, taking the leading country as the driving force behind imperialism means attributing to its state an autonomy, which none of the present capitalists countries have. Instead, as he argues, today’s imperialism is marked by the retreat and subservience of the state to international finance and, consequently, as the only political option, a selective delinking of the national economy from the global economy.

The particularity of imperialism today is also the topic addressed in Anjan Chakrabarti in the following chapter. Neoliberal globalisation has re-shaped the international division of labour and intra-national division of labour by mechanisms of offshoring, outsourcing and subcontracting, so that globalisation has been able to fragment activities across time zones, spaces and enterprises within the nation states. The methodology of the analysis draws on Bukharin (1915) and his notion of policy of conquest. Thus, for Chakrabarti, today’s imperialism is a policy of conquest through force and violence over the “outside” of the capitalist world.

Subhanil Chowdhurys chapter departs from the classical notion of imperialism based on the division of the world into two clear segments of advanced and the other (third world). Imperialism, seen as a thwarting capitalist development in the developing countries, is no longer true in today’s world, at least for a set of large countries, such as India and China. The “third world” countries, now located within the overall circuit of global capital, have access to global finance, markets and technology, and their big bourgeoisie have become major players in the international market However, the significant factor remains that the workers in these countries are way behind those of the United States, in terms of their wages, and their lives are not on par with those of the workers in developed countries. Through reforms and globalisation, we witness a process of enrichment of the ruling classes, while the vast masses of people remain detached from these capitalist processes and remain impoverished.

Contemporary imperialism

The variety of imperialism as domination through financialisation and neo-mercantilism is the background of all three following chapters. The discussion looks at the region where this domination originated (the United States) and examines how it impacted on Latin America and other world regions.

Noemi Levy’s Latin America in the new international order: new forms of economic organisations and old forms of surplus appropriation examines the performance of six Latin American economies and points out that the region failed to adopt a successful neomercantilist model, also that the region did not benefit from the new international division of labour, which shifted the manufacturing industry from the United States to developing economies. The imperialist relationship between the United States and Latin America forms the core of Amiya Bagchi’s chapter, which reviews the US domination through military and political control, with complicity of the domestic elite in Latin America.

The points raised tally with the next chapter by Gerald Epstein on the role of military spending in US, with imperialism as the velvet glove as opposed to the iron fist of the rise of neoliberal policies and globalisation. Quantifying the effects of the military expenses  Epstein  arrives at the conclusion that workers do not, on balance, gain from US imperialism, at least since 1985. This contrasts the  previous three decades when US workers had much more power to get a piece of the imperialist pie. Oil prices were extremely low and very stable. Taxes were more progressive and trade competition was not as intense.

India, colonialism and contemporary issues with imperialism

Utsa Patnaik’s chapter provides the general framework of British domination by providing data on the exceptionally large magnitude of India’s export earning appropriated by Britain. The mode shows the major role the colony was made to play in providing real and financial resources for sustaining the British Empire. Britain largely re-exported imported tropical goods and secured imports from temperate lands, providing wage goods (corn) and raw materials (cotton, iron) without which a large part of its domestic output could not be produced.  She concludes that Britain, the world capitalist leader at the centre of the global payments system, was crucially dependent on India’s export earnings for financing the current account deficits with the rest of world.  With access to the rising foreign exchange earnings of its colonies, Britain could settle its own external deficits as well as to export capital overseas.

In the next chapter Sunanda Sen looks at another dimension of the imperialist relationship between India and Britain in colonial times. This include the “trading” so to say, of indentured labour’ from India. Faced with a shortage of labourers at the end of slavery, the planters in the British colonial islands pressurised their imperial government to find ways to supplement labour cheaply. The desperately poor and famine-stricken populations of colonies in Asia and in India, in particular, turned out as the target of an organised large-scale emigration of indentured labourers from India to plantation colonies, on basis of coerced labour in sugar plantations. It can also be seen that the waves in immigrant flows were singularly linked to the fortunes of sugar plantations. A triangular network involving labour (indentured), commodities (both raw sugarcane and processed) and finance characterised the relationship between Britain and the such colonies. This was the variety of imperialism, rooted initially in slave trade and later in movements of indentured labour which proved a lucrative source of earning surpluses and it’s appropriation  by commercial and financial interests of imperial Britain.

Indenturing of labour, as above from India (and China) continued till the 1920s, followed by the commencement of a new era in labour welfare and labour control in colonial India. This is the theme of the next chapter by Sabyasachi Bhattacharya that looks at the interaction between the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the welfare and labour legislation in India between 1919 and 1929. The post-First World War time saw the emerging global economic system, the growth of transnational capital and the internationalisation of the labour market, which required the devising of an international normative on labour. One of those aims was to make sure that the higher wages and benefits did not become an impediment in developed countries to compete with less developed countries where wage costs were lower. As for labour laws in India, the colonial state put on the statute books an impressive number of labour laws, however ineffective in terms of applications.  Those only  show the pressure coming from Britain, where lobbying was active to promoting labour legislation in India  since cheaper labour in India was perceived as a threat.

Next chapters of the book address the issues connected with liberalisation and deregulation in contemporary India,  viewed  as a process  in  new pattern of imperialism, with effects damaging in terms of income distribution, poverty and social inequality within the country. The piece by Sukanya Bose and Abhishek Kumar looks at the role of finance and services in the Indian economy. Examining the contrasting evidence  in empirical studies  the authors offer their main hypothesis that several service sectors, namely, banking, insurance, real estate and business services, did not contribute to the growth of industrial sectors and vice-versa. The linkages of these sectors with the rest of the economy have “probably been weak such that their expansionary phase has not been accompanied by a revival of overall economic  growth”. The hypothesis is put to test in the paper by using empirical exercises, which confirms their hypothesis that there has not been any finance/service-led growth in India. Next, Byasdeb Dasgupta looks at the Indian labour market and the effects of the neoliberal reforms, in particular the dismantling of the welfare-state and of the system of labour protections, especially in India. This is followed by Surajit Mazumdar’s closing piece bringing together various threads of analysis relating to  imperialism as presented in the previous chapters, and with particular reference to India. Attention is drawn to  the distribution of income  moving very sharply in favour of corporates, which is to the disadvantage of India’s working population, mostly in agriculture and in the informal non-agricultural sectors.

The volume seeks to provide a global panorama of imperialism, across time and space. The conceptual arguments support the analysis of the disadvantaged part of the world in South America and major parts of Asia, like India. The study will provide new ideas and insights in the continuing pattern of expropriation in the global economy.

Sunanda Sen is former Professor of Economics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India. She researches contemporary capitalism, international finance, economic history and development. She tweets at @sensunanda.

Maria Cristina Marcuzzo is Professor of Economics, University of Rome, ‘La Sapienza’, Italy, and Fellow of the Italian Academy of Lincei. She has worked on classical monetary theory, the Cambridge School of Economics, Keynesian economics and, more recently, on Keynes’s investments in financial markets.

Photo: Andreas Lehner

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