Policy Perspectives, Vlm 1, No.1
This paper describes the mechanics and the processes that make up an Imperial system in the modern age. Both the mechanics and the processes are global systems; intellectually, both are vast and complicated, and in trying to illustrate them systematically one has to simplify and thereby prone to overstatement.
It is crucial for readers to have an overview of the situation. Those who ventures outside the shores of their own land needs to understand what they see, wherever they find themselves, in terms of a whole, an Imperial whole. Today our Imperial system is global in extent and affects everyone worldwide.
The target audience of this paper is students who are not taught in terms of the globalisation of the planet. In Western economics this might be called a macro view: it is an attempt to look at our world as a whole and to make sense of what we see in this context. In Western social sciences, looking at systems as wholes is unusual, and in our religion-based educational system this way of examining our world is no easy task.
Whether one lives in the Sahara desert, in the furthest reaches of Afghanistan, or in the teaming cities of Asia or select Africa, he will be affected by Capitalism and Imperialism. You might be growing poppies for the drug trade, or trading cars illegally to allow the rich to avoid taxes, or drinking water from bottles manufactured by a multinational company, there is no escaping it: wherever we live we cannot avoid the forces that drive this world.
Equally, the major powers of our time will be at work, whether you see them or not: it is a fact that the ruling classes of each state and the leading corporations of the great powers are working to reorganise your country.
This paper is therefore dedicated to all humankind, to help in a small way to understand the huge forces at work within our global system.
Imperialism needs to be defined scrupulously if it is to make any sense at all.
The Imperialism we all face today can be seen as part of the world of empires, which go back as far as history will take us. This new Imperialism is special and unlike any empire that has gone before.
There is one key component of Imperialism that does need to be identified separately and yet is often used in the same breath, i.e. Colonialism. Colonialism is the process of invasion by a hegemonic power, which either rules the country in its own interests or lets it be ruled by the indigenous population as a proxy government, but again in its own interests. During the last two centuries, the Imperial powers established Colonialism for their own ends, first in the 1880s and, more recently, it is happening again with the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Colonial invasions are therefore part of the Imperial expansion that exists everywhere, but they need to be understood as a part of the total process. Over the last two hundred years Imperialism has been the system of world power used by dominant states with the purpose of controlling resources in their own interests. These interests vary from raw materials to markets, and cover a wide range of factors, which have altered considerably over time.
Some Key Components
Whether we are talking of today’s Imperialism or of that of the last two hundred years, it is worth elucidating briefly some of its key components.
Today the parameters of the Imperial struggle are not yet defined sufficiently to know what the future will bring. China’s economy, which is growing at a furious pace, will sooner rather than later clash with that of the US. Internationally, Islam, which I shall not define here, is also attempting to create a different kind of society demanded by the hegemonic US.
The Imperial struggle between nations and between different societal systems is part of this process and is a key component of today’s Imperialism.
Elements of Today’s Imperialism
The system of domination comprises the following elements, which will be expounded in the next section:
Struggle for Imperial Dominance: 1815 – present
In 1815, with the British defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, Britain was the world leading power. Over the next hundred years that power was extended across the whole world. Conscious of their own superiority, Britain’s ruling classes developed its institutions in finance, trade and investment, as well as its military power and the devices for buttressing its superiority on a worldwide scale. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Britain had harnessed the technological achievements of Capitalism to dominate the world. By 1900 she appeared unstoppable, and no one who understood these things thought otherwise.
However, twenty years later, by the end of the 1914–18 war Britain was exhausted, its gold reserve had all but gone to the US to pay for the war, and millions of her young men were dead. Germany had been the new competitive power in the decades before 1914, and the war was intended as a knockout blow to reassert British ascendancy. Not only did this fail, but the war led to the Russian Revolution and, whether the revolution was waiting to happen or not, the war provided the stimulus for it.
Suddenly there was a new competitor. The new Soviet empire rejected the Capitalist system and nationalised its own assets without compensation. To this day, for Capitalists the greatest sin remains nationalisation. The Soviets were the next threat to the new hegemonic power.
By the end of the Second World War, the US was not only certain of its superior status in the world, but it was also willing to use its muscle to promote its own interests. In 1944, the Bretton Woods agreement set up a new international financial system with the US dollar as the sole trading currency, replacing the pound sterling.
The period from 1944 to 1989 saw the United States fight to the death to destroy the USSR in every manner it could conceive bar a nuclear war. Every oppressive dictator, however corrupt, was supported by the US as long as they espoused the anti-Communist cause.
The final blow occurred in Afghanistan when the Pakistani government decided that the agnostic Soviets were a greater threat than the Capitalist West. US money and arms, as well as those of other countries, were pumped into the Pakistani secret service to fund a jihad against the Soviets. It succeeded and, at the time of writing, the US is at present attempting to undo all the harm that resulted from that particular operation. Islamic Pakistan chose that option for ideological reasons, and the price was very high.
In 1989, the US appeared to be the only dominant power in the world, and people asked themselves if the Americans would behave benignly. These questions were asked by people who did not understand Imperialism. The dominant power at any one time wants to be in control, wants to enrich its ruling classes, and to be seen and feared by the rest of the world. In today’s world there is no such a thing as a benign Imperial power.
The challenge from China is still an unknown quantity. The challenge from Islam takes many different forms: bin Laden who is supposed to be in the deserts of Afghanistan; the challenge to the US colonial experiment in Iraq which at present is a daily occurrence; the new prophets arguing for a revolutionary Islam; and the powers that be which are attempting to train future Islamic leaders who reject everything coming from the West. There are many leads, but no clarity so far.
Capitalist Accumulation or Globalisation
Let’s begin the analysis of Capitalist-led Imperialism with a look at the drive towards profit and accumulation, which is at the heart of territorial expansion. The bald logic of capitalism is the accumulation of wealth which, when combined with the continuous revolution in science and technology, has allowed a tiny proportion of the population to accumulate wealth beyond dreams for each new generation over the last two hundred years.
The drive to accumulate personal wealth, and through it political power, is an aphrodisiac that is hard to overemphasise. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, wealth of dizzying heights became possible for a tiny handful. The banks, oil companies, new digital companies and companies associated with basic products, such as water and food, straddle our world. It is the logic of ever-increasing wealth that has driven both the Colonial and Imperial expansion of the leading nations over the last two centuries.
And as these companies penetrate every global corner, so the nation state that gave birth to these companies needs to protect them with its armed forces, to provide conditions for them to invest in, and to move in and out of markets freely, with no responsibility for the consequences. A world system of stable finance, free trade and free movement of capital are the necessary conditions for the accumulation of capital on vast levels. The argument around whether these measures helps countries to ‘develop’ their own people and resources is relevant only to the Imperial logic that it needs to be justified. The very logic of accumulation is both global and Imperial.
The term ‘capital accumulation’ is more often formulated in the less expressive term ‘globalisation’. At the centre of the process of Imperial expansion and control of the world’s resources is the enrichment of the Imperial countries’ companies, such as banks, insurance companies, manufacturers, medical companies, and many others. There is a trickle-down effect, and the relatively wealthy middle classes throughout the Western world are the crumbs from the overall accumulation of wealth of the world’s ruling classes.
It is easy enough to see and to understand the accumulation processes inside the Imperial nations themselves. Here you will find three or four major companies selling food, with the same number running bookstores, for instance. In every field of sales and production, the accumulation of capital will have reached such a peak that smaller companies will have been gobbled up into the larger whole. In UK, there are only four companies that sell 90 per cent of all food consumed by 55 million people.
In all the European countries and in North America the processes of Capitalist accumulation are obvious. In many countries of the Third World these processes will not have reached the same degree. Here you will still be aware of the immense numbers of small traders, often selling the same goods but in a huge variety.
The pressure on the Western companies to expand abroad is huge. In most cases the opportunities for expansion in their home country have reached saturation. If they are to maintain their profits they need to expand abroad. This point too needs no emphasise. Capitalism involves the constant search for new markets in order to develop new profits.
The end of Apartheid in South Africa is a recent example of this process in action. Huge monopolies, gold and diamond businesses, and power had been built up behind the tariff walls created by the Apartheid system. The market for their products was saturated and, without altering the distribution of resources and enriching the local people, these companies had nowhere to go. They needed to break down the walls surrounding them, which were the result of a world boycott of their products. They wanted to be world companies, not just South African ones, and to achieve this the white monopoly power was broken.
All companies expanding outside their national boundaries remember the Soviet era and fear that their assets may be nationalised. They have looked for protection to the major institutions already mentioned, the IMF and the World Bank for instance. First, the IMF needs to prise open the borders of the country to allow in new investment without hindrance; once there, businesses need protection from nationalisation; and finally they need the freedom to export their profits without undue taxation, as well as the freedom to remove themselves whenever they wish.
Wherever they have a foothold, international banks and car companies will appeal to the instincts of acquisition and greed, whatever the sensibilities of the religion of the countries concerned.
Today the US aggressively supports the worldwide expansion of all its major transactional companies. From the Disney Corporation to Bill Gates’s Microsoft, the US will do whatever it takes to penetrate the barriers of national government protections.
Capitalist and global accumulation of capital is at the very core of the Imperial globalisation. Without understanding this process, which sucks up surplus wealth wherever it goes, increasing the wealth of the elites, but leaving an ever-increasing impoverishment of all those left out of the process. Even the World Bank’s last ten-year study on world poverty accepted the fact that poverty had significantly increased.
The facts are plain to see: by itself, development through transnational corporations is not the answer to growth and development.
Domination of Finance
As discussed earlier, the accumulation of capital has certain fundamental global requirements. The first one to be outlined here is the system of world finance.
No subject is as little understood as the world’s financial system. First the pound sterling and now the US dollar have dominated our world trading system which stands both as the symbol and the actuality of hegemonic control. It is not complicated and has to be clearly understood by all those who read this short treatise.
In 1844, the British created the first world central bank and the world’s first international currency system. In its essence, a sterling note was exchangeable for a given weight of gold. What matters is that the Bank of England stood surety behind everyone who traded in sterling.
What this meant was that the Bank of England needed to hold sufficient gold reserves so that in a crisis it could always have enough reserves to maintain confidence in sterling. And that meant that, overall, Britain’s trade had to balance positively: that is, it had to export more than it imported so that there was a constant flow of gold into the central bank.
The result for Britain was that it was the very centre point of world trade for on hundred years, and that London became the centre of the world’s money markets, with huge financial benefits to its ruling classes.
This entire edifice came tumbling down during the 1914–18 war. The war went on for much longer and with greater intensity than any one had imagined, and Britain’s war needs were paid for by credits to the Americans. And, although the British Exchequer tried very hard to return to the gold standard in the 1920s, Britain had been toppled from her dominant position. The war had weakened her for all time in terms of Imperial ambition. Military overreach had destroyed in such a short time what had once been an unassailable position.
The US and the World Dollar
The US overtly took over as the world financier at the Bretton Woods agreement in 1944. Very simply, the US dollar was now fixed to a certain weight of gold. This system was adopted by all the countries in the world as the system of financial control.
Then, in 1971 the US unilaterally decided to come off the gold standard and allow the dollar and the currencies of all the other countries to float in the world’s money markets. Floating meant that demand and supply simply decided the value of one currency against another. The US dollar, not surprisingly, remained supreme.
But the US no longer needed gold in its central bank in New York, and that meant that, for the first time in world affairs, it did not need to balance its outgoings and income of money. From 1971, when a country earned too many US dollars, the US Treasury simply offered them a US Treasury Bond and thus exchanged the bond for the surplus dollars. Most other countries, of course, had to balance their payments between exports and imports, and if they did not they were forced to borrow with very unattractive terms.
The US could now spend abroad much more that it earned from its exports. In fact, it could now afford to go to war with any country thanks to the dollars that that country and other countries had spent in payments for US imported goods. We are all paying for American excesses abroad.
In simple terms, it is rather as if I earned $100.00, spent $150.00, and then bought back with a bond the excess $50.00 and spent it again. A quite extraordinary system, and it may be the Achilles heel of the present US Empire.
The system of finance on a global scale is, unsurprisingly, organised in the interests of the major power of the day. At the beginning of the twenty-first century we have a deeply unstable situation whereby the US alone is able to import vastly more than it exports and to consume therefore much more than it produces. Some superficial observers argue that this is a major benefit as it allows weaker economies to import into the US economy more than would otherwise be possible. These arguments assume that the system of world finance will be forever as it stands now. But as we have seen it will not always be so.
Should, for instance, China, or a group of countries, decide to trade in their own currency, they would sell their US Treasury Bonds and create immediate chaos in the US economy, and thereby possibly bring the whole edifice down. Such ideas are being considered as I write.
Free Trade as Imperialism
Trade and overseas investment are key planks of the Imperial pantheon; the foundation stones of Capitalist accumulation on a world scale. Dominant Imperial countries have always argued that free trade is in the interest of all and, within their powers, have imposed these ideas on more vulnerable economies.
Readers of this paper will not be surprised to hear that my opinion is that these arguments are false, and are known to be false. Yet the most powerful institutions today are putting these arguments forward.
All the major powers today have developed their industrial power base behind tariff walls, without exception. The Japanese cut themselves off from the world of trade and Imperial powers in the 1860s for forty years, the Americans had the advantage of developing their industries at home because of the cost of transport across the Atlantic and did not open their borders to free trade until 1945, the Germans consciously protected themselves after unification in the 1870s, and so on. The Germans and Americans had their own theorists, Frederick List and Daniel Raymond, arguing at the time for protective barriers.
It is really quite simple: major countries start promoting free trade when their own industries are using the most up-to-date technology and weaker countries’ industries cannot compete.
The arguments are openly two-faced. Both the EU and the US have failed to move into free trade on farm goods, while many weaker economies have been forced down this road.
Today the most powerful international organisations, the World Bank, the IMF and the WTO, all propound the arguments for free trade. These institutions have power behind them. Once a country gets into difficulties with their balance of payments, their lending policies depend on opening up the weaker countries to free trade.
The evidence is striking. The argument goes like this: if you open your economy to free trade it will grow. In the 1960s and 1970s when most countries still had many forms of protectionism, the world economy grew by 3 per cent, and all the regions of the world grew by 2 to 3 per cent.
By the 1980s and 1990s when the free trade policies began to hit, world growth had dropped overall to 2 per cent and the weaker regions of the world were dropping behind even further. Latin America was growing at 0.6 per cent, the African continent at -0.7 per cent, and the Middle East at -0.2 per cent. Free trade was catastrophic for many of the weaker countries and regions of the world.
The free trade argument will be with us for long years yet to come. The arguments are of worldwide importance. Not surprisingly, over the last twenty-five years the most successful country in terms of regular annual growth has been China. And equally not surprisingly, China has had a positive balance of payments, and therefore has not been pressurised to open its borders and has not followed the maxims of the great Imperial powers of the day.
Finally, let me introduce TRIPS. TRIPS is quite literally a new form of property, it stands for Trade-Related Intellectual Property. You will notice that at the beginning of this document there is a copyright notice that gives me, the writer, ownership of the document, which I then give permission to others to print and sell or give away. Writers have long been recognised in a patent law worldwide.
Patent laws have now been vastly extended to cover the digital world, protecting the digital industry. You are not supposed to borrow or give away software you have bought. You are certainly not supposed to sell it either. Of course, TRIPS has led large numbers of people to act illegally, and it has been designed to monopolise the production of the digital world. And, just to add insult to injury, the monopoly of the medical world, medicines, is close behind. These industries are mainly American.
Free trade is for the poor; the rich monopolise when they find it is in their interest as TRIPS so obviously illustrates.
Imperialism, Capitalism, Technology and Science
The driving force of the entire system is new technology. What makes present-day Imperialism different from that of previous empires is the struggle for profit and the driving forces of the new technologies. I can best illustrate technology as a driving force by reference to a few of the awe-inspiring changes that have occurred in the recent past. In every case, previous generations could not have imagined, even in their wildest dreams, the changes that have occurred. Let me illustrate.
Science and technology are at the heart of the system I am describing. And there is no doubt that there are a multitude of advantages since science and technology are at the heart of the system of domination in the world today.
We can finally see what happens when, in self-defence and to avoid being invaded, weaker countries attempt to possess some of the weapons of mass destruction. The hegemonic powers want to be the only ones to possess such weapons, otherwise they could not threaten without opposition. The recent examples of North Korea, Iran and Iraq are obvious and clear; Pakistan is possibly next on the list. The weapons of mass destruction held by Israel are ignored by the US as Israel is seen as part of the frontline of their empire and strategically as part of themselves.
The relationships between technology, development and Imperialism are enormous and are barely touched upon here. But it is clear now as it was to the Japanese in the 1860s that if a country does not equip its citizens with the latest technical knowledge of the West, across all the disciplines of science, there is no chance of resisting adequately. The dominance that technology provides to the West is not by itself a sufficient condition to resist, but it is undoubtedly a necessary one.
Military Power and Imperialism
The previous discussion on science and technology has touched upon the connections with military power. Underlying everything else over the last two centuries has been the military superiority in every field, on land, sea and, in last 75 years, in the air. At this point in time we have to add space.
To all this has to be added the means of military production with the most up-to-date technology and the necessary finance.
Two-thirds of the world were subdued with the firepower of the Western hegemonic nations. So great was the awe struck into the hearts of the invaded that the Colonial invasions of the 1880s were relatively undisputed. I say this with caution. A hundred years later the people of the so-called Third World knew far more about Western ways and had learnt something about the sophisticated ways of resisting oppression by the Western Imperial powers.
Counter-strategies to Western military dominance have been a part of the political scene for sixty years. Successful Maoist guerrilla tactics have been followed by many peoples across the globe. Even as I am writing this, the Nepalese people have risen in a guerrilla strategy to topple their government by force.
These tactics have been countered by the American and British military, in nearly every case in conjunction with the military of the powers concerned, with violence and terror on large scale. Counter-guerrilla tactics became an art form for the Western military forces. The British put down the Mau Mau struggle in Kenya with unprecedented ferocity. The US air force carpet-bombed the Vietnamese and Cambodians, and in Central America hundreds of thousands of people were killed in fighting. The US military provided the weapons and the training and the local forces the manpower to carry out counter-tactics of almost unimaginable terror.
Military superiority has consisted of more than firepower and counter-terror tactics. Military intelligence has proved crucial. Few people know about Echelon. Echelon is the device for listening to digital telephone calls, and intercepting emails and faxes. It involves satellite technology and people on the ground. It is the final word in electronic eavesdropping.
Echelon originates out of the British attempt to locate German submarines during the Second World War. Since that time, when Britain shared its techniques with the Americans, the two countries alone have together in great secrecy spent huge sums of money in developing this technology. They can both listen to everyone around the globe. And as US bases now begin to surround the world, the first thing that they put in place are listening devices connected to their HQs in the UK and the US.
US bases now surround the world, across central Asia, towards Western China, across the Caspian Sea and into Southern Europe. This is all planned to provide the military at home with quick aircraft access and local intelligence through the use of Echelon.
US military superiority would be severely hampered if their actions were curtailed by international treaties, many of which had their origin during the Cold War period. With no USSR to be contained, the following international treaties hampered their own right of action, as they saw it:
The American government felt that it would be hampered by these treaties and agreements so painfully negotiated during the earlier Imperial period. The global circumstances had altered. By the year 2000 the Americans had become so powerful militarily that no smaller nation state could ignore their wishes.
The big issue was what was all this arms build-up about, why did the US unilaterally project itself as the sole guardian of world order, the undisputed master of the universe?
Empire and Ideology
All empires need ideology. They need an Imperial ideology in the first place to placate and justify the unjustifiable to their own citizenry. On the one hand, the ruling classes of Imperial states have a vast amount of wealth, and on the other, the people who run empires understand the falsehood of their own ideology and need to project themselves to their own people as upright, moral and just; they also need to characterise the people they have subjugated as lesser beings, of doubtful moral character, perhaps even violent and untrustworthy.
If we first briefly examine the British ideology used throughout the time of their empire we can see the veracity of the above. Today no one of any merit would accept the basis of the ideology which provided the moral framework that supported the British Empire.
The British Empire was run on a cocktail of British nationalism around the monarch, the superiority of the race, the civilisation and religious superiority reflected in its many missionary organisations. All intertwined in nicely spaced phrases.
This ideological edifice of racial superiority came to an end in 1945. The logical consequences of their beliefs were manifested in the Holocaust of Jews in Germany during the war. British and German racial beliefs were never far apart, and British upper-class racial beliefs simply faded away.
Today no one believes any of that old Colonial ideology. It has simply been discarded as obvious rubbish, yet at the time it was fervently believed to be manifest ‘truth’.
American Imperial ideology has replaced the British variety. There are many similarities as well as some distinctive differences. At its heart is the fact that Americans at home and abroad believe in it.
Like the British there is a cocktail of American nationalism: there is the flag, morality and civilisation have been replaced by the concepts of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’, and more recently ‘terrorism’. American emissaries in foreign lands will talk about the Pashtuns accepting democracy, but even if they have absorbed the concept, one wonders if they really believe in it.
Let’s just examine this one concept briefly to show its falsehood. Democracy is the system, in my opinion, in mature Capitalist economies whereby it is justified to its people as a whole. Should a political party assume that it is a vehicle for serious change, for instance, towards socialism or an Islamic state, they can be sure it will be overthrown by a combination of the local military forces trained in the USA, or in the UK with the agreement of Washington. Chile under Allende is the last example of this regime change being tried. When the Islamic parties in Algeria looked as if they might win the election it was cancelled out by the armed forces.
Democracy, in this sense, is simply a change of the people visibly running the system. Then consider the proposition of people who actually vote a US president into power:
Anyone reading this can draw their own conclusion. And this is the system that America says it wants everyone to have, it is their version of the British concept of what a civilised society consists of. This is the rationale, Americans tell us, for their invasion of Iraq. Are they simply lying or do they really believe their own ideology?
The American Imperial cocktail has its own distinctive line. The founding fathers who arrived in New England in the 1620s developed a potent metaphor derived from the Old Testament and the Jewish tradition. They had arrived, they said, in God’s new Israel; it was, they said, the ‘promised land’ and the fact that they had survived the long Atlantic crossing indicated that they were God’s chosen people.
It may seem hard for people outside America to understand but these metaphors have survived, and there are many millions who now see that they have a ‘mission to the world’, and the righteousness that comes out of the present president has a powerful echo to his own people.
It would seem that all Imperial ideology has a basis in its own nationalist myth, but when applied to ‘other’ peoples it is deception.
Today, public relations companies consciously develop ideas in order to manipulate public opinion, in order to make Imperial expansion acceptable. New concepts keep appearing and disappearing; here are a few examples:
The final piece in the contemporary US ideological jigsaw is the way all these ideas are put out through the television and newspapers. The number of television networks are small in number and nationwide. See the above section on Capital Accumulation, where I briefly outline this process. Ownership and control of the media is hugely centralised and owned privately. These networks are sycophantic to the regime in power. They offer entirely uncritical evaluation. Any administration in the US can be assured of total acceptance of whatever expansionist Imperial plans it puts out being reproduced in the words it has decided upon.
The US may be the land of the free, but freedom of speech has long ceased to be practised in the daily newspapers or on TV channels.
My argument has been that global Capitalism is the centrepiece of modern-day Imperialism. Global Capitalism, as we are now experiencing it, has a number of important characteristics which make the Imperial adventures of the US so particularly relevant to the peoples of the world.
Our Imperial world is different from any that has gone before. It is a secular system. Morality itself has been commodified. Religion has been relegated as one institution among many. The relation between humans and nature, which in previous eras has been expressed in otherworldly terms, is now no more than a commodity to be bought and sold. Art or illness express commodification, both are no more than mere businesses. Basic needs of food and water, and now even intellectual property, have all been commodified, and if you haven’t the money to pay, you don’t receive.The result is the most dynamic and the most exploitative system of production and consumption the world has ever experienced. The Imperial reach of the dominant country has no boundaries.
· Dr. Roger van Zwanenberg is Managing Director of a well-known publications house in UK – the Pluto Press. At one time (from 1979-84) Dr. Zwanenberg taught East African economic history in the Universities of Nairobi and Dar as-Salaam. He has to his credit two publications on East African Economic History. Dr. Zwanenberg was one of a twelve-scholars group that IPS hosted earlier this year at Islamabad for an extensive debate on civilization crisis. This is Dr. Zwanenberg’s lecture that he delivered on Jan. 16, 2004 before a select gathering of city-elite at IPS and at Peshawar University on Jan. 19, 2004. The second lecture in the two programs was delivered by Dr. Norton Mezvinsky on “US, Israel and Middle East.”