Imperialism is a word that conjures up images from history books of Spanish conquistadors in the Americas and the British rule of India. But contrary to these impressions, imperialism is not history. Not yet, anyway. On the contrary, imperialism is as powerful now as it ever was, and a socialist understanding of the concept allows us to see imperialism today for what it is.
This is particularly important for those of us in the United States, the central imperial state in the world today. The foreign policy of the United States is by far the most far-reaching and globally impactful of any country on earth, but even critical analyses of U.S. foreign policy often demonstrate a misunderstanding of its fundamental driving forces. A proper understanding of imperialism includes two important realizations.
First, military force is only one tactic of imperialism, which is a strategy that can be exercised in many other ways, many of which often appear harmless at first glance. Second, the fundamental reason for imperialism is the drive for profits under capitalism, with the global capitalist class as the main beneficiary of imperialism.
Before going any further however, a definition of imperialism is in order. The simplest definition, which strikes at the heart of imperialism, is simply: the control of one country by another. This of course includes the conquistadors, the British empire, and other empires throughout all ages of history. The empires of the past often achieved this control by simple, brute force, through war, military occupation, and direct governance of conquered territories. We see such naked, militarized imperialism somewhat less today. A handful of cases come to mind, such as the American war in Iraq, or the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Compared to the widespread European colonialism of the 19th Century, which directly conquered and colonized most of the rest of the world’s population, it seems that imperialism has declined.
But this conclusion is wrong, as it rests on a misunderstanding of imperialism, which has found other, subtler ways of controlling other countries and their governments. Short of outright invasion, as in Iraq in 2003, or massive bombing campaigns as in Yugoslavia in the 1990s or Libya in 2011, imperial control may be exercised by overthrowing governments in other ways.
Planning and supporting an internal coup is one idea, as the CIA did in 1953 in Iran, 1971 in Chile, and not quite so successfully in 2002 in Venezuela. Covert military operations and putting weapons in the hands of rebel groups are also options, as the U.S. tried in Nicaragua in the 1980s, and more recently in Syria. Still less violent means of overturning governments are available as well. Sending aid money to opposition groups and fomenting popular unrest was a successful tactic the United States used in Ukraine in 2014, and is an ongoing method the U.S. is using in Iran today. These are but a few examples of U.S. attempts to overthrow foreign governments, many of which have been democratically elected.
More often, however, governments do not need to be overthrown but merely convinced to enact policy shifts, or perhaps convinced to keep certain policies as they are. Tools for doing this include: foreign aid, which often serves to prop up a corrupt ruling class (e.g. Haiti); military aid, which often keeps authoritarian governments in power (e.g. Egypt for the past few decades); international loans that come with policy strings attached (e.g. Ghana, Jamaica, Indonesia in the 1990s); and what Michael Parenti calls imperial diplomacy (e.g. the so-called “peace process” between Israel and Palestine). Thus, while imperialism’s most egregious manifestations employ warfare and other forms of deadly force, imperial control does not require such extreme measures when subtler means are enough to ensure compliance.
But what exactly does imperialism want countries to comply with? This leads us to the driving forces behind imperialism and its beneficiaries. It is not power for power’s sake, or simply nationalistic jingoism that drives imperialism. Rather, imperial power is always aimed, directly or indirectly, at capital accumulation. The 2003 invasion of Iraq is often mistakenly seen as a failure of U.S. foreign policy, because no weapons of mass destruction were found, or because the nation-building and democratization project failed. But these were not the true animating forces behind the invasion, but mere pretexts given to justify it to the public. The real motives of the Iraq war were material: mainly to open up Iraq’s economy and resources to U.S. control for corporate exploitation through privatization. Saddam Hussein’s government had received a great deal of aid from the United States until it began using its oil revenues to develop its own economy, including a vibrant public sector, achieving one of the highest standards of living in the region. In 2000, Iraq even stopped accepting U.S. dollars for oil exports, a move directly against the interests of the U.S. investor class. The invasion of Iraq reversed all of this, and gave the U.S. control over Iraqi economic policy. After the invasion, U.S. corporations were once again able to profit off of Iraq’s oil, not to mention the increased demand for weapons in the region. In terms of the true agenda of imperialism, the war in Iraq must be considered a success. The same judgment is reached by looking through the same lens at the U.S.-led bombing and dismemberment of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, or the U.S.-led overthrow of the Gadhafi government in Libya in 2011. All were unmitigated disasters for the countries targeted and for the U.S. public, who subsidized the profiteers of each of these wars. But all were complete successes for the global investor class.
But we do not have to limit ourselves to such raw and violent examples of imperialism. We can also see how subtler strategies succeed by looking at international lending. The U.S.-dominated International Monetary Fund (IMF) has a history of strong-arming countries in financial crisis that are in desperate need of emergency loans. The IMF, in lending to a country in debt crisis, usually requires that the country’s government sign on to a structural adjustment program (SAP) as a condition of accepting the new loan. You can probably guess what sorts of conditions are written into these SAPs: opening up the economy to international trade and investment; deregulating the economy by eliminating protections for labor, environment, and consumers; cuts to spending on government social programs; and privatization of state-run sectors of the economy. All of these conditions make the country in question more profitable for the global investor class. After the Third World debt crisis of the 1980s, IMF lending put just these sorts of shackles on the desperate yet disparate economies of Jamaica, Ghana, Indonesia, and many other developing countries. A similar fate can befall European countries, even when a new government is democratically elected on a platform of resistance to the IMF and other international lenders, as the example of Greece demonstrated earlier this decade. Even without a war having been waged, countries under the control of lender-imposed imperialism undergo political and economic changes that resemble what has happened in Iraq, Yugoslavia, and Libya: a sovereign, independent state with a strong public sector and effective social programs is transformed into a free-market grab-bag for global capital.
A critical class analysis that asks which classes benefit from foreign policy can inoculate us against mistakenly believing that the justifications put forward for U.S. imperial projects are actually the real reasons for them. This can also prevent us from falling into wrongheaded criticisms of U.S. military adventures which say they fall short of their purported goals. U.S. wars in Vietnam, Central America, Iraq, and Libya cannot be called failures when we realize the true goal is making the world safe for foreign investment, not democracy, and when we realize that these countries were not being punished for possessing weapons of mass destruction, or for human rights violations, but for attempting to make their economies serve their own interests rather than those of multinational corporations. IMF loans failing to bring borrowing countries’ economies out of trouble is not actually a failure, because the point is to reorient each economy for the benefit of global investors, not the population at home.
Imperialism has existed throughout history, but in the present moment, when capitalism has practically eliminated all competing economic systems worldwide, imperialism is always tied to the fundamental imperative of capitalism: accumulation of profits for the owning class. This pattern becomes obvious when one zooms out to look at U.S. military interventions in the past hundred years. Before, during, and after the Cold War, American military force has systematically targeted leftist movements and sought to bolster right-leaning governments. The use of diplomacy, international lending, and aid have sought similar goals, namely the expansion of profit-making opportunities for investors. Whether a Democrat or Republican occupies the White House makes no dent in this imperial pattern. A socialist class analysis allows us to see through the fog of false pretexts, superficial debates, and misinformation that surrounds contemporary imperialism.