On surface analysis, one could be forgiven for believing that the very concept of ‘Empire’ had been consigned to the dustbin of history, as a racist, oppressive and very much outmoded concept from another age.
However, the concepts of ‘empire’ and ‘imperialism’ are as real, living and heightened today as they have ever been. The fact that their form has changed affects neither the substance nor consequence for the majority of people in the world today, who suffer under imperialist policies. War, poverty, social exclusion, inequality and death from want of the basic necessities of life are a reality for billions of people throughout the world.
Imperialism in the 21st century does not necessarily involve military occupation and physical colonisation, although the obvious examples of Afghanistan Iraq, Ireland and Palestine, among others, continue to exist. This should not, however, fool us into believing that the fact of imperialism is any less real. The reality is that imperialism is everywhere. Its tools are economic, political, military, cultural and social. It is a reality that is all consuming and global in its scope.
“In the name of liberty, it hangs and imprisons patriots, and whilst calling High Heaven to witness its horror of militarism it sends the shadow of its swords between countless millions and their hopes of freedom”
~ James Connolly, In Praise of the Empire, 1915
With these words, written by James Connolly more than 90 years ago, we see revealed the nature of the propaganda and lies used by the architects of imperialist wars to justify their actions. Many wars have been fought in the name of freedom, yet the only freedom the imperialist understands is the freedom to manipulate people and nations, and exploit them for their own ends.
Connolly summed this up when he wrote, “Every war now is a capitalist move for new markets, and it is a move capitalism must make or perish”. Thus, imperialists do not engage in war to protect the interests of a particular country, but rather so that that particular country can serve the interests of the imperialist.
In considering the nature of imperialism it is important to realise that it is not caused by the mere nationalistic desire of one country to conquer another. Whilst nationalism can be manipulated to whip up public support for such endeavours, it is not actually the prime, motivating factor.
The root of modern imperialism is capitalism. This system demands constant expansion on two fronts; the creation of new markets and the appropriation of natural resources. Lenin referred to imperialism as the “highest stage of capitalism”. Just as in previous generations, it is this quest for markets and resources which has resulted in the present phase of imperial war-mongering.
By benefiting a minority at the expense of the majority, the capitalist system destroys the social fabric of society, creating divisions, pitting one ethnic group against another, and individual against individual. Indeed, racism is central to the survival of this system. By alienating people from each other, by de-humanising the “enemy”, the suffering of other human beings is of little consequence to those who reap the benefits of imperial expansion.
For centuries, the people of Ireland, Africa, Latin America and the Arab World have suffered the effects of imperialism’s racist manifestations. These have taken many forms, including the destruction of ancient cultures, war crimes, theft of land and natural resources, starvation, creation of inhuman living conditions, and the exploitation of workers. All of these actions have regularly been carried out in the name of ‘freedom’ and ‘civilisation’.
The exploitative nature of imperialism is also taking its toll on the environment. De-forestation of the rain forests, the melting of the polar ice caps, the rapid consumption of non-renewable energy resources, and high levels of pollution are all by-products of a system driven by greed and selfishness. By their actions, those who contribute to the destruction of the environment are jeopardising the very survival of humanity.
Click on the links below to find out more about imperialism:
Imperialism: A Study
John A. Hobson
“Careful analysis of the existing relations between business and politics shows that the aggressive Imperialism which we seek to understand is not in the main the product of blind passions of races or of the mixed folly and ambition of politicians. It is far more rational than at first sight appears. Irrational from the standpoint of the whole nation, it is rational enough from the standpoint of certain classes in the nation. A completely socialist State which kept good books and presented regular balance-sheets of expenditure and assets would soon discard Imperialism; an intelligent laissez-faire democracy which gave duly proportionate weight in its policy to all economic interests alike would do the same. But a State in which certain well-organised business interests are able to outweigh the weak, diffused interest of the community is bound to pursue a policy which accords with the pressure of the former interests.”
The New American Century
In January 2003 thousands of us from across the world gathered in Porto Alegre in Brazil and declared – reiterated – that “Another World Is Possible.” A few thousand miles north, in Washington, George W. Bush and his aides were thinking the same thing.
Our project was the World Social Forum. Theirs – to further what many call the Project for the New American Century.
In the great cities of Europe and America, where a few years ago these things would only have been whispered, now people are openly talking about the good side of imperialism and the need for a strong empire to police an unruly world. The new missionaries want order at the cost of justice. Discipline at the cost of dignity. And ascendancy at any price. Occasionally some of us are invited to “debate” the issue on “neutral” platforms provided by the corporate media. Debating imperialism is a bit like debating the pros and cons of rape. What can we say? That we really miss it?
The Empire Strikes Out: The “New Imperialism” and Its Fatal Flaws
Since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, several commentators have advanced the idea of security through empire. They claim that the best way to protect the United States in the 21st century is to emulate the British, Roman, and other empires of the past. The logic behind the idea is that if the United States can consolidate the international system under its enlightened hegemony, America will be both safer and more prosperous. Although the word “empire” is not used, the Bush administration’s ambitious new National Security Strategy seems to embrace the notion of neo-imperialism.
The idea, however, ignores the fact that today’s world bears little resemblance to the one over which Britain or Rome once presided. Two differences are obvious: First, the world is far more interconnected today, which makes the consequences of sanctimonious, arrogant, or clumsy international behavior riskier politically, diplomatically, and economically. Second, the potential costs associated with making enemies today are far greater than they were for empires past. Indeed, the British and the Romans were the targets of assassinations, arson, and other forms of anti-imperial backlash, but that activity was typically small-scale and took place far from the mother country. Forms of backlash today, in contrast, could be large-scale and directed at America’s homeland.
Most of all, the strategy of empire is likely to overstretch and bleed America’s economy and its military and federal budgets, and the overextension could hasten the decline of the United States as a superpower, as it did the Soviet Union and Great Britain. The strategy could also have the opposite effect from what its proponents claim it would have; that is, it would alarm other nations and peoples and thus provoke counter-balancing behavior and create incentives for other nations to acquire weapons of mass destruction as an insurance policy against American military might.
(Chapter 1 of Against Empire by Michael Parenti)
Imperialism has been the most powerful force in world history over the last four or five centuries, carving up whole continents while oppressing indigenous peoples and obliterating entire civilizations. Yet, it is seldom accorded any serious attention by our academics, media commentators, and political leaders. When not ignored outright, the subject of imperialism has been sanitized, so that empires become “commonwealths,” and colonies become “territories” or “dominions” (or, as in the case of Puerto Rico, “commonwealths” too). Imperialist military interventions become matters of “national defence,” “national security,” and maintaining “stability” in one or another region. In this book I want to look at imperialism for what it really is.
By “imperialism” I mean the process whereby the dominant politico-economic interests of one nation expropriate for their own enrichment the land, labor, raw materials, and markets of another people.
The earliest victims of Western European imperialism were other Europeans. Some 800 years ago, Ireland became the first colony of what later became known as the British empire. A part of Ireland still remains under British occupation.
World Social Forum: A Fete for the End of History
“We are here to show the world that another world is possible!” the man on stage said, and a crowd of more than 10,000 roared its approval.
What was strange was that we weren’t cheering for a specific other world, just the possibility of one. We were cheering for the idea that another world could, in theory, exist.
For the past thirty years, a select group of CEOs and world leaders have met during the last week in January on a mountaintop in Switzerland to do what they presumed they were the only ones capable of doing: determine how the global economy should be governed. We were cheering because it was, in fact, the last week of January, and this wasn’t the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. It was the first annual World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil. And even though we weren’t CEOs or world leaders, we were still going to spend the week talking about how the global economy should be governed”
Confronting the Empire
(Delivered at the III World Social Forum, February 2, 2003)
“We are meeting at a moment of world history that is in many ways unique – a moment that is ominous, but also full of hope.
The most powerful state in history has proclaimed, loud and clear, that it intends to rule the world by force, the dimension in which it reigns supreme. Apart from the conventional bow to noble intentions that is the standard (hence meaningless) accompaniment of coercion, its leaders are committed to pursuit of their “imperial ambition,” as it is frankly described in the leading journal of the foreign policy establishment – critically, an important matter. They have also declared that they will tolerate no competitors, now or in the future. They evidently believe that the means of violence in their hands are so extraordinary that they can dismiss with contempt anyone who stands in their way. There is good reason to believe that the war with Iraq is intended, in part, to teach the world some lessons about what lies ahead when the empire decides to strike a blow — though “war” is hardly the proper term, given the array of forces.”
Imperialism: Then & Now – An interview with Tariq Ali
Imperialism is not a word that is often used in polite discourse in the United States.
I’ve always found it very strange, travelling and speaking throughout the United States, that it’s a word they don’t like. They assumed that an empire consisted of colonies abroad that were ruled and staffed by people sent from the imperial country, whether it was Britain in India or France in Algeria or Germany in Namibia or Belgium in the Congo. And they said, “Well, we don’t do it like that.”
For a long period the U.S. kept to its own sphere. What caused them to move out was not so much the need for colonies, which they didn’t need in that sense, given the size and scale of the United States itself and the natural resources it possessed, plus the fact that they dominated South America. What forced them to move out was the Russian Revolution. There is a very interesting parallel that at the same time as the Russian Revolution was taking place, Woodrow Wilson decided it was time for a major U.S. intervention because they were nervous now that the threatening of capitalist interests in Europe could actually threaten them in the long term. That’s when they decided they had to go international.
The victory of the Russian Revolution meant that it had an enemy. Here was a country that challenged capitalism quite openly. So for 70 years they fought that system. Finally they defeated it by forcing it to go on a binge of military spending, which was completely unnecessary. So the USSR imploded. That was a big, big victory for this empire.