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SOCIALISTS SAY that the world's mightiest power, the USA, has been fighting a war in Afghanistan to defend imperialist interests. But what is imperialism? And how, in a world with few direct colonies, do its needs still dominate the world? ALISTAIR TICE explains.
Imperialism - Wars Without End
THERE WERE empires long before capitalism. Ancient Greek and Roman troops conquered land, enslaved foreign peoples and amassed wealth for their slave-owning ruling class. Feudal societies seized new territories, e.g. in the 'crusades' against the Arabs of the Middle East.
The conquistadors annexed Latin America for the Spanish and Portuguese empires. Their looting of Aztec and Inca treasures contributed to the primitive accumulation of capital (start-up money) that led to capitalism's birth.
So how does modern imperialism differ? As industrial production became bigger and more concentrated, the free competition of early capitalism gave way to the growth of monopolies.
With ever more money needed for investment, the banks were transformed into decisive financial institutions which determined credit and loans to even the biggest companies and so came to dominate the economy.
Meanwhile capitalism, first in Britain then in Europe and America, outgrew the limits of its own home market. Because capitalists make profits by paying workers less than the full value their labour creates, over time workers cannot afford to buy back all the goods they produce. The capitalists are then forced to find new markets, and sources of raw materials and cheap labour.
In the late 19th century, a handful of advanced capitalist nations mobilised armies and missionaries to colonise most of the world, through the "scramble for Africa" and by taking over such 'virgin' territories as Canada. Such 'civilisation' came at an enormous cost to millions of native peoples: genocide, war, disease, enslavement and exploitation.
As monopoly finance capital grew, the export of surplus commodities was superseded by the export of capital - not 'aid' to help colonial peoples, but "surplus". money that couldn't be profitably invested at home but could make bigger profits through investments and loans abroad.
By 1889, Britain was the biggest trading country in the world but its income from finance capital invested abroad was five times greater than that from foreign trade!
Imperialism represents a specific stage of capitalism - the domination of monopoly finance capital, the export of capital, and the carving-up of the world between a few major capitalist powers, for spheres of influence to profit from markets, raw materials and cheap labour.
BY THE 1900s, little of the globe remained to be colonised: Britain, France and Germany had conquered 81% of the colonial world. So competing imperialist powers came into conflict over re-dividing the world.
Older British industry was challenged by Germany's rising, more modern industry, which could only expand at the expense of rival imperialist interests, leading to the First World War which slaughtered some 26 million people.
Far from being "a war to end all wars", the uneasy truce after 1918 was shattered by the 1930s Great Depression which intensified trade rivalries, and the rise of fascism which needed military expansion to sustain itself. This inevitably led to the Second World War when up to 60 million perished.
If a third world war has been avoided since, it is only because during the fifty-year Cold War between Western imperialism (led by the USA) and Stalinist Russia nuclear weapons were developed which could ensure the 'Mutually Assured Destruction' (MAD) of both sides!
Instead, the biggest arms race in history occurred. The superpowers vied for spheres of influence in regional proxy wars in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
After 1945, the world hardly experienced one day of peace and the number of armed conflicts grew to over 60 in the 1990s. The 20th century, imperialism's century, is the bloodiest in history, with up to 200 million killed in wars.
But the oppression of direct political, and often military, rule by imperialist powers, aroused the multi-millioned masses of the colonies. From the 1940s, anti-imperialist struggles and national liberation movements developed throughout Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Faced with these colonial revolts, it was increasingly costly, both economically and politically, for imperialism to maintain direct colonial rule.
So in many countries, after the war, imperialism beat a tactical retreat and granted formal independence to their ex-colonies, although leaving a bloody legacy of war (Vietnam, Angola and Mozambique) and divide and rule as in the partition of India/Pakistan and Palestine/Israel.
HOWEVER, IMPERIALISM did not relinquish its indirect, but no less oppressive, economic domination. In fact, imperialist economic exploitation (called neo-colonialism) has intensified since independence, not lessened.
Ex-colonies are still forced to produce one or two crops (cash crops) or minerals for export to the imperialist economies. 60% of the under-developed nations' export earnings come from just 18 raw materials! So, with a few favoured exceptions such as the Asian Tigers, the poorest countries cannot develop their own industries or compete with the West, so continuing their dependence.
Likewise, imperialism dictates the terms of trade. The prices paid by the West for raw materials in no way match the prices which the Third World pays for the manufactured goods sold back. Even oil, over which the Oil Producing and Exporting Countries (OPEC) exercise some control, would need to sell at nearly $100 a barrel just to match its 1950 price level!
As raw material prices have fallen, so has the Third World's share of world trade. Africa with 10% of the world's population accounts for less than 2% of world trade.
Over the last twenty years the chains of Third World 'debt' have been forged. After 1973, billions of dollars of oil money, recycled through Western banks, were loaned to the 'developing' countries. But interest rates soared in the early 1980s, leading to crippling Third World debts, now totalling $2,5 trillion.
The price of 'rescue' by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank is "structural adjustment" ie deregulation, privatisation and deeper exploitation of these economies by Western banks and corporations.
Now, in a 'bloodsucking' twist to imperialism, there is actually a net export of capital from the underdeveloped to the imperialist nations - the Third World pays back more in debt repayments than it receives in 'aid' and investments!
Globalisation and imperialism
THE COLLAPSE of Stalinist Russia in 1989 left US imperialism as the world's only economic and military superpower. The capitalists' representatives then launched an ideological offensive removing the last vestiges of opposition to their neo-liberal policies from workers' parties and Third World leaders alike.
Coupled with the deregulation of the financial markets in the 80s and new technology industries, this gave a huge impetus to the globalisation process.
Neo-liberal policies, backed up by the capitalists' world institutions (IMF, World Bank and World Trade Organisation) have increased Western monopoly corporations' domination of the world economy.
Today, just 300 multinationals and big banks account for 70% of all foreign direct investment. The 100 biggest companies now control 70% of world trade. And the fifty largest banks and financial companies control 60% of all global capital!
But this globalisation has only intensified the contradictions of capitalism and is now sucking the whole world economy into a synchronised recession.
Likewise, George Bush senior's declaration in 1991 after the Gulf War, of a "New World Order" dominated by US imperialism, has brought no peace or stability to the world. Far from it.
The legacies of past imperialist policies (as in the Middle East and the Balkans), exacerbated by globalised exploitation of the world's poorest countries, has led to three imperialist wars of intervention (Iraq, Serbia and Afghanistan) since 1991.
Imperialist adventures aren't always just to gain or defend profit opportunities. US imperialism attacked Afghanistan to avenge the blow to US prestige after the 11 September atrocities. But America's economic dominance ultimately relies on US military muscle to maintain its power and maximise its profits.
Imperialism truly does mean 'wars without end'. We must build a mass movement, not just against current wars, but to end all wars, by overthrowing capitalism and building a socialist world.