“The discovery of America, and that of a passage to the East Indies by the Cape of Good Hope, are the two greatest and most important events recorded in the history of mankind. Their consequences have already been great… To the natives, however, both of East and West Indies, all the commercial benefits which can have resulted from those events have been sunk and lost in the dreadful misfortunes which they occasioned.” — Adam Smith
Capitalism has been global in character since its very birth. As the Europeans discovered new lands, starting from and Latin America, they realized the presence of rich natural endowments of the New World. The Europeans recognized that trade in these resources could accrue humungous amounts of profits and income. As Adam Smith pointed out, “The profits of a sugar plantation in any one of our West Indian colonies are general much greater than those of any other civilization that is known in Europe of America”.
The struggle over the ownership of natural resources led to the conquests of the new lands. Gradually, but not non-violently, all the existing civilizations – starting with the Mayans, the Aztecs, Incas in Latin America to India and Africa – were brought under direct European domination and the Europeans embarked on the discovery of the East. This shift in power did not remain only at the top, but fundamentally changed the structure of society and polity of the New World.
Thus, discovery of gold and silver in America, and the enslavement and trading of Black population of Africa marked the beginning of a new world era – the era of Capitalism. Capitalism, from the very beginning, was complimented by political and economic domination over a vast majority of world’s population and resources, resulting in what we know as Colonialism. Colonialism not only complemented Capitalism, but also played a very important role in its development as the political instrument to safeguard the economic interests of the colonizers.
With the development of Capitalism to the monopoly stage, the system of domination that complimented it also changed. The experience of Spanish-American War of 1898 unfolded the emergence of new form of domination, and the term ‘imperialism’ was brought into use in the economic and the political literature to explain the new phenomenon. From then on, ‘imperialism’ was recognized as an important perspective to understand the pattern of global political economy.
The definition of Imperialism has been a topic of much controversy and debate during the twentieth century. Various attempts have been made to both elucidate and confuse the concept of Imperialism. One of the major difficulties that exist in approaching a definition of Imperialism appropriate for the modern day and age is the adherence to the traditional model of a core nation-state that maintains dominion over the sovereignty of peripheral regions for whatever purposes. For-example, Michael W. Doyle characterized Imperialism in these words: “Empire, then, is a relationship, formal or informal, in which one state controls the effective political sovereignty of another political society. It can be achieved by force, by political collaboration, by economic, social, or cultural dependence. Imperialism is simply the process or policy of establishing or maintaining an empire.”
There is no denial that the State plays a very important role in Imperialism. However, the view the State as an instrument divorced from the society is mistaken idea. It is important to note how State is not representative of whole people, but of a particular class.
These non-state actors often turn to national state to gain competitive advantage as a part of their larger corporate and commercial strategy. Modern day globalization is not a national project but a class project that seeks to bring national strategy within the folds of the interests of the dominant class in the state. In this way, the non-state actors utilize the state-machinery to achieve their aims and aspirations. Therefore, while broad definitions explain the general characteristics of the phenomenon, they fail to explain the distinct features of the contemporary form of trend known as Imperialism. Hence, the political definitions of Imperialism remain to be one-sided, and ignore some other features of Imperialism – particularly the economic ones that are peculiar to the twentieth century, like the emergence of large transnational corporations, banks, global institutions and their relationship with the state – which are as important, if not more, as the political ones.
The specific economic and political features of the modern-day Imperialism were first noticed by the John A. Hobson in this book Imperialism. While Hobson abstained from giving any concrete definition of Imperialism, he explained Imperialism as a natural outcome of the Capitalism, a political policy resulting from a “sudden demand for foreign markets for manufactures and for investments”. A notable addition to Hobson’s work was made by Rudolf Hilferding in highlighting the emergence of finance capital, the “capital controlled by banks and employed by industrialists”, and capitalist monopolies. Such analyses are more in line with the world history then general political ones.
The work of Hobson and Hilferding assisted Vladimir Lenin in the preparation of his book Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism. In this book, Lenin laid down the five fundamental features of Imperialism for definitional purposes:
“Imperialism is capitalism at that stage of development at which the dominance of monopolies and finance capital is established; in which the export of capital has acquired pronounced importance; in which the division of the world among the international trusts has begun, in which the division of all territories of the globe among the biggest capitalist powers has been completed.”
While most of the academics choose to declare any agreement with Lenin’s definition as “impressionistic judgment” due to its attachment with the political movements, they seldom yield to one-sided analysis or unnecessary confusions while thoroughly failing to appreciate the trend pointed out by Lenin.
Lenin approached his conclusions while developing on the work of Hobson, with whom he had very little political agreement. The domination of finance capital and corporate cartels is no hidden fact. Not only do these corporations and banks control the issues concerning the global markets and governance, they also heavily influence crucial foreign policy instruments like war and peace. Even the dominant institutions like IMF, World Bank, and WTO are, as also pointed out by Joesph Stiglitz, serve the purposes of the global finance. How, then, can their power be denied?
Lenin’s explanation of Imperialism also explains a one of the most pronounced phenomenon of the twentieth century – Imperialist wars. Imperialist wars, according the Lenin, is the persistent struggle of the global finance to divide and re-divide the world amongst themselves, where they use the influence the armies of their home country for the expansion of their markets and authority. These wars are carried out primarily against those who obstruct the progression of market forces, but also against the competitors. The First World War was one major manifestation of such a theory, where the rapidly emerging German capitalist class saw little room for the expansion of their markets in the already colonized world. Since then, a number of brutal and savage wars have been conducted in order to quench the never ending thirst of the capitalist forces for more and more markets.
The role of Imperialism in the future is a big question for all those who aspire for an international system based on of justice. Whether Imperialism will be allowed to inflict more misery and wars can only be decided by the large majority of people of this planet, those who face the “dreadful misfortunes” of globalization, for it’s in the very nature of Imperialism to do what it has been doing.