To put it succinctly, imperialism is the process whereby powerful groups try to extend their power and increase their wealth by bringing ever more of the world under their domination. Although the word comes to us from Roman times, imperialism has been around for a lot longer. In fact, pretty much every well-known ancient civilisation was an imperialist power, sending armies abroad to conquer new lands, from the Egyptian pharaohs, to the Aztecs and Incas. Even Athens, birthplace of democracy, had its empire and there are several recorded instances of Athenian armies massacring their subjects in order to ensure they didn't get any notions of independence.
Imperialism is a direct consequence of hierarchical organisation. Power corrupts and leads to a thirst for more power. Thus, in any hierarchical society, once a group has attained power in their own realm, they will start to look outwards and continue to extend their influence through imperialism until they are toppled from within, or encounter a more powerful imperialist rival.
The modern history of imperialism dates from the 15th century, when technical advances in navigation and sailing suddenly opened up vast areas of the world to the European powers. This came at a time when their expansion to the East had been blocked by the Ottoman empire, and they had fallen into a prolonged period of inconclusive warfare amongst themselves. Their technical advantages over the people of the newly accessible lands, especially in warfare, made expansion in that direction a very attractive prospect. European armies and gunboats travelled the world. The British, Dutch, French, Spanish and Portuguese slugged it out over 4 centuries in a race to conquer these new lands and to appropriate their resources. Where they could, as in the Americas and Australia, they simply took over the land and slaughtered the population or put them to work as slaves.
Elsewhere, in Asia and Africa, the native societies were too powerful to be militarily subjugated, so they relied on their monopoly of naval technology to impose ever more uneven terms of trade. West Africa provides a good case study. In the 15th century the trade was a relatively even exchange of goods. Cloth, tools, wine and horses were exchanged for gold, pepper and ivory. By the mid 16th century this trade had become entirely one-sided as the European powers traded decreasing quantities of weapons and iron in exchange for vast numbers of slaves to work their American plantations. This underlines the fact that trade relations, as well as conquering armies, have always been a powerful weapon in the hands of the imperialists.
Today we can see this pattern repeated. The world's major capitalists define the global rules of trade through such international bodies as the WTO, IMF, World Bank and UN. Although these are presented as being neutral bodies, with voluntary membership, they are in fact imperialist tools. They oversee the transfer of vast quantities of resources and wealth every year from the poorer parts of the world into the bank accounts of the super rich. After centuries of exploitation and theft, they tell us that Africa apparently owes the West $227 billion . The force of arms, although normally hidden, is never too far away. If a local ruler is weak enough, and not sufficiently compliant with the rules of global capitalism, they will be conquered through force of arms and replaced with a more willing servant.
Although imperialism is often seen as one country oppressing another, this view clouds the picture. In this age of global capitalism, the group with real power are the big capitalists. They will use whatever political vehicle is most suitable to impose their power. In this era, the US is the undisputed centre of political power in the world and so it is through the US that the capitalists flex their muscles. The people of the US, sent out to kill and die for Chevron and GM, are victims of this imperialism as well as the Iraqis, Afghanis and Somalis whom they kill. So, rather than the US oppressing the rest of the world, we can best understand imperialism, and indeed fight against it, if we see it as the global class of capitalists oppressing the rest of humanity.
Episcopal news service:
This edition is No76 published in August 2003