Insidious Imperialism: What Does Empire-building Look Like in the 21st Century?

This reading list looks at the ways in which imperialism has evolved to facilitate new forms of exploitation.

“Every empire, however, tells itself and the world that it is unlike all other empires, that its mission is not to plunder and control but to educate and liberate."

Edward W Said, 2003

There is no disputing that the vast inequalities that exist among countries today are a consequence of a long history of imperialism. In the race to capture the eastern trade, empire-building led to the exploitation of the countries that today constitute the "third world". But this process of has not ended. There are several new ways in which imperialism has taken shape in the 21st century. 

Recently, accusations that the United States (US) is pursuing an imperialist agenda in Venezuela resurfaced when Donald Trump’s government declared Juan Guaidó as the “legitimate” president of the country. For a country that has the largest oil reserves in the world and is also dangerously on the brink of collapse, such an aggressive push for a regime change has the potential to push Venezuela off the edge. Regime changes are a rather apparent way for imperialism to operate in today’s world. There are far more insidious ways in which the former colonial powers have tried to retain control over resources across the world.

What does it mean to pursue an imperialist agenda in the 21st century? How does imperialism operate today? Here, we explore answers to these questions.

1) An Evolved System of Exploitation

From the mid-20th century onwards, Pradhan H Prasad argued, the former colonial powers no longer required military occupation for regional exploitation. They managed to evolve mechanisms where they could continue to exploit their former colonies economically by trapping them in various kinds of debt.

The dynamics of exploitation, of late, is being termed as 'globalisation'. As globalisation gathers momentum, the neo-colonies sink deep in the quagmire of non-development, increasing joblessness, lumpenisation and criminalisation of the societies. The political economy of this dynamics can be perceived in the Indian case also. But even then, it continues to draw applause in 1995-96 from a large majority of Indians. What a strange phenomenon of ignorance?  

2) Structural Changes and New Forms of Imperialism

Imperialism, in the 21st Century, comes in the form of global value chains (GVC) and global product networks, according to Dev Nathan. A GVC consists of all the processes that are involved in the creation of a product, which are spread all over the world. Each stage of a GVC adds value in such a manner that the very process of production has changed, which means that the nature of exploitation has changed. In the traditional Marxist sense, the export of capital was crucial to imperialism. But in the 21st century, because of extreme specialisation of the production process, GVCs are able to generate value without directly exporting capital. Data from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development found that in 2013, more than 80% of the trade conducted worldwide was organised through GVCs. Nathan therefore stresses the importance of these global economic structures in shaping neo-imperialist economies.  

Marx saw the expansion of capital as intrinsic to its existence, driving it to the ends of the earth. This, however, in old and new ways, involves the extension of forms of capturing surplus profits beyond national boundaries. If we wish to label the capture of surplus profits beyond the borders of the headquarter economies as imperialism, then the development of capitalism inevitably becomes imperialism as well. One cannot think of a capitalist development that remains within national boundaries and does not become imperialism.

3) Building a ‘New World Order’

In the 1990s, the US envisioned a “New World Order” which would enable it to dominate its European and Japanese allies. This strategic privilege was important for establishing US  hegemony to support its neo-imperialist agenda. It would ensure that the US would become an undisputed global power “capable of securing absolute control over strategic resources and a privileged place in the world market.” The attack on the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001, wrote James Petras, provided the US with an opportunity to launch this “New World Order” (NWO) with absolute impunity. The George W Bush administration had failed to implement the NWO after the first Gulf war in the previous decade, but the “war against terrorism” provided the perfect excuse.  According to Petras, the Bush administration systematically destroyed all restraints on the amount of power they could exercise by violating a number of international treaties and agreements.

The purpose of these unilateral actions was to create optimal conditions to favour US MNCs to engage in wars of conquest and to expand military operations. There were several domestic restraining factors that had to be overcome in order to launch NWO II. The Bush administration was a minority presidency-based on a questionable voter count. The domestic economy was mired in a recession. The stock market was falling and the trade deficit was growing. Against this, the Bush administration could count on the precedent of Clinton’s Balkan Wars, rationalised as Humanitarian Intervention, as a building block for new military invasions.

4) Manufacturing Consent for Imperialist Wars

In the aftermath of US aggression in Iraq, Sanjay Kumar wrote that it became quite apparent that the US enterprise in Iraq was an imperialist one, given the “scramble among American companies to get contracts for building Iraq after American weapons have done a thorough job of destroying that country.” But what made such an imperialist war possible in the 21st century? Kumar argues, it is “imperialist ignorance” rather than “imperialist arrogance” that allows governments to manufacture consent from their public.

The widespread and long-term acceptance of the imperialist world order in imperialist countries is not realised through such a posturing of imperialist arrogance. The more potent means to gain such acceptance is the ideology of imperialist ignorance that amounts to ways of thinking, believing and behaving as if imperialism does not exist. The silent support of citizens of the US and UK to the war against Iraq is an instance of such imperialist ignorance. Imperialist ignorance is a well evolved ideology, it guides citizens of imperial countries not only when they have to take a stand on the issue of open imperial warfare. It lies beneath ‘common sense’ notions they have about the rest of the world.

5) Resisting Cultural Imperialism

Cultural imperialism forms an important dimension of the imperialist structure in the 21st century. According to James Petras, it is instrumental in alienating people from their cultural roots while at the same time, it generates media created needs. He argues that “the export of entertainment commodities is one of the most important sources of capital accumulation and global profits displacing manufacturing exports.”

The principal target of cultural imperialism is the political and economic exploitation of youth. Imperial entertainment and advertisements target young people who are most vulnerable to US commercial propaganda. The message is simple and direct: 'modernity' is associated with consuming US media product. The message is simple and direct: 'modernity' is associated with consuming US media products. Youth represent a major market for US cultural exports and they are most susceptible to the consumerist-individualist propaganda. The mass media manipulates adolescent rebelliousness by appropriating the language of the left and channelling discontent into consumer extravagances.

However, in response to Petras’ article, S Seethalakshmi, Shailaja Ramaiyer and Surinder S Jodhka have argued that third world audiences cannot be seen as passively accepting the cultural imperialist agenda of the West. They concede that growing consumerism among middle classes is worrisome, but that does not mean that audiences are subscribing to everything they are being fed by the media uncritically.

According to Petras, "the principal target of cultural imperialism is the political and economic exploitation of youth". The youth that he is talking about appears as a classless homogeneous innocent mass - vulnerable and susceptible to imperialist media, readily convertible to consumerist culture. Even though he frequently makes references to the prevailing disparities and social inequalities in these societies, his analysis of 'cultural imperialism' fails to relate it to the emerging realities of local and global class relations. His analysis of culture operates more at a populist level than within the framework of class relations.

6) Building Digital Empires by ‘Producing’ the Subaltern

What are the ways in which these new forms of imperialism manifest in the digital sphere? Anca Birzescu and Radhika Gajjala argue that the “production” of a subaltern presence is a token gesture that the exclusionary practices inherent in digital capitalism. What appears to be subaltern participation in the digital sphere is, in reality, a mere representation orchestrated by digital imperialist forces. This process has been particularly crucial for digital imperialism after finance was digitised so that capital itself became a commodity. The creation of the subaltern voice aided the selling of capital in the name of corporate social responsibility.

The mode of digital imperialism that circumscribes the formation of the new subaltern in the current international division of labour is aptly described by Spivak as “a displacement of the divided field of 19th-century territorial imperialism” (1999: 274). It is easier to grasp the reconfiguration of empire digitally if we see the “Third World” as a “displacement of the old colonies”, and if we understand that colonialism “displaces itself into neocolonialism”, while recognising that neocolonialism stands for “the largely economic rather than the largely territorial enterprise of imperialism” – all these interconnected with the dynamics of the financialisation of the globe (Spivak 1999: 3).


Read More: 

The Other Side of Foreign Investment by Imperial Powers:Transfer of Surplus from Colonies Amiya Kumar Bagchi , 2002

'White Man's Embarrassment' :European Vagrancy in 19th Century Bombay | Aravind Ganachari, 2002

Central Asia: Impact of US-Led War on Terrorism | Rama Sampath Kumar, 2002

Modernity, Terrorism and the Masquerade of Conflict | Anirudh Deshpande, 2003

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