Imperial Domination Updated
excerpted from the book
The Brutal Realities of U.S. Global
by Michael Parenti
City Lights Books, 1995, paper
The impoverished lands of Asia, Africa, and Latin America are
known to us as the "Third World," to distinguish them
from the "First World" of industrialized Europe and
North America and the now largely defunct "Second World"
of communist states. Third World poverty, called "underdevelopment,"
is treated by most Western observers as an original historic condition.
We are asked to believe that it always existed, that poor countries
are poor because their lands have always been infertile or their
In fact, the lands of Asia, Africa, and
Latin America have long produced great treasures of foods, minerals,
and other natural resources. That is why Europeans went through
so much trouble to steal and plunder them. One does not go to
poor places for self-enrichment. The Third World is rich. Only
its people are poor-and it is because of the pillage they have
What is called "underdevelopment" is a set of social
relations that has been forcefully imposed on countries. With
the advent of the Western colonizers, the peoples of the Third
World were actually set back in their development, sometimes for
centuries. British imperialism in India provides an instructive
example. In 1810, India was exporting more textiles to England
than England was exporting to India. By 1830, the trade flow was
reversed. The British had put up prohibitive tariff barriers to
shut out Indian finished goods and were dumping their commodities
in India, a practice backed by British gunboats and military force.
Within a matter of years, the great textile centers of Dacca and
Madras were turned into ghost towns. The Indians were sent back
to the land to raise the cotton used in British textile factories.
In effect, India was reduced to being a cow milked by British
By 1850, India's debt had grown to £53
million. From 1850 to 1900, its per capita income dropped by almost
two-thirds. The value of the raw materials and commodities the
Indians were obliged to send to Britain during most of the nineteenth
century amounted yearly to more than the total income of the sixty
million Indian agricultural and industrial workers. The massive
poverty we associate with India was not that country's original
historical condition. British imperialism did two things: first,
it ended India's development, then it forcibly underdeveloped
Similar bleeding processes occurred throughout
the Third World. The enormous wealth extracted should remind us
that there originally were few really poor nations. Countries
like Brazil, Indonesia, Chile, Bolivia, Zaire, Mexico, Malaysia,
and the Philippines were and in some cases still are rich in resources.
Some lands have been so thoroughly plundered as to be desolate
in all respects. However, most of the Third World is not "underdeveloped"
but overexploited. Western colonization and investments have created
a lower rather than a higher living standard.
Referring to what the English colonizers
did to the Irish, Frederick Engels wrote in 1856: "How often
have the Irish started out to achieve something, and every time
they have been crushed politically and industrially. By consistent
oppression they have been artificially converted into an utterly
impoverished nation." So with most of the Third World. The
Mayan Indians in Guatemala had a more nutritious and varied diet
and better conditions of health in the early sixteenth century
before the Europeans arrived than they have today. They had more
craftspeople, architects, artisans, and horticulturists than today.
What is called underdevelopment is a product of imperialism's
superexploitation. Underdevelopment is itself a development.
Imperialism has created what I have termed
"maldevelopment": modern office buildings and luxury
hotels in the capital city instead of housing for the poor, cosmetic
surgery clinics for the affluent instead of hospitals for workers,
cash export crops for agribusiness instead of food for local markets,
highways that go from the mines and latifundios to the refineries
and ports instead of roads in the back country for those who might
hope to see a doctor or a teacher.
Wealth is transferred from Third World
peoples to the economic elites of Europe and North America (and
more recently Japan) by direct plunder, by the expropriation of
natural resources, the imposition of ruinous taxes and land rents,
the payment of poverty wages, and the forced importation of finished
goods at highly inflated prices. The colonized country is denied
the freedom of trade and the opportunity to develop its own natural
resources, markets, and industrial capacity. Self-sustenance and
self-employment give way to wage labor. From 1970 to 1980, the
number of wage workers in the Third World grew from 72 million
to 120 million, and the rate is accelerating.
When we say a country is "underdeveloped," we are implying
that it is backward and retarded in some way, that its people
have shown little capacity to achieve and evolve. The negative
connotations of "underdeveloped" have caused the United
Nations, the Wall Street Journal, and parties of various political
persuasions to refer to Third World countries as "developing"
nations, a term somewhat less insulting than "underdeveloped"
but equally misleading. I prefer to use "Third World"
because "developing" seems to be just a euphemistic
way of saying "underdeveloped but belatedly starting to do
something about it." It still implies that poverty was an
original historic condition and not something imposed by imperialists.
It also falsely suggests that these countries are developing when
actually their economic conditions are usually worsening.
The dominant theory of the last half century,
enunciated repeatedly by writers like Barbara Ward and W. W. Rostow
and afforded wide currency, maintains that it is up to the rich
nations of the North to help uplift the "backward" nations
of the South, bringing them technology and proper work habits.
This is an updated version of "the white man's burden,"
a favorite imperialist fantasy.
According to the development scenario,
with the introduction of Western investments, workers in the poor
nations will find more productive employment in the modern sector
at higher wages. As capital accumulates, business will reinvest
its profits, thus creating still more products, jobs, buying power,
and markets. Eventually a more prosperous economy evolves.
This "development theory" or
"modernization theory," as it is sometimes called, bears
little relation to reality. What has emerged in the Third World
is an intensely exploitive form of dependent capitalism. Economic
conditions have worsened drastically with the growth of transnational
corporate investment. The problem is not poor lands or unproductive
populations but foreign exploitation and class inequality. Investors
go into a country not to uplift it but to enrich themselves.
After World War II, European powers like Britain and France adopted
a strategy of neoimperialism. Financially depleted by years of
warfare, and facing intensified popular resistance from within
the Third World itself, they reluctantly decided that indirect
economic hegemony was less costly and politically more expedient
than outright colonial rule. They discovered that the removal
of a conspicuously intrusive colonial rule made it more difficult
for nationalist elements within the previously colonized countries
to mobilize antiimperialist sentiments.
Though the newly established government
might be far from completely independent, it usually enjoyed more
legitimacy in the eyes of its populace than a colonial administration
controlled by the imperial power. Furthermore, under neoimperialism
the native government takes up the costs of administering the
country while the imperialist interests are free to concentrate
on accumulating capital, which is all they really want to do.
After years of colonialism, the Third
World country finds it extremely difficult to extricate itself
from the unequal relationship with its former colonizer and impossible
to depart from the global capitalist sphere. Those countries that
try to make a break are subjected to punishing economic and military
treatment by one or another major power, nowadays usually the
The leaders of the new nations may voice
revolutionary slogans, yet they find themselves locked into the
global capitalist orbit, cooperating perforce with the First World
nations for investment, trade, and aid. So we witnessed the curious
phenomenon of leaders of newly independent Third World nations
denouncing imperialism as the source of their countries' ills,
while dissidents in these countries denounced these same leaders
as collaborators of imperialism.
In many instances a comprador class emerged
or was installed as a first condition for independence. A comprador
class is one that cooperates in turning its own country into a
client state for foreign interests. A client state is one that
is open to investments on terms that are decidedly favorable to
the foreign investors. In a client state, corporate investors
enjoy direct subsidies and land grants, access to raw materials
and cheap labor, light or nonexistent taxes, few effective labor
unions, no minimum wage or child labor or occupational safety
laws, and no consumer or environmental protections to speak of.
The protective laws that do exist go largely unenforced.
In all, the Third World is something of
a capitalist paradise, offering life as it was in Europe and the
United States during the nineteenth century, with a rate of profit
vastly higher than what might be earned today in a country with
strong economic regulations. The comprador class is well recompensed
for its cooperation. Its leaders enjoy opportunities to line their
pockets with the foreign aid sent by the U.S. government. Stability
is assured with the establishment of security forces, armed and
trained by the United States in the latest technologies of terror
The economy of Third World nations typically is concentrated on
exporting a few raw materials or labor-intensive commodities.
Since it is such a buyer's market, a poor nation finds itself
in acute competition with other impoverished nations for the markets
of more prosperous industrial countries. The latter are able to
set trading terms that are highly favorable to themselves, playing
one poor country off against another.
Imperial Domination Updated
Third World countries are underpaid for their exports and regularly
overcharged for the goods they import from the industrial world.
Thus, their coffee, cotton, meat, tin, copper, and oil are sold
to foreign corporations at low prices in order to obtain-at painfully
high prices-various manufactured goods, machinery, and spare parts.
According to a former president of Venezuela, Carlos Andrés
Perez: "This has resulted in a constant and growing outflow
of capital and impoverishment of our countries."
in many poor countries over half the manufacturing assets are
owned or controlled by foreign companies. Even in instances when
the multinationals have only a minority interest, they often retain
a veto control. Even when the host nation owns the enterprise
in its entirety, the multinationals will enjoy benefits through
their near-monopoly of technology and international marketing.
Such is the case with oil, an industry in which the giant companies
own only about 38 percent of the world's crude petroleum production
but control almost all the refining capacity and distribution.
Given these disadvantageous trade and
investment relations, Third World nations have found it expedient
to borrow heavily from Western banks and from the International
Monetary Fund (IMF), which is controlled by the United States
and other Western member-nations. By the 1990s, the Third World
debt was approaching $2 trillion, an unpayable sum. The greater
a nation's debt, the greater the pressure to borrow still more
to meet deficits-often at still higher interest rates and on tighter
An increasingly large portion of the earnings
of indebted nations goes to servicing the debt, leaving still
less for domestic consumption. The debts of some nations have
grown so enormous that the interest accumulates faster than payments
can be met. The debt develops a self-feeding momentum of its own,
consuming more and more of the debtor nation's wealth.
A key instrument of class-biased aid is the World Bank, an interlocking,
international consortium of bankers and economists who spend billions
of dollars-much of it from U.S. taxpayers-to finance projects
that shore up repressive right-wing regimes and subsidize corporate
investors at the expense of the poor and the environment.
Terror remains one of the common instruments of imperialist domination.
With the financial and technical assistance of the U.S. Central
Intelligence Agency (CIA) and other such units, military and security
police throughout various client states are schooled in the fine
arts of surveillance, interrogation, torture, intimidation, and
assassination. The U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA) at Fort
Benning, Georgia, known throughout Latin America as the, "School
of Assassins," trains military officers from U.S. client
states in the Iatest methods of repression. In a country like
El Salvador, a majority y of the officers implicated in village
massacres and other atrocities are SOA graduates.
In procapitalist countries like El Salvador and Guatemala, the
U.S. national security state is on the side of the government,
rendering indispensable counterinsurgency assistance in order
to suppress popular liberation forces. By the "US. national
security state" I mean to the Executive Office of the White
House, the National Security Council (NSC), National Security
Administration, Central Intelligence Agency, Pentagon, Federal
Bureau of Investigation, and other such units that are engaged
in surveillance, suppression, covert action, and forceful interventions
abroad and at home.
Military force is in even greater evidence today than during the
era of colonial conquest and occupation. The United States maintains
the most powerful military machine on earth. Its supposed purpose
was to protect democracy from communist aggression, but the U.S.
military's actual mission-as demonstrated in Vietnam, Cambodia
Laos Lebanon, the Dominican Republic, Grenada, and Panama-has
been not to ward off Russian or Cuban invasions but to prevent
indigenous anticapitalist, revolutionary or populist-nationalist
governments from prevailing.
U.S. military force is also applied indirectly,
by sponsoring Third World armies, gendarmerie, and intelligence
and security units including death squads. Their purpose is not
to safeguard their autocratic governments from a nonexistent communist
invasion but to suppress and terrorize rebellious elements within
their own populations or in adjacent countries ...
... the CIA personnel who devise ... violent programs do not consider
themselves involved in anything less noble than the defense of
U.S. interests abroad. They may admit that certain of their methods
are unsavory but they are quick to point out the necessity of
fighting fire with fire, emphasizing that a communist victory
is a far greater evil than whatever repressive expediencies they
are compelled to utilize. So they justify their crimes by saying
that their victims are criminals. The national security warriors
do not support torturers and death squads arbitrarily, but as
part of a process of extermination and repression in defense of
specific politico-economic interests.
The state must protect not only the overseas investments of particular
firms but the entire capital accumulation process itself. This
entails the systematic suppression of revolutionary and populist-nationalist
movements that seek to build alternative economic systems along
more egalitarian, collectivist lines.
It was with domestic opinion in mind that the U.S. imperialists
developed the method of "low intensity conflict" to
wreak death and destruction upon countries or guerrilla movements
that pursued an alternative course of development. This approach
recognizes that Third World guerrilla forces have seldom, if ever,
been able to achieve all-out military victory over the occupying
army of an industrial power or its comprador army. The best the
guerrillas can hope to do is wage a war of attrition, depriving
the imperialist country of a final victory, until the latter's
own population grows weary of the costs and begins to challenge
the overseas commitment. The war then becomes politically too
costly for the imperialists to prosecute.
To avoid stirring up ... political opposition at home, Washington
policymakers have developed the technique of low intensity conflict,
a mode of warfare that avoids all-out, high-visibility, military
engagements and thereby minimizes the use and loss of U.S. military
personnel. A low-intensity war is a proxy war, using ' the mercenary
troops of the U.S.-backed Third World government. With Washington
providing military trainers and advisers, superior firepower,
surveillance and communications assistance, and generous funds,
these forces are able to persist indefinitely, destroying a little
at a time, with quick sorties into the countryside and death squad
assassinations in the cities and villages. They forgo an all-out
sweep against guerrilla forces that is likely to fall short of
victory and invite criticism of its futility and savagery.
The war pursued by the Reagan and Bush
administrations against Nicaragua was prosecuted for almost a
decade. The counterinsurgency war in El Salvador lasted over fifteen
years; in the Philippines over twenty years; in Colombia, over
thirty years; and in Guatemala, thirty-five years. Once low-intensity
conflict is adopted there are no more big massacres, no massive
military engagements, no dramatic victories or dramatic setbacks,
no Dienbienphu or Tet Offensive.
The U.S. public is not galvanized to opposition
because not much seems to be happening and the intervention drops
from the news. Like the guerrillas themselves, the interventionists
pursue a war of attrition but against the people rather than with
their support. Their purpose is to demonstrate that they have
endless time and resources, that they will be able to outlast
the guerrilla forces not only militarily, but also politically,
because there is now scant pressure for withdraw from their own
populace back home.
Among the recent undertakings by politico-economic elites are
the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the 1993 Uruguayan
Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which
represent attempts to circumvent the sovereignty of nation-states
in favor of the transnational corporations. As presented to the
public, NAFTA and GATT will break down tariff walls, integrate
national economies into a global system, and benefit the peoples
of all nations with increased trade. This "globalization"
process is treated as a benign and natural historical development
that supposedly has taken us from regional to national and now
to international market relations.
The GATT agreements create a World Trade Organization (WTO), an
international association of over 120 signatory nations, with
the same legal status as the United Nations. WTO has the authority
to prevent, overrule, or dilute the environmental, social, consumer,
and labor laws of any nation. It sets up panels composed of nonelected
trade specialists who act as judges over economic issues, placing
them beyond the reach of national sovereignty and popular control,
thereby ensuring that community interests will be subordinated
to finance capital.
Generally, GATT advances the massive corporate acquisition of
publicly owned property and the holdings of local owners and worker
collectives. Deprived of tariff protections, many small family
farms in North America and Europe will go under, and the self-sufficient
village agricultural economies of much of Asia and Africa will
be destroyed. As Kim Moody notes, "Third World peasant producers
will be driven from the land by the millions, as is already happening
in Mexico [under NAFTA]."
We are told that to remain competitive
under GATT, we in North America will have to increase our productivity
while reducing our labor and production costs. We will have to
spend less on social services and introduce more wage concessions,
more restructuring, deregulation, and privatization. Only then
might we cope with the impersonal forces sweeping us along. In
fact, there is nothing impersonal about these forces. GATT was
consciously planned by business and governmental elites over a
period of years, by interests that have explicitly pursued a deregulated
world economy and have opposed all democratic checks upon business
Over the last two decades, in Latin America, Asia, and even in
Europe and North America, conservative forces have pushed hard
to take publicly owned not-for-profit industries and services
(mines, factories, oil wells, banks, railroads, telephone companies,
utilities, television systems, postal services, health care, and
insurance firms) and sell them off at bargain prices to private
interests to be operated for profit.
Designed to leave the world's economic destiny to the tender mercy
of bankers and multinational corporations, globalization is a
logical extension of imperialism, a victory of empire over republic,
international finance capital over democracy.
Michael Parenti page