Imperialism 101,
Imperial Domination Updated

excerpted from the book

Against Empire

The Brutal Realities of U.S. Global Domination

by Michael Parenti

City Lights Books, 1995, paper

Imperialism 101

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 people unproductive.

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 endured.

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 financiers.

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 that country.

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 United States.

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 and repression.

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 payment terms.

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 practices.

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.

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