The term imperialism derives from the Latin word "imperium" which means command. Imperialism refers to a relationship in which one society has economic and political dominance over another. Imperialism is as old as recorded history and has gone through many variations. However, capitalist imperialism is different than previous forms.
Capitalist imperialism has gone through three major variations: plunder imperialism, colonial imperialism and neo-liberal imperialism. Plunder imperialism enabled certain European societies to acquire the wealth needed to jumpstart a capitalist economy. It involved things like theft of precious metals and slavery. Marxists refer to such endeavors as primitive accumulation.
Although plunder imperialism was a crucial factor in starting capitalism, it was not a viable basis for sustaining a capitalist economy. This required steady access to food and raw materials, reliable markets for manufactured goods, and ample investment opportunities. These imperatives eventually led to the colonial form of imperialism in which developed capitalist societies (a) established direct political control over noncapitalist regions of the world, (b) subordinated (or exterminated) the native populations therein, (c) reorganized production within the colonized regions, (d) instituted exploitative trade relations highly favorable to the colonizer, and (e) militantly excluded capitalist competitors from their colonies.
Colonial imperialism was a decisive factor in establishing European and North American economic and technological dominance over Africa, Asia and Latin America. But it had two crucial flaws: It created strong incentives for anti-colonial revolutions, and it led to warfare between imperial capitalist societies. The two world wars of the 20th century are best understood as contests for imperial dominance.
The United States emerged from World War II as by far the strongest capitalist country. Other capitalist countries recognized that further imperialist warfare would lead to the end of capitalism (and perhaps the end of humanity). They also recognized that colonialism was a potent incentive to anti-capitalist revolution. With these incentives, a new form of imperialism was erected. The new imperialism recognized the United States as the single hegemonic capitalist society and accepted the dollar as the international medium of exchange. The USA, for its part, treated all capital (irrespective of its national origins) equally, and shouldered the burden of repressing all challenges to the global capitalist system.
Under the new imperialism, colonialism was gradually liquidated and a new form of domination, not requiring direct political control, was instituted. The new form of domination was consolidated during the 1970s and is now called neo-liberal imperialism. These are its the basic rules: (i) no restrictions on the international movement of capital; (ii) export of manufacturing jobs to low-wage countries, but control of the production process by multinational corporations; (iii) strong opposition to activities that might raise wages in developing countries such as immigration, deficit financing or economic planning; (iv) political acquiescence to the hegemon of the neo-liberal imperialist system (the USA); and (v) isolation and/or attack upon any country that opts out of the neo-liberal system.
Neo-liberal imperialism suffers from a number of endemic problems including chronic insufficiency of demand due to the export of manufacturing jobs, financial crises emanating from an explosion of debt (induced by insufficient demand), and contradictions between the interests of the USA as a nation state and its role as global imperial hegemon. Neo-liberal imperialism also leads to gross exploitation of workers in low-wage countries, including severe neglect of workplace safety. An extreme (but not surprising) example of neglected workplace safety was the collapse of an eight-story building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on April 24, 2013, that killed 1,133 garment workers and wounded 2,500 more. Yet no Bangladesh garment industry employer or their multinational corporation superiors has ever been convicted for infringement of health and safety laws.
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