Imperialism is a system by which one society exercises enduring domination over other societies. Imperialism is much older than capitalism, but capitalist forms of imperialism are quite different than earlier types of imperialism.
Under pre-capitalist imperialism, the imperialist society exacted tribute from subordinate societies, but left the social structure of the latter relatively intact. Capitalist forms of imperialism also extract wealth from subordinate societies, but they do other things as well.
They transform the social structure of subordinate societies in ways advantageous to the imperialist but detrimental to the subordinate. Capitalist imperialism is a highly dynamic system. While maintaining the hierarchical structure that defines imperialism, it often transforms the relationship between the dominant and subordinate societies.
Vladimir Lenin’s famous book on imperialism was published in the midst of World War I. Lenin attributed this catastrophic war to antagonism between rival capitalist imperialisms. He claimed World War I vintage imperialism was the “highest stage of imperialism.” This formulation is doubly misleading. Imperialism is not a particular stage of capitalism. It derives from the expansionist logic of capitalism and has been present through the entire history of the latter.
In fact imperialism facilitated the emergence of capitalism as a hegemonic world system. Moreover, World War I vintage imperialism was neither its highest nor its final stage. Indeed, it was soon superseded by different forms of capitalist imperialism. Evidently Lenin underestimated the resilience and durability of the capitalist system.
Capitalism has existed for about 500 years and has generated four distinct (but overlapping) modes of imperialism. The earliest type, which I call plunder imperialism, lasted from the 16th through the 18th centuries. It was characterized by outright robbery of human labor, precious metals, and other resources from countries in Africa, Asia and the Americas (often called the Global South). Plunder imperialism involved an explosion of chattel slavery plus recurrent extermination of indigenous populations.
Portugal, Spain, Holland, and England alternated as the hegemonic powers during this imperialist epoch. Among other things, plunder imperialism endowed Europe with wealth that subsequently enabled the industrial revolution.
Plunder imperialism was followed by colonial imperialism, a system which carved the entire Global South into European colonies. The function of a colony was to strengthen and enrich the colonizing country, absorb its excess production, and exclude rival capitalisms. Colonial imperialism gained momentum throughout the 19th century and persisted until the First World War.
England functioned as the hegemonic power during most of the colonial imperialist epoch, but after 1870 its dominance was challenged by Germany. The dual vulnerabilities of colonial imperialism were (1) fomenting conflict between colonizing countries, and (2) motivating rebellion by colonized peoples.
Investment imperialism was structured to avoid the problems of its colonial imperialist predecessor. Investment imperialism liquidated direct colonialism, but maintained economic dominance and political guardianship over the Global South. To avoid the inter-capitalist bloodletting that had fomented two world wars, other capitalist countries accepted political and economic leadership by the United States with the understanding Washington would treat all corporate forms of capital equally.
Investment imperialism featured the export of capital to the Global South, but still confined manufacturing to the advanced capitalist societies. Notwithstanding the export of capital, the net flow of wealth remained overwhelmingly unfavorable to the Global South.
Investment imperialism was short-lived mainly because the United States could not successfully perform all the military and financial tasks required of it. As a result, the world capitalist system suffered a global profit crisis during the 1970s. This economic disaster ushered in the neo-liberal form of capitalism and the associated neo-liberal version of imperialism.
Unfortunately this transformation did not curtail U.S. military interventions in the Global South, but it did eliminate most restraints on the international movement of capital. And by 2015 almost 80% of world manufacturing labor was performed in the Global South. However, wage rates remained far lower there, and advanced capitalist societies maintained control over both technology and finance. As a consequence, neo-liberal imperialism, like all its capitalist predecessors, features huge transfers of labor and wealth from the Global South to the USA and other imperialist countries.