Robert Biel on imperialism

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Tue Dec 11 10:27:38 MST 2001

Robert Biel, "The New Imperialism: Crisis and Contradictions in North/South 
Relations" (Zed Books, 2001):


The second defect of our model--the assumption of a closed national 
economy--must now be removed. In reality, capitalist development occurred 
in most places not through the spontaneous maturing of contradictions 
within individual societies, but through the external imposition of the 
rule of the white world. Two issues arise here: firstly, this international 
dimension was an essential condition for the development of capitalism at 
the centre; secondly, the colonies were fashioned in such a way that they 
would permanently service the accumulation needs of the fully capitalist 

Non-European societies were developing at the time of colonisation, and 
this development was cut short. In eighteenth-century India, shipbuilding 
and the textile industry were extremely advanced, and Indian steel was 
considered the best in the world. There is a debate about whether India was 
actually on the way to developing its own capitalist relations; but there 
certainly was, at the time of colonisation, a massive movement for social 
change, an aspect of which could have been the triumph of mercantile forces 
over traditional restraints, but which included also a wide range of 
lower-order movements, standing up for cultural pluralism and opposing the 
restrictions that traditional society had placed on personal development. 
This was also accompanied by innovation in economic organisation  the state 
was, for example, giving loans to peasants to grow particular kinds of 
crops. Society was therefore developing a new contradiction and a new 
balance, a creative dynamic which produced quite deep reflection, both 
spiritual and secular, about issues of change. Colonialism, therefore, 
involved an externally imposed capitalism displacing an endogenous 
development which might have become either capitalism or something different.

The international policy of early capitalism is often associated with the 
term mercantilism. The initial form of European expansion, centred around 
trade, can be seen as an exploration, not just of geographical space but of 
possible exploitative relationships at an international level; these 
replaced the old regional patterns of trade with one that was purely 
extractive. But through trade, the organisational tools of an eventual 
post-mercantilist capitalism appeared; joint-stock companies could, for 
example, eventually become international corporations, which could, in 
turn, organise not just trade but production globally.

Under mercantilism the theory developed that colonies should be prevented 
from developing industry. Apparently, the reasoning for this was purely 
economic, in that the metropolitan country wished to export as much as 
possible. It was for this reason that the industrialisation of settler 
colonies like the USA was prevented. But the reality of international 
capitalism is much more racial than it is economistic. Ultimately, settler 
colonies were part of the white world; the American War of Independence 
marked a transition to a situation where the settler world became a leading 
force in international capitalist development. It became the white world as 
a whole which jealously guarded its manufactures. In effect, this became 
the core principle, which has survived many changes in form, and in a sense 
still exists today.

Eventually, organising principles quite different from the old mercantilism 
would be required, particularly when it became more profitable to organise 
industry in the periphery rather than prevent it. But there was a more 
immediate reason why mercantilism in the strict sense had to go: it 
prevented the dominant powers becoming economically interdependent. As long 
as the prohibition on development in the colonies depended on the policy of 
individual colonial powers, it reinforced the division of the white world 
into competing nationalisms. Logically, the next step would be towards an 
interdependent white world which inherited from mercantilism the commitment 
to stop the subject countries producing for their own consumption, but 
began to enshrine this in a systemic form, rather than in the policies of 
individual states. Looking further ahead, it could be policed by 
institutions (say, a world bank) apparently owing allegiance directly to 
the system rather than to individual national interests, and simply telling 
poor countries what to do to find themselves niches within the system.

This change could come about only as the result of a long historical 
process. Part of it was the self-reinforcing exploitative relationship 
created through the drain of value and of human resources from the South. 
Eric Williams argued that slavery was a major condition for the growth of 
capitalism in Europe, and he probably touched a raw nerve, since a whole 
school of writers emerged devoted to refuting his thesis. Secondly, the 
damage done to the exploited areas (in terms of restricted development, 
economic and personal) was even greater than the profit extracted; as 
[Andre G.] Frank puts it, 'one may make a distinction between the 
costs  economic, social, cultural and psychic  to those who suffer, and the 
(no doubt) much smaller contribution to those who benefit'. Eventually, 
capital accumulation established itself on a world scale, with the product 
of alienated human labour taking on a systemic dynamic of its own, 
appearing as an immutable logic to which one has no choice but to conform.

There is an ecological angle too: in this respect, the rise of capitalism 
reflects the victory of the principle of unbridled exploitation over the 
various checks which had existed in earlier social systems. There has 
always been a possibility for society to 'go wrong' in this way. There are 
probably many examples of earlier societies which failed for environmental 
reasons, but the failure concerned only them. If capitalism had been 
established in one small society in a small area it would consume itself in 
its unsustainability and cease to exist. But it is inherently global, and 
this is the problem. It has sucked the whole world and its resources into 
the role of covering up its own deficiencies, creating a vortex where the 
inevitable crisis of its own sustainability will tend to drag everything 
else down with it.

Capitalism always establishes its credentials by attacking tradition in the 
name of modernisation. At the same time, it retains non-monetary, 
non-modern elements, and exploits these in a special way, as inputs into 
the cost of subsistence and reproduction. It does this in both the centre 
and the periphery (as, for example, in African colonies, where taxes were 
deliberately introduced to force people to lay their hands on a certain 
quantity of money either through wage labour or cultivating cash crops). 
But - and this is crucial - the process does not happen in the same way. In 
the centre, local capitalism is reproducing itself, which means that it 
acts as a pole of attraction for the value generated by exploitation. But 
no such process is happening in the periphery, which as a result does not 
enjoy the benefits of capitalist expansion. Moreover, in building its power 
base in the periphery, the centre could take advantage of oppressive local 
social structures, which appeared to be 'traditional' but in which the 
functional aspects of the pre-colonial ruling class systems had been 
destroyed. So useful was this element of non-modernity that apparent 
tradition could in some cases even be invented by colonialism. In Malaya, 
for example, Indian labourers were maintained by British colonialism in a 
feudal form of submission patterned upon the relations prevailing in South 

Elements of duality thus existed within both central and colonial 
societies, but there was another duality which acted at the international 
level, between the North and the South. It is the overlapping of these two 
forms of duality which is crucial for interpreting the international 
political economy (IPE) which prevented the formation of a dynamic of 
accumulation betweer countries outside the capitalist centre. What occurred 
was thus not th« uniform extension of the capitalist sphere at a global 
level, but the constitution of two fundamentally different kinds of 
capitalism. Capitalism expanded enough worldwide to break down 
self-dynamising socio-economic systems in the subject countries, but, since 
the impetus for this was external it was not possible for new capitalist 
systems to 'take off there in 'complete form. Rodney coined 'underdevelop' 
as a transitive verb in order to highlight this issue, and this explains 
key features of today's 'underdeveloped' nations

• stagnant agriculture and its dislocation from the rest of the economy

• lack of industry (at least in the sense of an industry oriented towards a 
domestic market)

• unfavourable trade balance

• extraversion in terms of being forced to export primary products and 
import industrial products

• inability to accumulate effectively in the domestic economy because of 
general poverty and the dependent character of elites which do manage to 

The barrier between the two sorts of capitalism is essentially a 'racial' 
one. Human capacity is limited by a level of alienation quite different 
from that existing in earlier forms of exploitative society.

The optimistic view of capitalism would accept that early capitalism was 
mixed-up and messy, with hangovers from earlier systems, but would argue 
that we are, after all, talking about development, and that modernisation 
will gradually resolve these problems. But in this book I will present the 
opposite case: that duality was intrinsic to capitalism and was reproduced 
by development itself.

Louis Proyect
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