Imperialism was inherent in capitalism's expansion

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Fri Jun 1 12:00:03 MDT 2001

Imperialism and Globalization

by Samir Amin

This article is a reconstruction from notes of a talk delivered at the
World Social Forum meeting in Porto Alegre, Brazil in January 2001.

Imperialism is not a stage, not even the highest stage, of capitalism: from
the beginning, it is inherent in capitalism's expansion. The imperialist
conquest of the planet by the Europeans and their North American children
was carried out in two phases and is perhaps entering a third.

The first phase of this devastating enterprise was organized around the
conquest of the Americas, in the framework of the mercantilist system of
Atlantic Europe at the time. The net result was the destruction of the
Indian civilizations and their Hispanicization- Christianization, or simply
the total genocide on which the United States was built. The fundamental
racism of the Anglo-Saxon colonists explains why this model was reproduced
elsewhere, in Australia, in Tasmania (the most complete genocide in
history), and in New Zealand. For whereas the Catholic Spaniards acted in
the name of the religion that had to be imposed on conquered peoples, the
Anglo-Protestants took from their reading of the Bible the right to wipe
out the "infidels." The infamous slavery of the Blacks, made necessary by
the extermination of the Indians-or their resistance-briskly took over to
ensure that the useful parts of the continent were "turned to account." No
one today has any doubt as to the real motives for all these horrors or is
ignorant of their intimate relation to the expansion of mercantile capital.
Nevertheless, the contemporary Europeans accepted the ideological discourse
that justified them, and the voices of protest-that of Las Casas, for
example-did not find many sympathetic listeners.

The disastrous results of this first chapter of world capitalist expansion
produced, some time later, the forces of liberation that challenged the
logics that produced them. The first revolution of the Western Hemisphere
was that of the slaves of Saint Domingue (present-day Haiti) at the end of
the eighteenth century, followed more than a century later by the Mexican
revolution of the decade of 1910, and fifty years after that by the Cuban
revolution. And if I do not cite here either the famous "American
revolution" or that of the Spanish colonies that soon followed, it is
because those only transferred the power of decision from the metropolis to
the colonists so that they could go on doing the same thing, pursue the
same project with even greater brutality, but without having to share the
profits with the "mother country."

The second phase of imperialist devastation was based on the industrial
revolution and manifested itself in the colonial subjection of Asia and
Africa. "To open the markets"-like the market for opium forced on the
Chinese by the Puritans of England-and to seize the natural resources of
the globe were the real motives here, as everyone knows today. But again,
European opinion-including the workers' movement of the Second
International-did not see these realities and accepted the new legitimizing
discourse of capital. This time, it was the famous "civilizing mission."
The voices that expressed the clearest thinking at the time were those of
cynical bourgeoises, like Cecil Rhodes, who envisaged colonial conquest so
as to avoid social revolution in England. Again, the voices of protest-from
the Paris Commune to the Bolsheviks-had little resonance.

This second phase of imperialism is at the origin of the greatest problem
with which mankind has ever been confronted: the overwhelming polarization
that has increased the inequality between peoples from a maximum ratio of
two to one around 1800, to sixty to one today, with only 20 percent of the
earth's population being included in the centers that benefit from the
system. At the same time, these prodigious achievements of capitalist
civilization gave rise to the most violent confrontations between the
imperialist powers that the world has ever seen. Imperialist aggression
again produced the forces that resisted its project: the socialist
revolutions that took place in Russia and China (not accidentally all
occurred within the peripheries that were victims of the polarizing
expansion of really existing capitalism) and the revolutions of national
liberation. Their victory brought about a half-century of respite, the
period after the Second World War, which nourished the illusion that
capitalism, compelled to adjust to the new situation, had at last managed
to become civilized.

The question of imperialism (and behind it the question of its
opposite-liberation and development) has continued to weigh on the history
of capitalism up to the present. Thus the victory of the liberation
movements that just after the Second World War won the political
independence of the Asian and African nations not only put an end to the
system of colonialism but also, in a way, brought to a close the era of
European expansion that had opened in 1492. For four and a half centuries,
from 1500 to 1950, that expansion had been the form taken by the
development of historical capitalism, to the point where these two aspects
of the same reality had become inseparable. To be sure, the "world system
of 1492" had already been breached at the end of the eighteenth century and
the beginning of the nineteenth by the independence of the Americas. But
the breach was only apparent, because the independence in question had been
won not by the indigenous peoples and the slaves imported by the colonists
(except in Haiti) but by the colonists themselves, who thereby transformed
America into a second Europe. The independence reconquered by the peoples
of Asia and Africa took on a different meaning.

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Louis Proyect
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