Understanding the Role of the Concept of Imperialism as a Way of Explaining Global Capitalism

In order to understand the role of the concept of imperialism as a way of explaining global capitalism, it is important to begin with by looking at the source of imperialism which is rooted in longstanding historical processes of empire-building, territorial expansions, domination of the weaker by stronger powers, and colonization as whole. This will be followed by a brief outline of the debate amongst radical thinkers in the 20th century that developed the concept of imperialism as a way of explaining global capitalism. Rooted within the colonial discourse and framework from the past, imperialism in the twentieth century was strengthened by the Great Powers and the Industrial Revolution, which led to the economic and national expansion within and outside the borders of the nations. In looking at the dynamics of imperialism, the paper will briefly outline the debate that sheds light to the concept of imperialism in explaining global capitalism. This will then be compared to how the term is used today, followed by the relevance that the new use of the concept has in the earlier debates.



Empires emerged with the great civilizations of antiquity such as Old Babylon (1800 BC), and the Greek Empire (c.750-550 BC), which created colonies around the Eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea and established some of the essential characteristics of later European empires, including an early form of orientalist discourse (Bush, p.10). The Achaemenid Persian Empire (c.550-330 BC) was one of the earliest ‘world empires’, stretching from the Egyptian frontier to Uzbekistan which led to the destruction of Athens (Bush, p.11). Motivated by revenge, Alexander the Great defeated the Persians and incorporated their empire into his own followed by the establishment of colonies (Bush, p.11). Ancient empires were often fragile but during the late Antiquity, ‘world empires’ were “created, of an area large enough to pass for ‘the world’, that could maintain control without serious competition” (Bush, p. 11). The Roman Empire (c.55BC-AD 410) established important principles of imperial rule that echoed down to the later nineteenth century European empires (Bush, p. 11). The Roman “imperium was not simply a territory but encapsulated the Roman notion of commands given by a governor- the imperator” (Bush, p. 11). However, in its latter years “ the Roman Empire was reconceptualised as a Christian world empire with a destiny to prepare the way for the kingdom of God, a universal society rather than an imperium created by conquest” (Bush, p. 12). This created a Eurocentric world view, and established the nature of empires as a way of the “West” controlling the “Rest”. In the sixteenth century the “vast Islamic and Chinese empires were, in terms of economic development, cultural sophistication and technological innovation, equal, if not superior to Europe” (Bush, p. 13). These early empires were similar to later empires as they were premised on military power and conquest of peoples in order to acquire wealth through trade, colonization, mining, and taxation. In Iran, the Safavid dynasty (1501-1736) was “characterized by military might, artistic brilliance, economic prosperity, dynamic development in science, philosophy, religion and architecture” (Bush, p. 13). The Safavids engaged in “war and treaties with the Ottoman Turks, who defeated Byzantium, in 1453, reassembled most of the fragmenting Islamic empire and expanded into the Balkans (Bush, p. 13). Constantinople became the center of this new Ottoman Empire that lasted until 1924 (Bush, p. 10). Before the defeat of the Ottoman navy by the Holly League, at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, “the Ottoman Empire became the most formidable state in Europe, disciplined and highly motivated”, as evidenced by a “military and technological leadership that was second to none and the Sultan’s territories and revenues were greater than those of any Christina rivals” (Bush, p.13-4).

This however changed by the 1800s, with the rise of modern European empires beginning with the “reconquista, - the expulsion of Islamic influence from the Iberian Peninsula, combined with improvements in navigation”, which led to the “rise of the Spanish and Portuguese seaborne empires” and the European remapping of the world (Bush, p.15). The conventional starting point of “modern imperialism and the restructuring of the world through capitalist expansion and globalization is the Spanish and Portuguese conquest of the Americas in the sixteenth century” (Bush, p.9). The conquest of the Americas was an epochal moment which gave rise to colonialism (Bush, p.14). The world in 1492 “was centered primarily on Europe and Asia and from a “Eurocentric perspective this was the heart of civilization and the world unknown to Europeans was there to be conquered” (Bush, p.14). The “concept of ‘discovery’ of Americas assumed a ‘new world’ of ‘virgin’ territory for Europeans to freely colonize” (Bush, p.15). At this point complex relations existed between Europe and the Ottoman, Chinese and extensive Islamic trading empires. Eventually, with “varying degrees of damage and over different time-spans, all these empires declined and succumbed to European power” (Bush, p. 9). This imperial European power with its roots in colonization can best be understood when looking at the rise of the British Empire in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. As argued by a number of scholars “future external imperial expansion was the offspring of this ‘internal colonialism” (Bush, p.16). The Empire of Great Britain, with England as the hegemon, developed an identity that was “protestant, Anglo-British, benign and extra-European, and expanded into the old colonial system of British Atlantic World” (Bush, p. 17). Britain’s second empire stimulated industrialization that led to the “second age of discovery of Australia and New Zealand and expansion in India”, followed by “Britain’s defeat of France and Spain in the Seven Years War- the first global war extending to European colonies in the New World and India” (Bush, p. 19). Subsequent problems arose, with the undermining of the French Empire as a result of the French Revolution.

The period from 1760-1830, was “the first age of global imperialism, dominated by Britain and characterized by unprecedented global power shifts and developments in the international economy” (Bush, p.19). This period was characterized by the transition between the older colonial system based on trade in commodities, including slaves, and modern imperialism (Schwabe, p. 13). Resulting from this situation, was a British Empire that was now central to economic prosperity with the development of a national identity premised on an “empire of liberty and freedom defined against autocratic Spanish papist oppression” (Bush, p. 19). Imperial dominance and concepts of British liberty were bound together and English radicalism and anti slavery were shaped by arguments against imperial tyranny. This gradually led to a new wave of imperialism. The expansion of informal imperialism from 1840 to 1870, was as a result of imperial and economic strength leading to the expansion of imperialism into new arenas such as Latin America, without the cost of formal colonies (Bush, p.19). Britain was the “imperial superpower of the nineteenth century, a position retained up to the outbreak of the Second World War. The war, however, heralded a revival of pro-imperialist sentiment but also increasingly fierce competition as Britain lost her edge over other Western European states (Bush, p. 19).

At least two developments in the late nineteenth century and in the beginning of the twentieth century signify this new departure; one was as a result of the speedup in colonial acquisitions; and two, an increase in colonial powers (Magdoff, p. 34). A new phase of “colony acquisition opened up with the scramble for Africa and the Far East after 1870” (Bush, p. 33). Colonial rule resulted in exploitation colonies, “with separate metropolitan authorities supervising administration on the periphery” (Bush, p. 33). The drive for colonies to occupy very limited space, led to a premium on speed and rivalry among colonies, which in turn strengthened the motivation to control territory for the military defence against rivals (Magdoff, p. 35). The impact that this new upsurge in rivalry as a result of an increase in colonial powers is illustrated in the case of Great Britain. Britain, “relying on its economic pre-eminence in manufacturing, trade, and international finance, and control of the seas during the nineteenth century, could afford to relax in the search for new colonies, while concentrating on consolidation of the empire in hand” (Magdoff, p. 36). However, this also led to Britain’s desire to extend its colonial empire, and the “more the potential colonial space shrank, the greater became the urge of the lesser powers to remedy discrepancies in size of empires by redivision of the colonial world (Magdoff, p. 36). This struggle over contested space, then led to more tension between colonial powers, and an increase in wars.

This New Imperialism also resulted from a combination of other factors, including the link between imperialism, nationalism and racism and the development of more sophisticated transnational capitalism (Magdoff, p.45). The rise of the new industrialised nations was also responsible Imperialism also took on an international dimension with the Berlin Act of 1885, which divided the “magnificent African cake”, established the principle of free trade in the Congo basin and extended Western humanitarian international agreements on anti-slavery (Magnoff, p. 46). The emergence of US as an imperial power ushered in the era of Western, as opposed to European imperialism. Imperialism was now characterised by “the economic, military and perceived political and cultural superiority of Western civilization” (Bush, p. 20). However, this changed with the end of the First World War and the 1900-30 marked the colonial export economies. The rise and decline of the Japanese Empire was also a twentieth century phenomenon (Bush, p. 21). Fascism, the global depression of the 1930s and the Second World War catalyzed the decline of European empires, but France and Britain clung on their empires until a number of factors, such as the rise of the USA to world power status, precipitated decolonization in the 1960s (Magdoff, p. 46). The 1960s and 70s were characterized by a new era of nation building and an independent Third World. The emergence of the neo-liberal globalization and “new racism” also played an important role in defining the “new” New Imperialism and opened new debates about the relationship between globalization, capitalism and imperialism (Bush, p. 22).

With the decolonization of the European empires, the world entered the post-imperial era. In the 1970s, the newly independent Third World asserted a new identity, “defined through political non-alignment from either capitalist’ first’ or communist ‘second’ worlds (Bush, p. 188).

Imperialism debate to explain global capitalism in the 20th century
What exactly did the concept of imperialism try to explain in the early 20th century

What are some of the significant features of international politics that international politics that you think are useful to explore through the concept of imperialism?

Did the classical theories of imperialism get it right?
There are a number of Marxist critics who have argued that the theories of lenin, Kautsky, Luxemberg, Bukhanin were flawed from the beginning. From this perspective then, the question is if the concept of imperialism, failing to explain what went on back then, can help us at all in understanding what is going on today.

Thesis: This essay outlined the debate amongst the radical thinkers in the early 20th century which helped to develop the concept of imperialism as a way of explaining global capitalism. The paper then analyzed how the concept is used today and the relevance it has to these earlier debates.