The stop the war movement has changed the way millions of people understand the world. A few years ago to call the occupation of Iraq “imperialist” would have provoked puzzlement, even laughter. Today, however, the same idea is close to being common sense. But what does “imperialism” mean?
There’s an old meaning, going back to ancient times. Imperialism meant a state with an emperor, a ruler using military power to conquer other people. In that sense it applied to ancient China, Persia, Rome and the like. Typically, the old empires ruled through appointed governors—think of Pontius Pilate—whose job was to squeeze tribute out of colonies for imperial headquarters. Imperialism meant robbery by force.
The old Spanish and Portuguese empires in Latin America, and the British, had aspects of this. So, of course, does today’s occupation of Iraq, as not just socialists agree. At many stop the war stalls British soldiers’ mothers and partners stop to sign petitions. They report what the soldiers themselves say: “We’re not there to help the Iraqis but to grab the oil.”
At present Iraq is like a colony of the US, directly ruled on Washington’s orders. The US is building bases there, and trying to shape the new government. However, when direct US rule ends, imperialist control will continue. To understand this, we have to get behind the immediate military and colonial question. There is more to understanding imperialism.
At the turn of the last century the big powers had largely finished dividing the world up between them. The great Marxist thinkers of that time—people like Lenin, Bukharin and Luxemburg—used the term “imperialism” to make sense of the new forms that capitalism was taking in the 20th century. Out of the competitive struggle that always characterises capitalism, new forms of capitalist organisation were becoming dominant. Small companies were gobbled up by giant corporations. In some countries huge banks were taking control of industry. What was variously called “monopoly capital” and “finance capital” was now central to modern capitalism.
Yet despite this massive centralisation of capital, competition certainly did not end. Instead it took new forms, increasingly involving the major nation-states. That competition took the most brutal form in the First and Second World Wars. Millions upon millions of corpses were piled up as the most powerful industrial states fought, using every dreadful means that modern science and industry could provide, to divide and redivide the world.
Imperialism, in other words, was not just powerful states dominating backward countries, but the shape of modern capitalist competition. After the Second World War, the US and Russia emerged as the two strongest powers. They divided the world between them, building two “blocs” that threatened each other with nuclear extinction for almost the next half century. The Cold War was the form of modern imperialism in which most of us grew up. With the “fall of Communism”, US capitalism set out to remake the world to fit the needs of its own big corporations.
Military spending, and the use of massive deadly force, is one part of its armoury, but not the only one. Bodies like the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, all of which it controls, are another. The writer and campaigner Susan George was once asked, “What would you put in place of the WTO?” Her answer was, “What would you put in place of cancer?”
The WTO has a simple policy. Nothing must hinder corporations making profits, wherever and however they like. Everything must be “privatised”, so that the rich can make profits from it—water, health services, railways, schools, it makes no difference.
The true content of “globalisation” is the removal of all limits to exploitation and inequality. Production of cheap drugs for AIDS, malaria and other diseases is banned, for corporate “patents” would be threatened. The WTO, IMF, World Bank and other agencies of corporate domination force their rules on the rest of the world. In the 19th century Britain and America used gunboats to force open China and Japan to trade on their terms. Today they bribe and coerce governments for the same purposes.
For most of the world’s population the result is disastrous. As the tiny number of billionaires grows, so too do poverty, sickness and death. Even in the most advanced capitalist countries workers work longer hours and are less secure. Nationally and internationally, the inequality gap widens and the world becomes more dangerous.
Must 200 children die every hour? Must billions be wasted on the real weapons of mass destruction-the aircraft, submarines, rockets and nukes of America and its closest allies?
Must food, water, housing, education and every other kind of production be placed under the sway of the multinationals? Must the very air we breathe and our weather patterns be wrecked by the demands of profit? The short term answer, alas, is yes. Capitalist imperialism-the close interdependence of big corporations and big governments-will enforce these disasters.
Never has the link between war and capitalist domination been so obvious. Our job is to develop the real movements that perceive these linkages, and that want to break them for ever.