World War II, the end of colonisation, the start of modern imperialism

Imperialism has always been around since the birth of mankind. Empires and colonies were common tools of imperialism back then, mostly through conquest or by introducing settlers to dominate the civil society. The end of two world wars seems to mark the end of empires when decolonisation began. Free and independent sovereign states were established and self-determination was promoted by former colonial masters. It also marked the start of the Cold war between United States (US) and the Soviet Union (USSR). As both superpowers seek to gain hegemony in the bipolar world, their influences and ideological war seem to exhibit traits of imperialism. Some of the signs include economic dominance and cultural imperialism.

Traditionally, imperialism refers to the idea of occupying land and stripping countries of their political and economic autonomy, usually by conquest or introducing settlers/migrants into their civil society. The very act of imperialism is by establishing empires through colonisation. This is evident in the history of Europe where there were two waves of imperialism. The first wave began from the 1500s onwards with powerful colonial masters, such as Great Britain and France, pursuing mercantilist economic policies. The second wave began from the 1850s onwards until 1945 when the idea of empires was considered dead. Hence, in the modern day, it might seem that imperialism is dead because the world now has recognised that every state is sovereign and no states can claim sovereignty over another state. However, imperialism is an idea which is still very much alive. In the modern context, imperialism no longer requires conquest through military power but can be engaged through institutions, interventions and capitalism.

Vladimir Lenin argues that imperialism is mainly driven by economic forces. Drawing his works from Hobson and Helferding, he agrees that underconsumption and overproduction caused capitalists to seek foreign market and expand beyond their territories and oligopolies and monopolies were the main players of the economy. When the market expands and the domestic market could no longer provide for the capitalist, they would look elsewhere for more resources. This is where ideas of imperialism come in. The capitalist will think of ways to penetrate foreign markets to secure the resources they need. Lenin thinks that the ambition to capture more resources was what started the Great War.

Immanuel Wallerstein has an improved version of Lenin’s Marxism approach which is known as the World System Theory. It is a social and historical based theory that seeks to explain why some countries benefit from capitalism while some countries do not. It is a system-level of analysis which he sees a division of labour in the international economic system. The world is divided into a hierarchy of three distinctions: The core, the periphery and the semi-periphery. The core refers to countries which have strong institutions and government which engage in economically advanced activities such as banking and manufacturing. The periphery refers to countries that provide raw material to the core countries which have relatively weaker government and institutions; they are denied access to technology because in order to not compete with the core. The semi-periphery refers to countries with are midway of the core and periphery. They usually get exploited by the core but also take advantages of the periphery. These countries aspire to be part of the core while struggle to prevent themselves from becoming part of the periphery.

From both Marxist theorists, it is not difficult to draw links to the modern context. The core can be seen as the developing countries in the west, both Europe and the US. Meanwhile, the semi-periphery refers to middle-income countries and the periphery refers to developing countries such as Africa and Asia. With the US leading the core bloc of European countries, it has established an international economic regime promoting liberal values which the whole world is part of. The US sets the rules which the rest have to abide by. The three Bretton Woods Institutions, World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Trade Organisation (WTO), are tools which the US use to engage in imperialism. For example, loans from IMF and World Bank require the lender state to fulfil certain obligations. Such obligation usually includes accepting neo-liberal economic policies like opening up of the financial market, liberal macroeconomic policies and reducing public spending. These peripheral states usually tend to have no choice but to conform, which is also a type of consent to the institutional norm. States usually feel that they would be better off playing by the rules of the game rather than bankrupting the country by not being able to borrow from the institutions to finance their economy.

By opening up trade to developed countries, it gives the core and semi-periphery the opportunity to exploit them. As Lenin mentioned, this is how the core gets their resources when the domestic market runs dry. Another example one can look at is how the US much authority it has over these institutions. Before the 1970s, the entire world’s currency was pegged to the US dollar, which gives the US a lot of influence over the world’s monetary policies. As a form of challenge to the current international economic order, China has also introduced the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Some scholars argued that the AIIB’s intention of looking into African states is a challenge to American’s economic dominance and even this idea is fundamentally imperialist.

On the other hand, some scholars think that too much emphasis is placed on economic aspects when substantiating imperialism. Imperialism can also be looked at in two cultural aspects: Cultural hegemony and cultural imperialism. The main proponent of cultural hegemony is Antonio Gramsci, a Marxist Intellectual. Cultural hegemony refers to the idea that the ruling class impose their culture over the working class and making them accept it as the rightful cultural norm. This can be seen as to prevent any kind of revolution against the bourgeoisies and hence, a defence mechanism promoted and advocated by them to continue exploitations. As mentioned earlier, international economic institutions set the rules of trades and finances. In fact, it also introduces the culture of shared norms and beliefs to states which subscribe to them; the norm that liberal values make sustainable government and prosperity which will eventually lead to development. As Gramsci has put across, the oppressed will continue believing and do as what the bourgeoisie ask of them without rising up against the US or the institutions. This imposed culture of the bourgeoisie will thus prevent them from ‘rising up’ or in the Marxist sense, stage a revolution to overthrow the West.

Arguably, some states manage to ‘break free’ from this culture and rise up the ranks to join the periphery. One particular country is the South Korean. The South Korea was able to make use of the 1997 financial crisis to propel itself from the semi-periphery to the core. It took advantages of the weak currency and the loan from IMF to expand its market. It is important to note that such case is not a testament of IMF or liberal success that institutions help bring prosperity and the same logic can be applied to the Third World. Economics is the study of the distribution of finite resources and hence, the concept of opportunity cost and economies of scale to help policymakers in making wise decisions. Acknowledging that we live in a world of finite resources, the growth and development of a state would be at the expense of another. South Korea mainly exports electronic and equipments parts. Given their economic capacity and capability, it is not surprising that they have enjoyed the economies of scale, allowing them to produce such exports at a much lower costs relative to other semi-periperal states. Hence, each unit they sell to an export partner actually denies another state of that profit. Additionally, the sunk cost incurred by the latter will never be recovered and this is bad for the economy in the long run – possibility of become a periphery state. Economics is pretty much a zero-sum game where someone’s gain is inevitably someone elses’ loss.

Cultural imperialism is evident and arguably the most obvious form of imperialism. It is the spread of cultural influences through various channels available when other societies voluntarily embrace these foreign cultures. One example is language. The fact English, as a language, is used as a ‘medium’ for individuals with language barriers to communicate. Even though Chinese is the most widely-spoken language in the world, English is most often used internationally. Perhaps people view English as a symbol of modernity because it is the language that the imperialist or the hegemon subtly encourages everyone to use. Looking back into history, most colonies were required to learn the language of their colonial masters. The Japanese colonies, such as Korean and South East Asian countries, were forced to learn Japanese. In modern day context, such language imperialism can take place without coercion. The same can be said for political systems and democracies. The increasing trend of democratisation has shown that the world is beginning to embrace this culture of ‘liberal democracy’, which is strongly advocated by the US and the western powers. Before world war two, political systems in colonies are heavily influenced by their colonial masters. One such example is the Great Britain, where most of its former colonies adopted the Westminster parliamentary system. Hence, it seems that the same outcome of colonisation can still be achieved through unconventional means.

To conclude, imperialism is not dead because ideas never die. Imperialism has been a permanent form of world history and there will always be new forms of imperialism. States always prove to be capable of thinking up new ways to realise their national interest and such means will evolve along with the international system and context. The only question remains is who will be the next imperialist and what are the consequences of such shift of cultural and economic influence? Perhaps, China will be the challenging this status quo as one can see its hegemonic intention through South China Sea aggression, the establishment of AIIB and their language has been more commonly learned and use in this century.