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Imperialism And The Nature Of Economic Growth
Dr.Akmal Hussain
Newspaper: Daily Times
Dated: Thursday, 19th June 2003

In the ensuing series of articles, we briefly analyze the nature of Imperialism in the context of the historical development of Capitalism. The intent is to show that in the latest phase of capitalism, the global economy is highly integrated, capital accumulation is multi-national rather than national (in contrast to the 19th century) and its stability is vulnerable to even limited wars in remote geographic areas. Therefore we have argued that the pursuit of national economic interests is feasible only within the framework of multilateralism. A return to a 19th century form of the aggressive use of military power for economic gain, may be counter productive. This is because such a course is fraught with the grave risk of continuing regional conflicts, economic destabilization and erosion of both democracy and the multilateral political structures designed to maintain global peace.


Imperialism as a concept became part of the political vocabulary as recently as the late nineteenth century, while empires existed even in ancient times. It can be argued that imperialism refers to the stage in the historical development of capitalism when it became a global system from the nineteenth century onwards. There has been an extensive scholarly debate on the phenomenon of imperialism, which was sharpened by the fact that its conclusions became important to Marxist political movements during the twentieth century (even though Marx himself never used the term).

After the industrial revolution in Britain in the late eighteenth century the continuously expanding process of investment, technical change, production and trade led to the emergence of a globalized economy. It involved a new international specialization of production in which the economies of a number of countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America, were restructured to export raw materials to, and serve as markets for the manufactured goods of the industrial economies. This phenomenon was associated with a division of the world amongst the major capitalist powers into a set of colonies and spheres of influence. It is undeniable that the division of the world since the late nineteenth century, as much as its integration, had an economic dimension. Equally, the strategic projection of individual state power as much as international collaboration, were impelled by economic interests.

Like the systems of power, the ideologies that legitimized the political imperatives of imperialism and those that impelled revolt, were also modulated by the globalized capitalist economy. Indeed this new division of the world reached into the very heart of humanity. The colonized people were ruptured from their history, language and culture, as they internalized the image of the 'native'. An image that was constructed by the settlers charged with a 'civilizing mission'. Thus it was not only the economy of the colonized peoples that was restructured but their very psyche. As Aime Cesaire in his discourse on colonialism points out: "I am talking of millions of men who have been skillfully injected with fear, inferiority complexes, trepidation, servility, despair, abasement"


The new world that was shaped by the development of capitalism from the industrial revolution to the contemporary period was marked by dramatic improvements in technology and in the growth of output and incomes. Just as dramatic was the increase in the inequality of incomes and the availability of basic public services between the industrialized countries on the one hand and the countries that became 'under developed' on the other. For example the share of world income accruing to the advanced capitalist countries in 1850 was only 35% while the share of what are now called the "less developed" countries was 65%. Over the next hundred years there was a dramatic change in the relative economic fortunes of these two sets of countries brought about by the uneven impact of capitalism. Thus by 1938 the share of world income accruing to the advanced capitalist countries had increased to 76% while the share of the less developed countries fell to 24%. The disparity in income shares subsequently continued to increase rapidly.

The question is, what is it in the nature of the industrialization process within the framework of capitalism, which imparts to it such tremendous dynamism and such a powerful mechanism of inequality? In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the shift from handicraft production to factory manufacturing represented perhaps a watershed in the history of man's relationship with nature. Through out the preceding ages it was the human hand that wielded the implement of production. There was therefore a close ceiling to the growth of productivity since it depended on the strength of the human hand and the quickness of the human eye. With the onset of large scale factory production in capitalism, the implement of production was transferred into a machine, thereby opening up unprecedented possibilities of productivity growth. Now the speed with which the implement could be wielded was determined no more by the human hand, but the development of science and its systematic application to machine design. Income inequality could therefore be expected to grow rapidly between industrialized and non-industrialized countries.

What gave to the capitalist growth process a tendency for continuous expansion, was its social organization of production: Individual capitalists (later management controlled corporations) were pitted in competition with each other within a market framework, where survival required not only increasing profit but reinvesting it continuously. In the process of reinvestment if profit was to increase, an increase in productivity had to be achieved. It was this imperative of continuous reinvestment, expansion of profits and the systematic application of science to production that imparted to capitalism an unprecedented dynamism. At the same time, the fact that this process was powered by those who could acquire the initial investable resources, command labour, and could secure access over raw materials and markets for finished goods, meant that there was an inherent tendency for inequality both at the national and global levels. The town dwelling burghers, who started life as merchants supplying goods and finance to feudal estates in Europe, had by the end of the seventeenth century emerged as a political power in England. Such was the interplay between politics and a dynamic capitalist growth process, that by the end of the eighteenth century the bourgeoisie had become a major political force in France, and by the end of the nineteenth century, the dominant political power in the world.

[This is the first of a series of articles, which are based on the author's paper on Imperialism, being published in the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Capitalism, Golson Books, New York]

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