From colonialism to neocolonialism

Beyond the false “human rights” frame of the representative democracies

     I do not know who invented the term “neocolonialism,” but it was widely disseminated in the late 1960s through Kwame Nkrumah’s Neocolonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism (published by International Publishers, New York, in 1966).  The book describes the structures through which the ex-colonial powers held the newly independent nations in an “economic stranglehold,” thus facilitating not independence but a new stage of colonialism.  Nkrumah was Prime Minister of Ghana, and his analysis was based on the experience of the newly independent state.  Along with Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Nkrumah was a leading force in the African nationalism of the era.  He was a leading advocate of African unity, and he was one of the founders of the Non-Aligned Movement in Belgrade, Yugoslavia in 1961, along with Tito, Nasser, and Nehru. 

     In previous posts, I drew upon the work of Immanuel Wallerstein to describe four stages in the development of the world-system.  The first was the stage of the origin of the world-system, made possible by the Iberian conquest of the Americas, and characterized by the peripheralization of Latin America and Eastern Europe and the modernization of Northwestern European agriculture and the expansion of its industry.  It was followed by a second stage of stagnation, in which the basic core-peripheral structures of the world-system were reinforced and consolidated.  The third stage, from 1750 to 1919, was a period of great economic and territorial expansion and the modernization of industry in the core zone, on a foundation of the Western European conquest of vast regions of Africa, the Middle East, and South and Southeast Asia, excepting China and Japan (see “We must overcome the colonial denial: Wallerstein versus the woke,” May 14, 2021; “The Spanish and Portuguese conquest of the Americas, 16th century: The origins of the modernization of Northwestern Europe,” May 25, 2021; “The European conquest of Africa and Asia, 1750-1914: History must be understood, not ignored,” May 28, 2021).

     The fourth stage of the modern world system, from 1914 to 1979, was characterized by the emergence of anti-colonial movements in Africa and Asia.  The emergence of the colonized as political actors created a situation in which the colonial powers were forced to concede political independence.  However, with their vital economic interests at stake, the great powers maneuvered to ensure that the essential structures of colonial superexploitation, encased in the core-peripheral economic relation, would be preserved and maintained; which made necessary continuous interventions and interferences by the core powers in the internal affairs of states, nullifying their true sovereignty.  Thus, what emerged was not post-colonial independence, but a new form of colonialism.  

      During the fourth stage, the transition to neocolonialism, which began in the late 1940s and continued from the 1950s to the 1970s, coincided with the culmination of the spectacular ascent of the USA, which reached its high point from 1945 to 1963.  As a result, the neocolonial world-system took form in the context of uncontested U.S. military, economic, commercial, financial, political, and ideological dominance. 

     The neocolonial world-system proclaimed a liberal democratic ideology of equality among individuals and nations, including political and civil rights for all citizens and independence and equal sovereignty for all nations.  The most powerful nation, the United States, projected itself as the great defender of democracy in the world.  And the United Nations, an international structure that emerged from World War II and was structured to ensure control by the United States and the Western colonial powers, welcomed new members as supposedly independent nations and equal sovereign states, whose right to sovereignty was proclaimed in the UN Charter.

      The liberal democratic ideology of the neocolonial world-system was a deception.  In the first place, the form of democracy projected by the United States was liberal democracy, focused on the protection of civil and political rights.  It downplayed social democracy and its protection of the social and economic rights related to education, health care, nutrition, and housing, practiced by many countries in both Western and Eastern Europe; and which were the concrete needs of the neocolonies.  Secondly, it dismissed people’s democracy as undemocratic. It did not engage debate in the alternative structures of people’s assemblies, designed to ensure that political power was not in the hands of an economic elite, as was the practice in socialist countries like China, Vietnam, and Cuba.  Thirdly, the dominant ideological discourse ignored the widespread tolerance of military dictatorships that violated the political and civil rights of their citizens.  These repressive regimes were tolerated, often considered part of the “free world,” because they played important roles in preserving core-peripheral economic relations.  Fourthly, it made no objection to the interfering and interventionist imperialist policies of the core powers, which were designed to ensure that the nations of the world would adopt economic policies consistent with the interests of the core powers.  The dominant discourse used ideological manipulation of liberal democracy, including false claims of violations of human rights, to justify military interventions and economic sanctions against countries that defied the neocolonial world-system in defense of their sovereignty. 

      Thus, the United States declared itself to be the leader of the free world, but it was in fact the leading nation in the largest imperial system in human history, disseminating a liberal democratic ideology in order to hide the fact that the newly independent former colonies were not truly independent, and in order to obscure the colonial foundations of what had become a neocolonial world-system.

      When neocolonialism functions, five mechanisms can be observed.  First, a continuation of the economic relation imposed by conquest and force during the colonial era, in which the colony exports raw materials, on a base of forced labor, to the colonizing nations, and imports their surplus manufactured goods.  Secondly, rule by large and concentrated transnational corporations, transnational banks, and international financial agencies, which control the economic and financial institutions of the neocolony.  Thirdly, within the neocolony, control of the political process by a figurehead bourgeoisie that inserts itself into the structures of foreign economic penetration and exploitation, conforming to the interests of international corporations and financial institutions.  Fourthly, social control by the supposedly independent state’s military forces, with necessary training and arms coming from the USA or other powerful states.  Fifthly, ideological penetration of the neocolony, involving the dissemination of ideas that justify and legitimate the existing political-economic system. 

     When it functions, the neocolonial system gives the neocolony the appearance of independence.  Its ideology gives democratic legitimacy to the neocolonial world order, which in fact is structured to ensure that commercial regulations and economic policies enacted by the supposedly independent state favor imperialist interests in access to markets, raw materials, and cheap labor, and ensure a corporate and banking presence in the neocolony.

      Neocolonialism, however, is inherently unstable, because the unhappy economic conditions in the neocolony provoke resistance by the people.  For this reason, the neocolonial powers maintain military bases throughout the world, holding military force in reserve, to be utilized when popular resistance provokes political and social instability in a given neocolony.  The use of military force directly by the USA or other core states threatens to expose the democratic pretension, and therefore it is used only as a last resort.  From the point of view of a well-functioning neocolonial system, it is far better that order be maintained by the neocolonial state.  Therefore, during the period 1945 to 1963, direct foreign military interventions occurred only in a small number of cases, such that the democratic façade of the neocolonial world-system continued to have legitimacy in the societies of the North.

     The U.S. imperialist war against the people of Vietnam was a great tragedy.  It also was an ideological disaster for the neocolonial world-system, for it violated the standard of constraint in the direct application of foreign military force, and it thus exposed the false democratic claims of the world-system.  The Vietnam War generated an anti-war movement in the United States, and more ominously, it generated an anti-imperialist current of thought, which rejected the interventionist and interfering U.S. imperialist policies that were integral to the neocolonial world-system.  In my view, the incapacity of the U.S. Left to keep before the people an anti-imperialist critique of U.S. foreign policy has been a great historic failure of the Left, and it is the cause of the many confusions from which our people today suffer.

       In addition to delegitimating the democratic ideology of the world-system, the Vietnam War proved economically costly for the United States, and it thus weakened its economic and financial capacity, making it less able to maintain control of its neocolonies through economic and financial means.  Increasingly the USA would be compelled to turn to the application of military force in the attainment of its economic objectives in the neocolonies, thus retreating from the façade of liberal democracy and more and more putting forth the image of a global military dictatorship.   The increasing visibility of the USA as a global military dictatorship is one of several signs of the sustained structural crisis of the world-system, unfolding since the 1960s, which I will be discussing in future commentaries.

       Within the neocolonies, rejection of the democratic ideology of the neocolonial world-system always has been a dimension of the political landscape.  Even nations with governments that accommodate to the demands of the neocolonial world order find significant anti-imperialist sentiments in the breast of the people. 

     In the anti-imperialist movements in Latin America, countries like Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Nicaragua are symbols.  They are much maligned in the ideological distortions emitted by the neocolonial powers, because they seek to exercise true sovereignty and to attain control of their economies.  The international ideological campaign against them has an element of truth, for these maverick nations are seeking to construct, in theory and practice, an alternative to the world-system, and as such they are indeed threats to that system.  Especially of concern to the global powers is their cooperation with one another and with other nations, implicitly developing alternative norms for international relations, based on respect for the sovereignty of nations and on mutually beneficial trade and cooperation among nations.  And they are doing so with the full cooperation of China, which is playing a leading role in the forging in practice of an alternative world-system.

      The clearest institutional opposition to the neocolonial world system is the Non-Aligned Movement, which is an organization of governments, today consisting of 120 member governments.  The 120 states, nearly all of the Third World, comprise more than two-thirds of the member states of the United Nations, representing approximately 55% of the world population.  It does not include China, but it the Asiatic giant is an ally. 

     The Non-Aligned Movement emerged as the institutionalized anti-imperialist and anti-neocolonial consciousness of the world for two reasons.  First, the Non-Aligned Movement historically has provided a place for the most radical and revolutionary leaders to meet with one another and share ideas, constituting a permanent depository of ideas as particular leaders arrive to and depart from the international political scene.  Secondly, the summits of the Non-Aligned Movement provide a secure diplomatic venue in which accommodationist governments, compelled by practical realities to accommodate to the demands of their neocolonial masters, can embrace radical declarations, often proclaimed by heads of state, as a gesture to the sentiments of the people.

     The Non-Aligned Movement was established in 1961 in Belgrade, Yugoslavia by twenty-three governments of Asia, the Middle East and Africa plus Cuba and Yugoslavia.  Its foundational principles are sometimes called the “principals of Bandung,” based on the formulations of the representatives of twenty-nine newly independent Asian and African nations in Bandung, Indonesia in 1955.  The Principles of Bandung include: respect for the principles of the Charter of the United Nations; respect for the sovereignty of nations; recognition of the equality of all nations, great and small; abstention from interference in the internal affairs of other countries; respect for the right of every nation to defend itself, either alone or with the support of other states; abstaining from participation in defense agreements that favor the interests of one of the great powers; refraining from pressuring other governments; and abstention from acts of aggression and from the use of force or the threat of the use of force against any country.  These principles were rooted in an experiential consciousness of the injustices of a world-system in transition from colonialism to neocolonialism, and of the concepts that must guide humanity, if a more just and equal world is to be created.

     The Non-Aligned Movement today is a significant political, moral, and ideological force in the world, because of its unity with respect to principles, and because it can count on the support of China and Russia.

     The neocolonial world-system has been in sustained structural crises since the 1960s.  The source of the crisis is twofold.  First, the world-system’s historic engine of economic expansion was the conquest of new lands and peoples; but around the middle of the twentieth century, the global powers ran out of lands and peoples to conquer.  Moreover, the neocolonized peoples of the world are increasingly unwilling to accept their colonial situation, and their persistent demands for a more just international economic order, if unaddressed, will lead to continuous conflict and political instability.  The continuation of imperialist policies by the global powers is no longer possible, in the context of the political, geographical, and ecological realities of the world of today.  The only possible road for humanity is the search for mutually beneficial trade on a basis of mutual respect for the sovereignty of nations, which would constitute the abolition of neocolonialism.

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Preface - April 6, 2021


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