Imperialism is the system by which a dominant power is able to control the trade, investment, labor, and natural resources of other peoples. It takes different forms in different stages of capitalist development and has elements in common with the imperium of ancient empires. I want to lay out these structural elements, contrast them with the mainstream economists’ view of exchange regulated by free market principles, and then discuss the specific form imperialism takes in our own time. Any essay on this subject written from the left must acknowledge the influence of the writing of Harry Magdoff and on this occasion his influence is highlighted.
Empire and the Stages of Imperialism
Within an imperial system there may be one or more empires, which directly or indirectly control territories, their people, and their resources through the deployment or threat of military force. Different empires may compete within a larger imperial order; domination may be informal and control indirect. There were of course empires before there was capitalism. Athens exercised imperial control through the Delian League in an imperium financed in part by its tribute-paying allies who were formally sovereign governments, generally with their own democratic assemblies. The decisions that mattered with regard to foreign policy and even their significant domestic matters were decided by the Athenians. These allies employed the Athenian currency in their commercial dealings and Athens installed garrisons among the allies to keep them in line.