Imperialism and colonial expansion are phenomena which have been occurring for hundreds of years. Justified and then further perpetuated by racism, imperialism has resulted in the subjugation of the Global South to international capital, a process tempered by racist and white supremacist ideology which has been encouraged and let to fester for hundreds of years. This article will aim to outline some possible definitions for imperialism and describe their implications. It will describe Australia’s role as an imperialist power in the Pacific, and then outline the importance of internationalism as a revolutionary principle to overthrow capitalism and its imperial foundations.
Primitive accumulation and imperial expansion
As Marx points out, inherent to the development of capitalism is the process whereby new economic forms develop in the shell of old social formations. When productive forces outstrip the capacity of the social form corresponding to them to facilitate the expansion of production, the ruling classes use their material power to attempt to mold the social forms to meet the needs of the expansion of production for capital. Beginning with the English land closures during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and the technological advances of the emergence of industry, the bourgeoisie were able to gradually build up their political and economic power under feudalism.
As productive forces developed, peasants were violently expropriated from their lands to make way for new industry, and the privatisation of production occurred through enclosure of the commons. This created a class of ‘free’ labourers forced to sell their labour power on the market to the ruling classes which had now wrested power from the nobility. Feudal social relations came into conflict with increasing productive capacity, and resulted in the bourgeois ‘revolutions’ that marked the transition to capitalism. The emergence of the nation state at this time was a perfect vehicle for the bourgeois to legitimise and organise their methods of capitalist management and primitive accumulation, which laid the foundations for capital accumulation to occur in the future, and thus expand internationally.
Imperialism can be loosely described as economic expansion, and the social re-organisation caused by the growth of capital resulting from this process. There are various theories that can help to conceptualise it. According to Lenin, imperialism is an international phenomenon which emerged in the late 19th century. Contrary to the belief that imperial expansion is always directly profitable and concerned with exploiting new materials and resources, Lenin argued that imperialism is the dominance of finance capital. This monopoly form of capitalism, where banking, industry and state bureaucracies merge into an all-powerful financial dictator, meant that control of the economy was highly concentrated, first on a national scale and then internationally exported. Certain powerful nations were now engaged in a struggle to divide up the world and control of its markets, leading to high levels of competition between nation-states, and an international network of dependence on finance capital controlled by the imperial core. However, although the late 19th century is certainly a period where imperialism heightens with the scramble for Africa and the Middle East, imperialism and forms of colonial expansion have existed as long as capitalism has.
At the same time that the English land closures were happening, America had already been colonised by the Spanish, giving them untold wealth and granting the European bourgeoisie the capacity to develop their productive forces and expand international capital further. The examples are endless – the forming of Australia in 1776 for example, or the Dutch East India Company in the 1600s. The consequences of Lenin’s argument about imperialism being caused by the centralisation of industrial capital are also questionable, because it ultimately centres revolutionary potential only with the industrial proletariat in Europe, as that is where the capacity to mold social forces lie internationally. In reality, imperial powers today are not only European but spread throughout the world, most notably China and the USA, and contain a wide strata of the global underclasses that have the potential to revolt.
Other explanations for imperialist growth include one offered by David Harvey; rather than the late 19th century being a specific stage in the development of imperialism, Harvey’s cyclical explanation for the ebb and flow of accumulation and consolidation attempts to offer a partial elaboration on Lenin’s stage-based theory, and alludes to the fact that imperialism is a moving beast. Luxemburg attempts to explain imperialism by pinning it down to declining opportunities for expansion in domestic markets, which cause nations to look outwards to exchange with and dominate non-capitalist ‘backward’ regions of the world. Once the ‘non-capitalist environment’ is exhausted and transformed, capitalism would imminently collapse. However history shows Luxemburg’s thesis to be manifestly incorrect.
The social character of imperialism and its impact on the global South cannot be understated; as capitalism expanded, it functioned like a virus by capturing and cloning territories and economies in its distorted image, although differently depending on the national context. Although it is true that colonial expansion by advanced economies to un-industrialised regions has been a huge factor in determining the makeup of the global economic system that exists today, imperial expansion cannot simply be attributed to direct profitability, the exhaustion of domestic markets or the creation of monopolies in industrial Europe. It can be said however that imperialism is a complex phenomenon that involves the expansion of capital internationally, which has resulted in a whole host of developments, including increased competition between imperial rivals, the extraction of wealth and resources from poor countries, and the domination politically and economically of powerful nations over dominated ones.
Australia and the Pacific: An imperial history
In this way, imperialism is a destructive outcome of capitalist development and has allowed rich nations to materially and socially dominate the Global South; Australia and its role in the Pacific is no exception. The British government was highly successful in colonising the Australian continent in the 18th century, expending considerable resources to crush Indigenous resistance to occupation in order to create a stable outpost for imperialism in the Pacific region. European capital has been operating in the region since the 1600s with Portuguese and Spanish trading, but it accelerated in the 19th century to mean full imperial domination of the region and social re-organisation along capitalist lines. From this base, in the 19th and early 20th century land seizure, slave trading, annexations and colonial violence in the Pacific were rampant. Almost 45,000 people were taken from Fiji to Australia as slave labourers between 1865-1911, which was a continuation of the ‘blackbirding’ which began in Vanuatu in 1863, with almost 62,000 people being imported to Australia to work on plantations.
Imperial exploitation continued in the second half of the 20th century; between 1965-1999 the Australian government supported the Suharto dictatorship and Indonesian control over East Timor because it was expedient to their interests. Preceding Suharto coming to power, there were mass killings of communists, unionists and ordinary people with suspected involvement with the left. Between 500,000 and 3 million people were murdered by the army and death squads, which led to the collapse of the communist movement and the removal of the previous president Sukarno. This regime was backed by the US, Australia and other notable Western powers. Before this occurred, the Communist Party of Indonesia was the largest non-ruling Communist party in the world with upwards of 3 million members. The Australian government has consistently backed IMF loans in the region, such as the structural adjustment program which decimated East Timor’s economy, and allowed Australian private corporations to extract billions of dollars in profits from oil and gas in Pacific nations.
Foreign aid given to states like Papua New Guinea (PNG), the largest recipient in the Pacific, is used as leverage to ensure governments remain compliant to the interests of Australian corporate and state institutions. After all, granting foreign aid is not about the goodwill of the Australian political class, but about control and ensuring certain countries perform their roles as secure and profitable centres for the expansion of Australian capital. Now, Australian investment in the South Pacific is massive, and foreign private corporations dominate the market. The intense pressure placed on Pacific island countries to adopt neo-liberal economic policies and privatisation from the Australian state has only intensified over the years, partly in response to threats from China because of its aid provisioning, which challenges the Australian government’s control over the region.
All of this is occurring whilst social welfare and public sector funding is being cut domestically within Australia, as well as widespread attacks levied at workers rights, and money is being funnelled into fossil fuels and the pockets of the elite. Now in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, countries like Australia are voting in the WTO against a temporary suspension of vaccine intellectual property laws, leading to a reduction of supply to places like PNG which are being hit hard by the virus. If COVID-19 is not constrained, it will of course affect the working class more than the rich, no matter what national context. It is clear that the Pacific is an arena where ugly imperialist rivalries are playing out to the detriment of the international working class as a whole.
Internationalism and the national liberation question
Imperialism is undoubtedly a reactionary force that empowers the bourgeoisie to dominate more and more the global working class, so how do we combat it? The most visible resistance to imperialism over the last 100 years has undoubtedly been national liberation struggles, led by colonised peoples themselves, often taking up the demand for independent political control over their affairs. This massive ‘decolonisation’ movement, which swept the world post-WWII, raises significant questions for how we respond to imperialism and global capital today. Most notably: given our goal as anarchists is the overthrow of both the international capitalist class and the state, on what basis can or should we support national independence movements?
Nationalism is a political strategy which expresses the goal of anti-imperialist struggle as the construction of an independent nation state. Historically, imperialist transformation generates new classes of local elites seeking to rule their own countries, who often encourage and champion opposition to imperialism in the name of national liberation. This is a form of bourgeois anti-imperialism which aims to retain capitalism and all of its horrors simply with a new local ruling class, attempting to hide class differences in the process.
As anarchists, we should stand in solidarity with anti-imperialist movements which are based in the working classes and peasantry. We must fight against all attempts by the bourgeois to co-opt these movements and shape them in their interests. Through argument and example anarchists must seek to transform the struggle for national liberation into a movement for social liberation based on the class struggle of the proletariat acting for itself, whilst keeping political independence from nationalists. We must participate and agitate within movements led by ordinary people against pro-imperialist regimes, insofar as these movements are not seeking to build national party bureaucracies, and aim to win workers over to an internationalist program. Ultimately, we may fight alongside workers in national liberation movements for limited anti-imperialist reforms, but must also fight within these movements against nationalism and to garner mass support for the project of international proletarian revolution.
It is clear that capitalism is an international phenomenon and requires international solutions to overthrow it. Adhering to the principle of internationalism means that we must unite as an international proletariat against our common enemy. International solidarity between the working classes in whatever nation-state is overseeing the maintenance of capitalist hegemony is crucial in order to bring about a truly social revolution which is sustained and able to take power into the hands of the proletariat as a whole. As anarchists in Australia, a nation in the imperial core, our fight must be both internal and external; we must organise within the working classes at home, but also build and act in solidarity with the international working class. After all, it is only through uniting together as a class that we can hope to win a better world.