Imperialism first appeared in popular usage around 1870 during a period in which Great Britain sought to colonize every part of the world they could find and get away with in an attempt to seek ever-increasing cheap goods and labor. Before and during this period, Britain claimed for itself the colonies of Australia, New Zealand, India, Canada, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Guiana, Barbados, Honduras, South Africa, Nigeria, Tanzania, and dozens of points across various oceans of the world.
Canada was effectively a British colony until 1931 when the Statue of Westminster allowed the nation full legislative independence. The country was only allowed complete autonomy in 1982 when Queen Elizabeth II signed the Constitution Act. While, for all intents and purposes, this was little more than window dressing- for Canadians were largely left alone to do what they pleased by the British government (as compared to the Falkland Islands)- it nevertheless served as a reminder of Britain’s historical desire for expansion and dominance.
It wasn’t coincidence that the birthplace of capitalism, Great Britain, also gave rise to one of the world’s biggest empires. Capitalism is noted to have begun in the Elizabethan Era (1558-1603) which saw an increase in mercantilism. A scarce 47 years later, one of Britain’s first colonizing efforts had begun. Oliver Cromwell, then acting on behalf of King Charles I, forcibly confiscated the lands of Irish lords who lived in the northern, arable half of Ireland. He replaced them with lords who would be sympathetic to English interests, while the previous lords had to make do in the southern half of the country as best they could.
Since then, the interests of Great Britain have been aligned with the accumulation of capital for the members of its nobility regardless of the human cost involved. Working conditions in England in the 19th century were infamous for employing child labor, migrant labor (often from Ireland), old men, and pregnant women, all of whom lived in deplopable, filthy conditions while eating spoiled, rotten food. All the while, they worked to the point of injury- and often beyond.
The disregard that the upper class of Britain had for its working class lead to the Great Stink of 1858 in which so much human and industrial waste had been dumped into the Thames River that a horrible, toxic odor was everywhere in London during that year’s hottest summer months. Proper disposal of industrial waste products, and a working sanitation system for all citizens, had not been in contemplation until the problem grew so bad that it could no longer be ignored.
This, above all else, is the most powerful significator of imperialism: the idea that people without money, influence, or prestige have no intrinsic value. Accordingly, they can be left to die, beaten, starved, imprisoned, tortured, sterilized, and murdered with impunity simply because they are not important enough to deserve empathy.
The British East India Company, which ruled India until 1858, showed little regard for anything or anyone that wasn’t British. Acting on behalf of the crown, the company used violent force to put down a rebellion which lasted for a year and a half. In his book, The Discovery of India, Jawaharlal Nehru wrote that the areas of India in which British power was concentrated the most ended up being the poorest.
This correlates with the data that Vladimir Lenin uncovered for his work, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. From 1870 to 1900, Lenin observed that Britain, America, Germany, and France were all engaged in the business of establishing military dominance in non-native lands for the purpose of increasing profits for a select few companies and business owners. While he recognized that a company or small group of companies could hold a monopoly on a particular industry within a country, Lenin also demonstrated that it was possible for colonizers to monopolize lands while engaging in competition with one another.
This led to smaller competitors not being able to enter into a given market; for example, no one expects a local grocery store that opened a month ago to compete with Wal-Mart. Imperialist capitalism similarly prevents lesser-developed nations from establishing themselves, enriching themselves, and creating economic stability. Destabilizing a region- ie, a foreign country- most often means destabilizing it economically or politically.
An economically destabilized nation becomes ripe for exploitation by established wealthy capitalist companies. Infamously, in the 1950’s, the United Fruit Company of America took issue with Guatemalan President Jacobo Árbenz giving away unused land to roughly 500,000 of the nation’s poorest citizens. The company urged the American government that the Guatemalan government had been overtaken by communists.
What followed was a CIA coup called Operation PBSSUCCESS in favor of a non-elected military dictatorship. The government of Castillo Armas seized the land that had been given out. When the farmers who were now living there refused to leave, they were arrested under the pretext of being communist. While most of them were never convicted as such, new landlords evicted them off the property completely.
Later, the CIA operation PBHISTORY failed to find any evidence that there was significant communist activity in the country. It turns out that the United Fruit Company just didn’t like the idea of Guatemalan people controlling Guatemalan land.
In this way, it can be seen that a country’s military often does the bidding of its wealthy capitalists- that is the nature of imperialism.
What, however, does a workplace in an imperialist system look like? What are the experiences of workers within it?
Sweatshops, so called due to the fact that workers only earn their sweat and little else, exist both in undeveloped countries such as Bangladesh (153rd in the world in nominal GDP per capita according to the United Nations), and America (9th). They began around 1830 in England. A middleman in the garment industry would be called a sweater, owing to the fact that they would sweat constantly during work.
Conditions in these places were crowded, badly ventilated, infested with rats, often prone to fire. Workers were crowded into poorly managed tenement buildings, having no means to buy a decent living space- and no surety of avoiding arrest for loitering in someone else’s space.
This soon became the standard for overseas sweatshops- two words that today seem to be redundant when placed together. Nor is this concept limited to American or British businesses. The Japanese clothing company Uniqlo has been criticized for “systematically underpaying their labor, forcing them to work excessively long hours, and subjecting them to unsafe working conditions, such as sewage-covered floors, sweltering temperatures, and poor ventilation.”
Sweatshops run by Adidas in Indonesia have been reported to have abused their workers, severely underpaid them, had them work long overtime hours, all the while employing children. H&M, a Swedish clothing company, has been known for running sweatshops in Bangladesh wherein workers faced dangerous conditions.
Nike’s sweatshops in Vietnam subject workers wage theft, repeated verbal abuse, harsh working conditions, and extreme temperatures.
Each of these companies shows a callous disregard for their workers, as though human beings are nothing more than engines for profit. As long as employers can’t mistreat workers at home, they will do so abroad. Their goal is financial dominance in a world of ever-increasing competition in which, ironically enough, cooperation is more plausible than ever. They do this by making products at the cheapest price possible while selling them at the highest price they can get away with. This pattern was exemplified in 1870 when a schooner captain named Lorenzo Dow Baker bought bananas in Jamaica, then sold them in Boston with 1000% markup.
Imperialism, the maintenance and expansion of an empire, does not merely take place abroad, however. Empires can and often are created within one’s own country. Politically speaking, an empire is a group of sovereign nations ruled over by an emperor or monarch. A financial empire is simply a conglomerate: a single corporate group ruling over a number of subsidiaries- often many. Rather than using the force of military to establish dominance, financial empires use the force of law in the form of police officers and courts.
The Walt Disney Company is an example of this: one company that rules over many. The list of the Disney Corporation’s assets is too large to list here. Suffice to say, a financial empire is one that serves merely to benefit those few privileged executives at the top, regardless of how each individual worker benefits, or fails to benefit.
Recently, the heiress to the Disney fortune, Abigail Disney, gained notoriety for criticizing the low wages paid to Disney theme park employees. Meanwhile, Disney’s CEO Bob Iger made a yearly salary of 5.6 million (before bonuses) while the company enjoyed a net income of 12 billion that year.
This is probably a story that you’ve all heard before: workers get paid little, company gets rich, CEO gets paid handsomely. This is the prevailing pattern for almost all conglomerates, because all of them are, by nature, imperialist financial empires. All of them seek to acquire as many properties as they can. Along the way, if some workers have to die, or have to work 60 hours a week, have to neglect their children, have to go hungry, end up homeless, that’s really none of their concern. What matters is the expansion of the empire- expansion at all costs for as long as possible for as much profit as possible.
Expansionism, a key component of imperialism, can also be witnessed historically in Nazi Germany, Japanese imperalism between 1920 and 1947, the Ottoman Empire, European powers dividing up Africa (circa 1913), the Hapsburg Monarchy and the Austrian Empire that followed, America’s conquest of independent Native tribes, the Roman Empire, the Alexandrian Empire, the Persian Empire, the Egyptian Empire, and a host of others.
Each imperialist nation was concerned with conquest, the acquisition of land. They were not, by and large, concerned with the welfare of indigenous peoples. Whether they lived or died was of no concern. Gold, farming land, slaves, trade routes- anything that benefited a nation’s economy was desirable. People who were already there were not important. In many cases, they were simply viewed as hostile obstacles to progress.
Financial imperialism simply replaces the conquest of land with the conquest of markets. Monopolistic businesses, having achieved their conquest, soon become imperialist. The free exchange of goods and services, so often lauded by defenders of capitalism, becomes less important than a search for and capture of new markets. Where armies seize natural resources (such as gold) financial conquerors seize local opportunities for profit for themselves.
This is easily demonstrated by the fact that a sweatshop worker, in whatever country they may be found, cannot work themselves out of poverty- not when they are in there for long hours and little pay. Hard work is not rewarded. There is no possible path for such a worker to achieve social progress except outside of the workplace.
In the meantime, the family-owned store shut down. The successful start-up business gets bought out. Entrepreneurs without investment capital must submit themselves to the authority of another business in order to make a living, thus reducing the amount of time they can spend financially empowering themselves.
Once the financial imperialists have captured local markets, they can set wages as low as they can get away with. They can treat workers in whatever way they feel like. Having never been driven by compassion in the first place, but rather using greed as their impetus, such conquerors become exploiters. Giving up their exploitation would mean giving up the very reason why they engaged in financial conquest to begin with. This, it turns out, the majority of conglomerate owners are simply not willing to do. There have been very few emperors, political or financial, who have willingly signed away all their power and authority