Updated: Sep 15
Modern imperialism in the last three centuries refers to the expansion of European public and private wealth by means of the acquisition of colonial resources, mostly in the tropics, using economic, military, cultural and diplomatic dominance. Imperialism assumes racial superiority: the right and might of White to dominate non-White when it needs to, and the assumption that to be White is to be better, in part due to the claim of Enlightenment, in part due to bogus colonial science. Edward Said, the noted postcolonial scholar, conceptualised imperialism as 'a set of exploitative asymmetrical relations dominated by a centre towards a periphery'.
The 'centre' refers to the European capitals and the colonies are represented by the periphery. It was an economic model just like capitalism, and it relied on a version of conversion therapy. Conversion therapy was once touted as the means to 'cure' the 'disorder' of being gay. Similarly, people in colonized spaces were considered in need of economic and social conversion and assimilation on European terms, since colonies were considered to be in a state of disorder, not yet being like their imperial masters. The West integrated the colonies into their preferred economic order, as subservient actors benefitting white economic progress, on white economic terms. Empire was about profit and loss, supply and demand, supply chains, accounting, economic efficiency, competition, marketing, appropriation. In fact, imperialism has long been known as the 'highest form of capitalism'.
Imperialism was international business by another name. It worked on state-supported corporate initiatives of profit maximization through the minimization of costs. As James Parisot wrote, you cannot separate 'capital’s drive for profit [from] an analysis of the state’s drive for territorial control and expansion' in the age of empire. In this case, European states' interests, and those of larger corporate entities of the time, were advanced and empowered by entrepreneurial exploration of the 'unknown' world' (known well to the people who lived there) and innovation in the areas of supply and demand. The process was aided and abetted by early 'conversion therapy' ideologies, which insisted, through religious reorganization and enforced obeisance, that people in the new colonies become like their imperial overlords, or likely suffered. Christianity and its missionaries in the tropics were the precursor to the idea that non-conformists like gay and trans people and those with mental challenges must be forced to be like their 'betters', or be punished.
The costs of exploration were reduced by occupying those countries, converting them to colonies of the empires, laying violent claim to their people and resources, and 'reallocating' each for inequitable exchange and profit. In some cases, imperialists invested in limited infrastructure in a colonial country and minimal education for a compliant workforce, and in most cases it elevated and paid local people to imprison anyone who resisted this process. As a result, European states became phenomenally wealthy, which happens if the costs are reduced by stealing trillions in local resources. In one extreme case, the King of Belgium turned The Congo into his own personal fiefdom, murdering tens of millions of indigenous people so he could get rich.
It's hard for many in the West to come to terms with. We find it hard to imagine our own countries conducting such heinous actions. Perhaps abstracting the process from our own identities can help. If aliens came to Earth, claimed it, and us, for themselves on the basis that they had the power, technology and because of this, the right to do so, and then strip-mined the planet, and us, of anything useful so they could make a profit (whilst punishing those of us who objected), we would see that process for exactly what it was. It was robbery on a planetary scale, by those with the means to do so. Most feel that this era is over, but there is much to say it continues in a sanitized, legitimated form: international business.
If we are willing to 'look with better eyes', business practices play a significant role in perpetuating imperial methods and values, upholding power imbalances and reinforcing global inequalities. They exploit developing countries using expertise and wealth made from the earlier age of empire, for example, buying primary crops like coffee and diamonds at very low prices, then make billions from the refined versions. The wealth that accrues in the Global North increases the imperial legacy of North-South wealth disparities, and the gigantic value differentials make the richer North richer still, while doing little to enrich poor people and amplifying environmental collapse. Think of the Amazon.
Western and East Asian corporations are plundering the lungs of the planet, making billions, paying little in tax that might share the spoils more equitably, and destroying the natural environment that we all depend on 100% to stay alive. In this blog post, I'll look into ways in which the conduct of business perpetuates imperialism, exploring economic structures, resource exploitation, cultural domination, and the concentration of power.
Economic Exploitation and Dependency
One of the primary mechanisms through which business perpetuates imperialism is the maintenance of powerful exploitative global economic instruments and structures historically created by and presently run mainly by western men and women. Even before World War Two was over, the major western global institutions of today (like the World Bank, IMF and UN) had begun to create the rules of global economic relations that would reproduce western imperial advantage throughout the supposed era of decolonization. They were in the position to dictate this by virtue of already ruling much of the world as a result of their imperial relations and state technological and military supremacy. To the victor, the spoils.
Benefitting from this, and at the same time reproducing and reinforcing western dominance, multinational corporations, primarily based in dominant countries now including China, often exercise immense influence in weaker economies like their imperial forbears did. They leverage their economic power to establish supply chains that prioritize their interests, resulting in a cycle of dependency on foreign investments, technology, and market access. This leaves these nations vulnerable and reinforces their subordinate status; just like in the days of Empire. Moreover, these corporations often impose their practices and standards, further eroding local autonomy and perpetuating domination and control, and they can force former colonies to accept corporate demands, even when they are bad for the country. The most difficult thing for many to grasp is the similarity when they've been told it's different. Empire is over, how can it still be there if they've physically left? Well, before they left, they made sure they could work remotely, so to speak. They put in place economic instruments, rules and regimes that would ensure continued beneficial relations for the old empires, or they installed pro-western allies after independence. The puppet masters were still in play; they just made the puppet strings harder to see. That way, they could continue to extract resources and use people cheaply, and maintain their advantages, and position, in the global system.
Resource extraction, economic exploitation and environmental destruction
Businesses are also relentless pursuers of natural resources, reminiscent of the historical pillaging by imperial powers. Neoimperial (that’s what we call the present era, to denote a new era of imperialism without formal empires) companies are able to exploit the resources of developing nations without adequate compensation and consideration for environmental sustainability or the well-being of local populations. Think of Coca Cola and Union Carbide in Indi or Shell in Nigeria. This resource extraction perpetuates a neo-imperialistic dynamic, as weaker nations become mere suppliers of lower-value raw materials to wealthier nations who turn huge profits on cheap extraction, reinforcing economic subjugation. Additionally, companies secure advantageous trade agreements that allow them to exert control over resource-rich regions, perpetuating the cycle of exploitation and creating enduring economic dependencies. The UK now exports the physically dangerous task of ship-breaking to places like Bangladesh, where safety legislation is less developed, contracts can more easily be bought instead of earned, and wages are all but unsustainable - and vital union protection is both underdeveloped, and also weakened by the attractiveness to powerful actors of western deals.
Cultural domination, appropriation and homogenization
Imperialism is not solely confined to economic domination; it also extends to cultural control. Business practices often promote a form of cultural imperialism, imposing dominant cultural norms, values, and consumer preferences on societies around the world. Global corporations, through their marketing strategies and media influence, shape consumer desires and preferences, eroding local traditions and identities. Perhaps best known is the spread of MacDonald’s and Starbucks across the planet. This cultural homogenization perpetuates the dominance of Western ideals, reinforcing a power imbalance and marginalizing diverse cultural expression. As local businesses struggle to compete against multinational giants, the preservation of unique cultural practices becomes increasingly challenging, ultimately contributing to the perpetuation of imperialistic tendencies. Businesses are also heavily invested in cultural appropriation; in 2023, a growing trend for making a profit from Native American traditions is becoming evident. There is no acknowledgment that westerners are making money from people they once decimated in the tens of millions in the Columbus-inspired genocide. It should come as no surprise that 'the natives' fight back: no culture, even Mac or Starbucks, will totally subsume another.
Concentration of Power and Influence
The concentration of economic power in business hands further perpetuates imperialism. Businesses may wield significant influence over governments, policy-making processes, and international institutions. Postcolonial governments are often not fully democratically accountable, and may be authoritarian, and often still draw on neopatrimonial attitudes that sanction the gifting of public assets to elite government private interests, just as was the case in Europe in the not distant past. International businesses can have enough economic power to enable them to shape such political landscapes to their advantage, bypassing labour laws, environmental regulations and taxation requirements, just as they do in the West. This unequal power dynamic results in a form of economic imperialism, where international companies operate with impunity while local populations bear the consequences of exploitation. Moreover, the concentration of power exacerbates existing global inequalities, as wealth and resources flow disproportionately to the already affluent nations and corporations. It's more of the same story. History isn't repeating itself; capitalist business practices never stopped in the first place
Imperialism created and left behind a global capitalist structure, or architecture, or framework, or scaffolding, that first facilitated grossly inequitable imperial extraction, exploitation and exchange for profit and then served to perpetuate it in the postcolonial era. This is the basis of modern capitalism and therefore of business. Modern capitalism and allied media perpetuate a homogenized global culture that normalizes Western values, lifestyles, and consumerism. Indeed, it doesn't just normalize it. It idolatrizes it - it is an ideology of idolatry - and demands we effectively worship it amidst the lie that there is no other way (there are innumerable variations, like micro-taxes on currency speculation that harm no-one and benefit millions). This cultural imperialism reinforces western cultural hegemony by marginalizing and eroding local cultures, languages, and traditions in former colonies.
Business is the handmaid of capitalism, and business studies prepares more handmaids to serve and idolatrise an ideology that promises equality but maximises profit for the richest on the old empires. Business practices continue to perpetuate imperialism in the modern world through exploitative economic structures, resource extraction, cultural domination, and the concentration of power. For postcolonial and other critical scholars, business is but a form of imperialism, and (neo) imperialism is but a form of business. Postcolonialism is not, for them, one more theory: It is the means to unpick, deconstruct and rebuild our very understanding of capitalism, business and the contemporary world we shape in any non-decolonised teaching. We have to be honest and own this; it doesn’t mean all business suddenly has to stop and western lifestyles are suddenly terminated. But it does mean there has to be some balance in the relations between western business and postcolonial conditions, or we are just doing empire in a murkier, more deceitful, but just as domineering and violent way.