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Dividing the globe in the name of democracy and freedom
Washington's new imperialism

December 14, 2001 | Page 8

PHIL GASPER discusses the roots of imperialism, and why imperialism is critical to understanding U.S. war aims today.

AS THE war in Afghanistan continues, it is increasingly clear that the majority of Afghan people will have little say about what government will be imposed on them when the fighting is over.

Many U.S. politicians and media pundits have decided that Afghans--and other people in the Middle East and Central Asia--are unfit to rule themselves, with some openly calling for a revival of old-style colonialism.

In a recent article titled "The need for a new imperialism," Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf describes Afghanistan as a "failed state" and argues that a United Nations (UN) "protectorate" should be installed to rule the country. Journalist Mark Steyn echoed this theme in a Chicago Sun-Times column headlined "Imperialism is the answer."

And George Bush himself says, "It would be a useful function for the United Nations to take over the so-called nation building--I would call it the stabilization of a future government--after our military mission is complete."

Whether or not they try to sugarcoat the message, such statements reveal that this war is about asserting the U.S. government's right to conquer and dominate weaker nations.

The most incisive analysis of imperialism was made by the Russian revolutionary Lenin at the time of the First World War. Lenin described imperialism as "a special stage in the development of capitalism."

His analysis was designed to show that antagonisms and wars between the great powers are not the result of bad policies, but arise from the dynamic of capitalist development itself--above all from the tendency that Karl Marx had identified toward the concentration and centralization of capital.

As the major capitalist enterprises within a particular country become bigger and fewer, private monopoly capital becomes closely integrated with the state. At the same time, the internationalization of the productive forces compels capitals to compete for markets, investments and raw materials at the global level. The result is that competition between capitals increasingly takes on the form of military rivalries among nation-states.

Further, because the world economy is characterized by combined and uneven development--in other words, because the relations among states are unequal--a small number of advanced countries come to dominate the rest of the world by virtue of their productive resources and military strength.

As Woodrow Wilson once admitted: "Since trade ignores national boundaries and the manufacturer insists on having the world as a market, the flag of his nation must follow him, and the doors of the nations which are closed against him must be battered down. Concessions obtained by financiers must be safeguarded by ministers of state, even if the sovereignty of unwilling nations be outraged in the process. Colonies must be obtained or planted, in order that no useful corner of the world may be overlooked or left unused."

In the last two decades of the 19th century, the major powers divided most of the world between themselves.

The supposedly civilized imperialists subdued their future subjects with unspeakable brutality. When the British conquered Sudan in 1898, they gunned down 10,000 Sudanese troops and Lord Kitchener used the skull of their leader, the Mahdi, as an inkstand.

During its conquest of the Philippines between 1898 and 1901, the U.S. declared Filipinos "unfit for self-government" and claimed to be fighting "with scrupulous regard for the rules of civilized warfare…with self-restraint and humanity never surpassed" while it killed hundreds of thousands.

The underlying motive for this barbaric imperialist expansion was profit. Colonies offered the capitalists of the colonial powers protected outlets for investment and military bases to protect routes to investment elsewhere.

As the empires spread, however, and there were few new territories left to conquer, the major powers increasingly came into conflict with one another. Each side built up its own armed forces, creating a drive toward war that eventually culminated in two world wars that killed tens of millions.

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AFTER THE Second World War, imperialism changed in important ways. Competition between a number of different powers was replaced by the division of the world into two global military alliances dominated by two superpowers, the U.S. and the USSR.

Meanwhile, the old colonial empires were slowly dismantled, partly as a result of struggles for national liberation, and partly because the colonies declined in economic importance for the advanced capitalist countries as the latter reduced their dependence on imported raw materials--with the significant exception of oil.

None of this meant that imperialism had ended, however. The two superpowers found themselves locked into a "cold war" for more than four decades, and they continued to impose their will on lesser states through political, economic and, frequently, military means.

With the collapse of the Soviet bloc in the late 1980s, the U.S. was left far and away the world's most powerful political and military state. But the end of the Cold War also allowed space for new tensions to arise between the U.S. and its major economic and political competitors as each player maneuvers to protect its own interests. As one study concludes, "The rivalry between states and the rivalry between firms for a secure place in the world economy has become much fiercer, much more intense."

Increasingly over the past decade, the U.S. has attempted to use its military power to maintain its global political and economic dominance, and in particular its control over crucial oil supplies.

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JUST AS the 1991 Gulf War was fought to reassert U.S. control over Middle Eastern oil, the current intervention in Afghanistan is motivated in large part by the U.S. ruling class's desire to gain access to Central Asia's oil and natural gas.

The U.S. backed the repressive Taliban regime for years when it was in U.S. interests. As one U.S. diplomat put it in 1997, "The Taliban will probably develop like the Saudis. There will be Aramco [the oil consortium], pipelines, an emir, no parliament and lots of Sharia law. We can live with that."

The U.S. has driven the Taliban from power not because it objected to their treatment of women or their other reactionary social policies, but because it decided its interest will be better served by replacing them with another set of thugs.

Imperialism cannot bring genuine liberation to oppressed people, because by its very nature it is driven by the economic and political interests of the world's most powerful countries.

While claiming to stand for democracy and freedom, for example, the U.S. has for decades backed undemocratic and repressive regimes across the Middle East in order to protect its continued access to cheap oil.

Socialists are implacable opponents of all forms of imperialism and national oppression, and we support all struggles for self-determination and national liberation.

In Afghanistan and the Middle East we argue that people have the right to determine their own future, free from outside domination. If Afghanistan is today a "failed state," that isn't because the Afghan people can't run their own lives, but because of decades of intervention by outside powers--not least the U.S.

At the same time, however, we argue that real freedom is possible only through international working-class solidarity and the abolition of the capitalist system itself, and in the struggle against imperialism, we work to win others to this perspective.

As Lenin put it: "The dialectics of history are such that small nations, powerless as an independent factor in the struggle against imperialism, play a part as one of the ferments, one of the bacilli, which help the real anti-imperialist force, the socialist proletariat, to make its appearance on the scene…We would be very poor revolutionaries if, in the proletariat's great war of liberation for socialism, we did not know how to utilize every popular movement against every single disaster imperialism brings in order to intensify and extend the crisis."

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