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The term neocolonialism came into use in the 1960s as former European colonies in Africa were gaining their independence. It describes a continuing relationship between Western countries and former colonies that is said to offer the Western world many of the advantages of colonial rule without many of the costs. Kwame Nkrumah (1909–1972), the first president of Ghana, was apparently the first person to use the term in print, in his 1965 study Neo-colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism. Nkrumah was particularly concerned about the economic relationship between former colonial masters and their African dependencies, and focused on the role of the mining industry. Nkrumah’s analysis is also more frankly Marxist than other, later critics who use the term.
The term has come to cover a broad range of relationships—for example, those between the United States and Latin American countries and those between regional powers, such as France, in Africa and countries that were never their colonies. It also has come to be used by analysts from a wide range of theoretical backgrounds, though at its core the idea owes a great deal to Marx. The historian Immanuel Wallerstein, for example, gave the idea a broad theoretical basis in his book The Modern World System, first published in 1974. Wallerstein offered a general theoretical structure governing both the rise of colonialism and its decline and replacement with new, but still exploitative, forms of international relationships. Wallerstein’s ideas were drawn from neo-Marxist theory and were also influenced by the French Annales school and its foremost proponent, Fernand Braudel. Wallerstein has in turn stimulated a series of collaborators and followers, including Andre Gunder Frank and Charles Tilly. Another strand of neocolonial theory comes from the Latin American Dependency school economists, also somewhat influenced by neo-Marxist ideas. The Egyptian political scientist Samir Amin has updated the concept in his work since the turn of the twenty-first century, focusing on the political economy of international relations between wealthy and poor nations.
Neocolonialism is a controversial term, implying that the objective of the wealthier partner is to keep the poorer country dependent and poor. Generally used by people on the political Left, the term has also enjoyed a vogue among far-right critics of internationalism in the United States. Use of the alternative term neoimperialism makes clear that the speaker believes that the wealthy nation intends to establish an empire through economic means, whereas neocolonialism leaves open a more classical Marxist dialectical interpretation of the process.
Economic Relationships Between Nations
Neocolonialism as a concept focuses on economic relationships between wealthier and poorer countries. Wealthier countries are said to use various mechanisms— political and military as well as strictly economic—to keep within their national economies as much as possible of the value added in any productive process with international components, while relegating the more laborious and less valuable parts of the productive process to poorer countries. Wallerstein suggests that the world (or that part of it in regular, economically significant contact) at any point in time is divided into three zones: a core zone, in which the most profitable production takes place and where control over the whole system resides; the semi-periphery, where valuable forms of production take place under the supervision of the core; and the periphery, where less valuable forms of production take place. The peripheral areas under the control of any given core increase; the exploitation and even force that marks the relationship between the core and the peripheral areas grow, as the core gets more efficient at production and at governing itself. Semiperipheral areas share more in the fruits of their labor and are a reasonably favored class of countries. Indeed, when the system changes and a new set of core countries come to power, they generally come from the semi-periphery (as, for example, when the United States supplanted or joined the United Kingdom in the early twentieth century).
The relationship between countries can be seen as an analogy to the relationship between people in classical Marxist economic analysis. The core countries are like the capitalists: They do not generally produce much themselves (though they might have some productive functions), but they exercise control over production by controlling money. The semi-peripheral countries are like the professional or technical elite of an industrial society: They produce very valuable things, and are pampered as a result, though they have little control. The peripheral countries are like the working class: They are exploited as aggressively as possible. Some development theorists have noted that many areas in the periphery are actually for the most part outside the world system and equate these “fourth world” countries or failed states to Marx’s lumpenproletariat. Other writers following up on Wallerstein’s ideas have suggested that subdividing the world beyond the level of the nation-state might be more productive. Regions or cities may be better units of analysis. New York, London, Berlin, and Tokyo are the core cities of the modern world economy, whereas, say, Seattle, Canberra, Bangalore, Dubai, Singapore, and Beijing are semiperipheries and rural West Virginia might be nearly as peripheral to the world economy as rural Inner Mongolia (though perhaps not quite so far away from the core as rural Congo).
Wallerstein points out that the societies of core and peripheral countries are marked by very sharp class divisions, with a few very wealthy people ruling over many poor. Meanwhile, the semi-peripheries are often places of relative class harmony. One sign that a country (or region) has moved out of the semi-periphery and into the core is the rise in class tensions there. Wallerstein detects this pattern at work in Renaissance Europe; similar changes have taken place in American society since World War I. In the peripheral countries, the class divisions often result in the creation of a ruling class tied to the interests of foreign capitalists. The dependency school economists in Latin America made this point when describing the economic relationship between their countries and the United States in the mid-twentieth century. Their signal contribution to the understanding of neocolonialism was to show not only what happened but also how it happened.
Even though in most cases Latin American countries (outside the Caribbean) had ceased being formal colonies by the middle of the nineteenth century, they had not evolved toward greater economic independence but instead toward greater dependence on the core countries of the world-economy—Britain until World War I and then the United States. British and American business interests either owned most of the means of production or controlled the terms of trade such that local owners had to do business on their terms. Country after country found its mineral or agricultural products moving into a world market at a price just barely above that which producers needed to stay in business, with the ensuing profits and well-paying jobs in transformation industries remaining in North America and Europe. Latin American observers felt the local ruling class was acting in the interests of North American and European capitalists rather than their own countrymen. They deduced from this that, as Marx had suggested, class solidarity trumps national identity. Just as the German and American worker have more in common with each other than either has with their own country’s capitalists, the Venezuelan oil magnate or Argentine rancher has more in common with the New York banker or Texas oilman than he does with Venezuelan or Argentine workers. Thus it was the “enemy within the gates” who ensured that the relationship between poor and wealthy countries was exploitative.
Mechanisms of Control
The mechanisms by which the core exerts control over its peripheries have changed over time. In classical colonial rule in the nineteenth century, the colonial masters ruled with the assistance of a large cadre of local officials, recruited through an elitist educational system and often made more loyal by careful exploitation of ethnic loyalties. France ruled its huge west African colony, comprising seven modern nations with tens of millions of inhabitants, with about fifty thousand French civilians of all descriptions and a few thousand French soldiers. They employed more than a million African officials who fulfilled functions from the most humble to some very prestigious positions. When formal colonial rule ended in Africa and Asia after World War II, these local elites became the ruling class of their new countries. As Nkrumah pointed out, in country after country the educational systems and ethnic political divisions continued to alienate the ruling classes from their own people and give them a sense of common identity with the international business and development bureaucratic class from the core countries. The sharp distinction between the lifestyle, attitudes, skills, and ambitions of the ruling classes of developing countries and those of their humbler countrymen stands in sharp contrast to the relatively homogenous societies of semiperipheral countries such as Sweden, Singapore, or Dubai. (In the latter two cases, natives of peripheral countries are brought in as an oppressed and permanently alienated servant class so that social equality between citizens can be maintained.) On the other hand, an increasing distinction exists between the lifestyle, outlook on life, attitudes, ambitions, and values of the wealthiest Americans and those of ordinary people.
Military force was the final buttress of traditional colonialism. Neocolonialism cannot rely as much on force but has not abandoned it entirely. France still maintains significant garrisons in its former colonies in Africa, and those troops intervene regularly in such places as Rwanda, Ivory Coast, Chad, and Congo to defend French interests. U.S. interventions have been legion since the end of the nineteenth century. When an intervention goes badly, neocolonial interests around the world suffer. For example, when the U.S. intervention in Somalia in 1993 ended in failure, Haitian opponents of the American-led peace process were emboldened to attack the American election monitor mission and drive them out of the country.
Political means have been used to strengthen the control of wealthy countries over poor ones. One of the bestknown and most controversial in the first decade of the twenty-first century is the use of international financial institutions, particularly the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Trade Organization (WTO), to force peripheral countries to grant favorable terms of trade on primary products. They do this by requiring privatization of state enterprises and free trade in primary products, which strengthens the control of core-country capital over the most productive sectors of the peripheralcountry economy. Another effect of IMF-mandated economic restructuring has been to sharpen class divisions in the peripheral countries by forcing governments to reduce investment in rural development and education. Peripheral country elites have cooperated because continued contact with the world economy is essential for them to preserve their lifestyle; that contact would be imperiled if their country lost its IMF certification and could not be a member of the WTO. In countries where IMF coercion has been less successful, like Mexico, bilateral free-trade agreements with core countries, which bring substantial benefits for the peripheral country’s bourgeois, have served as the key to chain those economies to their dominant partners.
- Amin, Samir. Obsolescent Capitalism: Contemporary Politics and Global Disorder. London: Zed Books.
- Cardoso, Fernando Henrique, and Enzo Faletto. Dependency and Development in Latin America. Trans. Marjory Mattingly Urquidi. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Gunder Frank, Andre, and K. Gills, eds. 1993. The World System: Five Hundred Years or Five Thousand? London and New York: Routledge.
- Nkrumah, K 1965. Neo-colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism. London: Nelson.
- Tilly, 2003. Contention and Democracy in Europe, 1650–2000. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Wallerstein, I 2004. World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
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