Four Views of Imperialism and the Transformation of its Meaning

Leong Yew, Research Fellow, University Scholars Programme, National University of Singapore


3. Categorical Imperialism

Imperialism and its questions about its causes and effects have oftentimes been reduced to categories, separating one form of imperialism from another. This view exemplifies the intellectual preference in organizing thought along categorical lines that include the economic, the political, the strategic, the social, the cultural, the moral, and the religious. While modern linguistic rules do not preclude the use of one category in conjunction with others, there is usually always a necessity to situate a series of statements (like an argument or a thesis) within one category. Thus the categorical nature of imperialism is that which makes the following possible:

The basis for military supremacy was economic. Superior technology meant superior armaments and a capacity to transport armed men to any part of the world. Superior economic organization made it possible to finance the overhead costs of military forces, and to deploy them to devastating effect. The motives for imperial expansion were also predominantly economic. Some historians now seek to deny this, but the men of East India Company, the Spanish Conquistadores, the investors in South African mines and the slave traders knew very well what they wanted. They wanted to be rich. Colonial empires were exploited ruthlessly for economic gain as sources of cheap material and cheap labour, and as monopolised markets… [A] serious study [of imperialism] must concentrate on more fundamental economic issues. (Brewer, 2)

For [E.M. Winslow, imperialism] remains a political phenomenon which rests on force and he equates it "not merely with organized capitalist imperialism but with the exercise of power by one group of people over another, with the exploiting of the conquered and subjugated…" (Kemp, 155)

The most commonly held and dangerous myth connected with the modern empires is that they were great machines deliberately constructed by Europe to exploit dependent peoples by extracting economic and fiscal profit from them… None denied that it was desirable for wealthy industrial states to help those with primitive economies: but to base their claim to assistance on the premise that they were exploited in the past was wrong. The myth of imperial profit-making was false. (Fieldhouse, 380-381)

If Europe benefited economically from other parts of the world by 'exploiting' them, it was because of her immense military and economic preponderance. Empire in the formal sense was merely one form in which this was expressed, and had no colonial empires been created in the nineteenth century Europe would still have taken whatever economic assets she needed and dictated the terms on which she did so. (Fieldhouse, 391-392)

Like the view of imperialism as continuous economic process, the definiteness of what constitutes empire is a lot more oblique, and in this respect, the categories are more than just containers of meaning providing a certain aspect of imperialism in greater detail. Categorization, in effect, conveys varying ethical values that are not always explicit. The concept, "the economic" connotes a set of social relations (which by today's textbook definitions) in the distribution and allocation of value resources may still involve inequity and exploitation. But another concept like "the military" or "political" is more overdetermined in that the notions of physical violence and repression are invoked in a keener sense. A statement such as: "while the imperial powers used political and in some cases military means to subjugate the colonized, post-decolonization imperialism is a lot more economic" attempts to suggest value-wise that the conditions are more favourable than before. Likewise, the claim that imperialism is also "moralistic or religious" tries to dampen its perjorative content by incorporating a supposedly more benevolent side of the "civilizing mission" than in the military or economic context. In historicizing the use of such conceptual categories as movement along a spectrum of values, as in Fieldhouse and Smith, one comes perilously close to an attempt at absolving Europe, Britain (and the U.S. as well) of their imperial guilt. In other words, by saying that imperialism was once formal, politically totalizing, and is now mostly economic and cultural, on the one hand tries to recognize that there are still limits to the emancipation of the colonized while on the other hand framing imperialism as progress-oriented.

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Last Modified: 9 April, 2002