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


One common argument among postcolonial intellectuals is that it is too simplistic to say that imperialism has ended and that this occurred when the European empires relinquished their colonies during the few decades after the second world war. The use of the term, neocolonialism, is one such manifestation of this ongoing nature of imperialism. Yet it is in itself extremely contentious because it is multifaceted and loosely used, is often used as a synonym for contemporary forms of imperialism, and in a polemical way is used in reaction to any unjust and oppressive expression of Western political power. Lying underneath all these various meanings of neocolonialism is a tacit understanding that colonialism should be seen as something more than the formal occupation and control of territories by a Western metropole. Hence while formal methods of control like the implementation of administrative structures, the stationing of military forces, and most importantly the incorporation of the natives as subjects of the metropolitan government, neocolonialism suggests an indirect form of control through economic and cultural dependence. In this case neocolonialism describes the continued control of former colonies through ruling native elites compliant with neocolonial powers, populations that are exploited for their labour and resources in order to feed an insatiable appetite for finished physical or cultural commodities made by the metropole.

There is some theoretical consensus and development of neocolonialism as well. Scholars in postcolonial studies like Robert Young, Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin agree that inspite of the looseness of the term, neocolonialism originated with Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana's first post-independence president. Part of a burgeoning consciousness developing among postcolonial elites in Africa, Nkrumah became aware that the gaining of independence and national sovereignty by African states were purely token and in no substantial way altered the relationship between the colonial powers and the colonized state. In effect the formal granting of independence created a more Manichean system of dependency and exploitation:

Neo-colonialism is... the worst form of imperialism. For those who practise it, it means power without responsibility and for those who suffer from it, it means exploitation without redress. In the days of old-fashioned colonialism, the imperial power had at least to explain and justify at home the actions it was taking abroad. In the colony those who served the ruling imperial power could at least look to its protection against any violent move by their opponents. With neo-colonialism neither is the case. (xi)

In particular, Nkrumah makes the following points about neocolonialism in 1965:

In more recent days there have been attempts to frame such reactions to new forms of colonialism as simply "irrational" antipathy towards the West, as a type of resentment for the disparities between First World and Third, and also as a way of explaining victimization. However Nkrumah's views on neocolonialism cannot be so easily explained because they more firmly elaborate historical and possibly deterministic structures on a larger scale. Particularly Nkrumah sought to develop the idea of imperialism advanced by Lenin in Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. In this case it makes no sense to claim that imperialism sustains itself because of the continued lust for power after power but that there exists a higher logic driven on by capitalism and the never ending need of accumulation and production, now sustained on a global scale. Nkrumah picks up on these Marxist themes by noting how capitalism and its problems (like class conflict) occuring at the metropolitan centres become "transferred" onto the peripheries.

While Nkrumah does not provide a solution to neocolonialism in Neocolonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism he makes a number tacit suggestions, including the need for pan-African unity in making the task more difficult for neocolonialism. But it is a number of allusions to Marxism that Nkrumah exposes his views on neocolonialism as a potentially self-defeating project. In some sense this would come through postcolonial resistance and revolt when neocolonialism reaches a culmination in the peripheries, but more indirectly destabilizes the neocolonial centre that practices it.

Apart from Nkrumah, the idea of neocolonialism has also been used in other contexts. Robert Young, for instance, sees neocolonialism as being advanced first through "development and dependency theory" and then through "critical development theory" (49-56). At issue in development and dependency theory is the difficulty for the Third World states in escaping from the Western notion of development. Classification, economic growth, the ways economic output is measured, and the progressive linear model of development have been so deeply entrenched that neocolonized states have no other recourse but to be part of that system. Consequently dependency theorists depict a world made up of developmental inequities, noting that metropolitan centres, in seeking to be even more developed, "under-develop" the peripheries through trade exploitation. More recently critical development theory goes beyond its predecessor because the notion of neocolonial actions in the periphery cannot be so easily explained, especially with the economic successes of Asia. In this regard "development" can no longer be theorized in purely economic terms but has to incorporate other dimensions like culture, gender, society and politics as well. In variations of critical development theory like post-development theory, Young asserts that there has been a movement towards "popular development." This is the empowerment of usually non-governmental, civil actors to address fundamental human needs, hence an emphasis on sustainable development, "self-reliance," and "cultural pluralism and rights" (55). A number of post-development theorists have even advocated development outside the framework of the Enlightenment logic, and by so doing look towards postcolonial politics as the future direction development theory could take. It is at this juncture that Young notes the potential convergence between developmental theory and postcolonialism.

Works Cited

[Postcolonial Web Overview] [Postcolonial Discourse Overview] 

Last Modified: 14 May, 2002