Africa: Imperialism goes naked

SARAH BRACKING and GRAHAM HARRISON argue that imperialism is a far more useful concept than globalisation for understanding Africa’s relations with the global economy.

‘The profound hypocrisy and inherent barbarism of bourgeois civilization lies unveiled before our eyes, moving from its home, where it assumes respectable form, to the colonies, where it goes naked.’

Karl Marx, ‘The Future Results of British Rule in India’, New York Daily Tribune, 22 January 1853

Marx’s statement is telling and relevant. Capitalism has always acted as a global system, working across or between nation states. The ever-present imperative to produce profit has pushed capital from its historic heartlands in northern Europe to all societies. But as Marx implies, the process of expansion has not been a homogenising one: the bourgeoisie has double standards, or perhaps multiple standards, as it negotiates its presence in a wide variety of locations.

The standards that most would define as minimally acceptable (social democracy) have been a product of specific historical and material conditions: a result of the emergence of institutionally robust and interventionist states and the political demands of working classes.

But these historical conditions are part of the same conditions that produced very different states and economies in sub-Saharan Africa: the colonial states arising from the scramble for colonies of the late 1880s are themselves part of the same capitalism which produced the bourgeois civilisation that Marx ironically attributes to late Victorian England. The hypocrisy is that civilisation in Europe, plus plunder, primitive accumulation, and famine in the colonial world were part of the same overarching liberal ideals.

Colonial states established the political conduits through which African societies engaged the global political economy. In many ways, this engagement can be seen as a process of simplification, reducing complex social forms to basic national templates: the zoning of agricultural production; the reduction of varied cultures of ownership and norms of trade to ‘chieftaincies’ and the regulations of marketing boards; and the redirecting of local and long distance trade networks to the road and rail links to port, capital city, and customs office. Intrinsically authoritarian, this process of standardisation could only be effected with violence and was resisted both actively and passively, resulting in a mosaic of complex outcomes.

The colonial project might not have completed its immanent desire to produce self-contained national economies malleable to the designs of international capital, but it did mark a profound historical transition which defined the historical possibilities of independence. In spite of the vibrant African political currents of the late 1950s and 1960s, statesmen inherited political and economic kingdoms that had been structured by colonialism, whether these kingdoms were inherited through negotiations or armed struggle.

The postcolonial trajectories of African states leave one impressed by both the variety of change and the durability of the sinews of global capitalism in Africa. These sinews are tough but also malleable, not necessarily rigid. In the ‘developmental’ period from independence to the first oil price hike in 1973, national economic planning, large scale public investment, and foreign capital (in the form of multilateral loans or transnational direct investment) created economic growth (at least on paper). Negative real interest rates prevailed through most of the 1970s, until the second oil shock of 1979, encouraging both excessive borrowing and lending.

However, 1979 also marked a radical change in global economic policy, inaugurated with the ‘Volcker Shock’ (so called after Paul Volcker, then chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve) when the United States suddenly and dramatically raised interest rates. The sudden change of interest rate policy increased the cost of African debt precipitously, since a majority of debt stock was held in dollars. The majority of the newly independent states had been effectively delivered into at least 20 years of indentured labour. From that point on access to finance became a key policing mechanism directed at African populations.


Marx never used the term imperialism, but it remains a key part of any analysis of contemporary global capitalism. The sinews of political power and accumulation that are derivative of capitalism’s birth as a global creature might have twisted and turned, but they continue to connect African societies to a complex, combined, and uneven global political economy which has hardly served the people of Africa favourably.

Imperialism has almost always been a concept used to evoke a critique of the global political economy: to identify the inequities of what is now called ‘globalisation’; to condemn the bullying tactics of western states; to investigate the cultural arrogance and discursive authoritarianism of liberalism’s marriage to ‘freedom, equality, property and Bentham’, that is, capitalism. Imperialism has also been associated with political struggle as a device to identify oppressive forces working at an international level as a means to political action.

Imperialism has come to encompass different meanings to the extent that one has to clarify what one means by imperialism before using the term. Imperialism has a much longer history than its contemporary pretender, ‘globalisation’, and one can discern three principal ‘angles’ that writers take with the concept.

First, imperialism relates to a process of capital export from developed capitalist economies to the colonies. Secondly, it addresses itself to the economic dominance of the ‘core’ of the world-system in the postcolonial regions of the world: the pernicious effects of transnational corporations, unequal exchange in trade and technological dominance. In this second sense inequities between states, and within the interstate system, create opportunities for exploitation of the periphery by the core. Finally, in a third context, imperialism refers to the predominance of the United States and its militarised bullying of so many postcolonial states since 1945.

One might dub these three approaches as ‘expansive’, ‘dependency’, and ‘yanqui’ imperialism respectively. Each has a kernel of truth, but each approach in itself tends to reduce the complexities and contradictions of global capitalism to a single argument. What is needed is to bring these themes together – to move beyond each of these three categories – in a global political economy of capitalism, to demonstrate the relevance of imperialism to Africa’s contemporary global situation. The best way to do this is by looking at actual regimes of accumulation.

The three perspectives, and the political claims that they have generated, have produced much debate: is imperialism the last stage or pioneer of capitalism? Is imperialism a product of monopoly capitalism or the need for ‘peripheries’ as Rosa Luxemburg argued? And most recently, has the world reached a stage of post-imperialism, where capitalism has become sufficiently de-centered that it no longer has a ‘home address’?

The notion of post-imperialism is pre-emptive. Fred Halliday (in an essay in M. Rupert and H. Smith, ed, Historical Materialism and Globalization, 2002) demonstrates this by presenting a condensed ‘constitution’ of imperialism, which hardly seems archaic, especially with respect to Africa:

  • the inexorable expansion of capitalism as a socio-economic system on a world scale
  • the necessarily competitive, expansionist, and warlike character of developed capitalist states
  • the unequal nature of capitalist expansion, and the reproduction on a world scale of socio-economic inequalities
  • the creation on a world scale of structures of inequality of power and wealth not only in the economic, but also social, political, legal and cultural spheres
  • the generation, through the very process of capitalist expansion, of movements of resistance, of anti-imperialism.

These five points serve to delineate the core of imperialism’s meaning. The three earlier positions are here conflated and rearranged into corollary processes within the expansion of world capitalism. The most incisive way of using the notion of imperialism is to maintain a strong sense of historical location, and to understand the contours of economic and political intervention as part of that historical process. This is the couplet that makes the notion of imperialism a useful starting point to understand Africa’s global relations: structures of inequality reproduced through a capitalist system of both political and economic power.

But we need also to remember that the transplanted structures of colonialism have borne their own seedlings in rapidly growing, and often rapacious, economic and political élites. The benevolent languages of liberation, development, modernisation and progress are everywhere tainted by accumulation fashioned in greed and graft.

Clearly, capitalism continues its expansion and deepening penetration across and within space, but its social forms are diverse and historically constituted, not derivative of a form of ‘metropolitan’ capitalism, no matter how strongly they might be influenced by the latter. For example, Marxism provides more analytical space than is generally recognised to understand processes of capitalist expansion that are not reducible to the maxim that India (or anywhere else) sees its future in the heartlands of capital. Imperialist dynamics play themselves out in interaction with more localised forms of accumulation and political power: the global constitution of capitalism (as Gruffydd-Jones calls it); not African exceptionalism/essentialism but the complexity of social forms of accumulation in specific contexts.

In addition, there is a diversity of market processes that link societies to global flows of commodities. But, the complexity of capital’s expansion needs careful treatment. The increasing attention paid to networks opens a path to insightful research on global capitalism, but it also runs the peril of downplaying what is obvious to all observers: the persistent and historically structured concentration of power emanating from the west.

This means substantial historical continuity in the patterning of global power between north and south. For those that doubt this, consider Marx’s words in the opening quotation above and the following remarks by Lord Young, a minister in the Thatcher government and former chair of Cable and Wireless: ‘When you’re talking about kickbacks, you’re talking about something that’s illegal in this country [UK] … But there are parts of the world I’ve been to where we all know it happens and, if you want to be in business, you have to do it.’

International capital ‘goes naked’ in the postcolonial countries, and meets populations armed with only weak mechanisms with which to make corporations accountable. Often states fail to serve the protective needs of their populations, sometimes because of deliberate arbitrary rules shaped in élite self-aggrandisement, and sometimes because they are empty vessels long plundered and left to crumble.

But, this ‘frontier’ is policed by those very ‘modern’ states that provide the ideal type for so many World Bank institutional capacity building programmes. These rich states have embarked, in quasi private/public form, on an outreach mission to underwrite the régime of accumulation and ensure the good health of the profit margins of their own companies abroad. Western states (and other institutions) make it safer and more lucrative for international capital, notably through the ‘régime of intermediacy’ which regulates the flow of international finance to debt-burdened states.

The patterning of state inequalities mirrors longer histories of global economic inequality. Networks maintain themselves through the key connections they establish with large transnational firms, the latter sustaining political connections with their ‘own’ powerful states. A global system of states, radically unequal in their power and interrelations, is intrinsic to global capitalism, not an extrinsic system with which capital has to reconcile itself. The recognition of a political economy of unequal states must necessarily be accompanied by an equally important recognition that political power and institutions also work at different levels, whether sub- or supra-national.

These different levels of power interact either to reinforce each other or to compete for citizens and subjects. The geography of security and claims to sovereignty have become extremely complex in the Democratic Republic of Congo – as a result of state collapse and the emergence of what Duffield calls ‘shadow economies’. The key lesson here is that, contra the imagery of networks, ‘capitalism does not just appear’, but requires political force and institutions to regulate its actions: what orthodox social scientists dub security and the rule of law; what Ellen Woods would call the separation of the moments of coercion and expropriation.

New forms of accumulation

The general point of the above discussion is that using imperialism as a concept does not mean reducing Africa to a passive recipient of western intervention. New forms of accumulation emerge within Africa, products of social relations in specific places and their articulation to broader networks of trade and production. There are complexities to the interplay between state power and private economic power, an interplay that is changing its patterns in response to both external forces and popular movements. These latter often use the language of empowerment, expressed in a right to use and have access to resources. Meanwhile, external forces are themselves hardly set in stone.

In this respect, there is a complex set of relations between imperialist states, multi- lateral and pseudo-private agencies. Intermediary financial flows to Africa act to promote investment by ‘home’ companies. These themselves then become sites of contestation. New forms of accumulation are infused with new forms of inequality and differentiation. F. Cooper speaks of the ‘lumpy’ nature of capitalist penetration in Africa, ‘places where power coalesces surrounded by those where it does not, where social relations become dense amidst others that are diffuse’.

These dense nodes of accumulation are far from having socially beneficial effects. There is a broader political point that emerges here: imperialism reveals that capitalist development in Africa fails to be developmental; instead it is a story of external dominance and socially damaging and extroverted forms of accumulation.

This is why imperialism is still important, and why it provides a far more useful starting point than globalisation in understanding Africa’s relations with the global political economy. Embedded in critique, imperialism refuses to accept that bourgeois civilisation has lived up to its own historic claims of progress and well being. Those who wish to imagine a politics of progress, development, and popular well-being would do well to (re)engage with the concept of imperialism, in order to identify and challenge both the hypocrisy of metropolitan idealism and self-serving discourses of benevolence.

Sarah Bracking lectures in politics and development at the Institute of Development Policy and Management, University of Manchester.

Graham Harrison lectures in politics at the University of Sheffield. This edited version of ‘Africa, Imperialism and New Forms of Accumulation’, which appeared in the Review of African Political Economy (March 2003), was first published in Monthly Review, Nov 2003 (