views updated May 18 2018


Neocolonialism is what the Marxist theorist and economist Harry Magdoff called quite simply "imperialism without colonies" (1972, p. 144). It has also been referred to as "informal imperialism," "the imperialism of free trade," and particularly in the context of Latin American history, "dependency." Neocolonialism can generally be defined as the ability of a powerful state to secure economic, strategic, and other benefits from a weaker state without possessing or directly governing it in any formal, legal, or institutional form as a colony.

The concept of neocolonialism has been widely employed since the 1970s in historiography to describe and explain the policies and behavior, primarily, of Great Britain and the United States in specific parts of the world during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. From the time of its invention in the 1950s, however, this historical concept has been and remains controversial among scholars of imperialism and colonialism. Those who adopt the concept of neocolonialism believe it is useful in explaining an apparent anomalous historical development: that the essential characteristics of imperialism can exist without possession and control of a territorial empire. Critics of the concept, on the other hand, argue that there is an important difference between territorial colonialism and the political and economic influence or even dominance of a strong state over a weaker one. "Informal imperialism" creates more problems than it solves," writes Winfred Baumgart. "If subjected to logic it creates no clear border line. It is synonymous with any form of dependence and it is therefore unacceptably vague" (1982, p. 6).

Reference to any asymmetrical relationship between a strong and a weak state using the terminology of imperialism since the mid-twentieth century has more polemical than descriptive power. For some time now, Western colonialism has been widely assumed to be, and depicted as, morally wrong and evil in academic and popular literature, as well as in documentaries for television and in feature films. Those scholars, political activists, and statesmen who have employed the term neocolonialism during the past several decades have been, for the most part, ideological radicals influenced by the strong theoretical currents of Marxism, structuralism, dependency, and postcolonialism more than their critics who have followed a more empirical approach.

There was scattered criticism of British and American "exploitation" and "bullying" in securing trade agreements, taking over important sectors of the national economy, and cozying up with or strong-arming local elites and their governments in the last decades of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century. The related ideas of neocolonialism, informal empire, and dependency emerged in academic and political discourse in the era of decolonization after World War II (1939–1945). It is interesting to note that while these ideas and concepts appeared almost simultaneously during the postwar era of decolonization, they actually developed in isolation of one another, from different historiographical and theoretical traditions.


Let us begin with the British and the concept of informal imperialism. By the early-to-mid nineteenth century, the British state possessed the military power and financial resources to seize, conquer, or annex more territories and peoples and expand its already worldwide colonial empire. In a number of different cases, however, British statesmen opposed the assumption of new colonial annexations. John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson in their seminal article "The Imperialism of Free Trade," published in 1953, challenged the mid-Victorian view that the new policy that favored trade over rule was anti-imperialist. Gallagher and Robinson argued that although the means may have changed, the ends were the same. For the British state and merchants, the rule was: "Trade with informal control if possible; trade with rule when necessary" (Gallagher and Robinson 1953, p. 13).

H. S. Ferns (1953) and later Peter Winn (1976) adopted this model to demonstrate Britain's "informal empire in Argentina and Uruguay. The Gallagher and Robinson model stimulated considerable interest and research regarding British influence in many parts of the world. With respect to China, D. K. Fieldhouse noted that the two Opium Wars of the nineteenth century were excellent examples of the imperialism of free trade. These wars demonstrated that "where economic considerations were allowed to predominate and where an indigenous political structure could provide the essential framework of order, economic forces did not necessarily lead to formal empire" (1973, pp. 476-477). Robinson and Gallagher (1961/1981) directed their research to Africa and the Victorians and explained, this time, how the British imposed formal rule on territories that previously had been under informal control. Their argument, in this case, was strategic rather than economic. The British Crown sought to protect the routes to India round the Cape and through the Suez Canal.

In the nineteenth century, Great Britain was the "superpower" of the age. In 1815 the British state had concluded a "hundred years' war" with France over the balance of power in Europe, control of North America, maritime supremacy in the Atlantic, and more. By midcentury, the British Empire had some 40,000 British troops stationed in India and a force of 200,000 Indians in arms. The British Indian army was deployed not only in India and Afghanistan, but also in garrisons from the Red Sea to China. The total strength of the British army in 1848 was only 130,000 men. This meant that in most colonies, local settlers and natives were recruited into military service to man the posts in Quebec, New Zealand, Cape Town, Jamaica, and Peshawar on the Northwest Frontier.

Also by midcentury, the British Royal Navy had 129 warships serving exclusively its foreign stations and guarding the world's main shipping routes. This overseas navy was divided into seven squadrons for the key regions necessary to dominate the high seas: North America, South America, the West Indies, the East Indies, Gibraltar, Cape Colony, and West Africa. By the nineteenth century the Royal Navy had expanded its responsibilities to not only protect British merchant shipping but the merchant marine of all peaceful countries. British warships escorted unarmed trading ships through wartorn regions and during the 1860s cleared out the pirates in the China Sea. In 1851 the Royal Navy had bases at Gibraltar, Malta, Aden, Bombay, Trincomalee, Seychelles, Mauritius, Calcutta, Singapore, Hong Kong, Sidney, the Sandwich Islands, Valparaiso (Chile), the Falkland Islands, Cape Town, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, Ascension, Trinidad, Jamaica, Antigua, Bermuda, Halifax, and Newfoundland.

The first steam-powered battleship ever built was a Royal Navy ship put into service in 1844. In the second half of the nineteenth century, the Royal Navy created ironclad steam-powered battleships with enormous guns and self-propelled torpedoes, true behemoths—Warrior (1860), Devastation (1871), Inflexible (1875), Dreadnought (1879), and dozens more with names like Invincible, Indomitable, and Indefatigable. The designer of the Inflexible wrote: "Imagine a floating castle which the progress of invention in artillery has finally driven us to resort to" (quoted in Herman 2004, p. 459). This navy did indeed rule the waves and police that era's new world order.

During the first half of the nineteenth century, the British superpower, particularly in the first decades following the defeat of France, used its military and commercial power and influence for a number of purposes. One of these was to bring an end to the Atlantic slave trade. Britain abolished its own trade in slaves in 1807, and after the defeat of Napoléon Bonaparte (1769–1821) at Waterloo, Belgium, in 1815, Britain exercised its considerable influence in trade treaties with Portugal, Spain, France, the Netherlands, and other countries to reduce or end their slave trades. These treaties generally gave the British Royal Navy the right to enforce the terms of the treaties. As a result, warships were maintained on the African coast and in the West Indies to inspect cargo ships suspected of carrying slaves. In the 1830s Britain abolished slavery in its American plantations and liberated more than 600,000 Africans and New World blacks. The British abolition influenced the French, who freed the slaves in their Caribbean colonies, Martinique and Guadeloupe, in 1848.

Lord Palmerston (Henry John Temple, 1784–1865), as foreign secretary in the 1830s and 1840s and prime minister of Britain from 1855 to 1865, endeavored to shut down the Atlantic slave trade, bring an end to human slavery, and open the world's markets to free trade for the benefit of both Great Britain and, he believed, the less fortunate peoples of the world. Palmerston, and "Palmerstonianism," accepted the idea that commerce was more important, and more moral, than colonialism. When he rejected the annexation of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) in the 1840s, Palmerston declared: "all we want is trade and land is not necessary for trade; we can carry on commerce very well on ground belonging to other people" (quoted in Lynn 1999, p. 108).

Palmerston, however, was not opposed to the annexation of new colonies when they were deemed necessary. The Palmerstonian approach is clearly what historians have in mind when they refer to the "imperialism of free trade." Under Palmerston, British consuls, goods, investments, merchant colonies, fashions, and even sports became influential in Latin America, the Ottoman Empire, West Africa, Persia, and China. British cultural influence expanded significantly when more than twenty-two million English, Welsh, Irish, and Scottish men and women left home between 1815 and 1914 and sailed for the Americas, Australia, New Zealand, India, South Africa, Egypt, and who knows where.

The British state and statesmen took actions in the hope of economic gain, strategic advantage, and moral progress without knowing the long-term outcome of their endeavors. The nineteenth-century British superpower sought economic penetration and political influence not only in the new nation-states of Latin America but in the crumbling empires of the Ottomans and the Chinese, and the generally weak and divided coastal states of tropical Africa. The British exercised more power in these regions, particularly in Egypt, which became a protectorate due to the strategic significance of the Suez Canal.

Britain, the first power to do so, followed by France, Germany, Russia, Japan, the United States, and Italy, established a system of international treaties, which the Chinese called capitulations, that opened specific Chinese ports to foreign trade, imposed a free-trade regime at these ports, and gave foreigners legal privileges and immunities in these ports. By 1878 there were six so-called treaty ports in China. The treaty port system did not fully open the interior of China to foreign trade, and thus the promise of an unquenchable market was never realized. The system did encourage China to promote industrialization in the 1890s, and it fueled the fire of the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. Humiliation at the hands of foreigners promoted nationalism and revolution and finally led to the abrogation of the treaties in 1943. Compared to Latin America, British trade with China by the late nineteenth century, and with the Ottoman Empire and tropical Africa, was a pittance.

This first age of commercial and financial globalization was made possible, to a considerable extent, because of the Pax Britannica, a long peace supervised by a great power willing to sustain a stable and open international order using its military and financial resources. As a result, during the first half of the nineteenth century, the volume of world trade more than doubled. During the second half, the volume of world trade increased by a factor of ten times. In 1827 Britain exported £50 million (British pounds) in goods, most of which went to the United States and western Europe. Four decades later the value of British exports had reached £180 million (with about £50 million going to the "captive markets" of the British Empire—India, Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, Singapore, and New Zealand). In the new age of globalization, Britain sold more of its cottons, woolens, and steam engines to the "free markets" of the United States, Europe, and Latin America. Britain's largest customer was still the United States at £22 million. Latin America purchased £12 million worth of goods, while tropical Africa imported less than £9 million.

By 1890 Great Britain had more registered shipping tonnage than the rest of the world combined. By 1913 the total value of British commerce was £1,294 million, with £525 million in exports and £769 in imports. On the eve of World War I (1914–1918), Great Britain had a nominal trade imbalance quite contrary to the economic nostrums of the day, which demanded that industrial nations export their surplus manufactures and maintain a trade surplus in order to avoid the perils of overproduction, declining profits and wages, labor unrest, and worse. One is reminded of the persistent trade imbalances of the present-day superpower, the United States, and the heretical idea that free trade regimes may over time be more likely to promote world development (however unevenly) at the expense of taxpayers, workers, and consumers at home.

Latin America offers an excellent testing ground for the arguments for and against "informal imperialism." After Gallagher and Robinson's groundbreaking article in 1953, a number of scholars focused on making the case of Britain's informal empire in Latin America and in specific countries of Latin America. In the nineteenth century, British consuls, merchants, financiers, and others invaded the ports and backlands of Latin America. A flood of cheap British textiles in the 1820s, it is claimed, destroyed the infant industrialization of the region. British exports to Latin America increased from £5 million in the 1840s to £55 million by 1913. (British imports from Latin America, primarily basic foodstuffs, fibers, and minerals, were valued at £76 million in 1913, or nearly 140 percent the value of Britain's exports.) British investment in Latin America increased from £30 million in 1826 to over £80 million by 1865 and £1,180 in 1913. These monies built railroads, docks and warehouses, processing plants, public utilities, and refurbished mines.

Gallagher and Robinson and the "informal imperialism" thesis pursued by other historians was quickly subsumed in a scholarly dispute that has continued to this day under different terms and concepts. H. S. Ferns (1960), a Canadian historian who at first embraced "informal imperialism" as a model for Latin America, turned around a few years later in a research monograph to argue that Great Britain did not have the power to force Argentina to pay a debt, or a dividend, or to export or import any particular commodity. The commercial relationship between Argentina and Great Britain, Ferns concluded, resembled one of mutual advantage more than informal imperialism.

Ferns and other historians of Argentina demonstrated that that country had the most diversified exports and sustained a high level of export expansion, which translated into national economic growth for several decades. By 1913 Argentina was the wealthiest country in Latin America (as measured by per capita gross national income) and one of the wealthiest countries in the world with a real income higher than Austria-Hungry, Finland, Portugal, and Italy. The countries of Latin America that participated most intensely in the international economy—Argentina, Uruguay, Cuba, and Chile—also had the highest national incomes.

Thirteen other Latin American countries also adopted similar export-led growth models, but these economies produced modest, and in a number of cases quite poor, results in terms of growth and development. The problem is often attributed to the failure of the model, which in turn is portrayed as the critical element of Latin America's era of neocolonialism. It is difficult to escape from the conclusion, writes economic historian Victor Bulmer-Thomas, "that any model adopted by the thirteen countries … would have shown a poor rate of return. Political instability, administrative incompetence, poor transport systems, lack of capital, shortages of labor, and the small sizes of internal markets would have overwhelmed any conceivable alternative to exportled growth in the nineteenth century" (Bulmer-Thomas 1994, p. 153).


Also beginning in the 1950s, another approach to neocolonialism appeared, this time in the literature of the scholarly and activist left. The Marxist economist Paul Baran (1957) argued for the first time in Marxist literature that the capitalism of the advanced industrial countries was responsible for the impoverishment of the third world. Contrary to the analysis of Karl Marx (1818–1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820–1895), as well as that of V. I. Lenin (1870–1924), Baran proposed that poverty was not the inevitable condition of human beings, but had been introduced into the third world by capitalism via colonialism and neocolonialism.

As Harry Magdoff (1972) would note later, a common feature of all Marxist approaches is the understanding that imperialism survived decolonization intact. Unlike the "informal imperialism" thesis, which focused on the power of the imperial state to control or favorably influence trade, the Marxist theory of neocolonialism assumes that imperial control continues through foreign (capitalist) investment. Thus when we look at mid-to-late nineteenth-century Latin America, British and then U.S. investment in railroads facilitated the production and exchange of primary products—unprocessed raw materials and foodstuffs—transported to port cities, and not the creation of an integrated national market. The "insidious" aspect of foreign investment, from the Marxist point of view, is its seductive appeal to local elites to remake their values to conform to those of the capitalist investors, entrepreneurs, and merchants from Britain and the United States.

The prominent African anticolonialist leader, Marxist theorist, and first president of independent Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah (1909–1972), applied the concept of neocolonialism to independent Africa in his book of the same name in 1965. "The result of neocolonialism is that foreign capital is used for the exploitation rather than the development of the less developed parts of the world," wrote Nkrumah. "Investment under neocolonialism increases rather than decreases the gap between the rich and the poor countries of the world" (1965, p. x).


By the 1960s and 1970s, a third model of neocolonialism had appeared in the scholarly literature. This model came to be called dependency theory, a sweeping historical and analytical explanation of economic development and underdevelopment that derived from the structuralist theories elaborated by Raúl Prebisch (1901–1986), who headed the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America in the 1940s and 1950s. In contrast to the idea of informal imperialism (which charged that control of trade was more important than control of territory) and contrary to the Marxist notion of "imperialism without colonies" (which held that capitalist investment was the instrument for enriching the industrial countries and impoverishing all of the rest), dependency theory claimed a radical inheritance from Marxism but focused the neocolonial connection on patterns of unequal trade.

The Spanish and the Portuguese in their colonial empires in the Americas first set the pattern of unequal trade through mercantilist decrees and monopoly trading systems that required their American colonies to produce and export primary products, luxury foodstuffs, and minerals in exchange for more valuable manufactured goods from Europe. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Great Britain, and increasingly the United States, replaced the old colonial powers and dominated Latin American markets. Although the commercial relationship was less than grand in the first half of the nineteenth century, business picked up during the last several decades of the century. Latin American countries, as a result of the rise of stable governments and collaborating elites, the growth of foreign demand, increased foreign investment, and the ability of Latin American producers to increase production of coffee, sugar, wool, cotton, nitrates, copper, and more, became part of the new globalized world order of the late nineteenth century. Latin America's role was to produce primary commodities for the factories and consumers of the industrialized countries of western Europe and the United States and, in turn, to purchase the manufactured goods of these nations and indefinitely put off their own industrialization.

It is difficult to find a textbook on Latin American history today without the obligatory chapter or section on "neocolonialism." Benjamin Keen's perennial A History of Latin America (5th ed., 1996) has long had a chapter entitled "The Triumph of Neocolonialism," which refers to the era 1870 to 1914. John Charles Chasteen, in his concise history of Latin America, Born in Blood and Fire (2nd ed., 2006), calls his chapter on the period 1870 to 1930 simply "Neocolonialism." These textbook authors, and many others, employ dependency analysis, Marxist theory, and informal imperialism explanations in their narratives regarding how "despite many transformations, neither Latin America's subordinate relationship to European countries nor its basic social hierarchy—created by colonialism—had changed" (Chasteen 2001, p. 180).

Neocolonialism, the unhealthy alliance between foreign governments, financiers, merchants, and entrepreneurs, on the one hand, and collaborating Latin American governing officials, bureaucrats, landowners, and military officers (the so-called comprador elites) on the other, is given as the explanation for all the ills of late nineteenth-century Latin American societies: that is, authoritarian dictatorships or presidencies; small, powerful oligarchies; latifundia and the decline of peasant landholding; the rise of debt servitude and the decay of the standard of living for most rural families; and national economies tied to one or two commodity exports that were vulnerable to fluctuations, and therefore the cycles of boom and bust that most national economies suffered during the age of the "neocolonial order."

Dependency theory was popular and influential in academia and in progressive activist circles in the 1970s and 1980s. During this same period, critics of the approach went to the archives and tested the theory. Over time, in books and articles, the key components of dependency theory were undermined and discredited. "Once the disjuncture between radical theories and archival realities became evident," writes Rory Miller, "historians found themselves in a cul-de-sac" (1999, p. 446). An almost discouraged Florencia E. Mallon asked: "What is a progressive scholar to do? If we continue to commit to emancipatory, bottom-up analysis and yet can no longer simply ride one of our various Marxist or Marxian horses into the sunset, what are the alternatives?" (1994, p. 1491). The alternative she suggested, and one that many have taken up in Latin American studies, is postcolonialism and a turn from the political and economic to all things cultural. Thus, in a recent collection of essays, Gilbert M. Joseph notes that "today, with theories of imperialism and dependency under attack and the once-discredited diffusionist model recycled (yet again) in 'neoliberal' form by the managers of the 'New World Order,' Latin Americanists across a variety of disciplines and a new generation of historians of U.S. foreign relations (once known as 'diplomatic historians') are challenged to study the region's engagement with the United States in innovative ways" (Joseph et al. 1998, p. 4).


Scholars and political activists have viewed and studied Great Britain and the United States quite differently through the prism of neocolonialism. The most striking difference between the two powerful modern nationstates and their histories is that Great Britain in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries had a vast colonial empire and exercised what some scholars and anticolonial leaders believed was and is "informal imperialism" through unequal treaties, investments, powerful consuls, the threat and occasional use of gunboats, and so on. The United States, on the other hand, despite picking up a few scattered islands at the end of the nineteenth century, never followed the western European model in creating a serious and substantial overseas colonial empire. The question for scholars, progressives, and radical activists, then, was not about "informal imperialism" (a concept invented specifically for Britain to contrast "informal colonies" from formal colonies). Since the United States did not have a real colonial empire, the question was more fundamental regarding the nature of the United States. Was the United States an empire or not?

The United States was created in an anticolonialist revolution in 1776 against the British Empire, and American statesmen and public opinion have long expressed anticolonial sentiments. In The Federalist, Alexander Hamilton (1755/57–1804) noted that:

The world may politically, as well as geographically, be divided into four parts, each having a distinct set of interests. Unhappily for the other three, Europe, by her arms and by her negotiations, by force and by fraud, has, in different degrees, extended her dominions over them all. Africa, Asia, and America, have successively felt her domination. The superiority she has long maintained has tempted her to plume herself as the Mistress of the World, and to consider the rest of mankind as created for her benefit. (Hamilton 1787)

But no longer, proclaimed Hamilton, would this stand. "Let Americans disdain to be the instruments of European greatness!"

During the nineteenth century, the United States was an expansionist, and at times aggressive, state that acquired contiguous territory within the continental boundaries of North America. American constitutional law provided for the full and equal incorporation of new territorial acquisitions, thus continental expansion did not create western colonies but, in time, new self-governing states with representation in Congress and full citizenship for their settler population. This continental expansion was imperial if not colonial. The American state used military force, bribes, and other means to defeat and remove the indigenous peoples from their lands and resettle them on much smaller and poorer "reservations." From 1835 to 1836, American settlers to the Mexican province of Tejas (in fact, Coahuila y Tejas) rebelled, defeated the Mexican Army, and established the breakaway Lone Star Republic. Ten years later, an American president annexed Texas and used a border incident to invade and defeat Mexico and annex nearly one-half of its national territory, the most important being the fertile valleys, gold fields, and seaports of California.

When presented with opportunities for overseas annexations, the United States generally turned away, with the early exception of Alaska, which was considered a "folly" at the time. During the last decades of the nineteenth century, as the United States began to grow into an economic powerhouse, American capital investment began to increase in Mexico, Cuba and other Caribbean countries, Central America, and Colombia. American-financed railroads reaching into Mexico brought American merchants, manufactures, planters, settlers, and missionaries to Mexico, and, in turn, they carried Mexican cattle, copper, cotton, silver, coffee, rubber, and much more to the United States. By 1910 Americans owned 130 million acres in Mexico, or 27 percent of the land.

The Mexican petroleum industry was dominated by two foreign interests, the California oilman Edward Doheny (1856–1935), who brought in Texas oilmen and Standard Oil, and the British oil magnate Weetman Pearson (1856–1927). Mexico's primary export industry, mining, by the early twentieth century was in the hands of American and British investors. Americans held over 80 percent of the capital in the mining industry and owned outright seventeen of the thirty-one largest mining enterprises in the country. British investors held nearly 15 percent of the total capital and operated ten of the largest mines. "By 1910 more than 40,000 Americans resided in Mexico" (Hart 2002, p. 272). By 1913 total U.S. investment in Latin America had reached $1.6 billion, which was still far below total British investment in the region at $5 billion.

In 1898—America's "imperial moment"—the administration of President William McKinley (1843–1901) responded to a bloody crisis in Cuba, went to war with Spain, and seized Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Spanish Philippines. A great debate immediately ensued between "imperialists" and "anti-imperialists" in Congress, the press, and across the United States regarding what course the country should take. The imperialists argued that history had determined that all great nations were imperial states and needed colonies like Cuba for resources, markets, the outward thrust of power, and so on. The anti-imperialists claimed that overseas colonization was anti-American, and on the key issue, Cuba, they won. The U.S. Congress voted to give the Cuban people their independence after a short military occupation. Congress in 1898 also annexed the Hawaiian Islands, and President McKinley determined that the Philippine people were not ready for self-government. In 1903 the United States obtained the rights to build and defend a canal across the new nation-state of Panama, which became the most important strategic point in the defense of the United States.

Over the next thirty years the United States intervened repeatedly in the internal affairs of Caribbean and Central American nations in an attempt to maintain peace and order, collect international debts, prevent European intervention, protect American business interests, promote democracy and good government, and—incidentally—improve public health and sanitation. Several countries, such as Cuba, Panama, Nicaragua, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic, became protectorates, were occupied by the U.S. Marines for years at a time, and had their armies and national guards trained and created by the United States from which, in some cases, presidents and dictators often arose.

These "Yanqui [Yankee] Years" (1898–1933) have often been pointed to as America's "imperial detour." By the 1920s, with Latin American governments increasingly critical and angry, and the Republican governments of the decade coming to realize that military interventions were expensive but did not really create any kind of long term stability, the U.S. State Department issued the Clark Memorandum in 1930. This statement, prepared by Undersecretary of State Joshua Reuben Clark Jr. (1871–1961), repudiated the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine of 1905, which declared that only the United States could enforce the collection of debts owed to foreigners in the Western Hemisphere. At the same time, the Herbert Hoover (1874–1964) administration began to withdraw troops from Nicaragua and Haiti. When Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945) was inaugurated president in 1933, he called for a "good neighbor policy," which, at the next Pan-American Conference, meant that the United States supported the nonintervention resolution of the Latin American members.

For a considerable number of historians, theorists, and political activists, the Yanqui Years have no significance. For most progressives and radicals, whether they are Marxists, dependency theorists, postcolonialists, Indian rights activists, antiglobalization activists, or international Zapatistas, the United States has been an empire from its very founding. As Gilbert Joseph points out, to argue that the United States briefly had an empire "is to perpetuate false notions of 'American exceptionalism' and to engage psychologically in denial and projection. Such arguments also ignore structures, practices, and discourses of domination and possession that run throughout U.S. history" (Joseph et al. 1998, pp. 5-6). The United States was born, the historian Howard Zinn (2003) reminds us, of an invasion of America, massacres of Indians, and a powerful drive born in civilizations based on private property. This empire, from Jamestown to Baghdad, has no justification and no good deeds on its record.

The idea of an American imperium became an increasingly important subject of serious debate and writing in the decades following World War II and again in the decades following the end of the Cold War. In both eras, the idea of an American empire was fueled by unparalleled military and economic strength, seemingly unbounded cultural influence, and the more than occasional American covert and overt interventions overseas to remake the world in the image of itself. In both eras, domestic and international discussion of an American empire focused on the good it did (using its power to maintain a liberal global order) and the bad (supporting unpopular dictatorships, undermining populist regimes, and fighting the wrong wars in Vietnam and Iraq). The contributors to these debates extended beyond the radical left to include establishment liberal politicians, conservative and neoconservative intellectuals, foreign policy experts, diplomatic historians, and government officials.

By the end of the 1960s, Americans, and much of the rest of the world, had had enough of American imperium. The Richard Nixon (1913–1994) administration began withdrawing U.S. combat forces from South Vietnam, negotiated an "honorable peace" with the North in 1973, and removed all American forces from the county that same year. Two years later, Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, fell to the Khmer Rouge, a repressive Communist organization, and Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) fell to the North Vietnamese army. During the 1970s, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) raised the price of petroleum while Americans waited in line to fill up their gas tanks, North Korea captured an American spy ship, the United States returned the Panama Canal to Panama, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and radical students in Iran took American embassy officials hostage. By 1980 Americans, at any rate, did not see themselves in any imperial manner.

At the end of the Cold War, however, the age of the unipolar hyperpower was at hand. Although the United States cut its defense expenditures during the 1990s, its military budget was still greater than all of the military budgets of the next fifteen most powerful states combined. By 2000 the U.S. military budget reached nearly $300 billion, a figure that paid for ten active army divisions, three active marine divisions, nine thousand M1 Abrams tanks, thirty active and reserve air wings, eleven aircraft carriers deployed in nine carrier battle groups, a garrison of some 100,000 troops in Europe, and about the same number of troops in South Korea and Japan. To begin to put some of these numbers in comparison, the U.S. Marine Corps had more troops and combat power than the entire army of Great Britain, France, or Italy.

The end of the Cold War nuclear standoff favored democratization and economic liberalization, but it also brought unscrupulous nationalism, ethnic cleansing, related wars, and a new wave of terrorism. In an increasingly disorderly world, some historians, public intellectuals and even government officials offer the suggestion that the United States, following the example of Great Britain in the nineteenth century, needs to accept its place in history, assume its imperial burden, and "export its capital, its people and its culture to those backward regions which need them most urgently and which, if they are neglected, will breed the greatest threats to its security" (Niall Ferguson, quoted in Urquhart 2003, pp. 8-9).

Radicals and neoconservatives who deplore or welcome the idea of an American empire mistake "the politics of primacy for those of empire," according to Joseph S. Nye Jr. (2003, p. 70). In the run-up to the Iraq war in 2002 and 2003, the United States could not obtain the votes of Mexico and Chile for a second Security Council resolution at the United Nations. When the time came for the invasion of Iraq, the parliament of Turkey refused to allow its territory to be used as a second front for the Fourth Infantry Division of the U.S Army, severely disrupting the Pentagon's battle plan.

The United States has been largely unsuccessful in sharing the postwar burden of funding reconstruction and bringing in European or other allies to assist in training Iraqi troops and police. When these limits to Washington's power are highlighted, the debate often returns to definitions. In this day and age, "empire," we are reminded, is a metaphor. All empires, historian Anthony Pagden argues, involve the exercise of imperium or sovereign authority, usually acquired by force. Had there been an American imperium, the parliamentarians of Turkey would not have had any choice but to agree to the request of the Pentagon. Pagden also notes that in order to survive for very long, all empires have to win over their conquered populations. "An Empire," he writes, quoting the Roman historian Livy (ca. 59 b.c.e.-17 c.e.), "remains powerful so long as its subjects rejoice in it" (Pagden 2005, p. 48). The parliamentarians of Turkey not only refused the Pentagon's request because they could, they did so because they considered American policy in the second Gulf War illegitimate.

In the postcolonial and post-Cold War era, American army and marine divisions, air wings, and carrier battle groups can deliver unbelievable lethal force. American loans, trade concessions, and military assistance can be very tempting. In the final analysis, however, Washington, D.C., is not Rome or London. When a powerful state called upon a weaker allied state to provide a favor, the concept of neocolonialism (or the metaphor of "empire") would predict that Chile would vote with the United States in the United Nations and that Turkey would allow the Fourth Infantry Division to enter Iraq from the north. These predictions would have been wrong.

see also Boxer Uprising; Capitulations, Middle East; China, Foreign Trade; Chinese, Imperial Maritime Customs; Egypt; Empire, British; Empire, United States; Extraterritoriality; Hegemon and Hegemony; Imperialism, Cultural; Imperialism, Free Trade; Imperialism, Liberal Theories of; Imperialism, Marxist Theories of; Modern World-System Analysis; Nkrumah, Kwame; Open-Door Policy; Postcolonialism; Treaty Port System.


Abernethy, David B. The Dynamics of Global Dominance: European Overseas Empires, 1415–1980. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000.

Bacevich, Andrew J. American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002.

Baran, Paul. The Political Economy of Growth. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1957.

Baumgart, Winfred. Imperialism: The Idea and Reality of British and French Colonial Expansion, 1880–1914, rev. ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Brown, Judith M., and Wm. Roger Louis, eds. The Oxford History of the British Empire; Vol. 4: The Twentieth Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Bulmer-Thomas, Victor. The Economic History of Latin America Since Independence. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1994; 2nd ed., 2003.

Chasteen, John Charles. Born in Blood and Fire: A Concise History of Latin America. New York: Norton, 2001; 2nd ed., 2006.

Ferns, H. S. "Britain's Informal Empire in Argentina, 1806–1914." Past and Present 4 (1953): 60-75.

Ferns, H. S. Britain and Argentina in the Nineteenth Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1960.

Fieldhouse, D. K. Economics and Empire, 1830–1914. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1973.

Fieldhouse, D. K. The Colonial Empires: A Comparative Survey from the Eighteenth Century. New York: Delacorte, 1966; 2nd ed., London: Macmillan, 1982.

Ferguson, Niall. Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power. New York: Basic Books, 2003.

Ferguson, Niall. "Hegemony or Empire?" Foreign Affairs 82 (5) (2003): 154-161.

Ferguson, Niall. Colossus: The Price of America's Empire. New York: Penguin, 2004.

Ferguson, Niall. "The Unconscious Colossus: Limits of (and Alternatives to) American Empire." Dælus 134 (2) (2005): 18-33.

Gallagher, John, and Ronald Robinson. "The Imperialism of Free Trade." Economic History Review, 2nd series, 6 (1953): 1-15.

Haber, Steven H., ed. How Latin America Fell Behind: Essays on the Economic Histories of Brazil and Mexico, 1800–1914. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997.

Hamilton, Alexander. The Federalist No. 11: "The Utility of the Union in Respect to Commercial Relations and a Navy." 1787. Available from the Library of Congress at

Harris, Lee. "The Intellectual Origins of America Bashing." Policy Review 116 (2002). Available from

Hart, John Mason. Empire and Revolution: The Americans in Mexico since the Civil War. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

Herman, Arthur. To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World. New York: HarperCollins, 2004.

Joseph, Gilbert M., Catherine C. LeGrand, and Ricardo D. Salvatore, eds. Close Encounters of Empire: Writing the Cultural History of U.S.—Latin American Relations. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998.

Keen, Benjamin. A History of Latin America, 5th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996.

Knight, Alan. "Britain and Latin America." In The Nineteenth Century; Vol. 3: The Oxford History of the British Empire, edited by Andrew Porter, 122-145. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Loomba, Ania. Colonialism/Postcolonialism, 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2005.

Louis, Wm. Roger, ed. Imperialism: The Robinson and Gallagher Controversy. New York: New Viewpoints, 1976

Lynn, Martin. "British Policy, Trade, and Informal Empire in the Mid-Nineteenth Century." In The Nineteenth Century; Vol. 3: The Oxford History of the British Empire, edited by Andrew Porter, 101-121. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Magdoff, Harry. "Imperialism Without Colonies." In Studies in the Theory of Imperialism, edited by Roger Owen and Bob Sutcliffe, 144-170. London: Longman, 1972.

Mallon, Florencia E. "The Promise and Dilemma of Subaltern Studies: Perspectives from Latin American History." American Historical Review 99 (5) (1994): 1491-1515.

Miller, Rory. "Informal Empire in Latin America." In Historiography; Vol. 5: The Oxford History of the British Empire, edited by Robin W. Winks, 437-449. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Nkrumah, Kwame. Neo-Colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism. London: Heinemann, 1965.

Nye, Joseph S., Jr. "U.S. Power and Strategy After Iraq." Foreign Policy 82 (4) (2003): 60-73.

Osterhammel, Jürgen. "Britain and China, 1842–1914." In The Nineteenth Century; Vol. 3: The Oxford History of the British Empire, edited by Andrew Porter, 146-169. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Pagden, Anthony. "Imperialism, Liberalism, and the Quest for Perpetual Peace." Dæalus 134 (2) (2005): 46-57.

Platt, D. C. M. "The Imperialism of Free Trade: Some Reservations." Economic History Review 2nd series 21 (1968): 296-306

Platt, D. C. M. "Economic Imperialism and the Businessman: Britain and Latin America Before 1914." In Studies in the Theory of Imperialism, edited by Roger Owen and Bob Sutcliffe, 295-311. London: Longman, 1972.

Platt, D. C. M. "Dependency in Nineteenth-Century Latin America: An Historian Objects." Latin American Research Review 15 (1) (1980): 113-130.

Porter, Andrew, ed. The Nineteenth Century; Vol. 3: The Oxford History of the British Empire. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Robinson, Ronald, and John Gallagher, with Alice Denny. Africa and the Victorians: The Official Mind of Imperialism. London: Macmillan, 1961; 2nd ed., 1981.

Simes, Dimitri K. "America's Imperial Dilemma." Foreign Affairs 82 (6) (2003): 91-102.

Stern, Steven J. "Feudalism, Capitalism, and the World-System in the Perspective of Latin America and the Caribbean." American Historical Review 93 (1988): 829-872.

Urquhart, Brian. "World Order & Mr. Bush." The New York Review of Books 50 (15) (2003): 8-12.

Winn, Peter. "Britain's Informal Empire in Uruguay during the Nineteenth Century." Past and Present 73 (1976): 100-126.

Woddis, Jack. An Introduction to Neo-Colonialism. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1967.

Young, Robert J. C. Postcolonialism: An Historical Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001.

Zinn, Howard. A People's History of the United States: 1492–Present, new ed. New York: HarperCollins, 2003.


views updated May 23 2018






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 (19091972), 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. Nkrumahs analysis is also more frankly Marxist than other, later critics who use the term.

The term has come to cover a broad range of relation-shipsfor 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. Wallersteins 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.


Neocolonialism as a concept focuses on economic relationships between wealthier and poorer countries. Wealthier countries are said to use various mechanismspolitical and military as well as strictly economicto 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. Semi-peripheral 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 Marxs lumpen-proletariat. Other writers following up on Wallersteins 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 semi-peripheries 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-economyBritain 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 countrys 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.


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 semi-peripheral 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 best-known 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 peripheral-country 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 countrys bourgeois, have served as the key to chain those economies to their dominant partners.

SEE ALSO Amin, Samir; Anticolonial Movements; Apartheid; Colonialism; Decolonization; Dependency; Dependency Theory; Empire; Exploitation; Frank, Andre Gunder; Imperialism; International Monetary Fund; Liberation Movements; Neoimperialism; Nkrumah, Kwame; Postcolonialism; Wallerstein, Immanuel; World Trade Organization; World-System


Amin, Samir. 2006. Obsolescent Capitalism: Contemporary Politics and Global Disorder. London: Zed Books.

Cardoso, Fernando Henrique, and Enzo Faletto. 1979. Dependency and Development in Latin America. Trans. Marjory Mattingly Urquidi. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Gunder Frank, Andre, and B. K. Gills, eds. 1993. The World System: Five Hundred Years or Five Thousand? London and New York: Routledge.

Nkrumah, Kwame. 1965. Neo-colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism. London: Nelson.

Tilly, Charles. 2003. Contention and Democracy in Europe, 16502000. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wallerstein, Immanuel. 2004. World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Stewart R. King


views updated May 18 2018


Neocolonialism can be defined as the continuation of the economic model of colonialism after a colonized territory has achieved formal political independence. This concept was applied most commonly to Africa in the latter half of the twentieth century. European countries had colonized most of the continent in the late nineteenth century, instituting a system of economic exploitation in which African raw materials, particularly cash crops and minerals, were expropriated and exported to the sole benefit of the colonizing power. The idea of neocolonialism, however, suggests that when European powers granted nominal political independence to colonies in the decades after World War II, they continued to control the economies of the new African countries.

The concept of neocolonialism has several theoretical influences. First and foremost, it owes much to Marxist thinking. Writing in the late nineteenth century, Karl Marx argued that capitalism represented a stage in the socioeconomic development of humanity. He believed that, ultimately and inevitably, the capitalist system in industrially developed countries would be overthrown by a revolution of the working class; this would result in the establishment of socialist utopias. In 1916, Vladimir Lenin modified this thesis, claiming that the rapid expansion of European imperialism around the world in the last decade of the nineteenth century had marked the highest stage of capitalism. Presumably, then, the end of imperialism (which Lenin believed would be the result of World War I) would mark the beginning of the end of capitalism. However, neither imperialism nor capitalism came to an end after the war or in future years. European empires persisted well into the 1960s.

With the granting of independence to colonies, a theory of modernization took hold. This suggested that independent countries would begin to develop very rapidly, politically and economically, and would resemble "modern" Western countries. It soon became clear, however, that this was not happening. Postcolonial theorists now sought answers for the continued underdevelopment of African countries and found a second influence in dependency theory.

Dependency theory first gained prominence as a way to explain the underdevelopment of Latin American economies in the 1960s. It proclaims that underdevelopment persisted because highly developed countries dominated underdeveloped economies by paying low prices for agricultural products and flooding those economies with cheap manufactured goods. This resulted in a perpetually negative balance of payments that prevented underdeveloped countries from ever becoming competitive in the global marketplace. Economic theorists of postcolonial Africa, such as Walter Rodney and Samir Amin, combined the Marxist-Leninist concept of colonialism as a stage of capitalism with the concept of underdevelopment to create the concept of neocolonialism, which Kwame Nkrumah called "the last stage of imperialism."

According to Rodney and Amin, European countries, and increasingly the United States, dominated the economies of African countries through neocolonialism in several ways. After independence, the main revenue base for African countries continued to be the export of raw materials; this resulted in the underdevelopment of African economies, while Western industries thrived. A good example of this process is the West African cocoa industry in the 1960s: during this time, production increased rapidly in many African countries; overproduction, however, led to a reduction in the selling price of cocoa worldwide. Neocolonial theorists therefore proclaimed that economies based on the production of cash crops such as cocoa could not hope to develop, because the world system imposes a veritable ceiling on the revenue that can be accrued from their production. Likewise, the extraction and export of minerals could not serve to develop an African economy, because minerals taken from African soil by Western-owned corporations were shipped to Europe or America, where they were turned into manufactured goods, which were then resold to African consumers at value-added prices.

A second method of neocolonialism, according to the theory's adherents, was foreign aid. The inability of their economies to develop after independence soon led many African countries to enlist this aid. Believers in the effects of neocolonialism feel that accepting loans from Europe or America proved the link between independent African governments and the exploitative forces of former colonizers. They note as evidence that most foreign aid has been given in the form of loans, bearing high rates of interest; repayment of these loans contributed to the underdevelopment of African economies because the collection of interest ultimately impoverished African peoples.

The forces of neocolonialism did not comprise former colonial powers alone, however. Theorists also saw the United States as an increasingly dominant purveyor of neocolonialism in Africa. As the Cold War reached its highest tensions at roughly the same time that most African countries achieved independence, many theorists believed that the increasing levels of American aid and intervention in the affairs of independent African states were designed to keep African countries within the capitalist camp and prevent them from aligning with the Soviet Union.

If the forces of neocolonialism were so obvious to many theorists at the time, why then could independent African countries not simply recognize them and steer toward economic models that would allow them to be more competitive in the world market? Most students of neocolonialism had theories about the continuing drain of African resources. Perhaps the two most prolific were Kwame Nkrumah and Frantz Fanon. Many theorists and politicians came to espouse the ideas of these two men; a general understanding of the causal theories of neocolonialism may therefore be gained through a brief summary of their writings.

Kwame Nkrumah was a major figure in African politics for more than four decades. Born in Gold Coast (later Ghana) in 1909 and educated in Philadelphia and London, Nkrumah became a powerful leader in the movements for African independence and pan-African unity in the 1930s and 1940s. He became the first president of independent Ghana in 1957 and ruled until 1966, when his regime was overthrown by a military coup. Aside from his political activity, Nkrumah also wrote several books dealing with issues facing contemporary Africa. Of particular importance was his 1965 Neo-Colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism in which he sought to prove the existence of neocolonial forces in Africa and explain the impediments to overcoming them.

According to Nkrumah, the most important factor allowing for the perpetuation of neocolonialism in Africa was the "balkanization" of the continent that had occurred as a result of European colonialism. Colonizers had broken Africa into dozens of administrative units in order to govern it more effectively, and the colonial boundaries had become the lines within which African countries had been given independence. Nkrumah believed that the interests of Africa were being damaged by the need of each new country to fend for itself. For instance, the fact that each produced and exported its cocoa crop independently was what resulted in lower prices. Nkrumah believed that through African unity and cooperation, the continent could best combat neocolonialism. This required a policy of nonalignment in the Cold War. Believing that Africa had all the resources necessary to achieve true economic independence, Nkrumah promoted inter-African trade, so that the continent could wean itself from Western imports. He also believed that African unity would help to strengthen African countries' bargaining power on the world market, as well as in international politics. If Africans aligned with each other, rather than with the various Western countries that wished to exploit them, the future could be safeguarded. Nkrumah also believed that concerted efforts toward industrialization should complement agricultural and mineral exports in order that African countries become able to produce their own finished goods and reduce their reliance on European and American manufactured products. By enacting such policies, the spell of neocolonialism could be broken, ushering in an era of distinctly African "socialism." Many African leaders of the day, including Sékou Touré of Senegal and Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, held similar beliefs. Although these men fought diligently for African unity and economic development, their goals were mostly not achieved.

Frantz Fanon offered a different perspective on the dilemma facing independent African countries. Fanon was born in Martinique, in the West Indies, in 1925. Educated in France, he moved to Algeria in 1953 to practice psychiatry, and soon became embroiled in that nation's violent struggle to gain independence from France. As the Algerian war of independence was nearing its end, Fanon wrote his most celebrated book, The Wretched of the Earth (Les damnés de la terre ), in which he discussed, among other things, the causes of neocolonialism in Africa, and the solution he foresaw.

Fanon took much of the basis for neocolonialism for granted, seeing the exploitative tendencies of Western countries as inherent to their capitalist nature. He saw no place for Africa in this system. The African petty bourgeoisie, which had received power from the exiting colonial government, was the primary cause of neocolonialism in Africa. Fanon believed that the Africans who took power at the time of independence had been favored by European powers because they were willing to effect a smooth transition from colonialism to neocolonialism. Since they were generally of the Western-educated middle class who had in many ways benefited from the colonial system, they had the most to gain from a continuation of colonial economic policies. Fanon accused them of collaborating with the colonial power to ensure that the interests of both would continue to be met after the declaration of formal political independence; this class of Africans had betrayed the masses on whose backs the various nationalist movements had been borne. In order to achieve complete and final independence for African countries, "a rapid step must be taken from national consciousness to political and social consciousness" by the masses in order to check the power of the governing class, which had merely replaced the colonial administration as the most direct exploiters of African people. Violent revolution was the only means to drive oppressive neocolonial forces from the world. Fanon's ideology was supported by several political actors in Africa, including Amilcar Cabral of Guinea-Bissau, who warred against a deeply entrenched Portuguese colonial regime until his assassination in 1974.

Of course, neocolonial theory has its detractors as well. Opponents argue that the concept is merely an attempt to continue to blame colonialism for Africa's problems rather than confront the major issues hampering independent African governments, such as corruption, inefficiency, and protectionism. They argue that these problems, more than any systematic process of external exploitation, have been responsible for the poor performance of African economies since independence. Others continue to argue that neocolonialism persists, if in slightly different form. Transnational corporations, such as petroleum and mining companies, and international organizations such as the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and World Trade Organization are responsible for much of the neocolonial influence in African countries in the early twenty-first century. The activities of these corporations and organizations transcend the boundaries and powers of the traditional nation-state, making it difficult to talk about interregional relationships except in terms of such paradigms as united North (Europe, Canada, and the United States) and underdeveloped and desperate South (Africa, Asia, and Latin America). As the understanding of international and intercontinental relations becomes more and more refined, the idea of neocolonialism will continue to be revisited. It is for this reason that neocolonialism has entered the vocabulary of all students of Third World affairs and is an important concept in the history of ideas.

See also Anticolonialism ; Colonialism ; Dependency ; Internal Colonialism ; Modernization ; Modernization Theory ; Third World .


Amin, Samir. Neo-Colonialism in West Africa. Translated from the French by Francis McDonagh. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1973.

Falola, Toyin, ed. Africa (Volume 5, Contemporary Africa ). Durham, N. C.: Carolina Academic Press, 2003.

Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. Translated by Constance Farrington. New York: Grove Press, 1963. Originally published in French, 1961.

Museveni, Yoweri K. What Is Africa's Problem? Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000. Originally published in 1992.

Nkrumah, Kwame. Neo-Colonialism, The Last Stage of Imperialism. New York: International, 1966.

Rodney, Walter. How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Rev. ed. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1981. Originally published in 1972.

Woddis, Jack. Introduction to Neo-Colonialism. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1967.

Toyin Falola

Matthew Heaton


views updated May 23 2018

ne·o·co·lo·ni·al·ism / ˌnēōkəˈlōnēəˌlizəm/ • n. the use of economic, political, cultural, or other pressures to control or influence other countries, esp. former dependencies.DERIVATIVES: ne·o·co·lo·ni·al·o·co·lo·ni·al·ist n. & adj.