2a. Modern day imperialism

Modern day imperialism

we have to know that politics is quite involved. Congo for example, the country that I come from, there have been more than three and half million dead…now there’s a representation of the United Nations in the war zone. What we didn’t hear…officially and unofficially…[the UN have] been the one that have been facilitating the different groups [that are fighting]…if they know that there’s gold, there’s coltan…and [they can take it] for free…[then they think] we have to leave that chaos as long as it takes (refugee man, arrived in Britain in 2002)

In the first decades of the twentieth century, Lenin observed the growth of industry and the concentration of production in ever-larger industries to be ‘one of the most characteristic features of capitalism’,[1] tending towards increasingly uneven development between capital-intensive imperialist countries and materially underdeveloped oppressed countries, and constituting a distinct stage of capitalism as monopoly increasingly replaced free competition. Imperialist finance capital is composed of a fusion of manufacturing and banking capital, organised in companies whose operations are multinational but whose control and ownership remain concentrated in particular advanced capitalist countries. These countries become increasingly wealthy as a result of returns on capital invested in poor and less industrially-developed countries. This creates a situation that, at a high level of abstraction, can be characterised as a division of the world between imperialist, oppressor countries, where ownership and control of capital is concentrated, and oppressed, impoverished countries, whose economic development is held back and whose labour and resources are systematically plundered to the benefit of imperialist countries. These inter-national processes play a major role in shaping class relations within Britain, embedded in every aspect of life, from food and energy prices to occupational patterns to the character of Britain’s trade unions. The international is not just ‘out there’, it is also ‘here’ at a local level.[2] Racism plays a central role in mediating the contradictions inherent in imperialism, by providing ideological cover for international inequalities and justification for the British state’s interference in oppressed countries, whose populations are frequently portrayed as too violent, corrupt or lazy to fully govern themselves.

In the last decades of the twentieth century, the imperialist character of capitalism intensified, taking on new and expansive forms. High rates of return on investments in oppressed countries have played a crucial role in raising the average rate of profit and thereby generating the incentives to invest, which are necessary for continued capital circulation. This is vital both for the functioning of the capitalist system as a whole and for the prosperity of imperialist countries such as Britain. In 2005, Britain received an average rate of return of 5.0% on investments in oppressed, materially underdeveloped countries, while countries investing in Britain received an average rate of return of only 2.6%.[3] To illustrate the conditions of super-exploitation that this represents, consider Apple’s iPhone: 22% of profits on this commodity are generated through the labour cost savings by carrying out assembly in China instead of the US. Apple makes these savings by outsourcing the assembly process to a company called Foxconn, which employs hundreds of thousands of workers at its plant in Shenzhen, working for around 83 US cents per hour, for long hours, with workers living at the factory for months at a time.[4] Conditions are so bad that in 2011, following the eleventh worker’s suicide the company erected nets below dormitory windows. In 2012 workers at the plant fought back and riot police were sent in. This is the basis of the super-profits that are increasingly essential to the success of the capitalist economies of imperialist countries such as the US and Britain. Between 1997 and 2007, Britain’s overseas assets tripled, reaching £6,357.9 billion, more than four and a half times Britain’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP),[5] and have continued to grow since then. This level of super-exploitation demonstrates the particularly parasitic relationship Britain has with other countries.


[1] Lenin, V. I. ([1916] 1975). Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

[2] Dominelli, L. (2000). ‘International Comparisons in Social Work’, in Innovative Education and Training for Care Professionals, edited by R. Pierce and J. Weinstock. London: Jessica Kingsley,

[3] Whitaker, S. (2006). ‘The UK international investment position’. Bank of England Quarterly Bulletin(Q3), 290-296.

[4] Foster, J. B., et al. (2011). ‘The Global Reserve Army of Labor and the New Imperialism’. Monthly Review, 11(1), 1-31.

[5] Madden, K. (2009). ‘Coordinated Portfolio Investment Survey, 2002 to 2007’. Economic and Labour Market Review, 3(11), 16-23.

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