issue 204 - February 1990
Possums at play
Be it Soviet or Western, classical imperialism is dead,
the pundits say. Ashok Mitra agrees. But he sees little cause for
celebration, perceiving the potential for more efficient slavery.
The proponents of perestroika could not be more right: classical imperialism has had its day.
But so what? The surrogate arrangements are far superior. No need to occupy a territory. No need to indulge in shootings and killings. No embarrassment caused by hostile resolutions passed at the United Nations General Assembly.
What a contrast to the messy ways of the past. Nineteenth-century imperialism went on the rampage and took control of distant lands. The subjugated nations were forced to give up their resources, including food and raw materials, to the victors. They were also forced to pay through the nose for the finished goods the victors dumped on them.
It is only by such means that imperial nations were able to reach the dizzy heights of prosperity they attained, classical imperialism also took care to keep the enslaved and colonized away from economic development, and the terms of trade were perennially tilted against them.
Neo-colonialism, coming to full bloom in this fading quarter of the twentieth century, has repeated each of these imperial successes - but with infinitely greater finesse.
It has been a magnificent triumph. Look, no troops; look, no military bases; look, no messy colonial wars and look, no onus of administering conquered territories infested by hostile aliens.
The Western capitalist countries have never had it so good. The international distribution of income swings further in their favour with each passing day: the proportion of global income going to the world's poorer economies is now significantly less than it was 10, 20, or 30 years ago. Instead, the poor developing countries now owe as much as $1,300 billion to the West and its banks. To 'service' this debt - that is to cover the interest charges and repayments - they have had to set aside close to $300 billion, something like 25 per cent of their total export earnings. The idea of poor countries using their own resources to further their own economic advance becomes increasingly out of the question. These developing countries effectively cease to develop.
Should this neo-colonial model be permitted to run its course without fuss or interruption, why, come another 50 years, and these poor nations, squeezed beyond endurance, might even line up and beg to be formally placed back in bondage - provided that act of contrition entitled them to a morsel of food, to a stitch of clothing and to a small phial of medicine.
All this flows from a fusion of philosophy and praxis on the part of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the international private commercial banks and the transnational corporations. But to be fair one should also acknowledge the silent, helpful role played by occasional collaborators within the leadership of this or that 'developing' country. They may fulminate during the night against the perfidy of Western governments and institutions; but during the day they will have signed a deal with this government or that transnational corporation and have sold their country down the river in the interests of some trifling personal consideration.
Neo-colonialism cannot afford to rest on its laurels; nor can it allow itself to be distracted by appeals to so-called humanitarian instincts. If the President of Peru is so unreasonable as to suggest that his country will set aside only 10 per cent of its export earnings to service external debt and the rest of these earnings will be used to finance the nation's economic development, he should be disciplined immediately. The executive board of the International Monetary Fund must meet at an emergency session and debar Peru from enjoying any of its facilities.
Still, there are appearances to keep up. From time to time, there will be a Baker Plan or some such, containing pledges to increase 'aid' to the world's poor, full of talk about rescheduling debts or writing off half a per cent of the total debt burden. New credit 'windows' will be offered to debt-burdened countries; so will fresh global negotiations about reducing trade tariffs. After all, the 'open society' has its enemies. They must not be given any handle to exploit the sentiments of the poor and the starving.
The state of bondage is for ever. You only call it by a different name in each era.
Ashok Mitra is a former finance minister in West Bengal's Left Front Administration.