New forms of colonization in the world today

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Thomas Michel, S.J.

The topic assigned to me is that of “new forms of colonization in the world today.” I believe that there are forms of colonization that are going on in the world which are new - not only in the sense of having been begun in the recent past, but also in that they differ in some ways from the “old” or classic forms of colonization that characterized world history from the 16th to the first half of the 20th centuries.

1. The classical age of colonialism

Central to the classical age of colonization was the concept of land. The Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said in his important study, Culture and Imperialism, holds that after all the rhetoric, self-justifications, and analyses of development and power relations, colonialism comes down to one thing: land-grabbing. The earth’s habitable space is finite, as are the resources which are found on that land. Moreover, with the exception of waterless desert tracks like parts of the Sahara and snowbound polar regions, people are living on almost all that land. As Said notes, “Empty, uninhabited spaces virtually do not exist.”

Everything about human history is rooted in the earth, which has meant that we must think about habitation, but it has also meant that people have planned to have more territory and therefore must do something about its indigenous residents,” and that requires “thinking about, settling on, controlling land that you do not possess, that is distant, that is lived on and owned by others.”1

In other words, if a nation wants more land - to exploit economically, to settle its excess or unwanted populations on, to satisfy a sense of national pride or prestige, to provide geographical or military access to other desirable regions, or simply to keep some other potentially hostile power from obtaining that land - it has to deal with the question of the people who are already on that land, who have ancestral or modern legal rights of ownership over that land and who have no intention of allowing others to take it away and, if the colonizer succeeds in that, who are ready to fight to get back their land.

If colonialism is a kind of theft - “I want what’s yours, you don’t want to give it to me, so I will find a way to get it and keep you from taking it back” - the mentality it imposes is that of thieves or robbers. The greater the theft, the more detailed and intricate the planning, the more varied the expertise and the more precise the equipment required, the more complex and elaborate the methods of escape and retention of the stolen object. The wide popularity of the movie genre of international jewel thefts reflects a thinking that professionality and detailed strategy can in some way justify the larceny. One might say that such films could only be produced by nations that have had a long history of engaging in such adventures and of closing their eyes to any moral scruples that may arise.

Lest we think I am exaggerating or trying to make a case out of nothing, let us look at the statistics. In 1800 Western powers held and governed 35% of the earth’s surface. By 1878, the proportion was 67%, a rate of increase of 83,000 sq. miles per year. In 1914, Europe held a total of roughly 85% of the earth’s land as colonies, protectorates, dependencies, dominions, and commonwealths.”2

How the colonial venture differs from an international jewel theft is in the human factor. When thieves steal the Topkapi jeweled dagger, the dagger is not going to object. It is passive, waiting to be taken and possessed by whoever combines desire with means and opportunity. The Rosetta stone and the Elgin marbles sit calmly in the British Museum as though they belonged there.

However, on the part of human populations which have been dispossessed, one can expect strong resistence and resentment. The colonizer has to devise ways of dealing with the indigenous inhabitants by removing them through extermination or relocation, or by governing unwilling peoples, recruiting local collaborators, and crushing or neutralizing resistance movements. Thus a whole machinery of colonial domination evolved, from conquering armies to diplomatic handlers, civil service bureaucracies, native elites, and intelligence agencies, all aimed at maintaining the colonial infrastructures. The more a nation invested, in terms of manpower, capital, and self-esteem, in colonized lands, the more “interests” it claimed to have which needed to be “defended” and “protected.”<

In such a system of manifest wrongdoing, criticisms were bound to arise. When one’s conscience raises uncomfortable moral questions or when public opinion is aroused, one must devise explanations and theories that justify to oneself and to others that what is being done is not evil, but rather inevitable or even altruistic. Here the universities came to the aid of the colonial project. The disciplines of philology, linguistics, comparative literature, ethnology, anthropo­logy, and sociology were born in an atmosphere of colonial domination.
Malinowski, who together with Radcliffe-Brown was one of the founders of the functionalist school of British social anthropology, acknowledged the usefulness of his field of study for colonial adminis­trators. In 1927, when the colonial system was still in full swing, he stated:
The practical value of such a theory (functionalism) is that it teaches us the relative importance of various customs, how they dovetail into each other, how they have to be handled by missionaries, colonial authorities, and whose who economically have to exploit savage trade and savage labor.3

The irony of the savage nature of colonial rule seems to have been lost on Malinowski. Horsley calls anthropological functionalism a “dismal science,” one “whose only ‘function’ was to provide social scientific rationalization especially in reference to the British policy of indirect (colonial) rule.”4 Theories of racial superiority which divided the world into “advanced” and “primitive” peoples, and nationalist ideologies of “manifest destiny,” “the white man’s burden,” and la mission civilatrice were proposed and seriously defended.

The bottom line is, as always the case in questions of theft, economic. Just as the main motivation for colonization is usually profit and the hope of future profit, so also the economies of the colonizing power become intricately connected with and eventually dependent upon an uninterrupted supply of spices, sugar, slaves, rubber, cotton, silk, opium, tin, rubber, gold, silver, coffee, cloves, sandalwood, tea, cacao, bananas, pineapples, etc. In the cases of India and Indonesia, for example, it was trading companies, the British East India Company and the Dutch “Verenigde Oost Indische Compagnie (V.O.C.) [Dutch East India Company] that governed these vast regions as gigantic plantations, and their respective governments took control only when the trading companies proved unable to do so. In this process, not only the colonized peoples but the also colonizing societies were shaped by the colonial venture.

“In Europe itself at the end of the 19th century, scarcely a corner of life was untouched by the facts of empire; the economies were hungry for overseas markets, raw materials, cheap labor, and hugely profitable land, defense and foreign policy establishments were more and more committed to the maintenance of vast tracts of distant territory and large numbers of subjugated peoples.”

Forms of colonialism

Not all forms of colonialism were alike, although all shared the common factor of taking over others’ lands and claiming them for oneself. Even individual nations like Britain distinguished between “colonies,” “protectorates,” and “dependencies,” with diverse attitudes and policies toward each. Historians differentiate two basic types of colonial or imperial expansion. The more obvious is that in which the colonial power amassed far-flung colonies scattered throughout the world - wherever the opportunity presented itself - which were not connected by any contiguous borders. In this, the English and the French led the way, but Germany (up to World War I), Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Spain, Portugal and, belatedly, the U.S.A., also had their colonies - in fact, almost every European nation with access to the sea joined in the “land rush” for expansion and empire.

The less noticeable, and historically much more ancient, form of colonial expansion is that of increasing a nation’s land by swallowing up neighboring regions of diverse peoples and incorporating them by force into the nation. The clearest example is that of Czarist Russia’s inexorable advance eastward across the steppes of Central Asia and southward into the Caucasus, but one could also note the Ottoman expansion into the Arab Middle East, the Balkans and across North Africa as far west as Morocco, the Chinese drive to the west to incorporate Xinjiang and Tibet, the American progress across the North American continent, the Austro-Hungarian empire in Central Europe, and the establishment of English hegemony over Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. The imperial designs of Japan over East and Southeast Asia and the Pacific in the 1930s and 1940s fit into the same pattern. It is often this latter form of “contiguous” imperial expansion which has proven the more durable, as the continuing struggles for independence in Tibet, Ireland, and Chechnya bear witness.

Finally, it must be noted that colonial expansion admitted various degrees of involvement. Whereas some nations were content to limit themselves to the economic enterprise and utilize colonized regions for their raw materials, access to markets, and exploitable manpower, in other instances, the home state consciously sought to displace the indigenous inhabitants to make room for “colonies” of their own people, forcibly deporting the less desirable elements of their own population to distant or isolated regions where they could cause less trouble for the colony. It is on this basis that writers like Maxime Rodinson and Noam Chomsky have called Israel “a settler colonial state”5 in which the native Palestinian people have been continually squeezed into smaller, less productive “Bantustans” in order to make room for the colony of mainly European settlers.

2. Forms of colonization in the post-colonial world
It is generally agreed that the classical age of colonialism ended in the years following World War II, when one after another colonized region obtained independence and became self-governing nation states. In most cases, independence was preceded by decades of struggle and, at least in East and Southeast Asia, the Japanese interregnum was an important factor in proving the vulnerability of colonial powers and in breaking a colonial system that could never again be reconstructed.

But did the end of the colonial era, in the classical sense, mean the end of colonial policies and mechanics? Have these continued in new forms, and have new structures of domination and theft simply replaced the old? This is the main focus of my paper. I will present seven inter­connected areas in which colonial attitudes and strategies are still operative in the world.

The clearest difference between the colonial and post-colonial era is in politics. For the most part, the foreign rulers have gone home, and the foreign armies have decamped. The lands have returned to their rightful owners. The new nations that have joined the United Nations since its founding have come mainly from formerly colonized regions of Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and the Pacific, and in the General Assembly they share the right to one vote with the world’s most populous and powerful nations.

This does not mean that the strong powers have not continued to interfere politically in the internal affairs in formerly colonized nations. In its most blatant form this has meant the overthrow of regimes and rulers who do not toe the line, and the installation and support for more compliant leaders that would insure a continuous supply of desired raw materials, vote correctly in the United Nations, and favor open market systems of economy. The list of popular leaders overthrown, like Congo’s Lumumba and Chile’s Allende, and their replacement by corrupt dictators like Mobutu and Pinochet, is too long to recount in detail. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, much of this interference was defended by Cold War politics, when the issues were presented as a struggle for freedom and democracy. Since then, decisions seem to be made more on questions of pragmatic strategy. The American support for Saddam Hussain in the 1980s, when he was battling Iran, and its support for the Taliban in their effort to oust the Russians from Afghanistan, changed to enmity when Iraq threatened the oil fields in the Persian Gulf and when the Taliban refused to hand Osama bin Laden into American hands.

2. Globalization of market economies.
Much has been written about globalization and a proper analysis of the phenomenon is beyond the scope of this paper. Suffice it to say that much of the ongoing interference in the politics of formerly colonized nations has been motivated by economic policies and interests. It has become a truism to say that if the main product of Kuwait had been bananas, there would have been no Gulf War. If the Great Powers were willing to go to war in the 19th century to control the production, transport and sale of opium, today the products have changed, but not the policies. Oil is simply considered to be a resource more valuable at this time than opium.

One reason why a corrupt dictator like Indonesia’s Suharto was tolerated and even lionized for so long by Western powers was the alliance between the political and business spheres that resulted in sweetheart contracts for wood, natural gas, cloves, and oil which were immensely profitable for government and military leaders and for foreign and local businessmen, but which sold off the nation’s resources at bargain prices to the detriment of the people. When the economy failed in 1998 and Suharto was unceremoniously dumped by the Indonesian people, no foreign power challenged his overthrow, since his ongoing leadership was judged detrimental to global economic interests.

3. Creating dependencies.
One of the key strategies of the old colonial system was the creation of dependencies. Colonized economies were made dependent on the colonial power to sell their raw materials and to buy finished products. Restrictive policies fashioned in London aimed at making the Irish colony wholly dependent on British grain led to the 19th century potato famine, and the pattern was reproduced elsewhere. This not only benefitted immensely the eco­nomy of the colonizer, but gave the colonizing power much leverage in the affairs of the colony.

Today, that creation of dependency is nowhere more evident than in the international arms trade. The monopoly of the highly industrialized nations in advanced weaponry keeps countries unable to compete in arms manufacture dependent on those who do. Who buys the weapons, what is done with them, and who suffers from their use is not an issue for those who produce, sell and deliver. Purchasing nations are expected to pay for the weaponry not only out of their limited funds - the international arms trade is a main reason for the debt crisis that has crippled the economy and social services of many Third World countries - but in votes of support on policy issues in the United Nations and in some cases, concessions of land and landing strips as military bases for the use of the arms manufacturer. Land mines are attractive to governments and opposition movements of limited means because they are cheap6, often the only weapons they can afford to purchase in great numbers. The scandalous refusal of certain industrial nations to sign the international ban on land mines shows that they are not ready to give up the dependency created by the traffic in mines.

4.Civilizational chauvinism.
New forms of colonialism exist not only in the political and economic spheres, but also in the area of culture. In the Colonial Era, nations like England and France convinced themselves that they had a God-given mission to “civilize” less favored peoples. It is hard to know how much of this was actually believed, and how much was produced to legitimize policies which were already in practice. However, chauvinist writers and statesmen tried to convince their constituencies that their presence in the colonies was benign, beneficial, and secretly desired by the inhabitants.

In today’s global context, writers like Samuel Huntington seek to convince the world that Western - and specifically American - domination is precisely what is needed everywhere. The problem is that others are simply too obtuse, stubborn, or bloody-minded to recognize it. His ten commandments of Western civilization - indiv­idualism, liberalism, constitutional­ism, human rights, equality, liberty, rule of law, demo­cracy, free markets, separation of church and state7 - are unquestioned dogma for Huntington and his colleagues who determine Western policy.

Don’t get me wrong. I personally uphold most of these values and feel they deserve support until more acceptable alternatives are proposed. But individually and as a comprehensive list of civilizational goals, they can be challenged. I wonder, for example, whether social justice is not an equally important principle of civilized societies which is ignored by Huntington. My point is that each of these goals can be and has been used to sustain and justify a new type of colonialism. These values must not be used as tools or pretexts to further the foreign policy of any nation or group of nations, but can be simply proposed for consideration by peoples as they make their own decisions concerning the type of society they want to build.

5. The marketing of modernity.

Modernity is a very modern concept. The idea has not been around all that long, and it is a tailor-made construction to justify and promote consumer-oriented goals. Modernity does not simply indicate “new” as opposed to “old,” but implies “better,” “advanced,” “efficient,” “mature,” “successful” and “improved” as opposed to “inferior,” “backward,” “ineffective,” “primitive” “failed” and “outdated.” It is a concept that has been consciously marketed as the basis for further marketing objectives.

In classical colonialism, the British could force Indians to buy English textiles by establishing a monopoly. Thus, they could purchase Indian cotton at the low prices they fixed, and sell the textiles manufactured in England back to Indians, at higher prices again set by the British. Today, formerly colonized peoples must be persuaded to buy Western products and convinced that they are somehow better than locally made goods. Enter the role of advertising, controlled and employed mainly by Western agencies. There is nothing in Coca-Cola or Pepsi that is intrinsically better-tasting than local soft drinks, and most buyers cannot distinguish between Ralph Lauren or Lacoste originals and the millions of Asia-produced imitations sold at night markets throughout the continent, but the constant message conveyed is that products like Coke or Pepsi are “modern,” that is - the drink of advanced, successful people.

Similarly, “modern” home furnishings, clothing, architecture, cuisine, music and films are invariably those designed on a Western model, with the assumption that those produced in the West are of better quality and confer the blessing of “modernity” on those who possess and use such items. In fact, such products are often produced by multinational companies in formerly colonized countries and then re-marketed in the same countries, at exorbitant prices - a new form of the colonial economics of British India. Today, 20% of Nike’s production of running shoes comes from Indonesia, where Nike employs 100,000 workers at low salaries, but Indonesians are encouraged by advertising campaigns to purchase Nike shoes, paying virtually the same prices that they would in Europe or America.

6. Modernity as a way of life
Modernity not is not only a marketing tool, but conveys a certain philosophical approach to life. In what is sometimes called “cultural globalization,” this way of looking at individual identity, human relations and the nature of human society is being exported under the title of modernity. As such, modernity is not a culturally neutral or value-free concept. The key principles of modernity - individualism, liberalism, scientific rationalism, religious relativism, and historical optimism - are held up as universal ideals superior to “traditional” ways of acting and looking at life. Just as in colonial times, when the colonial power claimed to know the best way of doing everything - whether in the field of education, laws, or social relations, and then imposed its practices upon its unenlightened subjects, so today formerly colonized peoples are being taught how to be modern. This aspect of neo-colonialism will be the topic we will address on Wednesday.

7. The new secular religion
In the past, since most colonial powers were at least nominally Christian, it is not surprising that they viewed the Christian religion as a way of consolidating their power over their subjects. Sometimes the promotion of Christianity was seen as a way of “taming” the unruly populations which they hoped to govern comfortably; others in the colonial establishment were sincerely convinced that Christianity was a path of salvation without which their subjects would suffer eternal damnation. It is no accident that the colonial period coincided with the Missionary Age of Christianity. Christian missionaries often supported the colonial system - in some cases they actually believed in it, at other times they saw it as an evil but necessary framework in which to save souls. A minority of missionaries - Bartolomeo de las Casas, the Jesuits of the Paraguay reductions, and missionaries who supported Rhodesian independence and opposed apartheid in South Africa come to mind - suffered much at the hands of their co-nationals and co-religionists when they “took sides” with the colonized peoples against their colonial overlords.

Today, it is not Christianity which is promoted by neo-colonial activists, but secular humanist religion. This “modern” religion espouses causes which are sometimes very good, such as human rights, the equal status of women, ecological integrity, and participatory government, but also those of questionable value, such as rugged individualism (“I Did It My Way”is one of its anthems), material success, and pragmatic ethics. While not a religion in the sense of being a way to respond to God’s Word, humanism bears many of the less attractive characteristics of religion. Its adherents can be as fundamentalist as the followers of other religions in giving an absolute, unquestioning authority to its tenets and displaying an uncritical conviction that their way is superior to all others. They seem to believe that they have the answer that the followers of the great historical religions lack and need, and hence are driven by a missionary desire to spread their dogmas to every corner of the world. Television channels as diverse as CNN and the MTV seem united in promoting very similar value systems

A central dogma is that of secularism, a conviction that God and the world’s religions are a quaint and picturesque relic of less enlightened eras and may be tolerated so long as they are strictly forbidden any voice in affairs of state, economic affairs, or the organization of society. On CNN, for example, one can observe ceremonies in the Vatican on Christmas and Easter, shots of Muslims praying at the Ka’ba, or processions of saffron-robed Buddhist monks, but one will not hear any discussion of the contents of these faiths or any exploration of the meaning these events might have for their followers. International coverage of last January’s interreligious Day of Prayer for Peace in Assisi, for example, portrayed the colorful parade of exotically-garbed religious leaders, but viewers heard not a single word of advice that any of them had to offer about peacemaking.

Conclusion: What can be done
I apologize that this talk has taken a rather negative tone, but the subject matter determines the mood. If the topic assigned were that of wife-beating or drug peddling, we would expect an unsympathetic attitude towards such wrongdoing. However, the full ignominy of old and new forms of colonialism is less generally recognized, particularly by those who shape public opinion; consequently, it is rarely treated in the context of its crimes against humanity.

In any analysis of new forms of colonialism the question inevitably emerges: “What can be done about it?” The widespread admiration by many in Asia and Africa for Osama bin Laden and Al-Qa’ida (one can buy bin Laden t-shirts at any marketplace in Buddhist Bangkok, for example) is evidence of a widespread sense of helplessness and anger. No decent person can ever condone the massacre of innocent people, and no thinking individual could ever hope that positive steps toward justice might be expected from such futile gestures as those planned and carried out by Al-Qa’ida. Yet the pandemic sense of helplessness and anger remains.

An awareness of the new forms of colonialism should nevertheless inform our approach to global problems. The whole issue of reduction or absolution of international debts is too often presented in terms of charity or good will rather than a question of justice. Nations whose economies are shattered by the effort to pay off previous debts and the interest accrued seem to be asking for a handout rather than a small part of what is by rights theirs. If formerly colonized nations were to claim reparations for the systematic robbery of resources and crimes of enslavement and exploitation that occurred in the colonial period, adjusted to current indices, the amount would far exceed what is involved in requests for debt absolution.8

Opposition to arms expenditures by formerly colonized nations should be opposed, not only on the grounds that military budgets could be more profitably diverted to investment in areas of health, education and poverty eradication, but also on the grounds that the arms trade only benefits the arms cartel of wealthy manufacturing nations and local military establishments but keeps formerly colonized nations in a state of continued dependency. Such nations should be particularly in the forefront of efforts for a total ban on the manufacture, stockpiling, sale, and purchase of weapons, such as land mines, designed for use “by the poor against the poor.” It is significant that since World War II, no land mines have been planted in any of those nations that specialize in their production and sale to the Third World where, according to the estimates of UNICEF, there are 110 million land mines, killing an average of 800 people a month.

In the cultural field, it is only through conscientization that people will be able to recognize “modernity” as a marketing concept that basically benefits multinational corporations and offers little of substance to others. Until people are satisfied drinking the unadvertized local soft drink and wearing clothes without a brand name sewn prominently on the pocket, Coca-Cola and Benetton, through the power of advertising, will continue to drive local firms into bankruptcy. Such things cannot be forced on people, but education can help open the eyes of new generations to the fact that they are being manipulated and exploited by advertising campaigns.

In the religious sphere, believers must avoid taking a stance of blind rejection of the secular humanism promoted by the liberal hegemony implanted in positions of authority in government, education, international aid agencies, the arts and media, and must be equally aware of the dangers of an uncritical acceptance of its principles. What is needed is a critical dialogue in which religious believers admit that humanism has many positive values to offer, but that the modern world-view is severely limited in what it can offer in response to the religious needs of the individual and society. The response of religious communities to the challenge of globalization will be the topic for discussion on Wednesday.

9Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism, New York: Alfred Knopf, 1993, p. 7.

**After reading, in your groups, respond to the following…

  1. What are the main points of your section?

  2. What is the author’s tone?

  3. What did you learn?


2Harry Magdoff, The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Forces and Society since 1000 A.D., New York, 1978), pp. 29 and 35.

3Branislaw Malinowski, “The Life of Culture,” in G.E. Smith et al, eds. The Diffusion Controversy, New York: Norton, 1927, pp. 40-41.

4Richard A. Horsley, Sociology and the Jesus Movement, New York: Crossroad, 1989, p. 38.

5Maxime Rodinson, Israel A Colonial-Settler State?, New York: Monad Press, 1973, and

Noam Chomsky, Fateful Triangle: the United States, Israel & the Palestinians, New York: South End, 1999.

6Cheap to plant, expensive to remove. UNICEF notes that the average purchase price of a mine is between US$3.00-$10.00, but it takes between US$300-$1000 to remove a mine.

7Samuel Huntington, “A Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs (72, 3), p. 40. Huntington has subsequently elaborated upon his argument in a book with virtually the same title as the original article, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996.

8Awareness is growing among formerly colonized nations that they should be asking for reparations, rather than assistance. At the time of the World Conference on Racism in Durban, South Africa, in August, 2001, Jubilee South Africa and Jubilee South convened a three-day workshop to ­consider the illegitimacy of the debt of the South to the North, the debt that the North owes the South, and the case for reparations. According to their figures, in 1980, Third World debt stood at US$567 billion. US$3,450 billion has since been paid, yet today Third World debt stands at US$2,070 billion.


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