Conquest has been the way of humanity since the agricultural revolution ten thousand years ago. It was through conquest that political structures were centralized, kingdoms and empires formed, and advanced civilizations came into being.
But the modern European conquest of the world was more penetrating. In previous eras, the conquering power required a tribute from the conquered societies or kingdoms, but the basic structures of their political-economic systems were left intact. In contrast, European colonial domination involved the transformation of the economies of the colonized, so that the colonized regions were converted into peripheral zones in a developing world-economy. They were turned into suppliers of raw materials, on a basis of forced or cheap labor, and purchasers of the surplus manufactured goods of the colonial power. With their traditional industries destroyed, and their traditional agriculture transformed, the colonies became impoverished and economically dependent on the core.
The peripheralization of the conquered peoples had the consequence that when formal political independence was conceded, in response to nationalist movements, the newly independent countries encountered tremendous obstacles to autonomous development. In addition to the legacy of colonial economic structures, these obstacles included imperialist strategies by the core powers, seeking to preserve the core-peripheral relation with the colonized regions. So today the world-system stands on a foundation of colonialism: it is a neocolonial world-system.
In the development and maintenance of the project of global conquest, it has been necessary for the colonizing governments to justify the conquests in the eyes of the peoples of the conquering nations. The participation of the people has been required: for officers and soldiers in the armed forces; and for merchants and consumers in the developing structures of global commerce. During the first three centuries of the world-system, the justification was religious: the conquered peoples were not Christian, and thus considered not civilized, so the conquest was viewed as bringing civilization to the world. From the period 1789 to 1914, liberal democracy emerged as the consensual ideology that guided the world-system, reducing the role of religious beliefs in civil society. During this period, racism emerged as a justification: the conquered peoples were viewed as racially inferior and as uncivilized, and thus not ready for democracy. During the course of the twentieth century, racism was dislodged from its position of influence, and the meaning of democracy was expanded and deepened. So all possibilities for the ideological justification of colonial domination were eliminated. The strategy then became the denial of the importance of colonialism, presenting it as a phenomenon of the past and as not central to the development of the world-system. The colonial denial is supported in two ways: the fragmentation of the academic disciplines in higher education, preventing the emergence of a comprehensive understanding that discerns the role of colonialism in the economic development of Europe and that perceives the survival of colonial economic structures in the neocolonial world-system; and the development of a consumer society, distracting the people and undermining possibility for an informed popular understanding of human history and global dynamics.
The colonial denial is central to the difference between European and Third World perspectives. Whereas Europe and the European settler societies deny the significance of colonialism, the colonized peoples of the world are not able to forget the colonial transformation, and they consider it their duty to remember. Whereas in Europe it is assumed that Western economic and technological advances are explained by cultural characteristics, the colonized understand colonialism and neocolonialism to be central to European development and Third World underdevelopment. Whereas public discourse in Europe rarely refers to colonialism and neocolonialism, public officials and political figures in the Third World regularly name colonialism as an important part of their present reality. The fundamental difference between European and Third World perspectives is their vastly different levels of consciousness of colonialism and of the colonial situation in which the vast majority of persons in the world live.
The European colonial denial is a distortion. It prevents us from seeing fundamental historical facts and from understanding contemporary realities. It is not simply a matter of a difference in perspectives. It is a question of one perspective that cannot see important components of the human condition, giving rise to partial and limited understandings of a wide variety of social issues; and another perspective that addresses relevant questions and that formulates an informed understanding. It is a question of a legitimating and distorting ideology as against a scientific understanding. It is a question of a Eurocentric understanding as against a universal understanding. The Third World perspective, tied to emancipatory movements, is the most advanced understanding of which the human species is capable at this stage in its development
Even the European Left suffers from Eurocentrism. When we formulate issues in the historical and social context of Europe or the United States, ignoring issues and frames that are emerging in the Third World, this is a form of ethnocentrism. When we treat the history of popular struggles primarily in the context of Europe and the United States, and pay little attention to the various popular revolutions that have been unfolding in the Third World, we are thinking in a Eurocentric way. If we study Marx and Lenin; but not Ho Chi Minh, Fidel, and Chávez; we are developing Eurocentric blinders.
But we Europeans and peoples of European descent can overcome Eurocentrism. By encountering the popular revolutionary movements that have been forged by the peoples of the Third World, we can make their experiences and understandings part of our own, and we thus can emancipate ourselves from the ideological distortions of Western culture. We can arrive to understand that colonial domination was the principal cause of the development of the West, and that neocolonial structures continue to promote the development of the North and the underdevelopment of the South. We can develop a basic frame of reference that sees the conquest of the world by seven European nations during the course of more than four centuries as fundamental to the existing world order, and that appreciates the revolutionary struggles of the colonized as a necessary and significant global process that is seeking to construct a more just, democratic and sustainable world-system. Possessing such a basic frame of reference would enable us to recognize that we must cast our lot with the peoples and movements of the Third World, in defense of humanity.
In 2013 and 2014, I wrote fourteen blog posts on the origin and development of the world-system, which endeavored to describe the economic transformations in the colonial process:
With respect to Cuba:
“Cuba in historical and global context” 6/12/2014;
“The peripheralization of Cuba” 6/16/2014;
With respect to Vietnam:
“What enabled French colonialism?” 4/28/2014;
“French colonialism in Vietnam” 4/25/2014;
With respect to Latin America:
“The natural resources of the periphery” 10/25/2013;
The origin and development of the world-system and the capitalist world-economy:
“What is a world-system?” 8/1/2013;
“The modern world-economy” 8/2/2013;
“Unequal exchange” 8/5/2013;
“The origin of the modern world-economy” 8/6/2013;
“Modernization of the West” 8/7/2013;
“Conquest, gold, and Western development” 8/8/2013;
“Consolidation of the world-economy, 1640-1815” 8/19/2013;
“New peripheralization, 1750-1850” 8/20/2013;
“The world-economy becomes global, 1815-1914” 8/21/2013.
To find the posts, in the category World-System, scroll down.
Posts on the related theme of the “The Open Veins of Latin America” can be found in Latin American History; and on the related theme of Western development in World History.