With the concentration of industry in the United States in the last decades of the nineteenth century, US productivity exceeded the demand of the domestic market. Responding to this situation, the capitalist class in the 1890s advocated a policy of involvement in the affairs of the nations of the world, in order to ensure access to the markets of other countries. Its promoters call the proposed policy “imperialism.”
The first expression of US imperialist policy was the military intervention in Cuba in 1898 and the military occupation of Cuba from 1898 to 1902. From 1902 to the present, imperialism has been a continuous policy of US governments, with the constant intention of obtaining markets for US industrial and agricultural products and also obtaining sources of raw materials and cheap labor. A variety of strategies have been used, including military interventions, coups d’état, political maneuvers, support of repressive military dictatorships, and interference in the internal affairs of nations. The various strategies had the common objective of ensuring that the governments of the Third World adopted policies, laws, and commercial regulations that guaranteed US access.
Imperialism at the beginning of the twentieth century was a new policy, distinct from European colonialism, which was characterized by conquest, military force, and direct political control. Although military force was a component of imperialism, the new imperialist policy sought a new form of domination characterized by economic, financial and ideological penetration, accompanied by recognition of political independence. When the European colonial empires collapsed as a result of the anti-colonial movements formed by the colonized, the United States was prepared to insert itself in the place of the ex-colonial power, but in the context of a different structure of domination, to which the colonized peoples gave the name “neocolonialism.” This process began in the second half of the nineteenth century, after the fall the Spanish and Portuguese colonial empires in America; and it culminated after World War II, with the fall of the British, French, Belgian and Dutch colonial empires in Africa and Asia. As a consequence of the implementation of imperialist policy, the United States became, during the period 1946 to 1967, the hegemonic power in a neocolonial world-system.
Although military power has been an important component of US neocolonialism, the United Stated developed control of its neocolonies primarily through ownership of productive and commercial enterprises as well as banks. The neocolonial state was legally and formally independent, and it was responsible for containing anti-imperialist popular movements through a combination of repression and concessions. The United States provided military aid, but the neocolonial state was responsible for social control. With the national bourgeoisie subordinate to US corporations, and with the neocolonial government dependent on US aid and support, the United States was able to ensure that commercial regulations favored US interests in access to markets, raw materials, and cheap labor.
US hegemony began to erode in 1968. It began to lose its overwhelmingly dominant position in world production and commerce, especially with respect to Germany and Japan, as a result of its overemphasis on consumption and military expenditures. At the same time, the world-system entered a long period of stagnation in profits, as a result of the fact that it had reached the geographical limits of the earth. In response to this situation, the US power elite used the external debt of Third World governments to impose neoliberal policies, which eliminates even the most modest protections of national industry. Neoliberalism increased profits of US corporations in the short term, but it undermined US neocolonialism, because it ignored economic interests and political agenda of the national bourgeoisie, which plays a necessary role in neocolonial domination. By converting the national bourgeoisie into a mere agent of foreign capital, the neoliberal project undermined its capacity to lead the neocolonized nation with credibility, rendering it incapable of fulfilling the role of channeling popular demands and maintaining social control. The discrediting of the national bourgeoisie gave rise to renewed popular movements in virtually all of the nations of the Third World, led by charismatic leaders with radical and revolutionary discourses, that have sought to cast aside the national bourgeoisies and their political representatives in favor of alternative popular parties that would defend the sovereignty of the nations and the social and economic rights of the peoples. This process has been most advanced in Latin America, the backyard of the neocolonial hegemonic power.
Thus the US directed neocolonial world-system is in decadence. Moreover, from this point forward, US imperialist policies are no longer sustainable, as a consequence of two factors. First, the US productive and commercial decline has continued, and the United States is increasingly losing the capacity to control the economies of the neocolonies. Secondly, anti-imperialist movements have acquired such force that acceptance of US ownership and dictation of commercial regulations and relations is increasingly less possible politically.
Although the United States continues to fall economically and commercially, it remains by far the strongest military power in the world, as a consequence of the fact that it has had a permanent war economy since World War II. Thus the United States, increasingly lacking the economic capacity to pursue imperialist policies, will find it more and more necessary to obtain its goals through military means, establishing what Fidel Castro has called a “global military dictatorship.”
Thus US imperialism and the neocolonial world-system are in decline, and it is not likely to endure. We are in a time of transition to one of three possibilities: (1) a new stage in the world-system, a world-empire under US military control; (2) a different world-system, more just and democratic, characterized by solidarity rather than domination, and by mutually beneficial commerce rather than super-exploitation, a possibility established by Third World popular movements that have emerged in reaction to the imposition of the neoliberal project; and (3) the disintegration of the world system, characterized by chaos, regional dictatorships, and local fascist gangs, a possibility established by the irresponsible behavior of the global elite before the profound crisis that humanity confronts.