Unraveling the western (and American) legacy of global exploitation and profiteering

ColonialismThe global legacy of colonialism is still being deciphered today. Certainly, there are variables that are more obvious than others, like the gap between the world’s rich and poor, the former of which are centered around areas of economic absorption, while the latter appear to be perennially sucked dry of even life’s bare necessities.

At a more subtle level, it becomes clear that the modern economic order has roots that go far back into history. What is also apparent, is the fact that much of our modern political order originates from basic economics. To that end, it will be necessary for progressives to direct efforts toward affirming the autonomy and stability of indigenous communities around the world. This is a clear path to peaceful and positive economic development.

I. The Origin of Modern Market Economics

Traditionally, the Spanish colonial mint was located at Potosi, in Bolivia, which lies at the foot of the mountain from which its name comes. From this mountain, with forced aid from the indigenous inhabitants and enslaved Africans, came a huge portion of the silver imported by Spain during its colonial period.

This silver was used to create the world’s first truly “global” currency, in the form of the commonly recognizable “pieces of eight,” which have been popularized in Caribbean pirate lore. In fact, many famous pirates would have never gained notoriety, were it not for their antagonizing the greater economic order of the day one too many times.

The birth of European colonialism also brought great quantities of foreign commodities, which up until that time had been considered rarities, to markets in the “old world”. Commodities, like sugar and cocoa, would, in time, be the catalysts for a fundamental shift in international economic structure.

Huge demographic shifts, some voluntary and others not so much, were soon to occur as well, as these would build the groundwork for a sprawling, global system of European colonies, all of which produced copious amounts of raw materials which their “mother” countries would be able to utilize in competition with one another.

Mercantilism, as an economic and governmental philosophy, grew out of the system created by this new, international commodity exchange. Those states which embraced mercantilist thought sought to strengthen governmental control over matters of trade, especially with respect to regulation of precious metals like silver and gold. The accumulation of these specific commodities lies at the heart of this kind of thinking.

In addition, mercantilist states sought to foster large, self-favoring trade imbalances which, ideally, would feature great amounts of “finished” goods, made from raw materials obtained from colonies, leaving the country in exchange for currency and other precious metals. These would then assume circulation within the original states, thereby (in theory) increasing the internal wealth of the state in question and, by extension, the wealth and quality of life of its residents.

Note the royal crest

In practice, the adherents of mercantilist thought can be shown to have engineered a massive and prolonged campaign of indigenous domination and exploitation. The massive and often lucrative African slave trade was, in many ways, a direct result of mercantilist policymaking and behavior. Cash crops like sugar cane, tobacco, and cotton all became a part of the greater mercantilist system through organized plantations which were only operable through the use of chattel-type slave labour.

Furthermore, it is clear that much of the exploitation of North and South American indigenous populations occurred on economic grounds (slavery for labour, land, access to natural resources, etc.). It must also be added, however, that while the fundamental reasons for action may be economic, the explicit reasons may, indeed, be openly racist or, often, religious. The motives for European posturing in relation to indigenous peoples, likewise, tended to derive from mercantilist principles, and, thus, the legacy of the relationship between these two groups became forever shaped by the one-way flow of the mercantilist system.

In time, mercantilism found proponents and critics. Famously, Adam Smith criticized mercantilist principles as improperly-focused, writing that, “It is not by augmenting the capital of the country, but by rendering a greater part of that capital active and productive than would otherwise be so, that the most judicious operations of banking can increase the industry of the country.

II. Indigenous Exploitation and Imperial Legacy

Colonial mercantilism persisted for more than two centuries. It was not until the rise of classical economics, and, later, the rise of modern industrial capitalism, that vast currency networks would, by necessity, stretch around the globe. It was this system that formed the old imperial era which reached its eventual zenith in the middle of the Twentieth Century.

The Second World War sent shock waves across the “colonial” world. The period immediately following the war would prove to be one of sharp decline for European colonial ambitions. In southeast Asia, France had long maintained colonies, most notably in Vietnam.

Initial Vietnamese resistance to French colonial control was actually met with aid from the United States, which in its own imperialistic mindset, sought to curb European influence in Asia. Eventually, however, the struggle was redefined in terms of ideology.

This is the most common justification given today for U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, specifically that Vietnam represented a domino that, if tipped in the direction of communism, threatened to tip all those around it similarly.

A comparable example of the results of British imperialism comes from the middle east. For years Iran existed in a close colonial relationship with Great Britain. In fact much of the wealth accumulated by the British in the early decades of the twentieth century was a result of the extraction of Iranian oil on the part of western corporations.

Mohammad Mosaddegh, the democratically elected leader of Iran, began efforts aimed at reclaiming some of this oil wealth for the Iranian people. The Eisenhower administration, being convinced that Mosaddegh was, in fact, a Communist bent on usurping the global economic order, orchestrated plans, in concert with the British, to oust him from power.

Here, it is important to note that Mosaddegh was far from a communist. He was actually a rather elitist aristocrat which makes western nonsense-talk about ambitions of socialist revolution all the more absurd.

The CIA admitted in August of 2013 that it played a significant role in the overthrow of Mosaddegh in 1953. An internal CIA report reads that the “military coup that overthrew Mosadeq and his National Front cabinet was carried out under CIA direction as an act of U.S. foreign policy.”

In his place was installed Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi, who was far more friendly to western corporate ambitions. The revolution that took place in 1979 can easily be seen as a result of this imperialistic meddling in internal Iranian affairs.

Other autocratic regimes across the middle east have periodically found US support, including Mubarak’s Egypt, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Iran ( Iran Contra), Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. Syria possesses a similar regime to others receiving support from the United States with one key difference, namely, that of close ties with Russia along with lucrative arms contracts going to Russian firms.

In the Americas, the United States has had a long history of manipulating politics. American corporations, like United Fruit Company, thrived on the exploitation of native and indigenous populations for years as part of the greater U.S.-controlled imperial system. Leaders who have sought to challenge this precedent, especially with respect to the extraction of oil resources in countries like Ecuador and Venezuela, have often been met with significant opposition from the global, corporate, imperial machine.

III. What We Can Do

1) Affirm government policy that seeks to direct corporate power toward means and modes of production that are uplifting rather than exploitative of international indigenous populations.

2) Affirm government policy that serves to protect the heritage and stability of indigenous populations around the globe.

3) Affirm indigenous voices that may otherwise be drowned out by the neocolonialist corporatocracy .


  1. good analysis! I’m currently reading Bernard Porter’s “The Lion’s Share: A Short history of British Imperialism 1850 – 1970.’ Excellent economic analysis – how trade drove Imperialism and the politics of economics. Good source material. Highly recommend. It’s a good read and nuanced.

  2. This entry is amazingly well-written and informative for those who have not yet been exposed to the topic of Western imperalism/colonialism. Do you have an email address so that I can contact you? I would love to hear your thoughts about some different issues.

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