It's imperialism, stupid (pt. 1)
The disgraceful background
You all used to know this.
The left used to have a pretty decent idea of what’s really going on in the world, way back when it focused on actual issues and wasn’t utterly distracted by the digital corporate spectacle.
The right, at the very least, had to contend with a culturally entrenched criticism of the capitalist order, which was an inherent part of the various intellectual traditions of the West. Core, legacy influences of the right, such as the now long-forgotten Burkean conservativism, even expressed a wariness of the imperialist dynamics inherent in modern industrial societies, and considered the tendencies towards totalitarianism one of its chief intrinsic dangers.
Individuality is left out of their scheme of Government. The state is all in all. Every thing is referred to the production of force; afterwards every thing is trusted to the use of it. It is military in it’s principle, in it’s maxims, in it’s spirit, and in all it’s movements. The state has dominion and conquest for it’s sole objects; dominion over minds by proselytism, over bodies by arms.
(Burke, E. (1796). Letters on a Regicide Peace.)
In the general outlook of mainstream 20th century political analysis, the excesses of imperialism were a constant focal point. I use “imperialism” rather broadly here, and refer to the tendencies towards a centralization and exercise of economic and political power inherent (but not unique) to the capitalist social order, as well as its extractive and repressive effects upon peripheries, whether geographic, cultural or spiritual. This centralization and exercise of power is arguably most clearly expressed through legislative and military force, the cumulative effect of ideological state apparatuses, and the expansion of technological infrastructure.
Imperialism in this sense will therefore overlap with the complex problem structures identified by post-colonial analyses and intersectional approaches to power. It will likewise match most of the predicaments of 20th century criticism of technology and scientism from Mumford to Jerry Mander, as well the issues in focus by a whole plethora of conservationist and ecological approaches.
This sort of broad conception of imperialism as basically the core contradiction in the entire modern project was commonplace in the political and economic analyses of fifty years ago. You see this reflected in everything from European children’s comics (including even later iterations of the originally anti-communist Tintin) to popular satire like Monty Python, and an awareness of the problem clearly permeated the social science literature of the major publishing houses.
The thoroughly lambasted and back then very well-known example of the United Fruit Company and its excesses is in many ways a case in point. It gives an excellent overview of the basics of the sort of critique of imperialism that used to be commonplace, and which also provided a functional anchoring point for analyzing and understanding the social processes in which one was enveloped.
So everyone on the left used to know this piece of history, or a handful of very similar examples connected to other multinationals. The United Fruit Company was a US corporate entity founded in 1899, which in the mid 1950s basically dominated six major South American nations - Guatemala, Honduras, Equador, Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia - through its control of the banana trade, which more or less was the sole foundation of the export-dependent economies of these states.
The arable land of these countries were largely under the company’s control, basically 85% of the very best soil of the region. United Fruit also managed the entire distribution infrastructure (it controlled the railroad network and had its own merchant navy with more than 60 vessels) and naturally held a monopoly on the North American markets where the products were sold. These states were so dependent on the corporation that it was free to reshape the entire social structure of the region to minimize costs and maximize profits.
But the really damning fact is the way in which United Fruit was integrated in the upper echelons of the US corporate-state apparatus. The company was owned by the Rockefeller banks, Morgan Stanley, Chrysler and the Radio Corpoation of America, among other major centres of influence.
So when Jacobo Árbenz Guzman’s administration (liberal-left social democrat) tried to expropriate United Fruit back in 1952 as a part his modernization efforts, guess what happened?
Yeah, the CIA immediately stages a coup and overthrows Guatemalan democracy.
United Fruit pulls its strings at the US State Department, the US facilitates an armed intervention, and in two years, Guatemala is under an obedient military dictatorship. This eventually resulted in a 36-year civil war during which numerous atrocities were perpetrated, including the Guatemalan genocide, also known as the Maya genocide or the Silent Holocaust, where up to 166 000 ethnic Maya were murdered at the hands of US backed “security forces”. About 200 000 civilians were killed, “… much of the violence was a large coordinated campaign of one-sided violence by the Guatemalan state against the civilian population from the mid-1960s onward. The military intelligence services coordinated killings and ‘disappearances’ of opponents of the state (Wikipedia).”
You know this story, right? It’s not exactly unique. Scratch the surface and they crawl out like bugs. It literally boggles the mind that there are so many examples of covert coups d'état or illegal military interventions with the quite conscious purpose of furthering US hegemony.
Here’s a chronological list of just a few of the more heavily-documented examples from the post-WW2 period:
We have the US invasion of China with 50 000 troops that you probably never heard of, and the ensuing actual occupation of Hebei and Shantung in the late 1940s. US aggression and active involvement continued into the 1960s, e.g. by the US support of Taiwanese incursions and a mutual defense treaty with Chiang Kai-chek, which eventually amounted to the US threatening China with nuclear attack to preserve this little destabilizing split with the mainland and ROC. The CIA also armed and fomented the Tibetan resistance in the late 50s, beginning involvement in 1952, which eventually resulted in around 100 000 casualites.
The CIA and MI6 attempted a violent regime change in communist Albania between 1949-53, which wasn’t revealed until a declassification in 2006.
There’s the relatively well-known coup in Iran in 1953, also a collaborative project between M16 and the CIA, in response to Iran’s parliament voting for a nationalization of its energy resources. In other words, this uppity resource colony attempted to assert its independence, and had to be put in its place. A pro-US military dictatorship was installed.
According to the CIA's declassified documents and records, some of the most feared mobsters in Tehran were hired by the CIA to stage pro-Shah riots on 19 August. Other men paid by the CIA were brought into Tehran in buses and trucks, and took over the streets of the city. Between 200 and 300 people were killed because of the conflict. Mosaddegh was arrested, tried and convicted of treason by the Shah's military court. On 21 December 1953, he was sentenced to three years in jail, then placed under house arrest for the remainder of his life. Other Mosaddegh supporters were imprisoned, and several received the death penalty. After the coup, the Shah continued his rule as monarch for the next 26 years until he was overthrown in the Iranian Revolution in 1979.
In August 2013 the U.S. government formally acknowledged the U.S. role in the coup by releasing a bulk of previously classified government documents that show it was in charge of both the planning and the execution of the coup, including the bribing of Iranian politicians, security and army high-ranking officials, as well as pro-coup propaganda. The CIA is quoted acknowledging the coup was carried out "under CIA direction" and "as an act of U.S. foreign policy, conceived and approved at the highest levels of government" (Wikipedia).
The US attempted a coup in Syria 1956-57, and its involvement has continued since, including a whole slew of black ops in the country’s more recent history. Not least of which is the US fomenting of the ongoing Syrian civil war which began in earnest in 2006 with the arming and training of militias (Wikipedia).
Coup attempt in Indonesia, 1957-58. The CIA was intensely active in Indonesia from the 1940s up until the 80s, and its interference culminated with the anti-communist purges of 1965-1966, the Indonesian genocide. About one million were murdered.
Coup in Iraq, 1963 (Wolfe-Hunnicutt, Brandon (2017). "Oil Sovereignty, American Foreign Policy, and the 1968 Coups in Iraq". Diplomacy & Statecraft.).
US coup in British Guiana, 1964.
North Vietnam… Yeah. You probably know this one.
The interventions in Cambodia went on between the mid-50s and 1970, when a military coup saw the installation of the far-right, pro US Khmer Republic, whose anti-communist bent forced an escalation of the ongoing civil war. The US lent further support to the Khmer, and just the bombing campaign by itself killed up to 150 000 people. The civil war’s total death toll was about 300 000.
There’s Laos, of course. Several coups around 1960. Involvement began in 1955, in support of the Laotian regime which succeeded French colonial sovereignty (Castle, T. N. (1993). At War in the Shadow of Vietnam: U.S. Military Aid to the Royal Lao Government 1955–1975.). Continued involvement was closely related to the attempted pacification of North Vietnam.
CIA-supported coup in Ecuador, 1963 (Blum, W. (2004). Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II.).
Congo, 1960. First Mobuto coup. A lot of dense history here. Patrice Lumumba, first democratically elected prime minister of Congo gets toppled through CIA involvement, aggravating the Congo crisis in the wake of its recent liberation. The country is still a warzone today, with a total excess death toll in the tens of millions. “We think the price was worth it”, I guess. The whole debacle developed into a hot and utterly complicated mess related to conflict minerals and the general post-colonial hegemonic power struggle in Africa.
The list basically never ends.
There’s Brazil in 1964.
The coup in Bolivia the same year.
Chile. Oh, Chile. The 1973 coup in Chile is worth several articles on its own, since it exemplifies a transition to the neoliberal mode of domination in the wake of the transfer of power, something which is mirrored in the later peacetime political development all across the Western sphere. Violent coup after a decade of destabilization and propaganda efforts:
The U.S. government ran a psy ops action in Chile from 1963 until the coup d'état in 1973, and the CIA was involved in every Chilean election during that time. In the 1964 Chilean presidential election, the U.S. government supplied $2.6 million in funding to Christian Democratic Party presidential candidate Eduardo Frei Montalva, to prevent Salvador Allende and the Socialist Party of Chile winning. The U.S. also used the CIA to provide $12 million in funding to business interests for use in harming Allende's reputation.
Prior to Allende's inauguration, chief of staff of the Chilean Army, René Schneider, a general dedicated to preserving the constitutional order and considered "a major stumbling block for military officers seeking to carry out a coup", was targeted in a failed CIA backed kidnapping attempt by General Camilo Valenzuela on October 19, 1970. Schneider was killed three days later in another botched kidnapping attempt led by General Roberto Viaux. After the inauguration, there followed an extended period of social and political unrest between the right-dominated Congress of Chile and Allende, as well as economic warfare waged by Washington. U.S. President Richard Nixon had promised to "make the economy scream" to "prevent Allende from coming to power or to unseat him".
On September 11, 1973, President Allende was overthrown by the Chilean Armed Forces and National Police, bringing to power the regime of Augusto Pinochet. The CIA, through Project FUBELT, worked secretly to prepare the conditions for the coup. While the U.S. initially denied any involvement, many relevant documents have been declassified in the decades since (Wikipedia).
Shall I go on?
Coup attempt in Costa Rica, 1971. US-supported coup in Bolivia same year, ushering in a military dictatorship.
CIA subversion attempts in Angola, 1975, which led to almost 30 years of civil war. Excess deaths? Official numbers go up to 800 000, but in truth, nobody knows. It also fed into the Second Congo War mentioned above:
John Stockwell, the CIA's station chief in Angola, resigned after the invasion, explaining in the April 1977 The Washington Post article "Why I'm Leaving the CIA" that he had warned Secretary of State Henry Kissinger that continued American support for anti-government rebels in Angola could provoke a war with Zaire. He also said that covert Soviet involvement in Angola came after, and in response to, U.S. involvement (Wikipedia).
Likely CIA-supported coup in Jamaica, 1980. See also this.
The CIA involvement in Afghanistan was extensive, mainly during the 1980s and the Soviet-Afghan war.
Failed coup attempt in the Seychelles, 1979 (Ray, Ellen (1982). "Seychelles beats back mercenaries". Covert Action Information Bulletin.)
US-supported coup in Chad, 1981-82:
In the 1980s, the United States was pivotal in bringing Hissène Habré to power, seeing him as a stalwart defense against expansion by Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, and therefore provided critical military support to his insurgency and then to his government, even as it committed widespread and systematic human rights violations—violations of which, as this report shows, many in the US government were aware (Human Rights Watch).
Coup and direct military intervention in Grenada, 1983. The UN almost unanimously considered this a “flagrant violation of international law” by a vote of 108 to 9.
Coup attempt in Suriname, 1984.
Several coup attempts in Libya during the 1980s.
Failed coup attempt and succeeding US invasion of Panama, 1989. Sagely condemned by the UN as a violation of international law.
And who could forget the Iran-Contra affair and the US campaign of destabilization and terror in Nicaragua, beginning around 1981? Extensive history here.
Active and above-ground regime change efforts in Albania, culminating in 1991.
US-supported insurgency in Iraq, 1991.
Military intervention in Somalia, 1993.
US-NATO destabilization and dismemberment of Yugoslavia during the 90s (Talbot, K. (2000). The Real Reasons for War In Yugoslavia: Backing up Globalization with Military Might. Social Justice. http://www.jstor.org/stable/29768038).
Afghanistan, 2001. You’ve heard of this one, right?
US-backed coup in Venezuela, 2002.
Iraq war, 2003. They never did find those WMDs. Peculiar.
Haiti 2004. Military coup through direct US intervention.
Somalia, complex CIA interference from early 2000s to present. Exacerbates the still-ongoing civil war.
US-supported coup in Honduras, 2009.
US-NATO War of aggression against Libya, 2011. First, the US fomented the 2011 civil war and secretly supported the insurgents, then NATO responds to the Libyan peacekeeping operations with an actual military intervention. You can’t make this shit up.
Syria, 2012. Yeah. Let’s not even go there. A huge pit of imperial iniquity which has been thoroughly documented elsewhere. Here, for instance.
But FUCK ME SIDEWAYS if I so much as breathe a word about the equally thoroughly documented and clearly indicated US involvement in the 2014 coup in Ukraine.
That, you see, is nothing but utterly deranged Russian propaganda.
Even well-read, self-identified anarchists have reproached me for furthering such “speculative” assumptions.
Right. Because the Ukrainian people, lacking a history and any socio-economic connections to the larger world around them, one day simply decided to topple its government and install one loyal to the US regime just to spite its single, by far, most important trading partner and economic benefactor (and with which the Ukrainian people share strong linguistic and cultural affinities).
It’s not like the US spent billions of dollars in the promotion of regime change in Ukraine since the fall of the Soviet Union. Nor any pattern of intentional encirclement clearly spelled out in foreign policy documents in a context of hegemony over the Central Asian energy resources (see the well noted Rand Corp. research brief; the 2009 German Bundeswehr report on peak oil; or the 2006 US House of Representatives hearing on how to take control over Central Asian oil and gas before Russia and China.
And all of this in a situation of actual energy and resource depletion. You think they need a better reason?
We murdered hundreds of thousands of people in Guatemala over fucking BANANAS, you think we won’t instigate a coup and a little proxy war over energy politics in a context of resource depletion? Think again.
No. The United Fruit example discussed in the beginning is the basic template of how the West relates to its resource colonies, and even when it doesn’t end in bloodshed by military force, it’s violence all the way through.
Russia is one such resource colony. One that doesn’t know its place, a “gas station masquerading as a country”.
Russia is, academically speaking, a backwater chickenshit economy the size of fucking Texas (the GDP of both weigh in at around $2.1 trillion) That’s less than Apple’s market cap.
Just one single US multinational investment corporation like BlackRock manages assets of more than $10 trillion. Vanguard? $8,1 trillion. Charles Schwab Corp? $8 trillion.
Russia can’t even manufacture their own microchips, and you honestly think they’re going to run a global propagada machine that effectively threatens Western hegemony?
There are seven major multinationals that control the press and the legacy mass media (Disney, Comcast, Warner Bros., Paramount, Access, Hasbro and Amazon). They’re all American.
There are five major multinationals that own almost the entire global digital infrastructure (Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Meta and Microsoft). They’re also all American.
You think anyone else can successfully influence the dominant narratives in a way that meaningfully threatens Western corporate hegemony? You think anyone else can produce effective propaganda in this framework?
The very fact that you’re considered a Putin stooge and purveyor of “Russian conspiracy theories” for even questioning the way in which key media narratives coincidentally seem to support Western geopolitical objectives, well, that fact alone really says all there is to be said about propaganda in our contemporary situation.
In the second part of this little series, we’ll get into more detail regarding the characteristics and institutional arrangements of the basic neo-colonial power structure of the post-war period.
Good read. I especially enjoyed your attention for the way our societies have forgotten to look critically at power.
I often think about this, and the professionalization we saw from the 90s on seems to play a big part in how people view the world and themselves within it. It has become more important to fit in than to reflect.
Tough to take but true. Perkins in Confessions of an Economic Hit Man covers a lot of this too.