A pattern was gradually taking shape. The wretch- ed of the earth were learning to distinguish early 21st-century neo-colonialism from early 20th-century classical imperialism. A hundred years ago, the imperial powers, such as Britain, France, Germany and, in a relatively small way, the United States of America, were in complete control of the rest of the world; the paraphernalia of wielding power were uniformly common. Troops from the imperial country would garrison in India or Bechuanaland or Guatemala. Administrators, including viceroys, governors and magistrates, were shipped from home to the occupied country; so too were police personnel at different levels, members of the judiciary, even teachers, doctors, nurses and construction engineers.
The colonies were plundered for cheap food, raw materials, precious metals and minerals. They were at the same time major outlets for not only goods processed in the imperial country but also for surplus of men at home. This imperial system was of course described in chiselled language as a noble humanitarian mission; it was the white man’s burden to lift their non-white subjects to a tolerable level of civilized existence: we exploit you in order to turn you into minimally worthy human beings.
A century has elapsed and the modality of exploitation has undergone a sea-change. The imperial powers do not any longer need to send troops, policemen, judges, postmasters, railwaymen, doctors, teachers and the rest of the lot from home. The ferment of anti-colonial emotions, which was at its peak in the middle decades of the 20th century, is safely abated with the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the innoculation of market economics into China’s socialism. Everything is, in consequence, fine and excellent. The poor countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America are once more by and large docile as well as placid. The imperial powers do not have to twist the arms of these hapless nations; they volunteer to twist their arms on their own. Troops and policemen need not be shipped as in the past, nor governors, magistrates, judges and doctors. It is still imperialism and colonialism in full flow, but the effective work of colonization and enforcement of imperial decisions is delegated to the natives themselves.
The governments of most of the colonized lands are compradors par excellence; they, invariably, place the interest of the imperial country or countries ahead of their own interests. The nominal rulers of the colonies and the quasi-colonies operate to serve the cause of the masters. Signals are sent, for example, from Washington, either from Foggy Bottom or the Pentagon, and the native governments take up the cue. Very often the colonial powers, with the world’s only superpower at the very top, use the mediation of international specialized agencies to transmit the appropriate message to the colonized countries.
The specialized agencies like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization, are under the total domination of the superpower: whatever it wills the international agencies duly convey to the countries concerned. The agencies also act as monitors in order that guidelines laid down for the subaltern nations are followed in the minutest detail. A typical instance of imperial domination via the fiat of international bodies is the manner the global patent regime was altered a few years ago to further the cause of transnational corporations located in the imperial countries.
The latest example of similar directing by proxy is the current initiative of the WTO to ensure that, by the middle of the calendar year 2005, all colonized countries enforce the wondrous value-added of taxation. Such a change-over, it is hoped, will fully integrate the domestic market of each colony, thereby accelerating capitalist exploitation and enabling the transnational outfits to enjoy the opportunity to maximize profit. The WTO conveyed the message to the national governments of the colonies, who in turn passed it on to their subordinate links, in India the state governments. What they were doing by throttling the sales tax system and substituting it by a nation-wide value-added tax, the states have assumed, is their own decision; in reality, they are merely carrying out the WTO’s orders.
Twenty-first century neo-colonialism had thus been attaining a distinctiveness, allowing it to assert its distance from some of the more unwholesome features of colonialism and imperialism of the olden days. Solemn gatherings were taking place to praise the clever minds instrumental in evolving the arrangement whereby colonialism could masquerade successfully as benign international counselling, with the colonies seemingly equal partners of the colonials in the decision-making process.
Iraq has now provided a jolt. The Americans have conquered Iraq, but they are encountering considerable difficulties in restoring law and order and administrative cohesion. Awe-struck at the chaos that has greeted them on the dawn of victory, they have evidently decided to return to the classical imperial model. For the present Iraq is to be ruled by an administration presided over by two serving US generals; at the same time, lackeys like Britain and Australia are lobbying for the posts of regional governors.
There are also proposals to import from the US huge numbers of policemen, magistrates, judges, lawyers, even art historians and museologists. It is back to the old story of mutual distrust between the conquerors and the conquered, as if the past one hundred years are an irrelevance and the first decade of the 21st century is a carbon copy of the first decade of the preceding one.
If the supreme imperial power chooses to deploy classical direct methods for occupying, and, in the process, devastating, land inhabited by the non-whites, the latter too are likely to react in a predictable manner. They will return distrust by distrust and firepower by maybe weaker firepower. In that sense, the aftermath of the Iraq war puts the clock back to the era when imperialism was at its crudest. The Bush-Blair duo have already gone on record: the Iraq modus operandi could be repeated, soon, in Syria. The phase of colonialism by subterfuge would appear to have ended. With the demise of international law, it would again be open season for marauders to whom marauding is religion. Religion defies reason.
It will be therefore, at least for some time, an uncertain and unpredictable world. One dangerous possibility boggles the mind. Were the superpower to concentrate on the Arab countries and repeat its exercise of genocide in each of them, the outcome would be wholesale alienation of all Islamic countries, including those in other continents. The situation would be tailor-made for the Hindu parivar in India to declare its total identity with the holy American cause. The Hindu lobby could in exchange be promised the moon. Fundamentalism of just any variety is welcome to the US establishment so long it is combined with subservience to American foreign policy goals. In such circumstances, Indians might well find themselves emerge as the world’s number one comprador state.
What would the rump of the secularist left in the country then do' Capitulating on patents and value-added taxation is one thing; surrender of the nation’s secular credentials is catastrophy of a much greater proportion. Many amongst those who still dream of an India wedded to tolerance and rationality appear to be altogether unaware of what could all of a sudden strike them, and from which furtive direction.