Neo-Colonialism in the Modern Age

An overview of hegemony and cultural imperialism & its motivations and consequences.

I’ve decided to submit essays from my past studies as writing samples. If you would like receive a list of resources, please reach out to me on twitter (@trevormolag) or elsewhere. This is one of the essays from my time at Langara College. (2013)

Examples of neo-colonialism have been studied in most corners of the world since the end of the Second World War.

In fact, it’s difficult to find a place that scholars do not claim has been subject to cultural imperialism of some sort since 1945. From Egypt to Belize to India to Britain to the United States of America — all of these countries have observed some sort of influence over their culture from another country (Reid 57; Everitt 42; Altbach 902; Cooper and Cooper 61). This is hardly a surprise; after all, globalization is no secret. Cultural imperialism and hegemony, however, are not concepts that can be described so simply as globalization. Neo-colonialism, the modern colonialism, has emerged as an influential force; used by powerful countries for a variety of reasons, it is continually shaping not only individual cultures, but the global culture.

One of the more complicated aspects of neo-colonialism is its definition.

In the early 1960s, it was first defined as a description of the economic (and other) lengths one country might go to in an attempt to expedite the cultural assimilation of a foreign territory. Cultural assimilation, as described in this context by Kwame Nkrumah, is desired by the colonizing country because it opens the colonized country for an economic partnership — even exploitation. This definition may seem straightforward, but the post-WWII international situation in which the term “neo-colonialism” was coined was quite unique. These years saw the rapid decolonization of many countries; particularly African nations that had been subject to European rule until the 1950s and 1960s. From the perspective of decolonization, neo-colonialism was used to describe the lingering relationship a colony has with its former power prior to decolonization (Schultz 65). Because neo-colonialism developed as a concept in this post-war period, a great deal of focus was put on the continuing affiliation between colony and colonizer. Examining neo-colonial relationships like these that are so dependent on a unique colonial relationship should more often be subsumed under post-colonial theory. This is because today we see the same practices of neo-colonialism being carried out between cultures with no historical colonial connection. While the study of cultural ties post-colonization exposes the idea of neo-colonialism in several ways, post-colonial theory doesn’t completely express the essence of neo-colonialism as it was originally defined.

There are two terms that most completely bring out the subtleties of neo-colonialism: cultural imperialism and cultural hegemony.

Cultural imperialism is best summarized as the way that “certain cultural products have attained a position of dominance in a foreign culture through a process of coercive imposition, usually through their ties to political or economic power” (Dunch 302). While imperialism is characteristically determined by military control, this is definitely not the case with cultural imperialism. Cultural imperialism also differs slightly from the idea of cultural hegemony, which is an aspect of Marxist philosophy that calls attention to the promotion of one culture over another with the objective of that the ruling class’ worldview becomes the norm. This cultural assimilation is particularly useful in that it creates a situation ripe with potential for the economic benefit of the ruling class. By persuading the subordinate group that the profits from agreement outweigh the losses of not working together, the ruling culture is able to maintain their superior status (Schultz 275). It is the intertwining and collective definition of these related concepts –cultural imperialism and cultural hegemony — that paint the ultimate picture of neo-colonialism and cross-cultural promotion in the interests of one country, often at the expense of another.

The means by which a country may impose an unequal cultural relationship on another are wide ranging, but economics is by far the most common tool used in neo-colonialism

(Petra 139). By providing monetary support and forming economic partnerships, the financial institutions, governments, and particularly the multinational corporations of the colonizing power ingratiate themselves to their subjects and integrate them into their own capitalist system. There are two particular concepts that deeper explore this culturally hegemonic relationship. One is another Marxist theory, complimentary to cultural hegemony, which is understood as dependency theory. This theory declares that by the penetration of multinational corporations, economic sanctions, partnerships, and the like, developed countries intentionally foster and enforce a culture within developing countries that is economically dependent on their own. Dependency theory contends that the weaker nation is further impoverished to the benefit of the stronger country due to the subsequent capitalist use of the weaker country’s resources and labour. This practice continues because of the strong hegemony of the colonizing power. A concept that is similar, yet more functionalist than dependency theory is the world systems theory. This theory says that the world is divided into segments of a powerful core, a moderate semi-periphery, and weak periphery nations. The three categories of nations each engage in neo-colonialism with varying degrees of success on the other two kinds of nations. Essentially, world systems theory explains how the core can dominate and take control of the resources and labour supplied by the periphery for a profit. Just as in dependency theory, the core benefits because of these mechanics. Dissimilar to dependency theory, however, the periphery’s marginal benefits are acknowledged since they are provided with some economic gain. World systems theory can definitely be extended to the broader methods of neo-colonialism if we think of the cultures of the core and periphery in the same way we would otherwise think of their economies.

There are many other tools apart from economics that may be used by core countries to engage in neo-colonialism.

In fact, every aspect of culture could theoretically be used in neo-colonial pursuits. For example, language has been said to be used in a neo-colonial fashion: instances of this include the establishment of English libraries in Uganda or the selective supporting of publishing in India (Perry 328; Altbach 902). Likewise, education has been singled out as a powerful apparatus for neo-colonialism, as in the cases of schoolteachers in Hawaii; or imperialistic educational programs in China, Cuba, Burma, and beyond (Hyams 202; Wickens and Sandlin 277). The fine arts are another tool of cultural imperialism; as in the purposeful spreading of art — like the “British Invasion” of the 1960s; or the enduring existence of museums, or the even control of another culture’s art in the homeland of that culture (Cooper and Cooper 69; Harrison 42; Reid 57). Further methods that have been discussed as tools of cultural imperialism include sport, medicine, religious missions, and the worldwide proliferation (in the same way as multinational corporations) of the culture machines that are a state’s mass media (Stoddart 651; Matheson 1191; Dunch 301; Petras 2070). Much of the time, these practices are not resented by the recipient culture. We can see that by exporting their culture in its most appealing form to other nations, countries around the world are making good use of the “ability to obtain the outcomes they want through attraction rather than coercion or payment” — an ability otherwise known as soft power (Nye 94).

To further understand the concept of neo-colonialism, it is important to examine some of the situations in which it occurs — both historically and in the present.

Historically, two of the most definitive examples of cultural imperialism include the French in Africa following World War Two, and the Cold War Era. During the Imperial Age, much of Africa was colonized by the European powers. After World War Two came decolonization of the colonized African Nations, many of which were under French rule at the time. Following their decolonization, post-colonial ties remained between the nation of France and her former colonies. After all, African nations were faced with a great number of issues at the occasion of their decolonization such as national security, economic concerns, finding a socio-political identity, and delivering aid to their struggling peoples (Nkrumah). These countries required support, and the French were willing to provide it to them in exchange for economic and diplomatic partnerships. Ties continue all the way to this day, and this continuing relationship has been referred to as Francafrique (Boisbouvier). In the case of the Cold War Era, the two main belligerents — the United States of America and the Soviet Union — were heavily invested in promoting their culture in all corners of the world as they competed for ideological supremacy. These countries gathered as many allies as possible while spreading their ideologies far and wide in an attempt to prove themselves the greater country and ensure security in the possible event of a nuclear war.

In the present era, we can also look to two key case studies of neo-colonialism: Sino-African relations and The United States of America as an economic power.

To this day, more than one million Chinese are African residents, and Chinese investment in Africa exceeds 40 billion dollars. They have spread their money and culture throughout the continent, and are now trading in excess of 166 billion dollars per year with Africa; securing 50 billion in minerals. Africa receives goods in return, and most of these goods support further resource extraction and industrial development. While this relationship was once seen as quite exploitive, views are changing as China fosters goodwill in these nations with more equitable agreements (Africa and China). Similar Chinese examples of economic neo-colonialism have been identified all over the world, from Canada to Ecuador (Kay; Scheneyer and Perez). The United States of America is another core country that is heavily invested in neo-colonial pursuits. One of the most astute concepts that illustrates the worldwide flow of American culture by mostly economic means is called “Coca-Colonization”. This concept calls attention to Coca-Cola’s global pervasiveness as a symbol for the Americanization of nearly every corner of the earth (Kuisel 98). Through huge multinational corporations such as Coca-Cola, American values and culture have been strongly infused all over the world. As one of the most influential countries in the world, there are certainly many other tools that America uses to engage in neo-colonialism, (including many of the ones already mentioned), but economics and multi-national corporations are by far the most commonly referenced (Petras 2070).

These historical examples, and others like them, provide a solid basis for examining the exact motivations that nations might have for their neo-colonial pursuits.

This is because they show how core countries have benefitted from the cultural assimilation of the periphery, and identifying these benefits then exposes their motivations. Indeed, there are inherent economic benefits for powerful nations to realize as a result of their cultural imperialism: core countries can expand their business to the nations they’ve culturally assimilated and also make use of the low-cost resources and labour that they are able to obtain from the periphery. Often times, the subordinate culture becomes dependent (as described by dependency theory) on these foreign operations within their own borders; they rely on outside multinationals for jobs and goods. Because of this dependency, the core is able to set low wages and prices for raw goods and operate at a high profit. As such, these practices pay off financially for the multinational corporations and (by the extension of taxes) the governments of the colonizing power. It can be concluded that the substantial financial gain to be had as a result of neo-colonialism is definitely a motivating factor.

While financial profit is one of the most straightforward ways that a nation can benefit from neo-colonialism, there are more motivations that might cause a country to engage in these pursuits.

One of these is national security. Just as in the Cold War, nations have an interest in fostering goodwill and dependence in other parts of the world; creating allies and dependent states that would not go to war against them, or support them in the event of the war. Another motivating factor is to acquire resources. As the world’s population multiplies, valuable resources are being stretched thin. Growing countries such as China and India need to secure access to fuel and food to provide for their citizens, and neo-colonialism has been shown to allow them the influence to negotiate access to these resources. Diplomatic power also seems to be a reason to engage in neo-colonialism; countries that have similar cultures are likely to agree and vote identically on international issues. Even if they don’t agree, countries that are dependent on another nation may feel obligated to act in the wishes of their neo-colonizer, as a derogatively titled “puppet state”.

The new face of colonialism has shown itself in a wide variety of places around the world, and we can see that countries have benefited in various ways; exposing their motivations.

It is also important to look at future implications should these activities continue. Cultural homogenization (most commonly referred to as globalization) is perhaps the most powerful force affecting the global landscape today. For instance, estimates include a ninety percent reduction in the number of languages spoken around the world by the year 2100 while others clearly show that the number of speakers will be highly concentrated in a handful of languages by this time (Ryan; Graddol 27). Global trends such as these are directly related to the practice of neo-colonialism. While the future prevalence of some languages is due to rising populations, it is no surprise that the languages at the top of these lists also have homelands that are known for engaging in neo-colonialism in the past and present. So, while the term globalization seems to indicate that the result is a diverse global culture, the reality is that this ongoing homogenization of ethos is more composed of the cultures that are most aggressive in neo-colonial pursuits. The core nations’ culturally imperialistic practices reduce the influence of other cultures and strengthen the influence of their own, indeed leading to a global culture that is more comprised of the core than the periphery.

If neo-colonialism continues to be practiced, then the current situation of nations can be expected to expand.

Many will be quick to point out that the periphery nations benefit in the same way as the core; that they would be a lot worse off should they limit their relationship with the core, and that their loss of culture is not all that significant (Bowen 179). Still more point out that these benefits are marginal, and require that the periphery countries submit to the exploitive objectives of the core pointing primarily to the issue of human rights, they contend that the wages received and benefits incurred (cultural or otherwise) are not nearly enough to compensate for the capitulated resources, labour, autonomy and culture; especially when considering the relative profits of the core (Koshy 26). Most agree that relatively small cultures will eventually be washed out by the cultures of the most powerful nations; that human rights issues must continue to be questioned. If neo-colonialism continues to perpetuate itself in this way, there is little hope that conditions will change for these nations — the core will remain at the core, and the periphery and semi-periphery will struggle to flourish. This school of thought is quite large, and has given most of the terms already discussed an overwhelmingly negative connotation. However, as already mentioned in the case of Sino-African relations, the core is beginning to realize their own dependency on the periphery which is slowly improving these human rights conditions — though the general cultural assimilation remains.

The modern colonialism benefits countries that spread their culture throughout the world.

The tools employed by those countries to this end are varied, ranging from economics to education. As beneficiaries of the financial, military, diplomatic, and resource stability that comes from having nations culturally assimilated to them, there seems to be no reason for powerful core nations to cease in their neo-colonial activities. Illustrated by concepts such as dependency theory, world systems theory, and Coca-Colonization, the forces of cultural imperialism and cultural hegemony are contributing to the globalized world in a way that favours the most powerful of nations — for better or for worse.