Taking Over the Imperial Mantle

  • Geoffrey R. Skoll


Imperialism is never benign. Its purpose is exploitation. It is accomplished through blood and fear. The form of exploitation varies historically according to the prevailing mode of production. The ancient empires depended on slavery. The Middles Ages depended on feudalism, and industrial capitalism depends on the wage system. After noting that Holland was the “model capitalist nation of the seventeenth century,” Marx described its imperialist practices as “one of the most extraordinary relations of treachery, bribery, massacre and meanness” (1867, 916). By the eighteenth century, Britain had taken the lead in capitalist imperialism. It colonized North America where some of its settlers, “the Puritans of New England, by decrees of their assembly, set a premium of £40 on every Indian scalp and every captured redskin; in 1720 a premium £100 was set on every scalp; in 1744, after Massachusetts Bay had proclaimed a certain tribe as rebels, the following prices were laid down: for a male scalp of 12 years and upwards, £100 in new currency, for a male prisoner £105, for women and children prisoners £50” (917–18). Imperialism functioned then, as it does now, as a system of primitive accumulation. The system turned on the establishment of central banks. “The colonial system, with its maritime trade and its commercial wars, served as the forcing-house for the credit system. Thus it first took root in Holland. The national debt, i.e. the alienation by sale of the state … marked the capitalist era…. The only part of the so-called national wealth that actually enters into the collective possession of a modern nation is—the national debt” (919), or in the twenty-first century, the sovereign debt. Marx went on to trace the historical development of banking, debt, and imperialism:

Along with the national debt there arose an international credit system, which often conceals one of the sources of primitive accumulation in this or that people. Thus the villainies of the Venetian system of robbery formed one of the secret foundations of Hollands wealth in capital, for Venice in her years of decadence lent large sums of money to Holland. There is a similar relationship between Holland and England. By the beginning of the eighteenth century Holland’s manufactures had been far outstripped. It has ceased to be the nation preponderant in commerce and industry. One of its main lines of business, therefore, from 1701 to 1776, was the lending out of enormous amounts of capital, especially to its great rival England. The same thing is going on today [1867] between England and the United States. A great deal of capital, which appears today in the United States without any birth-certificate, was yesterday, in England, the capitalized blood of children. (920)


United States Panama Canal National Debt Wage System Primitive Accumulation 
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© Geoffrey R. Skoll 2016

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  • Geoffrey R. Skoll

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