Colonialism is only one of many ways of practicing imperialism

Colonialism is only one of many ways of practicing imperialism. Discuss.
By Libin Farah

Colonialism and Imperialism are two terms are often conflated and used interchangeably by both academics and society. Edward Said clearly distinguished the difference in the meaning and the usage of the words in the second book of his trilogy Culture and Imperialism.

Firstly, this essay will examine the definitions of the terms Colonialism and Imperialism by looking at the contemporary and traditional usages of the terms. Secondly, this essay will look at how Colonial and Imperial activity has informed knowledge production and how this has determined the image of the Orient/colonies using a Foucauldian/Saidian lense. Lastly, this essay will focus on how informal structures of colonialism that remain inform a new form of Imperialism whereby US foreign policy will be used as a case study to demonstrate this.

Overall, this essay aims to argue that Colonialism is one of many ways of practicing Imperialism. However, a consequence of Colonialism is neo-Colonialism which still has implications in the post-colonial age. Therefore, the argument is that neo-Colonialism as well as traditional Colonialism are both manifestations of Imperialism however the practice of traditional Colonialism can be analysed within a historical timeframe whereas neo-Colonialism continues to impact state relations.

In Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism he prescribes a theoretical framework for the usage of the terms imperialism and colonialism. Said referred to imperialism as “means the practice, the theory, and the attitudes of a dominating metropolitan centre ruling a distant territory” while colonialism “which is almost always a consequence of imperialism, is the implanting of settlements on distant territory”.

This presents the idea that Imperialism is an ideological framework that does not depend on the existence of colonies. It is a structure that is concerned with domination, hegemony and power and Colonialism is one manifestation of achieving these elements.

Therefore, the act of engaging in Colonialism is an imperial act but acts that are imperialistic are not always colonial. It is important to distinguish Colonialism and Imperialism in spatial rather than temporal terms. A temporal understanding of Colonialism would ignore the informal structures, relationships and practices that still dominate and inform international relations today.

This understanding does not relegate Colonialism to a historical timeframe but recognises that its implications, neo-colonialism, still have consequences in the post-colonial world. From this, it can be understood that the neo-colonialism is another way of practicing Imperialism and its effects are longer lasting as they are built into institutions and relationships between states.

A spatial analysis would understand Imperialism as a phenomenon that is centred in the metropole and the domination penetrates the colony. Colonialism as a practice is concentrated solely in the colony. This analysis in spatial terms is more relevant than a temporal understanding because it builds on Said’s definition that Imperialism can be direct and indirect.

Both contemporary and traditional usages of the word Colonialism often concentrates solely on the settlement of the colonisers and “evacuates the term from any implication of an encounter between peoples, or of conquest and domination”. These definitions negate the fact that there were pre-existing communities and social orders in place and ‘new locality’ was in fact, not new.

Ania Loomba criticises these definitions and builds on Said’s definition but takes it further by understanding Colonialism as a process that “locked the original inhabitants and the newcomers into the most complex and traumatic relationships in human history.” This relationship was a product of interaction through the conquest and control of the indigenous populations land and resources.

This interaction formed the basis of an oppressive relationship as an entire society is “robbed of its historical line of development, externally manipulated and transformed according to the needs and interests of the colonial ruler. Colonial relations are those which are between the coloniser and the colonised in the context of conquest and control of the colony.

Imperial relations are built upon these Colonial relationships such as British relations with the Commonwealth. Imperial relations still inform global politics and these relations are inherently based on domination and hierarchy.

Before the definition provided by Said, Lenin gave a new meaning to the word Imperialism. Lenin described Imperialism as the a ‘highest stage of capitalism’ in his book of the same name.

Lenin understood Imperialism through and economic rather than a political lense arguing that Imperialism is a symptom of growing Capitalism. He goes further to illustrate that “Capitalism has grown into a world system of colonial oppression and financial strangulation of the overwhelming majority of the people of the world by a handful of “advanced” countries.”

From this viewpoint we can understand the relationship between the coloniser and the colonised as one defined by capitalist relations of production.
As the metropole has ample capital while the colony was abundant in labour, it was necessary for the Capitalist system to expand outward to sustain its own growth.

In doing so, it fulfilled the final basic feature of imperialism as a stage of capitalism: “the territorial division of the whole world among the biggest capitalist powers who are in constant competition to establish world hegemony and control over it economic resources.”

Lenin’s focus, unlike Said’s, was not directly on the psychological and cultural effects of colonialism nor was he focused specifically on the implications of the imperialist network. Rather, he understood both of these concepts under the framework of capitalism whereby capitalism is the overarching economic structure that facilitated colonial and imperial practices.

In this light, Lenin provides an alternative argument that constitutes colonialism and imperialism as consequences of global Capitalism. Therefore, he take the statement one step further; instead of arguing that Colonialism is one of many ways of practicing Imperialism, he argues that Imperialism is one manifestation of the expansion of Capitalism.

Knowledge production
The ways in which knowledge is produced and maintained provide further insight into to how contemporary discourse has imperial roots which continue to dominate the Orient. In Orientalism, Said explains the meaning of Orientalism as a style of thought making, specifically based on ontological and epistemological distinction between the superior West and the inferior East.

This dichotomy casts images of the Orient as backward, exotic and stagnant. The construction of the image of the ‘Other’ informs us about how the Europeans identified the ‘Self’: forward, progressive and dynamic. From this it can be understood that the process of thought making, generated by the colonizers, informed knowledge production.

Foucault discusses in Power/Knowledge (1980) that there is a binary relationship between power and knowledge. Power informs and generates knowledge. Knowledge production rests upon a constant power struggle between the Orient and the Occident to determine discourse. Discourse, using Foucauldian thinking, refers to the production of knowledge through language and practice.

The Orient itself must be seen as a discourse otherwise “it is not possible to understand the systematic discipline by which European culture was able to manage or produce the Orient.” This is because the Orient was Orientalised; an idealised false perception was constructed by the colonialists.

Therefore, Orientalism is a product of colonial interactions that produced a body of knowledge about the Orient rather than producing an accurate depiction. As the colonialists were able to determine the discourse of the Orient, this reinforces the idea that the discourse produced about the Orient is also a symbol of the power of the colonizer over the colonized.

The Orientalist framework of knowledge production is not simply a symptom of Imperialism but a structural process that systematically creates hierarchies between the “Self” and the “Other”. These hierarchies were first established through discourse and then physically manifested themselves through colonial practices.

Colonialism as a practice facilitated the creation of imperial modes of knowledge production that still permeate into how colonialism and imperialism are discussed today. Therefore, to understand colonialism as a historically specific phenomenon would negate that these structures and relationships that are present in the global politics have imperial origins and remain inherently imperialistic.

Therefore, colonialism in its traditional sense can be understand as part of a broader category of Old Imperialism. The long term effects of traditional colonialism which include the psychological and structural framework can be categorized under New Imperialism which is a continuous process of oppression that outlives colonialism.

Neo-Colonialism/New Imperialism
Discourse generated about the Orient generally refers to how the colonized have been traditionally overpowered in literature. The Orientalist framework of knowledge production still persists under New Imperialism. It has provided the theoretical framework for which works such as The Clash of Civilizations by Samuel Huntington and The Roots of Muslim Rage by Bernard Lewis have been produced.

The significance of these developments cannot be underestimated because literature produced within the Orientalist framework heavily influences foreign policy, especially in the US. Said reiterates this point in Orientalism, “Middle East experts can still draw on the vestiges of Orientalism’s intellectual position in nineteenth-century Europe”.

One contemporary example of this is in relation to the Middle East. The West, particularly America, has constructed an image of the Middle East to suggest that “Arabs only understand brutality and violence as part of Arab civilization; Islam is an intolerant, medieval religion.” This fits within the Orientalist framework and this disposition has legitimised American interference in the region for decades.

This interference is Imperial because the structures and relationships that were developed under colonialism are still in place and are utilised and maximised by the US in order to achieve global hegemony. While America cannot operate in the same overt fashion as Britain and France during the nineteenth century they are still able to exert power and influence.

One of the most prominent differences between European imperialism and American imperialism is the language that is used to discuss American Imperialism. Imperial actions and motivations are masked as “liberal intervention” and “humanitarian aid”. This shift in language is significant as it demonstrates that acts that are imperialistic are not always colonial.

Colonialism is one manifestation of Imperialism however the legacy of Colonialism and the power institutions that are in place are still in operation. This reinforces the idea that Imperialism is the wider framework within which colonialism is one manifestation, yet other manifestations such as neo-colonialism are also present.

In conclusion, Colonialism and Imperialism have two different meanings though the two are not linked. However, while the foreign policy of colonial rule has ceased that certainly does not mean that the dysfunctional consequences of Imperialism are not apparent and this is apparent in neo-colonialism.

This resulted in knowledge production, whilst originally a product of colonial activity, becoming an Imperial institution because it maintains the structure of domination that the Occident has over the Orient. Neo-colonialism remains prevalent due to the informal structures that remain in place as a result of traditional Colonialism which are utilised by the US to achieve global hegemony.

Therefore, both Colonialism and neo-Colonialism are ways of practicing Imperialism however neo-colonialism continues to have an impact on state relations due to its structural causes. Imperialism is also prevalent as it refers to a general system of domination which continue to inform international relations.


Kurz, Eva-Lena, The European self-image and identity in relation to the western Balkans,
(Radboud University Nijmegen, 2011)

Lenin, Vladimir, Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism, (Chippendale: Resistance Books, 1999)

Loomba, Ania, Colonialism/Postcolonialism, (London: Routledge, 1998)

Osterhammel, Jürgen, Colonialism, (Kingston: Ian Randle Publishers, 1997)

Said, Edward W, Culture and Resistance. (Cambridge, Mass: South End Press. 2003)

Said, Edward W, Orientalism (New York: Random house, 1979)

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