Myths of Progress and the Temporality of Imperialism

It is commonplace in many intellectual and cultural spheres in the Anglo-Saxon world to refer to some places, regions, or states as “behind” others. For example, in the concerted attempt to synthesize feminist and neo-conservative rhetoric in the justification for the war and continued occupation of Afghanistan, the Bush and Obama administrations regularly referred to Afghanistan as being “behind” “the west” in terms of women’s rights, implying a linear progression from a patriarchal, tribal society which oppresses to women to a equitable, cosmopolitan one where women are nominally equals with their male counterparts. The selling of this particular narrative of progress was an important part of the CIA public relations strategy for shoring up support for the continued occupation of Afghanistan (see also: Stone, 2013).

Jorge Luis Borges once remarked that the lack of camels mentioned in the Koran proves its authentic origins in Arabia and the time of Mohammad: only an Arab author could have taken such an essential beast for granted so as not to mention it. The temporal discourse of some countries being “behind” and others being “ahead” (or maybe “on schedule” in rare cases) is much like the camel not in the Koran: it seems so normalized in our Anglo-American/European cultural worldview that the idea that temporal placement of individuals, groups, and countries functions as a means of making value-judgments about the subject goes generally without saying. Most readers of an Anglo-American background will know what is meant when Hillary Clinton says she won in the places that are “dynamic, moving forward,” while she lost in places that were “looking backwards”.

In the discipline of International Development Studies, which I am currently minoring in, this forward/backward notion of progress was quite explicit just a generation ago in Modernization Theory (McMichael, 2016). In the simplest terms, modernization theory proposed that liberal capitalist states were “developed” and “modern”, and therefore contemporary, while those “undeveloped” states in the socialist bloc and the third world were “behind” and “undeveloped”. The language of first, second, and third worlds also came from this period, which is also a value-judgment which implies these “worlds” are on different planes of existence based on their levels of development.

Empire, Optimism, and Time-Space compression

Before the 1900s, it would be extremely peculiar in European thought to imagine the future as radically different from the present. Even Enlightenment revolutionaries usually argued that what they were doing was restoring a correct and natural order which preceded the deformed order which oppressed them. The French revolution, arguably one of the most “progressive” political developments in history in terms of creating contemporary notions of sovereignty, democracy, and republicanism and overthrowing the aristocratic order, was largely rhetorically inspired by the Roman and Athenian republics and by the idea of Rousseau’s “state of nature”, rather than the idea of creating something entirely new.

Progress, Restoration, or Both?

It was only in Victorian England, the centre of the British Empire and at that time widely regarded as the centre of the world economy, much like the United States today, (O’Brien and Williams, 2007) that the idea of “progress” as we now understand it began to have real intellectual legitimacy. The development of electricity and the telegram led to a kind of cultural time-space compression; things were happening faster, consumer goods were travelling further, information was more widely available – early indicators of what we now call globalization. Among the imperial bourgeois of England, deeply intertwined with the royal court of queen Victoria, this spawned the first generation of futurists, bringing together colonial officers, British industrialists, American tycoons, and professional inventors in a project to reshape the world according to a furious and destabilizing techno-capitalism.

It is around this period that we first see references to Great Britain being “ahead” of other civilizations at the time. New technology, regarded as “progress” in its own right, was seen as bursting forth from the Victorian form of social organization. This perceived techno-social supremacy accompanied the development of scientific racism and the idea of whiteness, where Darwinian evolutionary theory was hamfistedly applied to human societies to explain the apparent disparity in intellect between the Victorian “white race” and their colonial subjects. This notion of “social evolutionism” was at the foreground of early anthropology, as well as the Victorians’ own perception of self supremacy (Forte, 2016). Equally, social Darwinism came to explain the increasing stratification between capitalists and workers in industrial society, depicting the working class as dirty, uncouth, and holding on to old peasant ways which kept them from experiencing the full blessings that industrial wage-labour bequeathed them.

Think on Donald Trump’s recent remarks that a variety of Central American, Caribbean, and African countries are “shitholes”, or the affore quote from Hilary Clinton, who seems to place her voters at a higher stage of human achievement because they produce more GDP, while Trump voters (especially in the Midwest) are “deplorables”. Both these value-judgments imply superiority of the speaker’s own partisan political camp based on adherence and fulfillment of the Victorian ideal while revealing the disdain for various underclasses essential to such an elitist worldview.

The Victorian era also saw a number of norms and institutions that readers will likely see as resonant with contemporary “western” society: philanthropic charity (as distinct from classical charity), states of “permanent warfare” – recall Afghanistan from the introduction, which both Great Britain and the US became embroiled in, –  aversion to “provincialism” and preference for cosmopolitanism, and increased proletarianization and declining prospects for the majority of people (Forte, 2016).

Capitalist Realism, New Victorianism: Colonizing the Future
Victoria Memorial, Montreal, QC

The Victorian “forward acceleration” in the realm of culture accompanied, and was basically synonymous with, the rapacious accumulation of capital via exploitation and plunder, of Britain’s colonies. It should come as no surprise that the society which used terra nullius to build a “Greater Britain” (Forte, 2016) through the genocidal settler-colonies of Canada, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand regarded the future as terra incognita: unknown land, ripe for colonization (Morus, 2014). As residents of this “Greater Britain”, we in English-speaking North America have largely inherited the Victorian worldview. Pax Britanica has been succeeded by Pax Americana. Is it any wonder that all fantastical futures, from Star Trek to Elon Musk’s plans to populate Mars, are imagined as better, more benevolent forms of colonization?

Self-described “progressive” elites, everyone from neoconservative lobbyists to left-liberal academics, tell us that, “you can’t go backward,” or, “you can’t turn the clock back,” and, “a return to the past is impossible”. They insist that we are all going to be brought to “the future” – which seems to mean liberal democracy, globalization, and free trade. But this “progress” implies a perfect, linear arc of time through which history “progresses” towards an inevitable ontology. Such a constant acceleration, like the one imagined by the old Victorians and by today’s “new” Victorians (Forte, 2016), is neither reasonably possible nor desirable. Thus, while we are insistently told to subscribe to “progress”, we are also jarringly proscribed a “dead end” in liberal democracy.

With “progress” ending, so does history, according to liberalism/progressivism. This was Francis Fukuyama’s thesis, which suggested that liberal democracy and capitalism would eventually overtake the whole world, led by the imperial United States  (Fukuyama, 1992). Fukuyama has of course had to revise his thesis several times, as threats as varied as advancements in biotechnology to geopolitical rivals to the US shake his faith in the eventuality of global liberalism.

But Fukuyama’s thesis that there is no alternative to liberal capitalism continues to resonate in popular culture. We are presented at once with liberal utopianism about its own future and “capitalist realism” (Fischer, 2014) about the possibility of systems besides liberal capitalism. The 21st century, as an age of progress at the end of progress, is one that repeats older forms of optimism and progressivism in order to conceal the stagnation and decline of American imperialism. New Victorianism which mimes the old Victorianism of imperial Britain is one way we can see this, with the pattern of imperial decline being repeated in the US case. Another is the emergence of recyclable popular culture. The reader is likely familiar with how fashion, trends, and aesthetics seem to rise and fall in vogue in an increasingly rapid, cyclical fashion. The colour at the time of writing seems to be 80’s nostalgia, which recycles the “lost future” into a consumer package that at once satisfies nostalgia for a time when optimism seemed more tangible, and makes the return of optimism seem possible in spite of capitalist crises and imperial decline (Fischer, 2014).

There are two kinds of colonialism at play here which serve to narrow the popular imagination. On the one hand, the classical Victorian tendency insists that there is something valuable in the notion of progress – that we should take pride in being “ahead” and like messiahs we should spread our forwardness in the form of “nation building” and “opening up markets”. On the other hand, imagining a system besides liberal capitalism is forbidden, a colonial restriction of self-determination. Just as old and new Victorians said and continue to say that colonial subjects are incapable of governing themselves on their own terms, requiring them to accept liberalism, globalization, and capitalism, so too is imagining a system besides capitalism dictated as impossible. In fact, these two kinds of restriction on self-determination are interrelated, often to the point of being indistinguishable.

Dystopia of the Now: The view from Latin America

The silence on how Victorian progressivism and imperialism shapes our public imaginations is not only because ideology is often most effective when it is silent, but because public intellectual inquiry has been shaped to take its presumptions for granted. Bourdieu and Wacquant deal with the internationalization of US paradigms in their controversial piece “On the Cunning of Imperialist Reason”. The US has thus created an “international lingua franca” that ignores local particularities, and they point to various examples of the “symbolic dominion and influence” exercised by the US (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1999). This “US ontology”, a product of US imperialism,  among other things proscribes a temporal “forwardness” positioning some countries as “ahead” and others “behind”, to the point that we have very few other ways of talking about international inequalities.

In this privileging of the temporal, globalist, and ultimately imperialist notion of progress, mainstream academia often ignores local conditions and realities. In the case of Latin America, we can see how this ideology of progress, and the privileging of the advancing imperial centre, plays out in reality. The very phrase Latin America comes from “modernizing” elites; the English “Latin America” comes from the Spanish Latinoamerica, which in turn comes from Latinidad, meaning to have  “Latinness”. This distinction was made by liberal elites in the newly-independent Spanish colonies to denote their proximity to the “Latin” or “European” world (Mignolo, 2005). Disdaining the provincialism of their compatriots, they sought to replicate European and American models (Burns, 1980).  Progress was equated with Europeanization, which under the tutorship of Britain, France, and the United States, also meant urbanization and industrialization at the expense of Indigenous societies and local cultural traditions. The result was increased foreign penetration of Latin American economies and dependency (Forte, 2018).

In the case of resistance, the “provincial” peasantry and indigenous peoples, were denounced as ignoramuses. “Reason” was the exclusive claim of the liberal, urban, European elite. The “reactionary” peasants were stuck in the past, while the elites were in the future (Burns, 1980).

Despite this history of repeated immiseration through “modernization”, and the increasingly obvious failure of the US-imposed model even within the US itself, self-appointed experts continue to claim that  Latin America is “underdeveloped” due to the persistence of feudal and traditional pre-capitalist forms of production within their economies and that therefore Latin American states should “develop” further i.e. expand the reach of capitalism in order to achieve prosperity. There is a magic belief that capital is benevolent, when in fact capitalism often breeds poverty, disease, and death. One can also hear echoes of elitist denunciations of the peasantry in the way that US authorities condemn “tyrants” and “populists” in the region.

Today, there are millions in Latin America who might be described as “victims of progress”. Progress “is a deep cultural bias of Western thought,” and it is the hallmark of the deterministic thinking of the Victorians, accepting “survival of the fittest” indicting those who do not survive capitalism as “failures” (Fischer, 2014). As such, there are cycles of “progress” and “modernization” in Latin America. With each cycle of capitalist “development” – expanding, appropriating resources, and incorporating people, spaces, and things into commodity production – Latin America is repeatedly decimated and  bound as a net exporter of raw materials, capital, and labour value back to the global “metropolis”. The constant cycles of capital, rather than “modernizing” the continent, reproduce a peculiar kind of savagery.


While modernization theorists tend to view institutions like the hacienda and the landed elite of Latin America, notorious for indentured labour and brutality, as a feudal anachronism to be swept away by a more mature capitalist system of land ownership resembling the European plot farms, the reality is that the hacienda is fundamental to the sustenance not only of the local elites of Latin America, but the capitalist mode of production; representing the tendency towards monopolization in agriculture, rather than a non-capitalist anomaly. This was one of the great insights of world-systems theorists Andre Gunder Frank, which he called  “development of underdevelopment” (Frank, 1969a, p. 9):

“the latifundium, irrespective of whether it appears today as a plantation or a hacienda, was typically born as a commercial enterprise which created for itself the institutions which permitted it to respond to increased demand in the world or national market by expanding the amount of its land, capital, and labor (sic) and to increase the supply of its products” (Frank, 1969b, p. 14).

The “modernizers” thus produce “savergry” in need of civilizing.

The illusion of Victorian progressivism is that Latin America’s “backwardness” and Greater Britain’s “advancement” are unrelated. In the worldview of the world’s elite, Latin America has simply failed to conform with “progress” and this is the cause of its problems. The reality is that imitation of European or US models is not only undesirable because they do not reflect local conditions, but impossible because all current and historical US and European models of enrichment and “progress” are contingent upon the impoverishment of Latin America.


Linear, Eurocentric, universalist narratives of progress are deeply embedded in our cultural worldview, both the mainstream and a variety of self-described “dissident” currents in the west. They are comforting, magic tales with familiar myths that many people are encultured into, and are exported across the world through media, communications, commerce, and military might. Yet, they cannot and do not speak for the rest of the world and their proscriptions are anything but universal. This is not a call for total rejection of the European experience or European philosophies, but an important contribution to the tradition of cultural criticism. With this criticism in mind, a future besides capitalist modernization is more readily to be understood on its own terms.

Image result for technicians wanted NASA recruitment posterCover Image: From NASA’s “Technicians Wanted” recruitment poster


Burns, E. Bradford. (1980). The Poverty of Progress: Latin America in the Nineteenth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Bourdieu, Pierre, & Wacquant, Loic. 1999. “On the Cunning of Imperialist Reason”. Theory, Culture & Society, Vol. 16, no. 1: 41-58.

Central Intelligence Agency, and Red Cell. 2010 (released). “CIA Report into Shoring up Afghan War Support in Western Europe,” Wikileaks.

Deaton, Angus. (2018). “The U.S. Can No Longer Hide From Its Deep Poverty Problem”. The New York Times

Fischer, Mark. 2014. Ghosts of my life: writings on depression, hauntology and lost futures. Winchester, UK: Zero Books.

Forte, Maximillian. 2017, “Progress, Progressivism, and Progressives: An Anthropologist’s Perspective.” Zero Anthropology.

Forte, Maximillian. 2016. The New Victorianism. Montreal, QC: Concordia University.

Frank, Andre Gunder. 1969a. Capitalism and Underdevelopment in Latin America: Historical Studies of Chile and Brazil. New York, NY: Monthly Review Press.

Frank, Andre Gunder. 1969b. Latin America: Underdevelopment or Revolution. New York, NY: Monthly Review Press.

Fukuyama, Francis. 1992. The End of History and the Last Man. New York, NY: Free Press Inc.

Lutes, Abram Johannes F. 2016. “Political Economy of Eurocentrism: The Post-WW2 “Development Project” As Colonialism.” Peripheral Thought.

McMichael, 2016. Development and Social Change. New York, NY: SAGE Publications.

Mignolo, Walter. 2005. The Idea of Latin America. New York, NY: Wiley.

Morus, Iwan Rhys. 2014. “Future Perfect: Social progress, high-speed transport and electricity everywhere—how the Victorians invented the future”. Aeon.

Nagle, Angela. 2017. “Enemies of the People.” The Baffler, No. 34.

Nitzberg, Alex. 2 November 2018. “‘The Troika of Tyranny’: Bolton Condemns The Cuban, Venezuelan and Nicaraguan Regimes“. Town Hall.

O’Brien, R. and Marc Williams. 2007. “The Industrial Revolution, Pax Britanica, and Imperialism.” Global Political Economy (2nd ed.). New York, NY Palgrave/Macmillan: 77-105.

Stone, Brendan. 2013. “Colonial Feminism, Liberal “Progress,” and the Weakness of the Left“. Zero Anthropology.

York, Richard, & Clark, Brett. 2011. “Stephen Jay Gould’s Critique of Progress”. Monthly Review.


The Geneva Men: A Review of ‘Globalists’ by Quinn Slobodian

A review of Quinn Slobodian, 2017. Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of
Neoliberalism. Boston, MA: Harvard University Press.,204,203,200_.jpgNeoliberalism and globalism have both become buzzwords used within the political discourse by intellectuals, journalists, as much as celebrities in order to describe and explain recent events. But what are really neoliberalism and globalism, and in what relation do they stand to each other? Quinn Slobodian argues in his recent book Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism, that neoliberalism and globalism are commensurate concepts, an economic doctrine on the one hand and a political worldview on the other, both mutually reinforcing a particular form of contemporary capitalism. Slobodian puts the notion that neoliberalism lacks a clear referent to rest. Instead, he argues that neoliberalism and globalism have existed as a coherent body of thought since the 1920s. Tracing the origins and consequent development of these ideas, he offers the readers a richer, more precise history of both the idea and practice of neoliberalism-globalism, with particular attention to their relationship with sovereignty and democracy. As such, he provides us with a much needed historical and theoretical corrective to the oft repeated and yet often historically inaccurate theories of neoliberalism.

Donald Trump, who railed against ‘globalism’ on the campaign trail, was elected in 2016 partly on a platform of defying free trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and NAFTA. Similarly, we have recently witnessed a proliferation of anti-EU forces from both the left and right in Europe, notably in form of Brexit in the UK and in Italy’s recent elections. Mexico has also recently elected the ‘populist’ Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who threatens to destabilize NAFTA, at least as we know it. These political upheavals against the postwar world order make Globalists a timely and necessary reading for anyone interested in intellectual and economic history.

Central to Slobodian’s argument in Globalists is a rejection of the idea that neoliberalism can simply be reduced to ‘market fundamentalism’, a term central to Karl Polyani’s critique. Rather, Slobodian argues, neoliberalism is a form of regulation, rather than a radical opposition to regulation; it is a form of regulation that seeks to reshape societies to be more favorable to the interests of the market and of the capitalist class, in opposition to democracy and sovereignty if necessary.

Typically, histories of neoliberalism begin somewhere around the Reagan and Thatcher governments of the 1970s. However, Slobodian traces the history of neoliberalism further back, beginning in Austria in the 1920s with the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and of the House of Hapsburg. During this time of the beginning of the end for the old empires of Europe, Austria held its first election with universal male suffrage, catapulting the radical Social Democratic Party to previously unforeseen influence in the government. Without the autocratic counterweight of the Hapsburg monarchy, conservative Austrian elites feared that their privileges and class power would be undone by the new democratic government. In response, the Austrian nomenklatura, now-infamous names like Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises among them, called for a renovation of the capitalist class’s approach to managing power. Their proposed solution was not only intended to the challenge social democracy and the global compounded rise of nationalism, socialism, but also more crucially democratic self-determination. To the capitalist class these forces represented different sides of the same basic threat: the rubes of the world, incapable of governing themselves, turned against their betters. In the words of Lionel Robbins, one of the first ardent globalists, ‘”Mines for miners” and “Papua for Papuans” are analytically similar slogans.’

Contrary to widespread belief, the Austrian School of Economics, as Hayek and Mises’ faction are often called, did not propose a regime of laissez-faire economics as we normally understand it. Rather, they sought to overcome the limitations of the old regime of mercantile colonialism, which divided the world territorially amongst competing camps of European capitalists, through the use of truly global institutions—the League of Nations, the European Court of Justice, the World Trade Organization, international investment law, etc. — to insulate markets. Their basic ethos could be summed up as follows: ‘International institutions should act as mechanisms for protecting and furthering competition without offering spaces for popular claims-making’ (p. 271). This, they believed, would protect the profits of the capitalist class against the laws of sovereign states, political instability, and demands raised by civil society and workers for greater equality and social justice. Many leaders of the early neoliberal movement relocated to Geneva in order to influence the shaping of these institutions, leading Slobodian to call them the ‘Geneva School’ (p. 7). The Geneva School was closely tied to business and finance, and its members moved easily between academic settings and lobby organizations such as the International Chamber of Commerce.

The popular (mis)understanding of neoliberalism is perhaps best represented by Karl Polyani’s description of the movement in The Great Transformation, where he uses the term ‘market fundamentalism’ to describe the Geneva School ideology. In this interpretation, neoliberals advocate for ‘disembedded’ markets which, separated from society, replace social bonds with atomized relations, giving rise to counter-reactions within society in the form of either xenophobic nationalism or revolutionary socialism. Slobodian, however, identifies the objective of the Geneva School instead as ‘enclosing’ markets in international institutions and treaties. Far from being fundamentalists with an irrational faith in the market, Hayek and Mises readily accepted that markets are ‘products of the political construction of institutions [which] encase them’ (p.7).

The first economic gathering to take the entire world as its subject was the World Economic Conference of 1927. Famous neoliberals like Mises, Gottfried, Haberler, Röpke, Hayek and the aforementioned Robbins all took a direct role in the conference and the subsequent declaration advocating global economic governance, codifying international opposition to ‘trade obstacles’ on the part of the European elite (p. 30). This is the first attempt documented in Globalists of neoliberals trying to conjure up a supranational federation of capitalists as a way to offset the dual pressures of national economic planning and decolonization.

The wave of independent nation-states rising from the ashes of empire after the world wars prompted greater urgency for such a supranational power. From the perspective of capitalists and their neoliberal lieutenants, these were adversaries to be thwarted. ‘For [Mises]’, writes Slobodian, ‘the real war was not between individual nations or empires but between the world economy and the nation as forms of human organization’ (p.109). It is from this capitalist project of ‘militant globalism’ against ‘economic nationalism’ 01b_wto_interior-(Heilperin, quoted on p. 130) that Slobodian traces the development of entities like the European Union, Free Trade Agreements and the Investor-State Dispute clauses they contain, as well as the World Trade Organization, and the neoliberal intellectuals’ instrumental role in their construction. While these institutions ultimately benefited the elites of the European countries and the United States, they required even the wealthy countries to acquiesce their sovereignty to dictates which spanned multiple sovereign jurisdictions, making them difficult to be challenged by any one government without inviting conflict.

Of particular interest to anthropologists, Slobodian focuses on neoliberal ambassadors’ deep interest in the area of culture. The globalists, from their vantage point in Geneva, left no intellectual or topical stone unturned. The Rockefeller and Ford Foundation, two of the largest funders of ethnographic projects to date, were generous in their support of neoliberal intellectuals seeking to broaden the conceptual scope of their project. The Rockefeller Foundation, for example, essentially bankrolled a study by Wilhelm Ropke in the Danube region which lambasted the locals for ‘economic simplism’ for seeking greater authority over their own economy (p. 75). Interestingly, Ropke considered this demand for economic control as a cultural phenomenon and sought to develop methods and instruments to reshape the culture of the Danube to be more accommodating to the global market.

Related imageGlobalists is effective in its ability to lay bare and substantiate with broad source evidence what Slobodian classifies as some basic truths about neoliberal ideology. The book also weaves a convincing narrative about these tenets and their implementation across the modern world. The basic principles Slobodian ascribes to neoliberal globalism are mostly described in negatives. The first is neoliberalism’s aversion to democracy, particularly to democracy that cannot be manipulated or neutered in some way. Slobodian demonstrates this through quotations from neoliberal intellectuals, Mont Perlin Society memos, and internal documents of the European Union, IMF, and other bodies. The second is neoliberalism’s aversion to the nation-state and sovereignty, which binds capitalists by certain obligations which may limit their profits and liquidity, something Mises was particularly adamant about. The third and final, related to the proceeding points, is neoliberal globalism’s resistance to politicization; that states or peoples should have levers by which to regulate or transform their social conditions is the antithesis of the neoliberal project. The neoliberal globe is one without politics, especially without politics that could potentially interrupt the smooth expansion of the market. This may also explain why we can observe an uncanny rise of disturbing pseudo-politics within the last decades.

Neoliberalism as a body of thought and its Geneva School ambassadors have had profound political, economic, and cultural influence on the modern world. Globalists does an excellent job of summarizing and explaining neoliberalism’s development, its core principles, and its direction. It is also a retort to lazy analyses of neoliberalism, which focus solely on aspects of economic policy or reform, and not on the other arenas of human life – culture, politics, international relations, etc. – which the Geneva School has actively and consciously sought to shape, along with Keynesians, imperial bureaucracies, business lobbyists, activists of certain stripes, and a host of other actors. Globalists is a valuable and refreshingly thorough book which clearly defines and scrutinizes the intellectual and practical components of neoliberalism in a manner which is deserving of commendation.

This of Dr. Quinn Slobodian’s most recent book was originally written for and published in the Journal of Extreme Anthropology as part of their forthcoming special issue on SOVEREIGNTY, which you can access here. A pdf of the review is available from the JEA page and on my page.

As part of my work maintaining Peripheral Thought, we will soon publish a series of articles on SOVEREIGNTY, in part inspired by and intended to accompany JEA’s release of the special issue on the same topic. 

The suggested citation for this review is:

Lutes, Abram. 2018. “The Geneva Men: A Review of ‘Globalists’ by Quinn Slobodian” in Journal of Extreme Anthropology, Vol. 2, no. 2: Sovereignty.



NGO’s and Empire Maintenance: Aid distributors versus popular sovereignty

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

Aboriginal activists group, Queensland, 1970s

Among the many foibles and spectacles which have characterized the presidency of Donald J. Trump, was his threat to withdraw humanitarian aid from foreign countries on two occasions, the first being a threat against any and all countries who did not vote for the US’s UN resolution to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the other threatening to cut off aid to US ally Pakistan if Pakistan did not meet a series of demands, particularly compliance with the Trump administration’s strategy in Afghanistan.

In both instances, Trump and his UN ambassador Nikki Haley reiterated an old American myth that all US aid is disinterested charity, effectively accusing the Global South of being international welfare bums. They also assumed that US aid was indispensable to Global South countries’ survival. Yet, both Pakistan and Palestine in different ways sent a very distinct message; “we don’t care” and “we don’t need you”.

In Trump’s brash displays of bravado, he may have unwittingly contributed to the unraveling of one of US imperialism’s most effective “soft power” techniques for maintaining the loyalty of intermediaries in the Global South, namely international “aid”. International aid from the Global North cores to the Global South peripheries is by and large managed by government institutions like USAID in the United States and Global Affairs Canada (GAC) but enacted by private actors often referred to as Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s). NGO’s have proliferated since the 1980’s, interestingly in tandem with the rise of neoliberalism. Contrary to what much of their branding might suggest, they are essential pillars to the maintenance of imperialism today.

The “Caribbean letter”: On agency and neocolonialism in Haiti

In addition to Trump’s grandstanding, international aid has also captured recent news due to the scandals rocking once-respected Oxfam International, namely widespread sexual exploitation of Haitians by Oxfam employees and alleged use of prostitutes in Chad, and the arrest of Oxfam’s director for corruption charges related to his former role as president of Guatemala. Any of these scandals on their own would potentially topple one of the titans of the NGO industry, renowned in the Global North for its progressive credentials on issues such as gender and income inequality (though usually only from the perspective of imperial core navel-gazing), together they might mean a spectacularly quick demise.

Both these scandals have history behind them and were made possible by the deep structural characteristics of NGO’s as “force multipliers” (Forte, 2015) of US and Canadian imperialism. As a signed letter to The Guardian from Caribbean intellectuals and organizers pointed out:

“In 2008 some of us had written to Barbara Stocking, then Oxfam chief executive, objecting to a report that it sponsored, Rule of Rapists in Haiti, which labelled Haitians as rapists while hiding rapes by occupying UN forces. The year before, 114 soldiers had been sent home for raping women and girls, some as young as 11. No one was prosecuted. We wrote: “NGOs like Oxfam have known about rapes by UN forces, as well as by aid and charity workers, for decades. It’s the pressure of victims, women and [children] in the most impoverished communities, who had the courage to speak out that finally won … public acknowledgement.” There was no reply.

The latest revelations of sexual abuse by major charities…are but one facet of NGO corruption. The people of Haiti were the first to free themselves from slavery, but the colonial “masters” they defeated – France, Britain and the US – have continued to plunder and exploit, including through imported NGOs. Haiti has more NGOs per square mile than any other country and it remains the poorest in the western hemisphere. Corruption begins and ends with neo-colonial powers.

While celebrated for “doing good”, NGO professionals do well for themselves. They move between NGOs, academia and political appointments, enjoying a culture of impunity while they exercise power over the poorest. The Lancet described NGOs in Haiti as “polluted by unsavoury characteristics seen in many big corporations” and “obsessed with raising money”.

(Le Cointe, Altheia, Luke Daniels, Cristel Amiss et al., 13 February 2018)

This widespread abuse often goes unnoticed by the Global North public, whose tax dollars often subsidize these projects (Oxfam receives significant funding from the UK government). In fact, in a survey of the Canadian public, 91% of Canadians expressed at least “some confidence” while 41%, almost half, expressed “great confidence” in NGO’s (Barry-Shaw and Jay, 2012b). Canadians also see themselves as widely loved throughout the world (Barry-Shaw and Jay, 2012a). Yet, as the “Caribbean letter” demonstrates, Canadian NGO’s have more questionable reputations than the wider public might assume.

The normalization of NGO’s masks a series of insidious imperialist operations. In Haiti, NGO’s were used to conceal the increasing military role of the “international community”, headed by the United States, on the island. The US has twice intervened to overthrow popular Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, once in 1991 and again in 2004. The troops stationed in 2004 to quell pro-Aristide unrest remain in the country and are a key component to the management and distribution of international aid, and NGO’s are required to cooperate with these occupying forces. These same NGO’s, especially Quebec-based ones, cheered the overthrow of Aristide in 2004 (Forgie, 2014; Barry-Shaw and Jay, 2012b). Numerous NGO’s were also enlisted by the Clinton Foundation to engage in its “development projects”, which as we have discussed before, were in fact a scheme to loot poor Haitians. Such practices are more commonplace than the trusting Canadian public might assume, as state donors like USAID and GAC, or private foundations like the Clinton or Gates Foundation leverage their vast supply of funds to encourage NGO’s to act as maintenance tools for imperialism (Frogie, 2014; Reith, 2010).


That NGO’s describe such schemes as “partnerships” between themselves and government or corporate entities conceals the power imbalance between government and foundation funders and the NGO’s “on the ground”. Sally Reith (2010) describes this as the “Trojan Horse” of development discourses, implying a level, depoliticized playing field. Meanwhile, aid has a precisely political character to it, usually in favour of maintaining imperialism and neocolonialism (Engler, 2015). USAID, which is run by the US State Department, makes no secret of this, saying its purpose is to “further America’s interest while improving lives in the developing world” (emphasis added).

The Kennedy administration created USAID in 1961, and since then the agency has been the proving ground of US foreign assistance objectives. It has been proven that countries rotating onto the UN Security Council received on average 59% more aid. As soon as their term ended, aid would fall to historic lows (Kuziemko and Werker, 2006). In a related study, T.Y. Wang (1999) found that UN voting patterns on vital issues to American interests were successfully swayed through the practice of aid giving, rewarding compliance and punishing political defiance. NGO’s are often bound to these funding streams, making the name “non-governmental” seem quite unusual given their actual reliance on western government aid.

Youthful Idealism: From impetus for revolt to marketing technique

Related imageThese contemporary practices often coexist with NGO branding which promotes the role of western young people as “change-agents”, not only in their own societies, but across the entire world (Biehn, 2014). This is a legacy of the origin of NGO’s, especially in Canada, which grew out of attempts to neutralize the new anti-war left during the Pearson and Trudeau Sr. years. Many now-mainstream NGO’s such as CUSO, mostly composed of youth and students, were highly critical of the Vietnam war, and openly criticized the politicization of food aid by Canada as part of the Cold War. These organizations were lured by the relative tolerance of Pearson and Trudeau Sr.’s foreign policy, leading eventually to their institutionalization (Barry-Shaw and Jay, 2012b). CUSO was absorbed through a government coup of its board of directors, which ripped control of the organization away from its volunteers, while organizations like the Inter-Church Council (now KAIROS), had their funding slashed for criticizing neoliberal structural adjustment (Barry-Shaw and Jay, 2012a), the beginning of “funding discipline” as a technique for maintaining NGO’s as part of the imperialist nexus.

The idea that NGO’s were an expression of youthful change-making, however, was preserved, pivoted to neoliberal ends. Biehn (2014) scrutinizes this, demonstrating how recruitment messaging directed at potential volunteers enforces neoliberal, capitalist understandings of the problem of and potential solutions to global inequalities. Problems are thus decontextualized and depoliticized. The messages reinforce a desired image of the Western youth as a powerful actor, an impetus for change, and an inspiration (Biehn, 2014).

One of the organizations Biehn uses as a case study is International Student Volunteers (ISV). I had a colleague working on a research project with ISV, which we discussed. She was quick to express her frustration with the organization being dominated by a particular milieu of people, what I would call the professional-managerial stratum along with a particularly involved section of the liberal bourgeoisie. These “white and privileged” (her words) families dominated ISV much to her frustration (her project was to find ways to increase the diversity of ISV volunteers). In hindsight, I would argue this is to be expected, as Biehn points out, ISV-style volunteerism is a noteworthy instrument for reproducing the orientation and allegiance of Global North professionals with imperialism.

Similarly, I had peers embark on various humanitarian trips, usually ranging from one to two weeks, to Haiti immediately following and a few years after the earthquake. These trips, usually financed by a combination of Foundation sponsorship, NGO collaboration, and church-based fundraising, consisted of typical volunteerism – building cheap churches, schoolhouses, etc. Looking back, it is fascinating to me that none of these students reported back anything of the political unrest and popular resentment of Haiti in their glossy presentations once they returned home, and enthusiastically accepted the presence of US marines on the island without question. The sheltering of the future young professionals and aspirant bourgeoisie whilst providing them an “authentic” experience of aid and poverty, helps create the conscious ignorance which characterizes the transnational capitalist class (Biehn, 2014; McGoey, 2012).

South-South cooperation and the urgency of Solidarity

If any more evidence was required to demonstrate that Oxfam and similar NGO’s are part of the imperialist establishment, consider that Winnie Byanyima, the Executive Director of Oxfam, appeared at the 2014 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Ostensibly, Oxfam was there to represent the voices of “ordinary people” to the global conference of oligarchs and elites, though as Marc Wergerif (2018) points out, no one asked them to speak for them. The assumption by Oxfam that it speaks for “ordinary people” is undercut by its actual collaboration with US imperialism and the transnational capitalist class and its failure to actually advocate solid propositions of popular organizations like La Via Campesina peasants’ coalition, or the Bolivarian social movements, or god forbid movements in the Global South organizing more explicitly for sovereignty against imperialism, such as the Syrian reconciliation movement.

Image result for via campesina

Furthermore, why should a transnational foundation, run mostly by cosmopolitan professionals from the Global North and a handful of compradors, speak for “ordinary people” as a homogenized mass, and not their national representatives? Wergerif says it will be popular practices and movements that will provide the solutions for global challenges, not the schemes of agencies like Oxfam. One should note that as US imperialism continues to experience an economic and strategic decline, its beneficiaries are increasingly desperate to portray its maintenance as humanitarian, internationalist, and benevolent in nature. Meanwhile, we can see an increasing trend towards South-South cooperation in the form of Latin American integration and Chinese partnerships with Africa and the Bolivarian states, anti-EU groundswell in the form of Brexit, and a general working-class rage catapulting both right and left forces to prominence in the Global North. As Wergeif says, these “people’s everyday practices” have done much more to unravel the foundations of systematic inequality than the docile managers at Oxfam could accomplish. What directions these anti-systemic trends will take remains to be seen, but it is certain that they will increasingly delegitimize NGO’s as vehicles for social change.


Ayed, Nalaha. 15 February 2018. “Oxfam scandal highlights spectrum of abuse: local staff, recipients — aid workers, tooCBC.

Barry-Shaw, Nikolas and Dru Oja Jay. 2012a. “NGOs and empire: Canadian aid agencies take empire building seriously” in Briarpatch.

Barry-Shaw, Nikolas and Dru Oja Jay. 2012b. Paved with Good Intentions: Canada’s development NGOs from idealism to imperialism. Halifax, NS: Fernwood Press.

Biehn, Tristan. 2014. “Who Needs Me Most? New Imperialist Ideologies in Youth-Centred Volunteer Abroad Programs” in The New Imperialism, Volume 4: Good Intentions, Norms and Practices of Imperial Humanitarianism. Edited by Maximilian C. Forte. Montréal, QC: Alert Press, 77-87.

Chandran, Nyshka. 3 January 2018. “Pakistan is ditching the dollar for trade with China — 24 hours after Trump denounced the countryMSNBC. 

Cornwall, Andrea. 2003. “Whose Voices? Whose Choices? Reflections on Gender and Participatory Development.” World Development Vol. 31, no. 8: 1325-1342.

Donnan, Shawn. 1 January 2018. “Donald Trump threatens to withhold US aid to PakistanFinancial Times.

Engler, Yves. 2015. Canada in Africa: 300 years of aid and exploitation. Halifax, NS: Fernwood Press.

Forgie, Keir. 2014. “US Imperialism and Disaster Capitalism in Haiti” in The New Imperialism, Volume 4: Good Intentions, Norms and Practices of Imperial Humanitarianism. Edited by Maximilian C. Forte. Montréal, QC: Alert Press, 57-75.

Forte, Maxmillian C. 2015. “Introduction to Force Multipliers: Imperial Instrumentalism in Theory and Practice” in The New Imperialism, Vol. 5: Force Multipliers: The Instrumentalities of Imperialism. Montreal, QC: Alert Press, 1-87.

Le Cointe, Altheia, Luke Daniels, Cristel Amiss et al. 13 February 2018. “NGO crimes go far beyond OxfamGuardian. 

McGoey, Linsey. 2012. “Philanthropcapitalism and its critics.” Poetics Vol. 40, no.2: 185-199.

Kuziemko and Werker. 2006. “How Much Is a Seat on the Security Council Worth? Foreign Aid and Bribery at the United Nations” (draft) in Journal of Political Economy (forthcoming).

Nichols, Michelle. 21 December 2017. “Defying Trump, over 120 countries at U.N. condemn Jerusalem decisionReuters. 

Perez, Sonia. 13 February 2018. “Guatemalan ex-president, Oxfam chief held in corruption case.ABC News. 

Ratcliffe, Rebecca and Ben Quinn. 11 February 2018. “Oxfam: fresh claims that staff used prostitutes in ChadGuardian.

Reith, Sally. 2010. “Money, power, and donor–NGO partnerships.” Development in Practice 20(3): 446-455.

Staff. 3 January 2018. “‘Jerusalem is not for Sale’: Palestine to Trump after US threatens to cut $300mn aidRussia Today.

USAID. N.D. “Who We are”.

Wang, T.Y. (1999). “US Foreign Aid and UN Voting: An Analysis of Important Issues” in International Studies Quarterly, Vol. 43, no. 1: 199-210.

Marc C. A. Wegerif. February 2018. “People’s everyday practices, not the elites of Davos, hold the human economy answer to inequality” Pambazuka


Empires of Aid and Compassion: Foundations as Architects of Neoliberalism

They seriously and very sentimentally set themselves to the task of remedying the evils that they see in poverty, but their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it… the proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible.

(Oscar Wilde on philanthropists, quoted in Global Justice Now, 2016. Emphasis added.)

The existence of, and significance, of philanthropic foundations and their influence are increasingly becoming part of public discussion. Foundations have come to be significant in US partisan politics after the 2016 election, with criticism from both the left and right being directed towards Bill and Hilary Clinton’s Clinton Foundation, including its scandalous kickbacks schemes in Haiti, and its dependency on donations from the Saudi royal family. Asra Nomani also brought attention to the dominance of organizations funded by one of Clinton’s most generous financial backers at the Women’s March on Washington, George Soros, who also heads the Open Society Foundation, a significant philanthropic actor in its own right. More recently, Donald Trump’s philanthropy has also come under scrutiny.

Perhaps the most critical analysis of modern philanthropic foundations available to the wider public is a report by the UK pressure group Global Justice Now. Their report Gated Development: Is the Gates Foundation always a force for good? (2016), which provides a damning assessment of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMG for short), received little attention in the mainstream media, apart from an article in the UK paper The Independent. The article summarizes the Global Justice report as saying that the Gates Foundation promotes neoliberal economic policies and “corporate globalization” in service of its allies and funders, including major transnationals, agricultural companies, and pharmaceuticals.

Given the Gates Foundations’ significant investments in ExxonMobil, Dutch Shell, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and McDonald’s, and its significant ownership of pharmaceutical intellectual property (McGoey, 2012), Global Justice’s claim deserves more attention than it has been given by the media. The Gates Foundation purports itself to be at the forefront of improving quality of life in the Global South, yet invests in some of the largest transnationals involved in destructive resource extraction and exploitative labour practices throughout the world, to say nothing of Microsoft’s own exploitative, neoliberal growth schemes (Microsoft is one of the largest funders of the Gates Foundation besides Warren Buffett and the Gates themselves), which provided the surplus wealth necessary to create such a massive philanthropic enterprise.

Transnational Oligarchs, gangsters turned self-appointed Saviors

The Gates Foundation is often seen as the global vanguard of what its proponents call “philanthrocapitalism” – the application of business strategies to the distribution of charity and aid through philanthropic organizations. Such a strategy and ideological fixation has recently come under criticism, even by the “cautious fans” of philanthropic organizations, pointing out how profit-maximizing logics when applied to international development often result in shortsightedness (Youde, 2013; Edwards, 2009)

Looking at history, it is clear that this is by design, rather than by accident. Birn (2014) provides a historical comparison between the Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation. Both foundations have been significant in shaping the development of global health policy, operating on similar models, which the Rockefeller Foundation pioneered and the Gates Foundation claims to innovate upon. Thus, the contemporary hype around “philanthrocapitalism” is more of a re-brand of old-fashioned oligarchic foundations rather than anything substantially new. Both Gates and Rockefeller disbursed charity strategically, as way to secure their for-profit companies’ investments, fend off radical alternatives, and promote development strategies which keep recipients dependent on their aid and their products.

It is difficult sometimes for the public to imagine philanthropic foundations, which spend lots on public relations emphasizing the selfless “good” their work does, are actually doing harm or advancing private interests. I myself remember growing up in an environment saturated with stories of the benevolence of Bill Gates, “the billionaire who wants to give it all away”. Gates in those days, and to an extent still does today, possessed a veneration as a kind of philosopher-king, making it somewhat unthinkable to question in decent company why this one individual should have more wealth than the GDPs of forty-five countries. This is consistent with the capitalist moral ethos which Linsey McGoey (2014), an expert in philanthropic foundations, says that philanthropy helps reinforce.


Yet this humanitarian morality, what Maximillian Forte calls “moral narcissism” (2012), hardly stands up to examination. After all, as the Global Justice Now report points out, the practices of the BMG Foundation are consistently part of a strategy to bolster the investments of its funders and those companies it holds shares in. Funds and resources are often disbursed not to the poorest of the world’s population, but to countries and populations that the BMG can expect a return from (Global Justice Now, 2016). Furthermore, similar programs could easily be funded through state revenue acquired by taxing such large personal fortunes as that of the Gates and Buffets, thus private, unelected actors are taking over what was historically the responsibility of democratic, sovereign state formations (Global Justice Now, 2016; St.-Pierre, 2014). Such philanthropic elites often circumvent their obligations to their fellow citizens in the form of taxes through elaborate tax evasion schemes, such as those uncovered by the Paradise Papers.

Biopower and “Compassionate” Biological Imperialism

Each of these two über-powerful foundations [Rockefeller and Gates] emerged at a critical juncture in the history of international/global health. Each was started by the richest, most ruthless and innovative capitalist of his day” (Birn, 2014)

The use of philanthropic foundations towards the insurance of capitalist ends is particularly evident in global health governance, a sector itself pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation. Rockefeller’s motivation for establishing global health as a humanitarian sector was primarily driven by his desire to stave off criticism of his business practices and combat the rise of militant labor unions and radical socialist organizers within his US workforces, especially after armed guards massacred striking workers at a Rockefeller-owned mine (Birn, 2014; Youde, 2013). The Rockefeller Foundation represented the entrenchment of philanthropy, as opposed to church charity, which explicitly understood itself as being a defensive investment in alleviating suffering among the masses to forestall said masses from taking issues into their own hands.

Michel Foucault described biopower as “an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugations of bodies and the control of populations” (1976) pursued by states and the administrators of various capitalist power structures. In the case of global health governance, the “bio” in biopower is quite literal. The BMG, in continuation of its predecessor the Rockefeller Foundation, is one of the largest players in global health governance, policy, and research development today. It is the second-largest funder of the World Health Organization, second only to the United States government, and owns most of the HIV/AIDS research being conducted in the world today, leading to increasing concern among the scientific community about the independence, accountability, neutrality and purposes of HIV research being conducted (Birn, 2014). Meanwhile, Brazil and India were both served lawsuits for subsidizing the manufacture of cheap, no-name HIV and Malaria treatments (St-Pierre, 2014).

Further exercise of oligarchic-imperialist biopower by Gates Foundation includes reproductive health aid and in agricultural reform, pushing alarming agendas. Research shows that the BMG’s promotion of genetically modified seeds has served as an instrument to displace Indian peasants, as intellectual property ownership over seed DNA is given priority over traditional land rights. Meanwhile, concerns have emerged that Gates Foundation-funded hospitals and medical facilities are performing forced sterilizations and other non-consensual population control operations on African women as part of BMG’s reproductive health programs.

Africa: The Philanthropic Playground

Nowhere is this philanthropic power-grabbing most pronounced than on the African continent. After all, it is usually African children, African cities, and African landscapes that are used as props for philanthropic advertising, a sadistic showcase of desperation if there ever was one. The BMG is of course active in creating these “poverty porn” productions, but these visual manifestations of imperial humanitarianism also enlist the talents of celebrities, such as U2’s Bono, who readily embrace the “private sector” as a solution to “Africa’s problems”. Nowhere do these philanthropists indict colonialism, imperialism, or neo-colonialism in Africa for contributing to the continent’s many problems, because this of course would indict them and their own enterprises in perpetuating Africa’s status as a vast dependency.

The “concern” generated by such imagery, and the push for “innovative” solutions aggrandized by them, is mobilized selectively. For example, Mozambique’s public healthcare system, dubbed a model for the developing world, was gutted after the fall of the USSR (Mozambique’s main financier and ally) and USAID support was redirected to be filtered through NGO’s and Private-Public Partnerships (P3’s), some overseen and lobbied for by the BMG. P3 hospitals poached Mozambique doctors away from the public service with promises of higher salaries, eventually causing the public health system to completely implode, and for health services in Mozambique to be operated primarily by private actors (St-Pierre, 2014). This is consistent with Global Justice Now’s accusation of promoting “corporate globalization” (2016) – using aid as an instrument to force the privatization of robust public services, transforming them into profitable commodities for sale with captive markets of desperate citizens looking for adequate health services.

One should also scrutinize the positions of humanitarian imperialists like Bill and Melinda Gates about issues not immediately within their sphere of influence. The language of humanitarian imperialism has existed quite comfortably for some time now in the circles of militarists and interventionists overseeing US imperialism’s operations on the African continent. It was the same humanitarian imperialist discourse of “saving” that was used in the US-NATO intervention in Libya (Forte, 2012), which after months of indiscriminate bombing and support for jihadi terrorist organizations, resulted in the looting of that countries oil and mineral wealth and the absolute collapse of Libyan society. The fall of Libya’s pan-Africanist, anti-imperialist oriented government also created a power vacuum quickly filled by the US African Command (AFRICOM), which is now waging wars throughout the continent.  Given that statistically speaking, wealthy Americans are the demographic most likely to support foreign military interventions abroad, and often lobby for such interventions, it would not be ridiculous to suspect that philanthropists like Bill and Melinda Gates were quite pleased with the Obama administration’s interventionist strategy in Libya, and the subsequent expansion of AFRICOM, seeing it all as part of the West’s great humanitarian project. A 21st-century white man’s burden.

Image result for sirte us intervention
Sirte, Libya, post US-NATO “Humanitarian” Intervention


While the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are perhaps the most obvious culprit given their foundation’s massive size, one should not let other foundations like the Clinton Foundation, the Trump Foundation, George Soros’ Open Society Foundation, or new entrants like the Zuckerberg Foundation, off the proverbial hook. It should be evident that philanthropic foundations, being extensions of capitalism and of the financial and political dominance of capitalists, operate according to the rules of profit-maximization and continued accumulation by dispossession. Far from being passive entities in this process, they are often its active architects and thus deserve to be regarded and scrutinized in the same way any for-profit corporation performing similar roles should be.


Birn, Anne-Emmanuelle, 2014. “Philanthrocapitalism, past and present: The Rockefeller Foundation, the Gates Foundation, and the setting(s) of the international/ global health agenda.” Hypothesis Vol. 12, no.1: 1-27.

Connett, David. 19 February 2016. “Gates Foundation accused of ‘dangerously skewing’ aid priorities by promoting ‘corporate globalisation‘” Independent.

D’Souza, Dinesh. 2016. “How the Clinton Foundation got rich off poor HaitiansNational Review.

Edwards, Michael. 2009. “Why ‘philanthrocapitalism’ is not the answer: private initiatives and international development” in M. Kremer et al., eds., Doing Good or Doing Better: Development Policies in a Globalising World, 237-250.

Forte, Maximillian. 2012. Slouching Towards Sirte: NATO’s War on Africa and Libya. Montreal, QC: Baraka Books.

Foucault, Michel. 1976. The History of Sexuality Vol. 1. Paris, FR: Editions Gallimard.

Global Justice Now. 2016. Gated Development: Is the Gates Foundation always a force for good?

Greenwald, Glenn. 2016. “Why Did the Saudi Regime and Other Gulf Tyrannies Donate Millions to the Clinton Foundation?The Intercept.

McElwee, Sean, Brian Schaffner and Jesse Rhodes. 1 March 2017. “How Wealthy Donors Drive Aggressive Foreign Policy” in The Nation.

McGoey, Linsey. 2012. “Philanthropcapitalism and its critics.” Poetics Vol. 40, no.2: 185-199.

Morgan, Wesley and Bryan Bender. 10 December 2017. “America’s Shadow War in Africa.Politico.

Nomani, Asra. 2017. “Billionaire George Soros has ties to more than 50 ‘partners’ of the Women’s March on Washington.Women in the World. 

St-Pierre, Emile. 2014. “Iatrogenic Imperialism: NGOs and CROs as Agents of Questionable Care” in Maximilian C. Forte, ed. The New Imperialism, Volume 4. Good Intentions: The Norms and Practices of Imperial Humanitarianism. Montreal, QC: Alert Press, 37-55.

Youde, Jeremy. 2013. “The Rockefeller and Gates Foundations in Global Health Governance.” Global Society Vol. 27, no. 2: 139-158.


Trump, Empire, and Syria (or, The Elites Just Bought Another War)


“After losing thousands of lives and spending trillions of dollars, we are in far worst shape in the Middle East than ever, ever before. I challenge anyone to explain the strategic foreign policy vision of Obama/Clinton. It has been a complete and total disaster.” — Donald J. Trump, Campaign Speech on Foreign Policy

If anyone retains any illusions that Trump represented a true challenge to the “establishment” which he so vehemently claimed to oppose, it’s time to bury such fantasies alongside the bodies of the victims of the 59 ballistic missiles fired into an airfield outside Homs, Syria. Not only has Trump done nothing to alter the Bush-Obama proxy wars and occupations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Ukraine, but has escalated the US aggression against Syria, but now potentially in Korea (and I assume, eventually, Iran and Venezuela). Like Bush in Iraq, Trump is lunging into Syria on the presumption that the Syrian government used chemical weapons despite questionable evidence of this. Ironically, this also comes after a recent admission that the United States has used depleted uranium in Syria just as it did in Iraq.

This is in stark contrast to the foreign policy Trump campaigned on, or more precisely the foreign policy many Trump voters thought he was campaigning on. Despite threatening to tear up the Iran Nuclear Deal and bolster support for Israel, as well as the wild suggestion the US station nuclear warheads in South Korea, Trump also made a number of isolationist, even anti-imperialist sounding statements on the campaign trail, which appealed to voters who are  feeling exhausted by decades of imperialist wars. These statements were surprisingly consistent as well, alluding to positions Trump had described in his books, The America We Deserve (2000) and Time to Get Tough (2011). More recently, they also appeared in his tweets:


The Orange Canary now sings a different tune.

What happened to the Trump who wrote these tweets? What happened to the Trump who trashed NATO, sought good relations with Russia, attacked the Clintons for overthrowing Qaddafi, who called the United States “not so innocent”, and promised to build jobs at home instead of sending soldiers aboard? I admit, I entertained the possibility that Trump might make good on these promises, but no longer. It’s  likely that this “progressive Trump” never really existed.Like Nixon and Obama before him, Trump is an opportunist, playing to both working class conservatism (in the form of anti-blackness, xenophobia, and settler-colonial nationalism) as well as more progressive impulses like universal health coverage and, of course, anti-interventionism, positions which are quickly abandoned once the opportunist is catapulted into power.

A possible silver lining in these dark times is that  perhaps now the nebulous “Trump coalition” will shatter into a million pieces. Between trying to push through detrimental health care policy and plunging the United States into another bloody, potentially catastrophic war, Trump has isolated both the working class and rural-dwelling voters who brought him victory and the bourgeois white nationalists who aggrandized him to the public. There may be an opportunity, through the channel of a revived anti-war movement, for the left to recapture the working class in the United States.

It should also be apparent to anyone paying attention now that the media is not a friend of progressives or any critics of US imperialism.  It should be clear that in spite of the aggressive attacks against Trump in major media outlets during the election, that the elites and their propaganda outlets were not really ever concerned with Trump’s xenophobia, his racist and sexist comments, or the likelihood that he is a rapist (and indeed, why would they be?),  these things were only instruments to the transnational capitalists against a figurehead they feared might put a wrench in their otherwise well-oiled war machine by seeking rapprochement with Russia and Syria. Now that Trump has fully committed to their version of Yankee imperialism, press coverage of Trump is glowing with praise. Of eighteen major editorials on Syria in five major papers, not one is critical.

Below is a stunning report featured in The Nation in March of 2017 which darkly foreshadows the pressure Trump must have felt from his wealthy friends and neighbors to have a good war. Trump himself has a vested interest in the war economy, owning significant shares in Raytheon, the manufacturer of the missiles launched at Syria. While reading this, consider that the “wealthy donors/elites” described as pushing for war also likely have controlling interests in the mainstream American media, which now rallies behind Trump’s genocidal ambitions.


McElwee, Sean, Brian Shaffe, & Jesse Rhodes. 2017. “How Wealthy Donors Drive Aggressive Foreign Policy.” The Nation. 

Since Donald Trump’s ascension to the presidency Washington has struggled to get a handle on his administration’s approach to matters of war and peace. In recent weeks, there has been intense focus on the perceived influence of top presidential aide Steve Bannon, who is seen as extremely hawkish on national security matters, especially when it comes to combating Islamic terrorism and confronting China’s rising influence. The prevailing wisdom seems to be that Bannon’s prominence within the administration – highlighted by his appointment to the National Security Council – portends a more bellicose turn in American national security policy.

And despite his purported skepticism of defense spending and aversion to spending cuts, Trump’s new budget bolsters spending for defense by $54 billion while cutting spending elsewhere.

There are undeniable reasons for concern – if not outright fear – about Bannon’s appointment, particularly coupled with soaring military investment. But these worries obscure more systematic – if also more subtle – reasons for the United States’ persistent aggressiveness on the world stage. (After all, American military interventionism long preceded the Trump Administration and continued during the presidency of Barack Obama). Our research suggests that a major, if under-appreciated, base of support for the frequent use of American military force abroad is the enthusiasm of wealthy persons – and especially large political donors.

On several key questions, wealthy people – and, in particular, “elite donors” (those who contribute $5,000 or more, or the top 1 percent of all donors) – are much more enthusiastic about the projection of American force than are American adults. The enthusiasm of the most wealthy and influential private actors in American politics provides a durable reservoir of support for the assertion of American power abroad. Given the profound, and likely growing, influence of political donors in American politics, our findings suggest that strong political supports for American foreign interventionism will remain long after Bannon, and Trump, have departed the executive branch.

Image result for imperialism

These conclusions come from our ongoing research project on the preferences and contribution patterns of big donors. As part of this work, we investigated how preferences toward American military spending and the use of force compared between elite donors, wealthy individuals (those with family incomes of more than $150,000), all donors, and all American adults.

Our analysis drew on a cumulative data file from the 2008, 2010, 2012, and 2014 Cooperative Congressional Election Studies surveys. By pooling together multiple surveys, we were able to obtain an unusually large sample of these elite donors, as well as extremely large samples of several other groups: all political donors, individuals with family incomes over $150,000, and all American adults. (Across all surveys, there were 196,000 respondents.) To make the elite donor sample nationally representative, we re-weighted the sample using information from Catalist, a political data firm with information on more than 260 million adults, and the Federal Election Commission.

We also made efforts to ensure that we correctly identified large donors. While it’s unlikely that many people lie about contributing large amounts of money to campaigns — being an elite donor is not exactly a status that most people aspire to — we tried to account for this possibility by dropping from our analysis any self-identified elite donors who were not also validated registered voters. On the whole, our approach allowed us to examine the preferences of elite donors, and other groups, with a great deal of precision.

As a first observation, “elite donors” and wealthy Americans are more supportive of American military spending than are ordinary Americans. When requested to indicate whether they preferred to balance the federal budget primarily through cuts to defense spending, domestic spending cuts, or tax increases, 42 percent of American adults indicated that they preferred defense cuts. But only 25 percent of elite donors, and 36 percent of wealthy Americans, preferred that route.

We found that cutting defense spending was the most popular option for balancing the budget among ordinary Americans, but the least popular option among elite donors. And this is not simply a matter of partisanship — the “elite donors” and wealth Americans in our sample are fairly evenly divided along party lines. Further, within the parties, elite donors are more interventionist (that is, Democratic elite donors are more interventionist than non-donors and Republican elite donors are more interventionist than Republican non-donors).

Graph 1

Elite donors and wealthy Americans also seem to be more sanguine about the United States’ interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Among all adults, 60 percent consider the United States’ involvement in Iraq a mistake. But only 52 percent of elite donors do. The opinion gap between adults and elite donors on the United States’ intervention in Afghanistan is even wider. While 43 percent of the general public consider the Afghanistan intervention a mistake, only 27 percent of elite donors do.


These findings point to the possibility that elite donors and wealthy Americans might be more favorably disposed to the use of American military force than are ordinary Americans. And, in fact, when it comes to attitudes about hypothetical military interventions, we find similar income- and donation-based effects. For example, while all of the groups in our analysis strongly support the use of American military force to protect allies under attack, elite donors and wealthy Americans are even more enthusiastic than are all American adults. Eighty-five percent of elite donors and 80 percent of wealthy Americans express support for the use of force in these circumstances, compared with 71 percent of adults.

“Elite donors” and the wealthy are noticeably more likely to support a military intervention to prevent genocide (50 percent and 51 percent, respectively) compared to the general public (40 percent). And elite donors and wealthy Americans are also much more likely to express support for military interventions to destroy terrorist training camps. Sixty-four percent of American adults supported this hypothetical; but 80 percent of “elite donors” and 76 percent of wealthy Americans did.


Strikingly, we found that elite donors and wealthy Americans are more likely to express support for military interventions to ensure the American oil supply. While just 25 percent of American adults expressed support for such interventions, 35 percent of elite donors did, and nearly half (48 percent) of Republican elite donors did.


These attitudinal differences matter. Recent scholarship on representation in politics strongly suggests that large donors and wealthy Americans exercise disproportionate influence on politicians, and that this bias is most notable on matters of national security and foreign policy. One reason that this might occur is that Americans feel less confident in judging debates over foreign interventions and often defer to elites on such matters, especially during conflicts.

Benjamin Page and Jason Barabas compared the foreign policy preferences of foreign policy elites using the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations surveys and found “many differences of 30, 40, and even 50 percentage points compared with the general public.”  Benjamin Page and Marshall Bouton find, in their book The Foreign Policy Disconnect, that “contrary to the assertions of many scholars, pundits and political elites,” “collective public opinion about foreign policy is not inconsistent, capricious, fluctuating or unreasonable.”

Rather, they argue, the general public “generally prefers to use cooperative and multilateral means to pursue foreign policy aims.” Kull and Destler also find that elites tend to misread public opinion, and that Americans aren’t isolationist, but rather favor multilateral intervention.

Political scientists Matt Grossmann and William Isaac also found the wealthy are more likely to favor “international intervention, international institutions, foreign aid, and trade agreements.” They found that the wealthy have a disproportionate impact on foreign policy: “affluent support for foreign policy proposals without average support leads to a very high adoption rate (69 percent) compared to foreign policy proposals with only average citizen support (38 percent).”

This applies not only to a more aggressive use of force internationally, but trade policy as well, as donors are more likely to support free trade agreements. In the 2014 CCES, 68 percent of donors contributing $1,000 or more support a US-Korea free trade agreement, compared to 57 percent of the full sample.

Most of the debates about money in politics center around domestic policy: Bernie Sanders’s campaign centered around the way that millionaires and billionaires blocked the progressive agenda. However, our research suggests that elite donors have different views about the global economy and use of force overseas than the general public. Donors often give money to enact that vision, such as the millions Sheldon Adelson and Haim Saban have given to shape policy on Israel. Politicians who buck the establishment on trade and military force overseas often find themselves quickly on the defensive. Donors are likely to oppose any attempt by Trump to cloister America from the international community, but they also are unlikely to tap the brakes if he moves the country towards war.

Anti-Vietnam War cartoon from 1975.

Political Economy of Eurocentrism: The Post-WW2 “Development Project” As Colonialism

Our understanding of global interactions – economic, political, social, and cultural – are still deeply shaped by the often misunderstood period of economic restructuring between 1945 and 1970. Many questions that plague our modern world – why the US continues to expand militarily, why Haiti is in such dire straits, etc. – can be partially explained by the developments of this period. This piece endeavors to begin an outline and investigation of these developments.

The period from 1945 to 1970 is sometimes called the era of the Bretton-Woods system, but more recently has been referred to as the “Development Project”.  This is the terminology used in McMichael’s work Development and Social Change, where the development of a world economy is described as progressing in three distinct stages; European Colonization, the Development Project, and Globalization. The phrase “Development Project” is apt as it refers to the global focus on the industrialization of newly-independent colonies; industrialization is often understood as development. To this day various international agencies classify countries as “developed” and “developing” (McMichael, 2016).

While each of these stages represent distinct historical developments in global politics and economy, several continuities persist. Indeed, the post-World War “development project” would not have existed without European (and later American and Canadian) imperialism becoming the primary actor in the maintenance of the modern world-system. Likewise, neither would Globalization have become the defining paradigm without the collapse of the Bretton-Woods system as the guarantor of the “Development Project” while still building upon its major institutions, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.

The wording of “world-system” is important here. A world-system is a political and economic framework which imposes itself as totalizing and universal. Capitalism, and what we call capitalist development, is the first such complete world-system in human history. Its origins lie in colonialism, which both allowed the spread of European capitalism to the Americas, Africa, and Asia, and the exploitation of these continents to further the consolidation of capitalism and capitalist profit-making (O’Brien and Williams “Forging a World Economy”, 2007; McMichael, 2016).

Thus, understanding that the economic eras of capitalism proceed from each other, it can be inferred that the inequalities entrenched under colonization persisted throughout the development model period. In fact, the development model period can be understood as a new era of social and economic imperialism, colonization being the first. Development model period imperialism represented a shift, rather than a transformation, of the colonial project.

Therefore, while the Development Project succeeded in preserving the capitalist world-system, it was a failed to provide adequate restitution and improvement for the peoples of the ‘developing’ world.

Pax Imperialism and the Dollar Dictatorship

Cuba. First demonstration in support of the Revolu
The Cuban 26 July Movement storming Havana, the victorious moment of the Cuban Revolution.

The imperialist countries’ shift from colonization to ‘development’ can be understood as a reaction to three distinct processes threatening the capitalist-world system, (1) the wave of decolonization and nationalism sweeping the Europe’s colonies, (2) the weakening of the European powers by the world wars, and (3) the subsequent emergence of a socialist state (the Soviet Union) as a world power.  In response to these developments, the United States replaced Great Britain as the “center” of this new orientation in the capitalist world-system and financial domination replaced traditional colonialism as the method by which “Center” countries dominated colonized “peripheral” countries.

As much as the Development Project transformed the capitalist world-system away from the colonial model, it also continued colonial policy in two key ways. First, the currency of the leading imperialist power functioned as the stabilizer and equivalent for all exchanges within the world-system. During the Victorian era, the British Pound-Sterling was the universal equivalent in almost all exchanges (O’Brien and Williams, “Pax Britanica” 2007). Under the Bretton-Woods System, the U.S. dollar was made equivalent to gold and thus functioned in the same way as the Pound (Cohen, 2001).

It should be noted that at the time of independence for most former colonies, Europe had extracted vast amounts of wealth which it was not subsequently obliged to repay their now-independent colonies (McMichael, 2016).

So while the Development Project transformed the newly-independent states of the colonized world with an influx of industrial hardware and organization, industrial projects took place unilaterally, under the dictates of U.S. economic security and geopolitical interests. The control of the United States in this arrangement cannot be understated. In effect, Pax Americana replaced Pax Britanica, the period of almost absolute British dominance. This control of the Development Project was so complete that through the Bretton-Woods system, the U.S. congress could use fiscal policy, inflating or deflating the dollar, to influence the outcomes of trades the United States otherwise played no part in (Cohen, 2001; McMichael, 2016). Like how British supremacy created competition between European imperialisms leading up to World War I (O’Brien and Williams “Pax Britanica”, 2007),  the United States’ dominance also led to dissent from Japan and Europe who lamented the rigidity of the dollar-pegged system (Cohen, 2001).

Cold War Containment

Sign describing the Bretton Woods System

Another factor in these contradictions was location. Both Japan and the European powers bordered socialist states; China and the Eastern Bloc countries respectively. In a strategic compromise, U.S. policymakers allowed developmental models to improve other imperialist states’ position, to the point of destabilizing of the internal U.S. economy (Cohen, 2001). Hence why West Germany was the main beneficiary of the Marshal plan as part of staving off the “Soviet wave” the U.S feared would sweep Europe. The major successes of the Development Project – Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and Hong Kong – were also strategically located in East Asia (McMichael, 2016) to contain the socialist revolutions in places like China and Vietnam, while opening a proverbial ‘eastern front’ against the USSR.

While the Development Project was framed as an effort based on the nation-state, self-sufficiency in the area of agriculture was completely denied to emerging nation-states. Troubled by the enthusiastic and rapid communization of agriculture in China, development agencies sought to reduce the power of peasants to self-organize in India and countries with large agriculture potential through specialization in crops produced for European and North American consumption (McMichael, 2016). While U.S farmers were encouraged to grow staples like wheat and grains, India was roped into growing commodities for western consumption, making India and other countries in similar arrangements dependent on western markets for basic sustenance. India was also the poster-child of the “green revolution” in agribusiness, which created a market for excess chemical weapons the United States was  looking to reprocess (they became fertilizers). This made India responsible for the immense costs of externalities created by U.S. war activity, including ecological destruction and massive rural decline (McMichael, 2016).

Both these examples from India are demonstrative of wider processes of economic and ecological “Unequal Exchange” which perpetuated the colonial reorganization of the world. It may be easy to explain the unevenness of the world economy and the dependency of the ‘developing’ world on the ‘developed’ as simply the vestiges of colonialism. However, this would ignore the active role which the United States played in perpetuating these uneven arrangements through the Bretton-Woods system, with the consent of the other imperialist countries (and when Bretton-Woods failed to foster favourable arrangements, NATO was always on standby). Thus the problems of the development project were precisely because the objectives of the most powerful actors were the preservation of the capitalist, imperialist world-system.

The Next Phase

Understanding the deeply imperialist elements of the Development Project is essential to understanding what comes next, Globalization. Just as Britain spread ‘civilization’ across the world, facilitating the global colonial supply chain, so too did the United States spread ‘development’ through the IMF and World Bank, leading to our now deeply Americanized period of Globalization; the similarities are stark (O’Brien and Williams, “Pax Britanica”, 2007). If we are to address the contradictions of globalization, we must understand the Development Project’s impacts in shaping the globalized world into one of dependency and renewed imperialism.



Cohen, B. “Bretton-Woods System” Routledge Encyclopedia of International Political Economy. Ed. RJ Barry Jones. Routledge, 2001.

McMichael, P. Development and Social Change (6th ed.). Sage Publishing, 2016.

O’Brien, R. and Marc Williams. “Forging a World Economy, 1400-1800.” Global Political Economy (2nd ed.). p. 43-76. Palgrave/Macmillan, 2007.

O’Brien, R. and Marc Williams. “The Industrial Revolution, Pax Britanica, and Imperialism.” Global Political Economy (2nd ed.). p. 77-105. Palgrave/Macmillan, 2007.