Are colonialism and imperialism over and done with? On its face this would seem to be the case, at least as measured by the United Nations' membership roll call. From Martinique to Angola, Tasmania to Lebanon, Cambodia or Zanzibar, previously colonized countries throughout Africa, Asia, South America, and Europe are now independent. After all, past colonies now fly their own flags, have their own economies, civic institutions, military and police, postal services and, when they can afford it, their own national airline. They also have their own borders and border wars, their own economic troubles, their own classes and ethnic tensions (and sometimes wars), and their own gender inequities, just like us. Indeed, when national flags billow in the breeze and national anthems are blared with gusto, how can one doubt the rhetoric of independence? As many now claim, our world has entered a new, post-colonial mode of national self-determination.
This notion of newness, underscored by the "post" of "post-colonial," has a distinctly optimistic ring to it, suggesting that a qualitatively different era has begun, while global geo-politics and economics argue the opposite. Once we pause to consider the wars and depredations now in process worldwide, mostly led or exploited by the United States, it is hard to argue that we have in fact moved into a new era. The external trappings of colonization may have changed--the military hardware, the verbiage, the deceptions, the funding, the media, and the ways outsiders extract wealth. But the wars, exploitation, governing institutions, and cultural hegemony that made European empires and their colonizing arms possible up to and through their heyday in the nineteenth century persist, even if in new forms. While the old stereotype of men in khaki, boots, and topi hats has given way to that of men in flak jackets, helmets, and camouflage ochre, with the supple swagger sticks of bygone days now replaced by metal strapped to belts and hoisted on shoulders, the same realities persist: the national product that is controlled by outsiders, the local populations that are kept in misery, the military arm that enforces all this, and the foggy ideology that aligns the interests of the privileged few among the colonized with those of the colonizer while suppressing the discontent of the masses.
In this sense, the "war on terrorism," covert operations, and global flows of capital, labor, and culture have effectively become coercive forms of colonization. The modes of control are being newly configured, administered, and labeled so as to distance nation-states from the direct acquisition and management of territories, as seen in Britain's giving up its control of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) for example, France its rule in Senegal, or the United States its hold over the Philippines. But these are surface changes. In practice, the economic gains and power relations that originally defined empires and their colonizing arms persist, even if in new forms. They are to be found in corporate multinational transactions, in the control by outsiders of precious natural resources (notably oil and gas), in the globalized flow of "human resources" (i.e. workers), and, most violently, in the military operations that enforce and guarantee such powers.
This continuity between the old forms of imperialism and colonialism and new ones becomes clearer once one pauses to consider what these concepts mean. Specifically, in our (the editors') use, "empire" refers to the control of the physical and human resources of given territories by external forces, while "colony" stresses the settlement of such territories by outsiders--that is, settlements by outsiders on lands held by the "empire." In this sense "empires" extract while "colonies" involve a residential commitment to interacting with that territory and its people. Though colonial settlement is always, inevitably, implicated in extractive, exploitative agendas, it also recognizes the need for long-term intentional investment, including the development of a civic infrastructure. …