Most developed nations’ economies are rooted in colonialism. For centuries, empires were built through land theft and the exploitation of indigenous peoples.
In the second half of the 20th century, as many formerly colonized states gained independence, the world’s dominant countries transitioned to “neo-colonialism.” In this system, imperial powers forced developing states to become economically dependent, only offering financial support in order to gain political influence. Access to the global market was restricted and domestic policy was molded through economic pressure. Reliance on an outside power was cyclical; the flow of aid money disincentivized internal improvement and growth, leading to stagnation and increased dependence.
Present day incarnations of colonialism are mixed. Neo-colonialism is still used as a foreign policy instrument, but a relatively new colonizer has emerged—the multinational corporation.
Multinational corporations embody the main traits of colonizers. First, they operate at a distance from “home” and in a different culture. Consequently, the ways that consumer goods are produced do not incite much of a reaction from the general western public. When Gap is caught working children in sweatshops, British tea companies are found abusing Indian workers or Nestle admits to allowing slave labour in Brazil, the aftermath is predictable. There is a fleeting moment of outrage, a few protests, then the corporation promises reforms and we go back to buying their goods. The racialized nature of the labour supply further dampens reactions; brands such as Nike, Apple, Samsung and the garment industry as a whole make their products in majority non-white countries such as Vietnam or Sri Lanka. In these countries, labour is cheap and worker protections are often not enforced. The mostly white populations of western countries are simply less connected to and less invested in the lives of foreign black and brown workers.
Additionally, in the western world, domestic laws are too strong to allow extreme abuse of labour. This mirrors one of the principal causes of colonialism in the late 19th and early 20th century; as workers throughout the west acquired rights, labour needs were outsourced to poorer, darker skinned countries in order to avoid unrest at home.
Second, like countries practicing neo-colonialism, multinational corporations foster economic dependencies which halt progress. In many developing countries, corporations are major sources of employment. The economy, and people’s lives, are dependent on their actions, and are thus partially controlled. Furthermore, employment in this context does not guarantee mobility. Take Bangladesh, for instance, which has become one of the world’s largest exporters of clothing. Still, income has been stagnant for over a decade. Much like trickle-down economics, the idea of trickle-down development is a fantasy.
Third, corporations attempt to influence political happenings in foreign countries. Tobacco companies, such as British American Tobacco, have used intimidation and scare tactics to defeat anti-cigarette, pro-public health laws in various African nations. Another tobacco conglomerate, Philip Morris, sued Uruguay in 2010. They claimed their products were devalued by government anti-smoking campaigns. This type of interference showcases corporations’ neo-colonialist tendency to meddle in politics and attempt to affect policy.
Fourth and lastly, the environmental costs of consumerism are borne by developing countries. Generally, corporations who face tough domestic pollution standards move their operations overseas. Developing nations which are rapidly industrializing have more lax laws, so they are easier to pollute. For example, commodities traders Trafigura and Vitol, as well as the energy company BP, export sulphur rich fuel, which is illegal in Europe, to Africa, where air pollution standards are significantly lower. The dirty fuel is linked to thousands of deaths and severe pollution. In a similar manner, America’s used batteries are sent to Mexico to be recycled using a method that is illegal where they came from, and exposes thousands to harmful lead particles. These actions make sense when we view corporations as colonizers; ecological destruction is one of the hallmarks of colonialism. Imperial powers usually left their former territories deforested, resource poor and polluted.
Colonizers throughout history have followed these patterns: exploitation of black and brown labour, manufactured economic dependence, political meddling and environmental devastation. This is also how multinational corporations behave. In this era of colonialism, it is Philip Morris, BP, Gap and their peers who are leading the way.