Oil and imperialism in the modern world
By Chris Zivalich
Political theorists and outraged citizens of all countries continue to grapple with the term “neo-imperialism.” What does it mean? How exactly do modern economic constructs and international relationships constitute a “new” form of imperialistic operations? In reality, the word’s actual meanings and applications are as highly controversial as they are pluralistic. Neo-imperialism is a reality both across the globe and in our own backyard, and people are actively vocalizing against it.
Generally speaking, neo-imperialism refers to the modern manifestations of imperialism—the various ways in which a country exerts its power and control over nations, transforming the political, social, cultural and economic frameworks within them. Neo-imperialism often includes major world powers and global corporations, and their roles in interacting with “Third World” or “developing” countries.
“What’s new about imperialism?” asked Associate Professor of Politics Peyi Soyinka-Airewele. “[Neo-imperialism] is linked to a larger process,” she said. Soyinka-Airewele went on to describe imperialism as an extension of colonialism and other historical patterns—patterns that cannot be ignored by isolating “modern” imperialism with a “neo” affix.
As a Nigerian, Soyinka-Airewele knows firsthand how neo-imperialism interferes with people’s rights to access resources in their own countries, resulting in the subjugation of local economies, including the ways in which goods are extracted, sold and exported. Under neo-imperialistic relations, all of this economic reorganizing and restructuring is done in the interest of corporations rather than the local population.
The Nigerian oil crisis exemplifies how modern corporations implement imperialism in their control of resources. In Nigeria, corporate control of oil has taken a violent, politically charged toll on the nation’s stability, leaving behind disorganized regions within the country and scores of dead civilians, many of whom have included entire families living in the rich Niger Delta region.
Working in conjunction with the state-run Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), other companies aside from Shell, including Exxon Mobil, Chevron, Italy’s Agip and France’s Total, help run major gas and oil operations, according to Reuters News. As many anti-imperialism activists proclaim, such a direct and heavy influence has nothing but disastrous implications for the areas it touches. In 2007, a report from the United Nations cited in National Geographic found that the quality of life in Nigeria rates below all other major oil nations.
According to Human Rights Watch, the Shell Petroleum Development Company produces about half of Nigeria’s approximately 2.1 million barrels per day. Recently, however, the company had to halt some of its oil-producing efforts due to extensive fighting and protest due to “control over illegal oil revenues.” In fact, the violence in parts of Nigeria where oil drilling occurs has reached unprecedented levels, leading some ethic groups to resort to such measures as kidnapping oil workers of other ethnic groups and orchestrating acts of violence as a means to economic survival.
In a testimony for Environmental Rights Action, an advocacy NGO devoted to human rights in Nigeria, Larry Bowoto of the Ilaje people of Ondo state in Nigeria said: “Most of the communal strife in the Niger Delta today is caused by the oil companies… our environment has been polluted. We are dying. We have no good water to drink, no jobs for our youths, no electricity, no roads, no hospitals, and no good houses to live in.”
Activists have equally asserted that neo-imperialism is not only a visible crisis on a transnational level. Mass exploitation of the environment and local resources like the kind seen in Nigeria happens on American soil just as frequently, albeit hidden from the public more effectively. Understandably, active opponents to neo-imperialism can be found on the local level, too.
Ryan Clover is an Ithaca organizer and facilitator at Shaleshock Action Alliance, a grassroots movement aimed at protecting local communities from exploitative gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale region, located in the Allegheny Plateau region of the northern Appalachian Basin. According to Clover, everything becomes a colony under imperialistic models today, including U.S. states and counties.
“We have Third World countries within America,” he said.
Clover also blamed a lack of criticizing capitalism and economic structures for the immense power and control that most businesses possess. He believes companies have utilized their marketing strategies to make people believe their exploitative measures serve as a precursor to independence.
“Companies tell people they have a right to sell their new resources and spin it as self-empowerment,” he said. “It’s a big issue. Now everything is privatized [because of these companies]. Water privatization. Seed privatization… it’s a whole new level of colonialism!”
On a similar note, Ithaca’s local branch of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) is another organization that, like Clover’s work, is committed to the eradication of corporate power and control over resources on local, national and global levels. In fact, the group held a public forum on March 28 to discuss the ways in which hydraulic fracturing (popularly known as “fracking”) is ruining small regions of the U.S. through economically devastating natural gas drilling that, among other consequences, releases more than 120 chemicals into water, sometimes including radioactive properties.
Because fracking has been linked to environmental damage for the commercial extraction of resources, it is typically acknowledged as a product of neo-imperialism.
“Neo-imperialism is a push and a pull [for] cheap labor. It’s brutal and inhumane,” said Joseph Schwartz, associate professor of Political Science at Temple University and panelist at the forum called “Fracking in Context: Following the Money.”
The panelist, along with an audience of over 30 people from all over central New York State, also discussed the various ways in which a community might productively respond to neo-imperialistic-like behavior, including letters to representatives, grassroots activism, protests, boycotting and overall self-conducted research and education.
Schwartz and Clover are not the only activists who have advocated that the solution to neo-imperialism rests in local activism, individual effort and community endeavors. As many anti-neo-imperialists agree, until people of all interests and ideologies can come together under one united front against the modern forms of imperialism, power structures will remain firmly in place, and companies will continue to assert rights to property and resources.
Bowoto stated, “We want the world to judge between us and the oil companies.”
Chris Zivalich is a sophomore journalism major who is a crazy radical taking down imperialism one article at a time. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.