What Is Sub-Imperialism?

The sub-imperialist discourse developed during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a means to characterize Britain’s self-governing dominions precarious position within the international order, drawing explicit inspiration from the Monroe Doctrine of the United States. In other words, the term sub-imperialism was used to describe South Africa’s economic and military dominance of other African states. More pressing worry is the way that sub-imperialism term helps activists to understand the South African state that they are fighting. The sub-imperialist analysis helps disabuse readers of the idea that China and the other BRICs are the alternative to imperialism, showing that they are also exploitationists in the South.

The analysis of sub-imperialism, however, also shows that BRICS are not exploiting the West — and thus counters David Harvey’s argument, rather than Smith’s. The aim in injecting sub-imperialism into the arguments is, it seems, to demonstrate that a south-north value-drain, which is not convincing in Smith, and is an old-fashioned binary, needs to be complemented with a more complicated, nuanced relationship between states. David Harvey (2001) (2018) insisted that the strict, unchanging conception of North-South imperialism cannot explain increasingly complicated forms of production, realization, and circulation of the excess capital that is accumulated by the medium-level economies.


Ruy Mauro Marini has focused on elaborating the sub-imperial powers exercised by states embedded within Western systems as regional agents of imperialism, where, as John Smith concurs, dependent economies such as Brazil’s try to offset wealth bleeds into the imperialist center while developing its own extractive relations with still less developed, peripheral economies. Patrick Bond would appear to agree, as he referred to sub-imperial power wielded by states that are incorporated into the Western system as regional agents of imperialism, and shared Ruy Mauro Marinis explication that the sub-imperial economies are dependent.

Bond also notes continuities between the sub-imperial projects in the DRC that were pursued by South Africa during apartheid and the post-apartheid period. Despite Bonds thorough treatment of the changing nature of imperialism, Bond presents an ahistorical, immutable conception of sub-imperialism. This chapter contends that South Africa cannot today be considered a sub-imperialist state, in spite of its economic weight across Africa, and particularly southern Africa.

NEPAD is frequently said to not even be a creation of African governments, much less of South Africa. It is true that South African economic policies were designed to exercise control over other African states politics and economies. One should also consider that the directions South Africa’s economy is taking are strongly influenced by external forces.


It is also crucial to recognize that forms of sub-imperialism within the BRICS are varied, as noted by Moyo and Yeros (2011), some are driven by private capital blocs that have the strong backing of states (Brazil, India); others, such as only China, involve direct involvement by state-owned enterprises; and, in the case of White-ruled South Africa, it is increasingly difficult to talk about an autonomous domestic capitalist class given the extreme extent to which it has been the denationalized economy of the post-apartheid period. Indeed, the sub-imperial powers frequently advance neoliberal institutions, even while complaining (sometimes bitterly) of their apathy towards the poorer countries, sometimes while sometimes setting up new ones, which serve a similar function regionally. This role in supporting global economic and ecological mal-governance frequently benefits core countries own corporate bases, but is also a sign of co-operation and cooperation with the imperialist projects of multinational corporations and the core countries states.

The historic South African model of super-exploitation under apartheid–Harold Walpe (1980)s Term for an Embodied Mode of Production–exemplifies the more extreme domestic dimensions of the accumulation under sub-imperialism. The emergence of the BRICs offers the possibility to rectify an ahistorical situation, though Melanie Samson subscribes to a standard thesis, that imperialism in Africa is exercised principally through the plundering of resources and application of neoliberal socioeconomic policies, and South Africa has been the main greaser of this process.

Norfield is not even on board that a sub-imperialist category should encompass the BRICS states. If this trend could emerge within BRICs, foreign direct investment (FDI), trade, and lending by BRICS countries is more harmful to the global south, particularly in Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Chinas economic relations with Europe and the United States are similar to that of a periphery state, selling raw materials, but Russia has characteristics of a core capitalist state, exporting hi-tech industrial goods, as it deals with Africa.


Core countries are losing political-economic power on the global stage, whereas China, together with other emerging economies, will challenge the dominance of the US, Europe, and Japan. In the intervening time, the more disruptive loops of international capital were amplified, strangling all but a handful of splinter spaces of the global south (especially newly industrialized countries in East Asia), a handful of which became increasingly actively sub-imperialized as transmission belts for world economies, in the process strangling their neighbors.

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