The history of imperialism can be roughly divided into three phases.
The first phase of imperialism, up until 1945, was characterised by inter-imperialist rivalry and the drive to divide and re-divide the world into spheres of influence of the dominant capitalist countries. It is important to note that this was a global, not national or regional, process and that imperialism has always been a global system.
The second phase of imperialism, lasting from 1945 to the early 1990s, was characterised by an increase in stability brought about by the existence of the Soviet Union and the socialist countries of Eastern Europe. The capitalist countries were forced to conceal some of their differences and subjugate inter-imperialist rivalry to the need to form a united front against the socialist countries and the threat of communism. This is not to argue that capitalism ceased to develop or developed on an even basis. Indeed, the capitalist countries continued to develop their mode of production within the capitalist sphere and the effects of uneven development continued to play a role in the relative power struggles within imperialism. However, due to the existence of the Soviet Union and its allies, substantial gains were made by the working class in the advanced capitalist countries and the growth of imperialism was slowed, though not halted.
Since the early 1990s, we have faced a very different world situation. Firstly, since the end of WWII, there has been a massive expansion of non-banking financial institutions (e.g. insurance and pension funds). Money is taken from workers via these institutions and re-invested in the stock market outside of the control of the working class. Secondly, the role of Trans-national Corporations (TNCs) has greatly increased. TNCs now control more than 1/3 of world production, more than 2/3 of international trade and more than ¾ of corporate investment. This process has been greatly accelerated by deregulation. Thirdly, the export of capital is of even greater significance than ever before. All the advanced capitalist countries have high levels of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), the vast majority of which is invested elsewhere in the developed world, tying the economies of the major capitalist countries closely to each other. For example, by far the largest part of British FDI is invested in the US and, similarly, the majority of money passing through the City of London financial centre is US capital.
Fourthly, imperialism has become even more parasitic and moribund, with large amounts of capital being invested and re-invested in non-socially-useful sectors of the economy such as the arms industry. This attempt to stave off economic crisis through relying on the re-investment of government money, taken from the general population in the form of taxes, in the arms industry inevitably skews the national economies of the imperialist countries away from socially-useful production.
Fifthly, the process of economic division and re-division of the world between TNCs has been accelerated. As cheap capital projects and cheap labour become less significant in relation to access to markets and resources, political and military means are increasingly used to gain access. Sixthly, the development of state-monopoly capitalism has accelerated, with most TNCs not only reliant on state support in the political and military spheres but also economically, through a process of mass privatisation to achieve above average profits at the expense of the public sector.
Finally, the role of inter-imperialist rivalry has been reasserted under the new conditions of US dominance. In an attempt to allow European TNCs to compete on a more equal footing with their US counterparts, leading capitalists within Western Europe have pushed the formation of an imperialist ‘United States of Europe’ – the EU – to strip away workers rights and achieve super-profits through the free movement of goods, services, capital and labour within Europe.