Does Cultural Imperialism exist today? A critical analysis of international communication

I wrote this essay whilst studying in Canada in 2011. My aim was to examine the dynamics of international communication and media and how they relate to questions of global inequalities, development and economic dependency. In this respect, it was hard to escape reflecting on the international political economy and global communications through a critical theory lens, as for mine it was – and still is – the strongest theoretical approach to address such issues. Accordingly, I acknowledge how strongly skewed the essay sounds, especially in opposition to neoliberalism, which in truth I do value as a theoretical framework. Nevertheless, I still agree with my sentiments that neoliberal principles are being used to justify and validate hegemonic control over the IPE, and over the international communication sector by extension. It should also be noted that this is not a discussion over the ethics of cultural imperialism/hegemony. Any comments and criticisms are welcome. 



The world has undergone great change over the past century or so due to the advent of globalisation. One of the trends that has become entrenched into social, political and economic interaction has been the transnational flow of capital. While this is not necessarily unique to the 20th and 21st centuries, it has certainly been consolidated into the way states and organisations across the entire world behave and interact with each other in this period. Along with this, globalisation has also precipitated rapid technological development. These are two of the main ways – both which go hand in hand – in which globalisation has transformed civilisation as we know it and brought people across the world closer together.

At the forefront of this ever-increasing expansion of transnational capital-flow and technological development are international communications. In order to allow people to generate, disseminate or acquire information, communications outlets need to own the technology in order to do so, and thus need to compete successfully in the global market, given that technology comes at a price. In this light, this essay examines the relationship between the global political economy and international communications and shows that the inequalities and dependencies inherent in the former equate to inequalities and dependencies in the latter.

After examining the theoretical background of the global capitalist system, the essay argues that the combination of imperialism of the past and neoliberalism of today strongly disadvantages peripheral states. In turn, the neoliberal agenda is allowing media companies from the core, the hegemonic major-trading states which support unrestricted trade, to induce a new kind of dependence for peripheral media markets. Thus, inequalities and dependence in the global economy are resulting in inequalities and dependencies in international communications. Also, to provide a more in-depth reflection on the subject, the essay analyses a case-study of American media and cultural dominance of the world.

Theoretical Background


In order to explore the relationship between the global economy and international communications, it is extremely useful (if not necessary) to examine the theoretical terrain shaping the global capitalist economic system. Firstly, this essay argues that the global political economy was established as a bi-product of colonialism and imperialism and subsequently, inequality and dependency are inherent to the system. Secondly, it asserts that over the last thirty years or so, neoliberal principles have become predominant in the agenda of international economic institutions and regulators. The essay then contends that the neoliberal agenda, in conjunction with the capitalist system’s legacy of imperialism and its inheritance of dependency and inequality, spells doom for actors handicapped by the system, including media and communications organisations stuck at the bottom of the food chain, so to speak.

Colonialism and imperialism were driving forces in the establishment of the current global capitalist system, or otherwise were, by the least, pivotal in setting up the inequalities the system is fraught with. Immanuel Wallerstein, the theorist behind World Systems Theory, argued that the world system of today (that is, the predominance of capitalism and the sovereign-state system) emerged at the same time as the modern European imperial dominance of the world. Subsequently, the world is now locked in a spatio-temporal site of imperial power, whereby the “perpetual binarism between colonizing and colonized countries” continues today (Mooney & Evans, 2007: 239). What this means is that, while colonies may no longer exist formally, imperialism still exists today in the sense that the global capitalist system was established, exported around the world and then maintained by the imperial powers, old and new. To put this into context, former colonies, whilst no longer formally belonging to their former colonisers, need to adhere to the global capitalist agenda set up by former and current imperial powers (such as, to be specific, Britain and the United States) in order to develop and modernise.

Since the 1970s, neoliberal principles have been promoted by the major trading states from the West (in particular The United States), global financial institutions (such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank) and multinational corporations (Lamy, 2011: 121). Furthermore, they have been largely adopted by the rest of the world, including the “Global South” and “Second World” (Willis, 2011: 54). Neoliberalism advocates a free trade and a market or capitalist economy as the best way to achieve prosperity. It “argues that free trade, private property rights and free markets will lead to a richer, more innovative and more tolerant world” (Lamy, op. cit.). While some argue that states are turning to neoliberal policies because doing so encourages foreign investment – through preventing the state from appropriating overseas investments and guaranteeing that the success of those investments is determined solely by market mechanisms (Sinclair, 2005) – others say that states are forced to do so, either for their own survival in the system or through coercion. While states are finding it hard to survive in the system unless joining the World Bank, which in turn looks for International Monetary Fund (IMF) approval (which only comes via market liberalisation), others are forced into employing neoliberal strategies to trade with big economies such as those in the G7, especially the EU and US (Evans, 2011: 37); if countries “refuse to abide by the demands of their larger trading partner, the retaliation for independently minded behaviour is likely to come at a considerable cost to their export earnings” (Watson, 2011: 447-8). Others which have become destroyed by market forces are told by international donors and global financial institutions to make structural adjustments favouring neoliberal principles in order to receive their assistance (Sens & Stoett, 2005: 296).

This essay contends that neoliberal ideology is dangerous in a system created and exported by imperialist powers. The current neoliberal agenda is consolidating the dependency in the system inherited by colonial exploitation. As neoliberal ideology favours foreign investment and objects to state interference, the result is that states and societies which were previously dominated in colonial times, and rendered unable to develop strong infrastructures and industries, now rely on foreign entrepreneurs to help modernise and develop. This is a new kind of dependency, as instead of relying on foreign colonial possessors for survival in the capitalist system they created, developing countries now rely on foreign capitalists looking to earn money. This notion is summarised well by Evans in her following passage (op. cit: 36):

“Peripheral nations perpetually depend on forms of economic assistance that deepen and enforce their dependency upon the very institutions, corporations, and nations that strip them of the infrastructural and business assets, jobs, decision making power, natural resources, and social support that could serve as bases for creating more free, self-sufficient, and sustainable societies. This dependence also further weakens their relative economic position with regard to powerful transnational corporations and First World nations.”

A number of problems arise from this neoliberal-induced dependency. The most obvious is the reliance it imposes on peripheral states by leading nations which blindly and naively trust the neoliberal agenda dogmatically (for example, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher touted the ideology as fact in her claim that “there is no alternative” to the neoliberal agenda) (ibid). Another, which this essay demonstrates, is more pertinent and problematic for international communications; that is, that a new kind of imperialism is arising: cultural imperialism. Multinational corporations and investors (largely from the US, but also from Europe, Japan and Brazil) are exporting their methods, products and behaviours into dependent states which have no choice but to be receptive to them. Peripheral nations are complaining that they are suffering a breakdown of their cultures at the hands of foreign investors looking to make money out of them and the consumerism they are exporting. The following section looks at the affect the global economy has on international communications, especially with regard to the dependency, inequality it influences.

International Communications and the Neoliberal Agenda


This section argues that the prevalence of neoliberalism in the global economy (already fraught with dependency and inequality) has big implications on international communications, by examining the global media system. Since the emergence of neoliberalism in economic policy, we are seeing two main things: the consolidation of a media oligopoly, as huge waves of mergers between media firms are resulting in greater penetration and control of the global media field by a select few media conglomerates; and the dependence of media systems in peripheral states, whose communication systems were designed to suit the needs of their colonial masters (McChesney & Schiller, 2003: 5, 8). This, as the essay argues, creates a new kind of dominance and dependency in the system.

Neoliberal principles in the marketplace are allowing the consolidation of media ownership and markets by a small group of media conglomerates from the core, especially The United States. The opening up of markets, which has largely accelerated across the globe in the last 30 or so years through the advent of neoliberal policy directives, allows the biggest companies to buy out other companies and own a monopoly in the global market. According to McChesney and Schiller (ibid: 11), who wrote in 2003, “compared with 10 or 20 years ago, a much smaller number of much larger firms now dominate the media at the national and regional  levels”. Their claim is corroborated by the following passage from Bagdikian (2000: xx-xxi):

In 1983, fifty corporations dominated most of every mass medium and the biggest media merger in history was a $340 million deal. … [I]n 1987, the fifty companies had shrunk to twenty-nine. … [I]n 1990, the twenty-nine had shrunk to twenty three. … [I]n 1997, the biggest firms numbered ten and involved the $19 billion Disney-ABC deal, at the time the biggest media merger ever. … [In 2000] AOL Time Warner’s $350 billion merged corporation [was] more than 1,000 times larger [than the biggest deal of 1983].

In 2005, 10 media firms, seven of which were American, accounted for 80 per cent of all revenues in the global media market (Winseck, 2008: 37). By 2010, the scene was similar; Time Warner and Disney remained the top two firms, while the number of American companies dropped to 6 and the number of Japanese rose to 3 (Headline News, 2010). What we are seeing today, largely due to the neoliberal turn the global economy has taken, is the securing of an oligopoly – whereby the market is run by a small number of sellers – in the global media sector.

A global media market dominated by a minority of large companies results in a new kind of dependence for peripheral states. In the past, Third-World nations largely possessed second-rate communications systems, as many were designed only to suit the bare needs of the colonial masters (an example of the inheritance of inequality peripheral states received from imperialism) (McChesney & Schiller, op. cit: 5). Furthermore, in order to develop their communications systems, Third-World countries needed to import the technology needed to do so, which often came at a high price (Strabhaar, 2010: 266). Nowadays, peripheral states and their media systems have no way to combat the domination of colossal media conglomerates from the West. They cannot close their economies to them, or else they face condemnation by and alienation from major trading states and their allies for not opening up their markets (as demonstrated earlier). Additionally, it is largely Western firms and contractors which they need to acquire communications technologies from.

Third World states felt they were handicapped from the onset and found it hard to compete on the international capitalist market.  When they tried to organise a campaign to establish a New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO), wherein they asked industrialised countries to provide resources to establish viable communications systems of their own, in forums in the United Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and other venues, it was met with an icy response from the states in the core (McChesney & Schiller, op. cit: 5). The United States, under Prime Minister Ronald Reagan, and its chief ally, the United Kingdom, under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, both considered to be the biggest advocates of neoliberalism, pulled out of UNESCO. Along with their pulling out came their withdrawal from funding (such that in the mid 1990s, the US owed $750 million to the UN overall), effectively causing the NWICO movement to disintegrate (Schiller, 2010: 253). The reasoning behind this was that the movement, and consequently UNESCO, opposed a free market, dogmatically deemed to be the be-all and end-all of the countries’ economic positions from then on. Consequently, the rise of neoliberalism quashed resistance from below, as stated by McChesney and Schiller (op. cit: 5):

In fact, the trajectory followed since the 1980s by the global political economy has run directly counter to notions like the NWICO.  The age of neoliberalism, or corporate globalization, unleashed national and international policies highly supportive of business domination of all social affairs with minimal countervailing force.

This is an example of how domination and dependency in the global economy results in domination and dependency in global media systems.

Case Study: US Media Dominance

One of the implications of the format of the current global economy is that whoever has economic power is able to secure “full-spectrum” dominance, as complete freedom in the market allows no restrictions on the expansion and dominance of economic powers. The United States is the current economic power, with the biggest economy in the world, with a gross domestic product and purchasing power parity of over $14 trillion in 2010 according to the International Monetary Fund (2011). This explains the American domination in the global communications markets.

One of the areas in which American dominance is extant is through media flows. The rest of the world is being inundated with media flows from The United States. Thussu (2010: 235-6) argues that “media flows have a close relationship with economic power” and that, despite an increase in contra-flows from the Global South towards the West, American companies will always dominate the system in this era of “full-spectrum dominance”. What this means is that the freer markets are, the better able companies from major-economic powers, such as America, are to dominate the whole global market. As a result, American media and entertainment industries (such as Hollywood) penetrate the global market and flood the world with American cultural products, or buy out foreign companies or create subsidiaries overseas to provide local programming for other countries from which they reap the profits. For example, major US studios such as Columbia TriStar, Warner Brothers and Disney are using local production facilities in Europe, Asia and Latin America and setting up subsidiaries to make country-specific programming there (ibid: 229-230). Additionally, foreign cultures are being creolized with America’s, as media outlets from other countries are following American business models which have been proven to succeed. Brazilian soap operas, for instance, portray a glamorous American lifestyle just with a ‘Brazilianised face’ to replicate the success of American soaps in selling products by advertisers and sponsors (Schiller, op. cit: 255).

Whilst cultural imperialism is one implication of American dominance in the global economy, another is its influence in institutions. Of course, the impact America had over the NWICO debate was demonstrated earlier, as the influence the country maintains over UNESCO through its funding is critical. This shows that The United States has the ability, not only to direct policy directives in the IMF and World Bank, but also to prevent constructive dialogue which questions the manifestation of American – and Western – dominance in the communications sector. Moreover, as American corporations largely run most of the media, they are able to generate information supporting their agenda. Ultimately, the news they present “is politically conservative, because the media giants are significant beneficiaries of the  current social structure  around the world, and any upheaval in property or social relations particularly to  the extent that it  reduces the power of business not in their  interest” (McChesney & Schiller, op. cit: 13). For instance, the media often promote ideals such as “free trade” and corporate entrepreneurialism and show governments putting restriction on markets in a bad light. Thus, not only does America practice cultural imperialism, but also a kind of institutional imperialism as well.



From the global media sector, we see the power of transnational media companies, supported (and even respected) by the governments of the economically dominant major trading states they originate from, and the subsequent dependence media outlets and markets from the periphery have on them. Examples of this come from the consolidation of a media oligopoly by mostly American media conglomerates and the inability of Third-World countries to stand up to neoliberal-espousing dominant states in the Global North such as The United States through supposedly democratic institutions such as UNESCO. This reflects the transmission of power from imperial powers in colonial times to transnational corporations in this neoliberal, corporate globalisation era (or, for others, between imperial European powers of old and the American imperial power of today, as it has been the source – and driving force – of the neoliberal agenda which has swept the world since the 1980s and allowed those transnational corporations, originating from economically powerful states such as the US, to thrive).

In any case, the relationship between international communications and the neoliberal atmosphere in the global capitalist economy suggest two things. Firstly, it suggests neoliberalism (which encourages freedom of trade so that powerful traders may prosper unrestricted), in conjunction with a legacy of inequality caused by colonialism and imperialism, severely disadvantages former colonies and other underdeveloped states, which cannot compete with the already advanced powerful states in the Global North. Secondly, it suggests that whatever trend prevailing in the global political economy greatly impacts on international communications. The result of the prevalence of neoliberal policy directives in the past 30 years or so has been the consequent narrowing down of the field of media firms which dominate the global media market and the establishment of an predominantly American-run oligopoly within it. The global economy thus has a huge affect on international communications, and dependencies and inequalities in the former result in dependencies and inequalities in the latter.



Bagdikian, B. H. (2000). The Media Monopoly, 6th Edition. Boston: Beacon Press. pp. xx-xxi

Evans, T. L., Ph.D. (2011). Understanding the Political Economy of Enforced Dependency in the Globalized World. P. 36, 37

Headline News. (2010). Top 10 Media Companies by Highest Sales in World. Retrieved on 30/11/2011 from

International Monetary Fund. (2011). World Economic Outlook Database, September 2011. Retrieved on 1/12/2011, from

Lamy, S. (2011). “Contemporary mainstream approaches: neo-realism and neo-liberalism” (p.121). In Baylis, J. Smith, S. & Owens, P. (Eds.), The Globalization Of World Politics (pp. 114-129). New York: Oxford University Press.

McChesney, R. W. & Schiller, D. (2003) The Political Economy of International Communications: Foundations for the Emerging Global Debate about Media Ownership and Regulation. United Nations Research Institute for Social Development. Technology, Business and Society Programme Paper Number 11 October 2003. p. 5, 8, 11 & 13

Mooney, A. & Evans, B. (2007). Globalization: The Key Concepts. Abingdon, Oxdon: Routledge. p. 239

Schiller, H. (2010). “Not Yet The Post-Imperialist Era” (p. 255). In Thussu, D. K. (Ed.) International Communication: A Reader (p. 247-260). Abingdon, Oxdon: Routledge

Sens, A. & Stoett, P. (2005). Global Politics: Origins, Currents, Directions. Canada: Nelson Education Limited. p. 296

Sinclair, T. (2005). The New Masters of Capital: American Bond Rating Agencies and the Politics of Creditworthiness. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Straubhaar, J. (2010). “Beyond Media Imperialism” (p. 266). In Thussu, D. K. (Ed.) International Communication: A Reader (p. 261-278). Abingdon, Oxdon: Routledge

Thussu, D. K. (2010). “Mapping Global Media Flow and Contra-Flow” (p. 235-6). In Thussu, D. K. (Ed.) International Communication: A Reader (p. 221-238). Abingdon, Oxdon: Routledge

Watson, M. (2011). “Global trade and finance” (p. 447-8). In Baylis, J. Smith, S. &

Owens, P. (Eds.), The Globalization Of World Politics (pp. 444-457). New York:Oxford University Press.

Willis, K. (2011). Theories and Practices of Development, 2nd edition. Abingdon, Oxdon: Routledge. p. 54

Winseck, D. (2008), “The State of Media Ownership and Media Markets: Competition or Concentration and Why Should We Care?” in Sociology Compass 2(1): 34-47 (p. 37)

Woods, N. (2011). “International political economy in an age of globalization” (p. 255). In Baylis, J. Smith, S. & Owens, P. (Eds.), The Globalization Of World Politics (pp. 246-261). New York: Oxford University Press.

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