Colonialism, Internal


Internal colonialism refers to a complex set of sociospatial relationships of exploitation and domination that characterize certain culturally distinct populations residing in sovereign, mainly ThirdWorld, societies. The two defining relationships of internal colonialism are that subjected populations are (1) exploited principally by mechanisms which may not be ‘capitalist proper’ and (2) institutionally dominated, both politically and culturally. In the first instance, internal colonies overwhelmingly produce primary goods for metropolitan markets, constitute a source of cheap labor for capital controlled from outside the colony, and/or constitute a market for the products and services from metropolitan areas. Subordinated populations part with their surplus labor through coercive social relationships, such as slavery, serfdom, debt peonage, and/or a general unequal exchange of commodities. Thus, surplus labor is extracted from the colonized population by mechanisms that largely differ from those found in advanced capitalist societies (where exploitation occurs through the employment of ‘free’ waged labor). The second trait of internal colonialism is that these ‘noncapitalist’ forms of surplus labor appropriation necessitate forms of political and cultural domination of a qualitatively different nature from that exercised by ruling classes in metropolitan capitalist society. The population of an internal colony as such faces severe discrimination in civil society, violence (as broadly defined), and restricted access to the state resources.

Conceptual Origins

The concept of internal colonialism has been applied to a variety of geopolitical contexts. In some instances, populations are said to be colonized by the entire state of which they are a constituent part and at times by dominant regions of the national state. Case studies have often been drawn from rural Third World locales, though arguments have been made for its applicability to spaces within the metropolitan heartlands of global capitalism. The theoretical geographical scope of the concept has thus been substantial. What is generally accepted is that the explication of internal colonization as a coherent concept – incorporating both the ‘economic’ dimensions of regional exploitation, and the ‘political’ aspects of social group domination – has its origin in radical Latin American scholarship. The concept was pioneered notably by Pablo Gonza´lez Casanova, Rodolfo Stavenhagen, and others as a part of a renewal of Marxism in Latin America during the 1960s, to explain the social problems of postcolonial societies at least partly in terms of their colonial heritage. Persistent poverty in the Third World societies could not, however, be wholly blamed on external mechanisms of colonialism, particularly after formal independence. Possibly the reason for internal colonialism cohering as a theory in Latin America, decolonized much earlier than other parts of the Third World, is that internal domination and exploitation of indigenous groups by other national groups was strikingly evident in the postcolonial period. Drawing upon histories then emerging of Latin America’s role in the development of capitalism in the West, particularly upon what became known as the dependency school, many writers began to draw parallels between the present and the colonial past. Theorists of internal colonialism rejected both the then influential dualist model of development (positing parallel ‘modern’ and ‘traditional’ economies within a national space), and bourgeois structural convergence models (convinced of the inevitability of the emergence of integrated national economic spaces). The internal domination and exploitation of ‘natives by natives’ (as Gonza´lez Casanova termed it) was highlighted instead, in particular the instrumental internal class relations that had emerged between different social groups and regions. It was also argued that internal colonialism was a specificity of postcolonial societies with large indigenous populations.

In this alternative scenario, the ‘internally colonized’ regions were envisaged as integral and necessary to the functioning of the national economy, and reference was specifically made as to how colonialism had wrought a sociospatial division of labor, imposing cultural distinctions and stratifications along class lines. In the specific case of Latin America, this division came between the Iberians, including Mestizos (populations of mixed European and indigenous descent) and indigenous peoples. However, in other contexts, such as in South Asia, the division was seen not so much as between indigenous and mixed descent populations, but between tribal and low caste populations and those who were upper caste, relatively Westernized, and English educated. Such divides, which had persisted since the days of colonialism, had earlier concerned a general category of writers, who were to have an antagonistic influence upon the development of internal colonialism theories. In the lead up to independence from the colonial powers, and in the postcolonial aftermath, various educational and philanthropic movements attempted to create ‘authentic’ national cultures in opposition to what was seen as the alien culture of the conquerors. In Latin America this was typified by the Indigenismo movement, composed largely of urban Mestizo intellectuals, who were fixated on recapturing the indigenous ‘glories’ of a pre-Columbian era. The critique that emerged of this phenomenon, and which informed theses of internal colonialism, was of the perspective that the question of the fate of dominated populations could not be resolved by humanitarianism since the persisting exploitation was not a question of morals, culture, or ethics, but was a problem rooted in the materiality of the exploitative socioeconomic system itself.

Mechanisms of Internal Colonialism

Many scholars define the condition of internal colonialism as a situation whereby one distinct cultural/ethnic/racial group economically exploits and politically dominates another such group. In this view, cultural/ethnic/racial oppression is seen as irreducible to other social processes, such as class. The mutual relationship between ‘economic’ class exploitation and, for example, ‘political’ racial oppression is often, however, not clarified, and the term ‘internal colonialism’ is itself used loosely. Scholars broadly influenced by the Marxist thought (e.g., Wolpe, as well as Drakakis Smith, a geographer, and Hartwig, who are influenced by him) have attempted to directly theorize situations of internal colonialism to class relations, and in particular to the articulation between capitalist and noncapitalist class relations. The argument is as follows: in certain conditions, within a country, capitalism may develop predominantly in relation to noncapitalist modes of production. Capital in such circumstances has a double tendency – to conserve as well as to dissolve noncapitalist social relations. This relationship with noncapitalist modes of production varies geographically. In terms of relations of dissolution, in some areas, capital may destroy precapitalist modes of production through primitive accumulation – that is, it may dispossess peasants of their means of production in order to create a property less class of wagelaborers. In terms of relations of conservation, there are two possibilities: the extraction of the products of human labor or the extraction of human labor itself from noncapitalist areas. In one area, capital might extract goods produced under noncapitalist modes of production, for example, through sheer plunder, or the exchange of nonequivalents, or in a similarly forcible manner. The ethnically dominant groups, such as the Mestizos (mixed European and indigenous population) in Latin America or upper caste merchants from the plains in India, extract surplus from the internal colony by purchasing commodities cheap and selling dear and by charging usurious interest rates.

In other areas, capital may extract not the product of human labor but the capacity of humans to work, ‘labor power’ itself. This happens when laborers from non-capitalist locales work in capitalist areas (e.g., as seasonal migrants). Since part of the cost of reproducing and sustaining this workforce is borne by noncapitalist modes of production (and not by capital), wages are lower than what they would otherwise be. Capital, simply, does not need to pay a wage sufficient to cover the reproduction of its living workforce. This is the case when, for example, land in the internal colony is owned and cultivated communally and/or where the produce is shared through ties of kinship or mutual obligation. This process thus contributes toward the reproduction of labor periodically working outside the spaces of the internal colony and keeps wages down for capitalist employers. It must be noted that whether the internal colony contributes goods directly, or the labor necessary to produce commodities, apart from economic mechanisms, the element of extra economic coercion is regularly used by owners of means of production. Additionally, in the realm of commodity and money circulation, various forms of unequal exchange between the internal colony and the advanced regions contribute to the stunting of the forces of production possessed by populations of the internal colony, and a general recapitalization of the region. With a mixture of different methods of production in the colony, the forces of production in the internal colony remain largely undeveloped. Since local or autonomous capitalist development is absent, the surplus extracted from the colonized population is rarely reinvested back into the territory, and investments of significance are generally unsustainable in terms of their long term economic, social, or ecological viability.

Spaces of internal colonialism thus come to be characterized by dependence on a restricted range of economic activities, mostly in the primary sector, and the region consequently suffers from a lack of diversification and, when technology does happen to be advanced, extreme degradation of the physical environment. Historically, with few livelihood alternatives, and as traditional occupations come under pressure, there is out migration and long term population declines occur (though interspersed with short term, localized boom periods, for example, as associated with prospecting for finite natural resources). With a lack of economies of scale, and due to political considerations, such as the weak enforceability of private property rights and sociospatial discrimination, the provision of various (private and state) services and investment is limited. This increases the pressure on smaller communities and creates uneven development as populations attempt to consolidate resources within the confines of the colony.

The human and physical geography of internal colonialism can thus be understood partly as the expression of underlying and contradictory social relations. However, insofar as the existence of an internal colony involves economic exploitation and social oppression, this requires political legitimization in the context of broader society – or else eventually becoming untenable over time. Exploitation, though, is legitimized not through state and ideological mechanisms based on private property, as characteristic of liberal capitalist democracies, but through political and ideological domination based firmly upon purported racial, ethnic, or national traits, that is, through a relationship that is primarily colonial in nature. This is the case, whether it is in the Third World, or in the First World settler colonial societies with substantial aboriginal populations. It is the essence of internal colonialism: a set of sociospatial practices of domination that ‘justify’ the ways in which capital benefits from and develops at the eventual expense of ‘noncapitalist’ modes of production. The fact that internal colony areas are less developed than the country as a whole requires justification, and here non-class social relations are incessantly invoked. In other words, it is made to appear that the region is less developed because of, for example, racial or ethnic traits. Once these differences are used to justify the relations of exploitation, unequal exchange, and unequal geographical development between internal colony spaces and those pertaining to other areas, then discrimination reinforces these conditions. Purported differences, such as of race and ethnicity, thus obtain a material foundation for their sustenance.

To the extent that internal colonial relations are simultaneously about class and colonialism/ethnic oppression, dominated populations come to possess a contradictory identity, one that can be argued to have adverse implications for developing the collective agency necessary to counter internal colonization. On the one hand, populations see themselves as colonized, different from wider society, and, on the other hand, as members of an exploited class, in the sense that they are located in a typical exploited class situation. Since the 1960s, there has been a debate as to the influence of internal colonialism on the development of class consciousness versus other forms of consciousness. Stavenhagen proposed that the colonial relationships between indigenous communities and the larger society strengthened such marginalized communities and fomented their ethnic identity, while the development of capitalist relations in the internal colony tended to contribute to their disintegration as a community and integration into national society. In other words, ethnic consciousness makes the lines of social struggle more complex, as dominated populations may at times fight as antagonistic classes, and at times as oppressed cultures. Additionally, given that those classes and political groups ruling in the internal colony may not be dominant at the national scale (e.g., Mestizos in Latin American countries being subordinate to Iberians and landed interests in India being subordinate to the bourgeoisie) the population of the internal colony may struggle to integrate immediate tactical struggles with visions of temporally longer and spatially wider social change. Internal colonialism thus gives a distinctive character to class relations, techniques of production, and the class struggle in those countries where this phenomenon exists. Indeed, the phenomenon cannot be properly understood without reference to these dimensions.

In this respect, relations of internal colonialism differ from, for example, conventional urban–rural relations because they have a different historical origin and are based on active discrimination. They also differ from class relations as the sociospatial demarcation of the internal colony cuts across class lines. In this way, internal colonialism can be distinguished from general regional inequality under capitalism. The major difference between marginalized regions and the defined internal colony is found in the application of the different institutionalized practices of domination and methods of social control. The population of internal colonies is thus subject to discriminatory practices over and above those characteristic of relations between dominant classes and typical regional working classes. Furthermore, individuals from working class backgrounds in peripheral regions have opportunities for social mobility depending upon opportunity structures to the limited degree that they can shake off their class origins and become socialized into the skills, values, and attitudes of the mainstream society. By contrast, the individual from the internal colony is highly socially constrained, regardless of personal merit.

Whither Internal Colonialism?

Over time, relations and processes of internal colonialism can change and weaken. One fairly common line of argument is that dominant social–cultural groups always have a vested interest in maintaining relations of internal colonialism. However, this may not always be the case. Historically, as capitalist relations have developed and penetrated into remoter regions, class relations predicated on the accumulation of capital have entered into conflicts with colonial style relations based on mercantile relations or on exploitation through noneconomic forms of domination. To the extent that internal colonialism is based on the appropriation of unfree labor of a population, and to the extent that free wage labor may be more appropriate (i.e., more profitable) than unfree labor, then those specific conditions defining a situation of internal colonialism may weaken. In any case, even if unfree labor is used, it is not necessary that colonial political relations must prevail. In such scenarios, it is mainly those enterprises of the ethnically dominant whose technology has lagged behind and who continue to use cheap forced labor that may be interested in maintaining internal colonial relations, and, as such, there is ideological struggle within the dominant community over this matter.

Further, the weakening of internal colonialism may occur through class differentiation within the colonized community, consequent to the development of petty commodity production in rural areas. In particular, the rural petty bourgeoisie may forge an alliance with urban workers, socially marginalized groups in urban areas, and colonized groups in an attempt to break the patron–client relations in use by the dominant classes. Political struggles for land, for better working conditions, and for full political participation also can help contribute to the demise of internal colonialism, and need not always be at odds with the fuller development of capitalism (e.g., as historically associated with land reforms or with the establishment of parliamentary representation). Populations from the internal colony may, too, adopt those lifestyles associated with the ethnically dominant as a means of breaking out from their communities in a search for employment elsewhere. This process involves a combination of forced circumstances and choice, proletarianization, and rural–urban migration that contributes to the breakdown of internal colonialism. State led agrarian reforms, including public investment in internal colonies, can also lead to the closure of the inequality gulf between colonized populations and the national society.

Hence, on the one hand, the dynamics of internal colonial relations may become transmuted into those typifying other situations, such as of a capital/labor class relationship and a more conventional form of regional marginalization. Such developments may, though, mitigate against the demise of internal colonialism. For example, the national state by seeking to either redistribute land, manipulate guaranteed crop prices, divulge increased political autonomy, and/or invest in internal colony areas with public funds might rouse political opposition by nature of an alliance between rural land magnates in the colony and urban working classes (who might fear disinvestment in their neighborhoods and services or else in the rising price/insecurity of food supplies). The further penetration of capitalist–social relations might perhaps lead to lower sections of the ethnically dominant working class mobilizing to ensure social exclusion of colony populations from privileged openings in the social structure, such as in traditional commercial employment opportunities (consider the problem of racism in various trade union contexts) or positions in the bureaucracy (witness contemporary struggles over government quotas for scheduled castes and tribes in India).

Other developments can emerge to change the relations of internal colonialism in sometimes unanticipated ways. Attempts to impose forms of social control – such as the religion of the dominant community – upon the internal colony may, for example, act as a spur to cultural resistance. Similarly, extreme measures of social control in the internal colony, sanctioned by the prejudices of the national population, may result in a backlash and the radicalization of movements. In this case, colonized populations may challenge the hegemonic order in the name of a disadvantaged class, on the one hand, and in the name of a cultural minority, on the other. Social and cultural institutions that develop organically within the internal colony, and in competition with state supported institutions, may hereby become nodes for the crystallization of political opposition. This may either create a dual basis for a challenge against the hegemonic order in society or become a feature for co optation – the state making certain cultural and some (limited) political concessions, but without altering the fundamental basis for surplus labor transfers from the internal colony.

Critical Assessment

The theory of internal colonialism is not without deficiencies, and there are four main criticisms. First is the general understanding of the development of capitalism presented by the concept of internal colonialism. An implicit assumption of the internal colonialism theory is that peripheral regions in a given country will always be necessary to fuel the capitalist system, the absence of which would engender national economic crisis. What is disregarded is the possibility of the important role played by technological change in creating relative surplus value (in the advanced capitalist center of the economy), particularly after the historical phase of the dispossession of populations of their means of production has ended. There is therefore an undue amount of stress on absolute surplus value as it is produced by the native population and on its appropriation by those culturally and politically dominant groups. Additionally, to the extent that internal colonies in the Third World might be judged as historically and geographically unique, in comparison to the assumed origins of capitalism in the First World, it downplays the importance of the comparable overseas imperial relations that the emergence of Western industrial capitalism depended upon. In certain narratives of internal colonialism, there is, thus, a potential tendency toward economic determinism.

A second criticism is how class exploitation is understood in relation to ethnic oppression and the autonomy of these issues from one another. For example, the Marxist scholar HaroldWolpe alleges that much of the thinking on the topic of internal colonialism tends to treat ethnic relations as autonomous of class relations. This is problematic, since while workers belonging to the ethnically dominant group may benefit from surplus from other groups, they do not own/control the means of production or extra economic power critical to the successful exploitation and subjugation of other communities. Class distinctions are thus at risk of neglect in theories of internal colonialism as the tendency is to conceptualize an entire population ruling at the expense of another. The major division is hence not seen as between owners and nonowners of the means of producing everyday material life, but instead between groups whose differences are ultimately socially mutable. As another scholar, Cristo´bal Kay, observes, ‘‘the key to the concept of internal colonialism deserves to be the ‘relation’ of domination and exploitation between two social groups.’’ The actual racial, ethnic, cultural and even geographical elements are ‘not’ central to the mechanisms of internal colonialism – rather they ‘merely’ facilitate the exploitation of the internally colonized.

To the extent that internal colonial relation is an aspect of class relations, how then can the two be distinguished? Insofar as capitalism is the dominant mode of production in the country, and insofar as the forms of exploitation that are said to persist within internal colonies are common and apply to dominant social groups as well, then it is more appropriate to talk about class relations than colonial relations. When these forms of exploitation are accompanied by extra economic coercion and would not otherwise exist – and that it applies to particular groups only, or mainly – then it is valid to talk about colonial relations. The dimension of noneconomic political coercion is the key element in defining internal colonialism. Indeed, some scholars question whether internal colonialism has applicability to conditions where noncapitalist modes of production, if they still exist, are marginal. For, arguably, where they are marginal, dull economic compulsion will be sufficient to compel labor and products from noncapitalist areas to enter into fully capitalist production relations and circulation. Nevertheless, other writers continue to insist that the concept is analytically useful ‘wherever’ the relation of exploitation between capitalist areas and noncapitalist areas is expressed racially and/or in the garb of cultural/ethnic group identity, even in predominantly capitalist societies where there exists persistent and severe discrimination against aboriginal populations. Arguably, specific capitalists in certain places and at certain times do make use of extra economic coercion in the sphere of production (they do this, for example, when they deprive laborers of their right to freely bargain over their wages) and utilize mechanisms of racial–cultural–political oppression in order to obtain labor and commodities at below market wages and prices, respectively. Therefore, the general mechanism of internal colonialism – economic exploitation and racial oppression–political domination overlapping in a place – may not totally disappear with the coming of ‘pure’ capitalist relations.

A third criticism is the assumed homogeneity of internally colonized populations. On the one hand, there often – in the seeming rush to identify ‘colonialism’ – is an overlooking of ‘emergent’ class divisions within internal colony populations. On the other hand, there is often considerable local cultural and linguistic differences within oppressed populations and hierarchies of social power that operate within the wider population. These cultural distinctions may have divisive salience in domains of social life other than the workplace, and less traditionally theorized as being part of the class struggle – neighborhood politics, educational institutions, voluntary associations, and so on.

Finally, the concept of internal colonialism can be critiqued politically. According to some interpretations, to use the concept of internal colony automatically implies a strategy of ‘national’ liberation. To critics, this is the central weakness of the theory because it contains a hope for liberation from oppression and exploitation through an ethnic, cultural, and national autonomy. It, suggests Cristo´bal Kay, can be used to raise political consciousness but cannot fulfill that stated goal. Structural conditions for establishing separate states do not exist in most situations, as most internal colonies are highly dependent on the workings of the integrated national capitalist system. There is, further, a pessimism to internal colonialism studies that, while often darkly illuminating, can at times hinder the recognition of substantial political gains (such as constitutional rights) as anything other than the attempt to co opt liberatory movements and aspirations within the colony. There is thus a deficient theorization of the capitalist state, as a political economic institution that emerges from, and has tensions reflective of, civil society at large.


The concept of internal colonialism emerged as, and remains, a historic attempt to understand the social and economic structures and inequities that persist in different spaces in the context of national capitalist development. In the effort to analyze often highly complex sociospatial formations, internal colonialism as a theory has both its strengths and weaknesses. Though a somewhat nebulous concept, due to its wide empirical application and popular theoretical appropriation, studies of ‘internal colonialism’ challenge many of the assumptions inherent in various international development theories, especially those emphasizing the inevitably revolutionary consequences of industrialization within territories, and those assuming ‘pure’ modes of production existing in isolation of capitalism. The key to the ‘theory’ of internal colonialism is to be found in an understanding of the particular sociospatial relations of domination and exploitation that characterize the relations between different ethnocultural social groups within a national space. The ethnic, social, cultural, and geographical elements in the conceptualization of internal colonialism are not central but do certainly facilitate the identification, establishment, and intensification of the phenomenon described as internal colonialism. Thus, the criticisms should focus on the theory’s analysis of the relations of domination and exploitation. If these relations cannot be clearly defined, do not exist in reality, or are already part of a theory which has greater explanatory and predictive powers, then the concept of internal colonialism must necessarily be abandoned.