Why should we still study J. A. Hobson’s Imperialism?

Richard Toye
History Department, University of Exeter

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john_atkinson_hobsonIn preparation for our upcoming free course on The Controversies of Empire I’ve been thinking hard about the legacy of J.A. Hobson (1858–1940), one of England’s most famous critics of imperialism.

A clue to Hobson’s thinking can be found in the title of his 1938 autobiography, Confessions of an Economic Heretic. His core idea was that capitalism’s boom-and-bust cycles were caused by over-saving by the richer classes, or, to put it another way, by the forced ‘under-consumption’ of the poorer ones; their lack of spending power, a consequence of the unequal distribution of income, led to the repeated pattern of depression and unemployment.

What, though, did this have to do with Empire?

imperialism a studyWell, Hobson argued in his book Imperialism (1902) that capital which could not find lucrative investment opportunities at home, due to over-saving/under-consumption, sought outlets abroad, and it was these sectional interests that drove imperial expansion forward. Crucially, though, this growth of Empire was not in the interests of the nation as a whole, but benefitted only certain capitalist cliques. Therefore, Hobson argued, the money-makers needed to persuade the voters to act against their own well-being. Of course, in doing this, they had allies:

Apart from the financial Press, and financial ownership of the general Press, the City notoriously exercises a subtle and abiding influence upon leading London newspapers, and through them upon the body of the provincial Press, while the entire dependence of the Press for its business profits upon its advertising columns involves a peculiar reluctance to oppose the organised financial classes with whom rests the control of so much advertising business. Add to this the natural sympathy with a sensational policy which a cheap Press always manifests, and it becomes evident that the Press is strongly biased towards     Imperialism, and lends itself with great facility to the suggestion of financial or political Imperialists who desire to work up patriotism for some new piece of expansion.

The book certainly has its flaws, the most egregious of which is an anti-Semitic passage which suggests that business capital is ‘controlled, so far as Europe is concerned, chiefly by men of a single and peculiar race, who […] are in a unique position to control the policy of nations.’

Nevertheless, it also contains many important insights.

It seems to me that, if Hobson’s account of the imperialist economics is questionable, his analysis of imperialist arguments still stands up incredibly well today. Take, for example, this passage, in which he ironically skewers the profoundly flawed but superficially plausible argument that it is natural for the most ‘socially efficient’ (i.e.Western imperialist) nations to dominate, and that it is at the same time morally incumbent upon them to attempt to do so:

So easily we glide from natural history to ethics, and find in utility a moral sanction for the race struggle. Now, Imperialism is nothing but this natural history doctrine, regarded from the standpoint of one’s own nation. We represent the socially efficient nation, we have conquered and acquired dominion and territory in the past: we must go on, it is our destiny, one which is serviceable to ourselves and to the world, our duty. Thus, emerging from natural history, the doctrine soon takes on a large complexity of ethical and religious finery, and we are wafted into an elevated atmosphere of ‘imperial         Christianity,’ a ‘mission of civilisation,’ in which we are to teach ‘the arts of good government’ and ‘the dignity of labour.’

It might well be said that much modern scholarship on the history of imperial discourse constitutes little more than a commentary upon insights that Hobson laid down over a century ago. He deserves to be remembered not only as a critic of Empire, but also as a fine analyst of the broader rhetoric of power, and of the hypocrisy that so often attends it.

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