Shaw on Imperialism: Exploitation Abroad, Poverty and Unemployment at Home

As I may have already said, I’ve been reading George Bernard Shaw’s The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism, Capitalism, Sovietism and Fascism. It’s a brilliant book, in which the great Fabian playwright attacks and exposes the contradictions, flaws, poverty and inequality in capitalism and argues for a gradual, socialist transformation of society through nationalisation and the equalisation of incomes. Although it was written between 1924 and 1928 some of the topics Shaw covers are still acutely relevant. He argues for the nationalisation of the banks because private bankers have caused massive financial problems and concentrate so much on big business that small businessmen and women suffer through lack of funds. He also shows how the extremely wealthy should have their incomes reduced, because instead of doing anything genuinely productive with their money they simply hoard it. And that means sending it overseas. This is an acute problem now, with the super-rich hoarding their money unspent in offshore tax havens, instead of properly paying their fair share to build up the country’s health service and infrastructure.

Shaw is also acutely critical of imperialism for the same reason. He is not against imperialism per se. Indeed, he states that it would be admirable if we really had taken over the different lands of the empire for the benefit of the indigenous peoples. But we hadn’t. We’d taken them over purely for the enrichment of the capitalists through the exploitation of their non-White inhabitants.

The process, according to Shaw, began with the arrival of a single British trading ship. This was fine on its own, but others also arrived. Soon a trading post was set up, and then the merchants behind the trade demanded the entire country’s annexation. Capitalism preferred to fund socially destructive enterprises, like gin, rather than the socially useful, like lighthouses, which had to be set up and managed by the government. The market for gin had been saturated, and so the capitalists had proceeded to look abroad for more profits for the gin trade. And once a country was conquered and incorporated into the empire, its Black inhabitants were forced into commercial labour unprotected by legislation, like the Factory Acts, that protected British workers.

These overworked, underpaid, exploited colonial workers were able to produce goods that undercut those of domestic, British manufacturers. As a result, British businesses were going bankrupt and British workers laid off, except for those in the service industries for the extremely wealthy. The great mill and factory towns of the north and midlands were declining in favour of places for the genteel rich, like Bournemouth.

Ordinary working people couldn’t starve, as the capitalist class had grudgingly allowed the establishment of the dole following the mass unemployment that followed the First World War. But there weren’t any jobs for them. This was why the British government was encouraging them to emigrate, promising to pay £12 of the £15 fare to Australia if the worker would provide £3 him- or herself.

Now Shaw’s description of the foundation and expansion of the empire is obviously over-simplified, but nevertheless contains more than a grain of truth. Both Fiji and New Zealand were annexed because they had suffered an influx of White settlers through trading ships. The people arguing for their annexation, however, did so because they were opposed to the indigenous peoples’ exploitation. The White settlers in Fiji were aiming to set up a government for Whites with an indigenous king, Cakobau, as puppet ruler to give it a spurious legitimacy. More enlightened colonists therefore persuaded Cadobau and his government to approach Britain and ask for annexation in order to prevent the dispossession and enslavement of indigenous Fijians. In New Zealand the request for annexation was made by Christian ministers, who were afraid that the country would be conquered for Roman Catholicism by France on the one hand, and that the whalers and other traders who had already settled there would destroy and exploit the Maoris through alcohol, prostitution and guns.

And the enslavement and exploitation of the indigenous peoples certainly occurred. Apart from enslavement and dispossession of the Amerindians and then Black Africans in the first phase of British imperialism from the 17th century to the end of the 18th, when the British empire expanded again from the early 19th century onward, it frequently did so under the pretext of destroying the slave trade. However, once we were in possession of those territories, indigenous slavery was frequently tolerated. Moreover, British colonists often used forced labour to build up their plantations and businesses. This occurred around about the time Shaw was writing in Malawi. When slavery was outlawed in the British empire in 1837, the planters replaced it with nominally free indentured Indian labourers, who were worked in conditions so atrocious in the notorious ‘coolie trade’ that it was denounced as ‘a new system of slavery’.

The British government had also been encouraging its poor and unemployed to emigrate to its colonies as well as the US in what historians call social imperialism from about the 1870s onwards.

Reading this passage, however, it struck me that the situation has changed somewhat in the last 90 or so years. Britain is no longer exporting its surplus labour. All the countries around the world now have strict policies regarding emigration, and the developed, White majority countries of Canada, New Zealand and Australia are busy taking in migrants from the developing world, like Britain and the rest of the West.

But the super rich have found a way to surreptitiously go back on their early policy of providing welfare benefits for the unemployed. Through the wretched welfare reforms introduced by Iain Duncan Smith and other Tory scumbags, they’ve torn holes in the welfare safety net with benefit sanctions, fitness to work tests and a five week waiting period. The result is that the unemployed and disabled are starving to death. And those that aren’t are frequently prevented from doing so only through food banks and private charity. This has been changed somewhat with the expansion of welfare payments for workers on furlough and food packages for the vulnerable during the lockdown, but this is intended only to be a temporary measure.

I can remember when globalisation first began in the 1990s. It was supposed to lead to a new era of peace and prosperity as capital moved from country to country to invest in businesses across the globe. But the result for Britain has been mass unemployment. And while developing nations like India have massively profited, it has been at the expense of their own working people, who are now labouring for lower pay and in worse conditions than ever.

The empire has gone to be replaced by the commonwealth. But what Shaw said about it and the exploitation and poverty it caused is true of today’s neoliberal global economy.

Except instead of encouraging emigration, the Tories and the rich have found ways to starve to death Britain’s surplus workers.

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