Posts Tagged ‘Rhine’

J.A. Hobson on Capitalism and Imperialism

May 18, 2020

One of the crimes for which Jeremy Corbyn was pilloried as an anti-Semite was that he had written a foreword for an edition of J.A. Hobson’s book, Imperialism. First published in 1903, Hobson’s book has become one of the classic critiques of imperialism. Hobson considered that the motive force behind imperialist expansion and overseas conquest was capitalism and the continual need to find new markets. The book influenced Lenin’s own analysis of imperialism, Imperialism: The Highest Form of Capitalism. Fifty years after the book was published it was praised by the great British historian A.J.P. Taylor, who said that ‘No survey of the international history of the twentieth century can be complete without the name of J.A. Hobson’ because he was the first to identify imperialism’s economic motives. Hobson has been accused of anti-Semitism.

Imperialism and the Anti-Semitism Smears against Corbyn

I think it’s because he believed that Jewish financiers were behind the Anglo-South Africa or ‘Boer’ Wars. I think the real force was the British desire to expand into the African interior,  retain the Afrikaners as imperial subjects and acquire the riches of the southern African diamond fields as well as Cecil Rhodes own megalomaniac personal ambitions. However, when the various witch-hunters were howling about how anti-Semitic Corbyn was for endorsing the book, others pointed out that it was a very well-respected text admired and used by entirely reputable historians. Yes, it was a bit anti-Semitic. A very small bit – there was only one anti-Semitic sentence in it. It was another case of the witch-hunters grasping at whatever they could, no matter how small, to smear a genuinely anti-racist politician.

Financial Capitalism, Imperialism and the Decline of Ancient Rome

There’s an extract from Hobson’s Imperialism in The Penguin Book of Twentieth-Century Protest, edited by Brian MacArthur (London: Penguin 1988). This is a collection various writings protesting against a wide variety of issues ranging from indictments of the poverty of Edwardian England, to various wars, including Vietnam, Civil Rights and anti-Racism, as well as feminism, gay rights, the power of television and the threat of nuclear war. Yes, there’s an extract from Hitler’s Mein Kampf, but there’s also a piece by the American Zionist rabbi, Stephen S. Wise, against the persecution of the Jews in Nazi Germany as well as other condemnations of Nazis and their horrific rule. The book very definitely does not endorse Fascism or the Communism of Stalin, Pol Pot and the other monsters.

The extract included in the book does identify financial capitalism and militarism as the force behind Roman imperialism, which led to the enslavement of Rome’s enemies abroad and the emergence of an immensely wealthy aristocracy, while impoverishing ordinary Romans at the other end of the social hierarchy, and compares it to the comparable development of the British imperialism of his own time. The extract runs

The spirit of imperialism poisons the springs of democracy in the mind and character of the people. As our free self-governing colonies have furnished hope, encouragement and leadership to the popular aspirations in Great Britain, not merely by practical successes in the arts of popular government, but by the wafting of a spirit of freedom and equality, so our despotically ruled dependencies have ever served to damage the character of our people by feeding the habits of snobbish subservience, the admiration of wealth and rank, the corrupt survivals of the inequalities of feudalism. This process began with the advent of the East Indian nabob and the West Indian planter into English society and politics, bring back with his plunders of the slave trade and the gains of corrupt and extortionate officialism the acts of vulgar ostentation, domineering demeanour and corrupting largesse to dazzle and degrade the life of our people. Cobden, writing in 1860 of our Indian Empire, put this pithy question: ‘Is it not just possible that we may become corrupted at home by the reaction of arbitrary political maxims in the East upon our domestic politics, just as Greece and Rome were demoralized by their contact with Asia?’

The rise of a money-loaning aristocracy in Rome, composed of keen, unscrupulous men from many nations, who filled the high offices of state with their creatures, political ‘bosses’ or military adventurers, who had come to the front as usurers, publicans or chiefs of police in the provinces, was the most distinctive feature of later imperial Rome. This class was continually recruited from returned officials and colonial millionaires. The large incomes drawn in private official plunder, public tribute, usury and official incomes from the provinces had the following reactions upon Italy. Italians were no longer wanted for working the land or for manufactures, or even for military service. ‘The later campaigns on the Rhine and the Danube,’ it is pointed out, ‘were really slave-hunts on a gigantic scale.’

The Italian farmers, at first drawn from rural into military life, soon found themselves permanently ousted from agriculture by the serf labour of the latifundia, and they and their families were sucked into the dregs of town life, to be subsisted as a pauper population upon public charity. A mercenary colonial army came more and more displace the home forces. The parasitic city life, with its lowered vitality and the growing infrequency of marriage, to which Gibbon draws attention, rapidly impaired the physique of the native population of Italy, and Rome subsisted more and more upon immigration of raw vigour from Gaul and Germany. The necessity of maintaining powerful mercenary armies to hold the provinces heightened continually the peril, already manifest in the last years of the Republic, arising from the political ambitions of great pro-consuls conspiring with a moneyed interest at Rome against the Commonwealth. As time went on, this moneyed oligarchy became an hereditary aristocracy, and withdrew from military and civil service, relying more and more upon hired foreigners: themselves sapped by luxury and idleness and tainting by mixed servitude and licence the Roman populace, they so enfeebled the state as to destroy the physical and moral vitality required to hold in check and under government the vast repository of forces in the exploited Empire. The direct cause of Rome’s decay and fall is expressed politically by the term ‘over-centralization’, which conveys in brief the real essence of imperialism as distinguished from national growth on the one hand and colonialism upon the other. Parasitism practised through taxation and usury, involved a constantly increasing centralization of the instruments of government, and a growing strain upon this government as the prey became more impoverished by the drain and showed signs of restiveness. ‘The evolution of this centralized society was as logical as every other work of nature. When force reached the stage where it expressed itself exclusively through money the governing class ceased to be chosen because they were valiant or eloquent, artistic, learned or devout, and were selected solely because they had the faculty of acquiring and keeping wealth. As long as the weak retained enough vitality to produce something which could be absorbed, this oligarchy was invariable; and, for very many years after the native peasantry of Gaul and Italy had perished from the land, new blood, injected from more tenacious races, kept the dying civilization alive. The weakness of the moneyed class lay in this very power, for they not only killed the producer, but in the strength of their acquisitiveness they failed to propagate themselves.’

This is the largest, planest instance history presents of the social parasite process by which a moneyed interest within the state, usurping the reins of government, makes for imperial expansion in order to fasten economic suckers into foreign bodies so as to drain them of their wealth in order to support domestic luxury. The new imperialism differs in no vital point from this old example. The element of political tribute is now absent, or quite subsidiary, and the crudest forms of slavery have disappeared: some elements of more genuine and disinterested government serve to qualify and and mask the distinctively parasitic nature of the later sort. But nature is not mocked: the laws which, operative throughout nature, doom the parasite to atrophy, decay, and final extinction, are not evaded by nations any more than by individual organisms. The greater complexity of the modern process, the endeavour to escape the parasitic reaction by rendering some real but quite unequal and inadequate services to ‘the host’, may retard but cannot finally avert the natural consequences of living upon others. The claim that an imperial state forcibly subjugating other peoples and their lands does so for the purpose of rendering services to the conquered equal to those which she exacts is notoriously false: she neither intends equivalent services nor is capable of rendering them, and the pretence that such benefits to the governed form a leading motive or result of imperialism implies a degree of moral or intellectual obliquity so grave as itself to form a new peril for any nation fostering so false a notion of the nature of its conduct. ‘Let the motive be in the deed, not in the event,’ says a Persian proverb…

Imperialism is a depraved choice of national life, imposed by self-seeking interests which appeal to the lusts of quantitative acquisitiveness and of forceful domination surviving in a nation from early centuries of animal struggle for existence. Its adoption as a policy implies a deliberate renunciation of that cultivation of the higher inner qualities which for a nation as for its individual constitutes the ascendancy of reason over brute impulse. It is the besetting sin of all successful state, and its penalty is unalterable in the order of nature.

(Pp. 15-18).

Financial Capitalism Operating to Exploit Former Colonies and Undermine Domestic Economy

While the British Empire has gone the way of Rome’s, the same forces are still operating today. The Iraq invasion was really to enable western multinationals to seize Iraq’s state industries, and for the American and Saudi oil industry to seize its oil reserves. They weren’t about bringing it democracy or freeing its citizens. Although our former African colonies are now free, they are still plundered through highly unfair trade agreements. At home manufacturing industry has declined because Thatcherite economics favours the financial sector. And the immensely rich now hoard their wealth in offshore tax havens or invest it abroad, rather than in domestic industry. Thus denying British industry investment and making millions of domestic workers unemployed. There’s a further parallel in that in the later Roman Empire, the senatorial aristocracy retreated to their estates rather than pay tax, and so the tax burden increasingly fell on the ordinary Roman citizen. This is the same as the way the Tories have given vast tax cuts to the rich, which have ensured that the tax burden must also be increasingly borne by the poor.

Conservatives have also drawn parallels between the fall of the Roman Empire and today’s west. This has mostly been about non-White immigration, which they have compared to the barbarian invasions. But as Hobson’s Imperialism showed, capitalism and imperialism were connected and together responsible for Rome’s decline and fall. 

But strangely they don’t talk about that!