Axioms of Empire



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Axioms of Empire

Lately pundits have been making parallels between American power and former historical empires. This essay attempts to distinguish America’s market centered expansion--the ‘open door’ policy—from European expansion, which reached its climax around the time of the Great War. Fundamental causes for contemporary American imperialism need to be explained and updated by fitting hypothesis with new evidence, while yet viewing this process in terms of a coherent phenomena that has evolved from modern European expansion. In order to help develop theory for a new historical context, this essay’s humble aim is to show in the broad strokes, where and how specific evidence for 21st century American imperialism contradicts the classical theories of empire. Distinct from the term “empire,” concerns for theory only began with the classical debate on modern imperialism, which began around the turn of the 20th century and evolved until the 1920s. However, a theoretical debate could never have begun in the first place, if it were not for political, economic and technological changes that occurred before the 20th century.

The Franco-American political revolutions established new models for public institutions. Liberal reforms and changes on both sides of the Atlantic during the 19th century allowed the number of eligible voters to dramatically increase, which had two principle effects: first, the nomination making processes was taken out of the grasp of the few and placed into the hands of the multitude; second, expansion of the electorate laid the basis for modern party politics. Theories of imperialism arose, “when the democratization of foreign policy gave politicians the need, and intellectuals the opportunity, to offer electorates reasons to advocate or oppose expansion.”1 Democratized politics represents the transformation and triumph of bourgeois society as well as capitalism.

The theoretical side of imperialism was influenced by the debate about basic determinants. While the German historical and so called realist school emphasized the political determination of economic relations, and stressed power, security and national sentiment, classical liberals like John Stuart Mill as well as Marxists gave primacy to economics and the production of wealth as the basic determinant of social and political organization. Nonetheless, observers could no longer discern between economic and political elements in this new period of national expansion. On the one hand, the debate was influenced by the practical necessity of persuading a mass electorate; on the other hand, by theoretical issues concerning the broad outlines of causality.

Finally, let us mention a further dimension to the new imperialism before we turn to the classical theories of imperialism. Daniel Headrick is right to divide causes into motives as well as means. “A model of causality in which the technical means are as indispensable as the motives.”2 He means the tools of imperialism; technological advances, like the steamboat, quinine prophylaxis and the revolution in firearms. Although we now recognize the technological significance of imperialism, this dimension had a peripheral role in the classical debate. The historical epoch from 1875 to 1914 has been called the “age of empire,” but is also known for being an “age of state rivalry.” In retrospect, historians have drawn attention to the fact that this epoch arose during the so called second industrial revolution.

Classic Theories of Imperialism


Kenneth Waltz states that there are three basic images for the causes of war (and imperial expansion): “within man, within the structure of the separate states, and within the state system.”3 If we leave the first image to psychological anthropology, which cannot explain second and third image collective behavior from the point of view of individual man, then these three images really break down into two partially contradictory interpretative traditions. When we focus on the structure of states, explanations are grounded in endogenous socio-economic and political forces in the form of motives, interests at the center of a state. When explanations focus on the third image, theorists turn their attention to the political center of a state and their reactions towards exogenous pressure stemming outside its borders, or explanations which lie in the pull exerted by ‘turbulent frontiers.’ Most conservative/traditional historians consider ‘security’ as a ‘primary’ motive and as an independent variable in their analysis. They are more likely to emphasize the defense of traditional strategic aspects of foreign policy as opposed to what radical/revisionist historians stress, namely, ‘economic’ motives and powerful domestic forces.

The concept of the Primat der Aussenpolitik is associated with 19th Century Germany and Leopold von Ranke, but the “primacy of foreign policy” developed with the rise of strong states that first found modern expression in Italy. Niccolo Machiavelli said that he is not concerned with things as they should be, but how experience (history) has shown they are. Machiavelli was the first to explicate a realistic theory of politics that implicitly existed within Greco-Roman thought. The next great philosophical spirit in this tradition is Thomas Hobbes, who lived through the English Civil War and realized that self-preservation is man’s primary interest. The early modern approach to realism saw the balance-of-powers state-system as an external force of nature, which had the power to influence a state’s domestic affairs. Though the language today differs, neo-realists still speak about the systemic pressure of the international system as a determining force on state behavior, because states exist in a condition of international anarchy. From this angle, the balance-of-powers, geopolitics, and strategic planning are the main forces in determining a state’s foreign affairs. On the other hand, critics of realism, like Eckart Kehr, basically reversed the logic and came up with the opposite opinion as well as a new term—Innenpolitik —“domestic politics.” This tradition dismissed the strategic rationales of officials and located the roots of foreign affairs in the domestic social, political, and economic structures of states. Marxists and historical revisionists have most fully developed this theory, which came into its own during the early 20th Century, when intellectuals tried to determine the sources of British imperialism, German Weltpolitik, and the roots of World War I.

These two broad interpretative traditions Aussen/Innenpolitik represent the two ideological poles for explaining the causes of imperial expansion, which cut across the social sciences, schools of international relations and classical theories of imperialism. I say ideological because the tendency within an Innenpolitik approach to foreign policy is usually motivated to change history or at least domestic status quo. By looking at the domestic roots of foreign policy theorists place an emphasis on economics, ideology and especially class conflict. However, this is not to say that there is a contradiction between realism and domestic politics. For example, Jack Snyder in Myths of Empire, while working within the tradition of realism, wrote about the underlying social, economic, and ideological influences on high politics. On the other hand, many political-economists coming out of the liberal school of international relations write on high politics by focusing on the long-term structural pressure of the international economic system, while ignoring domestic politics. However, the mystery of imperial expansion can only be explained with reference to domestic politics, ideas or both.

Conservative /Apologias


In this interpretation, the expansion of empires is necessary, as proclaimed by such people as Benjamin Disraeli, Cecil Rhodes, Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Chamberlain and Winston Churchill. Imperialism is necessary to preserve the existing social order; to secure trade and markets; to channel social conflicts of the metropolitan population; to maintain employment and capital exports. The essence of apologia is to claim a civilizing mission—from missionaries and administrators in former times to the Peace Corps today. Although Marxists have been radical politically, Karl Marx in his day argued for western imperialism—it was a liberal progressive force for him. Marx defended the British in Ireland and India, and America against the Mexicans. Most of these theories are subtle conservative apologetics. Weber in the middle 1890’s was also an imperialist, because as an economic nationalist he was tied to The National Liberals who were the imperialists.

The British traditional school of imperial historiography can be said to begin in 1883 with J.R. Seeley’s The Expansion of England. Seeley recognized that the growth of the British empire was the most significant theme in recent English history. Though he attributed Britain’s success to historical and geographical circumstances, he did not emphasize conscious planning, for him the empire was acquired by a ‘fit of absence of mind.’ Although Seeley was not an imperialist, his successors who developed the school of imperial historiography, certainly were imperialists as well as promoters of the Imperial Studies Movement.4 They attributed the basic driving forces behind imperialism to emotional and racial instincts, which were related to nature and organic development. In spite of their romanticism, they approached history through politics; thus, “the Imperial Studies group adopted an essentially political and constitutional approach to their subject.”5 Traditional imperial historiography in Britain was given a political and legal bias until the 1950’s, “and this was reinforced by the fact that economic history was still in its infancy.”6

Arnold Toynbee was another influential individual whose ideas affected the highly conscious Imperial Movement through his close friendship to Alfred Milner—the active agent of the movement. “Among the ideas of Toynbee which influenced the Milner Group we should mention three: (a) a conviction that the British Empire represents the unfolding of a moral idea—the idea of freedom; (b) man should have a sense of duty to serve; (c) a feeling of the necessity to do social service work among the working classes of English society.”7 The ideal for social service work held by Toynbee and Milner stem from the teachings of their professor John Ruskin.

The cardinal contradiction between past and current apologia is rhetorical and political. In contrast to America’s neoimperialists, British social-imperialists at the turn of the 20th century were domestically left of center, they supported progressive social experiments and welfare programs, based on Bismarck. Lord Milner even sponsored inheritance tax--something quite radical, when compared with the current Republican dual agenda of abolishing inheritance tax, while supporting a flat-tax. Republicans offer nothing of substance to the laboring classes. The Bush’s administration represents the triumph of Southern conservative ideology at home and Wilsonian liberal idealism abroad. Intellectual neconservatives may admire British imperialists, but their cultural mileus and moral values are worlds apart. Another contradiction between the two groups is that the liberal imperialists of last century, in contrast to the neoimperialists, were explicitly anti-democratic. They believed in constitutional self-government and a federated empire; however, they argued that it would take the conquered lesser-breeds generations until they could develop a capacity for self rule. They neither believed in the magical transforming power of freedom, nor a possible success without Western authoritarian rule.



Economic interpretations: Liberal / Marxist-Lenin


Eric Hobsbawm’s description of the political and economic contradictions of 19th century liberalism, and how states attempted to maintain equilibrium through empire. Although Adam Smith’s economic liberalism had no national unit or “clear place in the theory of liberal capitalism,” by the 19th century the core of the world economy had become constituted by national economies: the British, French, German, US, etc. The building blocks of Smith’s liberalism were “the irreducible atoms of enterprise, the individual or firm,” who operated in a global liberal market. “Liberalism was the anarchism of the bourgeoisie and, as in revolutionary anarchism, it had no place for the state.” 8 Yet these transnational enterprises attached themselves to important national economies and sought state protection from foreign competition. Protectionism is an expression “of international economic competition” that “is harmful to world economic growth,” but “industrial protection on the whole helped to broaden the world’s industrial base.” 9 Hobsbawm reminds us that “economic concentration should not be confused with monopoly in the strict sense (control of the market by a single business), or in the more wider sense of market control by a handful of dominating firms (oligopoly).”10 Yet the tendency towards monopoly and oligopoly in the heavy industries was common, especially “in industries closely dependent on government orders such as the growing armaments sector, in industries generating and distributing revolutionary new forms of energy, such as oil and electricity, in transport, and in some mass consumer goods.”11 These national capitalist powers each scrambled for colonial possessions, each built up a self-contained imperial system based on protective tariffs, and each built fleets to protect their trade. State rivalry helped make the world economy so dynamic.

The economic interpretation was invented by an American defender of imperialism, not by its critics. Charels A. Conant in the September 1898 issue of the North American Review wrote an article entitled “The Economic Basis of Imperialism.” He argued that oversaving was the cause of economic distress and social distress. Conant found the solution in investing capital in the development of Asia and Africa, because the United States would no longer be a net importer of capital and could not lag behind while Europeans were dividing up the world. Conant had the Pacific theater of the Spanish American War and the annexation of strategic islands in mind, when he wrote:

Whether the United States shall actually acquire territorial possessions, shall set up captain generalships and garrisons, whether they shall adopt the middle ground of protecting sovereignties nominally independent, or whether they shall content themselves with naval stations and diplomatic representations as the basis for asserting their rights to the free commerce of the East, is a matter of detail. The discussion of the details may be of high importance to our political morality and our historical traditions, but it bears upon the economic side of the question only so far as a given political policy is necessary to safeguard and extend commercial interests. The writer is not an advocate of “imperialism” from sentiment, but does not fear the name if it means only that the United States shall assert their right to free markets in all the old countries which are being opened to the surplus resources of the capitalistic countries and thereby given the benefits of modern civilization.(339)
Here, the American preference for economic advantage over territorial glory is unique. Yet there is also a hint of a moral civilizing mission.

The argument that expansion was an economic necessity was taken up by imperialist politicians, like Secretary for the Colonies Joseph Chamberlain and his Under-Secretary Winston Churchill in Britain, foreign minister Jules Ferry in France, and Senator Henry Cabot Lodge in the United States. These sociologically conservative and expansionist statesmen thought that “either capital has got to emigrate because it can not stay at home, or it is tempted abroad because it finds better employment there.” These assumptions were grounded in sound 19th century principles of political economy. “J.S. Mill and Wakefield thought that capital could be absolutely redundant at home, so that it must either go abroad or cease to be capital, i.e. must be consumed instead of being accumulated.”12

However, for the British liberal John Atkinson Hobson, imperialism was simply a policy that capitalist governments chose. His study of the Boer war led him to believe that policy-makers were free to pursue other enlightened policies. Liberal resistance to South African policy led him in 1902 to publish Imperialism, which argued that imperialism benefited certain interest groups. Hobson saw imperial expansion as the work of cosmopolitan, Jewish, finance-capital. Imperialism, accordingly, is caused by domestic underconsumption. It served special interest by investing abroad, rather than investing at home. Andrew Carnegie in America felt the same way, he was no fan of colonies. Carnegie claimed that there was no need for colonies in America which makes bad policy. In the same 1898 North American Review wherein Conant’s article appeared, Carnegie argued for improving America’s infrastructure instead of competing for foreign possessions.

Karl Kautsky, the leading theoretician of the German Social Democratic Party, in Neue Zeit tried to take credit for having formulated the first Marxist theory of imperialism. Though various individuals claimed to have invented the first socialist theory, no one can really claim to have independently worked out a complete and original theory alone; moreover, John Hobson laid the immediate theoretical groundwork. Indeed, there were some German socialistic theories before the First World War, but it was international difficulties and war that really stimulated neo-Marxians to theorize. “In Marxist writings we find the same causal chain between capitalism and imperialism as was asserted by the conservatives, with only the value signs reversed.”13 Imperialism for Marxists was negative, exploitative and worked against mankind’s general interest.

Karl Kautsky published Ultra-Imperialism in 1914, which argued that eventually a liberal, stable and cooperative international organization of relations among dominant capitalists would arise. Vladimir Lenin published Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism in 1917, who, unlike Hobson and Kautsky, agreed with the conservatives that capitalism requires imperialism. Lenin, in a realistic vein, insisted that any period of political and economic cooperation only indicates an international policy of the status quo. Sooner or later some capitalists will become dissatisfied with their share of the world market, and seek new arrangements, according to their interests and capacities.

The principal debate has revolved around these two rival interpretations. During periods of cooperation and stability one can always point to Kautsky’s liberal interpretation, and when international tensions and hostilities arise, Lenin’s interpretation seems truer in that the apparently peaceful international system begins to look inherently unstable. Thus, the followers of Marx disputed among themselves. They could not decide whether imperialism was a stage or a policy of capitalism, nor whether imperialism was a policy of industrial or financial capitalism. Others argued about the requirements of capitalism, does it require an ever increasing export of goods, or does it demand an export of capital? Marxists and radicals asserted that it is the task of the critic to unmask special interests and show how they are illusory to the general interest of the nation.



Capital up until the First World War was international, but corporations were national; large national corporations spread around the world, but they did so in the context of deadly competition among capitalist nations. Yet after the Second World War corporations, especially in America, became multinational. The new institutional unit of the transnationalized economy is the multinational corporation. A large multinational corporation’s GNP is often larger than that of the majority of member states of the United Nations, including many developed countries. Aside from operating in many countries, MNCs exercise authority centrally, diversify international production, and have huge financial resources. The immediate causes for this change in political-economy are due to the shift from state mercantilism to open, free-trading policies, and to new developments within technology. Though the multinational corporations have become increasingly important and independent international actors, the nation-state of the United States, which supported the growth of multinational corporations, must be considered the greatest actor on the world’s stage, since it created the structure of the post war international economic system. The multinational corporation has united the world’s capital and labor into an interlocking system that has completely changed the system of national economies that characterized earlier periods. As a transnationalized system of capitalism arose inside the free world, it began to seriously challenge such traditional concepts as national economy and sovereignty. Finally, during the same time that the economy was becoming transnationalized, countries from former parts of empire on the periphery (third world) were achieving political independence.

What has come to be known as the ‘third world’ used to be called ‘dependent territories.’ The US had been pushing for self-determination since Wilsonianism. The rhetoric of the Atlantic Charter and decolonization helped to dismantle the entire system of European colonialism. Once territorial claims were lifted, these new countries were deemed open for international capital and economic development. Thus, development became the paradigm that dominated economics from the 1950s to the 1970s. Dependencia or structural theories of imperialism arose, when formal colonialism ended after WWII. The term ‘neocolonial’ was invented to signify the economic dependence of the postcolonial world to the capitalist world, or the periphery on the center, although the periphery was now constituted by politically sovereign nations. John Galtung’s Structural Theory of Imperialism influenced radical thought in the 1970s. He argued that imperialism must be understood in terms of power relationships and emphasized conflicts of interest. Yet by the 1980s, radicals believed that the ‘inter-imperialist’ rivalries inherent in the realities of Lenin’s capitalist system had been transcended by Kautsky’s ‘ultra-imperialism,’ because the international capitalists were thought to have finally allied themselves in the formation of a ‘golden international.’ Perhaps imperialism has always been present as ‘dependency theorists’ have insisted in contrast to neo-liberal polemicists. If dependency theorist had a valid argument for attacking imperialism as a mode of ensuring the continued backwardness of the third world, by the 1980s it seemed as if its explanative power was becoming weaker, since the world market was shifting towards the third world as well as transferring its heavy industry. Moreover, a lot of this theory was thought to have catered to the political and psychological needs of Third World nationalists as well as to the guilty feelings of the West. This sort of critique was helped by political-economists who were trying to integrate economic liberalism with political realism by following Charles Kindleberger’s theory of ‘hegemony,’ which claimed that liberal hegemonic powers work not only in their own interest but also in the world’s interest by establishing an international free trade regime.
Many explanations and assumptions concerning international history, politics, and economics need to be revised. During the 1960s, when the age old expansion of Europe had come to an abrupt end, economists reflecting on this epochal upheaval were formulating theories that were influenced by the Zeitgeist. One presupposition of mid 20th century liberal economists was simply the “recognition that in terms of the values of a modern society, empire simply does not pay.”14 On the contrary, private enterprises made huge profits through the exploitation of cheap labor and natural resources. We need to look more than ever at the traditional economic categories of land, labor and capital from a global perspective. The most obvious trend is the downward pressure on wages due to an expanding global labor pool. Economic theories of imperialism need to be reexamined in the context of American developments, like over-consumption. In a mass society, conspicuous consumption of valuable goods has become a means of reputability to today’s gentleman of leisure. Waste and leisure are reputable, because they are evidence of pecuniary strength. Patterns of consumption, reinforced through advertising, have become even more competitive in America’s neo-gilded age; for they have now filtered down to all classes. If the affluent society of postwar America was about keeping up with the Jones next door, it has now become about measuring up to the people we know through the media—our friends on Friends. Outsourcing, off-shoring, de-industrialization, consumer debt, international trade imbalances, deficit spending and sales of state securities for collateral as well as low household savings are all issues that need to be considered as prominent factors when re-envisioning American economic imperialism.

Sociological / Psychological Interpretations


Since imperial projects have historically served the interests of the privileged classes at the expense of the laboring classes, who must do the hard work, critics have attempted to explain imperialism from a sociological perspective. For the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950) the instrument for imperialism was learned behavior, which has been institutionalized through the atavistic warrior mentality, and which is in a sense timeless. The theory in Schumpeter’s Imperialism and Social Classes “rejected the equation between capitalism and imperialism, (he) explained imperialism as the survival within bourgeois society of a precapitalist warrior mentality, devoted, as in classic empires, to expansion for the sake of expanding, war for the sake of fighting, domination for the sake of ruling.... He shifted the discussion, from what imperialism was to who the imperialists were and what drove them to the far corners of the earth.”15 Unlike the Marxists, he did not think that economic explanations could accurately account for the phenomenon of imperialism, so he considered it as well as classes from a sociological point of view. Max Weber pointed out that beyond direct economic interests, “the striving for prestige pertains to all specific power structures and hence to all political structures.”16 The striving after status and prestige seems to be a biological and ontological drive, which we share with the higher primates. At the very least, status seeking can be portrayed as endogenous to psychological insecurity; one’s fate is contingent upon one’s rank in the social structure. The Hobbesian impulse to dominate can be sublimated, but it is unlikely that it will diminish soon.

Perhaps, Schumpeter’s own cultural and historical background influenced his worldview. Having lived through the slow decline and collapse of the Hapsburg empire, it is only natural to imagine how such a great event would have profoundly affected his outlook. Although Schumperter’s English work on imperialism only came out in 1954, his German original Zur Soziologie der Imperialismus was published in 1919. A date so significant that many European observers saw it as the final collapse of nineteenth century civilization. Certainly, he was correct in noting the reality of imperialism before the advent of modern capitalism. However, his atavistic pre-capitalistic man is still here today, he is the naked ape, the imperial animal in the gentleman’s costume. Capitalistic and modern bureaucratic man may be more rational than feudal man, but human nature does not change overnight. In fact, the possibility of regression always exists. R.G. Collingwood tells us that when one thing is converted into a higher modification of consciousness that an element of the unmodified state exists through the ‘law of primitive survivals,’ and in times of stress the risk of a return to a regressive state is probable. The problem with Schumpeter is that he set up a false dichotomy between rational capitalists and irrational traditional feudal elites. It is naive to think that there is such a thing as pacific internationalism, because Schumpeter’s pacific capitalism has never arrived, and so there is no reason to believe that it will soon be here.

The sociologist and critic Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929) is more suitable for our purposes. He too observed war, capitalism, imperialism and the nouveau rich during the age of empire from both a German feudal dynastic and Anglo-American liberal perspective. Yet, unlike Schumpeter, Veblen’s description of social evolution shows how the exploitation and coercion of feudal elites has been continuously modified by semi-peaceable methods. Schumpeter’s sharp Germanic antithesis between aristocracy and capitalism, did not exist in the Anglo-phone world after 1850, which Fritz Stern in Gold And Iron has brilliantly demonstrated. We need to turn our attention to Veblen, who has shown how mankind’s predatory habits were kept alive during the transition from aristocracy to capitalism. Veblen employed sociological and psychological mechanisms to explain social change. Veblen showed how man’s psychological attitude is existentially rooted in his teleological activity; “he is an agent seeking in every act the accomplishment of some concrete, objective, impersonal end. He has a sense of the merit of serviceability or efficiency and of the demerit of futility, waste, or incapacity.(29)” This visible sense of merit is tied to a system of self-esteem maintenance, the individual gains esteem by emulating the system; however, the conditions of emulation change. Incidentally, the privileged classes are always in the best position to adapt to change.

Veblen divided human society into distinct periods. His first major distinction is between an idyllic prehistoric ‘savage state’ and historic civilized society. This initial radical shift occurred, when mankind moved from a primitive state towards civilization—based on an economic surplus. Yet Veblen’s prehistoric description was no Hobbesian state of nature; for the war of all against all only comes into being after the emergence of civil society. The evolution of a habitual predatory culture of permanent exploitation and the spiritual values associated with it could only come about after the necessary material conditions, industrial methods and knowledge had first been developed by faithful agricultural communities devoted to a massed social concern. When relatively peaceful sedentary communities without a developed sense of ownership were confronted with hunter/warrior tribes, whose characteristic traits were strength, stealth, deceit, unscrupulousness, astuteness, tenacity of purpose, ferocity, self-seeking, clannishness, or simply—force and fraud, mankind entered a predatory phase of life. It is significant that civilization is characterized not only by military conquest, ruthlessness and threat, but also by the development of integrative systems of religion, moral and manners. The dynamics of this process whereby the rough feudal lord was turned into a refined gentleman is a process epitomizes the rise of civil society. Veblen approached this understudied process by looking at those members of society, who possessed social status and position and were, therefore, excluded from the laboring process. By the way, those who possessed social position also owned land.

The medieval age epitomizes Veblen’s ideal of barbaric culture. In feudal society propertied non-industrial parasitic employment was sought typically in either warfare or priestly services. Industrial serviceability was no longer emulated, and thus leisure gradually became the chief mark of gentility. Once the institutions of property and leisure were formed, upper classes became exempt from industrial occupations, and sought work only in honorable employments. Honorable non-industrial work was separated from industrial occupations, thus the psychological value of economic activity shifted from production to acquisition, and has been a source of social conflict ever since. Since feudal traits, like the archaic attitudinal distinction between exploit and industry, survived on into post-medieval times, Veblen focused on the transition and cultural lag from barbarian to industrial society.

Veblen subdivided the pecuniary age between the handicraft era of early modern Western history and the machine age of the industrial revolution. The primary conflict within modern society has been between business and industry. The business class is exploitative. “The pecuniary employments, tending to conserve the predatory temperament, are the employments which have to do with ownership—the immediate function of the leisure class proper—and the subsidiary functions concerned with acquisition and accumulation. These cover the class of persons and that range of duties in the economic process which have to do with the ownership of enterprises engaged in competitive industry; especially those fundamental lines of economic management which are classed as financiering operations.(155)” Veblen believed modern employments fall into a hierarchical gradation of reputability. At the top and most reputable of employments are those which have to do with ownership on a large scale. Next in line are employments that are immediately subservient to ownership, such as banking and finance, which carry the suggestion of ownership. He continues his classification:

The profession of law does not imply large ownership; but since no taint of usefulness, for other than competitive purpose, attaches to the lawyer’s trade, it grades high in the conventional scheme. The lawyer is exclusively occupied with the details of predatory fraud. . . . Mercantile pursuits are only half-way reputable unless they involve a large element of ownership and a small element of usefulness...The business of retailing the vulgar necessaries of life descends to the level of the handicrafts(156).
In former times land provided access to economic power so laws confined possession to the privileged and noble class. In the pecuniary age, since possession of land and labor did not allow one to command capital, the class with social pull married into the families of the new fortune-builders. Unfortunately, right when Veblen died, technology’s own dynamic began to demand capital and specialized talent; thus, he did not see the powerful new influence of scientists, big business and military.

Sociological theories for American imperialism need to be examined from a culturally specific democratic and capitalistic context. Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class is a great theoretical starting place. However, Veblen’s insights need to be historically updated by looking at the work of those who have followed in his tradition. The most relevant work is C. Wright Mills’ The Power Elite, which shows how America’s power elite controls the state’s political, economic, and military establishment. E. Digby Baltzell’s The Protestant Establishment focuses on aristocracy and caste in America, and how class tends to replace religion, ethnicity and race at the highest levels of WASP society as established authority is maintained through co-optation from above. Finally, Ferdinand Lundberg’s The Rich And The Super-Rich focuses on wealth and valuations. In contrast to emphasizing the managerial revolution or the technostructure, Lundberg never took his eye off ownership as the key to corporate control. These books among others truly examine the connections between social status, and political and economic power in America. The American oligarchy’s interests have been both international and imperial for a long time.

The main contradiction for theory is the one Lewis Lapham, social critic and editor of Harper’s Magazine, has asserted more than once: “The imperial project serves the interests of the propertied classes, but the work must be performed by the laboring classes, and it is never easy to harness the enthusiasm of the latter to the ambition of the former.” This axiom needs to be explained in terms of the results of election 2004; for it seems as if America’s laboring classes share an enthusiasm with their rulers’ imperial project.

Geopolitical interpretations


Political interpretations do not suggest that causes for imperialism might not be economic or other, nor do they suggest that the methods of imperialism are not economic, cultural or military, either alone or in combination. What geopolitical interpretations do assert is that power and its distribution to one’s own advantage is the ultimate determinant. “What the precapitalist imperialist, the capitalist imperialist, and the ‘imperialistic’ capitalist want is power, not economic gain.”17 People want self-preservation, glory and power. Traditionally, imperialism has been driven by the pre-capitalist atavistic warrior mentality and the needs of dynastic power structures. According to Schlesinger,

Where Lenin saw imperialism as the response to dislocations in the capital market and Schumpeter saw it as a response to dislocations in the social structure, the geopolitical school attributed imperialism to dislocations in the balance of power. For there had been empires and colonies long before there was capitalism; and history suggests that nations as well as individuals are animated by Hobbes’s “Perpetual and restless desire for power.” . . . . It is the dynamics not of capitalism but of power that produces empire. Imperialism is what happens when a strong state encounters a weak state, a soft frontier or a vacuum of power and uses its superior strength to dominate other peoples for its own purposes. 18


If individuals are really animated by Hobbes’s “Perpetual and restless desire for power,” then this general inclination must be explained as a psychological striving for security—a corollary of the biological drive—as fundamental as the law of self-preservation. Yet, as Waltz has pointed out this ‘will to power’ is a ‘first image’ cause for imperialism, and thus should not be projected from individuals onto social collectives; for in attempting to explain everything it explains nothing. Hobbes’ mythical ‘state of nature’ really describes the break down of civil society, i.e. failed states—something Hobbes experienced first hand. Indeed, Hobbes never said it.

But though there had never been any time wherein particular men were in a condition of war one against another, yet in all times kings and persons of sovereign authority, because of their independency, are in continual jealousies and in the sate and posture of gladiators, having their weapons pointing and their eyes fixed on one another, that is, their forts, garrisons, and guns upon the frontiers of their kingdoms, and continual spies upon their neighbors, which is a posture of war.19


Hobbes’ prose here poetically paints a timeless reality. This passage pretty much sums up the cold war situation and America’s relations to North Korea til this day. The Hobbesian image of the world has been incorporated by neorealists and projected as international anarchy. Waltz’s neo-realism deals with structural anarchy, and factors such as geography, resource scarcity, overpopulation, and political and economic pressure.

The imprecision of power as a concept resists operational definition; nevertheless, social scientist, under the influence of positivism, have attempted to operationalize the concept in both its tangible and intangible elements. On the contrary, power is best characterized by elusive qualities such as: prestige, status, and reputation. Hans Morgenthau defined politics as the struggle for power; Power as the relationship between two political actors where (A) has the ability to control the mind and actions of actor (B). Thus, power comprises anything that establishes and maintains control of man over man, covering all relationships, which serves this end from physical violence to subtle psychological manipulation. Power is distinguished from force, because it is a broader concept that not only includes physical violence but persuasion as well. Morgenthau in 1948 wrote:

Domestic and international politics are but two different manifestations of the same phenomenon: the struggle for power. . . . All politics, domestic and international, reveals three basic patterns, that is to say, all political phenomena can be reduced to one of three basic types. A political policy seeks either to keep power, to increase power, or to demonstrate power. To these three typical patterns of politics, three international policies correspond. A nation whose foreign policy tends toward keeping power and not toward changing the distribution of power in its favor pursues a policy of the status quo. A nation whose foreign policy aims at acquiring more power than it actually has through expansion of its power beyond its frontiers, whose foreign policy seeks a favorable change in power status, pursues a policy of imperialism. A nation whose foreign policy aims to demonstrate the power that it has, either for the purpose of maintaining or increasing it, pursues a policy of prestige.20
Morgenthau notes that a policy of prestige in contrast to the other two, is usually employed as a ceremonial means to maintain or acquire power; it is not an end in itself; though, it can be, if the quest for status becomes divorced from power politics and security. Morgenthau argues as imperialism evolves it moves towards three typical objectives. “The objective of imperialism can be the domination of the whole politically organized globe, that is, a world empire. Or it can be an empire or hegemony of approximately continental dimensions. Or it can be strictly localized preponderance of power.”21 Finally, Morgenthau turns to Karl Mannheim’s ‘sociology of knowledge.’ Since all politics is the pursuit of power, all explanations and justifications, whether they be religious, legal, or ethical principles are ultimately ideologies. So, from the perspective of the “rhetoric of imperialism—now a days one would say ‘national security’—is almost identical, regardless of the geographic labels one might fill in. One could put different places and names into the blanks of the formula for different times and according to different local situations. But the formal line of the argument would always be the same.”22 The rhetoric of “national security” in America is a line of argument that has been used to conceal the thought of imperialism.

According to realism states only strive to maximize power and ignore ideology, but then why do political actors continually compete for the moral high ground and battle fiercely for legitimacy? Questions like this point to the weakness of realism’s one sided abstractness. Historically, the state-system has depended on capitalist relations of production. High politics is intimately connected to the world of petty politics (class exploitation and social struggles). State expansion cannot be explained without reference to domestic politics, ideas or both. Some domestic institutions and ideas historically evolve within greater systemic constraints. Britain and America have had less external factors impinging on their political evolution, than say landlocked Russia or Germany. America never had to socialize or adapt to external pressure in the same way others did. On the contrary, the United States has independently expanded its internal economy without much external resistance. The greater salience of systemic geopolitical pressure on Russian history is due to the Hobbesian system of the Eurasian plain. The importance of these sorts of geographical and international factors on state-building explains why Russia’s pattern of adapting centralized power continues regardless of whose in power. These historical differences among nations are well documented, yet realism treats international systemic pressure as identical, rather than bearing down harder in one location rather than another. In general, realism is ahistorical. Like the sun and the sky, the operations of the balance of power principle is supposed to be eternal. When there is simply no challenger to American power except a stateless super individual terrorist, how do we explain the balance-of-power today? Are we transcending the old international system, or will a military challengers arise in the future to balance against American power?




Towards a General Theory of Imperialism


All of these interpretations are right in so far as evidence can be found to support each hypothesis. Yet each theory alone in their interpretations of complex historical events comes close to monocausality. Economic, sociological, psychological and political variables all influence imperialism. Since each variable for imperialism codetermines expansion, it seems possible to make greater sense out of these theories by simply placing them in a developmental order; that is, by examining the logic of imperialism historically. First of all, a general theory of imperialism can be divided into roughly three historical periods: pre-industrial, industrial, and post-industrial, which are epitomized by the Pax Romana, Pax Britannica and Pax Americana. The different phases of imperialism can heuristically be thought of as variations of single theme, and each phase as an ideal type. Of course, the various phases overlap; for example, there is great continuity between British and American or modern and postmodern imperialism; the connecting link is “capitalist imperialism.” The primary development for imperialism has been the history of capitalism; for capital has become increasingly more important as a determinant as propertied wealth embodied in land lost influence to the market. The link between economic and political dimensions of international policy has grown stronger, which means that economic factors become more dominant as analysis approaches current events. From another perspective, the greatest discontinuity in imperialism has been the shift from exploitation based on territorial control towards the establishment of market driven exploitation.

Since the Second World War, capital’s primary agent has been the multinational corporation, which embodies today’s economic and technological forces and the tension between ethnocentric nationalism and geocentric technology and capital. David Harvey in The New Imperialism has shown how the tension within imperialism reflects both the ‘logic of territory’ and the ‘logic of capital.’



To begin with, the motivations and interests of agents differ. The capitalist holding money capital will wish to put it wherever profits can be had, and typically seeks to accumulate more capital. Politicians and statesmen typically seek outcomes that sustain or augment the power of their own state vis-a-vis other states. The capitalist seeks individual advantage and is responsible to no one other than his or her immediate social circle, while statesment seeks a collective advantage and is constrained by the political and military situation of the state and is in some sense or other responsible to a citizenry or, more often, to an elite group. The capitalist operates in continuous space and time, whereas the politician operates in a territorialized space and, at least in democracies, in a temporality dictated by an electoral cycle. On the other hand, capitalist firms come and go, shift locations, merge, or go out of business, but states are long-lived entities, cannot migrate, and are, except under exceptional circumstances of geographical conquest, confined within fixed territorial boundaries.23
Harvey notes how the two logics are distinct and contrast with each other, yet remain intertwined. In practice antagonism is normal, so he argues that the two logics must be viewed together in both space and time.

Towards the end of 1980’s Susan Strange, British political-economist and critic of the American hegemonic school, argued that most contemporary academic discussion concerning international relations theory is confused. First, she thought a lot of theory often employs new terms to describe well known phenomena. Second, new quantitative methods applied to international relations has not advanced theory. Positively, in order to advance theory she argues that a theory has to explain something that is not easily explained by common sense. Though classical liberal and radical economic schools of political economy have different points of view, there are some assumptions that are shared. Strange seems to be in agreement with the important assumptional base of radical thought, which sees the asymmetry in the distribution of benefits in the international economy in favor of the rich and powerful. After analyzing the contemporary structural power of the international economic and political system, she discovered American power at its center. This discovery led her to propose a reasonable hypothesis for a theory of non-territorial empire. The idea behind this new hypothesis was assumed to differentiate American imperialism from the European kind, which was too narrowly based upon political and constitutional criteria. Thus, the axioms of non-territorial empire would seem to imply that ruling a territory is a financial burden; to rule foreign territory is bad for public opinion; soft power has better payoffs—that is, getting others to want what you want and having motivated workers pays more than conquest of land.



On the other hand, capital has always needed a territorial base, which is what comparative historians, like Fernand Braudel, tell us as they observe the historical and territorial shift of capital from the Italian city-states through the Dutch, to the British and the US phase of capitalism. Capital has progressively found larger territories for its operations. Chalmers Johnson points out that Strange’s nonterritorial empire is in fact an empire of military bases. “As of September 2001, the Department of Defence acknowledged at least 725 American military bases outside the United States. Actually, there are many more, since some bases exist under leaseholds, informal agreements, or disguises of various kinds. And more have been created since the announcement was made.”24 Thus, geopolitically, this empire of bases has not changed some of the basic principles of strategy, like control of trade routes, which would differentiate America’s nonterritorial empire from earlier colonial empires. Geir Lundestad’s phrase ‘empire by invitation’ highlights one point of difference between American and European empire; for he has shown how the development of bases was not only the result of America’s desire for domination, but a product of the demand for protection by other nations. Kautsky’s capitalist system of ‘ultral-imperialism’ has not been realized. Instead, the Pax Americana acted as the organizing principle that structured the international political and economic system on a “hub-and-spokes structure of relations which ensured that for each of the main core capitalist states its political relationship with the US hub was more crucial to its vital interests than any other possible relationship with any other power.”25 Globalization is connected to American militarism.

Perhaps, this notion is best expressed by Arthur Cebrowski, Director, Office of Force Transformation: “If you are fighting globalization, if you reject the rules, if you reject connectivity, you are probably going to be of interest to the United States Department of Defense.” He argues that there are four primary flows in contemporary globalization: emigration from periphery to core; movement of energy from undeveloped to developing nations; direct investment is invested in infrastructure, like pipelines, in order to transport it; and the export of security to enforce the rules of globalization. Cebrowski says the role of the US is that of Systems Adminstrator. Cebrowski’s so-called theory in international studies merely rearranges and describes known facts or well chronicled events in new taxonomies. From a realistic perspective, the Pentagon’s ‘new map’ of globalization is nothing more than a plan for global empire.



Many scholars might think that the term ‘imperialism’ is a word that is too ideologically charged for serious use today, and should perhaps be disregarded. However, that would be a grave mistake, for European imperial history is a phenomenon that is so central to economic, political and social historians; it simply cannot be avoided. Each discipline must at least attempt to wrestle with it theoretically. The purpose of this essay has been to reconsider the classical theories of imperialism in relation to contemporary structural changes within the 21st century international system. Michael Doyle says “Empire is a relationship, formal or informal, in which one state controls the effective political sovereignty of another political society. It can be achieved by force, by political collaboration, by economic, social or cultural dependence. Imperialism is simply the process or policy of establishing or maintaining an empire.”26 Cain and Hopkins note that imperialism refers to a species of the genus expansion.

States commonly sponsor or permit pacific expansion beyond their own borders, typically through trade, cultural exchange and the movement of peoples. International relations arise from these contacts, and diplomatic ties follow where they are not already present. Such forms of expansion are not necessarily imperialist. . . . The distinguishing feature of imperialism is not that it takes a specific economic, cultural or political form, but that it involves an incursion, or an attempted incursion, into the sovereignty of another state. Whether this impulse is resisted or welcomed and whether it produces costs or benefits are important but, separate questions. What matters for purposes of definition is that one power has the will, and, if it is to succeed, the capacity to shape the affairs of another by imposing upon it.27
Definitions of imperialism must transcend the various historical phases of particular empires, and issues concerning power and control have to take precedence over everything, because imperialism is primarily a political phenomenon connected to national sovereignty. The whole phenomena of imperialism hinges on the concept of sovereignty. Thus, those who would prematurely announce the end of the sovereign state or the coming of a supranational world government, do disservice to the ubiquitous phenomena of imperialism. Instead, of rejecting the concept of national sovereignty, we have to point out the ways in which the nature of sovereignty has changed over the last century or so, by explaining it from the perspective of the people who are governed.


1 Arthur Schlesinger Jr., The Cycles of American History (Boston: 1986), 119.

2 Daniel Headrick, “The Tools of Imperialism: Technology and the Expansion of European Colonial Empires in the Nineteenth Century,” Journal of Modern History, 51 (June 1979), 234.

3 Kenneth Waltz, Man the State and War: A Theoretical Analysis (New York, Columbia University Press, 1954),12.

4 J.G. Greenlee, ‘A Succession of Seeleys‘: The ‘Old School’ Re-examined,‘ The Journal of Imperial And Commonwealth History, 4 (1976).

5 Greenlee, 278.

6 P.J. Cain and A.G. Hopkins, British Imperialism 1688-2000 (London, Pearson Education, 2002), 25.

7 Carroll Quigley, The Anglo-American Establishment: from Rhodes to Cliveden, (GSG & Associates, USA, 1981), 10.

8 Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Empire 1875-1914, (Vintage Books, New York, 1989), 40.

9 Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Empire 1875-1914, (Vintage Books, New York, 1989),42-43.

10 Eric Hobsbawm, 43.

11 Eric Hobsbawm, 44.

12 Richard Pares, “The Economic Factors In The History Of The Empire,” The Economic History Review, Vol. VII. No. 2 (May 1937), p.139.

13 Karl Deutsch, “Theories of Imperialism and Neocolonialism,” in Testing Theories of Imperialism Ed. S. Rosen and J. Kurth. (Lexington, Mass, 1974), 19.

14 Kenneth Boulding, The Meaning of the 20th Century: The Great Transition, (Harper & Row, New York, 1964), 12.

15 Arthur Schlesinger, 126.

16 Max Weber, From Max Weber:Essays in Sociology (New York, Oxford University Press, 1946), 160.

17 Hans Morgenthau, Politics among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace (New York, 1948), 32.

18Arthur Schlesinger Jr., 126,155.

19 Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Edited by Edwin Curley (Cambridge, Hacket Publishing Company, 1994), 78.

20 Hans Morgenthau, 21.

21 Hans Morgenthau, 36.

22Karl Deutsch, “Theories of Imperialism and Neocolonialism,” in Testing Theories of Imperialism Ed. S. Rosen and J. Kurth. (Lexington, Mass, 1974), 22.

23 David Harvey, The New Imperialism (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2003), 27.

24 Chalmers Johnson, The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic (New York, 2004), 4.

25 Peter Gowan, U.S. Hegemony Today, Monthly Review (July-August 2003), 31.

26 Michael Doyle, Empires (Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1986), 45.

27 P.J. Cain and A.G. Hopkins, British Imperialism 1688-2000 (London, Pearson Education, 2002), 54.


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