Hobson’s Imperialism And The Desperate Uncle Sam As Naked As Ever

March 29, 2006

John Atkinson Hobson (1858-1940) was an ‘economist’ who conceptualised modern imperialism for the first time. Though never formally accepted in academia, he could never be ignored, as he overwhelmed the discipline of economics by writing vociferously and touching every field of economic analysis. Although never consistent in his own political conviction, he influenced many diehard revolutionary internationalists and radical pacifists before, during and after the World War I. He is better known as a precursor to the Marxist interpreters of economic internationalisation, finance capital and European politics, despite his avowed liberalism. It is in line with this fact that we generally see him as an economist, giving ‘objective’ analyses of economic processes leading to the world war.

However, any cursory reading of his classic work, ‘Imperialism: A Study’ (1902) shows that he was far more than an ‘objectivist’. The tenor in his work on imperialism makes him a great persuader against the imperialist motivation of the British state, its policy of colonisation and militarism, and the interest groups driving these policies. The economic analysis is simply a part of this overall project. Even if his economic analysis runs out of gas in the changed circumstances today, and seems to be timed without much contemporary relevance, his powerful indictment of jingoism, militarism and “economic parasites of imperialism” makes him immortal.

Hobson photographs the whole imperial machine instituted by finance capital vividly where we find philanthropists, media and politicians complementing the military’s work. He notes the blurring of nationalism/patriotism and expansionism. His description in this regard vividly captures even the post-Cold War imperialist rage today.


Hobson was not a supporter of the pure economic interpretation of the imperialist expansionist drive. At least on this issue, he ‘dialectically’ linked up the ‘economic’ with the ‘political’, countering today’s reductionist interpretation – so prominent even within the left circles who reduce the recent wars in the Middle East to mere ‘oil politics’. It is true that oil politics is an important “determination” in shaping the direction of the imperialist moves and wars, but reducing the latter to the former is erroneous. Moreover, why only oil? It is still finance capital – an integration of industrial and banking capitals – that feeds into oil politics etc as in the days of Hobson, Hilferding and Lenin. But none of these ‘economic’ analysts at the morn of modern imperialism sought to reduce the imperialist politics to its economic elements.

For Hobson finance was not the “motor-power of Imperialism”, rather “the governor of the imperial engine, directing the energy and determining its work: it does not constitute the fuel of the engine, nor does it directly generate the power.” On the contrary, the question of hegemony in international relations is at the centre of imperialism and its coercive-consensual apparatuses. In our days, one radical Iranian political economist, Cyrus Bina has aptly described the genesis of the post-cold war conflicts in the Middle East in his 2004 essay, “The American Tragedy: The Quagmire of War, Rhetoric of Oil, and the Conundrum of Hegemony” in the Journal of Iranian Research and Analysis:

“History has proven that capitalism is not about self-sufficiency, security, and independence, much less energy and oil independence. It is rather about discursive mutuality and contradictory interdependence. The war-for-oil scenario obtains its lineage from an old, speculative, and ahistorical right-wing economic theory where the right relies on its anachronistic application of oil monopoly and the theory-less and clue-less left on its petty bourgeois interpretation. The oil, however, is the effect—not the cause—of the U.S. war in Iraq. The cause is the collapse of the Pax Americana, the loss of American hegemony, and the self-limiting conundrum of U.S. reactions, which so far the Bush administration portrayed most nakedly and which is a million times more dangerous for global peace and stability than the flimsy oil motive.”

Similarly, Hobson in his analysis notes that “the enthusiasm for expansion” issues from “the patriotic forces which politicians, soldiers, philanthropists, and traders generate”, and finance (and the “merged” industrial interests) harnesses this irregular and blind enthusiasm – “the financial interest has those qualities of concentration and clear-sighted calculation which are needed to set Imperialism to work”. The financial power is the “final determination” which invisibly rides and motivates the horses that “an ambitious statesman, a frontier soldier, an overzealous missionary, a pushing trader” ride.

Even the phraseology of imperialism is hardly different from Hobson’s days. “In the mouths of their representatives are noble phrase, expressive of their desire to extend the area of civilisation, to establish good government, promote Christianity, extirpate slavery, and elevate the lower races.” Of course, the open avowal of Christianity and racism in the official imperialist rhetoric is difficult today but it is self-evident in the eulogy of “ideals that have inspired our [the US’] history” (The National Security Strategy of the USA 2006) that in turn inspire every US leader even today to raise a medieval war cry “God Save America”. It is evident also in Bush’s “crusades”, in the rhetoric of “free nations” advancing “liberty” by occupying the “slave” nations. However, what seems restricted or covert in politics gets free vent and consistency in the media. Hobson was clear about the instrumentalisation of the media and the role that it acquires in the imperialist project:

“The direct influence exercised by great financial houses in “high politics” is supported by the control which they exercise over the body of public opinion through the Press, which, in every “civilised” country, is becoming more and more their obedient instrument. While the specifically financial newspaper imposes “facts” and “opinions” on the business classes, the general body of the Press comes more and more under the conscious or unconscious domination of financiers.”

As, in Hobson’s days, “Her Majesty’s Flag” was “the greatest commercial asset in the world”, so is the “Star-Spangled Banner” today. And the wars that we witness today are nothing but the desperation to preserve this status. Here lies the unity of the economic and the political in the imperialist campaigns.


The second part of Hobson’s book starts with an exposé of the “political significance of imperialism”. Here his main target is the myth that “Britons are a race endowed, like the Romans, with a genius for government, that our colonial and imperial policy is animated by a resolve to spread throughout the world the arts of free self-government which we enjoy at home, and that in truth we are accomplishing this work.” We must admit that a century later, this sense of racial responsibility has not died down, except that it has now been transferred to the Americans. An official document, “The National Security Strategy of the United States of America” that was issued on March 16, 2006 confirms:

“There was a time when two oceans seemed to provide protection from problems in other lands, leaving America to lead by example alone. That time has long since passed. America cannot know peace, security, and prosperity by retreating from the world. America must lead by deed
as well as by example. This is how we plan to lead, and this is the legacy we will leave to those who follow.”

And Bush prefaces the document:

“America is at war…America also has an unprecedented opportunity to lay the foundations for future peace. The ideals that have inspired our history — freedom, democracy, and human dignity — are increasingly inspiring individuals and nations throughout the world. And because free nations tend toward peace, the advance of liberty will make America more secure.”


BBC recently reported on March 22, 2006, “US army dog handler Sgt Michael Smith has been jailed for six months for abusing detainees in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison from 2003 to 2004. Smith, 24, was convicted of using his black Belgian shepherd to menace prisoners for his own amusement. He expressed no remorse for his actions at the court martial, saying soldiers were not meant to be “soft and cuddly”. Prosecutors said he had competed with another handler to see who could make a detainee soil himself out of fear.”

Similarly, the Guardian reported on January 14, 2005 about another accused in Abu Ghraib case, Specialist Charles Graner, sentenced to 10 years of imprisonment. Graner said, “I feel fantastic. I’m still smiling,” during his trial. “Asked on the opening day of his trial if he felt any remorse for what went on at Abu Ghraib, the soldier rolled his eyes and smirked.”

What else do all these abuses demonstrate about the state of the American youth pushed into the war, if not that imperialism necessarily dehumanises its own citizens? They are transformed into Full Metal Jacketed soldiers, or as Hobson told more than a century ago:

“There exists an absolute antagonism between the activity of the good citizen and that of the soldier. The end of the soldier is not, as is sometimes falsely said, to die for his country; it is to kill for his country. In as far as he dies he is a failure; his work is to kill, and he attains perfection as a soldier when he becomes a perfect killer. This end, the slaughter of one’s fellow-men, forms a professional character, alien from, and antagonistic to, the character of our ordinary citizen, whose work conduces to the preservation of his fellow-men. If it be contended that this final purpose, though informing and moulding the structure and functions of an army, operates but seldom and slightly upon the consciousness of the individual soldier, save upon the battlefield, the answer is that, in the absence from consciousness of this end, the entire routine of the soldier’s life, his drill, parades, and whole military exercise, is a useless, purposeless activity, and that these qualities exercise a hardly less degrading influence on character than the conscious intention of killing his fellow-men.”


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