J A Hobson – Imperialism: A Study 11

My efforts to bring the great J A Hobson out of obscurity, that people might use him as a guide to the motivation driving the Iraq war and other US foreign policy, are having some success. Moon of Alabama has posted an extract including this statement:

the adoption of Imperialism thus serves the double purpose of securing private material benefits for favoured classes of investors and traders at the public cost, while sustaining the general cause of conservatism by diverting public energy and interest from domestic agitation to external employment.


Let me post another key section. Hobson, an economist, outlines economic statistics and analysis to prove that the costs of the British Empire 1870 to 1900 had far outweighed any economic benefit to the economy as a whole. He goes on to state this:

Seeing that the Imperialism of the last three decades is clearly condemned as a business policy, in that at enormous expense it has procured a small, bad, unsafe increase of markets, and has jeopardised the entire wealth of the nation in rousing the strong resentment of other nations, we may ask, “How is the British nation induced to embark upon such unsound business?” The only possible answer is that the business interests of the nation as a whole are subordinated to those of certain sectional interests that usurp control of the national resources and use them for their private gain. This is no strange or monstrous charge to bring; it is the commonest disease of all forms of government. The famous words of Sir Thomas More are as true now as when he wrote them: “Everywhere do I perceive a certain conspiracy of rich men seeking their own advantage under the name and pretext of the commonwealth.”


Although the new Imperialism has been bad business for the nation, it has been good business for certain classes and certain trades within the nation. The vast expenditure on armaments, the costly wars, the grave risks and embarrassments of foreign policy, the stoppage of political and social reforms within Great Britain, though fraught with great injury to the nation, have served well the present business interests of certain industries and professions.


It is idle to meddle with politics unless we clearly recognise this central fact and understand what these sectional interests are which are the enemies of national safety and the commonwealth. We must put aside the merely sentimental diagnosis which explains wars or other national blunders by outbursts of patriotic animosity or errors of statecraft. Doubtless at every outbreak of war not only the man in the street but the man at the helm is often duped by the cunning with which aggressive motives and greedy purposes dress themselves in defensive clothing. There is, it may be safely asserted, no war within memory, however nakedly aggressive it may seem to the dispassionate historian, which has not been presented to the people who were called upon to fight as a necessary defensive policy, in which the honour, perhaps the very existence, of the State was involved.


The disastrous folly of these wars, the material and moral damage inflicted even on the victor, appear so plain to the disinterested spectator that he is apt to despair of any State attaining years of discretion, and inclines to regard these natural cataclysms as implying some ultimate irrationalism in politics. But careful analysis of the existing relations between business and politics shows that the aggressive Imperialism which we seek to understand is not in the main the product of blind passions of races or of the mixed folly and ambition of politicians. It is far more rational than at first sight appears. Irrational from the standpoint of the whole nation, it is rational enough from the standpoint of certain classes in the nation. A completely socialist State which kept good books and presented regular balance-sheets of expenditure and assets would soon discard Imperialism; an intelligent laissez-faire democracy which gave duly proportionate weight in its policy to all economic interests alike would do the same. But a State in which certain well-organised business interests are able to outweigh the weak, diffused interest of the community is bound to pursue a policy which accords with the pressure of the former interests.


In order to explain Imperialism on this hypothesis we have to answer two questions. Do we find in Great Britain to-day any well-organised group of special commercial and social interests which stand to gain by aggressive Imperialism and the militarism it involves? If such a combination of interests exists, has it the power to work its will in the arena of politics?


What is the direct economic outcome of Imperialism? A great expenditure of public money upon ships, guns, military and naval equipment and stores, growing and productive of enormous profits when a war, or an alarm of war, occurs; new public loans and important fluctuations in the home and foreign Bourses; more posts for soldiers and sailors and in the diplomatic and consular services; improvement of foreign investments by the substitution of the British flag for a foreign flag; acquisition of markets for certain classes of exports, and some protection and assistance for trades representing British houses in these manufactures; employment for engineers, missionaries, speculative miners, ranchers and other emigrants.


Certain definite business and professional interests feeding upon imperialistic expenditure, or upon the results of that expenditure, are thus set up in opposition to the common good, and, instinctively feeling their way to one another, are found united in strong sympathy to support every new imperialist exploit.

How do they do it?

In view of the part which the non-economic factors of patriotism, adventure, military enterprise, political ambition, and philanthropy play in imperial expansion, it may appear that to impute to financiers so much power is to take a too narrowly economic view of history. And it is true that the motor-power of Imperialism is not chiefly financial: finance is 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. Finance manipulates the patriotic forces which politicians, soldiers, philanthropists, and traders generate; the enthusiasm for expansion which issues from these sources, though strong and genuine, is irregular and blind; the financial interest has those qualities of concentration and clear-sighted calculation which are needed to set Imperialism to work. An ambitious statesman, a frontier soldier, an overzealous missionary, a pushing trader, may suggest or even initiate a step of imperial expansion, may assist in educating patriotic public opinion to the urgent need of some fresh advance, but the final determination rests with the financial power. 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. The case of the South African Press, whose agents and correspondents fanned the martial flames in this country, was one of open ownership on the part of South African financiers, and this policy of owning newspapers for the sake of manufacturing public opinion is common in the great European cities. In Berlin, Vienna, and Paris many of the influential newspapers are held by financial houses, which use them, not primarily to make direct profits out of them, but in order to put into the public mind beliefs and sentiments which will influence public policy and thus affect the money market. In Great Britain this policy has not gone so far, but the alliance with finance grows closer every year, either by financiers purchasing a controlling share of newspapers, or by newspaper proprietors being tempted into finance. 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 biassed 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.


Such is the array of distinctively economic forces making for Imperialism, a large loose group of trades and professions seeking profitable business and lucrative employment from the expansion of military and civil services, from the expenditure on military operations, the opening up of new tracts of territory and trade with the same, and the provision of new capital which these operations require, all these finding their central guiding and directing force in the power of the general financier.


The play of these forces does not openly appear. They are essentially parasites upon patriotism, and they adapt themselves to its protecting colours. 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. Some of the business men who hold such language may entertain a genuine, though usually a vague, desire to accomplish these ends, but they are primarily engaged in business, and they are not unaware of the utility of the more unselfish forces in furthering their ends. Their true attitude of mind is expressed by Mr. Rhodes in his famous description of “Her Majesty’s Flag” as “the greatest commercial asset in the world.”*20

The entire book is available online.


It is deeply saddening to me how much of the great heritage of Liberal thought is now neglected. I do hope you will take a look and see just how little we have learnt in the ensuing 100 years.

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11 thoughts on “J A Hobson – Imperialism: A Study

  • johnf

    Ah – so essentially you're a classic liberal "Little Englander" caught inside the body of a Scotsman.

    Where to begin. This is a vast topic.

    Mary Kaldor caught this moment very well in her "Baroque Arsenal" about the British Armaments Trade from 1870-1914, How until 1873, with the economy roaring, no money was to be made out of armaments so they were made by government "Royal Shipyards" etc, while British yards specialized in commercial shipping. But British workers (in the eyes of their betters) were getting greedy. South Wales miners even drank champagne! The crash followed. How much this was deliberate, how much plain old fashioned boom bust, is moot, but much of the money which had gone into the British economy started pouring into investments overseas. The next phase of imperialism took place (when we were already in disastrous economic decline compared to our competitors).

    Shipyards which had once been full emptied of commercial orders as the industry shifted to cheaper workforces abroad. So British yards started demanding naval work. A huge head of steam built up about "inefficient" "state-owned" ships as opposed to all-singing-all-dancing hi-tech private warships. Shipyards – which were consolidating very fast – started designing ever more intricate and complex and expensive and inoperable warships. It had less and less to do with actual demands of naval warfare and more and more to do with shipyard profits. The yellow press started running scare campaigns that Britain was slipping behind in the arms race. When war did break out, the huge warships this jingoistic imperialist culture had produced were so over-complex and vulnerable and expensive that no one dared take them to sea. ("Lo-tech" military equipment – destroyers, submarines, machine guns, earth trenches – dominated the battlefield). Once they ventured out of port and Jutland was the result – ships sinking due to faults in their over-complex design.

    Which is all very well and good. But how are we going to design defences which are needed and a society and policies which are non-imperialist?

    On defence I'd say that two imperialist hi-tech aircraft carriers are the last thing we (the nation, as opposed to City of London financiers, defence companies, cabinet neo-cons) need. Fourth Generation Warfare as practised by, say, al Qaeda, is ideological and proudly and triumphantly lo-tech. If we are going to take on parts of the Third World in the future, lots of feet-on-the-ground squaddies seem to be the only way of fighting it. Fighting for "hearts and minds." Lo-tech reliable equipment to back up lo-tech (but well-educated, intelligent, fast-thinking) soldiers. We also need intelligent leadership engaged with and reflecting the whole of our society.

    Our society, if it is to survive, needs high employment policies (not based on a service economy, but on both hi and lo-technology) but founded on strong principles and disciplines of energy conservation. We need proper democracy again, starting with a re-invigoration of local politics.

    Such a future is not rocket science, but it requires intelligent thought and intelligent and widely-held discussion. I would also suggest, in the arts, it needs a new concept and sense of the "modern."

    This country went through an aberration. It was called the First and Second World Wars. For the first time in British history all its classes mixed together in the trenches, in the fighting. Got to like, know, trust each other. This knowledge was applied to politics. In 1940 the old imperialist capitalist upper middle classes were decisively thrown out of office, suddenly nearly all classes had a say in government. We were priveleged enough to grow up in a golden age which this cross-class alliance formed in the two wars presided over the postwar welfare state. In 1979 they were thrown out of office and the upper middle classes started regaining control.

    Broad alliances and mutual interests across the classes and intelligent, informed debate leading to coherent government policies have worked before. They can again.

  • Craig


    No, a classic Liberal "Free-trader" and anti-imperialist. A free-trader is in no sense a "Little-Englander", except that of being opposed to the physical and violent expansion of "England's" domain.

  • Randal


    "But how are we going to design defences which are needed and a society and policies which are non-imperialist?"

    The basic requirement is to recognize that we are not responsible for other nations' well-being, and that in arrogating such responsibility to ourselves we are at least as likely to do harm as good. A Marxist-style analysis will tend to underestimate the degree to which imperialism (whether in its 19th century uniform or its modern "liberal interventionism" clothes) actually depends fundamentally upon humanitarian pretexts.

    A policy of reasonably strict military non-interventionism is the sine qua non of a moral and efficient non-imperialist foreign policy.

    Once that is in place, it will be clear that our requirement for a defence establishment is perhaps at a historic low. We face no actual military threat at the present time (to our legitimate interests, that is), and although history teaches that a precautionary approach is best in such matters, it also shows that any military establishment larger than the minimum will almost inevitably be abused by our politicians and influential pressure groups for their own purposes, with the potentially huge costs being born by the wider nation. Sensible policies on energy independence and a sufficient deterrent defence force in the Falklands, combined with a small, balanced and modern high-tech military establishment and (crucially) a genuinely independent nuclear force with a global second strike capability, would be more than enough.

    You refer to low-tech forces and 4GW issues. Such matters are not needed to be dealt with by our military if we are going to mind our own business in future. While it is possible we may have home-grown insurgencies such as NI again, those are better dealt with politically anyway.

    I think the use of propaganda terms such as "little Englander" is better avoided, isn't it? You refrain from calling me such names and I'll refrain from calling you a "commie", and we will both be more accurate in our statements.

  • Randal

    "it may appear that to impute to financiers so much power is to take a too narrowly economic view of history"

    Precisely so.

    The liberal position, insofar as it is suspicious of government and hostile to the restriction of personal freedom, is perhaps the best that mainstream British politics has produced. It is truly sad that it is substantially absent from today's ruling political groups, and we would surely gain from its revival.

    On the other hand, liberalism always contained a strong streak of paternalism and elitism that made it very vulnerable to the poisonous authoritarianism of socialism when the latter was dressed up in utilitarian clothes. It also was rife with the rationalist hubris that gave rise to the cult of the new and the destruction of vital institutions. Have we really gained from the achievement of many of liberalism's stated goals? Universal sufferage has given us the low-point of a government of war-mongering liars acting with utter impunity – no change there, you might argue, although now it's even harder for us to disclaim national responsibility for the crimes of our rulers. Destruction of the old educational and political bastions of the former Tory classes has simply given us a disfunctional education system and rulers that are equally contemptible but arguably even more smugly convinced of their own superiority. Free trade (admirable, up to a point) has given us globalisation and mass immigration.

    And the government now controls unprecedented proportions of the national wealth and interferes in our personal lives to extents undreamed of in the past. We might now be able to bugger each other legally and get away with more open blasphemy (which are admittedly correct restrictions on government control) and a host of other unevenly enforced restrictions on daily life may have gone, but on the other hand we are ever more controlled in our ability to decide what drugs we want to use, what leisure activities we engage in, how we bring up our children, with whom we associate and of whom we publicly express our dislike, and in our ability to defend ourselves and our families. The point is not just that the government today makes more laws – it is that it has infinitely more resources with which to enforce compliance. Even the legendary incompetence of government does not wholly prevent such huge resources devoted to interference in our daily lives from having an effect.

  • johnf

    randal and craig

    The reference to "Little Englander" was meant as a joke. I was using it in its original sense when liberal opponents of the Boer War – an imperialist war if there ever was one – were denounced in the Northcliffe Press as such.

  • Randal

    Sorry for the sense of humour failure, johnf.

    Those of us who advocate a moral foreign policy (a real one, not the coerced charity paternalistic bullshit advocated by leftists) get used to being called "little Englanders" (by Brits) and "isolationists" (by Yanks). Like many who hold strongly to a minority position, we are apt to over-react.

  • Chuck Unsworth

    The thing that I like about this blog is the quality of debate, robust as it sometimes can be. True, there's a certain sloganising occasionally – I'm as guilty as most, I guess.

    That said I wonder what the general view here might be of JK Galbraith's 1960s and 70s observations about the relationship between governments and industries, and academe. As I recall he felt that, inexorably, government policy (national and international) would be determined by sponsors – big business – and that the 'democratic process' would eventually be a mere mechanism in that relationship. Looking at events in the world today I'd say he was pretty close to the mark.

  • johnf

    Went to a talk yesterday by Tony Bunyan who for over 30 years has been monitoring the ever increasing powers of the state over our lives.

    The exchanges turned to the fact that there was a threat of terrorism and how do we most effectively fight it. He pointed out that all the extra technology and intelligence gathering surveillance systems, by throwing up so much more – and almost always irrelevant – information, lead not to increased knowledge of terrorists, rather less. It results in organizational overload and obsfuscation and confusion .

    He stressed that the best intelligence is human intelligence. But that takes time. (And Bushco have an extremely bad track record of blowing British Intelligence operations before they come to fruition for political gain). And it takes training and patience and investment.

    That is why previously I was asking what sorts of defence we need in the future in "foreign wars." I had Afghanistan in mind. I have always been against the bullshit way it was undertaken, but I was for taking out al Qaeda. I would have gone for their leadership through human intelligence, coherent and tried and tested policing techniques, the quiet use of special forces, and (and Craig might disagree with this) the traditional technique in that part of the world, a bounty or bribery.

    It would have been effective without being overkill and without leading to the disastrous blowback which is now occuring. Those are the sort of defence skills I feel we should be honing.

  • johnf

    I – sorry, I'm personalizing it – we should also, of course, used traditional quiet diplomacy, especially with the Pakistanis.

  • Chuck Unsworth

    JohnF is right to highlight the need for diplomacy. Of course, as Craig and most here fully understand, Diplomacy is a word which covers a multitude of sins. But Diplomacy is certainly less costly (in all senses) than armed intervention. For all the protestations about the Afghanistan action being 'winnable', I have no doubt that it will end at best in some sort of uncomfortable and volatile stalemate. The Iraq fiasco has shown itself to be simply unwinnable – as widely predicted.

    Any study of these two modern adventures will conclude that the costs of all sorts far outweighed the benefit, both tangible and intangible.

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