The Consequences of Imperialism 11

One of the purposes of this blog is to reconnect my readers with our heritage of British radical thought. These ideas were very much part of the intellectual mainstream, but in my lifetime that mainstream has been drastically narrowed by the control of media and of education by the very interests and methods that will be described in this entry.

Since I posted this extract two years ago the readership of this blog has expanded greatly, and those who were with me two years ago will benefit from a refresh. This is an extract from Imperialism: A Study (written in 1901) by the great and sadly neglected Liberal economist J A Hobson. Since my teens he has been one of the most profound influences on my own thinking.

Those who have read The Catholic Orangemen will understand that a consistent Hobsonian analysis underpinned my actions in Africa regarding both mercenary and British military and financial involvement there.

More fundamentally, Hobson’s profound and clear analysis is simply applied to Cheney and Halliburton, BAE and most of the other evils against which we are still struggling today.

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 “The Consequences of Imperialism

  • ingo

    May I offer a slight addendum to Hobson well spoken words and open the debate with a new paragraph.

    I.IV. xx. Whilst humanity is still indulging in these banal, primitive almost animalistic and instinctive habits, still adamant to use the cycle of violence to aquire, almost like an inherent genetic satirical gene that sticks two fingers up everytime someone shows good intentions, peacefull ways to relinquishing anguish, wasted resources and, here comes my XX point, an increasingly, exponentially accelerating harmfull effect on the systems and resources that really keep us all alive, the environment we live in.

    I would like to say to Mssrs. Obama, Mitchell, Bin Laden, indeed all those with intent, who purport to have to rely on arms, hatred, blood and gore to usurp and conquer, to fetter and grow their own concerns, the trade in death and weapons and war and more hate, I would like to say to them that their Angst and Drang for operating a systainable trade first, rather than the boom and bust all others are subject to, that their endevours wil fail, because the great leveller, the environment we live in, is already pointing to the limitations of this madness, a planet with 6 billion people and rising, is not going to be made more livable by conducting nuclear wars, limited or total.

    The constants of knocking down and building up, each with its own characteristics of polluting what keeps us alive, each and every war means hell to air, soil, water and our own human psyche. It saps our spiritual development, destroying many families, marked notches in their lifes draining their strenght to live and survive.

    It is important to any peace negotiator to put the environment on to the table, from day 1, it has to have a centre place on each and every negotiation table, there is no better leveller as the threats that are spanning over all other issues to debate, the environment and the rape of ourselfs, inevitably.

    It is not intelligent to further engage in wars, those who do must come to the realisation that it is an unsustainable undertaking, futile and inconsequential in the long run, whatever small advantages are gained short term, only decreasing living space, destruction to the genepool, poisoning of air water and foods and our psychological states of development.

    To contemplate wars before one contemplates any other sensible measures to check one’s impact on this planet, is either genetic malformism, lack of intelligence, or ignorant stubborness to the facts glaringly showing us our wayward impact on ecological diversity and the cycles of regenation.

    Our perverse delusional logic to take religous and other sanctimonious causes as excuses for what can only be called selfcentred destructivism, has used this planet as a tribal playing field fro neanderthalic pleasures, as yet we semm not to have left that period in our evolution.

    We know what we have to do and we have the knowledge and abilities to do it, compassionately, communitarian concerns, although with hard decisions to take at all times, we cannot become the cancer to this system and then demand absolution from the destructive impact, we have to learn to regulate ourselves and our impact in ways that allows continuation, more aware humanity to emerge.

    We have to help those who say that we can’t do different, because we have become aquainted to the darkness that surrounds our heads in the sand.

    We cannot defer, but have to make them realise that there is no more sand, its all washed away, that their eyes are shut and they do not want to see, or care and unless they do change their habits that they will wither away just as all others.


  • Tom Welsh

    Thanks for the reminder.

    “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.”

    Or, nowadays, the Stars and Stripes (with its uncanny tendency to be closely followed by US Marines, the CIA, and enormous loads of bombs).

  • writerman

    They sailed me away on the censor’s ship

    They bound and gagged me into silence

    Then when we were out of sight of land

    They tied an anvil to my chest

    And without a sign or a word pushed me overboard

  • writerman

    Dear Craig,

    It’s kind of you to reveal something of what makes you tick intellectually and emotionally. I think it’s a sign of a big and generous heart.

    What’s striking about this piece of Hobson is how truly radical and honest he is, and how far to the ‘left’ he seems in a contemporary context. This just shows how far society has moved to the ‘right’, how narrow our intellectual horizons have become, especially over the last thirty years.

    Terry Eagleton, who’s a Marxist and a professor of literature, which I suppose makes him a member of the establishment, recently remarked that the standards of education available at British Universities have declined substantially. He compared them to Tescos. Education has been commercialised and marketised. Real education as we probably understand it has been systematically undermined.

    If true, this has profound consequences for society and how we perceive reality. It’s like the lens we look through has been smudged so we can’t see clearly, and the worst of it is, we don’t realise that we can’t see properly and we are only being allowed a partial veiw of the world around us.

    In much the same way as the de-skilling and de-industrialisation of Britain destroyed and wasted centuries of knowlegde about how to produce manufactures, the comparable ‘purge’ of higher education has also taken place, and will arguably have the same catastrophic longterm results.

    We not only risk becoming poorer, we alos risk becoming more ignorant.

    Higer education, an elite education, is once again becoming the preserve of the few, and this has profound intellectual and social consequences. Increased social stratification and polarisation is just a couple of of them.

    The economic crisis we are entering is going to be severe, perhaps worse than the Great Depression, though that seems hard to accept. We are seeing the culmination of thirty years of wrong-headed social and economic policies. The collapse of Thacherism as an ideology and economic model.

    I believe we are moving out of one era into another. The end of the classic, bourgeois democratic state form, replaced by authoritarian capitalism, where the state and the market merge into one. A collosus at the heart of society, controlling virtually every aspect of our lives. I don’t think democracy, as we’ve known it, will survive this transition.

    Power in society seems to be increasingly concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. Notice the increasing use of the word ‘Czar’ to describe the men who have power and rule over us. This is because we are moving away from ‘parliamentarism’ towards individual, authoritarian, czarism; where men on laws are important.

    New forms of production are emerging. The success of the totalitarian Chinese model of capitalism hasn’t gone unoticed. To change the way we do things in the West, to compete with China, and ‘get things done’ we’ll have to move away from ‘debate’ towards a form of command and control economy, which can react with speed and efficiency and take up the challenges we face as a society.

    Look at the United States and Britain. Has there ever, in all human history, been a transfer of so much wealth into the hands of so few people, at such speed, with so little debate, as we’ve seen in the last few months?

    This is czarism in action.

    What’s awful is, that there’s really not much debate about any of this. The United States has become a twin-party state and Presidentialism has been established. Watching the inaurguration of Obama appalled me. This was a coronation in all but name. The investiture of a king or emperor. The founders, the men who wrote the Constitution would have turned in their graves at such a spectacle. This wasn’t one element, a glorified public servant, a defender of the Constitution, in balance with two other equally important elements, the Congress and the Supreme Court, it was the triumph of executive power over all the others. Rule by men not laws.

    In the United States around 2% of the population control 60% of the country’s wealth, a massive concentration of power and influence over the Republic. The United States is roughly 5% of the world’s population yet they are 25% of the planets GDP, they also swallow over 25% of the planets resources. At the same time they are building up a level of debt which is unsustainable – three trillion and rising. Their ecomomy only survives because of ‘tribute’ paid by China, Japan and the Gulf States. America creates money and debt, and the rest of us have to pay for it. They, in effect, suck wealth out of the entire planet. Paying for their non-negotiable standard of living with other people’s money.

    My nightmare is, how do crises of this kind usually end? The answer would seem to be in war. War wipes the slate clean, it’s a giant firesale and we can all begin again fresh, like the famous green shoots rising from the blackened ashes after the fire.

    The narrowing of our options, the narrowing of our minds, there is no alternative, makes our slide towards barbarism more not less likely. I just hope I’m completely wrong, and that the economy will starting bouncing again like an iflated, coloured beach-ball, and all be well again, in this best of all possible worlds.

  • marco


    Thanks for sharing this author with us. I had not heard of him before your mentioning him and from what I’ve read, I need to read up.

    In my ignorance, I did write my thoughts about a related subject in a blog post some time ago (click on my name to get there), but his vision is so much clearer and wider that I will shut up for the moment and absorb his insights.


  • Ruth

    It appears over the last 100 years nothing has changed at all.

    Gerald James in his address, My experiences, the Scott Inquiry, the British Legal System, at the Conference of the Environmental Law Centre stated:

    It has also been clearly demonstrated that Parliament has no control of knowledge of events and that a vast apparatus of permanent unelected Government exists. This permanent Government consists of senior civil servants, intelligence and security officers, key figures in certain city and financial institutions (including Lloyds of London), key industrialists and directors of major monopolistic companies, senior politicians. The Lord Chancellors Office which is responsible for the appointment of Judges, Clerks of the House of Commons select Committees and approval of Chairmen of such committees and the approval of the Queen’s Counsel, holds a total control of the legal administrative framework and has strong connections to the security and intelligence services. The last Clerk to the Crown in Chancery was Sir Thomas Legg, KCB QC who had strong links to the intelligence and security establishment and who was responsible for allocating Judges to controversial trials of a political nature where the “national interest” and “national security” (those much abused phrases) were involved, ie the Ponting Case. Legg’s successor will have a similar role. Sir Thomas was duly wheeled out to keep the lid on the Sandline Inquiry re the strange events surrounding the FCO, Sierra Leone and real foreign policy as opposed to the sham variety discussed at Westminster. He has been wheeled out again to keep the lid on an inquiry regarding the corruption in the hugely expensive building of new MP’s offices opposite Big Ben. The companies involved in this case are Alvis, formerly United Scientific Holdings and its Germany partner in the installation of a £35m contract for copper cladding. United Scientific Holdings is the company where ex Chief of defence Procurement and ex Lord Mayor Sir Peter, now Lord Levene was Managing director (later a Director of N.M. Rothschild) was Chairman. An American competitor alleges irregularities and corruption as it offered to do the work for a much lower price.

    So there we are.

  • Craig


    Thank you. That is very valuable – Sir Thomas Legg’s stitch-up of the Sandline inquiry is a key event of The Catholic Orangemen. I didn’t know this about his background and it is very valuable information.

  • Charles Crawford

    From a comment above:

    “To change the way we do things in the West, to compete with China, and ‘get things done’ we’ll have to move away from ‘debate’ towards a form of command and control economy, which can react with speed and efficiency and take up the challenges we face as a society.”

    Yowza. Of course! If only we had more communism imposed by force, all would be well!

    I can’t wait to see which of the towering bureaucratic geniuses now around will be in charge of the commanding and controlling, and thereby produce all that speed and efficiency we need for our social challenges. I might apply myself.

  • George Dutton

    “Yowza. Of course! If only we had more communism imposed by force, all would be well!”

    Charles Crawford

    That is NOT “communism” that you describe it is fascism…”imposed by force”…The far right like to called it “communism” because they fear “communism”…They don’t like to call it by it’s true name fascism…the far right like fascism.

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