Hobson’s Imperialism in International Relations Theory

Like any organism, an empire infected by too many parasites dies. So contends J.A. Hobson in Imperialism, written in the aftermath of South Africa’s Second Boer War at the end of the 19th century. That debacle caused considerable debate and soul searching among the British empire’s elite after British forces fought to control the lucrative Witwatersan gold mines by pacifying the local population—in no small part by forcing women and children into concentration camps[1]. In Hobson’s case, this soul searching triggered concern that Britain’s imperial policies actively harmed the empire. He believed a small moneyed elite increasingly orchestrated Britain’s bloody and expensive imperial wars, manipulating political power and national group feeling to subvert the good of Great Britain to their personal financial interests. These capitalist elites—these parasites in the circulatory system that links government, military, and finance—hijacked the empire to engage in territorial expansion to secure or safeguard investment opportunities. Ever seeking new outlets for their accumulating capital, the embedded parasites directed public money and power to protect their private ventures, resulting in a militarizing, antagonistic, and expensive empire. Since Britain was not the sole perpetrator of this type of imperialism, Hobson argued the search for new investment markets would bring the various Great Powers into conflict as they competed to gobble up “spheres of influence,” or that they might even form a federation of empires that could collude to exploit the undeveloped world. Hobson worried if this trend wasn’t reversed, Britain’s empire, like any living thing, would meet its natural end: “atrophy, decay, and final extinction.”[2]

The Roots of Imperialism

Hobson claims in Imperialism to have dug up “economic taproot of imperialism.” Although Hobson shows Britain’s imperial possessions and expenditures swelled in the final decades of the 1800s, foreign trade in 1902 made up only a miniscule portion of the empire’s total income[3]. Why, then, the continued expansion of colonial possessions and spending on their control and administration? Economic parasites, Hobson answers.

“Although the new Imperialism has been bad 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 … though fraught with great injury to the nation, have served well the present business interests of certain industries and professions.”[4]

Among these certain industries and professions, Hobson includes industries that make the war machines, as well as other large firms that build the infrastructure to exploit the resources of colonial possessions.[5] But Hobson points a graver finger at finance capitalists – “banking, broking, bill discounting, loan floating , company promoting” – as the prime parasites in the system.[6] These parasites, which find a host in every empire, form only tiny part of society but wield disproportionate economic and political influence. With it, the elites “manipulate the patriotic forces” extant in the ambitious politicians, frontier military men, philanthropists, traders, and overzealous missionaries using the pedals of public opinion: education and the press.[7] The elites are “parasites upon patriotism, and they adapt themselves to its protecting colours … expressive of their desire to establish good government, promote Christianity, extirpate slavery, and elevate the lower races.”[8]

Their true motivations, however, lie at the economic taproot of the imperialism. As nations industrialize, Hobson argues, improvements in the methods of production increase productive capacity. The larger capacity boosts profit share for the capitalists, who then buy up more of the means of production and generate still more profit. This cycle concentrates wealth into ever fewer hands. But since those profits aren’t redistributed downward, the working masses do not develop greater purchasing power with which to buy the products of the capitalists. Eventually, increases in productive capacity lead to overproduction because no one can buy the goods that are being produced. The workers don’t have the money to do so, and the capitalists, who do have plenty, are simply incapable of consuming so much. Unable to spend the profits of his or her ventures, the capitalist stuffs more and more capital into already over-stuffed pockets. The dual forces of limited purchasing power among the overwhelming majority and of excess savings on the part of the economic elite produce an enduring lack of demand, as the capitalists have no outlet for their ballooning savings. Since domestic investment opportunities are limited by existing overproduction, the capitalists have nowhere to turn but outside their national borders, prying open new investment opportunities and then protecting them with the products of the weapons makers. [9] Over-saving, then, is the taproot of imperialism and the reason the elites pressure nations into imperialist adventures, into “using the machinery of government … to secure for them economic gains outside their country.”[10]

This argument makes heavy use of Karl Marx, though Hobson does not cite Marx in his text and had no great sympathy for Marxists.[11],[12] Hobson depends on Marx’s theories of capital accumulation and under-consumption for his theory of over-saving. For over-saving of the type Hobson describes, capital must first concentrate—or centralize—in the hands of the few capitalists who dominate the economy. As Marx puts it in Capital, as it accumulates “capital grows in one place to a huge mass in a single hand, because it has in another place been lost by many.”[13] Hobson also develops Marx’s theory on under-consumption. In Volume 3 of Capital, Marx writes, “The ultimate reason for all real crises always remains the poverty and restricted consumption of the masses as opposed to the drive of capitalist production to develop the productive forces as though only the absolute consuming power of society constituted their limit.”[14] As Hobson sees it, however, the restricted consumption of the masses is not necessarily a “real crisis,” as long as the capitalist can find new markets into which to pour excess capital. The solution to the potential under-consumption crisis posed by Marx, then, is Hobson’s imperialism.

But the imperialist push to secure economic gains abroad bloats military expenditures and wastes blood, treasure, and reputation. Those consequences fall on the public, not the capitalists[15]. To convince the empire such waste is worthwhile, the elites twist public opinion by invoking racial and religious superiority, as well as biology and social Darwinism, to build support for subjugating the “lower races.” The elites appeal to the chauvinism of the masses shaping it into a patriotism that views war as a kind of sport.[16] “Jingoism is merely the lust of the spectator, unpurged by any personal effort, risk, or sacrifice, gloating in the perils, pains, and slaughter of fellow-men whom he does not know, but whose destruction he desires in a blind and artificially stimulated passion,” Hobson says.[17] Thus, the capitalist urges the empire into conflicts, not only against the “lower races” but also against imperial competitors and drives the militarization of society. “It is a constant menace to peace,” Hobson says, “To the sharp peril of war it adds the chronic danger and degradation of militarism, which not merely wastes the current physical and moral resources of the nations, but checks the very course of civilization.”[18]

At the same time, the financial elites also confound any attempt at economic and political change that might democratize power. Hobson, like Immanuel Kant, sees expansive and representative democratic institutions as one part of a solution to the imperial predicament.[19] Hobson’s solution rests on three parts: one political, one economic, and one international. First, Hobson argues that because imperialism taxes the many for the benefit of the few, more democratic institutions would check the imperial tendency.[20] Second, a more equitable distribution of wealth would reduce the problem of excess demand and excess saving, liberating the masses to buy the products of the capitalists.[21]

If a tendency to distribute income or consuming power according to needs were operative, it is evident that consumption would rise with every rise of producing power … and there could be no excess saving. But it is quite different … where distribution has no fixed relation to needs, but …assign(s) to some people a consuming power vastly in excess of needs or possible uses.

To put it another way, perhaps: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”[22]

If efforts to reform the domestic state stall, however, Hobson suggests a third, uneasy solution: a federation of empires. Hobson argues the tendency of Britain’s empire was toward increasing self-government for its colonies and a relaxation of control by the home government.[23] That federal policy, taken to its conclusion and drawing on the bonds of common blood, language, and religion, might expand to create a federation of powerful nations to secure “reasonable security for good order and civilization in the world.”[24] Such a federation would begin, perhaps, with the British states and expand outward eventually to include a “wider federation of civilized states in the future.”[25] By buying off the working classes with the rents they obtain through exploitation of the world – especially China – they might agree to manage together the undeveloped markets of the world, preventing the dangerous entanglements that lead to war among powers.

In Hobson’s embrace of democracy and in his hope for a “sane” imperialism managed by an imperial federation we can see echoes of Kant’s hope for a “perpetual peace” built on universal representative democracy and a pacific federation of nations. But where Kant’s federation demands not a temporary peace but a permanent one, Hobson’s relies on a balance of force between nations which are held together by common cultural bonds and together benefit from the exploitation of the world’s markets and resources. This contradicts key elements of Kant’s perpetual peace, namely that “no independent states, large or small, shall come under the dominion of another state” and that “standing armies shall in time be totally abolished.”[26] Hobson draws on Kant’s utopian vision, but he cannot wholeheartedly embrace it. There may be room for peace in Hobson’s federation but not perpetually.

The Fruits of Imperialism

If Marxist thought formed the seeds of Hobson’s thesis on imperialism, then so did its thesis bear Marxist fruit. Marxists embraced Hobson’s theory and grew from it their critique of imperialism. V.I. Lenin and Karl Kautsky each seized upon Hobson’s ideas to develop their assessments of the international capitalist-imperialist structure.

Much as Hobson uses Kantian ideas for his Imperial Federation, Kautsky saw in Hobson’s federation the basis of his “ultra-imperialism.” Like Hobson, Kautsky believed that to avoid a Great Powers war, the empires of the world might agree to band together in an imperial cartel, working in tandem to peaceably exploit the developing world as a Great Power monopoly. “The result of the World War between the great imperialist powers may be a federation of the strongest, who renounce their arms race,” he wrote in 1914.[27] It is a concept nearly identical to Hobson’s.

Both concepts not only violate Kant’s criteria for a successful pacific federation, but they also end up on the wrong side of Lenin’s invective. “There can be no other conceivable basis under capitalism for the division of spheres of influence … than a calculation of the strength of the participants in the division … And the strength of these participants in the division … cannot be even” writes Lenin. “… alliances … or a general alliance embracing all the imperialist powers, are inevitably nothing more than a ‘truce’ in periods between wars.” [28] Kant would agree. For both, the result of an imperialism federation is not peaceful exploitation, then, but simply more militarism and war.

Although Lenin derides the Hobsonian idea of an imperial federation as “banal, philistine fantasies”[29] he nonetheless makes extensive and accurate use of Hobson’s theory of over-saving to build his theory of imperialism. Lenin takes from Hobson the argument that capital concentrates into the hands of a few monopolies, especially with the merger of bank and industrial capital into “finance capital,” which then seek to export that capital. Lenin praises Hobson, too, for discovering the “predominance of the financier over the merchant.”[30] Lenin does not quibble with Hobson’s analysis of imperialism’s taproot. He, too, believes the centralization of capital leads to the carving up of spheres of influences, and he even accepts as probable a peaceful alliance of Great Powers which might share the spoils of imperialism by buying off their own working class.[31] But where Hobson hopes for permanent peace, Lenin sees inevitable war. “Peaceful alliances prepare the ground for wars, and in turn grow out of wars,” he writes.[32]

Contemporary arguments also lay claim on Hobson’s analysis and predictions. In “The New Class War,” Michael Lind quotes Hobson’s forecast for a federation of a “Western parasitism” exploiting Asian labor to create Western populations of “independent gentlemen” supported by a “somewhat larger group of professional retainers and tradesmen and a large body of personal servants.” Lind sees parallels to today, when neoliberals promise cheap Chinese goods and “better jobs” of the “knowledge economy” to Western workers who’ve lost their livelihoods to deindustrialization. “Hobson” Lind says “envisioned a dystopian future” of this kind.[33]

But Lind misunderstands Hobson’s aim and distorts his argument, as does Heilbroner who writes “what Hobson suggested was that [imperialism] might destroy the world.”[34] Hobson’s Imperialism is not about imperialism’s danger to the working class or to the world. It is Lenin who sees mass false consciousness and world-destroying war on the horizon; Hobson worries most about what imperialism will do to the home country. “War,” Hobson writes, contradicting Heibroner, “is not the success, but the failure of this policy; it’s normal and most perilous fruit is not war, but militarism. So long as this competitive expansion for territory and foreign markets is permitted to misrepresent itself as ‘national policy’ … the peoples must sweat and bleed and toil to keep up an ever more expensive machinery of war.”[35]

In Hobson’s mind, parasites sucking the lifeblood from his empire is imperialism’s great corruption. “Imperialism is the depraved choice of national life … It is the besetting sin of all successful States, and its penalty is unalterable in the order of nature,” he writes.[36] Having sucked all the blood from their host, both the parasites and the animal die.

[1] Mehr, Nathaniel, introduction to Imperialism, written by J.A. Hobson (Nottingham, England: Spokesman. 1902, 2011) 15.
[2] Hobson, J.A., Imperialism (Nottingham, England: Spokesman, 2011) 315.
[3] Ibid, 55-73.
[4] Ibid, 79.
[5] Ibid, 81.
[6] Ibid, 86.
[7] Ibid, 88.
[8] Hobson, Imperialism, 88-89.
[9] Ibid, Part 1, Chapter 6, 97-114.
[10]Ibid, 114.
[11] Heilbroner, Robert L., The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives Times, and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers (New York, New York: Touchstone, 1999), 195.
[12] Lenin, V.I. Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (Mansfield Centre, Connecticut: Martino Publishing, 2011), 99.
[13] Marx, Karl. Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 25. (accessed November 8, 2018).
[14] Marx, Karl. Capital, Volume 3, Chapter 30. (accessed November 8, 2018).
[15] Hobson, Imperialism, Chapter 7, 114-125.
[16] Hobson, Imperialism, 202-203.
[17] Ibid, 203.
[18] Ibid, 156.
[19] Kant, Immanuel. Political Writings (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 99.
[20] Hobson, Imperialism. 128, 154.
[21] Ibid. 105
[22] Marx, Karl. Critique of the Gotha Programme. (retrieved November 11, 2018).
[23] Hobson, Imperialism, 287.
[24] Ibid, 289.
[25] Ibid, 290.
[26] Kant, Immanuel. Political Writings, 93-95.
[27] Kautsky, Karl. Ultra-Imperialism. (retrieved November 8, 2011).
[28] Lenin, Imperialism, 119.
[29] Lenin, Imperialism, 119.
[30] Ibid, 92.
[31] Ibid, 106.
[32] Ibid, 119.
[33] Lind, Michael. “The New Class War.” American Affairs, Summer 2017, Volume 1, Number 2.
[34] Heilbroner, The Worldly Philosophers, 195.
[35] Hobson, Imperialism, 138.
[36] Ibid. 315-316.


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