The Desperate Uncle Sam
As Naked As Ever
By Pratyush Chandra
29 March, 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.
THE SAME ROTTEN 'IMPERIAL
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
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 SAME 'RACIAL ENDOWMENT'
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."
AND THE SAME KILLERS…
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
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."