'Naked abroad': the continuing imperialism of free trade.

Author:Grocott, Chris


This paper offers a basis for the reinvigoration of Marxist methods and concepts when applied to imperialism by connecting historical and contemporary developments in capitalism to developments in the theory of capitalism. Such a re-examination is timely: since the 1990s, Marxist analyses of capitalism have regained much of the ground lost to post-modern and post-structural interpretations of history and society (Callinicos 1989, 2009; Eagleton 1991, 2011; Harvey 1982, 2003, 2005, 2010). Despite this revival, since the Second World War, traditional Marxist understandings of historical imperialism have failed to find much acceptance. One of the major problems facing Marxist historians is that Marx himself did little to theorise imperialism.

Harvey and Callinicos have theorised imperialism to some extent, but by and large, contemporary scholarship on imperialism has yet to tie together threads of historical enquiry with theories of capitalism, or to draw out the relationship between British imperialism and the USA's overseas economic policies. We argue here that there is continuity both of motive and method (formal and informal imperialism) in the overseas economic and military policies of both Britain and the USA. The comparison is a useful one, and it is developed here not least in order to begin to answer recent calls for a renewed analysis of the development of the US economy that incorporates a comparison with Britain (Gray 2012). Herein, we revisit and develop the work of John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson in their 1953 essay, 'The imperialism of free trade' (Gallagher and Robinson 1953), which has been used, albeit briefly, to good effect in Ray Kiely's Rethinking Imperialism (Kiely 2010: 170).

In the following analysis, we reject the idea that imperialism is a development out of capitalism, and argue that, in fact, it is an intrinsic part of it. In doing so, we put forward the concepts developed by Gallagher and Robinson and renew them so that they can be applied not only to British imperialism, but also to the operation of capitalism globally.

The Gallagher and Robinson controversy

It should be noted that within historical circles, ironically, it was the work of Gallagher and Robinson that served to stimulate the rejection of Marxist analyses of imperialism. Nevertheless, their work, for critics and advocates alike, quickly became the essential starting point for historians interested in discussing the development of imperialism. Specifically, and writing in the mid-20th century, they challenged the then traditional Marxist-Leninist view of imperialism, and it is worth briefly examining their critique.

In 'The imperialism of free trade', Gallagher and Robinson critiqued Hobson's 1902 work, Imperialism: A Study (Hobson 2005). Hobson argued that the 'Scramble for Africa' represented a desperate attempt by European capital to find new locations for investment, brought on by decreased demand in metropolitan areas. Gallagher and Robinson rejected this view on the basis that it implied 'a qualitative change in the nature of British expansion and a sharp deviation from the innocent and static liberalism of the middle of the [19th] century' (Robinson and Gallagher 1953: 2). Like Robinson and Gallagher, we argue that a wave of annexations at the end of the 19th century did not represent a rejection of liberal, free-trade methods of maintaining imperialism. Rather, liberal economic policies represent the goal for dominant imperial powers; and formal and informal means merely comprise the tools by which free trade, or more recently neoliberalism, is established. Thus, whilst Eric Hobsbawm argued for an understanding of the importance of informal imperialism (Hobsbawm 1970: 134-153), Gallagher and Robinson would not have agreed with his implied belief that imperialism went through phases of indifference or enthusiasm.

Gallagher and Robinson also rejected Lenin's description of imperialism as the 'highest' stage of capitalism. They argued that the mid-19th-century Pax Britannica could not have represented a time of rejection of empire because of the significant number of annexations that were undertaken. Thus, the end of the century saw continuity, not difference. We extend this analysis to the USA. As we shall see, claims to imperial indifference on the part of the USA have more often than not been accompanied by formal annexations. Likewise, Gallagher and Robinson did not analyse the work of Luxemburg (published in 1951, but written earlier), but had they done so they would have found it wanting. Its focus on the formal empire would have been challenged by the argument that the vast majority of investment went outside of Britain's empire. For both Britain and, we argue, the USA, plenty of profits were to be made by the maintenance of liberal trade agreements with already developed, and developing, capitalist economies.

Hilferding's (1981 [1910]) work was not analysed by Gallagher and Robinson, because it was only published in English in 1981. Nevertheless, it is likely that it would also have been rejected on the basis that imperialism, for Gallagher and Robinson, did not represent a new stage of capitalism, but rather an intrinsic part of its overseas operation at the heart of which was not a wish to establish formal dominion, but, rather, informal economic dominance. Moreover, they would have rejected, as we do, the idea that capital tends towards protectionism. Indeed, one might argue, Gallagher and Robinson might have entitled their piece, 'Imperialism for free trade'. Similarly, Bukharin argued that capitalist rivalry drew international economic rivalry and imperialism into the state. But this fails to recognise the importance of conditions outside the metropolitan area which Gallagher and Robinson emphasised, and also does not allow for an analysis of class factions within the capitalist class to be drawn out, nor for the relationship of these factions with the state to be developed.

It will be argued here that imperialism should not be seen as a 'new' or 'higher' development of capitalism, but rather as an intrinsic part of its operation. Writing in 1953, Gallagher and Robinson were unable to identify this because the neoliberal informal imperialism of the USA was not yet extant. But viewed from the vantage point of the 21st century, it can be seen that, in fact, imperialism is an integral facet of modern capitalism. Any analysis that seeks to tie together contemporary and historical themes of imperialism, such as the one presented here, needs to recognise this. By making use of, adapting and augmenting the tools of analysis offered in 'The imperialism of free trade', a new understanding of the overseas operation of modern capitalism is arrived at. Ironically, and contrary to their original intensions, therefore, Gallagher and Robinson's analysis, once applied to imperialism when it is conceived of as a facet--not development --of capitalism, actually provides significant benefits for a Marxian understanding of imperialism.

Gallagher and Robinson argued that 'imperialism ... [is] a sufficient political function of the process of integrating new regions into the expanding economy' (Gallagher and Robinson 1953: 5). For Gallagher and Robinson, this process referred to the operation of British imperialism. However, it will be seen that the definition holds good for other expanding capitalisms. In particular, Gallagher and Robinson's definition of imperialism is examined because it helps scholars to understand the operation, and historical development, of capitalism as practiced by the USA. Indeed, it is argued here that Gallagher and Robinsons definition of imperialism is crucial in understanding how the US state has acted informally to create and maintain unequal economic relationships with developing economies. Understood in this way, the imperial relationships between developed capitalist powers, and the states that they exert influence over, can be usefully analysed with recourse to more familiar Marxist concepts such as exploitation, elites, and ideology. In doing so, many of the criticisms of Lenin's work are bypassed, and a more relevant Marxian critique of imperialism is offered.

Alongside the use of Marxian-informed concepts such as exploitation, elites and ideology, Gallagher and Robinson's own concepts are explored in the order in which they developed them. First, the continuity of policy that runs throughout both British laissez-faire imperialism and contemporary US neoliberal imperialism will be examined. Second, the concepts of formal and informal empire allow us to examine how financial elites within advanced capitalisms operate within markets, and the tactics they use to defend and advance their advantageous position in these markets. Third, Gallagher and Robinson point to the existence of collaborators as being crucial for the expansion of British capitalism. Developing this, it will be argued here that the role of collaborators can be seen not only in the operation of British imperial capitalism, but also in the imperial capitalism of the USA.

Continuity of imperial purpose

In this section, the 'continuity of purpose' that lay behind Gallagher and Robinson's analysis of British imperialism will be explored. Subsequently, the ways in which this analysis can be applied to the USA is examined in order to help us to understand the disjunction between, on the one hand, the USA's stated hostility to empire, and on the other, its use of both formal and informal imperial action overseas.

Before 'The imperialism of free trade', the prevailing wisdom on 19th-century British imperial expansion was that it had proceeded in fits and starts. It was supposed that the waxing and waning of government and business's commitment to the ideal of empire caused this oscillation of policy. By this logic, the early and late part of the century had been characterised by enthusiasm on the...

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