Defining Imperialism with the help of Indian Political Economy


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What I think ‘imperialism’ means comes up a lot in conversations about Syria and other wars. My position is that the word was botched from the beginning because it did not identify the mechanisms by which nations exploit nations.

The word was founded by John A. Hobson who denied that Britain drained India’s wealth, whereas the Indian Marxist definition of ‘imperialism’ is founded upon the writings of Dadabhai Naoroji, who proved definitively that Britain was draining India of its wealth.

Two different intellectual traditions here. Hobson went on to influence Lenin, Luxemburg, and Bukharin. They used ‘imperialism’ as a glorified term for ‘the export of capital’ as if that was the mechanism by which nations exploited nations.

Unsurprisingly you now have people accusing China of being ‘imperialist’ because it exports capital by investing and lending overseas. You can’t blame them either because that’s what the Hobson derived definition leads to.

The Indian Marxist definition, as developed after Naoroji by Amiya Kumar Bagchi, Irfan Habib, Utsa Patnaik and Prabhat Patnaik offers an entirely different economic mechanism for the functioning of imperialism.

According to Prabhat Patnaik, “imperialism is imminent in the money form”, what does he mean?

Indian wealth backed the value of the British pound sterling, but only in the limited yet fundamental sense that it allowed Britain to have more resources at its disposal than rival empires that also had enslaved nations under their military control, but did not exact the same amount of drain, particularly from the mid 18th century onwards.

Britain established ‘financial hegemony’, which is a social contract with Britain’s mercantile ‘rivals’, which are the countries that industrialised by producing in exchange for British pounds, which in turn led to the deindustrialization of Britain in the early 20th century.

Eventually, Britain’s rivals became so industrialised that they started selling their pounds for gold, leading to Britain ending convertibility to gold, most of which went to the US, however, the US was reluctant to take on financial hegemony until after WW2.

I will say this about the US. Insofar as the US demanded that Britain decolonize, it performed an objectively anti-imperialist act. That’s why British chauvinist historians like David Irving hate that Britain fought Germany in WW2, the argument being that to pay for the war, Britain was shaken out of its empire (good).

The US demanded some decolonisation from Britain for a reason, because it would enlarge the parts of the world that could be penetrated by the US dollar. However, unlike Britain which could freely rob its (non-white) colonies to balance its trade deficits and export capital, the US did not have an equivalent of India, which was one-sixth of the world’s population paying tribute.

That the US could only maintain the gold standard for 27 years until 1971 is testament to the relative weakness of its hegemony.

As a result, US financial hegemony was built on far weaker foundations. What then is US imperialism? It is the attempt to maintain the economic advantages won by all the world’s former empires against their former extractive peripheries like India, or at least to maintain faith in the value of the US dollar.

Imperialism therefore concerns the following question. How does the US maintain these economic advantages? There are a plethora of ways, but starting wars is one important way. Once you understand this, then the impetus behind many wars are connected to one overriding imperative on the part of the US empire, which is to maintain the value of their currency by sabotaging the development of their rivals.

Eventually that takes you to the Syrian war, or at least the US contribution to that war.

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