Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Two new Guardian articles

The Guardian published two more articles from me this week.

The first is entitled, "How Scientific is Political Science?" The argument I make there is that it is neither possible nor desirable to research the subject of politics in an apolitical, value-neutral way, as many mainstream scholars claim to do.

The second is entitled "I welcome the 'Where are you from?' question my brown skin elicits", which is a response to Ariane Sherine's article in last week's paper, where she expressed her exasperation with being often asked about her background. Like her, I'm born and brought up in the UK and of mixed-ethnicity, but I take a different view of being asked about my family origin. I think its positive when people have a friendly curiosity about difference, and certainly not something to be discouraged. That article's published in today's print edition, as well as on the website.

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Saturday, February 13, 2010

British Foreign Policy and Critical Scholarship: The Legacy of Adam Smith

I'm speaking next week at the International Studies Association Annual Convention in New Orleans, on BISA's British foreign policy panel. The paper I'm presenting is entitled "British Foreign Policy and Critical Scholarship: The Legacy of Adam Smith".

Here's the intro:


"The purpose of this paper is to argue that critical studies of British foreign policy can be situated within the mainstream of our intellectual heritage, and therefore deserve an important place within scholarly activity today. I will begin by setting out how the critical-left interpretation of political economy may be applied to current British foreign policy. Noting the apparent influence of centres of socio-economic power over policymaking, and the evident public opposition to significant elements of current policy, I suggest that British foreign policy presents a fruitful area of research for scholars concerned that governments in liberal democracies may be disproportionately influenced by certain interests at the expense of the general interest or the popular will. I will then look back to the thinkers of the Enlightenment, noting that challenging and critiquing power was a major element of this defining movement within our intellectual tradition. In particular, I will examine the work of Adam Smith and his critique of Britain’s foreign and economic policies in the eighteenth century, as set out in his famous work, “The Wealth of Nations”. Smith’s theoretical treatise on economics went hand-in-hand with a political critique of the way in which influential vested interests had been able to distort public policy to suit their own ends, a critique rooted in an explicit sense of injustice. I will argue that Smith’s focus on the question of just outcomes and his analytical emphasis on the role of power, influence and sectional interests in politics, are elements of his work that critical scholars of today’s British foreign policy can draw upon. I will conclude with a few brief remarks on how such a research agenda might be taken forward."

You can read the whole paper here.

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Saturday, December 05, 2009

The limits and context of New Labour's left turn

Today's editorial in The Guardian takes up an interesting theme: the long-term changes in the political economy of Britain and how the apparent move towards "industrial activism", made recently by New Labour, may fit into broader economic trends.


The rise of socialist and social democratic politics, driven by the organisation of mass labour rooted in manufacturing and other blue collar industries, probably reached its peak at around the mid-point of the last century, winning in the process some vital gains in terms of the political enfranchisement and economic welfare of the general population. Subsequent years saw the demographic make up of the country change, with manufacturing industry declining sharply as a mass employer, the move of many working class people into white collar work, an increase in home-ownership and the general break-up of the social base that had driven the Labour Party in particular and the political challenge to the vested interests of the economic elites more generally. The end of this historic socialist/social democratic coalition saw the establishment of a new Thatcherite consensus, first by Thatcher herself, then later on by New Labour.

However, recent months have seen something of a change in tone from the Labour government, including a willingness to intervene in support of the industrial sector and to (vocally at least) challenge the banking industry. We have also seen Gordon Brown directly challenge the regressive taxation policies of the Conservative Party and link those to the privileged background of its leading figures. Obviously Labour has to tack left at least slightly in order to rally support ahead of next year's general election. Its traditional base can no longer be relied upon to turn out and vote after 12 years of neo-Thatcherism from Brown and Blair, not to mention Blair's politically disastrous alliance with George W Bush. So trying to shore up that constituency makes sense. But is there also something deeper at work here?

The long-term social changes and trends described above that undermined traditional Labourism, though not entirely within the control of policymakers, were at the same time, not entirely due to forces of nature. The political economy is a system created by human beings and driven by human choices.

Similarly today, with it having become obvious that the British economy is fundamentally unbalanced and over-reliant on the "socially useless" activity of the financial sector, it is right that politicians should make the conscious choice to change this balance away from "financial engineering" towards "real engineering". This is especially true when climate change demands that we radically and swiftly alter the technological base, a situation that offers huge opportunities in research, development and production to the nation states and companies smart enough to take them. More national reliance on capital investment and less on capricious financial flows would also - potentially at least - render the democratic state better able to hold its own against the demands of elite international economic interests.

So it turns out, after 11 years of New Labour being "intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich", that you don't have to accept post-Thatcherite neo-liberalism as though it were written into the laws of physics. You can, in fact, make choices.

The costs of the centre-left's intellectual and moral timidity in the face of the status quo post-Thatcher can be measured in the damage done to the economy by the collapse of those orthodoxies in the autumn of 2008. Labour appears, very slowly indeed, to be coming round to an understanding (an understanding that is at least partially right) of what this might mean politically. It would be a shame if it lost the opportunity to develop this line of thinking more fully, given the unpleasant alternative facing us at the ballot box next spring.

Labour's current politics, irrespective of the recent mild drift away from Thatcherism, still require a serious overhaul or wholesale replacement. That's a long-term task for Britain's progressive majority, requiring dedication and commitment. In the short term, we should be aware of the changing political weather in the aftermath of the banking crisis and work to ensure that the obvious lessons are learnt about the sustainability of neo-liberal economics. In those circumstances, a Labour victory is plainly preferable to a Tory victory in the election next spring. But given New Labour's dismal record in entrenching Thatcherism during its first 11 years in power, and the extremely limited nature of its political conversion post-credit crunch, an anti-Tory vote next spring should be one very small part of a far greater effort to move the long-term trends of the British economy in a more progressive direction.

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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Incorporating Historical Scholarship into my PhD Research

Introduction
Summary
The purpose of this paper is to discuss issues arising from my intended incorporation of elements of historical scholarship into my PhD dissertation. There are parts of my dissertation which, as currently envisaged, would in many respects be works of history as much as works of political science. This takes me into a new area of scholarship, and this paper is an account of my attempts to familiarise myself with the discipline of history, its background, and the theoretical debates that exist within it. This is a particularly valuable exercise since those theoretical debates have relevance to the entirety of my research project. I will survey these issues, engage with them, and identify my own initial position with regard to them at this stage of my research.
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The research question for my PhD is, ‘how do concentrations of socio-economic power shape British foreign policy?’ To answer this question, I intend to begin by tracing the historical roots of the political economy of British foreign policy, narrating the rise and development of the various concentrations of power that influence policymaking in this area in the present day. I will do so on the basis that the current political economy of British foreign policy is the product of historical processes. Later on in the thesis, having mapped and analysed today’s foreign-policymaking network, I will conduct three contemporary case studies which show the network in action. These will, to an extent, be works of ‘contemporary history’ (defined as “writing about the recent past” (Gildea:xi)), in that the topics will be sets of recent events, where my aim will be to establish the facts (actions taken, policies adopted) and to construct a narrative that accurately presents the causes and effects of those events.
In short, though my PhD is a work of political science, I shall, in a significant part of my work, be acting like an historian. In doing so I will be extending myself beyond my field of immediate expertise and entering a realm of scholarship which, like political science, has its own landscape of theories, debates and practices. This paper represents the results of my attempts to introduce myself to this new terrain and to find an appropriate place within it from which to conduct the relevant parts of my current research project.
The paper will proceed as follows. After these introductory remarks, I will begin with a first section discussing the benefits that the use of historical scholarship can bring to my research. I will show how a broad array of both historians and politicians have signed up to the proposition that understanding the past is a precondition for understanding the present. I will talk about the benefits of adopting an interdisciplinary approach to the social sciences that incorporates an understanding of history, briefly mention the cognitive benefits of detachment and perspective that the use of historical context can bring to the study of current events. I will conclude this section by identifying some respects in which political science can benefit from an historian’s approach.
Next, I will set out a brief history of history as a scholarly discipline, describing some of the theoretical approaches that have arisen over the years and the challenges sometimes posed to them. Of these various approaches, it is historical materialism that has appeared, at the end of my initial research into this subject, to be the one most appropriate to my own work. I will therefore spend some time discussing this particular paradigm. I will note four senses in which historical materialism aligns well with my research: first, its explicit moral purpose; second, its focus on socio-economic class power and inequality; third, its theoretical account of the political economy; and fourth (and most pertinently for the purposes of this paper), the central role it gives to accounts of historical development in attempts to analyse the political economy of the present. Before concluding this section, I will discuss briefly how a fuller, nuanced and perhaps more evolved understanding of Marxist theory can be put to productive use in my work, and I will note the areas where I retain reservations and/or disagreements with this broad theoretical paradigm.
The clear political nature of Marxism raises questions about the role of partisanship in scholarly practice. I will make a few remarks about how I intend to retain both the scholarly integrity of my work and its ethical dimension. I will take this as an appropriate point to then introduce one of the most significant challenges to historical practice in general, including historical materialism, that has arisen in recent years: the post-modernist critique. I will use the debate around the points made by the post-modernist critics to further develop my ideas about the use of history.
Finally, I will sum up the topics covered in the paper and offer some tentative conclusions about how to proceed from here.
A health warning to round off these introductory remarks: the aim of this paper is to facilitate an initial exploration of issues that I will continue to deal with over the next four years of my PhD research: issues that are outwith what has hitherto been my range of academic expertise. Two differences therefore arise between this and other essays I have written.
First, to the extent that I have reached any conclusions, these are tentative and open to subsequent revision. Indeed in some instances, I believe it suffices to simply identify an issue, describe its nature and note the need to give the matter further thought. My current priority is to identify relevant issues and allow proper discussion of them, not to force conclusions when I can arrive at these later on, when I am better equipped to do so.
Secondly, as a result of this, I have allowed myself space in the paper to talk through the issues identified in as full and productive a way as possible, rather than constraining that process with unnecessary concision. I have, as always, imposed a deliberate focus and structure on the paper, and made every effort to avoid repetition and excessive verbiage. What I have not done is to strip what I have to say down to the bare bones, given that the aim is to explore issues fully rather than to convey conclusions succinctly. To the extent that any of the writing here makes its way into my final dissertation, it will of course be significantly abridged.
However, the main reason that I have in the event written a longer piece than I had planned at the outset is that I found, during my research into historical practice, that the relevance of the theoretical and philosophical issues that arose was by no means limited to the historical elements of my final dissertation. Rather, I found myself exploring debates that have direct relevance right across my research, and that both my current project and my future career as an academic will benefit from my having engaged with now. Hence this paper has become, in the context of this early stage of my PhD, a rather more important piece of work than I had originally envisaged.
How the past can inform us about the present – the historians’ consensus
It is common ground for historians that the events of history have a bearing on the world we live in today. This is not limited to recent history. Michael Grant felt moved in the introduction to his 1978 history of Rome to stress the relevance of that work by saying that “The past is deeply and unavoidably engrained in our own lives” (p2, Michael Grant, ‘The History of Rome’). A significant part of any attempt to understand today’s world must be an account of how the present came to be. Waters and Noiriel give as an example “[t]he socio-historian [who] tries to illuminate the historical dimension of the world we live in, the better to understand how the past weighs on the present. This approach is also valid for early periods. In all human societies, the past conditions the present”. (Waters & Noiriel:16). History then represents a valuable resource for those of us concerned with the state of today‘s world. “One of the key features of historical inquiry, it seems, is that whenever the contemporary world develops a fault, historians look to the past to seek its origins” (Black & MacRaild:54)
This view of history is particularly adhered to by the Marxist school of historical materialism. It is unsurprising therefore that, in his overview of the scholarly field, ‘On History’, the eminent Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm frequently returns to the links between past and present that it is the task of historians to emphasise and investigate. For Hobsbawm, this fits squarely into the broader traditions of history as a scholarly discipline, Marxist or otherwise. “What can history tell us about contemporary society?”, Hobsbawm asks, going on to say that in asking this he is “ formulating a question which everybody is asking, and has always asked for as long as we have human records”. (Hobsbawm:32).

The question is a vital and immediate one, because “…the understanding of society requires an understanding of history…” (Hobsbawm:188). It is a “fact that understanding how the past has turned into the present helps us understand the present” (Hobsbawm:Hobs). “[W]hat history in the broadest sense is about [is to explain] how and why Homo sapiens got from the Palaeolithic to the nuclear era” (Hobsbawm:Hobs). History does not merely sit behind us in the past; it imposes itself on our present. In the here and now, we make our own history. However, we do so not as we choose, but “under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past” (Marx, quoted by Hobsbawm:222).

The value of the past in attempts to explain the present is particularly notable in the case of Western imperialism and foreign policy. Many clearly agree with the idea that “[Historians] should try to promote reflection on the role of empire in defining the national identity, whether from a cultural, social, political or economic point of view” (Evans & Branche:163). Where disagreement arises is over the question of what our imperial past has to teach us about today’s political economy, especially in the realm of foreign affairs. For historians such as Niall Ferguson and Andrew Roberts, the effects of British imperialism were broadly positive, the lesson being that the responsibility, as they see it, of spreading liberal values, free markets and democracy, should be taken up by today’s leading superpower, the United States of America (Evans & Branche:149; see also, Chibber). Others take a different view. Post-colonial and anti-imperialist scholars such as Rasheed Araeen, Homi Bhabha, Gayatri Spivak, Robert Young and Noam Chomsky have worked to place the contemporary world in the context of a historical narrative dominated by the Western imperialism. “The crux of their argument was that the structures of power derived from nineteenth-century imperialism remain the major determinant of the contemporary world, and that to be properly understood, all factors, whether race, class, economics, gender, sexuality or the nation state, must be analysed in the context of their relations with the colonial past” (Evans & Branche:149; Chomksy). The point here is that the major legacy of empire is the continuing denial of liberty to many people through various systems of coercion that have persisted from earlier centuries into the present day. My paper to this year’s Durham International Affairs Conference, in which I proposed a view of the contemporary world economy as in part bequeathed to us by the former British empire, including all the iniquities and problematic issues intrinsic to that system, fits broadly into this post/anti-colonial narrative (Wearing:2009).

How the past can inform us about the present – the politicians’ consensus

Given this broad agreement that the past has something to say about the present, it is entirely predictable that politicians of every stripe have attempted to influence perceptions of that relationship in their own specific contexts. Of course, both the Soviets and the Nazis made a point of rewriting history as a means to bolstering their own particular dogmas. (Black & MacRaild:11 & 72-75), but the practice is not limited to dictatorships. Politicians in liberal democracies have also, in their own ways, attempted to shape our understanding of what history should mean to us today.

One infamous example arose when the French National Assembly passed a private bill introduced by right-wing deputy Christian Vanneste, whose aim was to challenge colonial guilt with a renewed pride in France’s imperial past. Article four of the 23 February 2005 law stated that:
“University syllabuses must grant the place that it deserves to the history of France’s presence overseas, particularly in North Africa. School courses must … recognise the positive role played by the French presence overseas, particularly in North Africa, and must accord the prominent position that they merit to the history and sacrifices of members of the armed forces” (Evans & Branche:146)
Nicholas Sarkozy - then Minister of the Interior, now French President - was a strong supporter” of the 23 February Law, but the then President Jacques Chirac asked the Constitutional Council to rescind it, stating that, “[i]n a Republic there is no official history. It is not up to the law to write history. Writing history is the business of historians” (Evans & Branche:147)
An example arises closer to home. “Gordon Brown made a speech to the Fabian Society in January 2006 in which he argued that in the face of the challenges of globalisation and multiculturalism, there was even greater need for a British identity which must centre on the ‘golden thread’ of the ‘ideal of liberty’ which runs through British history from Magna Carta in 1215 to the 1689 Bill of Rights and the defeat of fascism in 1945” (Aglan & Gildea:181). It is notable that Brown here tacitly admits that our understanding of our nation’s history should be defined in some way by what is politically expedient. In any event, Brown here places himself squarely in the Whig tradition of British history which, as far back as the eighteenth century, portrayed Britain as the historic torch bearer of liberty at the vanguard of human progress.
These examples all suggest an understanding - broadly shared by politicians of varying political persuasions - that the image of their contemporary power is shaped by the popular understanding of the state’s historical record. It seems a fairly uncontroversial point that “[p]oliticians and leaders in any country… have a vested interest in the past. Whether driven by a self-serving or narcissistic desire to connect themselves to the glories of their predecessors in high office or by a need to revive and mould the national spirit, politicians use history.” (Black & MacRaild:12). The task of both the historian and the political scientist therefore must be to oversee these uses of history, and to intervene whenever the truth is being prevented from getting in the way of a good story.
The benefits of incorporating history – the interdisciplinary approach.
All this suggests some benefits to my research as a political scientist in finding ways to draw upon history. Social scientists focusing on my current topic of research, the influence of elites, have in the past done exactly this. Charles Tilly in his ‘As Sociology Meets History’ (1981) noted that one of the main areas of history that had become popular with sociologists was the structure of elites (cited in Black & MacRaild:130). John Scott’s ‘Who Rules Britain?’ (Scott) incorporates a detailed look at the evolution of the British ruling class over recent centuries. Given the overlap between the various scholarly disciplines, it is unsurprising to see it argued that “[s]ome of the most striking developments of socio-history in the last fifteen years have been in political science” (Waters & Noiriel:16), or that “[i]t is now impossible to pursue many activities of the social scientist in any but a trivial manner without coming to terms with social structure and its transformations: without the history of societies” (Hobsbawm:98).
The benefits of incorporating history – the cognitive benefits of detachment and context
Two further benefits can be gained from introducing elements of historical scholarship into political science research. One is the cognitive advantage of detachment. A political scientist studying phenomena within the society in which they themselves live is likely to find it more problematic to take a detached view of their subject matter than a historian studying, say, the ancient Greeks. One possible way to import a degree of the historian’s detachment into our analysis of the present is to attempt to think of the present in the context of the broader sweep of history, which may serve to refresh our analytical perspective on affairs with which we are familiar and perhaps even involved at some level or in some way.
To be more specific, take the example of comparative history; an approach which allows us to identify the common and the particular between two contemporaneous sets of historical events (Black & MacRaild:106). This principle can be adapted to two non-contemporaneous scenarios on an historical continuum. In my research, comparing present events or scenarios in British foreign policy with similar events and scenarios in the past may allow the possibility of illuminating those features of power and influence that are constant and which are characteristic of their particular time, thus enabling a deeper understanding of the current political economy of British foreign policy. The comparative approach may add some perspective, therefore, which might otherwise have been lacking.
The benefits of incorporating history - an empirical emphasis
A second benefit of importing history into political science research is to place a greater emphasis on analysing the particular rather than the universal, which necessarily requires one to incorporate the sort of factual documentation that is the bread and butter of historical practice. Whilst it is important to endeavour to establish, if we can, some broader truths about the socio-political world, it is often also important to gain an understanding of particular topics. This is true not least because as political scientists we are tasked with analysing issues that are ongoing and whose solutions we are uniquely placed to search for. Eric Herring points out that, when US and UK-backed sanctions claimed the lives of around a million Iraqis during the 1990s, half of them infant children, what both the Iraqi people and the British and American publics needed from political scientists was not more general theory but an attempt to establish empirically what was happening, to make some sense of it, and to communicate that analysis as widely as possible (Herring:106; see also, Pilger).
In the case of my current research project, my aim is not to theorise universal principles of elite capture of foreign policymaking in liberal democracies (though that would undoubtedly represent a vital piece of work) . Rather, my aim is to document and analyse a specific case. The reason for choosing such a project is that I see the elite capture of British foreign policy as a live issue with an attached human cost - not limited to the victims of the Iraq sanctions regime - that is current, ongoing and increasing. The task I have set myself therefore is to establish and explain the facts in respect of a current political issue, and it is a task I intend to perform in research projects subsequent to the present work. One might therefore say that I aim to write, as a political scientist, the second draft of history (if journalism is the first). Call it the historical approach to the study of contemporary politics.
The history of history
Just as we can enhance our understanding of elite influence over British foreign policy by tracing the history of its political economy, so we can understand something of the study of history by briefly recounting the development of the discipline over time.
In Europe, before the Enlightenment, representations of the past were often designed so as to reveal a divine hand at work, with “[p]rovidence and God’s role [being portrayed as] the organising themes of historical development” (Black & MacRaild:53 & 31-32). From the eighteenth century, the philosophy of the Enlightenment encouraged the grounding of scholarship strictly in terms of empirical fact (Black & MacRaild:34-6). A form of providence did however continue to play an explanatory role in subsequent years, with the role of God replaced by the role of Western Civilisation. In Britain, “The Whig interpretation [of history], most famously expounded by Lord Macaulay, held that the history of Britain since the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 had been the story of continuous progress, the bedrocks of which were constitutional monarchy, parliamentary government, Protestantism, tolerance, freedom and liberty. Moreover, these values were seen, in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, to define British history as different from that of those continental countries where Catholicism and absolutism were believed to hold firm. The key emphases of the Whig view were British distinctiveness and British progress” (Black & MacRaild:6). Similar views are not unknown today.

Challenges began to arise to the established mode of history as being one of a narrative of events occurring at the level of high-politics and starring the major political, martial and monarchical characters of the day. Two of these in particular are worth mentioning. First, the ‘historical materialism’ of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels threatened the aristocratic subjects of the old history with a new narrative, one focusing on the underlying socio-economic structures rather than the deeds of great men, and one which seemed to predict a new egalitarian political order emerging through the observable evolution of those structures. I will discuss this in greater detail in the next section. Then, in early twentieth century France, Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre founded the Annales school as a reaction to the historiographical traditions of the nineteenth century, stressing the importance of social structures over the actions of individuals, of understanding the mentalities of the past, and of drawing upon the insights of other disciplines in the social sciences (Black & MacRaild:68-71 & 80-81).
Generally speaking, the Annales and Marxist schools exerted increasing influence over the study of history during the twentieth century (the latter amongst Marxists and non-Marxists alike) even as they evolved over the course of that time. It was towards the end of the twentieth century that the latest and perhaps the most fundamental challenge to history as a discipline was mounted, this time by the post-modernists. They argued that, while the study of history purports to be an objective and rational attempt to establish the truth of past events, in reality it has been hopelessly biased by the preconceptions and ideologies of historians themselves. And since those historians have largely been members of social elites, ‘objective’ historical truth has often been little more than an ideological construct, created in the service of privilege. I will return to the postmodernist critique of history later on in his paper.
This short run through the development of the study of history over the past thousand years is, obviously, far from complete. It does however highlight some of the broad trends at work and some of the theoretical issues that my own research is likely to encounter. I will now go on to explore some of these issues in greater detail, starting with a discussion of my preferred paradigm of historical study: historical materialism.
Choosing historical materialism
Of the various approaches and theoretical paradigms I have come across in my reading on this subject, it seems that historical materialism aligns most closely with the aims and assumptions of my research.
The materialist conception of history does not begin with Karl Marx. The fourteenth century scholar Ibn Khaldun described his own view of history, as:
“the record of human society, or world civilisation; of the changes that take place in the nature of that society…; of revolutions and uprisings by one set of people against another, with the resulting kingdoms and states with their various ranks; of the different activities and occupations of men, whether for gaining their livelihood or in various sciences and crafts; and in general, of all the transformations that society undergoes by its very nature” (Hobsbawm:x)
Today, following Marx’s writings, historical materialism can be defined as “the contention that the development of the economy is central to historical development” and all the conflicts and contradictions that this developmental process involves (Black & MacRaild:57). There are four key senses in which this approach aligns with my own work: its moral focus, its concern with class inequality, its theoretical account of political economy, and in the view that political economy can best be understood in the context of historical processes. I will discuss each of these in turn.
Why historical materialism? - Moral focus
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels formulated their theories of politics, economics and history in direct response to the social iniquities of nineteenth century Europe. Their goal was not to reach an understanding the political economy of the time simply as an end in itself. Rather, this understanding would have a specific utility: informing efforts to effect social change. For them “[t]he social sciences [were] essentially ‘applied sciences’ designed, to use Marx’s phrase, to change the world and not merely to interpret it” (Hobsbawm:178). This has been the motivation for Marxist historians ever since. Hobsbawm says that his own work is “concerned with the uses, and abuses, of history in both society and politics, and with the understanding and, I hope, reshaping of the world” (Hobsbawm:vii). The proposition that scholars should seek not merely to interpret the world but to change it inevitably raises the issue of partisanship, a topic to which I will return presently.
Why historical materialism? - Focus on class inequality
My research focuses on a key theme of historical materialism - the politics of socio-economic power distribution. “For most of history the basic mechanism for economic growth has been the appropriation of the social surplus generated by man’s capacity to produce by minorities of one kind or another…” (Hobsbawm:43). In other words, economic development over time has produced acquisitive, exploitative elites, wielding a disproportionate amount of socio-political power.
In my Durham paper I argued that we should not merely see the international world as split vertically, between states, but also as divided horizontally, between classes, with the elites in different states often cooperating to maintain an international economic system that they saw as mutually beneficial. To illustrate the point, we might recall the references made by English radicals of the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries to the ‘Norman Yoke’ and to themselves as ‘Free Anglo-Saxons’, as an explanatory device for domestic class relations (Hobsbawm:21). The colonial analogy illuminates the role that class plays across the international scene, at home and abroad. The ‘Norman Yoke’ was, at this time, also being imposed on imperial subjects from Jamaica to India, but many in Britain evidently felt just as subjugated by the same imperial power. The imperialism of class as well as of state is a concept that is central to my research, just as it is central to historical materialism.
Why historical materialism? – the theoretical account of political economy
In simplified terms, the Marxist account of political economy describes society as comprising of a ‘base’ - consisting of the relations of economic production - and a ‘superstructure’ - consisting of politics, civil society and culture. Marx described the concept as follows:
“In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relationships, which are independent of their will, namely, relations of production. The totality of the relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence but their social existence that determines their consciousness” (Marx, ‘Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’, 1859, quoted in Black & MacRaild:134-5).
This theoretical paradigm has, to the extent that one agrees with it, implications for the way research should be organised. Hobsbawm lays out three key factors to writing a materialist history of a given society. These are:
(1) setting out the chronological sequence of actual events;
(2) establishing units of analysis that can be adequately defined (e.g. the British foreign policymaking class); and
(3) organising analysis through, “if not a formalized and elaborate model of [social] structures, then at least an approximate order of research priorities and a working assumption about what constitutes the central nexus or complex of connections of our subject” (e.g. class, wealth, political power) (Hobsbawm:105-7)
Under the theoretical model in (3), we start by establishing the “material and historical environment“, then the “forces and techniques of production“, then the “consequent economy”, and finally the “institutions and the image of society”. “[E]conomic movements [are] the backbone of such an analysis” (Hobsbawm:107).

This was the basis of “[the] famous three-part or three-stage plan which organised so many theses between the 1950s and 1970s: first the economy, then society and finally politics. According to this plan the analysis of struggles for and exercise of political power was always left to the third part, alongside ‘culture’ and ‘mentalities’”. (Waters & Noiriel:13)
This aligns with the basic theoretical description of political economy set out in my original PhD proposal. There, having noted that in his standard public policy textbook, Peter John had described “the five principal factors in policy-making [as being] institutions, groups and networks, socio-economic factors, rational decision-making, and ideas” (John), I went on to say how I saw these elements fitting together.
“In my view, socio-economic factors – the interests of power – are the principal forces at work. The landscape of institutions, groups and networks broadly reflects the spread and location of socio-economic power (national and international), and embeds the influence of power in the decision making process. This results in an environment where ideas must pass through a process of “natural selection” governed principally by what serves power rather than what is justifiable in moral/philosophical terms”. (Wearing:2008)
Why historical materialism? – the context of historical development
A fourth respect in which historical materialism aligns with my own ideas is in its stress on history as a developmental process, under which the political economy, as theorised above, evolves and changes shape. Just as the base defines the superstructure, with economic conditions defining and shaping political relations, so changes in relations of production over time produce corresponding changes in the political, social and cultural world.
In this respect, the roots of historical materialism can be traced back to the Enlightenment and to the work of Adam Smith. After all, “history and economics grew up together … the Scottish thinkers who contributed so much to the discipline refused to isolate economics from the rest of the historical transformation of society in which they saw themselves engaged” (Hobsbawm:129). Smith’s ‘Wealth of Nations’
“provided a study of economic development - what Marx called inquiry into the nature of wealth. With Smith, we can argue, began the discipline which became known as political economy. From this basis, political economy developed into the modern discipline of economics, from which in turn economic history splintered. The so-called Scottish School, of which Smith was a part, provided what Christopher Lloyd in ‘The Structures of History’(1993) called an ‘embryonic historical materialism’ (the contention that the development of the economy is central to historical development) with which to frame the nature of social change” (Black & MacRaild:57)
Marx of course had his own distinct take on how these historical processes played themselves out. Central to the evolution of political economy, as Marx saw it, was the dynamic produced by tension between the various component parts:

“…Marx holds not just that the mode of production is primary and that the superstructure must in some sense conform to ‘the essential distinctions among human beings’ which it entails (that is the social relations of production), but also that there is an inevitable evolutionary trend for the material productive forces of society to develop, and thus come into contradiction with the existing productive relationships and their relatively inflexible superstructural expressions, which then have to give way”. (Hobsbawm:215)
Historical Materialism – noting complexities
Plainly there is more to historical materialism than can be conveyed within the confines of these remarks. I have emphasised so far the defining role that economic relations play in social change under the Marxist paradigm. However, “Marx and Engels…never intended a unilinear and monocausal conception of history to be their epitaph”. In 1890, Engels said (in a letter to Ernst Bloch) that “Marx and I are ourselves partly to blame for the fact that the younger writers sometimes lay more stress on the economic side than is due to it. We had to empathise this main principle in opposition to our adversaries, who denied it, and we had not always the time, the place or the opportunity to allow the other elements involved in the interaction to come into their rights….The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure … also exercise their influence upon the course of historical struggles”. (Black & MacRaild:135-6)
In my PhD proposal I was keen to stress that my own theoretical outlook allowed for a similar level of complexity, and that my emphasis on material socio-economic power was intended to be a case of prioritisation rather than reductionism. I said:
“Clearly the flow [of influence] is not of a unidirectional, downward nature: from socio-economic power, through institutions, groups and networks, to ideas and finally to rational decision-making. Feedback will also take place, … in terms of the self-reinforcing nature of discourse and ideology; and also, for example, in terms of how policy decisions come back to shape the landscape of institutions, groups and networks and even the balance of socio-economic power itself. But while the system I describe is fluid horizontally and vertically, it is socio-economic power that is in the position of privilege, shaping the overall dynamic to serve its interests.” (Wearing:2008)
Marxism and historical materialism continued to remain live and developing areas of enquiry long after the deaths of Marx and Engels, and later contributions to the tradition served to broaden and deepen its scope. Many who have built on the work of Marx, such as Antonio Gramsci, have “underlined the absolutely essential connection between the world of ideas and feelings and the economic base, if you like, the way in which people get their living in production. …[A]fter all the Marxist model of base and superstructure, whatever you may think of it, implies a consideration of superstructure as well as base, that is, the importance of ideas. It is not widely recognised that in the discussion of the seventeenth century English Revolution it was Marxists like Christopher Hill who constantly insisted against pure economic determinists on the importance of Puritanism, as something that people believed in, and not simply a kind of froth on the top of class structures or economic movements.” (Hobsbawm:242)
Historical Materialism – noting reservations
A further note of caution or clarification should be sounded at this point. Though it seems very likely that my research, particularly the historical parts, will be influenced by historical materialism, that does not imply a rigid or unquestioning adherence to its principles. In any event, I expect other sets of ideas to inform my thinking. And in respect of historical materialism, I intend as my work and ideas develop to explore a number of reservations that I have over Marxist theory as I understand it at this stage. For now, I believe it will suffice to make brief note of those reservations.
The first is in respect of class antagonism, one of the driving forces of social change under historical materialism. This stresses the self interest of certain groups, but I do not believe that human beings act from self-interest alone. Indeed, neither Marx nor Engels themselves were members of the class whose liberation they sought, and nor were any number of other figures in history, known and unknown, who took up the struggle against class privilege and economic exploitation. I understand that Adam Smith stressed the human capacity for sympathy for others as the defining part of our moral character, and I should like to investigate this and other writings on human motivation before arriving at any conclusions on this part of Marx’s theory. It is possible that my reservations can be reconciled within a nuanced version of that theory, or put aside as my understanding of the theory becomes deeper and more sophisticated, but this is a question that will require further work on my part before I am able to answer it.
Another reservation I hold at this stage concerns the extent to which we can extrapolate from the historical materialist version of economic development to predict the course that the political economy will take in the future. I remain wary of the predictive power of theory in social science, whatever the theory might be, and the question does apply here. Marx seems to be understood in popular discourse as someone who predicted a socialist utopia, and is discredited by the fact that this utopia either did not emerge or, when efforts were made to create it, turned into a nightmare more often than not. My research so far has suggested that Marxism is rather more nuanced and complex than my own preconceptions allowed, so I am open to the possibility that this may be more caricature than accurate characterisation. But again, I will have to find this out through further research.
That said, the question may be of marginal relevance, since my approach to history for the purposes of my current research will be non-teleological. That is, I will not describe a progression of historical stages that is directed or necessarily heading toward a final future result. Rather, I will describe no more than the evolutionary processes that have led us to the present, and not then extrapolate in order to predict where those processes might lead. Indeed, the question of prediction may be of secondary relevance even to historical materialists. As Hobsbawm says:
“The purpose of tracing the historical evolution of humanity is not to foresee what will happen in future, even though historical knowledge and understanding are essential to anyone who wants to base their actions and plans on something better than clairvoyance, astrology or just plain voluntarism . The only result of a horse-race which historians can tell us with absolute confidence is one that has already been run. Still less is it to discover or devise legitimations for our hopes - or fears - for human destiny. History is not secular eschatology, whether we conceive its objective as unending universal progress or a communist society or whatever. These are things we read into it, but cannot derive from it. What it can do is to discover the patterns and mechanisms of historical change in general, and more particularly of the transformations of human societies during the past few centuries of dramatically accelerated and widened change. This, rather than forecasts or hopes, is what is directly relevant to contemporary society and its prospects”. (Hobsbawm:40-1)
A final note of caution concerns the ever-present danger facing all historians, but historical materialists in particular since they seek to study the past so as to better understand the present. That is, ‘anachronism’: “the imposition of contemporary ideas and agendas upon the past” (Black & MacRaild:117). Avoiding anachronism can involve a tricky balancing act. Black and MacRaild point out the importance of charting a course between anachronism and historicism.
“If, on the one hand, we adopt a present-minded stance in our approach, we risk overplaying continuities, or indeed manufacturing continuities, between us and the past which do not actually exist. If, on the other hand, we adopt an historicist position, or posit the hermetically sealed epochal approach to history…., we risk removing any thread which might connect our past and present. This notion of time, of change and continuity, or similarity and difference, is the hardest balance to achieve; yet it is central to our understanding of the nature of history and the dynamics of social developments” (Black & MacRaild:18)
These are important points to keep in mind as I analyse how the past has shaped the present.
The challenge of partisanship
The clear moral and political motivation for Marxist scholars (a motivation I share, though I would still hestiate to call myself a Marxist) raises the question of partisanship, and the compromising effect this may have on scholarship.
The key point here is that our political and moral beliefs as scholars should influence our choice of topic, but not our treatment of it. In terms of our choice of topic, political partisanship can be positively beneficial in opening up fields of enquiry that might otherwise have remained neglected. Indeed, we might speculate about the state any given field would soon find itself in without such contributions. In terms of our treatment of our chosen topic, there are rules of scholarship that must be followed by all, regardless of political persuasion.
“[P]artisanship in science [in the broadest scholarly sense of the term] rests on disagreement not about verified facts, but about their selection and combination, and about what may be inferred from them. It takes for granted non-controversial procedures about verifying and falsifying evidence, and non-controversial procedures of argument about it …In short, for everyone engaged in scientific discourse, statements must be subject to validation by methods and criteria which are, in principle, not subject to partisanship, whatever their ideological consequences, and however motivated”. (Hobsbawm:166 & 169)
The bottom line is that whatever our political and moral standpoint, whatever our research interests, the truth is the truth, and cannot be subject to political expediency
The challenge of post modernism
The view that scholarship has the means to brush subjectivity aside and produce a reliable, even a definitive account of the past, is roundly rejected by the post-modernist critics of historical practice. The post-modernist critique represents the major challenge to the study of history in recent decades, and it comes from the political left. For those reasons, the analysis it offers is something that I must engage with, understand and form a view on before I can proceed further. This section represents my initial attempts to do this, though further work may well follow. An additional benefit is that this gives me a chance to develop further my ideas about the possibilities offered to me by the study of history.
The post-modernist critique of history is essentially that what purports to be an objective and rational attempt to establish the truth of past events is in reality hopelessly biased by the preconceptions and ideologies of historians themselves. Furthermore, since those historians have largely been members of social elites, ‘objective’ historical truth has often been little more than an ideological construct, created in the service of privilege. Central to the postmodernist critique is the idea that narrative form is imposed on historical events essentially by the subjective imagination of historians, rendering such narratives little more than works of fiction.
For the postmodernists,
“[t]here could be no objective or definitive account of history. Everything was relative: each culture had its own story and one story was as valid as another. Indeed, the ‘definitive’ interpretation laid claim to by established academics could easily be dismissed as imperialist, sexist and bourgeois. It did not give voice to women or black people, to gay people or slaves, and the accounts of these minorities, systematically ignored or censored, must now be privileged” (Gildea:xxii)
The end result is that “there is no such thing as historical reality, only texts representing it, and that each account is as valid as any other.” (Gildea & Schaub:96)
The observation that historical narratives purporting to be objective and accurate have often in reality been distorted by the ideology of historians is one that is hardly controversial. Take the Whig version of history, most popular in the nineteenth century during the era of British imperialism, but retaining some currency and alluded to by the present Prime Minister Gordon Brown, as mentioned above. According to the Whig account, “the history of Britain since the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 had been the story of continuous progress, the bedrocks of which were constitutional monarchy, parliamentary government, Protestantism, tolerance, freedom and liberty”. One can see why Whig historians such as Lord Macaulay would want to believe that the Britain that had treated them so well was in fact the best of all possible worlds. But, perhaps as a result of their subjective standpoint, they had produced what could legitimately be described as a form of fiction. Take the ‘Glorious Revolution’ which, far from being an showcase of consensual continuity in the advance of liberalism, was a coup d’etat which, most notably in Scotland and Ireland, had to be enforced through violence. It “led not only to civil war, a War of British Succession (1689-92), and major constitutional changes, but also to a new established church in Scotland and the violent destruction of the Catholic Church and degradation of the position of Catholics in Ireland” (Black & MacRaild:8)
However, the point here is that we are able to expose ideologically distorted history as such precisely because we often know what the real facts are. We know the War of British Succession took place, just as we know that Germany lost the Second World War and that Elvis Presley is deceased. Objective truth is discernable. There are, as I noted in the above section on partisanship, established methods in scholarship for ascertaining what is truth, what is uncertain and what is fiction, which methods, it must be said, place a heavy burden of proof upon any statement that purports to be true. To say that such efforts are often compromised, or may fail, is obvious to the point of banality. To leap from this to say they are intrinsically hopeless, is quite different.
The post-modernist claim to offer a liberatory discourse, wherein white, male, imperialist claims to objectivity are put aside in favour of a plethora of narratives, all with equal validity, concerns me in particular, as someone who is motivated to study my chosen subject precisely because of a concern for the victims of British foreign policy in the developing world. Here, while I accept that further reading may well be required, I hold strong reservations about the post-modernist position, based on my initial understanding.
In my view, there is a serious danger in implying that each history is no more than a subjective viewpoint as valid as any other. These are not principles, presumably, that we would wish to see applied to holocaust studies, for example, with the works of David Irvine brought to equivalence with the objectively real experiences of the Nazis’ victims. It is hard to see what could be liberating about a discourse that relegates one of the few emancipatory assets that the victims of history have at their disposal - namely the truth - to the level of one fiction amongst many. A far better course of action would be to strive for an ever more comprehensive understanding of history by bringing in the experiences and contributions of all those groups and individuals excluded by previous, elite-dominated accounts. To do anything other than to insist on “the past as extra-textual reality” (Richard Evans, Professor of Modern History at the University of Cambridge, quoted by Gildea:xxiv) is, as far as I can see, not only to dishonour the marginalised and oppressed, but to betray the moral responsibilities of social science scholarship.
How accurate is the view of history presented by the post-modernist critics in any event? “[M]ost historians would…agree that too many post-modernist criticisms of history are based on old-fashioned, stereotypical images of how historians work. In fact, the rise of Marxism, the Annales, and gender, social and cultural history have long since consigned the over-confident, narrow, male-centred and political focus of much nineteenth-century historical writing to the margins of what is now a wider and more vibrant discipline.” (Black & MacRaild:163).
In fact, scholars as far back as Hume, Macaulay and Burckhardt “respectively, challenged grand narrative, wrote about cultural factors in a vibrant fashion, and investigated symbolic order. None of these writers propounded the view that history was of fixed and singular meaning”. (Black & MacRaild:163).
One could present a strong argument that the postmodernists’ account of history is itself a work of fiction, imposed on the reality of historical study by the preconceptions and ideology of the critics. Of course, the alternative to this is that the postmodernist critique is rational and objectively accurate, a notion surely so naïve that the postmodernists would feel bound to reject it.
A final and rather more fundamental point is this. Society does not have the luxury of being able to view political events as abstractions. There is no available alternative to our living in the present, which in turn gives us no alternative to endeavouring to understand the nature of the world around us. The task then for scholars of politics is to make sense of the world as best we can, whatever limitations are placed by circumstance on our ability to do so. Contrary to the post-modernist critique, historical practice seems well equipped to negotiate those limitations and provide us with a workable understanding of the past. And crucially from my point of view, this includes attempts from the left to challenge versions of history that privilege elite interests and marginalise less powerful groups.
Ultimately, I may have to accept that if the postmodernists are right then my approach is fatally undermined. The existence of objective truth, and the view that it can be discerned to a meaningful if often incomplete extent, is central to my theoretical and indeed my moral approach. The views expressed here on the post-modernist critique are the results of initial readings. The critique offers a high-profile challenge to my outlook and further investigation may well be warranted. But at this stage, I remain unconvinced.
Conclusion
A number of benefits arise from my research into the study of history. These are:
• A deeper understanding of how an account of the history of British foreign policymaking can inform my analysis of its current political economy;
• An understanding of the benefits of extending my research beyond the confines of political science;
• An understanding of the different approaches to history that exist, and the ability to make an informed choice about which approach is relevant to me; and
• The opportunity to identify and consider any challenges to or problems with my chosen theoretical paradigm.
The opportunity to engage with these issues in depth, as I have done here, will I believe enrich the quality of my research project, particularly in terms of those elements of it where historical practices come most to the fore, but also in terms of my understanding of broader theoretical issues that have relevance across my research project.
Bibliography
Aglan.A & Gildea.R., "Is There a ‘Tyranny of the Present’ in the Writing of History Today?," in Writing Contemporary History, Gildea.R., & Simonin.A. (eds), (London: Hodder Education: 2008), p169-194.
Black.J., & MacRaild.D.M., (1997), “Studying History”, (Basingstoke:Palgrave MacMillan)
Chibber.V., "The Good Empire: Should we pick up where the British left off?", Boston Review, February/March 2005http://bostonreview.net/BR30.1/chibber.php
Chomsky.N., (1993), “Year 501: The Conquest Continues”, (London:Verso)
Evans.M & Branche.R., "Where Does Colonial History End?," in Writing Contemporary History, Gildea.R., & Simonin.A. (eds), (London: Hodder Education: 2008), p145-168.
Gildea.R., "Introduction:Writing Contemporary History," in Writing Contemporary History, Gildea.R., & Simonin.A. (eds), (London: Hodder Education: 2008), p xi-xxix.
Gildea.R & Schaub.J-F., "Has History Again Become a Branch of Literature?," in Writing Contemporary History, Gildea.R., & Simonin.A. (eds), (London: Hodder Education: 2008), p95-120.
Grant.M., (1993), “The History of Rome”, (London:Faber and Faber)
Herring.E., “Remaking the Mainstream: The Case for Activist IR Scholarship”, Millenium, 35, 2006, p105-118
Hobsbawm.E., (1997), “On History”, (London: Abacus)
John. P., (1998), “Analysing Public Policy”, (London:Pinter)
MacMillan.M., (2009), “The Uses and Abuses of History”, (London: Profile)
Pilger.J., "Squeezed to death", The Guardian, 4 March 2000 http://www.guardian.co.uk/Archive/Article/0,4273,3970231,00.html
Scott.J., (1991), “Who Runs Britain?”, (Cambridge:Basil Blackwell)
Simonin.A., "Conclusion:Writing Contemporary History," in Writing Contemporary History, Gildea.R., & Simonin.A. (eds), (London: Hodder Education: 2008), p195-215.
Waters.C & Noiriel. G., "Is There Still a Place for Social History?," in Writing Contemporary History, Gildea.R., & Simonin.A. (eds), (London: Hodder Education: 2008), p1-22.
Wearing.D., “Research Proposal for PhD Application: "How do concentrations of socio-economic power shape British foreign policy?", (2008)
Wearing.D., "Future echoes: the seeds of globalisation’s informal empire in Britain’s formal imperialism", 2nd Annual Durham International Affairs Conference, Durham University, 1 - 2 April 2009.

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Friday, May 22, 2009

Noam Chomsky on Torture and the Myth of American Innocence

As President Obama and former Vice President Cheney debate the Bush administration's record of torture and kidnapping, most notoriously at Guantánamo Bay, Noam Chomksy places the discussion in some important historical context:

"In the past sixty years, victims worldwide have endured the CIA's "torture paradigm," developed at a cost reaching $1 billion annually, according to historian Alfred McCoy, who shows that the methods surfaced with little change in Abu Ghraib. There is no hyperbole when Jennifer Harbury entitles her penetrating study of the U.S. torture record Truth, Torture, and the American Way. It is highly misleading, to say the least, when investigators of the Bush gang's descent into the sewer lament that "in waging the war against terrorism, America had lost its way."

Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld et al. did introduce important innovations. Ordinarily, torture is farmed out to subsidiaries, not carried out by Americans directly in their government-established torture chambers. Alain Nairn, who has carried out some of the most revealing and courageous investigations of torture, points out that "What the Obama [ban on torture] ostensibly knocks off is that small percentage of torture now done by Americans while retaining the overwhelming bulk of the system's torture, which is done by foreigners under US patronage. Obama could stop backing foreign forces that torture, but he has chosen not to do so." Obama did not shut down the practice of torture, Nairn observes, but "merely repositioned it," restoring it to the norm, a matter of indifference to the victims. Since Vietnam, "the US has mainly seen its torture done for it by proxy -- paying, arming, training and guiding foreigners doing it, but usually being careful to keep Americans at least one discreet step removed." Obama's ban "doesn't even prohibit direct torture by Americans outside environments of 'armed conflict,' which is where much torture happens anyway since many repressive regimes aren't in armed conflict ... his is a return to the status quo ante, the torture regime of Ford through Clinton, which, year by year, often produced more US-backed strapped-down agony than was produced during the Bush/Cheney years."
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Read the whole article here.

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Saturday, March 28, 2009

Future echoes: the seeds of globalisation’s informal empire in Britain’s formal imperialism

[DW - I'm presenting this paper to the Duham International Affairs Conference later this week. Its the first draft of what I hope will become a journal article, so, as ever, comments are welcome]

Introduction

This paper explores the evolution of Britain and its foreign policy, identifying the themes in its previous formal empire which can illuminate our understanding of the current, informal imperialism of globalisation. The paper makes three central points. First, it describes the historical continuity between the two imperial forms and how the informal imperialism of globalisation evolved out of Britain’s formal empire. Second, it notes that a key feature of this continuity is the effective ownership of both imperialisms by an identifiable socio-economic class. Third, it challenges the Liberal view that freedom for wealth and general political freedom are mutually complementary by showing how these two imperial structures have tended to privilege the first of those freedoms at the expense of the latter.



*

Under twenty-first century globalisation, a transnational class of investors, bureaucrats and opinion-formers work together to shape the global political economy to serve their interests, in a process that frequently involves evading or thwarting democracy and the popular will. This international governing class is bound together both by shared material interests and by a shared legitimising ideology that it characterises as favouring mutually-dependent free-markets and liberal democracy.

The foundations of modern globalisation were laid by the British Empire in the nineteenth century, but the distinction between the informal globalised imperialism of today and Britain’s earlier, formal empire is not clear cut. An examination of how Britain and its foreign policies have evolved over the past four centuries reveals the shared characteristics of the two imperial forms: the domination of a propertied class, collaborating both with the domestic state and with peers across borders to advance their individual and collective interests, and bound together by a legitimising ideology that rebrands its pursuit of material prizes as a high-minded, moral-ideological crusade. We also find that, both in bourgeois British imperialism and in the bourgeois empire of modern globalisation, the official doctrine of free-markets complementing liberal political forms masks the reality of propertied interests waging a constant struggle against democracy and popular self-determination.

Scholarly work that explores particular concepts or paradigms of understanding tends to focus on what is novel and distinct about the concept in question and what separates or differentiates it from other, ostensibly competing frames of reference. However, it is possible to value a theoretical viewpoint whilst still acknowledging where it overlaps and even complements the paradigms that it attempts to set itself apart from. That is the approach taken in this paper. Rather than discussing what is unique or distinct about “informal empire”, I propose instead to explore what an informal and a formal imperial structure have in common. My aim in doing so is not to call into question the validity or utility of the concept of “informal empire”. Rather, it is to make some observations regarding a few of the common and essential features of imperialism – formal and informal - in order to offer a reminder of why these phenomena ought to concern us as scholars on a moral as well as an analytical level. Specifically, I will explore the illiberal, anti-democratic nature of imperialism, and its role as a tool of social and economic elites, highlighting these aspects by tracing their persistence through the evolution of British imperialism from its earliest days, up until the emergence of the modern globalised world for which the British Empire laid the foundations.

The paper will take the following structure. I will begin by proposing a view of the modern global political economy as an “informal empire”, where the sovereignty of individual nations is curtailed by the power of a transnational ruling class which exercises that power through national and international structures of governance and economic institutions and activities. I will then review some key aspects of the evolution of the British empire, stressing the point that - though more state-centric than the informal imperialism we see today – the former, formal empire was also the project of a particular elite group. I will devote particular attention to the way in which democratic forms of government were explicitly rejected in favour of the rule of a propertied elite in the earliest days of the British empire, and the implications of that outcome in the evolution of the empire. I will move on to show how the British empire helped lay the foundations of today’s informal imperialism, and note some ‘future echoes’ of those modern imperial forms in the British imperialism of the nineteenth century. I will then talk briefly about the transition from British global dominance to the international political economy of the present day, noting Britain’s changing role in that changing system, before concluding with a summary of the shared characteristics of the two imperial forms.

The globalised political economy as an informal empire

If we think of an empire as an international power structure wherein imperial subject societies have their sovereignty and capacity for self-determination curtailed by an identifiable external force that exerts its will upon its subjects in order to serve its own interests, then it can certainly be plausibly argued that the modern, “globalised” political economy fits this description in many important respects. Under this interpretation of today’s international scene, it is plainly easier to identify the subjects of imperial power than those who wield it. The subjects are those forced to contend with their vulnerability to capital flight, damaging international financial flows, foreign military interventions and (in some respects) the dictates of international governmental institutions. The extent to which a society can consider itself an imperial subject is inversely proportional to the extent to which it is capable of resisting such forces and retaining control of its own destiny. Though some societies are clearly better equipped to meet this challenge than others, the current serious disruption to the international economy highlights the vulnerability of even the most powerful societies to these external forces.

A harder question to answer is that of whose empire this is. The temptation is to fall back on familiar views of empires as state-centric. But does this adequately capture the nature of power, where it resides, and how it behaves in the present day? If the essence of imperialism is the exertion of power and the curtailment of sovereignty and self-determination across borders, then shouldn’t our understanding of empire allow room for whomsoever wields that kind of power, be it a city-state, a nation-state or, perhaps in today’s world, a social class?

Neo-Gramscians have argued that “[w]e need to move away altogether from a statist conception of hegemony ... and revert to a ... view of hegemony as a form of social domination exercised not by states but by social groups and classes operating through states and other institutions” under which “states have been captured by transnationally oriented dominant groups who use them to integrate their countries into emergent global capitalist structures” (Robinson:561 & 563).

This view of the power of transnational economic forces is not new (and indeed predates the adoption of “neo-liberal” economic philosophy by the world’s leading states, though that philosophy is today recognised as the legitimising ideology of this form of international economic power). Writing in 1979, Eric Hobsbawm noted that the world had entered a “phase of economic development ... marked by a notable re-emergence of the transnational or supranational elements in the world economy” and that “the emergence ... of forms of economic organisation which not only cut across or transcend the boundaries of national economies but compete with them and may be beyond their control, is hardly to be denied” (Hobsbawm:1979:314-5).

By 1999, Susan Strange was able to present a compelling case to the effect that the state system (described by Strange as the “Westfailure system”) was now incapable of dealing with these transnational forces effectively. Strange identified failures to prevent damage to the world’s environment, to preserve a sustainable distribution of wealth and resources worldwide, and (rather presciently) to control the international financial system, as showing that the most serious forces and dynamics affecting humanity now lie outwith the control of nation states (and therefore, one might add, outwith the realms of democratic accountability).

Strange echoes Robinson’s remarks on the role of a particular class in this system of power:

“A common assumption is that the present system is sustained by the power of a transnational capitalist class. I have no doubt that such a class exists and does exert its power over the market economy and the rules – such as they are – that govern it. ... [We might recognise] the emergence of a transnational interest group with powerful levers over national governments including that of the United States and members of the European Union” (Strange:353)

Strange does sound a note of caution regarding the use of the term ‘class’, since it “suggests far more solidarity and uniformity than in fact exists” (Strange:353). But we can accept the disparate and diffuse nature of economic power in the system whilst still also acknowledging, as Strange does, the not-inconsiderable extent to which it is able to act in a concentrated and effective manner to advance its interests and impose its will. In this respect, perhaps the most telling of Strange’s observations are those on wealth disparity:

“The discrepant and divergent figures on infant mortality, on children without enough to eat, on the spread of AIDS in Africa and Asia, and on every other socio-economic indicator tell the story. The gap between rich countries and very poor ones is widening, and so is the gap between the rich and the poor in the poor countries and the rich and the poor in the rich countries. It is not that we do not know the answer to socio-economic inequalities; it is redistributive tax and welfare measures ... . But applying that answer to world society is frustrated by the Westfailure system, so closely tied in as it is with the ‘liberalised’ market economy” (Strange:351-2)

When wealth and power are so closely interrelated as to be practically synonymous, disparities in wealth are necessarily disparities in power, and the level of global economic inequality is therefore inversely proportional to the extent that we can consider ourselves to live in a democratic world. If Strange is right to say that the answer to the problem of wealth inequality is well known, and only not implemented because nation states are subject to external forces that oppose such moves, then that would strongly suggest that many societies in the world have the status of imperial subjects: unable to pursue self-determination and improvement because they are subject to the will and self-interest of an external force.

This view directly contradicts the notion of “free-markets” as complementing liberal political forms. The central argument in Naomi Klein’s recent book “The Shock Doctrine” is that the economic philosophies of Milton Friedman and the Chicago School which have been most closely associated with “globalisation” in recent years are often implemented in public policy through a subversion or evasion of democracy. Klein provides a number of well-documented examples – Chile in the 1970s (Klein:75-115), post-apartheid South Africa (Klein:194-217), post-Communist Russia (Klein:218-262) and Sri Lanka after the Asian Tsunami (Klein:385-405) – of neo-liberal economic policies being put into effect in situations, be they exploited or deliberately engineered, where democratic scrutiny and accountability was either weak or absent. These were instances (most obviously in the case of the overthrow of the Allende government in Chile) where “states have been captured by transnationally oriented dominant groups who use them to integrate their countries into emergent global capitalist structures” (returning to our earlier quote from Robinson).

No discussion of empire or hegemony in the early twenty-first century could credibly ignore the role of the United States, especially given the vast military resources at that country’s disposal. But it is not to deny the existence of an American imperialism of some description to point out that this particular international power does not operate in a narrowly state-centric fashion. As Robinson notes:

“The result of US military conquest is not the creation of exclusive zones for ‘US’ exploitation... . Rather, the beneficiaries of US military action are transnational capitalist groups and the US state has, in the main, advanced transnational capitalist interests. Shortly after taking control of Iraq in 2003, for instance, the US occupation force unveiled ‘Order 39’, which provided unrestricted access to Iraq for investors from anywhere in the world” (Robinson:569, see also Klein)

The global role of the US state, in other words, is the maintenance of a broad global economic and political system (from which it of course expects to benefit).

“[Since 1945] the US has shouldered the responsibility for protecting the interests of the “satisfied nations” whose power places them “above the rest,” the “rich men dwelling at peace within their habitations” to whom “the government of the world must be entrusted,” as Winston Churchill put the matter after World War II” (Chomsky:33)

In this analysis, the state functions not in the interests of the nation as a whole so much as in the interests of a class of people and institutions located both nationally and internationally. We need not therefore discard all references to the state when analysing the current imperial forms. The state plays a crucial role; the key is to understand what precisely that role is.

In summary, we have an imperial system where state and economic institutions work on the behalf of a broad but nonetheless recognisable socio-economic class to exert power and influence across international borders. This class power may be concentrated in some locations more than others, and some states may take a more leading role in the system than others, but the system remains transnational and class dominated.

Also, since direct territorial control is a rarity, and since the legitimising ideology of liberal democratic forms and “free markets” plays as important a role in persuading national elites to draw their nations into this global system (by whatever means) as material pressure or military might, this empire can then be classified as informal.

But to what extent is this really a departure? I would argue that though the current informal imperialism of the globalised international political economy has undeniably unique and novel characteristics, it is nevertheless the product of historical processes, and many of its key features as identified above are very much recognisable in earlier, more formal empires. To illustrate this point, I will review some pertinent aspects of the evolution of Britain and its empire.

Democracy vs Property in the English Civil War

The question of in whose interests the British state should be run was a live one in the earliest days of the British empire. This was not purely a question of which particular social elite would take the reigns of governance. The question of whether the public as a whole should be enfranchised was openly debated, with the notion firmly rejected by the propertied classes on the explicit grounds that democracy would run counter to their interests.

The English Civil war of the mid-seventeenth century is most commonly understood as a struggle between the Puritan oligarchs of Parliament and the monarchists who were, broadly speaking, not unsympathetic to Catholicism. The Puritans’ increasing willingness to insist on their version of Christianity, the Parliament’s insistence on its rights as a constitutional body, and King Charles I’s insistence on his own divine right to rule, all combined to produce a bloody, full-scale civil war which eventually saw the monarchy overthrown and replaced by an oligarchical republic headed by a dictator, Oliver Cromwell.

What is less widely known is that towards the end of the civil war, with the Royalists essentially beaten and minds turning to what form of government would replace the monarchy, there was, momentarily, a real chance that events might conspire to produce Western Europe’s first recognisable democracy (or at least, proto-democracy) in Britain. The fact that this did not come to pass had fundamental implications for the country Britain would become, the empire it would go on to build, and the global political economy that would emerge from that empire.

Parliament at this time was not a democratic body, its members in the Commons were elected only by those owning estates worth 40 shillings or more (Foot:7). This excluded all but a small fraction of adult males, and the entirety of the female population. The distribution of seats bore no relation to the distribution of population.

“Of the Commons’ 492 members, 265 came from tiny boroughs too small for any meaningful election, many of them nominated by the King. Add to this ... the widespread buying of seats, routine bribery and the power of the rising monopolists of industry and trade, and the representative element in Parliament was next to nothing. ... . The glaring truth about Parliament was that it was an assembly of rich men chosen overwhelmingly by rich men for the purpose of safeguarding and extending the property of rich men” (Foot:8)

When in the aftermath of war the Parliamentarians airily dismissed growing discontent amongst the Republican army’s ranks over pay and conditions, they would not have expected this dispute to lead to a fundamental challenge to their own authority, which they would have assumed to be secure following the King’s defeat. But the army had become increasingly influenced by a political movement known as the Levellers, which demanded radical democratisation. The statement of Leveller leader Richard Overton in 1645 that “[a]ll men are equally alike born to like propriety, liberty and freedom” (Foot:9) preceded similar statements from the American founding fathers by nearly a century and a half. Specifically, the Levellers called for:

* annual Parliaments,
* an end to secret Parliamentary proceedings with these instead to be recorded and published,
* payment of MPs so as not to limit this job to those of independent means, and
* Parliamentary reform to equalise constituencies and remove the “rotten boroughs” where Commons a seat was secured through some corrupt means rather than free election.

When the rank and file of the army, through its elected representatives, echoed the Levellers demands in October of 1647, they did so without even the specification (which one might well have expected in the extremely socially conservative England of the 1640s) that votes be limited to the male population. When the army marched on London, at one point seemingly holding in its power the ability to dismiss Parliament and impose its demands without negotiation with its supposed masters, the Generals of the army (who, with the exception of Admiral of the Fleet, Thomas Rainsborough, lined up with the Parliamentary oligarchs) realised that those demands would have to be addressed. There followed one of the key episodes of British history: the Putney debates.

The Putney debates offer a clear challenge to the notion – central to the legitimising ideology of “globalisation” – that freedom for wealth and general political freedom are mutually complementary. At Putney in October 1647, property and democracy clashed head on.

Speaking for the democrats, Thomas Rainsborough said:

“For really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore truly, Sir, I think it’s clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under...” (Foot:28).

For the rights of property, Henry Ireton, Commissary-General and Cromwell’s son-in-law, replied:

“I think that no person has a right to an interest or share in the disposing of the affairs of the kingdom, and in determining or choosing those that shall determine what laws we shall be ruled by here – no person has a right to this, that has not a permanent fixed interest in the kingdom” (Foot:29).

By a “permanent fixed interest” Ireton meant substantial property. He went on to say that only “the persons in whom all land lies, and those in corporations in whom all trading lies” should be able to vote, because if “we shall go to take away this, we shall plainly go to take away all property and interest that any man hath” (Foot:29).

Ireton’s position was that universal enfranchisement was a threat to privilege and property – an anarchist’s charter. Rainsborough countered that accusation by saying (and here Foot paraphrases) that “the rule of the rich, unchecked even by the votes of the poor, was far more anarchic than any threat to property from votes for the poor” (Foot:30).

As the debate went on, the fears of property were expressed more openly. Colonel Nathaniel Rich said “It may happen, that the majority may by law, not in confusion, destroy property; there may be a law enacted that there shall be equality of goods and estate” (Foot:30) while Ireton at one pointed blurted out, “I have a property ... and this I shall enjoy”. To be deprived of this was “a thing evil in itself and scandalous to the world” (Foot:32).

In respect of the fears of Ireton and Rich, it should be noted that the Levellers and those who sided with them at Putney were not, unlike some of their contemporaries (like Gerald Winstanley and the Digger movement), proto-communists. The stress they placed was on political rather than economic equality. But the implications, the threats posed by democracy were well understood by those who enjoyed the benefits of an economically unequal system (Foot:34).

Though the democrats are thought to have won a formal vote on these principles at the Putney debates (Foot:34), a combination of cajoling, bullying and outright violence ensured that the Generals won the day in any event (Foot:38-40). Leveller leaders were jailed, the dissenter printing presses stamped out, and any mutinous activity in the army put down with deadly force. In scenes reminiscent of the final paragraph of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm”, the country’s upper classes now hailed Cromwell as their saviour; since the executed King was no longer there to defend them and their property, Cromwell would fulfil this role as ‘Lord Protector’. (Foot:41-43)

The implications of democracy’s defeat

Cromwell’s first Parliament was entirely unelected. The second was chosen by a smaller electorate than had returned the last one under Charles. (Foot:43) In fact – save for the fact that the head (King, House of Lords and bishops) had been lopped off the English body politic – society continued much as before under the Republic, run as it was by the upper, middle and landowning classes of “the magistrates chair...county hunts..and..city counting houses” (Schama(a):175-7)

These men “invested far more time and energy in preventing any sort of radical change than in promoting it”. They were “businessmen of state, mercantilists, money-managers. And in their swaggering, beady-eyed way, fierce patriots” whose ideology was “the aggressive prosecution of the national interest”. This governing class built an empire for itself, not only on the British archipelago through Cromwell’s brutal wars on the Irish and Scots, but also overseas, in the North Sea, Baltic and Atlantic. “It was commercially rapacious and militarily brutal, beery chauvinism erected into a guiding principle of state .... [Britain and its new empire were now run] by a corporate alliance of county gentry and city merchants”. (Schama(a):178)

The death of Cromwell destabilised the new gentry/merchant-dominated state, depriving it of an authority figure to hold the competing interests together. The Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 was an attempt to place Charles II in this role, i.e. to pick up where Cromwell, not the previous king, had left off (Schama(a):201-3). The Glorious Revolution of 1688 was undertaken by that same new propertied, governing class to keep the monarchy in its place and ensure further continuity. With that accomplished, the ruling class was able, in its collective interest, to put the fratricidal violence of the seventeenth century behind it and getting on with the serious business of making money. Presided over by grandees-come-oligarch godfathers like Sir Robert Walpole, imperial expansion into the Americas and the Indian subcontinent proceeded, vast wars with Spain and France were undertaken to cement Britain as a new global power, and a kind of military-commercial complex began to emerge, creating “another kind of army ... bond-holders, tax-assessors and accountants; customs and excise men, thousands upon thousands of them”, tied together by patronage and collective self interest (Schama(a):277).

A further, critical source of growth for the new commercial aristocracy was the slave trade. “By the middle of the eighteenth century, the mercantile ‘empire of liberty’ was critically dependent for its fortune on the economic universe made from slavery” (Schama(a):343). Britain’s single most valuable import was the sugar produced by three quarters of a million West Indian slaves, generating huge personal fortunes and general enrichment which was in turn to transform both the economy and British society. The ports of Bristol and Liverpool developed and expanded significantly as a direct result of the transatlantic trade. The great library at All Soul’s College, Oxford was built thanks to a donation from the Codmingtons of Barbados. The banking houses of Barclays and Lloyds grew rich, and reinvested in manufacturing. And the nouveaux riches of the trade were now throwing their weight around in Westminster and the City of London.


By the latter part of the eighteenth century, the nature of the nation state that had been created by those who had defeated democracy, and their heirs, was reasonably clear. It was this Britain which would produce the 19th century empire that really set the scene for today’s global, informal empire.

Creating a World Economy

The “long nineteenth century”, dating from the French Revolution to the outbreak of World War I, has been described, most notably by Hobsbawm in his magisterial works on this period, as being the era in which bourgeois political, economic, cultural and ideological forms rose into the ascendency across the globe, remaking the international political economy in their image (Hobsbawm 1962, 1975 & 1987). Though, as noted above, a propertied class of oligarchs had been making its presence felt as a leading player in the governance of Britain from at least the days of the Cromwellian republic, it was in the “long nineteenth century” that the old aristocracy was decisively sidelined by a new, modern bourgeoisie. This was a development that was either completed, begun or at least had its presence felt across the globe. But as the country in which the industrial revolution originated, and whose imperial power and scope was most extensive, it was Britain – or to be more precise, the elites that governed Britain - that took the lead in this revolutionary process.

Britain set itself up at the centre of a global web of economic activity. As Giovanni Arrighi explains:

The recycling of imperial tribute extracted from the colonies into capital invested all over the world enhanced London’s comparative advantage as a world financial centre vis-à-vis competing centres such as Amsterdam and Paris. This....made London the natural home of haute finance – a closely knit body of cosmopolitan financiers whose global networks were turned into yet another instrument of British government of the interstate system” (Arrighi:54)

In addition, by opening itself up as the consumer market for the world’s producers, Britain made itself the indispensable hub of international economic activity; indispensable, in particular, to a growing international economic class who relied upon British finance to expand their businesses and British consumers to purchase their products. Arrighi notes that

the national communities that had risen to power in the Americas and in many parts of Europe [in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries] were primarily communities of property-holders....It was these communities that formed the “natural” constituency of British free trade hegemony” (Arrighi:56)

Property-holders remained the leading or governing force at the imperial centre as well as in the colonies, dominions, and areas subject to Britain’s effective control. Successive waves of popular protest against elite rule and in favour of representative democracy were beaten back by the British state (most notably in the wake of the French revolution, and again in the Chartist movement of the mid-nineteenth century) with the use of political repression and occasional outright violence. Political reform, when it did come, was piecemeal and aimed at buying off as small a sliver as possible of the propertied lower-orders so that the rest could be safely ignored. Universal male suffrage without any property qualification was only achieved after World War I, with female suffrage coming later still. The domination of British politics by property was near-total during the nineteenth century (to say nothing of its continuation after that) (Foot:45-237; Schama (b):13-109).

So when we speak of British imperialism, we should consider the term as shorthand. It was not the miners of Merthyr Tydfil who dictated terms to Tipu Sultan of Mysore or the Khedive of Egypt, but a British state firmly in the control of an economic elite; an elite more given to collaborative political and economic action with similar classes than with its own compatriots.

This international class also possessed a legitimising ideology for the pursuit of its self interest. The British mode of imperialism, Arrighi goes on to say, “established the principle that the laws operating within and between states were subject to the higher authority of a new, metaphysical entity – a world market ruled by its own ‘laws’ – allegedly endowed with supernatural powers” (Arrighi:55). These laws were adhered to even at times when departing from them might have saved thousands, or millions of lives, as in the case of the Irish potato famine and the epic famines that gripped British-ruled India in the latter part of the nineteenth century (Schama(b):195-235). There seems little doubt that British officials such as Edward Bulwer-Lytton and Charles Trevelyan, who presided over these calamities, genuinely felt that to defy the market and simply provide relief for the starving was, though it is hard to comprehend it today, not the moral course of action. The strength of the legitimising ideology that accompanied British economic and imperial power was demonstrated by the fact that it was sincerely believed and religiously adhered to even when tested to obvious and total destruction.

Another key component of this ideology was the notion that British imperial rule was a form of altruistic missionary work whose purpose was not only to benefit Britain but to benefit its imperial subjects as well. Self-rule, in India for example, would be introduced just as soon as the country, in Britain’s judgement, was again able to stand on its own two feet as a fully-fledged member of the modern world. It was, it seemed, merely a happy coincidence that the point where India suddenly and mysteriously mislaid its ability to govern itself (after centuries of producing a succession of the world’s leading civilisations) was the very same point in history that Britain appeared on the scene, ready to nurse the patient back to health and, again entirely coincidentally, make an enormous profit in doing so.

It should also be noted that when the empire did eventually withdraw it did so at a point when it was no longer physically capable of maintaining control over the colonies in the face of strong pressure from highly mobilised and dedicated independence movements. Moreover, those independence movements often drew their liberatory philosophies from their own histories and not from the British tradition in which they were allegedly being educated. For example, in the case of India, Gandhi’s concept of ‘satyagraha’ – truth, and love even for one’s oppressor, as a liberating force – was very much an indigenous concept. Moreover, Gandhi not only rejected the version of modernity imposed by British rule, but hoped to liberate both the oppressed and, perhaps, even the oppressor from what he saw as the false idols of profit and power. There was a civilising mission at work here, but it was being instigated not by Whitehall, but against it (Schama(b):292). In the end, democracy in the former colonies was not an achievement of Britain’s liberal empire so much as a result of its defeat. And yet, though it is easy to be cynical, in hindsight, about oxymoronic notions of a liberating empire, there is little doubt that they were held by the likes of Thomas Macaulay and James Mill with as much sincerity as their freely expressed contempt for Indian civilisation as they found it (Schama(b): 199-212).

In summary, many of the key features of the today’s informal imperialism were present also in Britain’s more formal imperialism of eighteenth and nineteenth century: the role of commercial activity in binding countries and economies together in the specific interests of a certain, transnational class, with one particularly powerful state taking the lead role in the system, and with that system legitimised by an ideology that recast the intrinsically non-democratic exertion of economic and political power in the interests of that class as a high-minded civilising mission undertaken in accordance with liberal values.

Britain’s informal imperialism

Additionally, no review of the commonalities and continuities between Britain’s formal empire and modern informal imperialism could ignore the fact that informal empire was also a key part of British imperialism. As Gallagher and Robinsion pointed out

It ought to be a commonplace that Great Britain during the nineteenth century expanded overseas by means of ‘informal empire’ as much as by acquiring dominion in the strict constitutional sense. ... [To ignore this in our studies of British imperialism] is rather like judging the size and character of icebergs solely from the parts above the water-line” (Gallagher & Robinsion:1).

After all, as Gallagher and Robinsion go on to say

Between 1815 and 1880, it is estimated, £1,187,000,000 in [British] credit had accumulated abroad, but no more than one-sixth was placed in the formal empire. Even by 1913, something less than half of the £3,975,000,000 of foreign investment lay inside the Empire. Similarly, in no year of the century did the Empire buy much more than one-third of Britain’s exports. The basic fact is that British industrialization caused an ever-expanding and intensifying development of overseas regions. Whether they were formally British or not, was a secondary consideration” (Gallagher & Robinsion:5)

In those parts of the world informally subjected to the rule of the British led system – for example Latin America (Brown; Gallagher & Robinsion) and the Middle East (Onley) – the continuities between imperialism past and present are even more in evidence. Access to markets and raw materials was secured through treaties, the exertion of political and economic influence, and the ever-present threat, in the background, of military force. While Britain’s formal empire was later to be dissolved, these informal structures of imperial power were to persist through the twentieth century and into the present day, albeit under new management.

Britain’s decline and the transition to globalised informal empire

Whilst Britain’s dominance of the world system was undermined by the industrialization of its rivals, eroding its head-start in the race into the modern world, it was the catastrophes of the period between 1914 and 1945 that dealt the fatal blows to the world’s first global empire. Whilst a world economy (or at least the basis for one) survived, Britain’s capacity to manage and control it was gone. What is interesting here is that the hegemon which replaced Britain – the United States – did not seize control of the system from its predecessor by force. In fact, the handover of power (though arguably a reality that was in any event irresistible) was conducted in a positively consensual manner.

As collaboration between [Britain and the US] developed [in the first half of the twentieth century], an influential strand of British political opinion came to designate the United States not just as Britain’s partner but as its natural successor to the leading role in the world system”

“These elites were motivated partly by cultural and ideological affinities, but also by the perception that both states shared an interest in promoting the conditions for a liberal international order. There [was] … sufficient common ground [between them] to make collaboration possible and to encourage the idea, particularly on the British side, of a project to transfer the role and responsibilities which Britain had once exercised as a hegemonic power to the United States. In this way, a transfer of hegemony was engineered between the two powers, which rested on collaboration rather than conflict. …. The decisive historical choice, which Britain made in 1940…was in favour of …. an open world economy – which required the acceptance of United States leadership. … The importance of being at the heart of an expanding world economy was in the end judged more important than the preservation of a regional sphere of interest
” (Gamble).

Hegemony therefore was not seen as a zero sum game. For leading members of the class that were the principal beneficiaries of the world system, the maintenance of that system was more important than which state in particular took the leading role in its management; and this assessment was shared even by those state managers who were relinquishing their own hegemonic role. This remarkably strong consensus on shared class interests is a key link between the past and present imperial systems under discussion in this paper.

Britain therefore stepped back to play a role as a component part of the US-managed system. Its defence capability was integrated with that of the US and other leading states through NATO and through collaboration on nuclear weapons systems. It maintained a leading role through the City of London in global finance and insurance. And it played a collaborative role, along with the United States, in maintaining discipline in the system, bringing states that threatened to choose divergent paths (sometimes in accordance with the wishes of their electorates) back into line. To this end, Britain involved itself in US-led coups and interventions in Iran, Indonesia and Iraq, to name a few, as well as providing military and diplomatic support to allied states within the system (Curtis:2003 & 2004). Though formal, territorial control was for almost invariably eschewed in the new system, perhaps through concerns over costs and feasibility (Gartzke), the effective control that Gallagher and Robinson identified as being the real issue, whatever particular form it took, remained the key consideration.

In the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the most notable of these interventions to take place in recent years, talk of democratisation obscured the strenuous efforts made by the occupiers to ensure that the new Iraqi state would conform to their own designs. As noted above, this involved extensive economic reforms undertaken by US diktat prior to any Iraqi elections being held. It also involved the stifling of indigenous attempts to craft democratic forms of governance in the immediate aftermath of the invasion, lest the wrong Iraqis come to power (Klein;Wearing). The attempt to create a friendly, Iraqi state, dependent on Western military power, integrated into the broader economic and political system, and with its supplies of resources secured for the benefit of that system was, in most fundamental respects, entirely consistent with the previous informal imperialism practised by Britain in the Middle East (Onley).

Conclusion

My focus on the commonalities and continuities between these two imperial forms should not be taken as a denial of the significant differences that are apparent between the modern world and the world that was dominated by Britain a hundred years ago. The ability of the leading states to impose themselves militarily on other parts of the world is much diminished, as is the willingness of western publics to tolerate the misdeeds of their governments. It is inconceivable, for example, that a country where hundreds of thousands protested the invasion of Iraq even before it had begun would allow its government to be complicit in anything so horrific as the Indian famines of the late Victorian era, in which Britain can reasonably be accused of having a hand in the deaths of millions. And in addition to the diminished power of the leading states, we must also recognise the significant differences in the way power is distributed in the system. As noted above, economic activity takes place beyond the reach of the state system to an unprecedented extent. This in turn accentuates the leading role in the system of the elite transnational classes above and beyond the role of states.

Nevertheless, it must also be acknowledged that the thematic threads we can trace from the history of British imperialism right up to the present day represent fundamental aspects of empire that we would prefer to believe had by now been consigned to history. Large disparities in power and wealth, the ability of a relatively narrow elite to control the major social, political and economic institutions to serve its own interest, and in doing so to frequently deny self-determination or even a decent life to large swathes of the world population are issues of such urgency and importance than no meaningful agenda of research into the international political economy can overlook them whilst retaining its credibility. Though the distinctions between previous formal empires and modern, informal imperialism are clearly important, the ties that bind them are equally worthy of our attention.

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