Sunday, March 28, 2010

Interview with Ha-Joon Chang, and other good stuff from New Left Project

My interview with Ha-Joon Chang, one of the world's leading development economists, is published today at New Left Project.

Chang is currently a Reader in the Political Economy of Development at the University of Cambridge, he has served as a consultant to the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the European Investment Bank as well as to Oxfam and various United Nations agencies. He is the author of a number of critically acclaimed books, including ‘Kicking Away the Ladder: Development Strategy in Historical Perspective’, and ‘Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism’.

In our in-depth interview, Chang discussed the damaging effect of neo-liberal economics on the world’s poorer countries, and Britain’s dubious record on international development.

You can read the whole interview here.

New Left Project has been going for a couple of months now, and I'm really pleased with the amount and quality of material we've produced so far. To pick a small selection of the very best, we've had:

  • the first review of Norman Finkelstein's new book, "This Time We Went Too Far: Truth & Consequences of the Gaza Invasion", and a review of Natasha Walter's "Living Dolls: the Return of Sexism", by Nina Power;
  • interviews with Mark Curtis on British foreign policy and radical Islam, with philosopher Peter Singer on ethics and the left, and with Catherine Redfern and Kristin Aune on contemporary feminism; and
  • articles from Priya Gopal on the marketisation of higher education under New Labour, and from Jamie Stern-Weiner examining the humanitarian catastrophes in Haiti and Gaza.
I think we're making good progress in becoming a significant on-line resource for the global (particularly the UK) left for analysis and discussion of contemporary issues. So pay us a visit, and follow us on Twitter if you can.

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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 19, 2009

Copenhagen: our Munich

World War II analogies flow far too freely in political debate, but there's an appropriate one that we can use today as we witness an international conference ending in epic sell-out, with a future cost to be paid by millions of innocents. For Copenhagen, read Munich, with the developing world getting every bit as thorough a screwing from Obama's White House as the Czechs got from Neville Chamberlain.

The science says that a 50% cut in emissions will give us a chance of avoiding a 2 degree rise in global temperatures. A temperature rise above 2 degrees will tip the world's eco-system over the edge, leading to disasters of Biblical proportions - famines, floods and resource wars worldwide. Even 2 degrees will result in disaster for many of the poorest countries, hence their insistence at Copenhagen on a deal that limits the rise to 1 degree or 1.5 degrees. That's a target often described as 'ambitious', which is accurate. For millions in the developing world, staying alive does indeed count as 'ambitious', given the balance of power between them and the wealthy.

So, a 50% cut to avert catastrophe. The US offer? 6 per cent.

Yes, six.

In the end, emissions cuts were not specified in the interim deal that came out of Copenhagen. Nor is there a commitment to provide adequate finance to help the poorest countries deal with the effects of climate change, and nor is there any real sign that legal obligations will be placed on countries to cut their emissions.

The major battle in the conference was over Kyoto. The Kyoto accord is the existing global deal on combating climate change. It placed legal obligations on signatory countries to cut their carbon emissions, and crucially it recognised the historic role of the rich nations in causing the problem. This is the key issue. The effects of climate change are being felt overwhelmingly by the poorest countries, but were caused overwhelmingly by the rich ones. This balance of responsibility and costs - the Kyoto principle - needs to be recognised in the new deal. Obama rejects this. He says developing countries should be "getting out of that mindset, and moving towards the position where everybody recognises that we all need to move together". Say what you like about the man, he gives great platitude.

Pressure was put on the most vulnerable countries, who spent the conference insisting they will not "die quietly", to basically do just that. To accept no legal commitment from the nations that caused climate change to carry out even the minimal cuts they have pledged. To accept nothing like the proper financial compensation owed by the West for its vandalism of other people's environments.

Charities and NGOs were not impressed by the final outcome (which Western leaders are now trying to spin as "historic"). Senior climate change advocacy officer at Christian Aid, Nelson Muffuh said: "Already 300,000 people die each year because of the impact of climate change, most of them in the developing world. The lack of ambition shown by rich countries in Copenhagen means that number will grow."

Kate Horner from Friends of the Earth said: "This is the United Nations and the nations here are not united on this secret back-room declaration. The US has lied to the world when they called it a deal and they lied to over a hundred countries when they said would listen to their needs. This toothless declaration, being spun by the US as an historic success, reflects contempt for the multi-lateral process and we expect more from our Nobel prize winning President."

Tim Jones, climate policy officer at the World Development Movement said: "This summit has been in complete disarray from start to finish, culminating in a shameful and monumental failure that has condemned millions of people around the world to untold suffering."

Hope and change? Nope, just climate change, and all the horrors to follow. That's what the Obama White House offered the world at Copenhagen, and as things stand, that's how this President will go down in history.

Now people inclined to make excuses for Obama will tell you that its all very difficult for him domestically. Lots of resistance at home from a sceptical public, so its hard for him to commit to anything more than he was able to offer. And indeed, this excuse is made for leaders worldwide. Well, its a myth. Here are the facts.

* 70 per cent in the US and majorities worldwide see climate change as a serious problem.
* 53 per cent in the US and majorities worldwide say "dealing with climate change should be a priority even if it causes slower growth and some loss of jobs".
* 82 per cent in the US and majorities worldwide accept that their own countries have a responsibility to deal with climate change.
* 58 per cent in the US and majorities worldwide believe their countries are not doing enough to deal with climate change.
* 82 per cent in the US and majorities worldwide believe their country should sign a deal limiting their carbon emissions at Copenhagen
* 73 per cent in the US and majorities worldwide say if a deal is not reached their country should cut emissions anyway
* 62 per cent in the US and majorities worldwide would be willing to pay more for energy and other products to deal with climate change
* 54 per cent in the US and majorities worldwide support giving assistance to poor nations to help them deal with climate change

The same is true in Britain. See this article. The Mail leaps on the fact that people are confused about the state of the science, as you'd expect. That's the headline. But then you get down to the inconvenient truths.

* 79 per cent see climate change as a serious concern
* 57 per cent support new air travel taxes to cut carbon emissions
* 68 per cent said much higher taxes should be imposed on gas-guzzling vehicles
* 87 per cent supported new building regulations to require high standards of insulation and use of renewable energy, even if it increases the cost of homes.

A myth is being put about that serious action against climate change is politically impossible. But what 'politically impossible' apparently means is not that the public don't support it. Its that elites don't support it, particularly the vested interests in the coal and oil lobbies who were wandering freely round the conference centre in Copenhagen even as respected environmentalist leaders were being ushered out of the building by security for no apparent reason.

In the farce Copenhagen descended into, much was left unresolved, so at least one further global conference will have to be called to firm up the new deal. We've now seen how bad this can get. The only thing that will change the equation is popular activism on an unprecedented scale. The public opinion I cited above needs to be turned into a political force that governments cannot ignore. I didn't use the Munich analogy lightly. Compare the political agreement to what the science says, and the stakes in terms of human suffering are very much on that scale.

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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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Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Venezuela: Inside the Revolution

My review of the documentary film "Inside the Revolution", a look at recent political trends in Venezuela, is published by The Samosa.

An exerpt:

"What is the nature of the political change that has been taking shape in Venezuela since the election of President Hugo Chavez in 1998? This has become one of the central questions in world politics over the past decade. Why? Because events in that South American country have direct relevance to the key global trends of the moment: the waning power of the United States, the fading credibility of the neo-liberal economic model, and the slow replacement of the zombified ‘Washington Consensus’.

Inside the Revolution, a film by the documentary-maker Pablo Navarrete, is a serious, insightful and thought-provoking review of Venezuelan politics over recent years. With a particular focus on the perspectives of the poorest and an admirable willingness to let them tell their own story, Navarrete analyses the roots of the transformation taking place in Venezuela, the obstacles it faces, and the prospects for the future."

You can read the whole piece here, and go here for more information on screenings of Inside the Revolution.

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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]


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 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).


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.


Arrighi. G., (1994), “The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power, and the Origins of Our Times”, (London:Verso)

Brown. M., "Introduction: Informal Empire in Latin America: Culture, Commerce and Capital", Bulletin of Latin American Research, 27(1), 2008, 1-22

Chomsky. N., (1993), “Year 501: The Conquest Continues”, (London:Verso)

Curtis. M., (2003), “Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in The World”, (London:Vintage)

Curtis. M., (2004), “Unpeople: Britain's Secret Human Rights Abuses”, (London:Vintage)

Foot. P., (2005), “The Vote – How it Was Won and How it Was Undermined”, (London: Viking)

Gallagher. J., & Robinson.R., “The Imperialism of Free Trade”, The Economic History Review, 6(1), 1953, p1-15

Gamble. A., "Hegemony and Decline: Britain and the United States," in Two Hegemonies: Britain 1846-1914 and the United States 1941-2001, O'Brien.P.K & Clesse.A. (eds), (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing: 2002), p 127-140.

Gartzke.E. & Rohner.D., "To Conquer or Compel: Economic Development and Interstate Conflict", 2006

Hobsbawm. E., (1962), “The Age of Revolutions: 1789-1848”, (London:Abacus)

Hobsbawm. E., (1975), “The Age of Capital: 1848-1875”, (London:Abacus)

Hobsbawm. E., (1987), “The Age of Empire: 1875-1914”, (London:Abacus)

Hobsbawm. E., “The Development of the World Economy”, Cambridge Journal of Economics, 3, 1979, p305-318

Klein. N., (2008), “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism”, (London:Penguin)

Onley. J., “Britain’s Informal Empire in the Gulf: 1820-1971”, Journal of Social Affairs, 22(87), 2005, p29-45

Robinson. W. I., “Gramsci and Globalisation: From Nation State to Transnational Hegemony”, Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, 8(4), 2005, p559-574

Schama.S., (2003), “A History of Britain 2: The British Wars: 1603-1776”, (London: BBC Worldwide) – (“Schama(a)”)

Schama.S., (2003), “A History of Britain 3: The Fate of Empire: 1776-2000”, (London: BBC Worldwide) - (“Schama(b)”)

Strange. S., “The Westfailure System”, Review of International Studies, 25, 1999, p345-354

Wearing. D., "Britain's Failure In Iraq", Le Monde Diplomatique (English edition), November 2007.

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Global economic crisis deepens

Apologies for the lack of new material on here recently. I've been writing stuff, but stuff that may be published elsewhere so can't be published here for the moment. Normal service can resume now though, in any case.

The global economic crisis continues to deepen and, together with the Iraq war, will almost certainly now be one of the two defining historical events of this decade. My understanding is that we haven't begun to feel the real effects of this downturn, the potential extent of which is now becoming quite scary. One particularly worrying aspect is that policymakers are so wedded to the neo-liberal economic doctrine that caused the crisis that they may simply be intellectually incapable of contemplating the clean break with the past that now is so clearly necessary. That is to say that, even if the policy tools were available to haul us back from a true calamity (and it is not clear that they are), there is little certainty that those responsible would be willing to use them in any event.

Larry Elliot, the Guardian's excellent economics editor, says that any market rally in the next few months could be deceptive. Governments and central banks are trying to kick start economies by slashing interest rates, printing money and unveiling stimulus packages, which could boost things for a while, but without addressing the fundamental problems of a global economy organised largely on neoliberal lines, any recovery would only represent a "sucker's rally": a brief interlude in an long downward spiral.
One indication that the Thatcherite/Reaganite ideology of the "free market" is being clung to more tightly that ever in some quarters, even in the face of its epic failures, is the sharp spike in sales of Ayn Rand's 1957 book 'Atlas Shrugged', "a hymn in praise of radical individualism, extreme self-interest and laissez-faire capitalism", the Guardian reports. The book - describing how an economic elite, unappreciated and exploited (!) by the feckless masses forces, society to face the consequences of its ingratitude - no doubt offers considerable psychological comfort as bedside reading for some members of the real-life elite that wrecked the world economy and that is now, outrageously, finding itself comparatively unpopular as a result. "What these uppity proles fail to appreciate", mutters the hedge fund manager as he flicks gratefully through Rand's tome, "is that without the rare skills and sober management provided by my particular class of person, the world might well experience serious economic difficulties".
Delusions, by definition, do not respond to any weight of counterveiling evidence.
The Guardian's report continues...
""People are starting to feel like we're living through the scenario that happened in Atlas Shrugged," John Campbell, a Republican congressman who gives copies of the book as gifts to his interns, told the Washington Independent. "The achievers are going on strike. I'm seeing, at a small level, a kind of protest from the people who create jobs ... who are pulling back from their ambitions because they see how they'll be punished for them.""
Won't somebody, please, think of the bankers?!
"As of yesterday, the book's 30-day average rank on [Amazon] was 110, far above its average rank of 542 over the last two years. On 13 January it even briefly outperformed Barack Obama's wildly popular work The Audacity of Hope. Yesterday it was in 55th place"
Noam Chomsky describes Rand, with her hatred of altruism and mutually-supportive societies in general, as "one of the most evil figures of modern intellectual history".
Possibly the best piece of analysis I've read on the financial crash is this paper by Dan Hind, author of the excellent "Threat to Reason". Hind situates recent events in the context of the Thatcherite/Reaganite economics pursued over the past 3 decades to provide a deeper and more substantial explantion of the current crisis that most commentators have managed to present so far. Hind's an entertaining and engaging writer, as well as a sharp and critical analyst of modern politics, so give his paper a read if you get the chance. This is the sort of clear and critical thinking that the people purchasing Rand's book are so desperately trying to avoid, in their own self-serving way; but that's "rational economic man" for you.
From time to time, I like to plug the website of the gifted essayist Tom Engelhardt, which hosts a consistent stream of thoughtful, well-written and informative articles on world politics and economics from a variety of top-quality writers. Some great pieces have appeared there recently on the economic crisis. Steve Fraser takes us back to the Great Depression of the 1930s to recount the backlash felt by the crooked financiers of that era, and to ask when a similar reckoning will take place in the present day. Chalmers Johnson points out that when the US government is spending trillions of taxpayer dollars bailing out stricken banks, the vast fiscal black hole that is the US military - and by extention, Washington's ability to project imperial power across the globe - will become increasingly difficult to sustain (could the crash to do Washington's capacity to maintain an empire what two world wars and a depression did to London's 60 years ago?). Michael Klare warns of "a pandemic of economic violence" comprising everything from riots through terrorist attacks to possible inter-state resource wars. And Engelhardt himself draws attention to the prospect of the world being caught in a pincer between financial disaster and the current, worsening effects of climate change.
Finally, in the New York Review of Books, the great Amartya Sen - Nobel Laureate in economics and all-round good guy - re-examines the philosophies underpinning today's form of capitalism and asks how things can be moved forward from here.

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Sunday, February 08, 2009

Britain in the early 20th Century

Continuing my notes on the evolution of the British political economy and Britain's foreign policy. Again, I'm drawing on the third volume of Simon Schama's "History of Britain", all quotes being Schama unless otherwise stated. Page references are included in the text.

As before, rather than just summarising the chapters in question I'm pulling out and offering my own comments on those parts pertinent to my PhD research, skipping the less relevant bits.

While the following interpretation of events will inevitably be influenced by Schama's writing, it is an attempt to create my own analysis from that.


“Although, until the Liberals came to power in 1905, the majority of cabinet members were still drawn from the landed classes, their near monopoly of government was on its way out, shaken not so much by the advance of egalitarian democracy as by a long, steep agricultural depression. To all intents and purposes, between 1870 and 1910 Britain ceased to be a serious agricultural producer. Since it was unable to compete with colonial and American imports, 3 million acres were taken out of cultivation. By 1911 just 8 per cent of the 45 million people of Great Britain were earning their living from the land. Agricultural incomes in Britain over the same period fell by a full 25 per cent.....Almost a quarter of the privately owned land of Britain...went on the market between the 1870s and the 1830s. Many of the estates...were bought by the relatively recent rich whose fortunes had been made in industry, shipping mining, insurance or publishing: the Dominions. There were Australian and Canadian accents now at the point-to-points and grouse shoots, and the relics of the old nobility tried not to flinch. Churchill’s cousin, the 9th Duke of Marlborough...lamented that ‘the old order is doomed’” p308

“Those who did survive the shake-out of the estates belonged to an even more exclusive elite: by 1914, half the acreage of England and Wales belonged to just 4500 proprietors” p310

Poverty was still rife in the late Victorian era, with 10 per cent of the total urban working population living in festering slum conditions, families crowded into a single room or two at best. However, this was also the era where the recognisably modern home came into being for many ordinary people, including flushing lavatories and tap water. Public hygiene and diets improved. But the nation’s essential socio-economic character was largely unchanged. “On the eve of the First World War...10 per cent of Britain’s population owned 92 per cent of its wealth. As many as 90 per cent of the deceased, on the other hand, left no documented assets or property whatsoever” p313. Moreover, increased competition for Britain’s labour intensive, export-driven industries from rising economies like that of the USA made even the situation of the relatively well-off increasingly (albeit relatively) precarious.

The answer of the industrialists was rationalization, investment in labour-saving machinery, wage cuts and longer hours. They came up against a newly organised, unionised, assertive and mobilised workforce, leading to a string of hard-fought industrial disputes. The Labour Party was born as the political wing of that movement; a coalition of revolutionary Marxists, non-revolutionary Fabians, and the trade unionists themselves. Elements across the party, in their own way, cited the likes of Lilburne and Paine in their moral and ideological heritage.

“Fabianism committed itself to eschewing the half-baked, half-thought revolution in favour of a long campaign of re-educating both the political elite and the working class – the first to a new sense of their social responsibilities, the latter to a new sense of their legitimate social rights. Between them they were to make a modern, just and compassionate industrial society, without violence and without the sacrifice of freedom. There have been worse ideologies in the modern age” p316

The Fabian re-education programme included dinner-parties for the great and the good, attended by Liberals like Herbert Asquith, and even Tories like Arthur Balfour.

For the Fabians, it was economics that caused poverty, not the immorality of the poor. The Fabian argument for social justice was very similar to the nineteenth century Liberal/Whig argument for franchise extension. While not downplaying the genuine decency and compassion of the Fabians, it would be wrong, perhaps, to entirely rule out the role of pragmatic class interest in the thinking of these polite reformers. Indeed, the Fabians cited the health of empire – hardly a progressive institution – as requiring and resting on the domestic social reform that they advocated.

But who was going to pay? Not just for the social reforms, but for the maintenance of British Naval superiority and for the debts incurred during the Boer War? Not – at least not willingly – the mobilised and agitated working class, especially not during an economic slump. So the usual regressive taxes on commodities were eschewed as revenue raisers, in favour of progressive taxation on land, inheritance and incomes, in Lloyd George’s budget of 1909.

The “People’s Budget” had an unlikely champion: Winston Churchill, now President of the Board of Trade, who campaigned up and down the country against the obstructions of the House of Lords. “At the Victoria Opera House in Burnley in December, Churchill had a lot of fun with Curzon’s claim in nearby Oldham the that ‘superior class’ by blood and tradition had inherited the right to ‘rule over our children’. What did the noble lord say? That ‘ “all great civilisation has been the work of aristocracies”. They liked that in Oldham (laughter). ... Why, it would be much more true to say the upkeep of the aristocracy has been the hard work of all civilisations” (loud cheers and cries of “say it again”)’ p322.

Asquith forced an election, as a referendum on the Lords’ resistance to the budget. The Liberals’ overall majority was lost, but with Irish Home Rulers and Labour MPs support the Parliament Bill was passed and the upper house’s powers sharply curbed.

But if the reforms were conceived as the minimum necessary to forestall revolution, many of those it was intended to pacify were less than impressed. Riots and confrontations with the police began to occur, first with the miners, then with the increasingly militant suffragettes, some of whom had taken to direct physical action as a form of protest.


With Germany bolstering its military strength, and Britain keen to retain its naval advantage, Churchill took an active post in his new role as First Lord of the Admiralty. “Heavy guns were to be mounted on fast ships; and, most momentous of all, those ships would now be fuelled more cost effectively by oil, not coal. In retrospect this one decision, a commitment to the Anglo-Persian Oil Company – so apparently innocent, or at least so purely logistical (and so lightly glossed over in most Churchill biographies) – was to have more profound effects on the fate of the British Empire, not to mention the history of the world, than almost anything else Churchill did until the May days of 1940. It made the survival of the British Empire conditional on a Middle East presence, a halfway link between India and Egypt. That in turn would make Churchill, as colonial secretary in 1921, a strong supporter of a British mandate in Palestine and a protective role in Iraq (the former Mesopotamia) and Jordan. That would beget Suez. And Suez begat Islamic fundamentalism. The Anglo-Persian Oil Company, in which Churchill made sure to acquire a 51 per cent holding for the British government in 1914, would beget joint Anglo-American oil interests in Iran, which would beget the CIA overthrow of the Mossadeq democracy and the restoration of the Pahlavi dynasty, which would beget the Ayatollah Khomenei. And all the while the coal mines of Britain were relegated to terminal redundancy. But on the eve of the First World War, the battle fleet was well tanked and ready for action” p327-8.

Churchill’s failed plan, during WWI, to attack the German alliance at its weakest point – the Ottoman Empire – was in part aimed at securing the oil fields of Persia and Mesopotamia.


“At least 700,000 British servicemen had perished in the Great War, and a million and a half had been wounded. Another 150,000 were lost to the influenza pandemic of 1918-19. Some 300,000 children had lost at least one parent. One in ten of an entire generation of young men had been wiped out” p334.

Progressives like George Bernard Shaw and HG Wells saw the war’s terrible cost as an unanswerable case for the end of empire, to be replaced with enlightened global governance. The treaty of Versailles – pinning all the blame for and most of the cost of the war on Germany – and the League of Nations – diminished by its limited authority and its repudiation by the US Congress – were not what they had in mind.

The domestic political change that came in the war’s aftermath was more substantial: votes for all men aged over 21 and women over 30, 200,000 government built homes, the raising of the school leaving age to 14, nationwide standardization of wages and salaries, doubling of old-age pensions and near-universal unemployment insurance p333.

But the ‘war socialism’ of nationalised industries and state-controlled wages was quickly dismantled, despite pleas from the labour movement p336. And in addition, the overwhelming majority held by the Tory-Liberal coalition headed by Lloyd George meant that the government (and the Prime Minister) were free to rule almost as they pleased. “It was rule by dinner party; its weapons the artfully targeted rumour, the discreet business sweetener, the playfully or not so playfully threatening poke in the ribs. Honours were up for sale; insider commercial favours expected” p337.

Lloyd George did not preside over an empire of contented subjects. The failure of moves for Home Rule opened the way for the rise of the IRA and Sinn Fein, the former bringing the Easter Rising of 1916, the latter sweeping aside the Home Rulers in the 1918 elections. In Scotland, poverty, unemployment exacerbated by post-war demobilisation, and the disproportionate loss of Scottish life in the war (26 per cent of Scots to 12 per cent of the rest of the British troops had died) led to union demands for the retention of wage and rent controls, and a shorter working week. Refusal resulted in strikes, clashes with the police, and eventually the occupation of Red Glasgow by 12,000 troops and 6 tanks p338.

Further abroad, the war had tested the loyalty and acquiescence to empire of many colonial subjects. The Anglo-Saxon colonials believed their sacrifices earned them another step towards equal nation status with the UK. Non-Anglo-Saxon subjects simply became firmer in their demands for independence with the British now having to put down nationalist uprisings in Egypt and install puppet monarchs there and in Iraq.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Chomsky on the US elections and the financial crisis

As ever, Noam Chomsky has the goods; on the US elections....


...and on the global economic crisis.


You'll get more insight, background and perspective from 10 minutes of Chomsky on either of these subjects than you would from a week of opinion articles in the broadsheet newspapers on either side of the Atlantic.

Courtesy of The Real News Network, a very important project.

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