J. A. Hobson: Imperialism, Spokesman: Nottingham

By Balockaite, Rasa | Capital & Class, February 2013 | Go to article overview

J. A. Hobson: Imperialism, Spokesman: Nottingham


Balockaite, Rasa, Capital & Class


J. A. Hobson

Imperialism, Spokesman: Nottingham, 2011,334 pp: 9780851247885,

19.99 [pounds sterling] (pbk)

J. A. Hobson's Imperialism was first published in 1902, at the peak of British imperialism, when imperial expansions fostered national imagination and pro-imperial propaganda blinded many citizens both in England and overseas. J. A. Hobson deals with imperialism in the way Marx dealt with capitalism: he unveils its financial instruments, political mechanisms and ideological arrangements.

The study consists of two parts--the economic basis and the ideological basis of imperialism. The division represents somehow the Marxist dichotomy of base and superstructure, with the first comprehending the forces and relations of production, and the latter referring to derivative products of economic life as culture, science, ideology, etc.

The first part, 'Economics of Imperialism', illuminates the drives for imperialism and also the financial and political mechanisms of imperialism. The author makes a distinction between colonialism and imperialism, and this distinction is crucial for understanding his work. 'For convenience, the year 1870 has been taken as indicative of the beginning of a conscious policy of imperialism' (p. 57). What is the dividing line, the political cordon sanitaire between colonialism and imperialism?

The author argues that traditional colonialism was the outlet of surplus population. It led to new permanent colonial settlements in the overseas territories, mostly territories with favourable climate conditions and low local population. To protect British people overseas, British rule was also established there. Imperialism, Hobson points out, means political annexation with colonial settlements. Imperial domination is defined as the targeting of populated areas with a temporary corpus of navy, diplomats, military, clerical and administrative staff, instead of permanent colonies.

Hobson argues that imperialism is masked by the old ideas of colonialism--the excess of population and productive powers--yet these ideas veil the complex financial and political mechanisms of new imperialist developments.

The first myth is the myth of overproduction. As imperial mythologies imply, overproduction derives from efficient labour, productive technologies and the racial superiority of the British population. This is, according to Hobson, one of the ill-recognised economic truths. Commodities produced within a country cannot be consumed within the country, because some people are underpaid, and some others accumulate financial means far beyond their needs and demands. The resultant overproduction comes from 'Mal-distribution of consuming power which prevents the absorption of commodities and capital within the country' (p. 107). Elites accumulate financial means far beyond their demands; foreign territories are needed not for surplus population, but for reinvestment of surplus capital, accumulated via mal-distribution. So the second myth is the myth of overpopulation. It is not colonial settlers but private financial investments that have to be protected by British rule in overseas territories (p. …

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