Why Hobson's Choice?
Conclusion: Do We Have a Choice After All?
O now, who will behold
In my series of essays on Imperialism, I have mentioned each of the various grounds for aggression. None of these essays comes remotely close to an adequate treatment; the arguments used in defense of imperialism, while falling into the same general categories as before, tend to pop up along new lines. John A. Hobson rejected the categories of "left and right" because he regarded them as not representing meaningful categories in public choice:
The vast expenditure on armaments, the costly wars, the grave risks and embarrassments of foreign policy, the stoppage of political and social reforms within Great Britain, though fraught with great injury to the nation, have served well the present business interests of certain industries and professions.Ideology is of limited relevance to the matter, since the matter is guided along by greed and pride, not reasons that bear articulation.
In 1902, imperialism was nearing its apex; in some cases, it would begin to contract. New technologies of controlling defeated peoples were just emerging, that did not require invasions and far-flung civil services. Now imperialism is experiencing another burst of violence and countervailing violence. The old colonies exhausted their value to the imperial powers of the day; tribes became nations, and developed elaborate state governments. In our time, neo-imperialism is directed against supposedly failed states, which is likely to prove a tougher nut to crack.
The effects of imperialism will be these: the current group of leaders will use their power to exhaust oil, metals, timber, and water for the sake of their patrons. They will use international trade to buy those resources from their own satraps in the 3rd world, and technology will develop along the lines that it has to date: of chewing up our substance until no coercion can extort more. The lawless logging of the lands to the south will have reduced entire continents to eroded wastelands and dustbowls, making it far harder for the human race to feed itself. It will become obvious that ecology, having been tamed to master the peoples that lived on it, will also be the weak link in this chain of control that finally breaks. Our disasters will be ecological, and our tools for coping will be weak.
So, do we have a choice at all?
It's customary for writers to say, "Utter disaster will ensue unless..." This is a gloomy prospect; the people who run this country or any other are not concerned exclusively with what is best for the human race. However "conservative" or "liberal" one may happen to be, for example, there is no grounds for arguing that the national government should use its powers to stimulate oil consumption; yet this is precisely what the national government does, and has done, for many years. This is but one example. How much more chimerical should it be, therefore, for a self-published writer, with no particularly impressive credentials, to toil away for many years hoping that he will persuade the nation to rise up as one, and repudiate imperialism?
John A Hobson, as usual, had an answer to this:
If Imperialism may no longer be regarded as a blind inevitable destiny, is it certain that imperial expansion as a deliberately chosen line of public policy can be stopped?It didn't start with gigantic contractors in Iraq; Pres. Allende in Chile was done in by copper interests, and Pres. Arbenz of Guatemala by a servicable lawyer for the UFC named John Foster Dulles. Hobson had just finished covering the South African War, which was almost exactly contemporaneous with the Philippine-American War. Also contemporaneous was the annexation of the Hawaiian Republic, courtesy of various sugar magnates.
It is only right to add that unscrupulous statesmen have deliberately utilised these insidious methods of encroachment, seizing upon every alleged outrage inflicted on these private adventurers or marauders as a pretext for a punitive expedition which results in the British flag waving over some new tract of territory. Thus the most reckless and irresponsible individual members of our nation are permitted to direct our foreign policy. ....The prospects of a genuine pax Britannica are not particularly bright.
This was scarcely unique to the UK; the French conquest of Vietnam had been a theatrical succession of alleged outrages on missionaries, suffered when they systematically induced their Vietnamese converts to provoke the emperor. Likewise, there were enthusiastic converts in the USA to imperialism in the foreign service; such men sought at every turn to create an international incident. In addition, Hobson outlined another longterm source of danger to the peace:
But those sporadic risks, grave though they have sometimes proved, are insignificant when compared with the dangers associated with modern methods of international capitalism and finance. It is not long since industry was virtually restricted by political boundaries, the economic intercourse of nations being almost wholly confined to commercial exchanges of goods. The recent habit of investing capital in a foreign country has now grown to such an extent that the well-to-do and politically powerful classes in Great Britain to-day derive a large and ever larger proportion of their incomes from capital invested outside the British Empire. This growing stake of our wealthy classes in countries over which they have no political control is a revolutionary force in modern politics; it means a constantly growing tendency to use their political power as citizens of this State to interfere with the political condition of those States where they have an industrial stake.This state of affairs returned after a fifty-year remission (1910-1960), and today the conditions he describes are even more extreme. Later in the passage, he refers to imperialism as the supreme danger of the modern state. In view of its causal connection to environmental degradation and the "Dutch Disease" (in which capital spending is rerouted to extractive industries), this seems as true today as it was in 1902. Add to it the persistant danger of nuclear attack by a deterrent-proof organization, and we can firmly insist that imperialism is a potentially terminal disease of Western civilization.
Hobson places his faith in educating the public:
The ability of a nation to shake off this dangerous usurpation of its power, and to employ the national resources in the national interest, depends upon the education of a national intelligence and a national will, which shall make democracy a political and economic reality. To term Imperialism a national policy is an impudent falsehood: the interests of the nation are opposed to every act of this expansive policy. Every enlargement of Great Britain in the tropics is a distinct enfeeblement of true British nationalism.Today, this is usually dismissed with a hollow laugh: "Silly Liberal!" Add to that his hope for multilateral organizations like the United Nations Organization, and I expect my readers will feel awfully melancholy about the future.
I don't have any better ideas, however. Educating myself is an act of liberation; I cannot think of any others. The process of educating is tedious, because humans base their decisions on a lifetime of experiences; it's unreasonable to expect each encounter with a clever radical to offset a lifetime of mistrust. And the radicals of this society have done much to earn that mistrust. It's too late for recriminations, but the fact remains that education is indeed the only hope. Education is not merely the availability of data (a common misapprehension of radical critics, who protest that "everyone knows" their government is acting wickedly or irresponsibly). Education requires trust and transformation of self-narrative; rather than becoming a bystander or a watcher of the skill, an educated person becomes a practicioner. In this case, that skill is "civilization."