Imperialism, the highest stage of agrarianism

Hobbes’ state of nature was an unsafe place because everyone had about equal power – no-one was so secure as to be invulnerable to attack, and anyone might kill anyone else at any moment – whether for resources, for glory, for revenge, or simply as a precautionairy measure. The neolithic was a bit like that, because everyone had access to sticks and stones, and everyone knew how to use them. Petty tribal war was a fact of life, hard to avoid except by hiding as far away from other tribes as possible.

The Bronze Age changed things. Those who mastered the art of making bronze tools soon found they had overwhelming superiority in weapons and armour over those who didn’t.

Imperialism began in the Bronze Age. The first empire is usually said to be the Akkadian, though other candidates for the title exist. Sargon of Akkad (and other warrior kings like him) found that the combination of horses, wheeled carts and bronze weapons and armour enabled them to rule large populations spread over wide domains. The advantage of doing so was that the rulers and their deputies could become fabulously wealthy by demanding rents or taxes from farmers, or by owning the land directly and employing lots of serf or slaves by the thousand.

Empire-building soon caught on, and its exponents soon found that once they had consolidated their new territories, they were even better equipped to expand further, so their empires grew quickly, not stopping until they encountered an insurmountable barrier such as a desert, ocean, or high mountain range — or rival empire capable of fighting back.

In that day and age, the absence of powered machines meant that everything was labour intensive, and nearly all raw materials came from the land, so there was a nearly linear relationship between the amount of land and labor a ruler controlled and the size of the ruler’s wealth. The bigger your empire, in other words, the richer you could be.

Capitalism began some time before Marx and Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto. People have various opinions about precisely when it began, but since it was Marx and Engels who pioneered the sport of theorizing about “capitalism” as a distinct stage of civilization, we may as well accept their suggestion that it began in the late 17th century. Marx and Engels, writing in the 1840s, were certain that capitalism was about to reach its peak and final crisis very soon.

Sixty years later, in 1916, Vladimir Lenin wrote a book entitled “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism”, in which he argued (among other things) that to reach their pinnacle of wealth, advanced capitalist countries must acquire empires to exploit all the available natural resources and labour, immiserating the people in the colonized territories. After this would come, of course, the revolution. In his defence, Lenin was writing in the middle of World War One — a war that involved, in part, territorial battles between four giant empires (Britain, Russia, Germany and France).

Germany lost its imperial domains right after WWI ended, and Britain and France gave up their empires during the twenty-five years or so after WWII. France fought wars to retain and reclaim some colonies, but lost those wars.

The empires, then, are long gone, yet nearly everyone agrees that most of the world today is still capitalist (contrary to Lenin’s prediction). Moreover, the colonies were not immiserated, and in fact, most were considerably more populous, prosperous and developed after the period of imperialism than before. Indeed, bringing education, health and development was a guiding principle for most of the imperial powers.

Lenin had got it wrong. Further evidence that confounds Lenin’s prediction comes in the form of capitalist countries, such as Switzerland and South Korea, which never acquired an empire, yet have achieved a very high level of prosperity.

The truth is, empire is quite superfluous to capitalism, and capitalist countries do not need empires in order to thrive. More than that, as Adam Smith argued some 240 years ago, running an empire is a distraction from the business of getting rich, and defending an empire is particularly burdensome, so imperialism and capitalism don’t really sit very well together at all.

Imperialism belonged to the agrarian age, when a country’s wealth was almost directly a function of how much land and labour it could command. The industrial revolution changed all that, and what makes for prosperity today is neither vast land nor a vast labour force, but ingenuity in the developing and marketing of new products and services, or in the making of established products better and more efficiently.

The great empires of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were the last great monuments of agrarianism, obsolescent even as Lenin was writing his book.

Unfortunately, Lenin’s erroneous thesis has left an indelible mark: “imperialist” remains, one hundred years later, one of the Left’s favourite accusations with which to demonize the West. Never mind that the Soviet Union was particularly aggresssive in its imperialism. The Left are also convinced that what we now call the Third World is poor precisely because of imperialism, which is the opposite of the truth. Those territories found themselves absorbed into empires because they were poor and undeveloped, and Europe was already rich, relative to the rest of the world, before its imperialist phase began (and before the transatlantic slave trade, too, before someone brings that one up).

The reality of the matter is that Europe conquered most of the world, not because it needed to, but simply because all that undeveloped territory, for the most part sparsely populated and weakly or not at all defended, looked like easy pickings.