Theories of Imperialism

Political Theories
Examples: Morgenthau, Cohen
Imperialism is simply a manifestation of the balance of power and is the process by which nations try to achieve a favorable change in the status quo. The purpose of imperialism is to decrease the strategic and political vulnerability of a nation.

"...we are engaged in 'pegging out claims for the future'. We have to consider, not what we want now, but what we shall want in the future. We have to consider what countries must be developed either by ourselves or some other nation and we have to remember that it is part of our responsibility and heritage to take care that the world, as far as it can be moulded by us, shall receivethe Anglo-Saxon and not another character. Remember that the task of the statesman is not merely with the present, but with the future. We have to look forward beyond the chatter of platforms, and the passions of party, to the future of the race of which we are at present the trustees, and we should, in my opinion, grossly fail in the task that has been laid upon us did we shrink from responsibilities, and decline to take our share in a partition of the world which we have not forced on, but which has been forced upon us." Earl of Rosebery, Speech at the Royal Colonial Institute, 1 March 1893


Conservative Theories
Examples: Disraeli, Rhodes, Kipling
Imperialism is necessary to preserve the existing social order in the more developed countries. It is necessary to secure trade, markets, to maintain employment and capital exports, and to channel the energies and social conflicts of the metropolitan populations into foreign countries. There is a very strong ideological and racial assumption of Western superiority within this body of thought.

The Philippines

"I went down on my knees and prayed to Almighty God for light and guidance ... and one night late it came to me this way. We could not leave (the Philippines) to themselves--they were unfit for self-government--and they would soon have anarchy and misrule over there worse than Spain's was... There was nothing left for us to do but take them all and educate the Filipinos, and uplift and Christianize them." US President William McKinley, as quoted in General James Rusling, “Interview with President William McKinley,” The Christian Advocate 22 January 1903, 17. Reprinted in Daniel Schirmer and Stephen Rosskamm Shalom, eds., The Philippines Reader (Boston: South End Press, 1987), 22–23.

The Belgian Congo

Liberal Theories
Examples: Hobson, Angell
Imperialism is a policy choice, not an inevitable consequence of capitalism. Increasing concentration of wealth within the richer countries leads to underconsumption for the mass of people. Overseas expansion is a way to reduce costs (and thereby increase or maintain profit levels) and to secure new consumption. Overseas expansion is not inevitable, however. A state can solve the problem of underconsumption by increasing the income levels of the majority of the population either through legislation concerning wage levels (minimum wage laws, legalization of unions, child labor laws) or through income transfers (unemployment compensation, welfare).

"Aggressive Imperialism, which costs the tax-payer so dear, which is of so little value to the manufacturer and trader, which is fraught with such grave incalculable peril to the citizen, is a source of great gain to the investor who cannot find at home the profitable use he seeks for his capital and insists that his Government should help him to profitable and secure investments abroad.
If, contemplating the enormous expenditure on armaments, the ruinous wars, the diplomatic audacity of knavery by which modern Governments seek to extend their territorial power, we put the plain, practical question, Cui bono? the first and most obvious answer is, The investor . . . .
Investors who have put their money in foreign lands, upon terms which take full account of risks connected with the political conditions of the country, desire to use the resources of their Government to minimize these risks, and so to enhance the capital value and the interest of their private investments. The investing and speculative classes in general also desire that Great Britain should take other foreign areas under her flag in order to secure new areas for profitable investment and speculation." John A. Hobson, Imperialism. A Study (1902)

Marxist Theories
Example: Lenin
Imperialism also arises because increased concentration of wealth leads to undeconsumption. However, since the state represents the capitalist interest it is not possible to reduce underconsumption effectively through liberal strategies. Both strategies involve taking away money from the bourgeoisie and Marx and Lenin did not view this strategy as possible. Ultimately, according to Lenin, the world would be completely divided up and the rich countries would then fight over the redivision of the world. This analysis served as his explanation for World War I.

"It goes without saying that if capitalism could develop agriculture, which today is everywhere lagging terribly behind industry, if it could raise the living standards of the masses, who in spite of the amazing technical progress are everywhere still half-starved and poverty-stricken, there could be no question of a surplus of capital. This “argument” is very often advanced by the petty-bourgeois critics of capitalism. But if capitalism did these things it would not be capitalism; for both uneven development and a semi-starvation level of existence of the masses are fundamental and inevitable conditions and constitute premises of this mode of production. As long as capitalism remains what it is, surplus capital will be utilised not for the purpose of raising the standard of living of the masses in a given country, for this would mean a decline in profits for the capitalists, but for the purpose of increasing profits by exporting capital abroad to the backward countries. In these backward countries profits are usually high, for capital is scarce, the price of land is relatively low, wages are low, raw materials are cheap. The export of capital is made possible by a number of backward countries having already been drawn into world capitalist intercourse; main railways have either been or are being built in those countries, elementary conditions for industrial development have been created, etc. The need to export capital arises from the fact that in a few countries capitalism has become “overripe” and (owing to the backward state of agriculture and the poverty of the masses) capital cannot find a field for “profitable” investment." Vladimir Lenin, "Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, 1920

Social-Psychological Theories
Example: Schumpeter
Imperialism is objectless expansion, a pattern simply learned from the behavior of other nations and institutionalized into the domestic political processes of a state by a "warrior" class. This warrior class is created because of the need for defense, but, over time, the class will manufacture reasons to perpetuate its existence, usually through manipulation of crises.
These theories have been updated and modified by theorists who see an alliance between the warrior class and corporate interests. Most commonly this alliance is referred to as a "military-industrial complex" a phrase coined by US President Eisenhower in his farewell Address to the American people:

“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.” President Dwight David Eisenhower, 1961

John Ismay, "What Would a Fighter Jet Buy 60 Years After Eisenhower’s Speech?" New York Times, 16 April 2013

Recommended Readings:

John Hobson, Imperialism, 1902

Vladimir Illyich Lenin (1870-1924), Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism, 1916

Joseph A. Schumpeter, The Sociology of Imperialism, 1918

British Imperialistic Anthems, Rule Britannia and Land of Hope and Glory, and more

George Orwell, "Shooting an Elephant"

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