10/4 meeting notes

Reading: Giovanni Arrighi’s The Geometry of Imperialism: The Limits of Hobson’s Paradigm

These notes are meant to expand on a couple points and raise some questions that came up during the discussion on Arrighi’s work clarifying Lenin and Hobson on imperialism.

Arrighi’s work is very much a work of the 1970s. The analysis is couched in the idiom of structuralism and systems theory prevalent at that time. He makes an explicit distinction between political and scientific works, arguing that the former attempts to strategically expand the implicit scope of concepts while the later strives for conceptual precision in the definition of terms and relationships. For Arrighi, this distinction is important to foreground when comparing Lenin’s political text to Hobson’s scientific one. This work is also important in Arrighi’s intellectual transition to write The Long Twentieth Century over a decade later. In working through the confusion surrounding the understanding of imperialism, Arrighi is shifting towards the concept of global hegemony.

Arrighi begins by pointing to some macroscopic anomalies with respect to Lenin’s theory of imperialism in the postwar period that calls for a renewed examination of the concept of imperialism. Indeed, Lenin himself recognized that definitions of such terms always have “a ‘relative and conditional value’ and can never ’embrace all the concatenations of a phenomenon in its full development'” (16). Two particular historical developments are highlighted by Arrighi: (i) a unified world market resumed its place as the site of capitalist accumulation and competition, and (ii) states have forgone the types of politico-military rivalries implied in the division and re-division of the world. These two trends are a principle source of Arrighi’s attempts to place imperialism, defined by him as war-like state expansion, in an expanded field of forms of nation-state expansion.

Arrighi in reconstructing Lenin’s theory of imperialism claims Hobson’s and Hilferding’s works as crucial influences. In this work, Arrighi mainly works through Hobson to arrive at a clearer understanding of Lenin’s imperialism. This begs the question: to what extent can Arrighi’s analysis of Hobson be read as a commentary on Lenin? Arrighi takes the position that Lenin “shared not just a few isolated hypotheses, but the very mode in which Hobson had outlined his diagnosis of imperialism” (24).

Arrighi identifies in Hobson, nation (nationalism), state power and finance capital as central concepts relating to imperialism. The expansion and contraction of nation states transformed by the transnational concept of finance capital leads to different orderings of the inter-state system consisting of colonialism, formal empire, informal empire and imperialism. Here nation and nationalism is the hardest to theorize and historically contingent. However, Hobson—a proponent of liberal internationalism studying Britain in the 19th Century—found it important to account for nationalism.

In attempting to understand inter-imperialist rivalries that led to territorial expansion and wars, Arrighi identifies state power and finance capital as the main determinants. Here, while Lenin sees finance capital as being either transnational or linked to nation states, for Hobson it is mainly a transnational phenomena. Lenin, in this sense, is seen by Arrighi to vacillate between Hobson’s and Hilferding’s understanding of financial capital. The relationship of state power to the transnational phenomena of finance capital including the relative power of one with respect to the other is what constitutes the shifting characteristics of imperialism. So, for example, the post-war era until the 1970s when Arrighi is writing this work might be characterised as a period where not only inter-imperialist rivalries were not as pronounced but also where the relative power of nation-state’s with respect to finance capital was stronger compared to other era’s characterized by the dominance of Keynesian economics and the Bretton Woods regime of control over banks and international finance.

While Arrighi’s work is useful in clarifying some of the questions around imperialism, the important question of whether imperialism continues to be a useful category remains. If we think of imperialism as a category linked to capitalist expansion constituted by state power and finance capital, is the concept still important in an age where territorial wars and inter-imperialist rivalries might be reduced by both an aversion to overt colonization and the presence of a global hegemonic power such as the United States? If, as Lenin argues in 1916, the spatial field of capitalism is global “so that in the future only redivision is possible” (76), to what extent does imperialism help us understand the dynamic of redivision if spatial expansion is more or less complete?

If the emphasis is on expansionism as imperialism, could a deepening of finance capital through the financialization of economies facilitated not through the overt conquest but through the control of regimes that rule other states be a way of articulating the importance of the concept of imperialism? Would this be a way of also distinguishing between neoliberalism and imperialism? Where neoliberalism is seen as a diffused vision of financialization of economies – imperialism addresses the importance of centres of state power and the constitution of an international order with hierarchy in the inter-state system even as there is deepening of financialization. Is an understanding of imperialism as expansionism, not solely with a territorial logic, but one of the deepening of financialization and the control of regimes a useful theorization? Financialization in this sense appears to fill out some of the “new conceptual spaces” that Arrighi called for at the end of his analysis. Likewise, financialization gives a new dimension to Hobson’s observation that finance capital and the state are the primary elements that distinguish imperialism as a specific form of capitalist “expansionism.”

—Ahilan Kadirgamar, Mark Drury, and Neil Agarwal

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