Giovanni Arrighi’s The Geometry of Imperialism (NLB, 1978) is an effort by a well-known Italian Marxist economist to deal critically with the Leninist theory of imperialism. That theory, as Arrighi observes, is virtually the only theory of Marxism to which non-Marxist economists give serious consideration. More specifically, the author of this study has attempted a systematic treatment of one of the two theoretical foundations of Lenin’s formulation, that produced in 1901 by the English liberal economist J. A. Hobson. (The second, of course, was Das Finanzkapital, published in 1910 by the Austro-Marxist, Rudolf Hilferding.) The work is useful in clearing up some of the ambiguities in a theory which, as Arrighi has observed, has become a ‘Tower of Babel,’ in which not even Marxists knew any longer how to find their way. However, in its intentionally laconic style, and in the somewhat artificial limitation of its range of discussion, the author has obscured almost as much as he has illumined.
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Although, the author maintains, Lenin’s theory proved to have a strong predictive value for what was to happen to the generation following its formulation, its usefulness was to be critically undermined by both its imprecise terminology and the very different circumstances which have prevailed since the end of the second world war. Arrighi argues that Marxists have, because of their loyalty to the theory, been unwilling to acknowledge that the monopoly stage—which characterized the imperialism of which Lenin wrote—was not the highest stage of capitalism. As a result, the theories of imperialism which they have developed over the past thirty years have been flawed from the start.
Arrighi has set out to examine, as the subtitle of the book suggests, ‘The Limits of Hobson’s Paradigm,’ limits which the Lenin theory necessarily inherited. The bulk of the work is an effort to work out the implications of four ideal-types of expansionism which Arrighi extrapolates from the four elements discussed by Hobson in the early pages of his study. Upon Hobson’s ‘colonialism,’ then, the author builds the ideal-type of a nationalist imperialism; he accepts Hobson’s ‘formal empire,’ and ‘informal empire’ (or internationalism) as two further theoretical and historical types; and he labels the English economist’s conception of ‘imperialism’ as ‘imperialism tout court,’ this being his fourth type. Arrighi has attempted to integrate the major events of three centuries of great-power imperialism with these four ideal-types. To do this, he constructs a ‘conceptual grid,’ in which these ideal-types are defined in terms of Cartesian coordinates, of which the vertical S axis refers to forms of expansion of the State (Formal Empire and Imperialism) and the horizontal axis to forms of expansion of the Nation (Colonialism and Informal Empire). Each quadrant of the grid is occupied by one of the four ideal-types, a device which he believes helps in the more precise definition of each with respect to the other three, imposing upon it a dynamic he thinks useful in representing historical movement. Having accomplished this, the author sets out to identify these types with the events of British imperial history since the seventeenth century.
Arrighi sees the Navigation Acts of 1651 and 1660 as the origin of England’s colonialist or Nationalist Imperialism (This is I1). This form of imperialism led to wars with Holland, the hegemonic power at the time, and with Spain and France, and the consequences of I1 were the territorial expansion of the English nationality and the promotion of colonial nationalism in response to the wars between the rival imperial states. In this way, for example, did American nationalism rise after the end of the Seven Years War in 1763, bringing to a close the I1 phase of English Imperialism. The second phase was that of Formal Empire (I2), a system of centralized control of colonies which lasted until about 1815. After the defeat of Napoleon, England sought to convert its Formal Empire into an Informal Empire (I3), one in which an industrial England strove to profit by her economic superiority by means of the operations of a free international market, except in the case of India where the institutions of formal imperialism remained operative. Generally, we are told, the I3 phase resembled Hobson’s picture of internationalism, one more or less under the aegis of impersonal market forces, under the relatively benign auspices of the hegemonic power, England. By the 1870s, the I3 phase had begun to dissolve, and to pass into what has been called the ‘new’ imperialism, or what Arrighi described as ‘imperialism tout court’ (I4). In this phase, England was divested of her economic superiority by the free circulation of capital and labour. A new period of intense competition among the powers ensued, one leading to anarchy and war. Arrighi writes of ‘the capacity of Hobson’s grid,’ although, of course, it is his own grid imposed on Hobson’s categories, to define the direction of historical changes in British imperialism: counter-clockwise from I1 in the upper right-hand to I4 in the lower right-hand quadrants. However, this capacity is in good part attributable to I1 and I4 having been assigned to the quadrants almost arbitrarily, on the basis of the author’s assertions of their relationships to N(ation) and S(tate). What is initially presented as a clarifying representation, becomes virtually an instrument of analysis, perhaps plausible but fundamentally unsatisfying.
Hobson, we are told, predicted the breakdown of England’s reliance on free trade, and the inevitable decline of her hegemony. The English economist urged Britain to undertake voluntarily a course of retraction from empire in order to avoid the international anarchy and war which were to mark the first half of the twentieth century. In a word, Hobson advised Britain to allow the United States to replace her as the hegemonic power of an informal empire of free trade. England’s failure to give way peacefully, Arrighi argues, exacerbated the already powerful nationalist component in German imperialism and led to the catastrophes of 1914 and 1939.
Arrighi’s chapter describing the ‘trajectories of United States and German Imperialism,’ an effort to make them seem a twentieth-century reduplication of earlier British experience, is unfortunately not persuasive. Certainly neither Germany nor the United States re-created Britain’s historic path from I1 to I4. He succeeds somewhat better in the case of America, but to some degree because of imprecision of language