Tag Archives: Smedley Butler

Imperial Waste

Imperialism is a big gigantic waste of money. Let’s start with that.

A couple of news items caught my attention this week that illustrate this point, but before getting on to them, we first need to make a bit of a detour and try to determine imperialism’s roots.

It’s harder than it might seem. For instance, historians have a real problem explaining late nineteenth century imperialism, in which European powers conquered large parts of the globe, most notably in Africa. All sorts of explanations have been generated, but few stand up to a lot of scrutiny.

Particularly implausible are the theories of socialist thinkers, the most famous of which is Lenin’s Imperialism: The Last State of Capitalism. The socialists’ idea was that capitalism generates lots of surplus capital that it can’t get rid of because it is suppressing the wages of its own workers and so denying itself investment opportunities at home. Instead, capitalism exports its surplus, for which it needs colonies – thus imperialism.

The problem was that, like a lot of Lenin’s stuff, the theory was total hogwash. First, capitalist economies had no shortage of investment opportunities at home; and second, they didn’t need colonies to invest abroad. The British, for instance, invested far, far more in Latin America, which they never conquered, than in Africa, which they did.

Furthermore, imperialism was, generally speaking, loss-making. Colonies had to be defended and administered, but they tended to be economically undeveloped, and so didn’t generate much revenue. There was a reason why the Brits were so happy to let the Canadians become self-governing – they were fed up having to pay for a frozen piece of wasteland that only produced some fur and lumber.

So, imperialism doesn’t make a lot of sense from the point of view of the national interest, broadly defined. But it does make sense to certain minority interests within an imperial society. There are medals and promotions to be won by the military; there are contracts for the military industrial complex; and there’s also money to be made by all sorts of other entrepreneurs willing to hang on the imperialists’ coattails. If these people and groups have outsized political influence – through control of the media, financial support to politicians, or whatever – they can distort politicians’ and even the entire population’s understanding of the national interest. And thus the nation gets dragged into foreign endeavours that enrich and empower a few but do nothing at all for the people as a whole.

Which brings me on to this week’s new stories, both of which involve staggering waste of government money on military and imperial adventures.

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