الاستعمار في تاريخ الفكر الإقتصادي ~ Colonialism in The History of Economic Thought

سنان سُمرين

أدى الاستعمار إلى تخلف معظم الدول المستَعمَرة حول العالم، وقد كانت هذه المستعمَرات الينبوع الرئيس للقوى الأوربية المستعمِرة لكي تؤمّن نموّها الإقتصادي المتين. بدأ الاستعمار الأوروبي في الوقت الذي ظهرت فيه أهم المدارس الإقتصادية في أوروبا، فعلى سبيل المثال، نظرية آدم سميث كانت حول تقسيم الطبقة العاملة، ونظرية مالتوس كانت حول فخّ تعداد السكّان، أمّا نظرية ريكاردو فكانت تتعلق بالميزة النسبية. يبدو أنّ موضوع الإستعمار كان مغيّباً عن النقاش الاقتصادي الذي يغذّي النموّ الاقتصادي بحقّ فضلاً عن أهمية التأثير الإقتصادي للاستعمار على الدول المستعمَرة. تحاول هذه الدراسة أن تتقفّى أثر النقاشات الإقتصادية في هذا المحور مع أهم المفكرين الاقتصاديين بدءً من آدم سميث و مروراً بمن تلاه من المنظّرين الاقتصاديين، ثمّ تقارن نظرية سميث مع تلك التي طوّرها المفكّرون الاقتصاديون. تكمن أهميّة هذه الدراسة في أنّها سعت الى سبر تأثير الاستعمار في مستعمراته ومن ثمّ الكشف عن أفكار معظم الإقتصاديين المهمّين في هذا المجال. وقد حاولت الملاحظات الختامية تصنيف هؤلاء الاقتصاديين إلى مؤيدين للاستعمار أو خصوم له.

Senan Sumrein

Abstract

Colonialism has led to the underdevelopment of many former colonies worldwide. These colonies have been a primary fount of resources for the European colonising powers, ensuring the predators more robust economic growth. Colonisation by European nations took place during the time when some of the most influential schools in economics have been emerging in Europe. For example, Adam Smith wrote about the division of labour, Malthus wrote about the population trap, while Ricardo was concerned with comparative advantage. Colonialism seems to be absent from the discussions of what truly drives economic growth, let alone the economic impact of colonisation on the countries that were subject to it. This study is an attempt to trace the beginning of discourse vis-à-vis colonisation among the most influential thinkers of economics. The work of Adam Smith will be the first subject for this purpose. Other economic thinkers’ work that succeeded Smith’s  will also be studied. Next, Smithian theories will be juxtaposed with those that were developed by the most prominent thinkers, under discussion, of economics. The initial portion of this study will be an exploration of the impact of colonialism on its subjects. Further it will explore the thoughts of the most influential and recognised economists regarding colonialism. Concluding remarks will attempt to categorise these influential economists into proponents and opponents of colonialism. 

Introduction

Colonialism is a political system of governance whose aim is to extend the power of the colonising country over a nation that cannot defend its territories against the foreign aggressor. The primary motivation behind colonialism is to exploit the human and natural resources of the colonised country, so the coloniser improves its economic well-being a t the expense of the colonised nation. Colonisation, therefore, is a political structure designed for producing economic welfare for the wealthy powerful, with a potent military capable of enforcing capitulation. It is vital to understand the motivations of the aggressors  to arrive at the reason why colonialism was omitted from discourse within the most influential circles of economic thought.  Colonisation has attracted serious attention as a development topic upon the emergence of many British colonies around the globe. On the one hand, the laissez-faire dogma of free trade and the way it was revered  as a divine economic concept was dominant and famously known as Manchester Liberalism in the context of politics and economics (Havinden, p. 45). It gave rise to the notion that colonies should not have a formal colonial role since Britain was powerful enough to enforce free trade over its conquests. However, that idea clashed with the desire of the traders, merchants, and missionaries and colonial administrators who had their interest in maintaining the colonial role of Britain over these territories. This was coupled with the fear that these colonies, if not formally administered by colonial power, could be conquered by rivals. 

However, the colonial role was extremely expensive even in its most primitive and basic forms, which meant that colonisers had to increase their revenue to justify maintaining the administration of these subjects. That is when highly sophisticated trade systems were instituted among colonies to make them operate more efficiently. Colonial administrators could then exchange information, to make resource extraction more efficient and less costly. Additionally, the attempts to “civilize” the colonies had adverse impacts on the social, political and economic levels of development of these targets. The compulsory labour in colonies had disrupted local  economic subsistence. “ Compulsory labor and other forms of Belgian interference in village affairs undermined traditional livelihoods, causing impoverishment, bitterness and an exodus of youth from their homes to seek opportunities elsewhere” (Nelson, p. 152). 

These dynamics clearly demonstrate powerful effects on the economies of both colonialists and the colonised nations. It is therefore important to track the position of colonization in the development of the history of economic thought among the pioneers of the discipline. 

1. Colonialism and Adam Smith

Adam Smith has been classified with those economists who have famously spoken against anti-colonial liberalism. David Williams offers an insightful reading into Smithian thought and attributes his opposition to colonialism to how he saw that colonialism would adversely impact the metropole of the colonial country. Adam Smith sympathized with  conquered people. In other words, the wellbeing of the people of the colonial power took  precedence, in Smith’s view. Smith focused on colonialism, and his interest regarding the topic was further expressed when he was advising the British government on tax policies of the American colonies. According to Williams, in much of Smith’s correspondence, he has discussed the American Revolution and the British colonial policy. Adam Smith writes in his chapter titled ‘Of colonies’ that Britain must permit the colonies self-determination where they can make their own decisions regarding peace and war, political systems, and legislative process. Britain must give up all power over to the colonies (Williams, p. 4). His writing in this instance seems to be in favour of abolishing all colonies and allowing them self-governance which is aligned with the laissez-faire dogmatism of the Manchester thought. However, when Smith spoke about why colonies should be abolished and colonial role should be eradicated, he showed the motivation behind his thought vis-à-vis colonialism. According to Williams, Smith attributed a gained weakness associated with maintaining colonies as subjects to Britain and that ‘Britain derives nothing but loss from the dominion which she assumes over colonies’ (Wealth of Nations: p. 593,616). Further, Smith argued that it was a delusion to think that colonies had any benefits gained from authority which other countries imposed on them, or colonial trade according to an aggressor’s rules (Williams, p.4). He further attributes the maintenance of colonisation despite the overall clear disadvantage to Britain to the powerful merchant class that had a vested interest in maintaining the colonies. Smith additionally wrote about the corruption of the political elite that was closely connected to the merchants which further exacerbated the problem of continuing the expensive and disadvantageous role of colonies. Another minor factor in Smith’s analysis was that abolishing the role of the colonies would be a blow the national pride of Britain. (Williams, p. 5). An additional component of his critique towards colonialism was aimed at the establishment of monopolies within the colonial structures. In Smith’s view these monopolies had gained a substantial level of power and influence over the British government to ensure the continuation of benefiting themselves as the privileged few at the expense of the majority.  

Conversely Smith demonstrates at a minimum an ambivalence towards the colonized nations and in some instances acknowledges some “benefits” that were brought to the regions where the Europeans set colonies. These benefits in Smith’s view included wealth, improvements and cultivation. It is therefore valid to assume that Smith completely disregarded all the native systems of economic and political organizations prior to colonial role that potentially wielded significantly higher benefit to the people of the colonized nations. Williams further criticizes Smith’s views: “In addition, Smith does not seem to recognize that taking ‘possession’ of land in new colonies might have a significant impact on native peoples. He does not attempt to provide any real justification for this ‘possession’ (as Locke, for example, tried to do)” (Williams, p. 6). 

 Therefore, and despite the fact that Smith has spoken against colonialism the scope of his analysis and the focus of his thinking makes his views essentially narrow and Eurocentric when it comes to colonialism. In Williams’s work some authors suggest that even though Smith is Eurocentric, he is anti-paternalist. However, Smith thinks that non-European societies would go through the same stages that European societies would have gone through to attain capitalism, and colonialism to a great extent would speed up this process. Williams disagrees with this suggestion and states “If this were right, colonialism would not be necessary for societies to traverse through the four stages, and while colonialism may speed up this process (or indeed warp it), societies would progress without direct external intervention.” (Williams, p. 7).

Finally, it is evident that within Smith’s argument against colonialism, Smith does not shy away from judging “civilized” societies to be morally superior to the less commercially advanced rude and barbarous societies (Williams, p. 12). 

In conclusion the purpose of Williams’s study is not to assume that Smith and other liberal anti-colonial thinkers were secretly in favor of colonialism, but rather to highlight that the general ambivalence of these liberal thinkers towards the native populations points at the Eurocentrism of New South Wales in their anti-colonial argument. The implication of that is: if colonialism was more economically advantageous to the colonial countries with few  drawbacks to the people of the British metropole, would Smith speak negatively against it? 

2. Colonialsim and Malthusian Economic Thought 

Thomas Malthus was one of the most influential writers in the field of political economy. He was a contemporary of the British colonies and was able to make observations and had many writings regarding the topic. The most influential work of Malthus was the book titled “Principle of Population” where he describes the nature of population growth is exponential  while food production is linear, which will cause a great deal of suffering to the population once they grow beyond the means of sustenance. While this idea has proven to be erroneous since Malthus has not foreseen agricultural technological advancement that would enable higher food production, it is clear that Malthus focused in his argument on the wellbeing of people. 

Alison Bashford provides a critical account of Malthus’s writing regarding the aboriginal population in New South  Wales and the Americas. Bashford writes on how Malthus aggregates the causes of death of the Eora people of New South  Wales to include in his population based analysis including the small pox epidemic that was clearly not a question of increase in population (Bashford, p. 5). Additionally, Bashford alludes to how Malthus was influenced by the writing of Benjamin Franklin and his justification of the domination of the “whites”. Benjamin Franklin writings regarding dominating North America was made righteous by stressing the “virtue of their – whites- remarkable power of reproduction” this quote among others that are unmistakable ethnocentric in nature appeared in Malthus’ work. 

Malthus did acknowledge the amorality of pushing away the native Americans further deep to the west of the continent where they would face starvation and extermination. However his view of the land that is uncultivated land that belonged at some point to native Americans as a depleted resource that will continue to be a limit for further cultivation and consequently increase in the civilized population is not short of ethnocentricity either. 

That ethnocentric view is emphasized in Malthus’s chapter titled “of Emigration” were he clearly takes trouble in making the case for colonialism. According to Bashford “After damning the Spanish for their treatment, indeed destruction of the original race of inhabitants he turned to seventeenth century English colonization in Virginia, absolved if such destruction in Malthus’s eyes because indigenous population was far sparser than in Mexico and Peru.” (Bashford et al. p. 204). It is safe to conclude that Malthus was not only Eurocentric in his views but also an apologist of the British colonization. 

3. Marx and Colonialism 

Unlike Malthus and Smith, Marx have concentrated in his arguments on the disadvantage created by capitalism and used the adverse impact of capitalism as a focal point for his class based analysis. Considering that Marx – and his co-author Engels – focused on the struggle of the working class for his economic doctrine, he would be unequivocal in denouncing the disadvantage created by colonialism to the native people of the colonized nations. However Jorge Larrain finds that Marx did not differ in his Eurocentric view from other contemporary European economists. Larrain attributes that to “The reason for that is sought in the influence of the Hegelian notion of “‘peoples without history” and in the presence of a form of “Eurocentrism” in their thought.” (Larrain, p.1)

Larrain further explains that Marx did not criticise the categorization of many nations that fell victim to colonization as backward nations. Marx did refuse and was critical of the East Indian company and its policies in instituting a system that caused serious misery and suffering for the Indian people. However, Marx refused to picture the Indian village life before British colonisation as an ideal system of economic sustenance and thought of it as an “idyllic” village community that was stagnant and impoverished (Larrain, p. 6). Larrain takes his criticism further claiming that Marx and Engels did not believe in the self-determination of backward nations and they viewed the national struggles of liberation and independence as obstacles that had to be subordinated by the stronger more progressive nations. (Larrain, p.7). That view didn’t exclude other European nations that were subject to the imperial role of other European nations namely, Ireland, Marx considered its independence from England to be impossible. Additionally, Marx appears to justify the existence of colonial powers since they will bring progress to the backward nation and is inevitable in the same way geological revolutions created the surface of the earth. An extension of this idea is that Marx seems to speak in favor of the subjugation of the backward nations in order to attain progress. 

Marx speaks of conquest of Mexico (Larrain, p.7): 

In America we have witnessed the conquest of Mexico, which has pleased us. It constitutes progress too that a country until the present day exclusively occupied with itself, torn apart by perpetual civil wars and prevented from all development, that such a country be thrown by means of violence into the historical movement. It is in the interest of its own development that Mexico will be in the future under the tutelage of the United States 

Later writings of Marx and Engels seem to oppose colonial intervention of France, Spain and England in Mexico. However, that opposition was -according to Lorrain- due to the suspicion of Marx that these countries will foil an attack against the US since it was in the midst of a civil war. 

Finally, Lorrain concludes that since Marx and his other contemporary economists lived in the same epoch, their Eurocentric view was not surprising and did have a massive influence in the way they analyzed economic phenomena. Among all these prominent thinkers whether it’s Hegel or Marx or other classical economists, the emancipating agents can be different however, they are all unified in representing western Europe as far as the focal point of their analysis. 

From the above, colonialism was neglected in attributing the riches of colonizing countries and impoverishing the colonized countries. And the most prominent economists were excessively Eurocentric in the way they perceived the economy as if the rest of the world and other economic systems didn’t exist. From Smith to Malthus to Marx, regardless of the political alignment of these thinkers and the multifariousness of their economic analysis what seems to be uniform is their unmistakable Eurocentric framework of analysis. Therefore, when studying the work of these extraordinary economists one must always keep in mind that these thinkers were not immune to some of the most adverse influences of their ethnocentric environments.

References

Bashford, A., Chaplin, J.E., 2016, The New Worlds of Thomas Robert Malthus, Pirnceton, NJ, Princeton University Press

Bashford, A., 2012, Malthus and colonial history, Journal of Australian Studies, 36:1, 99,110, DOI: 10.1080/14443058.2011.649487

Larrian, Jorge, 1991, Classical Political Economists and Marx on Colonialism and    “Backward” Nations, University of Birmingham, World Development, vol. 19, no. 2/3, 

p. 225*243,1991, Pergamon Press plc

Nelson, S.H., 1994, “Colonialism in the Congo basin, 1880-1940”, Ohio University Press

Havinden, M., Meredith, D., 1993, “Colonialism and Development, Britain and its tropical colonies, 1850-1960

Williams, D., 2014, Adam Smith and Colonialism, Journal of International Political 

Theory DOI: 10.1177/1755088214539412

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