The Imperial Origins of State-Led Development

Lenin said “Imperialism is the Last Stage of Capitalism.” Globalization protesters routinely link American imperialism to promotion of capitalism overseas. For example, Naomi Klein’s 2008 book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism draws a vivid connection between American interventions overseas (like the CIA overthrowing Allende in Chile, or today’s Iraq) and the promotion of free markets (“neoliberal economics”). It’s plausible that there are sometimes connections between military interventions and the economic interests of the intervener. Yet it is not so obvious that imperialism promotes free markets. Historically, the most egregious imperialism, such as the British Empire, actually promoted state-led development rather than free markets.

This is yet another insight of Suke Wolton’s book on the colonial invention of “development” that I discussed yesterday. Propagandists like Lord Hailey offered the necessity of state-led efforts to promote development as yet another justification for the continuation of British colonial rule during and after World War II. This is not so surprising – when the “state” is the colonial ruler, and you want to convince people that poor societies need the colonial ruler, then you want to emphasize the paramount role of the “state” in development. According to Hailey, the state’s “primary function” was the “improvement of the standards of living … in the Dependencies.” The government was the “most active agency for promoting social welfare and improving the general standard of living.” Private enterprise is never mentioned in the British colonial propaganda covered by Wolton.

So it was not such a surprise that the early development theories in the 40s and 50s, in the political environment created by colonial pro-state propaganda, said that countries could not break out of their “poverty trap” without a coordinated state effort at a “Big Push.”

What about imperialism and attitudes toward development today? One intriguing thing I wonder in the light of both today’s post, and yesterday’s post on colonial racism and paternalism, is the affection of today’s British public and academics for paternalistic and state-led theories of development somehow related to the British colonial past? As compared to the lack of sympathy for such theories among the American public and academics, when America lacks much of a colonial past and traditionally criticized colonialism?

Of course, the US has been no slouch as an imperialist lately. Yet today’s US imperialism does not obviously promote free markets. The US quickly abandoned a brief experiment with trying to create the perfect free market in Iraq (correctly derided by Naomi Klein) after the insurgency arose. Now in both Iraq and Afghanistan, there is heavy reliance on the aid-military-state complex to promote development. It is true that American companies have benefited from both interventions, but NOT from free market opportunities in either country. No, they grow fat on aid-government contracts.

So imperialism is not so clearly linked to capitalism and free markets after all; historically there has been a closer link between colonialism/imperialism and state-led approaches to development. People who like Imperialism are fond of a big military state presence, so it’s not so surprising that they are also fond of a big economic state presence.