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The Political Economy of Imperial Relations

by Alex Sutton on April 25, 2016
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Imperialism confronts us in a number of guises: either as formal or informal, a period of history, a type of state, or a monolithic institution, a thing-unto-itself, called an ‘empire’. These are all quite common views of imperialism in both popular and academic literature. In recent years, the study of imperialism has undergone something of a revival. This renaissance in its study has featured in many disciplines but has principally focused on the foreign policy of the United States and attempted to show how this is, as David Harvey famously called it, a ‘New’ Imperialism. Common to the study of the ‘New’ Imperialism is the idea that it is distinct from ‘old’ imperialism: it eschews colonies, long-term territorial conquest, and the state seems somewhat distant from the whole phenomenon.

SuttonMy new book The Political Economy of Imperial Relations offers an alternative view of imperialism, situating this view in an open Marxist account of the state. This account treats the state as a manifestation of capitalist society: the apparent political form of a crisis-prone society. The state, then, regulates and manages the crises and contradictions of this fractious and troubled society in order to sustain it. After all, capitalism is not just exploitative but also the means through which humans feed, shelter and clothe themselves. In this view, imperialism is a strategy available to states to overcome problems in sustaining capitalist society through the hijacking of another state’s ability to do so. As such then, the focus is very much on the specific imperial relationships between states and therefore historical analysis is essential in understanding how and why states engage in imperialism. Moreover, this work rejects the idea that imperialism today is meaningfully different from historical iterations since the phenomenon fundamentally derives from the crisis-prone society in which we still live.

The Political Economy of Imperial Relations offers an analysis of British imperialism in a profound crisis of capitalist society, in the years following the Second World War. In 1945, the British state faced a deeply unstable international economic climate, made all the worse for Britain by the decisions culminating in the organisation of the post-war international economy. This organisation committed Britain to, eventually, opening its exclusive economic area to free trade and to allow Sterling to become a convertible currency pegged to the US Dollar. Domestically, the British state had committed to a post-war plan of high levels of employment, large-scale intervention in the economy and the creation of a substantial welfare system. The structure of the post-war domestic and international consensus was therefore deeply taxing on the British state to manage its goals.

For Sterling to become freely convertibly, the British economy would need to be reconstructed and restructured after 6 years of intensive warfare. However, in order to do so, Britain would need vast quantities of dollars to pay for it as the goods needed to do so could only come from the United States. Of course, the British economy was unable to accumulate this precious foreign currency because of the damage done to it by warfare, through violence and state intervention, but also because Britain’s ability to sell goods to the United States had been diminishing for 50 years. As such, Britain came to rely on its exclusive economic area, the Sterling Area, to provide goods for British reconstruction but, more importantly, to provide dollars to buy essential goods from the United States for restructuring the British economy.

It is easy to see, then, how difficult navigating the post-war international economy might seem to a British state manager, especially given the domestic commitments made to prevent a return to the social problems of the inter-war period. Indeed, at the very moment Britain was tasked with re-opening its imperial preference system, it needed it more than ever. This imperial system was managed through the Sterling Area, which was a means through which Britain was able to dominate a number of other states.

It is with this historical and conceptual framework that The Political Economy of Imperial Relations seeks to understand British imperial strategy after the Second World War, focusing in particular on Britain’s relationship with Malaya. Malaya was the Sterling Area’s principal source of dollars, earning more than the rest of the other members of the Area put together. It achieved this through the sale of natural rubber and tin to the United States. These dollars were then pooled centrally into British foreign currency reserves and rationed out by the British state to pay for essential goods. Closing its analysis in 1960, three years after the independence of Malaya from the British Empire, the book covers various crises faced by the British state: the Convertibility Crisis, devaluation, the Korean War, the Suez Crisis, and the prolonged Malayan Emergency.

The goal of the book is to provide a detailed historical analysis, using archival documents, of Britain’s commitment to Malaya during the post-war period, as part of the Sterling Area and in terms of the difficulties facing both the British and global economy at the time. In purely historical terms, it challenges existing accounts of the relationship between Britain and Malaya by positing that it can best be characterised in terms of continuity rather than discontinuity. More broadly, however, it raises questions about the nature of imperialism, arguing that, by focusing on specific relationships between states, we can demystify imperialism without recourse to historical periodisation, the reification of empires, the typology of states, or such distinctions as ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ – all of which threaten to obfuscate our understanding of this phenomenon as well as its origins in global capitalist society. Through this view, then, we are able to see imperialism as a constant and persistent element of global society that has remained with us even today.

Alex Sutton
Alex Sutton is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Chichester. His research is concerned with the theoretical and historical study of imperialism, looking in particular at 20th Century British imperialism and the intellectual history of the study of imperialism.

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