Was colonialism advantageous?



Territorial conquest became, over time, more of an obstacle than a stimulus to the economic, social and civil growth of the nations that adopted it..

The history of the West is, at bottom, the history of colonialism: without the conquest of America, the European powers would never have become such, that is, powers. Let us remember that in 1492, when Columbus arrived in America, the Turks were preparing to besiege Vienna, almost the geographic center of Europe. It is true that the Spaniards, precisely in that year, expelled the Arabs from the Iberian Peninsula, but the threat of an Arab return was the order of the day.

In short, Europe was surrounded and a large part of the European population experienced the problem of hunger on a daily basis. The conquest of America brought to Europe an enormous amount of precious metals, food, raw materials that triggered the capitalist production process, so that Europe broke the siege and became the Center of the world, making the rest of the planet its Colonial periphery.

Reading the interesting book by Pier Luigi D'Eredità (The self-destructive economic sviluppo. 1873-1914. Milano-Udine: Mimesis, 2018) leads us to question whether colonialism really represented an advantage for Europe. D'Eredità does not reproduce the now obsolete Eurocentric historiographical cliché, according to which Europe benefited enormously from the exploitation of extra-European colonies. D'Eredità has a deep and assured knowledge of economic history, already expressed in his previous, voluminous book on the economic history of the Middle Ages (History of sviluppo economico medievale. Milano-Udine: Mimesis, 2014), but he is also endowed with remarkable philosophical knowledge and perhaps for this reason he overthrows the canons of academic historiography and asks himself: what would the history of Europe have been like without the colonies?

Naturally, in the immediate aftermath of the conquest of America, there were advantages and they were considerable. Europe, especially northern Europe, was starving, as Africa is today, and potatoes, corn, tomatoes solved this centuries-old problem, as we also know from our diet. Afterwards, the arrival of precious metals started the process of original capital accumulation, which was further strengthened with the introduction of gold standard by Isaac Newton in England, that is, the nominal parity between the money circulating in notes and the gold stored in the Bank of England.

Obviously, few would show up at Bank of England counters to ask for their notes to be exchanged for gold, and so Newton, who was governor of the Bank of England, was able to print more money than he had gold in storage and, in effect, increased the wealth of the country, wealth that in part was represented by a simple piece of paper. But who would have questioned English wealth and power? At the height of its colonial expansion, England directly controlled a quarter of the Earth's surface and a fifth of the world's population.

Still, over time, especially in the period of its greatest splendor, did having all this colonial power help English economic and social development? D'Eredità raises doubts based not only on hypotheses, but on facts: “British industry's excessive insistence on maintaining production lines typical of the first industrial revolution, the so-called overcommitment, it had played a central role in what would have been precisely called the 'British Climacteric'. It was a comfortable option, encouraged by the possibility of good absorption of industrial production by colonial territorial realities. Because of this approach, the link with both the colonies and the dominions […] would not only have meant that capital that could/should be used for internal technological renewal would not only be destined abroad, but would also have produced a phenomenon of productive immobility due to the flow of metropolitan production to less demanding markets and, therefore, that's right, inadequate to impose a constant qualitative improvement” (p. 143). Comparison with contemporary German industrial development makes it clear that England has not developed as much as it could and should have done in future perspective.

Germany, not having large colonies like India, had to concentrate its development on the good quality of its products to conquer markets, while England was content to sell to the incipient Indian bourgeoisie, numerically equal to its own. This narrowness of means is reflected in the fact that England has not tended to export a civilization of her own, indeed she took much from her colonies. This is compared to US imperial expansionism, which massively imposes fashion, cuisine, music, cinema, along with its own products.

At best, England looked to the local ruling classes, not the masses of colonized peoples, as the model of civilization. Germany tried to develop its own model of civilization, but on the cultural level, with its music and its philosophy, and its rush towards colonialism was just a consequence of nationalist tendencies (see p. 85), therefore not economic, which ended up ruining its economic and social development project.

Undoubtedly, England first managed to resist and then defeat Germany's imperialist attempt, because "it fully explored all the relationship with the Administrations of the territories that formed the dominions british who were forced […] to buy goods from the mother country Great Britain. Secondly, it is necessary to take into account the commercial agreements with the governments of Latin America, which in some cases guaranteed a near monopoly on raw materials and very important agricultural products” (p. 151).

However, unlike Germany, it had no interest in developing the quality of the industry's own products and did not intensify scientific research to the same extent that Germany did. England, on the contrary, developed its own financial capitalism much more and had practically no obstacles and no competitors in this. Finance capitalism, as Marx teaches, is the most developed form of capitalist exploitation, but finance capitalism is not progressive. A century later, we can venture to say that England's economic, social and cultural development was held back by colonialism itself.

Paradoxically, the same can be said about Germany, although it did not have a colonialism as developed as the English one, but it was precisely this feeling of inferiority that pushed it to follow the English model of development and that led it to complete ruin with the disastrous defeat in two world wars. But Germany was forced to have a progressive form of capitalism, only its progress was sacrificed to have colonies. Basically, Germany destroyed its economic development for non-economic reasons, but for political reasons. Only now that it has put aside all ambitions of political power, Germany enjoys a remarkable and enviable economic well-being, demonstrating that pacifism is the most concrete form of economic, social and cultural development.

If we look at our national perspective, we can see that the model of national unification was colonial in character. The Kingdom of Sardinia expanded by annexing developed regions such as Lombardy, the Northeast and Emilia and Tuscany, but the unification of the rest of central-southern Italy took place almost in a colonial way. After the process of national unification, the colonies were claimed.

Not having the strength to wrest colonies from the great colonial powers, as Germany intended to do, Italy was content with territories of no economic value, such as Eritrea and Somalia and later Libya and Ethiopia. Libya would have been an advantageous colony, but Italy, very fragile in its scientific and industrial development, was unable to take advantage of the conquest. Only when British oil companies moved to Libya was it possible to extract oil, thanks to the most advanced extraction technology.

What D'Eredità devotes to the analysis of English capitalism can be even more applicable to Italian capitalism: “British industrial policy preferred the possibility of absorbing its products by the colonial markets desired and almost programmed by London to consume British goods. According to this perspective, therefore, in the long run, the maintenance and very existence of a colonial empire would no longer matter. attractedbut forced the British economic system to allocate to the colonies those capitals that could, instead, be used in important processes of internal technological renewal and in infrastructures with high capacity for industrial efficiency” (p. 83).

Italy had little capital and invested little in the colonies, but this scarce capital was withdrawn from the Italian regions of the center-south that most needed it to balance the country's economic development. The difficult development of the central-southern regions was caused by emigration and the mass of capital that the emigrants sent back to Italy to maintain their permanent families, or else, it was a question of small savings, accumulated in the countries of immigration by those who returned to Italy. country of origin. In practice, much of Italy's economic and social development passed directly through the “living work” of Italian emigrants and, even in the case of Italy, colonialism, although small, was more a detriment than an advantage.

Another nation chose a non-colonial form of development in the early part of its history, namely the United States. Since its birth, for at least a century, the United States has focused on exploiting the enormous territory that lay behind the original thirteen colonies. This exploitation was violent and savage, neither more nor less than that of the Spanish and Portuguese in Latin America, but, on the contrary, it built a powerful economy. Thanks to the economic control of Latin America, the United States, constituted as the first economic and military power on the planet, became a power neocolonial, that is, they developed, in turn, a new form of colonialism, no longer direct, but economic, enslaving Third World nations in an even more complicated way than the British did.

The United States imposed a form of civilization both as an instrument of control and as a commodity to be sold to Third World nations that, in fact, knocked at the doors of the “giant of the North”. The vast majority of those who want to enter the United States are Ladinos, but understandably so would Africans or Asians, precisely because of the civilizing model imposed in their homelands.

Peripheral countries confuse the American model of civilization with the absolute model of civilization, just as they were accustomed to since ancient colonialism. In reality, the European colonial homelands today do not want to open their borders to welcome the descendants of those who were used to thinking that Europe was the Center of human civilization. Europe is not able to welcome anyone, precisely because it is experiencing the historical consequences of that colonial development model that it adopted about a century and a half ago. Perhaps, if the capital invested in the colonies had been invested in the continent, today the history of Europe could be different. It could then distribute wealth among its citizens, thanks to the control of the colonies (France and England) or the strength of its progressively developing economy (Germany, Holland, Scandinavia). Today that impulse has exhausted itself and it is impossible to maintain such a large population, more than 500 million human beings, with a very high standard of living. The crisis triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic is clearly manifesting these contradictions and, in fact, is aggravating them.

In conclusion, I can say that capitalism is a wealth production system that has a dialectical procedure, in the sense of asserting itself through forms that later revert into its opposite: colonialism, extremely violent at the beginning of its historical realization, became, over time, more of an obstacle than a stimulus to the economic, social and civil growth of the nations that adopted it. The reasons why colonialism was, in the last century of its existence, a form of supposed development of capitalism, were, in reality, non-economic; thus, colonialist nations survived their own contradictions, until economic reasons prevailed over political and nationalist ones and this form of colonial capitalism was abandoned in favor of a neocolonialism that has a fundamental economic reason.

*Antonino Infranca He holds a doctorate in philosophy from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Author, among other books, of Work, individual, history – the concept of work in Lukács (Boitempo).

Translation: Juliana Hass.



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