In this post Dr Chris Grocott, Lecturer in Management and Economic History in ULSB, discusses his recently published book, co-edited with Dr Jo Grady (University of Sheffield), on the continuing imperialism of free trade.
Free trade is once again part of popular political discourse. In the United States of America, Donald Trump has rejected it. By contrast, Canada and the European Union have provisionally implemented one of the world’s largest free trade deals in the form of the Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement (CETA). And in the United Kingdom, Brexiter politicians such as Liam Fox and Boris Johnson have imagined a world where Britain trades freely with its former dominions and colonies (the so-called CANZUK proposal) as a counter-balance to the potential economic decline threatened by Brexit. If that proposal sounds like something from the ‘League of Empire Loyalists’, it is precisely because it is – free trade and imperialism have a long history which Jo Grady and I explore in our newly published edited collection, The Continuing Imperialism of Free Trade: Developments, Trends, and the Role of Supranational Organisations.
In the nineteenth century, liberal political economy held free trade as its central economic principle. So when in 1953, John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson published an article in the Economic History Review entitled ‘The Imperialism of Free Trade’ the title alone was incendiary. Gallagher and Robinson argued that the goal of British imperialism had been consistent from the early nineteenth century onwards, to establish access to markets on free trade terms favourable to British business. This was achieved through formal imperialism (annexation) if necessary, but preferably it would be achieved through the co-option of local elites who would then collaborate with British ‘informal’ imperial interests. In this sense, Gallagher and Robinson argued, free trade was not an alternative to imperialism – it was the goal.
In our book we explore, along with sixteen other contributors to eleven chapters, the continuing relevance of Gallagher and Robinson’s ideas. We do so by thinking about their ideas of formal and informal imperialism across the past two centuries and not only in the context of British imperialism, but in the context of the expansion of a range of economies including those of the European Union, United States, and China. For example, Adam Burns tracks the relationship between the United States of America and Cuba from 1898-2017. In doing so, he demonstrates how, in the early twentieth century, military interventions were used to change Cuban governments that were unfriendly to US capital. Interestingly, he goes on to demonstrate how Fidel Castro’s government was able to resist US imperial tactics of both formal and informal nature through its alignment with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
But in the book, we do not just explore how other countries have adapted – and resisted – the tools of imperial expansion employed by Britain in its imperial heyday. We also look how supranational organisations have used these tools too. In their chapter on the Troika bailouts in Greece, Costas Eleftheriou and Orestis Papadopoulos examine how the economic arrangements imposed upon Greece as part of the financial bailouts of 2010, 2012 and 2015 restructured the Greek economy in a fashion not dissimilar to the informal imperial tactics used by Britain. Yet, in Greece this restructuring was done not for the benefit of one country’s economy but rather to open up the Greek economy to, amongst others, German and French business interests whilst at the same time saving the blushes of over-extended banks from those countries which were sat on mountains of near-worthless Greek debt.
Over all, the book shows that expanding economies have consistently sought to leverage their peripheries in order to open up opportunities for investment speculation and access to labour and other markets. When required, this has been undertaken formally, as James Fargher’s chapter on British military intervention in Egypt demonstrates. But, by preference informal control of peripheral economies has been preferred. Running throughout the chapters dealing with more contemporary events therefore as an examination of how neoliberal political economy has underpinned the expansion of dominant economies and the expense of the periphery. Martin Quinn examines how the European Union uses policy prescriptions to impose the neoliberal-inspired Washington Consensus onto economies both within and with out the EU. Likewise, Mark Dearn shows how EU trade deals build in to them neoliberal principles, provoking former EU president José Manual Barroso to declare the European Union to be the first ‘non-imperial empire’. Yet, refusal to annex is, as Gallagher and Robinson argued, no sign of refusal to control. Dearn demonstrates that the EU’s trade deals have worked hard to ensure free trade for its members. The Continuing Imperialism of Free Trade shows that imperialism is not a thing of the past, and that imperial control is not limited to annexation of territory. Nor is it something to be analysed as being separate from capitalism. Far from being the ‘highest stage of capitalism’, to use Lenin’s phrase, we argue that imperialism is intrinsic to the expansion of capitalist economies. With talk of global free trade now a hot topic in the UK, European Union and Canada, our book is an excellent guide to how this expansion operates.