Imperialism as a Response to Surpluses and Superfluousness

“Older than the superfluous wealth was another by-product of capitalist production: the human debris of every crisis, following invariably upon each period of industrial growth, eliminated permanently from producing society. Men who had become permanently idle were as superfluous to the community as the owners of superfluous wealth. That they were an actual menace to society had been recognized throughout the nineteenth century and their export to populate the dominions of Canada and Australia as well as the United States. The new fact in the imperialist era is that these two superfluous forces, superfluous capital and superfluous working power, joined hands and left the country together. The concept of expansion, the export of government power and annexation of every territory in which nationals had invested either their wealth or their work, seemed the only alternative to increasing losses in wealth and population. Imperialism and its idea of unlimited expansion seemed to offer a permanent remedy for a permanent evil.” (Hannah Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism, pg. 150)

Hannah Arendt’s work on totalitarianism is famous for drawing explicit comparisons between Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s USSR. It is much celebrated (though infrequently read) because it achieved an important ideological task: previously it was tempting to treat the mass casualties on the Eastern Front as evidence that the Soviet Union had nothing in common with the Nazis they died to defeat. But if these were simply the two faces of totalitarianism, then we were obligated to oppose them both.

Yet Arendt was not a devoted anti-Communist: her actual goal was to offer a historical explanation for how the Jews came to be murdered by their neighbors. Thus she offers an explanation for the growth of the biological–rather than religious–sort of anti-Semitism that caused Jews to be seen as a race to be purged rather than a culture to be converted. To make this history work, she suggests that only an account of imperialistic racism can explain the development of ethnic concentration camps by which the tools for mass murder were developed.

Arendt rejects two possible explanations for anti-Semitism that still circulate today, that the Jews were merely randomly selected, and that the enmity against the Jews was somehow inevitable. First she rejects the “scapegoat” explanation by which the Jews were supposedly a convenient, innocent group upon which to a hang a community’s aggressions. As she puts it, “An ideology which has to persuade and mobilize people cannot choose its victim arbitrarily… the chief political and historical fact [is] that the [the forgery, “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”] is being believed.” (Origins, 7) Something, she argues, has to explain why it was not the “Protocols of the Elders of Romani” that motivated Nazi ideology, given that Rom and homosexuals were also murdered in large numbers. Anti- Semitism, though, was the motivating ideology that made the other murders conceivable: the gas chambers for Jews could be used to murder the disabled, but they were first built for the Jews.

Arendt goes on to argue that the idea of eternal enmity is also mistaken, because it misunderstood the role that Jewish assimilation into bourgeois culture had played in stocking the fires of a hatred that was no longer about the divide within Judeo-Christianity: “The Jews mistook modern anti-Christian anti-Semitism for the old religious Jew-hatred….” (Origins, 7) While religious Jew-hatred served a unifying function within Jewish communities, modern anti-Semitism nearly destroyed them, by replaced religious fervor (which could be nullified by conversion) with racial animosity (from which no assimilated parvenu could be safe.)

One of the main components of her story is the idea of a privileged group becoming superfluous: the Jews had had a role in Europe as usurers. When Protestantism and the industrial revolution forced Europeans to recognize that banking could be compatible with Christianity, it began to seem that Jews were irrelevant. Thus the network of trade, diplomacy, and credit that a few Jews helped to facilitate began to seem replaceable, and them men and women who had created and profited from it thus became dispensable, along with the mass of much poorer Jews who had no role at all but survived on the forbearance of sovereigns alone, who were themselves increasingly checked by democratic institutions and beholden to public opinion.

I call this an entitlement crisis, following Habermas’s usage in Legitimation Crisis. Habermas’s theory of the entitlement system, and the crisis that it can generate, depends on the idea that one of the primary functions that institutions in society must satisfy is justifying inequalities in the distribution of merit and material goods. An entitlement crisis is one in which the benefits and privileges of some class no longer seem deserved: when one has power without purpose or wealth without a visible role in production. Marx’s theory of exploitation invoked one entitlement crisis: the capitalist earns advantages at the expense of others, and these advantages are undeserved.

Habermas Political System

In modern society we don’t usually experience the capitalist in this way; we mythologize Bill Gates and Steve Jobs as somehow deserving their wealth, and worry that perhaps bankers and stock brokers do not. The Jews, however, had taken on a role in European society that made them seem as if they had privileges granted by the state that they didn’t deserve, while divorcing themselves (for good reason tied to the enmity of non-Jews) from the other classes that were not governing.

Meanwhile, the industrial revolution produced surplus capital in need of investment, and Europe also had many more superfluous men, who were put out of work and off their lands by the industrial revolution and had to make their way in a culture that no longer needed them. Capitalists thus became imperialists looking to use the state–and those surplus men–to open up foreign markets to their goods.

Only conquest could render foreign markets open to both their goods and their innovations without surrendering the future profits from both. Thus in a long discussion of Cecil Rhodes, Arendt argues that “expansion for expansion sake” is not actually a political ideal but a product of “business speculation.” It is the logic of the market–of ever-more-productive industry and ever-more-efficient transactions–taken as “the permanent and supreme aim of politics.” (Origins, 125) Yet there is an inevitable mismatch between the potentially limitless expansion of economics and the very limitations of legitimate consent required for the function of a nation-state. The project of unlimited growth is doomed to fail, and to create demands for isonomy wherever it touches.  (Origins, 126-8)

Imperialism, you see, is an allocation problem: how to re-allocate the benefits of increased productivity without losing the ownership stake that the capitalists had developed in those surpluses they call profits. Perhaps this allocation failure ought to create class conflict, but instead it created an alliance between surplus men and surplus money, an alliance between the mob and capital. And the mob was “a mass of people… free of all principles and so large numerically that they… could only be used only by imperialist politicians and inspired only by racist doctrines.” (Origins, 156-7) On Arendt’s account, the mob becomes a serious force in domestic politics when it begins to form movements to demand more imperialism, more conquest, and pride of place for the domestic mob against the colonies.

The mob’s first political movements are not leftist populism, but an effort to “imperialize the whole nation… for the looting of foreign territories and the permanent degradation of alien peoples.” (Origins, 155) As if recognizing that whole groups of surplus people will eventually be exterminated, the mob clamors for others to be disposed of first. That these techniques–the concentration camp, the racist registrations, the differential legal status–eventually make their way back to Europe to contribute to the mass extermination of the Jews was already prefigured in their imperial origins.

If Arendt is right, the bourgeoisie are to blame for totalitarianism, even when it ultimately turns on them. The mob only existed because the bourgeoisie refused to countenance the obvious solution: domestic redistribution of the increased productivity of the industrial revolution. This is one of the main motivators of my scholarship, though it’s usually quite far in the background: to develop an account of entitlements and merit that can sustain domestic equality and eliminate the threat of superfluousness in the face of our burgeoning wealth. Thus I worry about the way that the current political economy fails to find roles for people unless they are disciplined enough to attend college. And I worry more about the unspoken belief I see among my peers that the uneducated and unemployed are somehow to blame for their own useless existence, for not having made anything of themselves but a racist, and thus worthy of dismissal.

As I’ll argue in a future post, this is the flipside of the abusive policing and mass incarceration of African-Americans. The mob would not be a mob if it was not organized around racial and racist ideologies. As Arendt explains, the degradation of ethnic others is implicit in the mob’s origins, and–arguably–is the only purpose to which it can be put. It’s a provocative assertion, and hopefully historically bounded, but if Arendt is right then populism is always nationalist, and nationalism is always imperialist.

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