Great Britain’s Colonialism and It’s Transformation

Published: 2021-07-05 05:30:05
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Category: Asia, Europe

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The 19th century saw many changes, from the First and Second Industrial Revolutions to the collapse and expansion of empires. This largely involved Great Britain (GB). I argue that the ability for countries like GB to colonise other countries is the basis for the development of international division of labour (IDOL). However, it also came with inequality and damage to the colonies and colonial powers. For purposes of this essay, I will be focusing mainly on GB’s colonialism and it’s transformation.
To begin, we will explore the reasons why GB would seek to colonise and build empires. First, colonies can be used for commercial intentions like trade, acting as sources for capital. As Lenin says, imperialism is the highest stage of capitalism. Raw materials can be traded, labour markets formed and new markets opened, allowing a hegemon like GB to expand their capital as they did with the East India Company. On the other hand, Smith argues that colonialism is economically irrational as it hinders growth and is an unproductive form of investment. However, he believes that colonialism is carried out for national pride and at the benefit of the elite and not for economic benefits. This is in line with the idea of the zero-sum game by mercantilist theory: one state’s gain is another’s loss. Establishing empires overseas was used to become as self-sufficient as possible since trade between empires was discouraged. It becomes a symbol of power where an empire with more colonies is more powerful especially if the colonies have a monopoly over a product. Thus, colonialism may be a means to gain power and status even at an economic cost. To summarise, it seems that GB colonised for commercial reasons and to gain power and pride.In context of the nineteenth century, the IDOL referred to the specialisation of different stages of production in different countries. Smith talks about specialisation in the division of labour by industry – where countries may be superior in manufacturing compared to agriculture and vice versa. One would produce what they specialises in producing and trades the surplus for what they do not specialise in. So why would colonialism be the basis for IDOL? For simplicity, I will focus mainly on the relationship between GB and India. Colonialism initially had mercantilist ideologies – that is to establishing trade links and gain power over rival empires. An instance would be the state-backed East India Company going to India to trade spices and textiles. In this understanding of colonialism, we see specialisation of production with India producing spices and textiles, as there was a demand for it. GB reaped high amounts of profit from this trade as they continued to expand their capital. If I could speculate, it is likely that without colonialism and in turn relationships between countries, there would be no or little specialised trade across countries as countries would need to produce everything on their own and be self-sufficient. Thus, it seems that colonialism is the basis for the IDOL. However, India’s position changed with the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution led to an increase in productivity, allowing British manufacturers to spin cotton at 1/370th of the time of Indian spinners. GB now specialised in producing textiles, labelled as ‘workshop of the world’, allowed GB to deindustrialise the Indian industry by exporting British textiles at far lower prices. GB had an insatiable demand for labour, raw materials and new markets to increase profits. With India deindustrialised, GB could obtain the cotton from India by means of colonialism. India then became a source for cotton as well as a capital market for British textiles since textiles were no longer produced in India. Once again, it can be argued that without colonialism, the GB-India relationship would have a different dynamic. The transformation of India’s specialisation from manufacturing to supplying cotton seems to be the result of the relationship it had with GB. Conversely, GB may not have had the success it did, if India was not one of their colonies.As colonialism shifted to more liberalist ideologies – with the repeal of corn laws and the free market, GB was able to colonise more countries. GB’s indirect hegemonic power could convince other states ‘to want what you want’ instead of force them ‘to do what you want’. Additionally, with the expansion of capital and vast amount of profits gained, it allowed for a powerful Royal Navy to ensure safe trade routes. They also had enough resources to undertake gunboat diplomacy for many of the non-European colonies and diplomatic approaches with European countries where they put in free-trade agreements and most favoured nation treatments. GB was able to obtain access to new markets with low tariff levels. This meant obtaining raw materials at cheap prices from their colonies and sell their manufactured commodities back to them. It is notable that what GB manufactured were necessities that many needed, at a low cost that it became too competitive for other countries to compete with. What made their goods even more competitive was the fact that they could export and produce goods at a much lower price than other countries due to the sheer amount of power they had over their colonies. Thus, this supports the argument that colonialism has allowed the development of IDOL, with countries specialising in different products and GB gaining the most from the situation. Even though GB gained a lot of capital and profits, others lost out.
Looking at the use of liberalist theory where the focus is on the free market expected to balance themselves, the human element seems to be missing. What happens to the labourers and merchants affected by the effects of liberalism? Marxist theory thus lends an answer which states that the rapid development of IDOL led to uneven development as some centres increased their wealth and growth at the expense of others. These others include those that in colonies, other countries and even those in GB. First, we look at the unequal effects on the colonies. GB used violence to liberalise Asiatic markets facing strict control. Coercion, ranging from military intervention to negotiation backed by the threat of force, was used rather readily to open up third world markets. The difference in how GB dealt with European and non-European countries is striking, arguable showing how GB viewed the colonies as ‘underdeveloped’. Colonialism as it was, changed in meaning as GB sought colonies not for solely trade purposes but now to reshape land and labour regimes so as to facilitate the transfer of resources back to GB. They used violence, rigged market transactions and extracted surplus to benefit themselves, at the cost of the people in the colonies. On top of that, places like India were deindustrialised, breaking up native communities and social structures. The deindustrialisation meant that natural resources were usurped and subsistence farming was massively expanaded, forcing rural people into labouring for the colonial state. The labourers became slaves to the colonial state, losing independence. Furthermore, as GB goods became more competitive, with liberalism, other countries lost out as they were unable to compete. For instance, the IDOL led to the Americans to be confined to the production of agricultural production. This led to a need for nationalistic protectionist policies in those countries to protect the national interests, going against the idea of a free market. Some may argue that these protectionist policies do not help labourers who are stuck in wage labour.
Now we look at the unequal distribution in GB. In GB, there was social division of labour could be seen in the finance sectors in the cities, manufacturing and agricultural sectors in the outskirts. Although on a whole, GB gained plenty, in reality, the industrialists gained most of the benefits. With the newly free and open market, the cost of production was lowered. However, there was still a drive to lower costs even more through lower wages. With the enactment of the Poor Law Amendment Act to get more labourers into the market, wages were lowered even more as there was greater supply of workers. Even though labourers had access to cheaper goods, it still meant that labourers were getting paid less in order for the industrialists to earn more profits by lowering costs. It seems to be an endless cycle of wage and cost reduction. Similar to the colonies, labour became nothing but a commodity to be traded for wages. As Smith puts it, the division of labour became ‘the sole employment of his life’. Marx also brings this concept out where he says that they ‘live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labour increases capital’. There was a loss of independence and a dependence on the labour market was formed. There were no longer any social welfare policies to rely on. In this sense, as Polanyi says, laissez-faire was planned. The formation of such policies by GB, at the cost of the labourers, shows how little value the labourers were to the state. Furthermore, the implementation of the ‘Gold Standard’ meant that deflation and unemployment were borne by the working class while the industrialists gained all the profits. It also meant that only the minority were allowed to vote since the elites favoured the gold standard. In conclusion, the effects of IDOL was distributed unevenly not just the colonies but those in GB as well – economically and socially.
In conclusion, it seems that the development of IDOL was path dependent, contingent on many factors like colonialism that occurred in the nineteenth century. To some extent, it has shaped the IDOL that we see in the world today. Similar to the nineteenth century, the positions of each country are ever changing as new waves of industrial revolution come about. Ultimately, with the unequal distribution, the question that arises up to today regardless of liberalist, Marxist and nationalist perspective is: do the governments take up policies for personal or elitist gain or sincerely for welfare of the people of the country?

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