"American Progress, John Gast (1872)." Wikimedia Commons.
Accessed January 30, 2018. https://commons.wikimedia.org
Walter LaFeber’s The New Empire exposes "white" America’s drive for economic conquest by delineating imperial expansionism (alternatively, encroachment) as an outward-gazing product of the Industrial Revolution. In contrast to settler colonialism as articulated by Moses Finley, LaFeber traces the American empire’s quest to acquire new overseas markets and investment opportunities free from the constraints and responsibilities of total administrative dominion. American foreign policy has always been capitalist in nature, made to support trade agreements and monopolies that bolster the domestic economy. Finley similarly articulates the role of policymaking in colonization. In this way, are modern imperialism and colonialism necessarily bureaucratic? Are they are inherently exploitative (as Finley also proposes)? Indeed, Richard Hofstadter’s “Cuba, the Philippines, and Manifest Destiny” describes a process of “benevolent imperialism” wherein the myth of American exceptionalism and democracy informs and inspires a paternalistic intervention in other countries.
LaFaber opens with a discussion of how “the Civil War marked the transference of power from planters to industrialists and financiers” (7). I would like to see if we could examine this transition not from the perspective of the slaver and his capitalist cronies-cum-competitors, but from the perspectives of enslaved peoples (as well as poor white laborers). As power was, indeed, transferred from one ruling economic power to another, how did subaltern groups experience the change – from enslavement to sharecropping and the beginnings of the prison-industrial complex? How might these new forms of exploitation be linked to imperialist processes? Indeed, how does the “white man’s burden” fit into this? Hofstadter explains the dual moods of expansionist ideology – humanitarianism and aggression (150). Does the slaver’s paternalism mirror that of the imperialt’s whims?
LaFeber does not consistently apply racialized, gendered, or sexed dynamics to his analysis. Granted, his work was published in the early days of the New Social History movement. How might his analysis be updated? How might we parse racism and ethnocentrism as driving forces for expansion/encroachment? In the index, for instance, LaFeber includes his section on missionary colonialism in China under “Racism.” He claims “the fact that the area was non-white made the Far East a natural target for missionary enthusiasm” (306). He goes on to argue that American political and economic imperialism followed suit. Conversion of China came in four forms – dietary, aesthetic, customary, and spiritual – and made it more receptive to American imports. Cultural imperialism preceded everything else. Though American investors used the missionaries’ ideology to their advantage, does it, perhaps, undermine LaFeber’s argument that the New Empire was a solely or inherently capitalistic venture? Hofstadter quotes Julius W. Pratt: “The need of American business for colonial markets … was not discovered by business men but by historians and other intellectuals, by journalists and politicians” (164).
LaFeber’s book also provides several entry points for probing both imperial and colonial typologies. I am interested in his use of Fredrick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis: “So long as free land exists, the opportunity for a competency exists, and economic power secures political power” (66). What, exactly, is “free land?” LaFeber does not explore this question, taking for granted its implications. We must define what the colonizer or imperialist means when he says “free land,” and recognize that it may mean many different things to different groups. Only then can we link geographic, economic and political hegemonies as intersecting (or conditional) spheres of influence.