The Geometry of Imperialism: The Limits of Hobson’s Paradigm

Viewing many meanings of imperialism through a single, formal model.

Few terms in the vocabulary of politics are so confused as “imperialism.” Does it refer essentially to colonial rule? Or is it primarily an economic phenomenon, connected to the export of capital? What is its relation to nationalism? Which societies, in the past or present, can be properly described as imperialist?

Giovanni Arrighi resolves these ambiguities by the construction of a formal model that integrates all of them into a single structure. He shows how a coherent paradigm of imperialism can be derived from Hobson’s classic study of imperialism at the turn of the century, and illustrates it with a series of geometrical figures. The genesis of English imperialism is traced, from the seventeenth to twentieth centuries. Then the pattern of German and American imperialism are compared and contrasted. Arrighi looks at the consequences of the rise of multinational corporations for the traditional versions of the concept of imperialism and concludes that they transform its meaning.

In a new afterword, Arrighi responds to his critics and sketches a reconceptualized theory of “imperialism” as a struggle for world hegemony.


  • Nationalism and Imperialism: The Premises of Hobson's Definition

    Giovanni Arrighi's The Geometry of Imperialism was published by New Left Books in 1978, in a translation by Patrick Camiller. "I was disturbed, at the time," Arrighi later told David Harvey, "by the terminological confusions that were swirling around the term ‘imperialism’. My aim was to dissipate some of the confusion by creating a topological space in which the different concepts, which were often all confusingly referred to as ‘imperialism’, could be distinguished from one another."

    In Marxist debate, Arrighi argued, such confusions could be traced to Lenin's classical theory of imperialism, which at times fails to clearly distinguish it from "the monopoly stage of capitalism" or "finance capital." Arrighi's study would then be neither 
    "a simple reproduction of the thought of this or that theoretician" nor the development of a new theory of imperialism, but rather an examination of "the presuppositions of the theory of imperialism in order to explicate, specify, and delimit them." Those presuppositions were to be located not in Lenin's own theory, but in that of J.A. Hobson, which preceded it.

    In the excerpt below, the book's first chapter, Arrighi identifies 
    four primary elements of Hobson's conception of imperialism and isolates them in the form of Weberian ideal types, which them serve as the coordinates for his "topological" reconstruction. 

    It is no easy task to define the concept of imperialism. The same term is customarily used to designate diverse, and in certain respects antithetical, concepts. Indeed, theoretical controversy is often based on nothing more than a failure to grasp what is the object of reference.

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Other books by Giovanni Arrighi