Aaron G. Jakes, Egypt’s Occupation: Colonial Economism and the Crises of Capitalism (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2020).
In 1901, Liang Qichao, a prominent Chinese journalist, wrote an essay entitled “The New Rules for Destroying Countries” (“Mieguo xinfan lun”). In it, he presented what he had come to understand were the patterns of nineteenth-century Euro-American colonial-imperialist world domination into which China was being drawn. Egypt is the first among five examples he cited of a people and a state crushed by these “new rules.” No simple military invasion or despoiling occupation, the new rules proceeded under a subtler logic. According to Liang, English financial advisers had inserted themselves into the Egyptian court, inducing the state to indebt itself so completely that international bankers could take over from within. This ingenious mode of domination constituted what Liang called “formless dismembering,” hardly detectable as it proceeds, and announcing itself suddenly once it has taken place. Without quite articulating it, Liang was theorizing the advent of finance capitalism in relation to colonialism, with Egypt at its core.
Separately, V. I. Lenin was writing his revolutionary treatise “What is to be Done” (“Shto delats”). In a pointed condemnation of what he calls “economism,” Lenin insisted that only an intertwined political and economic analysis could redirect the spontaneous Russian workers’ struggle hitherto limited to economic concerns. Economism was the error of designating the proletariat as merely a producing class, whose woes could be ameliorated through economic remediation alone. Lenin’s proposition was more radical: that the economic could not be sundered from the political struggle, and that the proletariat was the class that embodied this abstract and concrete historical principle.
Aaron Jakes’s Egypt’s Occupation takes up the relation between imperialist domination through the financialization of capitalism in the colonies and economism as a one-sided analytic mode in his comprehensive account of the British occupation of Egypt from 1882 to 1914. In a clarifying introduction, Jakes places the occupation in the context of intellectual debates over the nature of the capitalist crises of the mid-to-late nineteenth century. The crises, produced in the metropole, were analytically and practically worked out by yoking colonies as productive places and colonials as laboring and culturally marked/racially othered bodies to metropolitan concerns over empire. The yoking required the sundering of economic from political analysis, making Egypt a “laboratory in which to settle those greater questions of the Empire” (25). As Jakes asserts, the debates cannot be read as just so much self-serving justification because they marked out a new direction for global finance capitalism and colonial governance.
Egyptians were not passive recipients of British intellect. Rather, as the British colonial government became more caught up in economism as the only measure of success, Egyptians became more vocal about the politics and lived experiences of occupation. In recasting the static dynamic of nationalism as a rigid reaction to financial distress, Jakes breathes new life into emergent nationalist thinking as a sustained complex effort to understand and respond to conditions of life that could not be neatly divided into economic and noneconomic realms. As with all nationalisms of that era (and after), the conviction that native political control could solve capitalist crises was wrong, as, already by the 1920s, Egypt had been drawn “into a set of dependencies that had long since exceeded the particular institutions, colonial or otherwise, that first set them in motion” (30). This outcome does not vitiate the preceding decades of recognition and struggle.
Jakes’s theoretical coordinates—Benedict Anderson, Timothy Mitchell, and Andrew Sartori, among others—are familiar. While he builds on their insights, his approach is critical of the idea that nationalism is always already merely derivative of colonial thinking. Instead, Jakes brings out the creativity of Egyptian thinkers and he shows that, as they engaged with colonial thought, they remained relentlessly materialist in their concern with the everyday problems of livelihood and survival.
The first three chapters chart the occupation’s institutional and dis- cursive arrangements from the 1840s through the early twentieth century. As Jakes demonstrates, the original goal of British colonial governance was to enhance the productivity of smallholder farmers by linking their forced turn to cotton-growing for export to the global market and capital investment/ speculation. This original infrastructural aim was underpinned by a discursive justification that the British were ridding Egypt of age-old (oriental) despotism in favor of establishing the foundations for liberal governance, the latter securing and facilitating the financial extraction to which liberalism is inevitably hitched. The British restructuring of rural space and agrarian social relations, operating in concert with Egyptian elite initiatives, severely constrained the room for maneuver of the Egyptian peasantry, who had long used the porousness of the relations among land, property, labor, and power to gain whatever advantages they could. Peasants were now locked firmly in place, and when capitalist crisis hit, their indebtedness left them relatively defenseless. By 1905, superficial prosperity hid roiling discontent with economic development but also with colonial legitimacy.
In chapter 4, Jakes documents how the Egyptian journalist Ahmad Hilmi recognized the British discourse of development as “gilded speech” that created an economistic reality without accounting for the lived complexity of actual Egyptians. As Jakes puts it: “despite the occupation’s command over the means of representation, the shared sentiments and experiences of the Egyptian people were irreducible to the charts and tables that adorned the pages of Cromer’s annual reports” (118). In comparing Egypt’s poverty to the British-produced poverty of Ireland, for example, the economic boom of gushing capital investment was revealed to be a mechanism of wealth accumulation for the few. Not content with noting the gap between rhetoric and reality, Hilmi and others analyzed the colonial infrastructures of finance and credit, of land prices and cotton cultivation, to understand the relation between the flightiness of capital investment and the enduring need for survival. The 1906 Dinshaway incident, when British soldiers and Egyptian peasants engaged in deadly confrontation, was one denouement of this clash. In the aftermath, for the British and British-aligned press, Egyptians were “terrorists,” “fanatics,” a “nation of ingrates” (133); and for increasingly enraged Egyptians, the British were the terrorists, carriers of injustice, domineering and dominating, creators of suffering and fear and poverty wheresoever they roamed.
Yet the nature of the crisis remained confused: was it land? Credit? Market access? Debt? Spontaneous or long-harbored? Jakes’s account makes clear that the multifaceted crisis primarily was linked to the globalized “finance tectonics” of the early twentieth century (146). Egypt’s cotton empire was particularly shaken by the swift move from economic crash to full-blown crisis. If the crisis was financial, and the reins of finance were held in British hands, then clearly Egyptians would need to seize the lead. Eventually the financial crisis had real-world effects: rents rising, wages falling, credit drying up, prices inflating, productivity withering, debt strangling, immiseration spreading throughout the ostensibly prosperous Egyptian peasantry. In strode nationalists, who proposed rural cooperatives as bulwarks against the global market and whose grand ambition was to “devise institutions that would pool the collective capital of the Egyptian public and allow it to grow within the country’s borders” (163). This cooperative autonomy would continue to be based in cotton grown for export.
Movements for self-rule soon followed, with demands for a constitution, British removal, and Egyptian independence. Turmoil in the Ottoman Empire, namely the Young Turk Revolution, lent impetus to the Egyptian unrest. For the British, the unrest was explained through an economistic logic. And yet mass politics was on the horizon. The years 1908–10 present a conjunctural moment, in Jakes’s telling, when economic, political, intellectual, and social roiling came to a popular head. The formation of Egypt’s many political parties took account of the economic and political entanglements. Urban workers surged into political activity; strikes and unions multiplied. These politics tended almost universally toward nationalist arguments for sovereignty, eschewing countervailing British arguments that only colonial governance could cope with economic distress. By 1912–14, the defaults of Egyptian smallholders belied the British claim. That British economism could and would not bring prosperity – indeed, that it had enhanced inequality and crippled the smallholder peasantry—yielded a racialized logic about Egyptian “lack” in British commentary and an anti-British political logic among Egyptians. All Egyptians regardless of class were racially marked by Britain, rendering the nationalist argument about autonomy very plausible. New bards of anti-colonial national unity, such as ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Rafi‘i, subjected economism to strict critique, while relocating freedom from the liberal market and waged labor to the emergence of the independent nation. When the war’s end exposed the scope and rapaciousness of British requisitions and extractions from Egypt, the conditions for the revolutionary movement of 1919 were already well prepared.
In its theoretical and empirical exposition of the relationship between colonial governance and economism, this ambitious book’s reach goes far beyond Middle East studies. It is about the modern global structures of domination and subordination wrought in and through the instantiation of capitalist relations across the world in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This history is a past, but it has not passed. Those structures—remade as they continuously have been over the last century—continue to shape our world, albeit now with China joining in the global movement toward “formless dismembering” and with economism wedded to culturalism in as potently poisonous a discourse as ever. In mining Egypt’s past, Jakes’s book contributes hugely to this critique of our present.