Colonial economics and the crises of capitalism

The theoretical coordinates of Jakes – Benedict Anderson, Timothy Mitchell and Andrew Sartori, among others – are familiar. While he builds on their ideas, his approach critiques the idea that nationalism is always already simply derived from colonial thought. Instead, Jakes brings out the creativity of Egyptian thinkers and he shows that, while engaging in colonial thought, they remained relentlessly materialistic in their concern with everyday issues of sustenance and survival.

Ee IfThe first three chapters trace the institutional and discursive arrangements of the occupation from the 1840s to the beginning of the 20th century. As Jakes demonstrates, the original aim of British colonial governance was to improve the productivity of smallholder farmers by linking their forced shift to growing cotton for export to the world market and investment/speculation in capital. EThis original infrastructural aim was underpinned by a discursive justificationIfcation that the British were ridding Egypt of secular (eastern) despotism in favor of establishing the foundations of liberal governance, the latter securing and facilitating the Ifthe financial extraction to which liberalism is inevitably linked. EThe British restructuring of rural space and agrarian social relations, carried out in concert with the initiatives of the Egyptian elites, severely constrained the room for maneuver of the Egyptian peasantry, which had long used the porous relations between land, property , work and power to earn money. all the advantages they could. The peasants were now locked up Iffirmly in place, and when the capitalist crisis hit, their indebtedness decreasedft relatively defenseless. In 1905, greatIfsocial prosperity hid a bubbling discontent with economic development but also with colonial legitimacy.

In Chapter 4, Jakes documents how the Egyptian journalist Ahmad Hilmi recognized the British development discourse as a “golden discourse” that created an economistic reality without taking into account the complexity experienced by present-day Egyptians. As Jakes puts it, “despite the Occupation’s control over the means of representation, the shared feelings and experiences of the Egyptian people were irreducible to the charts and tables that adorned the pages of Cromer’s annual reports” (118). Comparing the poverty of Egypt to the poverty of Ireland produced by the British, for example, the economic boom of massive capital investment was found to be a mechanism of wealth accumulation for the few. Not content to note the gap between rhetoric and reality, Hilmi and others have analyzed the colonial infrastructure of Iffinance and credit, land prices and cotton growing, to understand the relationship between the volatility of capital investment and the persistent need for survival. The Dinshaway Incident in 1906, when British soldiers and Egyptian peasants engaged in a deadly confrontation, was one of the outcomes of this clash. In the aftermath, for the British and British-aligned press, Egyptians were “terrorists”, “fanatics”, a “nation of ingrates” (133); and to increasingly enraged Egyptians, the British were the terrorists, bringers of injustice, rulers and dominators, creators of suffering, fear and poverty wherever they wandered.

Yet the nature of the crisis remained unclear: was it land? Credit? Market access? Debt? Spontaneous or longstanding? Jakes’ account makes it clear that the multifaceted crisis was primarily about globalization”Ifnance tectonics” from the early 20th century (146). The Egyptian cotton empire was particularly shaken by the swift go from an economic crash to a real crisis. If the crisis was Iffinancial, and the reins of Ifnance were in British hands, it was clear that the Egyptians had to take the lead. Finally the Ifthe financial crisis had a real impactffects: rise in rents, fall in wages, drying up of credit, prices infldecreasing productivity, strangling debt, impoverishment spreading through the ostensibly prosperous Egyptian peasantry. In the aftermath, the nationalists, who proposed rural cooperatives as a bulwark against the global market and whose great ambition was to “design institutions that would bring together the collective capital of the Egyptian public and allow it to grow within the country’s borders (163). EThis cooperative autonomy would continue to rely on cotton grown for export.

Home rule movements soon followed, with demands for a constitution, British withdrawal and Egyptian independence. The unrest in the Ottoman Empire, namely the Young Turk Revolution, gave impetus to the Egyptian unrest. For the British, the troubles were explained by an economist logic. And yet mass politics was on the horizon. EThe years 1908-1910 present a conjunctural moment in Jakes’ narrative when economic, political, intellectual, and social turmoil reached a popular peak. EThe formation of many Egyptian political parties took into account economic and political intertwinings. Urban workers broke into political activity; strikes and unions are on the rise. EThese policies tended almost universally towards nationalist arguments for sovereignty, avoiding the opposing British arguments that only colonial governance could deal with economic distress. In 1912–14, payment defaults by Egyptian smallholders belied the British claim. Eto British economics could and would not bring prosperity – indeed, that it had increased inequality and crippled the small peasantry – produced a racialized logic about Egyptian “lack” in British commentary and an anti-British political logic among Egyptians. All Egyptians, regardless of social class, were racially marked by Britain, which made the nationalist self-rule argument very plausible. New bards of anti-colonial national unity, such as ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Rafi’i, subjected economism to harsh criticism, while shifting the freedom of the liberal market and wage labor to the emergence of independent nation. When the end of the war revealed the scale and rapacity 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, the scope of this ambitious work goes far beyond Middle Eastern studies. It is about the modern global structures of domination and subordination forged in and through the instantiation of capitalist relations across the world in the 19th and 20th centuries. EThis story is a past, but it is not past. EThese structures – remade as they have been continually over the past century – continue to shape our world, even as China now joins the global movement towards “formless dismemberment” and with economism married to culturalism in a speech as powerfully toxic as ever. In Egypt’s mining past, Jakes’ book contributes enormously to this critique of our present.

Michael A. Bynum