Was Imperialism the “Belle Epoque” of Globalization?

Author : Bogdan Cristea | Monday, February 27, 2012
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General Notions

The imperialistic ideas of the 19th century might in many ways be interpreted as Universalist, from the notion of the civilizing mission of the white man to the “transplantation” of political systems to the colonized areas. But was imperialism truly globalizing and was the age of imperialism really the beautiful era – the “belle époque” – of globalization? In order to perform a deeper analysis of the aforementioned question, it is imperative that certain key concepts are first clarified and defined before arguments for or against this query are presented.

In a strict sense, imperialism has been defined as “an unequal human and territorial relationship, based on ideas of superiority and practices of dominance, and involving the extension of authority and control of one state or people over the other”[1]. If imperialism is to be seen as globalizing at all, a different definition for the term should be adopted altogether, since an unequal relationship and practices of dominance are detrimental to the very idea of globalization. Thus, this work will consider imperialism as an ideology which promotes the expansion of certain cultural values, political systems and economical models to the acquired territories of the European empires of the 19th century. While in this case it might be argued that the process was not globalization but rather a “westernalization” or “Europeanization”, a claim like that would threaten the very idea that true globalization might at all exist in practice and make for a whole different discussion altogether. Thus, the present paper will not discuss this argument for the time being and focus, instead, on the assignment at hand.

Globalization has been described, in strictly economical terms as being, “the process of creating a common economic space which leads to a growing integration of the world economy through increasingly free movement of goods, capital and labor”[2]. It is important, however, to be prudent into defining a concept as complex as globalization from a strictly economical point of view, when phenomenons such as the ones described in the definition above – free movement of capital, labor and goods – will always involve further issues, be they sociological, political or cultural. It is thus necessary to adopt a more encompassing characterization of globalization, which looks at it from multiple points of view, rather than see it as a strictly economical event. This paper will treat globalization as a mixture of economics, migration of people, policy and politics plus a series of other, secondary, but nevertheless important factors which are to be described further on.

Factors of globalization and their prevalence in the “Belle Époque”

Migration is regarded as being one of the key factors of globalization. If this is the case, then the age of imperialism has indeed been one of mass migration and could even be considered the “belle époque” of this phenomenon. Most migration took place from east to west, from the so-called “old world” to the new, and mostly in the first half of the 19th century. The migrants who set forward for their great journeys would finally settle into the “melting pots” of the new world which would bring them together and cause a high degree of cultural exchange.[3] The different ethnicity of the migrants also lead to the usage of vehicular languages – usually in the shape of French or English – between the different linguistic groups, contributing further to the cultural exchange. Moreover, this epoch also witnessed attempts to create a synthetic, global language for worldwide usage, though attempts like these would ultimately prove to be unsuccessful.[4] Taking into account the scale of the migrations from the first half of the 19th century and the cultural exchange taking place with it, this experience can truly be considered globalizing and be seen as a strong statement as to why the age of imperialism could be thought of as the “belle époque” of globalization.

The series of policies and the political events of the “belle époque” can also be seen as integrating, since the migrants would bring with them the political system of the Metropolis. This was the age when international law was crystallized and the basic principles for international relations and interactions were laid down, albeit the fact that in order for the sovereignty of a state to be recognized, the respective state needed to be constituted among the lines of the European models.[5] It is also important to mention the existence of the so-called “Concert of Europe”, a system of conferences among the Great European Powers of the 19th century, which functioned throughout the duration of the imperial age, which could be considered as a primitive system of global governance since all the important decisions regarding the interests of the great empires were taken in the frame of the Concert.

Of all factors, the economical is probably the most important engine that drives globalization. During the age of imperialism, economical interdependency had reached levels never recorded before. Fueled by the development of new transportation technologies and infrastructure, the amount of world trade increased substantially, which lead to the creation of a global market during the 19th century.[6] This new, global market, made possible by the new routes of communication, lead in turn to another very important marker of globalization, commodity price convergence, leveling the differences between prices of goods throughout the world.[7]

In a similar context, the mass migration of people was, in economical terms, a movement of the workforce. The further development of industry increased the need for raw materials, which could be found in the colonies migrants had settled; combined with the free flow of capital, another essential marker of economical globalization, this induced a worldwide convergence of wages[8] and further increased the degree of interdependency. In simple terms, the expansion of the European empires created a process of complete economical integration between the industrialized metropolises and the colonies which supplied raw materials.

The Belle Époque, not a globalizing age after all?

While the reasons for which the age of imperialism might be considered the “belle époque” of globalization have been listed above, the arguments which might show that the respective age was not globalizing should not be ignored.

While it can not be denied that the great empires of Europe had an integrating effect politically and economically over the territories they controlled, it should not be overlooked that at the time several different empires existed, each with its own ideas, ideals, interests, policies and economies. It should not be forgotten that these empires viewed each other as natural rivals and that, towards the second half of the 19th century, the Congress system was starting to show signs of weakness, being unable to maintain the peace among the powers. So the question which should be posed here would be: can one really speak of globalization in the imperial age, when in fact we are dealing with several empires, each with different policies and each trying to assert their interests over the others?

Furthermore, it should be reminded that the beginning of the 19th century brought about the birth of the Monroe Doctrine in the United States of America. This stated that the European powers were not to intervene any further into the western hemisphere, thus closing half of the globe to the European empires.[9] Therefore, the question that might be asked here is: can the age of imperialism really be seen as a belle époque of globalization, when the two hemispheres had a policy of non-intervention with each other?.

While the economic integration inside the empires can not be easily contested, it is a matter of debate if the economy became global indeed during that age. The Great Powers were quick to realize the vulnerability they would be facing by allowing a completely open global market. Thus, in their struggle for supremacy, the empires started imposing protectionist measures, meant to stimulate the development of their own industry and safeguard themselves from the competition a single, global economy might have had.[10] Thus, even the existence of one truly global, interdependent economy can be questioned in this context.

The second half of the 19th century was to witness the creation of another barrier in the face of another important factor of globalization, migration. In an attempt to assert their interests, European powers would introduce much more rigorous border controls for people from outside their borders, hampering thus the migration of the work force. Passports were for the first time introduced on a massive scale for workers living on the other side of the borders and strict checks and quarantines were imposed.[11]

Summary and Conclusions

While the age of imperialism possessed a significant number of markers of globalization, further developments, particularly in the second half of the 19th century, could rob it of the title “Belle Époque” of globalization. It is true that factors, such as mass migration, economical integration, increased internationalization and development of infrastructure and technologies might make the epoch seem like a globalizing experience, but the fragmentation of the world through the existence of several empires, protectionist economical measures and obstacles set in the face of migration show a more realistic image.

Furthermore, the initial definition of imperialism, which was disregarded for the purpose of performing this assignment, is in no way void of validity, and the fact that imperialism is, in essence, only the dominance of one system over another, one economy over another and one nation over another is in no way a positive aspect of the 19th century. In the absence of equality among nations, one can not really speak of a true globalization, but rather an imposition of the values of one nation over another.

If one was to look at the facts occurring today, such as the national borders being strictly controlled, massive usage of passport and most of all, the nation-state becoming (again) a key actor in the economical sector as a result of the worldwide financial crisis, they couldn’t help but wonder if true globalization will ever exist or if the existence of it is even desirable.

Author: Bogdan Cristea, M.A. International Studies

bogdan.cristea@workmail.com

References:



[1] Derek Gregory, Ron Johnston et al., The Dictionary of Human Geography, Chichester, United Kingdom, Wiley-Blackwell, 2009, p. 373.

[2] Deepak Lal, In Praise of Empires. Globalization and Order, New York, Palgrave MacMillan, 2004, p. xix.

[3] Gary B. Magee, Andrew S. Thompson, Empires and Globalization: Networks of People, Goods and Capital in the British World, c. 1850-1914, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2010, p. 64-70.

[4] A. G. Hopkins, Globalization in World History, New York & London, W.W. Norton & Company, 2002,  p. 141-159.

[5] Jorg Fisch, Dissolving International Society, in Martin H. Geyer and Johannes Paulmann , ed., The Mechanics of Internationalism: Culture, Society, and Politics  from the 1840s to the First World War, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2001, p.  248.

[6] Luke Martell, The Sociology of Globalization, Cambridge, Polity Press, 2010, p. 56.

[7] Kevin O’ Rourke, Jeffrey Williamson, European Review of Economic History, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002, p. 38-39.

[8] Kevin O’Rourke, Jeffrey Williamson, Around the European Periphery 1879-1913: Globalization, Schooling and Growth, NBER Working Paper, 1995, p. 8.

[9] The address of the President of the United States of America, James Monroe, to the American Congress, December 2, 1823, http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/documents/documents_p2.cfm?doc=392

[10] Kevin O’Rourke, Jeffrey Williamson, Around the European Periphery 1879-1913: Globalization, Schooling and Growth, NBER Working Paper, 1995, p. 30-31.

[11] Sebastian Conrad, Globalization effects: mobility and nation in Imperial Germany, 1880-1914, Journal of Global History, 2008, Vol. 3, Iss. 1, p. 57-59.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Primary sources

1)     The address of the President of the United States of America, James Monroe, to the American Congress, December 2, 1823, http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/documents/documents_p2.cfm?doc=392

Secondary sources

1)     Conrad, Sebastian, Globalization effects: mobility and nation in Imperial Germany, 1880-1914, Journal of Global History, 2008, Vol. 3, Iss. 1.

2)     Fisch, Jorg, Dissolving International Society, in Martin H. Geyer and Johannes Paulmann , ed., The Mechanics of Internationalism: Culture, Society, and Politics  from the 1840s to the First World War, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2001.

3)     Hopkins, A. G., Globalization in World History, New York & London, W.W. Norton & Company, 2002.

4)     Lal, Deepak, In Praise of Empires. Globalization and Order, New York, Palgrave MacMillan, 2004.

5)     Magee, Gary B., Thompson, Andrew S.,  Empires and Globalization: Networks of People, Goods and Capital in the British World, c. 1850-1914, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2010.

6)     Martell, Luke, The Sociology of Globalization, Cambridge, Polity Press, 2010.

7)     O’Rourke, Kevin, Williamson, Jeffrey, European Review of Economic History, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002.

8)     O’Rourke, Kevin, Williamson, Jeffrey, Around the European Periphery 1879-1913: Globalization, Schooling and Growth, NBER Working Paper, 1995.

Instruments

1)     Gregory, Derek, Johnston, Ron et al., The Dictionary of Human Geography, Chichester, United Kingdom, Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.

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