John A. Hobson

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John Atkinson Hobson (6 July 18581 April 1940), or J. A. Hobson, was an English economist, social scientist and critic of imperialism, widely popular as a lecturer and writer.


The Evolution of Modern Capitalism: A Study of Machine Production (1906)[edit]

Note: 1st edition was published in (1894)
  • This new and enlarged edition of The Evolution of Modern Capitalism contains additions and alterations so great as to constitute it in effect a new book.
    • Preface to the Revised Edition (October, 1906)

Ch. XVII Civilisation and Industrial Development[edit]

  • We now stand face to face with the main objection so often raised against all endeavours to remedy industrial and social diseases by the expansion of public control. ...The strife, danger, and waste of industrial competition are necessary conditions to industrial vitality.
  • Much individual enterprise in industry does not make for industrial progress. A larger and larger proportion of the energy given out in trade competition is consumed in violent warfare between trade rivals and is not represented either in advancement of industrial arts or in increase of material wealth.
  • History does not show greed of gain as the motive of the great steps in industrial progress. The love of science, the pure delight of mechanical invention, the attainment of some slight personal convenience in labour, and mere chance, play the largest part in the history of industrial improvements. These motives would be as equally operative under state-control as under private enterprise.
  • Industrial history shows that in modern competitive industry the motive of personal gain is most wastefully applied. On the one hand, the great mass of intelligent workers have no opportunity of securing an adequate reward for any special application of intelligence in mechanical invention or other improvement of industrial arts. Few great modern inventors have made money out of their inventions. On the other hand, the entrepreneur, with just enough business cunning to recognise the market value of an improvement, reaps a material reward which is often enormously in excess of what is economically required to induce him to apply his "business" qualities to the undertaking.
  • The substitution of industrialism for warfare is not... understood to imply a diminution of individual enterprise, but an alteration in its application.
  • All progress, from primitive savagedom to modern civilisation, will... appear as consisting in the progressive socialisation of the lower functions, the stoppage of lower forms of competition and of the education of the more brutal qualities, in order that a larger and larger proportion of individual activity may be engaged in the exercise of higher functions, the practice of competition upon higher planes, and the education of higher forms of fitness.
  • This is, in fact, the philosophical defence of progressive socialism, that human progress requires that one after another the lower material animal functions shall be reduced to routine, in order that a larger amount of individual effort may be devoted to the exercise of higher functions and the cultivation by strife of higher qualities.
  • Under socialized industry progress in the industrial arts would be slower and would absorb a smaller proportion of individual interest, in order that progress in the finer intellectual and moral arts might be faster, and might engage a larger share of life.
  • Higher progress can only be purchased by an economy of the work of lower progress, the free, conscious expression of higher individuality by the routine subordination of lower individuality.
  • Industrial progress would undoubtedly be slower under state-control, because the very object of such control is to divert a larger proportion of human genius and effort from these occupations in order to apply them in producing higher forms of wealth. It is not, however, right to assume that progress in the industrial arts would cease under state-industry; such progress would be slower, and would itself partake of a routine character—a slow, continuous adjustment of the mechanism of production and distribution to the slowly-changing needs of the community.
  • The case is a simple one. A mere increase in the variety of our material consumption relieves the strain imposed upon man by the limits of the material universe, for such variety enables him to utilise a larger proportion of the aggregate of matter. But in proportion as we add to mere variety a higher appreciation of those adaptations of matter which are due to human skill, and which we call Art, we pass outside the limits of matter and are no longer the slaves of roods and acres and a law of diminishing returns. So long as we continue to raise more men who demand more food and clothes and fuel, we are subject to the limitations of the material universe, and what we get ever costs us more and benefits us less. But when we cease to demand more, and begin to demand better, commodities, more delicate, highly finished and harmonious, we can increase the enjoyment without adding to the cost or exhausting the store. What artist would not laugh at the suggestion that the materials of his art, his colours, clay, marble, or what else he wrought in, might fail and his art come to an end? When we are dealing with qualitative, i.e. artistic, goods, we see at once how an infinite expenditure of labour may be given, an infinite satisfaction taken, from the meagrest quantity of matter and space. In proportion as a community comes to substitute a qualitative for a quantitative standard of living, it escapes the limitations imposed by matter upon man. Art knows no restrictions of space or size, and in proportion as we attain the art of living we shall be likewise free.

The Morals of Economic Irrationalism (1920)[edit]

  • Corporations are in a sense moral monsters; we say they behave as such and we are disposed to treat them as such. The standard of international morality, particularly in matters of commercial intercourse, is on a still lower level.
  • On what a slippery slope morality reposes.
  • Nations are represented not merely as self-centered, independent moral systems, but as, in some degree, mutually repellent systems. This notion is partly the product of the false patriotic teaching of our schools and press, which seek to feed our sense of national unity more upon exclusive than inclusive sentiments. Nations are represented as rivals and competitors in some struggle for power, or greatness, or prestige, instead of as coöperators in the general advance of civilization.
  • The generally accepted image of international trade is one in which a number of trading communities... are engaged in striving each to win for itself, and at the expense of the others, the largest possible share of a strictly limited objective—the world market. ... So far as world or international trade is rightly presented as a competitive process, that competition takes place not between America, Britain, Germany, but between a number of separate American, British, German, firms. The immediate interests of these firms is not directed along political lines.
  • The imputation of political significance to... statistics, taken either in aggregate or in relation to separate countries, as if they were themselves indices of public gain or public loss, has most injurious reactions upon the intelligent understanding of commerce.
  • It is untrue that the world market is strictly limited, with the consequence that every advance of one group of traders is at the expense of another group. The world market is indefinitely expansible and is always expanding...
  • Envisaging the whole range of foreign commerce... the image of it as a prize which governments can, and ought to win for their traders at the expense of the traders supported by other governments, has been a most fertile source of international misunderstanding.
  • Perhaps the worst of the three fallacies, and in a sense the deepest-rooted, is the concept of export trade as of more value than import trade.
  • The money received for sales has no other significance or value than its power to buy, and trade can only be imaged truly as an exchange of goods for goods in which the processes of selling and of buying are complementary.
  • If the interests of consumers and the interests of producers weighed equally in the eyes of governments, as they should, the strongest of all obstacles to a peaceful harmonious society of nations would be overcome. For the suspicions, jealousies, and hostilities of nations are inspired more by the tendency of groups of producers to misrepresent their private interests as the good of their respective countries than by any other single circumstance.
  • The richly nourished patriotism of war breeds divisions and antagonisms which are easily exploited afterwards by political, racial, religious, and cultural passions, but most of all by economic interests.
  • Economic nationalism means protective and discriminative tariffs, and a conservation of national, imperial or allied resources within a circle of favored beneficiaries.
  • Is it not the larger and the longer hope and interest of America to live as a great partner in... a society of nations, rather than to live a life of isolated prosperity... ?

Quotes about Hobson[edit]

  • Since invention is almost never the sole work of a single inventor... and since it is the product of the successive labors of innumerable men... it is merely a figure of speech to attribute an invention to a single person: this is a convenient falsehood fostered by a spurious sense of patriotism and by the device of patent monopolies... Any fully developed machine is a composite collective product: the present weaving machinery, according to Hobson, is a compound of about 800 inventions, while the present carding machinery is a compound of about 60 patents. This holds true for countries and generations as well: the joint stock of knowledge and technical skill transcends the boundaries of individual or national egos: and to forget that fact is not merely to enthrone superstition but to undermine the essential planetary basis of technology itself.
    • Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization (1934) Ch.3 "The Eotechnic Phase"
  • To the extent that people develop personal and esthetic interests, they are immune to trivial changes in style and they disdain to foster such low demands. Moreover, as Mr. J. A. Hobson has wisely pointed out, "if an undue amount of individuality be devoted to the production and consumption of food, clothing, etc., and the conscious, refined cultivation of these tastes, higher forms of individual expression in work and life will be neglected."
    • Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization (1934) Ch.8 "Orientation"
  • Once the major wants of mankind are satisfied by the machine process, our factory system must be on a basis of regular annual replacement instead of progressive expansion—not on a basis of premature replacement through debauched workmanship, adulterated materials, and grossly stimulated caprice. "The case," as Mr. J. A. Hobson again puts it, "is a simple one. A mere increase in the variety of our material consumption relieves the strain imposed upon man by the limits of the material universe, for such a variety enables him to utilize a larger proportion of the aggregate matter. But in proportion as we add to mere variety a higher appreciation of those adaptations of matter which are due to human skill, which we call Art, we pass outside the limit of matter and are no longer slaves of roods and acres and a law of diminishing returns." In other words: a genuine standard, once the vital physical wants are satisfied, tends to change the plane of consumption and therefore to limit, in a considerable degree, the extent of further mechanical enterprise.
    • Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization (1934) Ch.8 "Orientation"
  • Not the least advantage of basic communism would be the fact that it would tend to put a brake upon industrial enterprise. But such a brake, instead of being in the form of capitalist sabotage, or in the shocking dislocation of a commercial crisis, would be a gradual lessening of the speed of individual parts and a gearing of the whole organization into a steady routine of productivity. Mr. J. A. Hobson has put this matter with his usual insight and wisdom: "Industrial progress would undoubtedly be slower under state-control, because the very object of such control is to divert a larger proportion of human genius and effort from these occupations in order to apply them in producing higher forms of wealth..." However forbidding such a prospect looks to the enterpriser of the old order, humanly speaking it would represent a tremendous gain.
    • Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization (1934) Ch.8 "Orientation"
  • This practical condition, together with the failure of international-political theories to provide either convincing explanations or serviceable guidance for research, has provided adequate temptation to pursue reductionist approaches.
    The economic theory of imperialism developed by Hobson and Lenin is the best of such approaches. By "best" I mean not necessarily correct but rather most impressive as theory. The theory is elegant and powerful. Simply stated and incorporating only a few elements, it claims to explain the most important of international-political events-not merely imperialism but also most, if not all, modem wars-and even to indicate the conditions that would permit peace to prevail. The theory offers explanations and, unlike most theories in the social sciences, predictions as well. Moreover, it has successfully performed the other tasks that a good theory should accomplish: namely, stimulating and guiding research and· provoking counter-theories that claim to account for the same phenomena. All in all, the literature that can be attributed to the Hobson-Lenin theory of imperialism, both in support of the theory and against it, is as extensive and as sophisticated as the literature associated with any other school in the field of international politics.
    • Kenneth Waltz, Theory of International Politics (1979), Ch. 2 : Reductionist Theories

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