Egypt's Occupation
Colonial Economism and the Crises of Capitalism
Aaron G. Jakes




LORD CROMER WAS AN UNRELIABLE NARRATOR of Egypt’s past, present, and future. Through a quarter century as Great Britain’s agent and consul-general in Cairo, he exercised minute control over the official narrative of the peculiar regime he was charged to oversee.1 British forces invaded the country in 1882 to secure payment on Egypt’s crippling foreign debts and to quash the movement for fiscal sovereignty and constitutional rule that had formed under the Egyptian military officer Ahmad ʿUrabi Pasha. The legal status of the ensuing occupation was murky at best. Formally, Egypt remained a semiautonomous territory of the Ottoman Empire, ruled by the sultan’s khedive (vice-regent) and his Council of Ministers. Backed by the resident threat of their troops garrisoned in downtown Cairo, a small British staff exercised effective control over government policy as “advisers” to the various ministries.

Cromer understood that the case for this “veiled protectorate” would rest upon the results it could deliver. From the moment he became consul-general until his final years in England, he was an assiduous curator of the occupation’s public image. He obsessed over the annual reports that showcased the “progress of reforms.”2 He forbade subordinates from airing their disagreements with his policies.3 After leaving Egypt in 1907, he ordered the staff of the British consulate in Cairo to burn his papers.4 And upon his return to England, he set about publishing the volumes that would comprise his own authoritative account of the occupation’s accomplishments.

Writing from London in January of 1915, he congratulated himself on the enduring results of his long tenure. The outbreak of World War I had stoked fears in some quarters that the “spurious Nationalist movement of recent times” might rile Egyptian support for Britain’s enemies. Nothing of the sort had transpired. “Why is it,” he asked, that “there was never any really serious danger that Egyptian affairs would get thoroughly out of hand?” He allowed that Britain’s military “unquestionably counts for much in explanation of these very singular political phenomena.”5 But the “true reason” lay elsewhere. That “no general discontent prevailed of which the agitator, the religious fanatic, or the political intriguer could make use as a lever” was the ultimate vindication of “a policy for the initiation and execution of which I am myself mainly responsible.”6 Arriving at the heart of the matter, he explained that “in the absence of ties, such as community of race, language, religion, and social customs, the only link between the governors and the governed is to be found in material interests, and amongst those interests by far the most important is the imposition of light fiscal burdens.”7

As a forecast of things to come, Cromer’s reassurance would weather poorly. Though he did not live to see it happen, in the spring of 1919 Egyptians from both town and country would undertake a mass insurgency of the very sort he had deemed unthinkable. As a characterization of Egypt’s recent history, Cromer’s pronouncements likewise strained against even the short chronicle of political events that he provided. Over the previous decade, the constituencies of the nationalist movement he dubbed spurious had grown far more vocal and numerous. Against an opposition capable of mobilizing substantial popular support, the occupation had responded with ever more frequent recourse to the use of force. Just weeks before Cromer put pen to paper, the British government had imposed martial law and at last declared Egypt a full-blown protectorate.8 “After hanging in the balance for a period of thirty-three years,” the aging administrator acknowledged, “the political destiny of Egypt has at last been definitely settled. The country has been incorporated into the British Empire. No other solution was possible.”9

Questionable as his claims to success may have been, however, Cromer did here offer a faithful introduction to the theory of rule that guided British policy in Egypt over the course of his long tenure. While he did not elaborate in this instance, his comments about the primacy of “material interests” and “light fiscal burdens” condensed several important ideas at once. First among these was the notion that a sensitivity to material interests was the most significant trait shared amongst an otherwise differentiated humanity. If it was the differences—of “race, language, religion, and social customs”—that Cromer often invoked as reason for some peoples to rule over others, it was by focusing on this basic commonality that the “government of subject races” could be sustained.10 Second was an assertion about the appropriate functions of government itself: where the population in question lacked a capacity to construe their interests in more expansive ways, the state should limit its ambitions to the promotion of material gain. To be sure, the case for streamlining what Cromer called the “machinery of government” aligned neatly with Egypt’s new regime of imposed austerity.11 That these claims were about something more than rationalizing budget cuts, however, was evinced by his confidence in the merit of “light fiscal burdens.”12 By insisting, as he so often did, that a reduction in taxes would be entirely compatible with the imperative of debt repayment, Cromer suggested that the Egyptians whom he otherwise held in famously low regard could play a productive role in their country’s economic regeneration.

Although he may have ranked among their more influential adherents, Cromer was by no means the first or the only person to articulate this cluster of claims. As was the case for so many of his public statements, his pretensions to originality were more self-serving than true. But to a degree that has largely escaped the notice of subsequent generations, Cromer’s brief gloss on the “corner-stone” of his policy does capture something foundational about Egypt’s long era of “hanging in the balance” under British rule.


This book tells the story of Egypt’s occupation. It argues that British efforts to treat the government as a machinery for advancing material interests proved transformative in at least three respects. First, they informed the specific policies that Egypt’s “advisers” pursued and altered the institutions of the Egyptian state in significant and lasting ways. Second, they created conditions for a massive, if short-lived, financial boom and thereby changed the character of material interests themselves. Third, thanks in no small measure to the frequency and consistency with which Cromer and his supporters propounded their theories about imperial rule, they made Egypt the arena for a sprawling debate about the relationship between economics and politics. In time, that debate would prove crucial to both the animating concerns and the distinguishing objectives of the nationalist movement Cromer was, to the very end, so eager to dismiss.

Across the three decades from the military invasion of 1882 to the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the British occupation of Egypt was defined by the discourse I refer to as colonial economism. Given its mandate to represent the demands of foreign bondholders, it might seem unsurprising that this de facto colonial regime elevated “economic development” as its foremost priority. But as Cromer’s brief retrospective begins to indicate, colonial economism was not simply an ideological cover for those extractive arrangements. Because it informed the decisions that British officials made about how to govern and how to generate financial prosperity from the materials of a bankrupt polity, the discourse of colonial economism affected how processes of state formation and capital accumulation unfolded. As the British explained it in the early years of the occupation, the pursuit of economic growth—in the form of larger crop yields, higher land values, and increased foreign investment—was about much more than fiscal restructuring. Rather, it represented a necessary stage on a singular trajectory of civilizational progress, a trajectory that European countries like Britain had already marked out and that Egypt would need to follow before imperial rule could end. By the 1890s, as their endeavors appeared to be paying off, the British began to make a stronger assertion: that popular support for their rule was growing with the economic gains it could deliver. Material prosperity, they now alleged, had won them the active approval of the Egyptian people.

Notions about the primacy of economic forces are hardly unique to the British occupation of Egypt. To this day, they feature prominently in social commentaries about both good times and bad across much of the globe. In calling the central premise of British rule in Egypt colonial economism, I do not, therefore, intend to imply that these ideas have a uniquely colonial genealogy. As I explain below, the generic term economism captures a wide array of discourses, many with no discernible origin in colonial situations. Colonial economism was distinctive in that its truth claims were resolutely particular, not universal. That is, its proponents described the economic determination of politics as a defining feature of specific human populations that rendered them unqualified to govern themselves and thereby made political tutelage both necessary and legitimate.

At its core, colonial economism entailed a set of manifestly experimental propositions about the character of “Oriental” subjects. The discourse took shape in the context of a sweeping reevaluation of classical liberalism that preoccupied officials across the British Empire in the latter half of the nineteenth century. In the decades following the Indian uprising of 1857, an earlier optimism about the amenability of colonial populations to liberal reform gave way to a new uncertainty about which aspects of human nature were universal and which were not. Having judged some of the differences separating putatively discrete races to be insurmountable, colonial administrators set out to map and measure what shared attributes remained. While never without its detractors, colonial economism expressed one clear hypothesis: in a country like Egypt, the core principles of liberal political economy could, under a just government, hold true. Liberal political theory could not. In other words, Egyptians possessed a basic capacity to recognize and act upon their own material interests; for that reason, they would benefit from heightened access to the transactions and institutions of modern commercial society. What they purportedly lacked was the wherewithal to reason beyond the calculus of personal profit and loss. And it was only that comprehension of a greater public good that qualified some communities of people to govern themselves.

This generic characterization of the Egyptian as a human type narrowly oriented toward economic gain figured prominently in both diagnoses of the khedivate’s failings and plans for the country’s regeneration. On the one hand, Cromer and others explained the fiscal and political turmoil that had preceded the British invasion as an “orgy of corrupt and despotic misrule.”13 A ruling class bent upon lining its own pockets at public expense, they claimed, had emptied the state’s coffers and driven the country into bankruptcy. On the other hand, they identified Egypt’s oppressed rural majority as the motor force of economic revival. Endowed by nature with a propensity to toil in service of their own material gain, the peasantry could become the agents of their own prosperity and their country’s economic development. Through a long series of institutional adjustments and innovations, all of them dubbed “experiments,” British officials singled out the peasant smallholder as the intended beneficiary of Egypt’s occupation. Politics as such, however, required an ability to construe a greater good beyond individual wants and needs. That was an ability Egyptians of all ranks and classes supposedly lacked. As the argument went, a peasantry driven by material interests would seize upon the occupation’s agrarian improvements and produce enough wealth to satisfy the bondholders and themselves at the same time. The varieties of popular discontent that the occupation’s critics mistook for political consciousness, meanwhile, would evaporate as the country prospered.

Rather than simply justifying the various measures that the occupation imposed under the mantle of “reform,” then, the discourse of colonial economism was engineered into the specific design of the policies themselves. Acting upon the assumption that peasants could not think beyond the horizon of their immediate self-interest, British officials worked to shut down the limited avenues for political participation that had existed under the khedivate. The resulting evisceration of local politics would prove to be one of the most enduring and pernicious legacies of British rule. Even as it figured into new mechanisms of political exclusion, however, this same conception of a subject closely attuned to material interests provided the basis for a distinctly optimistic portrait of the fallah, the Egyptian peasant, as an economic actor: when supplied with adequate access to water, he would toil to raise revenue-generating crops; when freed from the burden of exorbitant taxation and conscription, he would direct his funds and labor time into remunerative improvements rather than leisure and extravagance; when granted secure title to land and better means of borrowing money, he would likewise employ credit as farm capital.

By the time British officials began in earnest to act upon that last claim in particular, it was anything but commonplace. Instead, it represented one clear position in a major controversy over the problem of peasant indebtedness that preoccupied provincial administrators and political economists across the British Empire. And from the mid-1890s, that utopian vision of the fallah as a petty agrarian capitalist-in-waiting gave rise to a series of institutional innovations that together aimed to make Egypt an appealing target for the relocation of financial capital from Europe.

The decade-long financial boom that resulted from these efforts has until now attracted little notice from historians of modern Egypt.14 For the better part of the last fifty years, the central paradigm of nearly all existing economic histories of British rule has been one of qualitative continuity and quantitative expansion: Egypt had already become a major exporter of raw cotton before 1882; British control simply ensured that more and more of the country’s arable surface would be devoted to growing fiber to supply England’s industrial mills.15 As the socialist writer Theodore Rothstein put it in 1910, in one of the earliest systematic elaborations of this argument, “Just as the geese at Strasburg are fed and fattened until they turn all into liver, so has Egypt been fed by irrigation, in order that it may all turn into cotton.”16

The British themselves presumed that an influx of foreign finance would simply complement their other plans for agrarian improvement. Himself a scion of Baring Brothers, one of Britain’s leading financial houses, Lord Cromer (born Evelyn Baring) sought to promote “the employment of European capital” to bolster and accelerate a program of economic development centered around the reclamation of farmland and the expanded cultivation of cotton.17 The investment of foreign capital through private enterprise was all the more appealing because the arrangements controlling repayment of Egypt’s existing foreign debts constrained the government’s ability to contract new loans of its own with foreign creditors.18 In one way or another, the rapid inflation of land prices, the sudden multiplication of joint-stock companies, and the frenetic proliferation of credit arrangements that many identified as the boom’s most distinctive features all had their origins in British policies that aimed to increase cotton production. By the early 1900s, the occupation’s boosters were proclaiming that Egypt had become the site of a profitable new symbiosis between metropolitan banking and colonial agriculture.

On closer examination, however, the dynamics of the boom fit awkwardly at best within conventional narratives of Egypt’s peripheral status as a supplier of raw cotton to metropolitan industries. As a major target for European investment and a site for the experimental elaboration of novel instruments and institutions—colonial-era precursors to the subprime loans, mortgage-backed securities, and credit insurance of our own times—Egypt played an altogether different and more central role in the worldwide financial expansion of the late nineteenth century.19 Indeed, while most subsequent histories of the period have either ignored the boom or treated it as a simple continuation of long-standing patterns, many observers by the early 1900s, both within Egypt and abroad, described the unprecedented influx of financial capital—and the increasingly uneven, abstract, and ephemeral forms of wealth it seemed to generate—as a striking departure from the country’s prior course of economic development. The new banks that raced to extend their operations day by day seemed to construe their role in the country in ways that the occupation had hardly anticipated. The soaring valuations of company shares on the stock markets of Cairo and Alexandria turned out to be a dubious metric for the well-being of the Egyptian public whose interests British officials claimed to represent. As these dynamics unfolded, the relationship between the country’s new financial fortunes and the livelihoods of peasant producers proved sometimes ambiguous and at other times profoundly antagonistic.

The chapters that follow argue that this financial boom and the crises it unleashed cast the history of the occupation as a whole in a different light than conventional narratives about the long-term continuities of the cotton economy. Egypt’s reputation as a “field for banking business” and its status as a gigantic cotton plantation located the country within distinct, if sometimes overlapping, geographies of capital.20 From the vantage of financial investors in London, Paris, and Brussels, what mattered most was not the specific purpose of a given venture but the relative rate of return it promised.

That structural indifference to the particular objects through which financial capital flowed had at least two significant consequences for the character of Egypt’s fin de siècle boom. First, it meant that the country’s new banks and mortgage companies were fickle partners in the occupation’s agrarian development schemes. Their decisions about how and where to invest intensified the very patterns of rural inequality that the British had promised to alleviate. When other, more lucrative opportunities appeared beyond the cotton fields, the banks moved their money elsewhere. Though British officials may have liked to suggest otherwise, the relationship between metropolitan finance and Egyptian agriculture was always fraught and deeply contradictory. Over time, the pressures of Egypt’s multilayered debt obligations would undermine both the social and the ecological conditions for intensive cotton cultivation. And at a crucial moment in the frenzy of financial speculation, it was the rising value of Egypt’s cotton crop itself that would throw global capital markets into turmoil.

Second, the complex interconnections of the financial networks that stretched out across the globe in these years meant that the livelihoods of ordinary Egyptians were ever more vulnerable to shifts in the demand for money in other distant locales. While the British heralded the country’s newfound prosperity as evidence of their own success, less sanguine observers cautioned that such fortunes might be fleeting. Their concern was well warranted. In the spring of 1907, Egypt was among the first countries hit by the cascade of financial crises that sent asset values into free fall across many parts of the globe.21

Well before that devastating reversal, Egyptian critics of the occupation had noticed that British officials treated their own measures of economic improvement as self-evident proxies for popular opinion. Writing in December of 1905 for al-Liwaʾ, the official newspaper of the country’s leading nationalist organization, the young journalist Ahmad Hilmi coined a pithy moniker for an official discourse gaudily adorned with references to rising wealth. “Gilded speech” he called it. Hilmi would soon play an exceptional and influential role in the fledgling movement against British rule. But he was by no means alone in understanding what was at stake when British officials boasted about “the rapid progress of this country in its material life . . . every time the sun comes up or a new year begins.”22 Many critics of the occupation recognized in its closely managed statements a reductive contention that most Egyptians were capable of no more and no less than a bare recognition of their own material interests.

From the moment an organized opposition to British rule took shape in the early 1890s, its protagonists sought to rebut that claim on both normative and empirical grounds. But they also understood that those grounds were shifting beneath their feet. In the heady years of the boom, they worked to demonstrate that prosperity was no substitute for sovereignty and that the effects of foreign investment were not what the British claimed. The advent of the crisis in 1907 changed the terms of that argument, lending new weight to counternarratives about the ravages of an illegitimate occupation. At the same time, the patterned, globe-spanning character of the crisis also suggested that British rule had introduced problems that political independence would no longer, on its own, prove adequate to address. It was only by forging a complex of institutions that would insulate the country from the vagaries and volatilities of global capital, the proponents of a new economic nationalism argued, that Egyptians could begin to exercise a meaningful control over their own collective conditions of life.

These ongoing reflections contributed to a vigorous, creative, and many-sided conversation about the relationship between economic and political development as well as the adequacy of the political-economic theories British officials invoked to explain the momentous upheavals their experiments were inducing. In this regard, Egypt’s self-proclaimed nationalists were not mere passive consumers of a ready-made political-economic discourse imported from abroad. Often writing in fragmentary form and developing their ideas in newspaper articles rather than in book-length treatises, these figures reworked political-economic concepts to elaborate their own critical accounts of boom and bust.23 The voluminous archive of their thought and praxis—long ignored or dismissed as so many bad copies of a European original—brings to light a set of sophisticated and troubling meditations on the deeper contradictions of capitalism and the very meaning of freedom in a capitalist world.


The British Empire was nothing if not a vast apparatus for pilfering the labor of others. It should come as no surprise, then, that one of its most outspoken defenders showed little compunction about taking credit where it was not due. Cromer’s ideas were not, of course, shared by every British subject across the Empire. In their sheer volume, his official statements often had a particular effect of drowning out the actual diversity of British people in Egypt and the opinions they held.24 But neither did colonial economism emerge fully formed from the mind of the imperious proconsul. While Cromer’s efforts to act as the singular voice for British rule in Egypt did often lend a focus and clarity to the critical thought of his detractors, he was not alone responsible for the discourse that became the common sense of so much Anglophone commentary on Egyptian affairs.

As generations of postcolonial scholarship have emphasized, the brute fact of colonial rule situated disparate territories within comparative frames of thought and practice that made empire workable.25 In the case of Egypt, the arrival of British troops in the summer of 1882 meant that intellectual traditions that had before then figured only vaguely in the government of the country suddenly took on a different weight. When they wrote and spoke about Egypt, British officials drew upon ideas that originated elsewhere and addressed themselves to audiences well beyond Egypt’s borders. Explaining the wider context out of which colonial economism emerged therefore requires something of a preliminary detour outside of Egypt.

The meaning of economism has shifted significantly over the past century. In the early 1900s, it served mainly as a term of denunciation among European socialists. For those who wielded the label, economism named the error, both political and theoretical, of trade unionists and others who sought to restrict the ambitions of class struggle to improving wages and living conditions while abandoning or postponing any concerted political movement for revolution.26 At stake in this moment was a question of strategy. In his famous pamphlet of 1902, “What Is to Be Done?” Vladimir I. Lenin railed against “the fundamental error that all the Economists commit, namely, their conviction that it is possible to develop the class political consciousness of the workers from within the economic struggle, so to speak, i.e., making the economic struggle the exclusive, or, at least, the main starting point, making the economic struggle the exclusive, or, at least, the main basis.” Such political consciousness, he went on to argue, “can be brought to the workers only from without, that is, only outside of the economic struggle, outside of the sphere of relations between workers and employers.”27 A century later, the term has, somewhat ironically, reappeared on occasion as a label for the fallacies of neoliberal ideology.28 But its predominant usage today occurs within academic circles, as shorthand for the varieties of economic reductivism and mechanistic determinism that many critics identify with older traditions of Marxist thought.29

In what follows, I use economism broadly to denote forms of thought that treat the economic as a discrete, self-contained domain of social life and that assign analytical or causal primacy to that domain. But why adopt an unfamiliar term that already carries a complex and freighted history? I have chosen to do so here for two reasons, one methodological, the other historical.

First, I employ the term to mark a certain considered distance from the conventions and presuppositions of economic history. The recent and widespread reemergence of capitalism as an object of critical inquiry has roused some legitimate concerns that these “new” approaches to histories of capitalism, capitalism studies, or critical political economy might simply rehearse the problems of economism that several generations of social and cultural historians worked very hard to overcome. It bears mentioning, in this regard, that for many scholars of the postcolonial world a generation ago, the choice to write within the genre of economic history represented a critical intervention in its own right. Well before the publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism, the universalist idiom of quantification offered a powerful analytic with which to rebut the kinds of exceptionalism and essentialism that had long characterized the field of “Oriental studies” and that gained a new patina of authority with the advent of Modernization Theory.30

Such critical uses of economic history have played an important role in challenging the ethnocentrism and cultural determinism that still inflect both popular and scholarly attitudes toward the global South. But they have often done so by reinscribing a sharp line between the economic and other putative domains of social existence.31 By contrast, one overwhelming point of agreement among the various “new” approaches to the study of capitalism has been a pronounced and generative skepticism toward that way of dividing up the world and making sense of it. Despite other differences of theory and method, work by heterodox Marxists, cultural political economists, critical geographers, actor-network theorists, and new materialists has, consequently, shared a basic point of departure in the argument that capitalism is not, or at the very least not exclusively, a self-enclosed economic system.

This heterogeneous project to specify and explore capitalism’s more-than-economic characteristics has, in turn, yielded several significant insights that inform both the arguments and the empirical content of the chapters that follow. Relative to the conventions of economic history—best exemplified in the case of Egypt by the unrivaled oeuvre of Roger Owen—the range of sources and topics covered here may seem surprising. Those differences are deliberate. Central to any meaningful distinction between economic histories and histories of capitalism is the proposition that the various processes and practices commonly labeled economic depend for their perpetuation on what the political theorist Nancy Fraser has called capitalism’s “background conditions.”32 Commodity markets, regimes of property, and media of exchange do not simply emerge from some natural and self-propelling dynamics of commerce. Rather, their existence and normalized operations require the establishment and maintenance of a whole host of legal regimes, regulatory agencies, and material infrastructures that typically fall within the responsibilities of the state.33 Moreover, capitalism’s historically specific ways of construing and enumerating the material wealth of human communities entail a series of constitutive distinctions between those varieties of work that count as economic and others that do not.

The production of surplus value through exploitation of wage labor in the “hidden abode of production” has, in actual historical practice, been sustained by diverse arrangements of expropriation that serve to drive down the costs of production that capital is forced to pay through direct acts of market exchange. For present purposes, that dynamic between exploitation and expropriation has at least two further implications that loom large across the history of British rule in Egypt. First, capitalism is better understood not as an economic system with various pronounced and discernible ecological effects but rather as a “way of organizing nature.”34 The profitability of commodities for sale on global markets—be they industrial goods like cotton thread or even raw materials like the cotton fiber itself—depends upon the continuous production of geographic arrangements through which repositories of uncapitalized or undercapitalized nature may be claimed as “free gifts” for capitalist enterprise.35 In the case of Egypt, the occupation’s contention that British rule could boost payments to the bondholders and enrich the peasantry at the same time was premised on a belief that British technical expertise could seize upon the fabled gifts of the Nile where the khedivate had squandered them. Capital accumulation, in other words, is always both a social and an ecological process.

Second, the boundary between exploitation and expropriation, between commodified and uncommodified forms of work, has articulated closely with other systems of domination and ways of elaborating distinctions among groups of human subjects.36 From this perspective, the discursive production of categories of difference has been crucial to capitalism’s history as an institutionalized social order. As several generations of radical feminist scholars have shown, the mapping of gender onto a division between social reproduction and “production proper” has set the terms according to which some work becomes wage labor and much work does not.37 Likewise, processes of racialization on a worldwide scale have been integral to the systematic cheapening of work without which the accumulation of capital cannot proceed.38 The recent and welcome surge of efforts to excavate what the sociologist Maria Mies once called the “underground of capitalist patriarchy,” namely the “subordination of women, nature and colonies,” has thus helped to snap the cordons that once held “economic” and “cultural” history apart.39

The second reason for adopting economism as the central category of this study follows from and builds upon these insights. The various approaches to an expanded conception of capitalism mentioned above have gone a long way toward explaining both the methodological and the political hazards of economism. They have had less to say, however, about why it has been such a recurrent and pervasive feature of modern social thought in the first place. In this sense, economism is not only an analytical disposition to be corrected by better theories, methods, and narratives. Rather, it is a way of apprehending the world particular to the history of capitalism itself. If one aim of this book is to pursue a history of capitalism in Egypt that draws from recent methodological critiques of economism, then another is to show that economism merits critical scrutiny as an object of historical analysis in its own right.40

To the extent that historians have sought to explain economism, rather than simply debunk it, they have usually done so by way of political or ideological affiliation. Whether the blame is laid on Marx himself or his subsequent interpreters, the Marxist tradition in particular has acquired a special ignominy as a font of economistic ideas. For well more than a century, Marx’s use of the “base-superstructure” metaphor—to describe the interaction between relations of production, on the one hand, and “definite forms of social consciousness,” on the other—has been treated as the hallmark of a deterministic mode of analysis that assigns primary, or even singular, importance to economic forces.41 It was this reputation, already well entrenched by the 1930s, that the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci sought to address when he mused that “it should be considered whether economism, in its most developed form, is not a direct descendant of liberalism.”42 For present purposes, the importance of Gramsci’s remark lies neither in ignoring the kinds of crude determinism that many self-identified Marxists have espoused nor in defending one intellectual tradition by shunting blame to another. Though couched in overtly partisan terms, Gramsci’s observation instead suggests both that economism is a recognizable tendency within multiple, even opposing, intellectual traditions and that its prevalence predated the work of Marx himself. That longer and more diffuse history calls out for a different kind of explanation.

Gramsci went on to condemn economism as a grave “theoretical error,” but his comments on the subject described an error of a peculiar and contradictory kind. “The ideas of the Free Trade movement,” he explained, were “based on a distinction between political society and civil society, which is made into and presented as an organic one” such that “economic activity belongs to civil society, and that the State must not intervene to regulate it.”43 The proponents of free trade thereby treated as timeless and inviolable a series of conceptual divisions that were instead specific to capitalism’s peculiar social topography. In arguing that “laissez-faire too is a form of State ‘regulation,’ introduced by legislation and coercive means,” Gramsci was insisting that other ways of organizing human communities were both possible and desirable. By affirming the distinction between the economic and the political and insisting on the primacy of the former, his interlocutors thus made the error of naturalizing what was historically produced and ripe for contestation. On that basis, he discerned a role for economism not simply as an analytical disposition but as a mode of governance instrumental to capital’s ongoing self-expansion. At the same time, it would make little sense to speak of economism in a context where the economic was not already widely understood to contain a discrete subset of social life. The very plausibility of economism as a way of understanding the world was contingent upon the appearance of that very distinction as an “organic” feature of modern societies. In this respect, what Gramsci described as a “theoretical error” also expressed something essential about how capitalism differs from other institutionalized social orders.


1. Lord Cromer (1841–1917) was born Evelyn Baring. For the sake of clarity and consistency, I refer to him throughout the whole of this book as Lord Cromer, the title he received when he was raised to the peerage in 1892. In citations, however, I use the name by which he signed at the time each document was written.

2. Owen, Lord Cromer, 344.

3. Willcocks, Sixty Years in the East, 116–18.

4. MEC, Harry Boyle Papers, GB 165-0035, Box C, File 4: Harry Boyle to Nellie Boyle (August 20, 1909).

5. Lord Cromer, Abbas II, xx.

6. Ibid., xxi.

7. Ibid., xxii.

8. Martial law was imposed on November 2, 1914, and the protectorate was declared on December 18, 1914. See, TNA, FO 371/1970: Milne Cheetham to Edward Grey (November 3, 1914); McIlwraith, “Declaration of a Protectorate.”

9. Lord Cromer, Abbas II, xvii.

10. See “The Government of Subject Races” in Cromer, Political and Literary Essays, 3–53.

11. Lord Cromer, Abbas II, xi. Sometimes, as in this instance, Cromer referred to it as “the machinery of the Government,” but elsewhere in his writings, “the machinery of government” was more common. See, for example, Lord Cromer, Modern Egypt, 260. On Cromer’s fondness for mechanical metaphors, see Barak, On Time, 3.

12. On the political and economic virtues of Cromer’s “fiscal moderation, fiscal security, and fiscal equity,” see also Colvin, Making of Modern Egypt, 211.

13. Lord Cromer, Abbas II, xiv.

14. One notable departure from this trend is Elizabeth Holt’s brilliant study of the dense interrelations between this process of financialization and both the content and (serialized) form of the early Arabic novel. See Holt, Fictitious Capital.

15. The clearest and most influential articulation of this continuity thesis appeared in Owen, “Egypt and Europe.” See also, ʿAbbās, al-Niām al-ijtimāʿī fī Mir; Abbas and El-Dessouky, Large Landowning Class; Beckert, Empire of Cotton; Dasūqī, Kibār mullāk al-arāī al-zirāʿīyah; Owen, Cotton and the Egyptian Economy; Richards, Egypt’s Agricultural Development; Tignor, Modernization and British Rule; Zayn al-Dīn, al-Zirāʿah al-Mirīyah.

16. Rothstein, Egypt’s Ruin, 305.

17. Lord Cromer, Modern Egypt, 451–52.

18. Tignor, Modernization and British Rule, 367.

19. On this process of financial expansion, see Arrighi, Long Twentieth Century, 172; Cain and Hopkins, British Imperialism, 309; Harvey, Limits to Capital, 319; Jessop, State Theory, 200; Hobsbawm, Age of Empire, 52. Arrighi’s more developed analysis of the relationship between financialization and imperialism in The Long Twentieth Century expanded on an earlier critique of the “theory of imperialism” expounded by Owen and the other organizers of the 1969 conference that gave rise to the volume Studies in the Theory of Imperialism. See, Arrighi, Geometry of Imperialism, 9–10, 158–59.

20. London School of Economics Archive (LSE): Ionian Bank Papers 10/18: Mr. F. Larkworthy, “Report on Egypt as a Field for Banking Business” (Alexandria: March 24, 1905).

21. In a characteristically evocative aside, James C. Scott once referred to 1907 as a worldwide “dress rehearsal” for the Great Depression. Scott, Moral Economy of the Peasant, 85. A truly global history of these events has yet to be written.

22. Amad ilmī, “al-Kalām al-dhahabī: al-ālah al-mālīyah fi Mir (al-taqaddum al-sarīʿ),” al-Liwāʾ (December 28, 1905).

23. My efforts to showcase the range and sophistication of political-economic thought in the Arabic press, in this regard, complement and build upon Hussein Omar’s crucial insight about the error of mistaking an absence of specific genres of writing for an absence of political thought itself. See Omar, “Liberal Cage,” 18.

24. In their sensitive and richly ethnographic accounts of urban life in Alexandria, for example, both Shane Minkin and Will Hanley offer useful reminders that a great many British subjects in Egypt, like the members of other foreign communities, had experiences and perspectives on the country quite distant from those of Cromer’s circle in the Agency. See, Hanley, Identifying with Nationality; Minkin, Imperial Bodies; Minkin, “Documenting Death.”

25. Guha, Rule of Property; Said, Orientalism, 149; Seigel, “Beyond Compare”; Stoler, “Tense and Tender Ties”; Zimmerman, “Counterinsurgency and the Science Effect.” On the particular relevance of comparisons with India, see Owen, “Lord Cromer’s Indian Experience”; Tignor, “‘Indianization’ of Egyptian Administration”; Derr, Lived Nile, 23–25, 37.

26. Deutscher, Stalin, 31–32; Bottomore, Dictionary of Marxist Thought, 168–69.

27. Lenin, Essential Works, 112.

28. Kwak, Economism; Slobodian, Globalists, 269.

29. Fraser and Jaeggi, Capitalism, 7–8.

30. See, for example, Owen, Cotton and the Egyptian Economy; Owen, “Studying Islamic History”; Owen, “Middle East in the Eighteenth Century”; Islamoğlu and Keyder, “Agenda for Ottoman History.” For a detailed account of this critique of Orientalism before Orientalism, see Lockman, Contending Visions, 162–71. A similar impulse underpins the comparative framework of Pomeranz, Great Divergence.

31. For a compelling critique of this approach, see Karl, Magic of Concepts, 22–25.

32. Fraser, “Behind Marx’s Hidden Abode”; Fraser and Jaeggi, Capitalism; Fraser, “Legitimation Crisis?”

33. The work of denaturalizing “the free market” has taken on a particular urgency and critical valence in recent decades as a response to the widespread normalization of neoliberal discourse. See, for example, Beckert, Empire of Cotton; Jessop, State Theory; Çaliskan, Market Threads; Callon, “Embeddedness of Economic Markets.”

34. Coronil, Magical State; Harvey, Justice, Nature, and the Geography of Difference; Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life; Moore, “Ecology, Capital, and the Nature of Our Times”; Moore, “Transcending the Metabolic Rift”; Moore, “Wall Street Is a Way of Organizing Nature”; Malm, Fossil Capital; Smith, Uneven Development.

35. The so-called free gifts of nature are rarely, if ever, actually free. See Jakes, “Boom, Bugs, Bust.”

36. For the outlines of an approach to racialization and capital accumulation as “articulated systems of domination,” see Dawson and Katzenstein, “Articulated Darkness.”

37. Scott, “Women in the Making of the English Working Class”; Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women; Federici, Wages Against Housework; Fraser, Fortunes of Feminism. For a particularly incisive and innovative exploration of this argument as it pertains to the organization of agricultural labor in Egypt, see Tucker, Women in Nineteenth-Century Egypt.

38. See, for example, Dawson, “Hidden in Plain Sight”; Robinson, Black Marxism; Ralph, Forensics of Capital; Hudson, Bankers and Empire.

39. Mies, Patriarchy and Accumulation, 77.

40. As the political scientist Richard Ashley made this point more than three decades ago, “I hope it is clear that economism is not just an inconsequential mistake that intellectuals sometimes make when they too hastily objectify the society they study. Economism is a social pathology of advanced capitalist society.” See, Ashley, “Three Modes of Economism,” 492.

41. Marx, Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, 20. Like much of Marx’s work, this passage has been the subject of intense and ongoing debate. There is ample reason to suggest that Marx’s own understanding of this controversial passage and its notorious metaphor was quite different from the meanings others soon assigned to it. Engels, for example, advanced an overtly determinist and developmentalist reading of the metaphor in Engels, “Speech at the Graveside of Karl Marx.” For alternative interpretations more consistent with Marx’s dialectical method, see Ollman, Alienation; Sayer, Violence of Abstraction; Williams, “Base and Superstructure”; Elson, “Value Theory of Labour.”

42. Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, 159.

43. Ibid., 159–60.