Aaron G. Jakes

Mar 23, 2021

Egypt's Occupation

Colonial Economism and the Crises of Capitalism

Stanford University Press 2020

The story is a familiar one. In 1882, the British invaded Egypt to secure payment on the country’s crippling foreign debts and quash the movement for fiscal sovereignty and constitutional rule that had formed under the Egyptian military officer Ahmed ‘Urabi Pasha.

The common sense in the critical American academy has long been that the decades of occupation that ensued were a logical extension of Egypt's integration into an increasingly Western dominated global economy: from the 1850s onward, Egypt's economy had exemplified third world dependency, the essence of which was reliance on the export of a primary commodity—cotton. In the name of the free global market, the British ensured that more and more of the country's land would be devoted to supplying cotton to England's industrial mills. In other words, the occupation rested on and reinforced notions of liberal universalism that, in actuality, served as alibis for imperial expansion. Meanwhile, a sellout landed elite acted as complicit in Britain's larger objectives of expanding foreign land ownership.

Surely, this story contains important truths. Yet it doesn't explain certain things. For instance, British administrators and political economists weren't particularly interested in the landed elite—at least not as much as they were in the small landholding Egyptian peasant, or fellah. For another, their very hopes for the fellah made Egypt a target for the relocation of foreign financial capital from Europe—a relocation that led to a decade-long financial boom. With few exceptions, historians of modern Egypt have yet to make sense of these confounding variables.

That is, until now. In Egypt’s Occupation: Colonial Economism and the Crises of Capitalism (Stanford University Press, 2020), Aaron Jakes tells, for the first time, the story of Egypt’s turn-of-the-century financial boom and the crises that ensued. Along the way, Jakes offers a sweeping reinterpretation of both the historical geography of capitalism in Egypt and the role of political-economic thought in struggles that raged over the occupation by tracing the ramifications of what he dubs “colonial economism”: the animating theory of British imperial rule that held Egyptians to be capable of only acting according to their bare material interests.

The result is a work that has been widely regarded as the most important scholarly book about modern Egypt to come out in decades. And as this conversation with the author attests, Egypt’s Occupation is a must-read not only for historians of Egypt, but for anyone invested in understanding the historical imbrication of capitalism with race and empire. Tune in.

Aaron Jakes is Assistant Professor of History and Co-Director of Capitalism Studies at The New School, where he teaches courses on the modern Middle East and South Asia, global environmental history, and the history of capitalism.

Nancy Ko is a PhD student in History at Columbia University, where she works at the intersection of Jewish and Middle East Studies.

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Nancy Ko

Nancy Ko is a PhD student in History at Columbia University, where she works at the intersection of Jewish and Middle East Studies.

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