Aaron Jakes on Egypt, Capitalism, and the Development of Economism

Via his debut book, Jakes offers a new perspective on Egypt under British occupation — and on the United States today

A history book can reflect the peoples and worlds researched as much as of the world unfolding around its author. As Aaron Jakes, Assistant Professor of History at The New School for Social Research and Eugene Lang College, wrote his first book, archival research brought him through worlds of bureaucrats, peasants, journalists, and spies, as financial crises, civil unrest, revolt, and populism electrified the world around him.

Research Matters sat down (virtually) with Jakes to discuss that book, Egypt’s Occupation: Colonial Economism and the Crises of Capitalism (Stanford University Press, 2020), and how looking at Egypt more than 100 years ago can help us understand not only modern Egypt but also political and economic thought today.

Jakes started working on the book in its first form — his doctoral thesis — in 2007. As he looked at ways that cotton farmers borrowed money in the early 20th century, he couldn’t help but notice parallels with the Great Recession of 2007-2009. In both periods, the growing influence of financial institutions — financialization —characterized political life. “In a moment in which everyone was thinking about finance, it became possible to start thinking about a contemporary moment in which we had parallel discourses of financial and ecological crisis that were treated as though these were completely separate phenomena,” Jakes says. “And so the first cut at the project in light of that present moment was to begin thinking about what it would mean to write an environmental history of a prior moment of financialization.”

Information Access and Control

Digging back more than a century meant Jakes spent years doing research in archives around the world, including Egypt’s National Archives, the United States Library of Congress, and financial archives across England. But gaining access to those materials wasn’t easy.

Egyptian intelligence agencies maintain strict surveillance over the country’s National Archives. Amid a time of water-related conflict with Egypt’s neighbors to the south, Jakes’ application was left in limbo for his use of the word “irrigation”. Jakes enlisted the support of his doctoral supervisor, who then enlisted Egyptian political novelist and journalist Gamal al-Ghitani to pressure the archive director, culminating in a “scathing” op-ed in Akhbar al-Adab, the Egyptian equivalent of the New York Review of Books. The strategy was effective, but Jakes still spent the following three years navigating bureaucratic and technological barriers to information.

“Computerized control actually makes it possible for [the intelligence agencies] to monitor and restrict who can see what, so the cataloging process itself made it possible to just cause huge swaths of documents to ‘disappear’,” Jakes explains. While he was ultimately able to access the resources he needed, he laments that his Egyptian colleagues, without the same degree of foreign institutional support, don’t have the same access — another lasting effect of colonialism.

As his research progressed, a narrative emerged that contradicted the widely-accepted understanding of the British occupation of Egypt, which is rooted in the notion that colonial rule simply consolidated an earlier set of economic arrangements and that ideas about economic life played no significant role in the major movements and struggles of that era. Through his detailed research in both government and banking archives, Jakes pieced together a far more dynamic story about Egypt’s role as a major investment frontier for global finance and about the multiple crises that this process of financialization induced. This new history of capitalism under British rule, in turn, shed new light on the commentaries that Egyptians at the time, from government officials in Cairo to poor peasants in the countryside, offered about the problems they faced. The pages of Egypt’s burgeoning Arabic press likewise became a site for rich and sustained debate about the consequences of the British occupation. And because colonial officials were so emphatic and consistent in their claims about how economic improvement would translate into political legitimacy, developing a rigorous, alternative account of the relationship between economics and politics soon became central concern of Egypt’s growing nationalist movement.

Economism and Trump

Jakes earned his PhD in 2015 and joined The New School’s Historical Studies department shortly after. As he worked on turning his dissertation into his first book, a new event influenced his writing: the election of Donald Trump.

“It was striking that explanations both for the [Bernie] Sanders phenomenon and for Trump’s election often entailed some suggestion that there was a kind of base motive of economic grievance that really explained what was going on,” Jakes says. This is called economism, the attribution of political effects to underlying economic causes.

To this day, economism is often treated as a unique and even defining problem of the left, which, Jakes argues, obscures other important forms. Whereas various thinkers on the left have seen ideas about economic determination as the grounds for a universalist politics, Jakes shows that such claims can just as easily assume a particularistic and exclusionary character. Often entailed in this latter variant of economism is an implicit, racialized judgment about the “kinds of people” who can’t engage in sophisticated politics beyond “base economic motives” — precisely the same rhetoric the British employed to justify their continued occupation of Egypt.

While Egypt’s Occupation never explicitly makes this connection, the parallels are there. Chapter two, for example, highlights the way the British used economism to justify abolishing the system of local elections that Egyptians had long practiced on a village level by arguing that they were not qualified to participate in even the most local politics because of a supposed inability to overcome their economic self-interest.

“If there’s one thing that I really want people to understand,” says Jakes, “it’s that making claims about a kind of strong underlying economic motivation in politics is…often a way of making claims about political disqualification, and actually means that in this country, as in Egypt a hundred years ago, when people are talking about the economy, they often are really talking about race.”

Bringing Research Questions into the Classroom

The day after NSSR spoke with Jakes, he taught a chapter of Egypt’s Occupation in his Lang survey course on Middle Eastern history, marking the first time he’s brought his work directly into the classroom. But teaching has long given him new ways to think about the problems at the center of his research.

“There are moments in which I have actually taught about a topic that I am sort of starting to get my head around,” Jakes said. He often designs courses not necessarily around the research he’s done, but rather based on problems that appear in his work, such as “A World of Disasters: Famine, Plague, and Crisis in Global History,” which he calls “an attempt to…chart a history of concepts and ideas about disasters and the way that meaning had attached to them in different social settings.”

Jakes credits students — especially his NSSR research assistants — as well as faculty across The New School in helping this first book project come to fruition. The university has, he says ”a really special kind of ecology to make serious critical research both possible and fun.” Grants from NSSR, Lang, and NSSR’s Heilbroner Center for Capitalism Studies helped him complete this work.

It’s fitting, then, that the November 9 launch event for Egypt’s Occupation is a full NSSR affair, with faculty members from Historical Studies as well as Anthropology, Politics, and Sociology joining Jakes to discuss the book as well as the fallout from colonialism and financial occupation. Register for the book launch here.

Photo credit: Nina Subin


Cailin Potami is a writer, an editor, and a student in the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism MA program. They live in Queens with their cats, Linguine and Tortellini.