Article May 2, 2023

SIDE BY SIDE: Allan Lumba's Monetary Authorities and Jamie Martin's The Meddlers Reviewed

Allan E. S. Lumba and Jamie Martin review one another's related, recently published books, Monetary Authorities: Capitalism and Decolonization in the American Colonial Philippines and The Meddlers: Sovereignty, Empire, and the Birth of Global Economic Governance (both 2022), with an eye to how they may be read together or against one another.


Jamie Martin. The Meddlers: Sovereignty, Empire, and the Birth of Global Economic Governance. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2022.
Reviewed by Allan E. S. Lumba, Concordia University

The film Concerning Violence by Göran Olssen contains a scene of former Burkina Faso leader Thomas Sankara. Despite being ousted and assassinated in a US- and France-backed coup d’état in 1987, Sankara in his brief four-year presidential administration was an outspoken challenger to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other international governing bodies that imposed strict interventionist conditions on debtor Third World nations. Drawing from a longer radical and revolutionary tradition of pan-African and internationalist Marxist critiques of capitalism and imperialism, Sankara’s interview shed light on the novel modes of accumulation, exploitation, and control imposed on African postcolonial nations after gaining nominal sovereignty—what Ghanian theorist Kwame Nkrumah famously called “neocolonialism.”[1]

Our impression is also that as soon as help from the IMF arrives, then other conditions are imposed on us. They say you can get this or that amount of money but only if you do this or that. We fulfill their conditions. Then they set other conditions. It's very troublesome. In which countries has the IMF been successful? In which places where the IMF has meddled has it really worked? Nowhere! — Sankara [2]

The IMF through its credit-debt relation with so-called developing countries, traps largely racialized populations into cycles of endless undemocratically decided political conditions, including structural changes and austerity.  Sankara takes aim, therefore, at how the IMF’s quotidian meddling leads not to success for those countries they promise to “help,” but rather constant disasters of austerity, instability, and foreign dependency. Yet, the IMF—a post-WWII invention—was not the first international institution to meddle in the name of aid and development. As Jamie Martin’s The Meddlers adroitly illustrates, the architecture and the logics of the IMF were formed decades earlier, during the decades between World Wars.

Although foreign intervention had always been a crucial component of imperial and colonial power, throughout the 1920s and 1930s a new kind of justification based on liberal international cooperation and global stability emerged. As Martin convincingly demonstrates, the interwar development of specific powers of control and interference by supposedly depoliticized international economic institutions had profound historical legacies. These powers, moreover, were both punitive and reparative. These interwar institutions and agents were charged with distributing loan, aid, and knowledge to countries that were determined to be in need. Yet loans were often conditioned on austerity or development practices; production and trade of certain commodities could be controlled; and even monetary policy could be reshaped by these bodies.[3] These invasive practices oftentimes prioritized technicalities over ethics. Martin, for instance, deftly illustrates how the League of Nations imposed new forms of political control on Greece through the distribution of a seemingly ethical 1924 Refugee Loan. Indeed, loan agents, over the course of several years, took on the perspective of investors, anxious over “the question of how to ensure refugee families paid back what they technically owed.”[4]

The Meddlers makes a convincing case that these novel powers were invented to advance more opaque forms of foreign intervention, opening up internal, supposedly sovereign realms, to the whims of exterior desires. These desires were mainly driven by imperial rivalry or transnational business interests, and often, both. Thus, Martin situates the making of meddler logic within twinned crises from the late 1910s through the late 1940s: the crisis of an inter-imperial system consistently breaking down due to militaristic hostilities; and the crisis of global capitalism, in which instability was the norm rather than the exception.

Six chapters carefully chart the formation of these different meddling powers. The first chapter traces the origins of the meddlers in militarized warfare. The First World War necessitated institutions to handle the logistics of wartime supplies. Consequently, this meant the creation of wartime councils by the victorious Allied Powers. As war drew to an end, a growing number of public and private actors across the North Atlantic saw in these bodies two seemingly contradictory functions. On one hand, a form of economic punishment against the defeated Central Powers and on the other, a reparative instrument for postwar reconstruction. The second chapter further fleshes out this dyadic desire for punishment and repair, tracking how and why the League of Nations would impose different programs of austerity and financial control through conditional loans to former Central Power nations. Specifically, chapter three looks at the practices of the Bank of International Settlements and chapter four focuses on the tensions surrounding loans to Greece and China, foregrounding the ascending role of foreign technical expertise and its metrics of “development.” I write in more detail about these chapters below.

Chapter five focuses on the regulation of commodities, and eventual pushback against regulation. Martin traces the management of supply, production, and trade of colonial commodities, in particular British Malaya. Through the examination of the extractive industry of tin during the Great Depression, Martin shows how struggles would ensue between those who advocated for price controls and non-British capitalists. Finally, by charting the formation of the Bretton Woods system during the 1940s, the sixth chapter bridges the “interwar” period with the period normatively considered the dawn of the decolonization era. Architects of the IMF would attempt to thread the needle between its noninterventionist claims while at the same time upholding the promise of international stability and cooperation. But Martin is clear: the IMF’s power of undemocratically controlling domestic policies was always imminent, even in its founding.

I found much affinity between The Meddlers and my own book, Monetary Authorities. I was especially drawn to the series of historical episodes explored in chapters three and four which investigates the balancing act of international advisors and experts as they attempted to impose new forms of economic governance while at the same time technically respecting the boundaries of political sovereignty. The Meddlers is especially fruitful in rethinking aspects of the vulnerability or fragility of “sovereignty” during the so-called interwar period. This was an era where different European and American authorities were experimenting with political economic liberal institution building, while at the same time trying to shore up liberal imperial norms against emergent fascisms, on one hand, and movements for decolonization, on the other. A central dilemma throughout this process was the struggle over sovereignty.

For instance, in chapter three, which looks at the origins and initial practices of the Bank of International Settlements (BIS), even the supposed autonomy of certain monetary authorities like central banks were constantly troubled by meddling “depoliticized” institutions.

Who in the end was sovereign? As disputes about the foundation of the BIS intensified, it became clear that key assumptions about central bank independence and its meaning as a norm of international governance were more unstable than the defenders of the ideal of “depoliticized” banking were willing to admit.[5]

And in chapter four, which concentrates on the history of development in Greece and China, Martin asks whether the sacrifice of autonomy to certain external bodies would actually benefit both capitalist investment and state budgets.

Would a sovereign state allow an external body to control not only its budget and revenues, but also policies concerning the productive capacities of its citizenry and the management of its infrastructure? Could foreign investors argue to entrust capital to an international institution that did not become deeply involved in sensitive internal problems? And could the provisions of technical advisors without powers of control be offered as an alternative?[6]

Martin examines not only the relation between sovereignty (a concept based on a bounded political entity) and capitalism (a necessarily boundless global economic system), but also the tensions between liberalism and democracy.

An international liberal institution like the BIS, for example, would ideally support the autonomy of national central banks, primarily by claiming to be free from any political influence.[7] The BIS, thus, appears as an institution that drew clear borders between state sovereignty and bodies that promoted inter-state cooperation. At the same time, however, the BIS also represented a larger goal of liberal internationalists, to prioritize the advisory power of supposed economic experts over democratic decisionmaking. As one British international lawyer at the time claimed, the BIS was intended to be “detached from mass politics and run by capitalists whose judgements [were] superior to the passions of the crowd and independent of rulers who are dependent on the crowd.”[8] Martin, thus, sharpens the distinction between state sovereignty and popular sovereignty, and how economic liberal internationalists, especially during the interwar period, had a deep suspicion of the capacity of the demos for self-determination.

Due to my own curiosity, I would have liked to have seen a more sustained observation of colonial and imperial power relations, especially the role of internationalist economic liberalism, or what I would call a kind of “counter-decolonization.”[9] I wonder how The Meddler’s approach to global economic governance would have been slightly reframed if it engaged with other counter-hegemonic modes of internationalist thinking of the time, particularly from Black and other supposedly subject peoples. I am thinking, for example, of a 1945 declaration from the Fifth Pan-African Congress that stated: “We welcome Economic Democracy as the only real democracy.”[10] How does a critique of self-determination, popular sovereignty, and the political economy of capitalist empires from the perspective of Africa and the African diaspora better help flesh out why North Atlantic states were so obsessed with meddling?

This, however, in no way discounts the value of Martin’s book. Indeed, The Meddlers is a forceful contribution to an expanding field of thought-provoking historical examinations of “self-determination,” especially during global capitalism’s first half of the twentieth century. In the past two decades, these books of varied, and sometimes opposing conclusions, include: Christopher Dietrich’s Oil Revolution, Adom Getachew’s Worldmaking After Empire, Peter Hudson’s Bankers and Empire, Erez Manela’s The Wilsonian Moment, and Mark Mazower’s No Enchanted Palace. Indeed, Martin’s book is a generative addition to historical understandings of the deeply disavowed contradictions within contemporary global economic governance.


Allan E. S. Lumba. Monetary Authorities: Capitalism and Decolonization in the American Colonial Philippines. Durham: Duke University Press, 2022.
Reviewed by Jamie Martin, Harvard University

How should the intertwined histories of finance and empire be narrated from the age of high imperialism in the late nineteenth century to the era of decolonization in the twentieth? Allan Lumba’s fascinating book on monetary order and decolonization in the Philippines offers one compelling approach. It shows how Philippine struggles for political sovereignty involved a series of compromises with financial orthodoxy that left older, hierarchical economic structures intact in the postcolonial state. For non-experts on the Philippines, like this reviewer, there are several important insights that can be drawn from this work to other contexts, particularly concerning the persistence of colonial and semi-colonial economic arrangements after the end of formal empire.

The Philippines is a unique site for studying the shifting relationship of empire and capitalism in the short century stretching from the 1860s to the 1950s: a highly diverse Southeast Asian archipelago seized from a creaking Spanish Empire in the late nineteenth century by the United States and then claimed as the most populous and territorially expansive overseas US colony for nearly fifty years. Here, the Philippines is investigated as an “important theoretical place,” as Lumba quotes Neferti Tadiar, to understand “the larger world within which it is situated” (4). As Lumba clearly demonstrates, the complexity of monetary institutions and practices in the Philippine colony were long tied to questions of its governability. In the nineteenth century, this complexity was seen by the Spanish as a direct threat to their rule, sparking efforts to create a uniform currency as the Philippines was pulled more into an integrating, expanding global capitalist economy as a producer of cash crops like sugar and tobacco. At this time, many currencies were in circulation throughout the archipelago: the Chinese tael, Japanese yen, Dutch East Indies florin, and others. In the 1860s, the Spanish attempted to institute a bimetallic currency standard just as much of the world was moving to gold and as the Philippines continued to make extensive use of the silver-backed Mexican peso, which – after Mexico’s independence in 1815 – was no longer under Spanish dominion. Lumba describes the symbolic resonance among Spanish colonial authorities of this postcolonial currency being used in the Philippines, which was decried as an intrusion of “foreign” influence in one of the few remaining overseas Spanish colonies.

After the United States seized the Philippines in the wake of the Spanish-American War, efforts to discipline the perceived unruliness of Philippine monetary arrangements accelerated. This involved a complex interplay among US occupying forces and US and Filipino economic experts and officials. With the proclamation of the independent Malolos Republic in 1899, and the subsequent outbreak of war with the United States, Filipino elites attempted to demonstrate that an independent Philippines could be a responsible actor in a global capitalist economy overwhelmingly dominated by foreign empires. These efforts to reassure the world the Philippines was “ready” for sovereignty involved the suppression of perceived domestic threats to the country’s reputation as upholder of the monetary status quo.

At the moment of its establishment, the Malolos Republic weighed a kind of Faustian bargain faced by many recently independent and decolonizing countries – including up to this day: seeking out sources of foreign capital to defend their sovereignty and build up their state capacity but in the process negotiating away assets and autonomy to representatives of their foreign creditors. In 1899, the young republic, looking for capital to finance war with the United States, agreed to pledge sources of national wealth as security for these loans, thereby trading one kind of sovereignty for another. Lumba’s depiction of the ways the Philippine fight for sovereignty made the “nation-state ultimately unsovereign” (32) offers an important insight about the choices faced by other states waging struggles for independence in a global financial system in which credit seldom came without painful strings attached. One possible point of comparison here would be the experiences of newly-post-Ottoman Balkan states that also negotiated away their autonomy to external creditors just around this same time, such as Greece, where a foreign-run debt commission was established in 1898 to siphon off revenues to repay loans used to finance the removal of occupying Ottoman forces. Greece thereby solidified its formal political independence at the cost of ceding extensive financial sovereignty to representatives of the Great Powers. It was not the first or last time such a decision would be made.

After the fall of the short-lived Malolos Republic, Filipino monetary instability became a central concern of the US colonial administration, which sought to complete earlier Spanish efforts to bring uniformity and control to the staggering complexity of the archipelago’s monetary arrangements. Lumba offers a compelling account of how monetary order was tied closely to the logistics of military occupation and colonial bureaucracy, as US colonists and occupying soldiers pushed for currency reform not only for the sake of the colony’s governability but also for the simple fact of ensuring they were paid. He also describes how the Philippines became a kind of laboratory for the most famous and influential of US “money doctors” – including Charles Conant, Jeremiah Jenks, and Edwin Kemmerer – all of whom were involved in currency and banking reform efforts during this period. As scholars like Emily Rosenberg, Marc Flandreau, and others have shown, these financial “missionaries” were key to the extension of US financial empire by spreading the gospel of the gold standard and financial orthodoxy through Latin America and to the new states of Europe after the First World War. Lumba adds much to this picture by explaining the stakes and contexts of their work in the Philippines.

Conant played a major role in spearheading currency reform in the Philippine colony during the early years of US occupation. Far from being a dispassionate technocrat, he was convinced of the civilizational duty of Anglo-Americans in propagating sound monetary order and understood currency reform in the Philippines in distinctly racial terms, weighing what he believed to be the “capacity” of Filipinos for the introduction of a gold-based currency. Of particular interest are Lumba’s depictions of the ways in which Conant worked with Filipino Mestizo collaborators, who are shown to have iterated their own visions of monetary order in racial categories. To people like Benito Legarda, for example – later a member of the colonial administration – the “Native” was said to be most in need of economic modernity and thus stood to benefit from a new gold-based currency; the Chinese population was perceived as a threat to sound monetary order; and the Español-Filipino was considered to be of “equal standing” with Europeans (56). Lumba thus shows how hierarchies of racial capitalism were upheld through elective coalitions of colonial authorities, foreign experts, and domestic elites. But efforts to bring monetary discipline to the colony were constantly upset by the diversity of currency and the ubiquity of small denomination coinage in use. Kemmerer sought to make the new currency that Conant had pushed for stick, by encouraging both bankers and the broader population to use it and by reforming the Philippine banking system in order to securely tie the colony’s monetary system to the US dollar. He too is shown to have understand this work in paternalistic, racialized terms – as necessitating the “education” of people he saw as not yet capable of economic modernity on their own.

Lumba describes the process of “Filipinization” – whereby Filipinos increasingly assumed positions of authority within the colonial state – as involving a series of efforts to respond to this challenge by proving that the Philippines was, in fact, economically advanced and thus ready for independence. One striking episode is the establishment of the Philippine National Bank in 1916 and the severe crisis it faced during the post-World War I global economic crisis of 1920-21, which was said by US colonial authorities to be exemplary of the excesses of Filipinization and the “incapacity” of Filipinos for self-government. During the interwar period, Filipino elites continued to make the case that the Philippines’ suitability for sovereignty was reflected in its advancing economic modernity. In doing so, they invoked earlier tropes about racial capacity and civilization uplift, thereby reproducing assumptions of the colonizer. This happened, Lumba argues, “not necessarily through formal education, but rather through the day-to-day grind of administering state policies through bureaucratic offices” (129). As such, the logics of colonial political economy effectively became naturalized through institutional structures and practices. A principal argument for decolonization came to turn on the idea that Filipinos would better wield “monetary authority” than colonial officials given their superior understanding of local market conditions. Since the logical guardian of finance on this argument were local elites, this meant political sovereignty was ultimately key to the future of capital accumulation. Other visions for “unconditional decolonization” were suppressed in this quest to prove “racial capacity for monetary authority” (4). This meant that the achievement of political independence did little to dislodge some of the basic practices and institutions of racial capitalism that had emerged under Spanish and US colonial rule.

Monetary Authorities offers a powerful demonstration of how work on racial capitalism can be brought together with scholarship on the history of economic expertise, empire, and US foreign policy. It offers two particularly crucial contributions for international historians: first, that the achievement of political sovereignty often involved real compromises of economic autonomy and sacrifices of economic experimentation and, second, that the era of decolonization did not mark a full break with nineteenth-century practices and institutions of colonial and semi-colonial political economy. In my book, The Meddlers, I made what I see to be related arguments about the rise of global economic governance in the twentieth century, showing how practices of financial imperialism from the nineteenth century continued to shape the powers of international institutions that saw themselves as providing an alternative to older, more coercive forms of empire in the twentieth. Lumba’s study also provides important insights about how some political and economic elites understood the stakes and meaning of achieving political sovereignty in a global capitalist economy that had evolved in the twentieth century to accommodate nation states but that continued to constrain more radical experiments in social, economic, and political organization. Ultimately, the book leaves open one of the most challenging political questions of the twentieth century: what kinds of “unconditional decolonization” on the national level would have been possible during this era without a corresponding transformation of the global economy itself?


[1] Alyosha Goldstein, “The Anti-Imperialist Horizon,” Critical Ethnic Studies 7, no. 1 (2022):

[2] Concerning Violence, directed by Göran Olssen (Kino Lorber), 1:17:43 – 1:18:34.

[3] Jaimie Martin, The Meddlers: Sovereignty, Empire, and the Birth of Global Economic Governance (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2022), 4.

[4] Martin, The Meddlers, 157

[5] Martin, 102


[6] Martin, 136

[7] Martin, 101

[8] Martin, 122

[9] Allan E. S. Lumba, Monetary Authorities: Capitalism and Decolonization in the American Colonial Philippines (Durham: Duke University Press, 2022).

[10] “Selections from Declarations and Resolutions of the Fifth Pan-African Congress: Manchester, England, October 13-21, 1945,” Black Camera 13, no. 1 (Fall 2021): 345.





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