What is Imperialism?

The recent hissy fit thrown by historian Niall Ferguson (racist! imperialist!) because Pankaj Mishra wrote a scathing review in the LRB deserves comment.

Mishra’s review of Ferguson’s TV-Book Civilisation, Watch This Man, led with drawing attention to White supremacists like Theodore Stoddard and the twin peaks of their insanity – the inherent belief in their racial rule and the imminent rise of the non-white. He carefully placed Ferguson’s tele-tectonic career within those peaks, as Ferguson maniacally catapulted from one to another to back to forth; content only when everyone was praising his wit or inviting him to exclusive seances with Dick Cheney. Well, sure. Ferguson was only one among many intellectuals who took the post 2001 moment and led the charge of the key boards. Let us never forget Fouad Ajami or Bernard Lewis or Kanan Makiya or Boot or Kaplan or Zakaria or Friedman. Let us never forget.

Here is what Ferguson wrote in October 2001:

The future of Afghanistan must, if the war is successfully prosecuted, be very similar indeed to those states currently under this kind of international colonial rule. Nothing else will do. Contrary to popular arguments made in the 1980s, imperialism is affordable for the richest economy in the world. You could argue that the cost of isolationism could be much higher in the long run than the cost of confident intervention in rogue states. When the British empire controlled 25% of the world’s surface and population, the British defence budget averaged around 3% of GNP. Currently the US defence budget accounts for slightly less than that. It would not be beyond the bounds of possibility that by increasing the defence budget to 5% of GNP, still below the levels of height of the cold war, more effective military intervention could be undertaken.

There is no excuse for the relative weakness of the US as a quasi-imperial power. The transition to formal empire from informal empire is an affordable one. But it does not come very naturally to the US – partly because of its history and partly because of Vietnam – to act as a self-confident imperial power. The US has the resources: but does it have the guts to act as a global hegemon and make the world a more stable place?

This is what he wrote in October 2003, reviewing a book:

Perhaps the book’s real problem is that the very concept of “hegemony” is really just a way to avoid talking about empire, “empire” being a word to which most Americans remain averse. But “empire” has never exclusively meant direct rule over foreign territories without any political representation of their inhabitants. Students of imperial history have a far more sophisticated conceptual framework than that. During the imperial age, for example, British colonial administrators such as Frederick Lugard clearly understood the distinction between “direct” and “indirect” rule; large parts of the British Empire in Asia and Africa were ruled indirectly, through the agency of local potentates rather than British governors. A further distinction was introduced by the British historians Jack Gallagher and Ronald Robinson in their seminal 1953 article on “the imperialism of free trade,” in which the authors showed how the Victorians used naval and financial power to open markets well outside their colonial ambit. There is an important and now widely accepted distinction between “formal” and “informal” empire. The British did not formally govern Argentina, for example, but the merchant banks of the City of London exerted such a powerful influence on that country’s fiscal and monetary policy that its independence was heavily qualified.

Ferguson has bristled (BRISTELD) that Mishra “called” him a racist. Ferguson has threatened to sue LRB and Mishra because, well he is NOT a racist. Mishra, to his credit, has used the Letters to further skewer and flay Ferguson and one great, great service Mishra has done to humanity (the thinking third) is to wipe the sheen off that smug face. Bravo.

I am less interested in the racism debate, and more in the imperialism. In a recently published article, historian Richard Drayton, succinctly blasts the defenders of cultural imperialism.

It is important now to be clear about the reality of Imperialism, in ways its historians so rarely are. For it is not merely, as it was at its origin, a word of political abuse. It is a useful category through which we may make sense of a phenomenon which recurs in world history wherever a power gap allows one soci- ety to become predatory towards others. Imperialism, in all its contexts, is a regime through which external entities derive maximum gain from the labour and resources within a territory. A foreign power, with or without formal colonization, although always with local collaborators, secures a protected and privileged sphere for its economic actors. There the relationship of labour to capital is manipulated via the suppression of taxes, wages, social or environmental protections, by forms of coercion which drive labour towards that direction of employment and limit its legal or practical ability to resist the regime, and from which tribute, commodities and profit may be freely expatriated. The social rent paid by capital is minimized, as both the costs of social reproduction (childhood, ill health, aging) are borne from the wages of labour and the costs of infrastructure through which the external actor derives extraordinary benefit – roads, deepwater harbours, airports, electricity networks, local policing and repression – are funded mainly out of taxation of the wages and consumption of the squeezed wages of labour. Those on the under- side of this regime derive reduced benefit from their labour and resources, and live in circumstances of insecurity, if not permanent malnutrition. The upshot of this is high levels of unnecessary mortality sustained over very long periods, a kind of slow-motion mass manslaughter. Violence is a constant and necessary corollary of such an order, needed to install, defend, discipline and replace local collaborators. Torture is not just a problem that oddly pops up in the midst of imperial adven- tures: it is the necessary recurrent partner to a non-consensual regime of exploita- tion, where the application of force to bodies to extract information, to spread terror, to break the will to resist, is fundamental. But Imperialism always comes wearing the mask of community, promising that its form of domination is in the universal interest. To such a claim historians and their colleagues in the social sciences lend active help.1

Drayton criticizes historians who took the cultural turn of making imperialism about representation:

But even these new currents of Imperial history as a subject rarely posed a critique of either the past of British Imperialism, or even less, a challenge to the forms of domination and exploitation which it had shaped and which survived its formal collapse. For the ‘cultural turn’ was associated with an ascent of Idealism in the historiography of British imperialism which was remarkably compatible with the Neo-Liberal moment. On the left, the postcolonialists were preoccupied with how the British perceived the colonized, and with the imperial life of cultural ste- reotypes.15 On the right, as we shall see, apologists for contemporary British and American power sought to revive the Whig history of the British Empire. Somewhere in the centre, we were told of the ideological origins of the British Empire. Colonial encounters, for Cannadine, became mere consequences of how the British imagined social class. The mental worlds of individuals at the frontier, usually white, became the subject of many elegant studies from Linda Colley and her two distinguished students Kathleen Wilson and Maya Jasanoff.17 A focus on subjectivity, on how people in Africa, Asia, or Latin America thought about things, displaced examination of practical and material experience. Historians appeared to be more bothered by ‘epistemic violence’ than the real thing. The exceptions to this have been few – David Anderson’s and Caroline Elkins’s studies of the violence with which the colonial state repressed the Mau Mau insurgency in Kenya stand out, and the hostility with which both, but particularly Elkins, were received, is an emblem of the costs involved in breaking the code of silence.

In important ways, post-colonial Imperial and world history is still written mainly for the pleasure of the reading classes of past and present imperial powers.

This is a serious critique that deserves to be taken seriously by historians – especially those among us who wish to show the rot in the fruits of imperialism. I am going to take my time and write more on Drayton’s critique but for now, just wanted to highlight this to you (my thanks to Mishra for drawing attention to this essay).

In the meantime, the likes of Ferguson will never go away (I blame TV) until the true horror of imperialism is distinguished along with the representations of imperialism.

Gitmo is real.

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  1. Richard Drayton, “Where Does the World Historian Write From? Objectivity, Moral Conscience and the Past and Present of Imperialism“, Journal of Contemporary History 2011 46: 671 []

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11 thoughts on “What is Imperialism?”

  1. > In the meantime, the likes of Ferguson will never go away (I blame TV) until the true
    > horror of imperialism is distinguished along with the representations of imperialism.

    Good point.

    It’s hard to imagine but even today there are ordinary Indians esp., in her cities, who consider Churchill to be a true hero of the 20th century.

  2. The sort of Indian who will sometimes say, “no, the Emergency gets a bad name, magar hamaare log aise nahin maante, kabhi kabhi dande ki zaroorat hoti hai!”

    Love the excerpt from Drayton — must check the essay out…

  3. Very interesting essay by Richard Drayton but the sentance
    “It is a useful category through which we may make sense of a phenomenon which recurs in world history wherever a power gap allows one soci- ety to become predatory towards others.”
    can be applied to elites within countries. I am thinking in particular of India and the policies of the government, particularly the current one tryng to push the interests of elites and also of some western nations in the policies like nuclear liability bill, Indo-US agricultural programs, etc and many of the children of the elites working for companies like Monsanto, Halliburton etc. Could it be that most people take advantage of whatever is available to them without really considering that they are becoming part of systems of injustice.

  4. Niall Ferguson is not an imperialist. It is time that people accept facts. Dr. Ferguson’s arguments are often based on real data. Pankaj Mishra on the other hand is a dim witted twit who pretends to be erudite. He infact is a lazy writer.

  5. what an awesome post, thanks! i think the resistance to think through imperialism goes alongside the resistance to acknowledge terms like “occupation” – so Afghanistan is not occupation, Kashmir is not occupation – because that sounds too imperialistic. also, it seems ok to say that the US is at “war” in Afghanistan, but not that it’s occupying the country.

  6. Vivek, one often wonders what Dr Ferguson is if indeed he isn’t an Imperialist. I disagree with you completely on P Mishra. He’s a perceptive literary critic. But then he’s not a professional historian.

    The trouble with P Mishra is not that he’s intellectually lazy. His guru’s in history such as the secular progressive old guard historians like Romila Thapar, Irfan Habib etc are intellectually lazy. He’ll be better off, imho, if he moderates the historical wisdom he has received from Thapar, Habib etc with a small dose of Upendar Singh who seems less doctrinaire than much of the old guard.

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