Greetings gentle readers, I am pleased to join you once again. While I have been on hiatus (occupied by, among other things, the process of moving from the Lone Star State home to the sprawling and weather-rich cosmopolis of Miami for the summer; upon which more, perhaps, later), Sepoy has opened up a massive tin of imperial worms, and I for one am hooked and keen to get in on the action. Anyhow, taking literally the moniker ëEmpire Weekí would be too weak for CM, so I am hereby gleefully plunging into Empire Fortnight (Empire Month even).
As Sepoy suggests in his casting of Rumsfeld as a latter-day Disraeli, the US military machineís last few forays into nation-building have occasioned newly vigorous debates over the ethics and the very definition of imperialism. At the same time, long-standing conversations about the once-proud British Empire have continued as historians unearth new materials and construct new arguments. The recent coming to light of hard evidence documenting Britainís vulgar brutality in suppressing the Mau Mau insurgency in 1950s Kenya has been one major trigger for rethinking how peaceful the Pax Britannica really was for all involved ñ a process that involves Kenyans calling upon Britain to acknowledge and compensate for crimes against humanity. Bernard Porter effectively summarized the substance and significance of recent research on late colonial Kenya in a recent review (previously noted around these parts).
The sheer excess of the violence in Kenya, taken together with the immediate bloodshed and rapid deterioration of the British-engineered successor states to the Indian and Palestinian colonies really gives the lie to the cherished myth of the overall humane nature of British global imperialism, for which the allegedly dignified and amicable decolonization process was a major supporting argument. The overflowing gruesome atrocity column on the balance-sheet of British colonialism (from the mass murders committed in the respective wakes of the Black Hole of Calcutta and the 1857 Uprising to unpunished blatant misuse of power by the near-rhyming counter-insurgent generals Eyre and Dyer in Morant Bay and Amritsar) seems to render absurd any vision of the humane and civilized nature of the British Empire. Sepoy has already discoursed impressively on the nauseating revival of the industry of ìEmpire Rehabilitation Studiesî, so here I want to take this in a different direction and focus on the role that comparisons between different modern imperial formations have played in these apologetics for Empire.
Oftentimes, such comparisons serve to suggest the moral superiority of one imperial power over another, and thus their right and obligation (sometimes quasi-divine, often less ambiguous) to unfurl the tendrils of empire far and wide. To be morally superior, however, there needs to be someone else out there who is morally inferior, and these characterizations were assigned by creating black legends of competing imperialists. In the early days, the British contrasted themselves with the Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors whom they portrayed as bloodthirsty and fanatical (British comparisons with the Romans allowed them to pick a temporally distant and idealized empire around which to articulate a ‘white legend’ and advance their own prestige by association). These value-laden comparisons continue to pop up time and again in academic and political debates about Empire today.
Porter, for example, began his aforementioned review on late colonial Kenya by lambasting the work of Niall Ferguson as ìpanegyric to British colonialismî. Fergie apparently took great exception to this characterization, though I fail to understand on what grounds since in his brief rejoinder he once again rehearses his argument that British-style imperialism was/is the best game in town for colonized people everywhere (Porter subsequently pooh-poohs Fergie and all comers). Fergusonís spirited defense of the Empire is premised on the notion that British imperialism needs to be viewed in contrast to alternatives overlords. In this spirit, the establishment of so-called free market economies, communication and transportation infrastructures and institutions to maintain ìlaw and orderî are envisioned as crucial, almost philanthropic, contributions of the Brits to people in the large swathes of the world they colonized (notwithstanding the numerous instances in which these institutions have been revealed as the very means of the subjugation and impoverishment of colonized regions). This notion of the spread of truly superior civilization via imperialism bolsters Fergusonís primary claim that the British Empire might have had a couple of flaws, but stands in history as the best among several contemporary imperial formations, and one that had lasting benevolent effects upon the regions that were part of that Empire.
Fergie’s point: the righteousness of the British Empire (which the US should emulate) is visible by comparison with other, less civilized and humane empires, like the Portuguese, Spanish, French, Russian, German, Italian and Japanese. The height of British civilization is demonstrated, according to Ferguson and others, by the fact that their Empire ushered in certain kinds of moral and economic regimes of power. Specifically, free market economies premised on the notion of private property in which ownership would promote responsibility and adherence to principles of law and order. British colonial governance on the one hand frequently endowed specifically Victorian Christian forms of public morality with legal force and marginalized indigenous social practices, and on the other strove to create and preserve conditions for the expansion of the colonial capitalist economies as globally as possible sending the bulk of the population of the empire into agrarian debt and subjecting them to the fluctuations in value of the cash crops they were compelled to cultivate. But these minor quotidian gripes pose little problem for Fergusonís appreciation of the importance of the British gift of true modern civilization to the rest of the world. The so-called ëwhite manís burdení, with which the imperial Brits imagined themselves to be saddled, was a moral imperative to see that these values and supporting structures took hold in as much of the world as possible. These were the basic contours of the British civilizing mission ñ the same one Ferguson sees as being somehow more just and democratic than the universal visions of the other empires noted above. Certainly there is something to be said about this argument when it comes to the Germans and Japanese of the mid-20th c, whom Ferguson explicitly mentions. But the implication that British rule was superior to ìavailable alternativesî such as other global empires (or, shudder to think, self-rule) strikes me as a highly problematic one.
The major differences between the British and the Iberian empires, for example, result from the fact that these imperial formations thrived at very different historical moments. The Spanish, Portuguese and early French colonizers of Africa and the Americas envision the enactment of their civilizing mission in the spread of Catholicism to the ‘heathens’. By the 19th century, Iberian global power is largely exhausted, and the post-revolutionary French have eliminated the explicitly religious element from imperial discourse. The British Empire comes to prominence and thrives in concert with the rise of enlightenment values and the displacement of religious cosmologies with scientific discourses of truth. The argument, made by Ferguson and numerous others before him (Lord Seely, Robinson & Gallagher, now Porter), that the British came to power in a fit of absent-mindedness and largely left established social and cultural patterns in place in their colonies is one backed up by the claim that the British did not run a Christian and Christianizing empire like their southern European forebears (or an Islamic and Islamizing empire such as that run by the Turks and their forebears, but this is another story). However, the extent to which technologies (both material and ideological) for governing subject populations improved leading up to and during British ascendancy made possible nothing short of a complete reshaping of colonized societies ñ and the Christianization of the Americas pales in comparison to the colonialization of South Asia, to take the most extreme cases. Though the forcible conversion of populations to Christianity was not taking place much in the British Empire, the colonial state worked to insure the ascendancy of free market economies, private property in land and a morally-inflected notion of ëlaw and orderí. These liberal virtues are described in the language of ‘secular’ British colonial discourse, but the process of institution-building probably penetrated more deeply into the everyday lives of people in British colonies than often very superficial conversions had done in Iberian colonies in previous centuries (the Catholicization of Mexico, France or Brazil is no more profound than the subjection of British Indian subjects to capitalist economic relations and statute based penal codes). The language for speaking about what bringing civilization to the natives entailed had changed dramatically from a religious to a secular one, but the capacity of imperial states to enforce the transfer to ëcivilized life’ was increased exponentially.
Taking all of this into account, I find it very difficult to see how British rule presents a preferable alternative to much of anything, unless of course you buy the argument that the free market really is the liberator of all humanity (let us leave other gifts of the British to world civilization such as cricket and gin out of this for now, since one figures such transcendant cultural forms would have caught on regardless of political situations, much like basketball and pasta have). This assumption regarding the market is one that is central in comparisons that have been made by Ferguson and others between the erstwhile British and currently roaring American Empires, and I will have more on this emerging discourse as CM Empire Week (or so) continues.