The Last Days of the American Republic
Excerpt: "For us, the choice is between
the Roman and British precedents."
At its heart, British imperialist ideology revolved around the belief that history and human evolution -- either divinely guided or as a result of natural selection -- had led inexorably to the British Empire of the nineteenth century. As a result, the British extermination of the Tasmanians ("living fossils"); the slaughter of at least ten thousand Sudanese in a single battle at Omdurman on September 2, 1898; General Reginald "Rex" Dyer's use of Gurkha troops on April 13, 1919, at Amritsar to kill as many Punjabis as he could until his soldiers ran out of ammunition; the sanctioned use of explosive dumdum bullets (meant for big-game hunting) in colonial wars but prohibiting them in conflicts among "civilized" nations; and many similar events down to the sanguine, sadistic suppression of the Kikuyu people in Kenya in the 1950s were not morally indefensible crimes of imperialism but the workings of a preordained narrative of civilization.
What changed over time was the idea that a divine hand lay behind such work. As Lindqvist comments, "During the nineteenth century, religious explanations were replaced by biological ones. The exterminated peoples were colored, the exterminators white. It seemed obvious that some racial natural law was at work and that the extermination of non-Europeans was simply a stage in the natural development of the world. The fact that natives died proved that they belonged to a lower race. Let them die as the laws of progress demand." (71) On this, Ferguson concurs:
Influenced by, but distorting beyond recognition, the work of Darwin, nineteenth-century pseudo-scientists divided humanity into races on the basis of external physical features, ranking them according to inherited differences not just in physique but also in character. Anglo-Saxons were self-evidently at the top, Africans at the bottom. (72) In this scheme of things, welfare measures and ameliorative reforms of harsh colonial practices should not be allowed to interfere with natural selection since this would only allow inferiors to survive and propagate their unfitness. (73) These ideas were much admired by Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf, where he wrote approvingly of Britains effective oppression of an inferior race, the Indians. (74)
Racist attitudes spread throughout the British Empire and retained a tenacious hold on English thought well into the twentieth century. As P. J. Marshall, editor of the Cambridge Illustrated History of the British Empire, observes, The roots of South African apartheid, the most inflexible of all systems of racial segregation, can clearly be found in the period when Britain still had ultimate responsibility. The British were never inclined to condone racially mixed marriages, which were common in some other empires, and they rarely treated people of mixed race as in any way the equal of whites. (75) Niall Ferguson deserves credit for noting the sexual hysteria of the Victorians that contributed to these racist policies. (76) That theme, for instance, infuses several of the great novels of Indian life -- E. M. Forsters A Passage to India (1924), Paul Scotts The Jewel in the Crown (1966), Ruth Prawer Jhabvalas Heat and Dust (1975), and Arund-hati Roys The God of Small Things (1997). It is ironic, then, that Edwina, Lady Mountbatten, wife of the last British viceroy in India, had a passionate love affair with independent Indias first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. (77)
The overt racism of the British in India, which affected the institutions of government, contributed powerfully to the growth of nationalist sentiment, recalls Tapan Raychaudhuri, an emeritus fellow of St. Antonys College, Oxford. All Indians, whatever their status, shared the experience of being treated as racial inferiors.... The life stories of Indian celebrities are full of episodes of racial insults. (78) For all its alleged liberalism and the capitalist institutions it forced on its captive peoples, the British Empire bred, inculcated, and propagated racism as its ultimate justification. Even though it was historys largest empire, its rulers seemed incapable of functioning without thoroughly deceiving themselves about why, for a relatively short period of time, they dominated the world. For this reason alone, the British Empire should not be held up as an institution deserving emulation, least of all by the first nation that broke free of it, the United States of America.
Racists though they may have been, Britons have long claimed that they bequeathed to the world the most advanced and effective economic institutions ever devised. For many British people, as P. J. Marshall puts it, it is axiomatic that their record in the establishment of colonies of settlement overseas and as rulers of non-European peoples was very much superior to that of any other power. (79) The popular Niall Ferguson, author of Colossus, an admiring if condescending book on Americas emerging empire, is primarily an economic historian, and his influential glosses on the British Empire stress, above all, its contributions to what later came to be called globalization. He is on the same wavelength with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, bestselling author of The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization and The World Is Flat, who also thinks that the integration of capital markets and investor protection contribute mightily to the well-being of peoples under the sway of either the British or the American empires. Though the idea does not survive close scrutiny, it has proved a powerful ideological justification of imperialism.
It is not news that somewhere around 1 billion people today subsist on almost nothing. With rare exceptions, the countries that the various imperialisms of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries exploited and colonized remain poor, disease- and crime-ridden, and at the mercy of a rigged international trading system that Anglo-American propagandists assure us is rapidly globalizing to everyones advantage. But, as the New York Times pointed out, The very same representatives of the club of rich countries who go around the world hectoring the poor to open up their markets to free trade put up roadblocks when those countries ask the rich to dismantle their own barriers to free trade in agricultural products. (80) According to World Bank data, 390 million of Indias 1.1 billion people -- almost a third of them -- live on less than one dollar a day.(81) Typically, the former U.S. colony of the Philippines, a resource-rich country with a large Sino-Malay population, remains the poorest nation in East Asia, the world's fastest-growing economic region -- a direct result of U.S. imperialism. Similarly, impoverished Latin America still struggles to throw off the legacies of American backyard neocolonialism.(82) All this is among the best-known economic information in the world.
According to the apologists for the British Empire, however, such bad economic news cannot be true, because these problems were solved over 150 years ago. Ferguson maintains that the nineteenth-century [British] empire undeniably pioneered free trade, free capital movements and, with the abolition of slavery, free labor. (83) After the Irish famine (1846-1850) and the Indian Mutiny (1857), the British recast their empire as an economically liberal project, concerned as much with the integration of global markets as with the security of the British Isles, predicated on the idea that British rule was conferring genuine benefits in the form of free trade, the rule of law, the safeguarding of private property rights and non-corrupt administration, as well as government-guaranteed investments in infrastructure, public health, and (some) education. (84)
Unfortunately, this argument is an offshoot of the old nineteenth-century Marxist conception that politics are mere superstructural reflections of underlying economic relations, and that a single worldwide economic system is emerging that will usher in an era of unprecedented prosperity and peace for all. As the economic theorist John Gray observes, It is an irony of history that a view of the world falsified by the Communist collapse should have been adopted, in some of its most misleading aspects, by the victors in the Cold War. Neoliberals, such as Friedman [and Perguson], have reproduced the weakest features of Marxs thought -- its consistent underestimation of nationalist and religious movements and its unidirectional view of history. (85)
The idea that the British Empire conferred economic benefits on any groups other than British capitalists is pure ideology, as impervious to challenge by empirical data as former Soviet prime minister Leonid Brezhnev's Marxism-Leninism or George Bushs belief that free markets mean the same thing as freedom. At the apex of those who profited from British-style free trade at the end of the nineteenth century was the Rothschild Bank, then by far the worlds largest financial institution with total assets of around forty-one million pounds sterling. It profited enormously from the wars -- some seventy-two of them during Queen Victorias reign, and financed such exploiters of Africa as Cecil Rhodes.
Ferguson, who wrote a history of the House of Rothschild, knows these things and does not deny them when he turns from imperial panegyrics to history. In the age before steam power, he writes, India had led the world in manual spinning, weaving, and dyeing. The British had first raised tariffs against their products; then demanded free trade when their alternative industrial mode of production had been perfected. (86) The result was poverty and dependence for India. As Oxford historian Tapan Raychaudhuri puts it, Early in the nineteenth century India lost its export trade in manufactures and became a net importer of manufactured goods and a supplier of mainly agricultural products to Britain for the first time in its history.... In India the favorable terms granted to British exporters and the doctrine of laissez-faire meant that Indian industries received no protection and hardly any encouragement until the mid-1920s, and then only in response to persistent Indian pressure. (87) Precisely at the time that the British were preparing India for its poverty-stricken modern fate, two other nations were laying the foundations for their own contemporary status as the worlds first and second most productive nations -- the United States, protected from its inception to about 1940 by tariffs on manufactured imports that averaged 44 percent; and Japan, which kept itself free of imperialist domination and copied the economic practices of Britain, the United States, and Germany rather than paying much attention to their economic treatises on free markets. (88)
What we are talking about here is, in Mike Daviss phrase, the making of the third world, the poverty-stricken southern hemisphere that is still very much with us today. The looms of India and China, Davis writes, were defeated not so much by market competition as they were forcibly dismantled by war, invasion, opium, and a Lancashire-imposed system of one-way tariffs. (89) In a well-known formulation, the social theorist Karl Polanyi wrote in his seminal work The Great Transformation (1944): The catastrophe of the native community is a direct result of the rapid and violent disruption of the basic institutions of the victim (whether force is used in the process or not does not seem altogether relevant). These institutions are disrupted by the very fact that a market economy is foisted upon an entirely differently organized community; labor and land are made into commodities, which, again, is only a short formula for the liquidation of every and any cultural institution in an organic society. . . . Indian masses in the second half of the nineteenth century did not die of hunger because they were exploited by Lancashire; they perished in large numbers because the Indian village community had been demolished. (90)
Ferguson agrees; it is just that he, like Marx, sees all this chaos as creative destruction, the birth pangs of a new world order, Lenins famous willingness to break eggs in order to make an omelet. (But how many eggs must you break, one wag famously asked, to make a two-egg omelet?) No doubt it is true that, in theory, open international markets would have been preferable to imperialism, Ferguson argues, but in practice global free trade was not and is not naturally occurring. The British empire enforced it. (91)
Thomas Friedman similarly acknowledges that contemporary American-sponsored globalization is not a naturally occurring process. American imperialism enforces it: "The most powerful agent pressuring other countries to open their markets for free trade and free investments is Uncle Sam, and Americas global armed forces keep these markets and sea lanes open for this era of globalization, just as the British navy did for the era of globalization in the nineteenth century. (92) If Mexican corn farmers are driven out of business by heavily subsidized American growers and then the price of corn makes tortillas unaffordable, that is just the global market at work. But if poor and unemployed Mexicans then try to enter the United States to support their families, that is to be resisted by armed force.
After all their arguments have been deployed, how do analysts like Ferguson and Friedman explain the nineteenth-century poverty of India and China, the several dozen Holocaust-sized famines in both countries while food sat on the docks waiting to be exported, and their current status as late developers? Students of communism will not be surprised by the answer. In India, Ferguson argues, the British did not go far enough in enforcing their ideas. If one leaves aside their fundamentally different resource endowments, the explanation for Indias underperformance compared with, say, Canada lies not in British exploitation but rather in the insufficient scale of British interference in the Indian economy. (93)
When Mao Zedong introduced Soviet-style collective farms into China and did not get satisfactory results, he did not abandon them but turned instead to truly gigantic collectives called communes. This Great Leap Forward of the late 1950s produced a famine that took some thirty million Chinese lives, a monument to communist extremism similar to the extremes of laissez-faire that the British dogmatically imposed on their conquered territories -- and that Ferguson would have preferred to be yet more extreme.
The historical evidence suggests a strong correlation exists between being on the receiving end of imperialism and immiseration. The nations that avoided the fates of India, China, Mexico, and the Philippines did so by throwing off foreign rule early -- as did the United States -- or by modernizing militarily in order to hold off the imperialists (and ultimately join them) -- as did Japan.
Even so, the United States is the heir to the British Empire in at least one sense: it is still peddling the same self-serving ideology that its London predecessors pioneered. In a typical speech from the White House, given on September 17, 2002, President George W. Bush said, The United States will use this moment of opportunity to extend the benefits of freedom across the globe. We will actively work to bring the hope of democracy, development, free markets, and free trade to every corner of the world.... Free trade and free markets have proven their ability to lift whole societies out of poverty -- so the United States will work with individual nations, entire regions, and the entire global trading community to build a world that trades in freedom and therefore grows in prosperity. This kind of rhetoric gives democracy a bad name.
Some who deplore the British Empires racism and the fraudulent economic benefits it offered its imperial subjects are nonetheless willing to applaud its gentlemanly endgame, arguing that the way the empire dismantled itself after World War II was authentically noble and redeemed all that went before. Ferguson takes up this theme, too. In the end, the British sacrificed her empire to stop the Germans, Japanese, and Italians from keeping theirs. Did not that sacrifice alone expunge all the empire's other sins? (94) Much of this is Anglo-American claptrap, but at its core there is a theoretical distinction that is important. First, a look at the argument.
P. J. Marshall asserts categorically: The British entered into partnerships with their nationalists and extricated themselves from empire with grace and goodwill.... The unwillingness of the British government after 1945 to be dragged into colonial wars is irrefutable, even if it is not easy to explain. (95) This idea, a staple of Anglophile romanticism, is simply untrue. When he was writing in 1996, Marshall was surely aware of the Malayan Emergency, a bloody colonial war to retain British possession of its main rubber-producing southeast Asian colonies that lasted from approximately 1948 to 1960. It was the British equivalent of the anti-French and anti-American wars that went on in nearby Indochina. Although the British claimed victory over the insurgents, much like the French did in Algeria, the long and deadly conflict led to independence for Britain's colonies and the emergence of the two successor states of Malaysia and Singapore.
The so-called Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya from 1952 to 1960 -- in the immediate wake of the global war against fascism -- was one of the most vicious colonial wars Britain ever fought. No one knows precisely what Mau Mau means or even what language it comes from, but it was the Kikuyu, Kenyas largest ethnic group, some 1.5 million strong, who led the rebellion for freedom from British oppression. Kenyas white settler population was different from similar groups in other colonies. A great many came from Britains upper classes, and they assumed privileges in their new East African enclave that had long since been abolished in their homeland. Caroline Elkins, an American historian who has reconstructed the revolt against these expatriates, writes, Kenyas big men quickly established a leisurely life-style aspired to by all Europeans in the colony. On their estates or farms or in European neighborhoods in Nairobi, every white settler in the colony was a lord to some extent, particularly in relationship to the African population, . . . [T]hese privileged men and women lived an absolutely hedonistic life-style, filled with sex, drugs, and dance, followed by more of the same. (96)
When the Kenyans rebelled against ruthless land seizures by the settlers and their adamant refusal to share power in any way, the British retaliated -- in the name of civilization -- by detaining, torturing, and executing huge numbers of Africans. They imprisoned in concentration camps nearly the entire Kikuyu population, whom the British contended were not freedom fighters but savages of the lowest order. This colonial war may have slipped the mind of the editor of the Cambridge History because the British government did everything in its power to cover up the genocide it attempted there, including burning its colonial archives relating to Kenya on the eve of leaving the country in 1963.
On the dreadful balance sheet of atrocities, Elkins explains, . . . the murders perpetrated by Mau Mau adherents were quite small in number when compared to those committed by the forces of British colonial rule. Officially, fewer than one hundred Europeans, including settlers, were killed and some eighteen hundred loyalists [pro-British Kikuyu] died at the hands of Mau Mau. In contrast, the British reported that more than eleven thousand Mau Mau were killed in action, though the empirical and demographic evidence I unearthed calls into serious question the validity of this figure. I now believe there was in late colonial Kenya a murderous campaign to eliminate Kikuyu people, a campaign that left tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, dead. (97) This was anything but an extrication from empire with grace and goodwill.
Without doubt Niall Ferguson also knows about the way the British crushed the Mau Mau, since he and his family lived in Nairobi in the late 1960s, but he makes no mention of the rebellion in either of his books on the British Empire. Instead, he writes, We had our bungalow, our maid, our smattering of Swahili -- and our sense of unshakable security. It was a magical time, which indelibly impressed on my consciousness the sight of the hunting cheetah, the sound of Kikuyu women singing, the smell of the first rains and the taste of ripe mango. (98) The British seem to have no qualms about distorting the historical record in order to prettify their imperialism. Jan Christian Smuts, the Boer general who later defected to the British side and served twice in the early twentieth century as prime minister of the Union of South Africa, the British colonys successor state, called British indifference to their violations of international law during the Boer War very characteristic of the nation which always plays the role of chosen judge over the actions and behavior of all other nations. (99)
There are still other post-1945 colonial wars that contradict any claim of an honorable British abdication of empire, for example, the joint Anglo-French-Israeli attack on Egypt in November 1956 in retaliation for Gamal Abdel Nassers act of nationalizing the Suez Canal. Nothing came of it because the United States refused to join this exercise in gunboat diplomacy. Nonetheless, the incident revealed that some eighteen years after the British occupation of Egypt had supposedly ended, Britain still had eighty thousand troops based in the canal zone and did not want to leave. (100) And then there is the British militarys 2003 return to what Toronto Sun columnist Eric Margolis calls among the most disastrous and tragic creations of Britain's colonial policy -- namely, Iraq.(101) In 1920, following World War I, Britain violated every promise it had ever made to the diverse peoples of the Near East and created the hopelessly unstable country of Iraq from the Mesopotamian remnants of the Ottoman Empire. The new country combined mutually incompatible Kurds, Shia Muslims, and Sunni Muslims, whose struggles with each other were finally suppressed only by the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. In 1920, when the Iraqis revolted against the British, the Royal Air Force routinely bombed, strafed, and used poison gas against rebellious villages. It is remarkable that the British dared show their faces there again.
There are other problems with the thesis that the British Empire revealed its human greatness at its twilight. The bungled partition of India into India and Pakistan caused between two hundred thousand and a half million deaths and laid the foundation for the three wars to follow between the two countries and the ongoing conflict in Kashmir.(102) Raychaudhuri explains, The British perception that Hindus and Muslims were two mutually antagonistic monoliths, a notion not rooted in facts, became an important basis for allocating power and resources. Hindu-Muslim rivalry and the eventual partition of India was the end result, and the British policy makers, when they did not actually add fuel to the conflict, were quite happy to take advantage of it. (103) In the partition, Lord Mountbatten, the last viceroy, openly sided with the Hindu-dominated Congress Party against the Muslim League. (104)
An empire such as Britains that remains a democracy at home and a tyranny abroad always faces tensions between its people in the field and the home office. The on-the-spot imperialists usually exercise unmitigated power over their subordinated peoples whereas political leaders at home are responsible to parliaments and can be held accountable through elections. Writing about British imperialism, Hannah Arendt noted that on the whole [it] was a failure because of the dichotomy between the nation-states legal principles and the methods needed to oppress other people permanently. This failure was neither necessary nor due to ignorance or incompetence. British imperialists knew very well that administrative massacres could keep India in bondage, but they also knew that public opinion at home would not stand for such measures. Imperialism could have been a success if the nation-state had been willing to pay the price, to commit suicide and transform itself into a tyranny. It is one of the glories of Europe, and especially of Great Britain, that she preferred to liquidate the empire. (105)
Even though I believe Arendt overstates the achievements of Britain, her point is the main one I have tried to illustrate in this chapter. Over any fairly lengthy period of time, successful imperialism requires that a domestic republic or a domestic democracy change into a domestic tyranny. That is what happened to the Roman Republic; that is what I fear is happening in the United States as the imperial presidency gathers strength at the expense of the constitutional balance of governmental powers and as militarism takes even deeper root in the society. It did not happen in Britain, although it was more likely and altogether less noble than either Arendt or contemporary apologists for British imperialism imply. Nonetheless, Britain escaped transformation into a tyranny largely because of a post-World War II resurgence of democracy and popular revulsion at the routine practices of imperialism.
The histories of Rome and Britain suggest that imperialism and militarism are the deadly enemies of democracy. This was something the founders of the United States tried to forestall with their creation of a republican structure of government and a system of checks and balances inspired by the Roman Republic. Imperialism and militarism will ultimately breach the separation of powers created to prevent tyranny and defend liberty. The United States today, like the Roman Republic in the first century BC, is threatened by an out-of-control military-industrial complex and a huge secret government controlled exclusively by the president. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, cynical and shortsighted political leaders in the United States began to enlarge the powers of the president at the expense of the elected representatives of the people and the courts. The public went along, accepting the excuse that a little tyranny was necessary to protect the population. But, as Benjamin Franklin wrote in 1759, Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.
Rome and Britain are archetypes of the dilemma of combining democracy at home with an empire abroad. In the Roman case, they decided to hang on to the empire and lost their democracy. In the British case, they chose the opposite: in order to remain democratic they dumped their empire and military apparatus after World War II. For us, the choice is between the Roman and British precedents.
Published in In Motion Magazine June 12, 2007
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