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The Phantasm Of Empire: (With A British Accent)


The ruling ideas of a time, wrote the great German sage, are the ideas of the ruling class. So it is with our time. The American ruling class indulges itself in the phantasm of Empire, in an American Raj that stretches across the globe, whose jewels are the military bases and whose emblems are the invisible hands of its global corporations. Every ruling class invites a jester to tell it what it wants to hear, to put its own ideas to paper and speak that which it wants said.

And so much the better if it says all this in a British accent.

From Stage Right descends Niall Ferguson, author of the recently feted book, Empire, a companion volume to the BBC television show. Ferguson, who teaches both at Oxford as well as at the aptly named Stern School of Business at NYU, draws upon his work on the British Empire to scold the American establishment for its insufficient attention to the white man’s burden. A self-proclaimed “fully paid-up member of the neo-imperialist gang,” Ferguson told his New York Times readers that he wants the American Empire to do its job boldly, to go out there among the darker nations and rule them like the British once did [His article, called "The Empire Slinks Back" was published on 27 April 2003]. No sense in just winning the war if you’re not going to also dominate the peace.

One way to convince the supposedly hesitant colonials is to teach them about the benefits of British imperialism. The British Empire, Ferguson says snidely, “did get lousy press from a generation of ‘postcolonial’ historians anachronistically affronted by its racism.” When he puts postcolonial in quotes, what he perhaps refers to is that generation and more of historians who wrote against imperialism, who ploughed the archives for more than the rhetoric of the Viceroys and their propagandists (such as James Mill and John Stuart Mill – both employees of the English East India Company). But did that generation write anachronistically about racism? If only our Oxford historian spent an afternoon reading the Urdu Akhbaar from the 1870s, he would get a sense of how those who resided in Delhi understood their situation, locked in what the English so quaintly called Black Town so as not to infect the higher souls in White Town. What are we to make of Lord Elgin’s 1895 statement, “We could only govern by maintaining the fact that we are the dominant race – though Indians in services should be encouraged, there is a point at which we must reserve the control to ourselves, if we are to remain at all”? I suppose the barbarism of the Belgians in the Congo should also be seen in some other framework than racism? Well, yes, if we are to join the Stern professor in his celebration of the four virtues of Empire: establishment of market economies, the rule of law, democracy and the development of technology and science in the benighted parts of the world.

There is a library of evidence to refute Ferguson, but here, to balance Ferguson’s record, are a few quotations from bona fide Englishmen who cannot be accused of postcolonial biases.

(1) Market Economy. “The supersession of the native for British manufacture is often quoted as a splendid example of the triumph of British skill. It is a much stronger instance of English tyranny, and how India has been impoverished by the most vexatious system of custom duties imposed for the avowed object of favouring the mother country” (M. Martin, Select Committee of the House of Lords, 1840). (2) Rule of Law. “Would the declaration of rights translate into Sanscrit? Would Bramin, Chetree, Bice, Sooder and Hallochore [the first four being the textual varnas from the Vedas, the latter being a Persian term to refer to the sanitation workers] meet on equal ground?” (Jeremy Bentham, 1793). (3) Democracy. “What is wanted [in Iraq, circa 1920] is a king who will be content to reign but not govern. What we want is some administration with Arab institutions which we can safely leave while pulling the strings ourselves; something that won’t cost very much but under which our economic and political interests will be secure” (British Foreign Office, 1920). “To stroll around the masses of disorganised, infuriated people, asking them what they think about it and what they would like, is the most sure and certain method of breeding strife” (Winston Churchill on the King-Crane Commission to West Asia, 1929).

The fourth item, technology, offers our adherents of Empire the opportunity to be most prosaic. As evidence of the bounty produced by Empire for the darker nations, Ferguson reminds us of Jules Verne’s fictional journey around the world in eighty days – the bet could only have been won thanks to the railways and steamships developed by British imperialism. If fascism makes the trains run on time, imperialism builds the tracks.

Here Ferguson makes an argument that had been made on the Left by Bill Warren in his Imperialism: Pioneer of Capitalism (Verso, 1980). Warren argued that despite its racist intentions, Empire provided the material infrastructure of modernity around the world and therefore created the objective conditions for social development. A firestorm met that book, especially the claim that colonial entailed the development of the colonized world (the best critique of the book is in Aijaz Ahmad’s “Imperialism and Progress” that can be found in the Indian edition of his Lineages of the Present – unfortunately it is not in the Verso edition). There is no space to go over the enormity of what is obscured by this statement (what we need is a People’s History of Imperialism to summarize the literature for Ferguson).

Let’s just take the railroad, emblem of modernization. The British did build twenty five thousand miles of rail in India by 1900. However, most of it was designed to remove raw materials to the coast, ship troops to troubled areas and return finished products to the markets. As two contemporary English economists wrote, the railways “would promote the sale and transmission of the raw products” and allow Indians “to receive their cotton in a manufactured shape.” This is why Marx noted in 1881 that the railways in India are “useless to the Hindus.” The Indian exchequer paid for the railways to benefit English industry, what Daniel Thorner called “private investment at public risk.” Ian Kerr’s two books on the subject of railroads, published by Oxford University Press, would have helped our Stern Professor.

The revival of Empire is not simply nostalgic (for that, go visit the newly inaugurated Museum of the British Empire in Bristol). Ferguson’s advice to the Establishment comes at a time when we are the “occupying power” and when the British hold Basra again (where a cholera rages, thanks to the bombardment – echoes again of Bengal in 1817). Against those who are arguing for democracy, Ferguson offers Empire, unadulterated (he has a kin in Bill Kristol, who told his friends at Fox, “If people want to say we’re an imperial power, fine”). Empire, however, was never about social progress or economic development: it was always about a white supremacist drive to dominate the world and absorb its wealth into the voracious industry of north-western Europe and the US.

The benign claims by Ferguson vanish when you come upon his section on aerial bombardment. Ferguson quotes from Winston Churchill’s account of the 1898 Battle of Omdurman in the Sudan. After the bombings, Churchill writes (and Ferguson quotes without comment), the bodies of the darker nations lay on the battlefield like “dirty bits of newspaper.” This is what we are to them, dirty bits of newspaper. Can the pilots, the emissaries of Empire, read what we have written on those printed sheets?

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