Saturday, May 21, 2005

Lessons of Empire

Anyone who thinks the United States should embrace a neo-imperial role would do well to read this excellent article by Fred Cooper, which points to the ways in which other imperial projects came to grief, and eventually managed to use reasoning -- helping the natives progresss -- that initially justified seizing their empires, to eventually rationalize relinquishng their empires.

Cooper doesn't shy away from drawing out the lessons for today's neoimperialists, as the head for seats at the U.N. and the World Bank:

Actually ruling an empire was more complicated than civilizers, reformers, and redeemers admitted. The great advantage of a conquering power in the age of the telegraph and Maxim gun was the ability to concentrate forces and then move onward. Colonization meant raiding a village, visibly terrorizing its population, seizing the cattle, burning the huts, and going elsewhere. Routinizing control was another story, and it meant going against the logic of any civilizing mission or project of building a new political order. The only way to administer the large spaces and dispersed populations of Africa was to co-opt local elites into doing the dirty work. "Indirect rule" was a fact in Africa—as it had been in many other empires—long before it was a doctrine. Moreover, both France and Britain treated as sacrosanct an old imperial doctrine: colonies should pay for themselves. Even the famous imperial advocate Sir John Seeley said in regard to India in the 1880s, "It is a condition of our Indian Empire that it should be held without any great effort." British and French colonialism, at least up to World War II, was colonialism on the cheap: the colonies were supposed to pay the costs of their own repression....

As the natives became increasingly political restless, and failed to provide the economic benefits to the metropolitan center that imperialists had initially promised, it became clear that the imperialism was a very expensive proposition, and this, as much as anything else, was what eventually got the Europeans to give up on their empires. The bankrupting of their own domestic economies because of fiscal profligacy and fruitless wars on their own continent accelerated the process. Cooper continues:

What does this history signify for the present world conjuncture? It reveals alternative models for empire. The idea of empire as a transformative mechanism is indeed available, but one has to be careful about how one locates it. The precedents for it are not the "British Empire" or the French civilizing mission writ large. Rather, initiatives to systematically remake colonized societies appear as an alternative within colonial regimes, against other visions of colonization, from ruthless, dehumanizing extraction to the deliberate conservation of pacified indigenous communities, with a big dose of low-cost improvisation thrown in. The precedent regarding interventionist imperialism appears quite apt, but not in the way advocates of the empire model would have it: it is a precedent for getting out when the costs get high. If advocates of passing the imperial mantle from Britain to the United States worry whether Americans have the will to take on an imperial mission, the British experience should in fact reinforce their anxieties.

The other model of colonialism that seems quite relevant is what [Niall] Ferguson—but not where he draws the lessons for today—calls "butcher and bolt": the tendency of colonizing regimes to pacify or punish, move on, and do a poor job of establishing routine administration. That may well be—indeed that is Ferguson's worry—what the Bush Administration has in mind. In Iraq, however, bolting is proving the more difficult task.

Still another model of supposedly benevolent colonization is more consistent with a conservative administration's view of the world: a more minimalist view of keeping a colonial peace under which divided, "primitive" people are kept off each other's throats and given the chance to develop more productive agriculture and commerce under some predictable, if not exactly fair, administrative and judicial control. Familiarity with the past again should lead to skepticism about this future. The colonization of Africa extinguished certain forms of conflict—one need not invent a romantic image of pacific Africa to question the idea of a colonial peace. But the roots of present-day African conflicts lie significantly in the ethnicization which the colonial strategy of ruling through indigenous elites—frozen in place by the colonizing authority—fostered out of more shifting patterns of cultural difference and the efforts of rulers to recruit clients and followers. Rule of law was hardly a colonial
accomplishment: such a notion was cut across by racial segregation in employment, residence, and public accommodations and by the notion that Africans should be ruled by "custom" and that their land could only be "communal." When after World War II British and French governments at last tried to reduce the racial exclusions that were part of daily life in the colonies with the notable exceptions of colonies of white settlement—that was part of the ambitious modernization of imperialism, with all the costs and conflicts that this entailed. As an American administration not noted for its reformist social agenda seems to be discovering in Iraq, establishing rule of law, predictability in economic transactions, and intercommunal respect may well be among the most expensive, least certain, and long-term processes there are. Only the blindness of certain conservatives to the complexity of social life and their unawareness of the conflict-ridden histories of twentieth-century empires makes it possible for them to see colonial occupation as a precedent for establishing legality and transparency in administration.

Ferguson's argument for the passing of the imperial mantle from Great Britain to the United States is, in the end, not an argument about empire at all. The bulk of his book Empire is scrupulous enough to dissociate "empire" as a political form from rule of law, honesty, concern for others, and the generalization of the benefits of economic development. In the concluding pages, these virtues are linked not to the messy and often sordid story of empire, but to the image of a British man assuming the "White Man's Burden" and saving those people who cannot save themselves.

No comments: