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Imperial Bewilderment

This book is bizarre. It’s a sort of Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde book. On the one hand, it’s extremely well-written, and tells a very complex historical narrative in a lucid and compelling manner, something that is quite difficult to do. It is also very honest and up-front about the greed, oppression, and exploitation upon which the British Empire was founded, and by which it was more often than not sustained. And yet...

...the introduction and conclusion feel like they were written for another book entirely. A book that was not honest about the greed, oppression, and exploitation of the British Empire, or perhaps a book by Dick Cheney.

After telling a tale that leaves you disgusted with the evils of the British Empire (even though, to be sure, there was much good and much repentance as well), and himself admitting that these things were evil and oppressive (and indeed, trying to construct a weak defense: “Well, didn’t we gain absolution by sacrificing our empire in fighting the Japanese and Germans?”....only problem is that Britain was not trying to sacrifice her empire in fighting them, she was hoping to hold on to it.), Ferguson concludes by telling us that the Empire was on the whole a good thing, and indeed, so much so, that we’d be screwed without it, and the US needs to imitate it. Hang on a minute...what??

I’ve tried to reconstruct the logic of the conclusion, and it just doesn’t work.
See, in order to prove that the Empire was on balance a good thing for the world, Ferguson would need to show either that the countries dominated by the Empire were better off with it than they would’ve been without it, or that, though they were worse off, the dominators gained so much at their expense that, by a sort of aggregate-happiness meaure, it was worth it. The latter is of course morally reprehensible, so Ferguson doesn’t attempt it. The former, however, is extremely difficult to show, because it relies on we really know how these nations would’ve been governed if the Empire had not taken them over? No. Then we do not know how well off they might have been without it. So Ferguson has set himself a hard task, and the only evidence he offers is a smattering of fairly selective economic statistics. These fail on three counts: 1) as just mentioned, they cannot in fact prove that what in fact happened was better than what would otherwise have happened, since we don’t know what that might have been, 2) they are selective enough that we cannot be persuaded that nearly all of the colonized countries profited, only some, and even if all did, we do not know if that was due to a few people getting really rich at the expense of everyone else, or not, 3) economic well-being is only one measure of well-being. Ferguson has such an annoyingly modern econidolatrous mind that he fails to even consider that demonstrating increased GDP does not ipso facto demonstrate a better world.

Now, even if Ferguson did demonstrate that the Empire was on balance a good thing for the world, that is no argument that it was a morally good thing, or something that should be repeated, unless you’re a utilitarian. After all, as Ferguson admits, some pretty rough stuff had to be done in order to bring about this better world of free trade and globalization. Oh, but maybe that was just because they were rough folks--we could do Empire better now, without all the brutality and oppression, right? Well, Ferguson is too smart to take that route. He admits that the better world order of globalization that we now have could not have come through peaceful means--it required the sword, it required the hard iron edge of empire.

But apparently Ferguson is a blatant utilitarian. Near the very end, he cites a speech by Tony Blair shortly after 9/11, talking about the need to bring security to a conflict-ridden world and spread freedom and democracy and all that rot. And then Ferguson very shrewdly points out that what Blair is really saying, in somewhat glossed-over language, is Victorian imperialist rhetoric: “we need to go in by force and replace bad governments with ones we like better so that we can open nations up to trade with our economies.” At this point I’m cheering Ferguson on, right? Yeah, Ferguson, way to read between the lines! Way to debunk all the fancy rhetoric! Way to show Blair and Bush for the imperialist jerks they really are!

But then Ferguson is like, “Yeah, Blair has the right idea. Only problem is that he’s naive about how much military muscle it will take to do all this, military muscle only the US has. And the problem with the US is that they’re too afraid to use it.”

Or, to quote him precisely, “The weak still need the strong, and the strong still need an orderly world, a world in which the efficient and well-governed export stability and liberty, and which is open for investment and growth. All of this sounds eminently desirable.” The US “lacks the drive to export its capital, its people, and its culture to those backward regions which need them most urgently, and which, if they are neglected, will breed the greatest threats to its security.”

So, according to Ferguson, bring on “Anglobalization” 2.0! I can only hope the American people do not warm to the imperial project as readily as their British predecessors did, and as readily as this Oxford don seems still to do.


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