Suddenly losing respect

“As we look around this glorious city [Sydney], as we see the extraordinary development, it’s hard to think that back in 1788 it was nothing but bush”

Tony Abbot, 13 Nov. 2014

Maori probably acknowledge that settlers had a place to play and brought with them a lot of skills and a lot of capital.

John Key, 19 Nov. 2014

I try to read when I go to bed.  It often doesn’t work very well.  I am usually so tired I only get through two pages and then fall asleep.  Then I have to reread those two pages the following night because it turns out I read them in a semi-dream state.  Often then I am locked inside the same two pages for about a week, reading and rereading until I finally pick the book back up on a Sunday morning and make some progress.  A few nights ago I was reading Niall Ferguson’s introduction to his book called Empire.  It was on my third rereading of the introduction that I realised what I was reading was terrible, horribly offensive and misleading.  I found this quite surprising because I had read and reread the same introduction before and quite enjoyed it.

It was this passage that first jagged in my skin like a splinter rubbed the wrong way:

To imagine the world without the Empire would be to expunge from the map the elegant boulevards of Williamsburg and old Philadelphia; to sweep into the sea the squat battlements of Port Royal, Jamaica; to return to the bush the glorious skyline of Sydney; to level the steamy seaside slum that is Freetown, Sierra Leone; to fill in the Big Hole that is Kimberley; to demolish the mission at Kuruman; to send the town of Livingstone hurtling over the Victoria Falls – which would of course revert to their original name of Mosioatunya.  Without the British Empire, there would be no Calcutta; no Bombay; no Madras.

Which is the precise moment a huge amount of my respect for Niall Fergusson sheared off because I realised you could perfectly easily rewrite the same passage this way:

To imagine the world without Empire would be to give the land and resources of Virginia back to the people of the Powhatan Confederacy; sweeping Port Royal into the sea would be to enable the Taino people to reclaim their land in Jamaica; removing the glorious skyline of Sydney would return that place to not just bush but to the Cadigal clan and the people who had lived in that area for 30,000 years; leveling Freetown might symbolically stand in for the elimination of the tragedy of slavery; to fill in the Big Hole would be to reduce by a small margin the suffering and greed in the world; to demolish the mission at Kuruman would be to remove the hegemony of Christianity and allow the meaningful, rich and diverse local religions to flourish; and to send the town of Livingstone hurtling over the Victoria Falls would allow those falls to revert to their original, indigenous name.  Without the British Empire, there would still be the ancient and storied cities of Lahore, Agra and Delhi.

Niall Ferguson’s introduction is a marvelous  example of what I was talking about in my previous post: talking across the room.  Niall is talking across the room in his introduction to people he thinks share his views and values.  How does this list of “British imperial achievements” read if you are not Niall Ferguson, John Key and Tony Abbot:

  • the triumph of capitalism as the optimal system of economic organisation;
  • the Anglicization of North America and Australasia;
  • the internationalization of the English language;
  • the enduring influence of the Protestant version of Christianity; and, above all
  • the survival of parliamentary institutions

I wonder how the Native Americans, Maori and Aborigines regard the imperial achievement of the Anglicization of North America and Australasia, the internationalization of the English language, and the enduring influence of the Protestant version of Christianity?  Right there you are listing the ingredients of a cultural genocide as entire systems of belief about power, trade, religion, and custom (and your language too) are shunted aside and largely or entirely destroyed.

There is no need here to recapitulate in any detail the arguments against imperialism. They can be summarised under two headings: those that stress the negative consequences for the colonized; and those that stress the negative consequences for the colonizers.

Unsurprisingly, Niall focuses – briefly – on the second argument, and has little to say about the first.  His paragraph on the former states that such criticisms are Marxist/Nationalist.  I may have misread my history but I don’t think Kingitanga, or Te Whiti  were parts of a Marxist organisation.  Naill seems to think he can use the short hand of “leftist” to deal with critics.  It is apparently leftist to be opposed to a global Western monoculture.

The Leftist opponents of globalization naturally regard it as no more that the latest manifestation of a damnably resilient international capitalism.  By contrast, the modern consensus among liberal economists is that increasing economic openness raises living standards, even if there will always be some net losers as hitherto protected or privileged social groups are exposed to international competition.

So quickly has Niall’s history moved that indigenous people are not even what he is talking about when he says “net losers”; the indigenous are already decimated and irrelevant, or assimilated.  This second phase of globalisation, the one we are living in, is self-supporting because the ideas promulgated in the much longer first phase (from about 1500 through to the 1914-45 period) have become accepted as “normal” in most parts of the globe.

Capitalism is exploitative.  It will exploit resources to accumulate wealth.  In the past it has exploited natural resources without a blush.  Sometimes now this type of exploitation comes with a hesitation although usually, in the end, someone takes the sensible political decision that people with jobs will vote for you but national parks and seabeds won’t.  Also in the past the resource of labour was exploited more fully.  Economically slavery makes pretty good sense although the present system of low wage economies probably is a better refinement because it frees the slave boss from having to feed, house, or nurse its staff: it can pay a pittance and stand back.

It has been fashionable recently for some writers to claim that the massive urban migration of places like China and India of rural populations to urban slums is a good thing. That living in a slum in the city is many times better than living in subsistence poverty on the land.  Superficially this seems to be true.  Working in the slums is better paid, and makeshift schools and clinics provide much better access to education and healthcare.  The counter argument would be that it is actually best for capitalism which has destroyed the land in the first place, and now requires huge pools of cheap labour off-shore.  Which brings us here again:

the modern consensus among liberal economists is that increasing economic openness raises living standards, even if there will always be some net losers as hitherto protected or privileged social groups are exposed to international competition.

It has become increasingly clear to many people that the “net losers” in capitalism’s endgame might actually be everyone as the natural underpinnings of our planet come irrevocably unstuck.  But Niall can take comfort in fact that even in the scenario where we are all net losers it will be the rich countries, and the rich in those countries, who will be best able to cope with the collapsing environment for the longest.  The labouring poor in the slave economies?  Net, net losers.

Do your bit to reduce global consumerism: don’t buy Niall Ferguson books.