It Was Not Caused by Imperialism

…Ferguson declares above all, in line with a power-makes-for-plenty theory, that the apps permitted after 1500 a few European countries “to dominate the Rest [of the world].” Note the year, claiming four and a half centuries of “domination.”

Deirdre McCloskey — Wikipédia

He admits at one point that aside from the stagnant empires of Portugal and Spain the “domination” didn’t really get going until rather late—in 1854, say, with the American treaty opening Japan, or 1858, with the crushing of the Sepoy Rebellion in India, or 1860, with the victory in the Second Opium War against China, a domination that came to an end in the defeats for colonialism after 1945. So the main “domination” lasted about a century. Yet a few pages later Ferguson is back to claiming that the West was able to “dominate the world for the better part of 500 years.”

In any case, on whatever time scale you wish to use, a “domination” of India is not the same thing as an enrichment of Britain. Ferguson occasionally admits the point: “Empire is not a historically sufficient explanation of Western predominance.” Actually, it had nothing to do with the West’s “predominance” if, in the way Ferguson sometimes speaks, he means “high incomes.” To suppose that the hurt from domination must somehow correspond to the economic gain from empire is a persistent error in thinking about European imperialism, whether against it or in favor of it. The Indian writer Mishra, in the course of a savage review in the London Review of Books of what he claims are Ferguson’s neo-imperialist notions (for which claim Ferguson spoke of a suit for libel), presupposes a big “role of imperialism’s structural violence in the making of the modern world.” But modern prosperity, as India’s vigorous recent experience of it shows, has nothing to do with late nineteenth-century imperialism by Europeans. Mishra’s anti-imperialist error matches the pro-imperialist one. Mishra and Ferguson slide together toward the same historical mistake—that Europe became rich by “dominating.” 

It didn’t. The appeal to “dominance” is a flaw in Jared Diamond’s otherwise splendid book Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997). He plausibly argues on geographic grounds that Eurasia was bound to be the scene for the Great Enrichment. Because domesticable plants and animals could easily be shared across the east-west orientation of Eurasia from Spain to Japan, and not across the north-south orientation of the rest of the world, some place in Eurasia and not New Guinea or Africa or the New World was going to be the place originally with towns and writing and a chance at industrialization (although consider Mayan and Incas; consider African empires). But then Diamond confuses enrichment of ordinary people based on trade-tested betterment after 1800 with the merely financial “betterment” from conquest after 1492, based on (primitive) guns, (non-intentionally spread) germs, and (a little bit of expensive) steel, including horses and a loony Christian conviction of superiority, inflicted by an aristocratic Spain on a New World ill- prepared on all counts. 

The persistent macho and deadly notion that power will cause plenty is popular among historians. But the truth is the other way around: plenty can budget for repeating rifles and ironclad ships, which lead to dominion over palm and pine. Yet such dominion, like war itself, makes for scarcity, not plenty. As the British Foreign Office kept warning during the scramble for Africa, guns are expensive in housing and education forgone. 

The “domination” on which Ferguson, Diamond, David Landes, Charles Kindleberger, Samuel Huntington, Ian Morris, and Paul Kennedy focus confounds empire with enrichment, violence with mutual benefit—the privilege of insulting the southern subalterns confused with high incomes for the Europeans back home. Mixing up political domination with economic enrichment has been an analytic mistake from the Hobson-Luxemburg left around 1900 to the Landes- Ferguson right around 2000. Europe became rich, and made the modern world, which reasonably promptly became the rest of the world’s world, by its own betterments at home, not by stealing treasure from India or China or Africa, or even from Mexico and Peru so far as efficacy for European enrichment is concerned. Rich trades in products taking up a tiny share of national consumption, such as tea, china, tobacco, and spices, grew gratifyingly. A few wealthy merchants in Amsterdam and London lorded it over the rest. Average income in the commercial nations of Europe inched up, though at nothing remotely close to the frenetic rates established by massive technological and organizational betterment at home in the nineteenth century and beyond. As the French version of Adam Smith, Jean-Baptiste Say, put it in 1803, before imperialism became the fashion among the clerisy,

Dominion by land or sea will appear equally destitute of attraction, when it comes to be generally understood that all its advantages rest with the rulers, and that the [home] subjects at large derive no benefit whatever.”

The usual accounting of imperialism, in other words, is gravely mistaken. To say so is not to defend imperialism. The appalling history of European imperialism in Africa after 1885 sufficiently establishes its indefensibility. The point is merely that the undoubted exploitation of black mine workers in South Africa, the undoubted damage to the families of Maori or Zulu warriors mowed down by British settlers with guns, the undoubted condescension toward Indian cricket teams by the governing board of the English game, were none of them gains to Britons at home. The economic effect of imperialism on ordinary Europeans has been shown repeatedly to be nil or negative. Disraeli himself complained that

“these wretched colonies . . . are a millstone around our neck.”

A few British mining fortunes were made, a few viceroys educated at Christ Church College got their portraits up on the walls of the Senior Common Room, and quite a few twits from minor public schools got jobs in the Empire, with billiards and gin-and-tonics nightly at the Club. But the ordinary Scot or Cockney or Yorkshireman got nothing except the delight of seeing, by jingo, a quarter of the globe painted red. He paid taxes on beer and tobacco to support the Royal Navy, and then died on the Northwest Frontier in 1880 or on the Western Front in 1916 or in the Burmese jungles in 1943. 

Economic growth in Europe had essentially nothing to do with what was in fact a small trade of the center with its Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, British, French, and at last Belgian and German empires on the periphery. After all, during the Great Enrichment the European countries poor in overseas empire, such as Sweden and Austria, eventually grew smartly, too, getting their bananas for breakfast from trade rather than “domination.” Europeans traded mainly with each other, and most of all with their countrymen, imperialism-free. The great bulk of their betterments were wholly domestic, such as improvements in sanitation and in state schools quite unrelated to glorious aggressions south and east of Suez. 

And as to the late example of the “informal empire” of the United States, such quasi-imperialism has not benefited the average American —witness, for recent examples, Vietnam and the Second Iraq War. Interventions by guns or by diplomacy to protect American “interests” were focused on the interests that could buy presidents or congresspeople, or at any rate could buy enough newspapers or TV networks to spook the politicians: United Fruit, the oil companies, and the like. The bulk of Americans then paid the butcher’s bill (let us pass over in silence the masses of dead Guatemalans and Vietnamese and Iraqis). A tiny group of imperialists benefited. Empire can be a way to a few private fortunes, such as Cecil Rhodes’s, but not to national wealth. As the free-trader John Bright declared in 1858, “This excessive love for the ‘balance of power’ [and ‘America’s role as the indispensable nation’] is neither more nor less than a gigantic system of out-door relief for the aristocracy of Great Britain” (and for the Southern military class and the military-industrial complex).

In other words, ideas for new machines and institutions, inspired by an ethic of liberty and dignity for commoners, not the exploiting of empire or the building of military power, made Europeans rich. Power did not breed plenty. The incessant wars of Europe, eventuating in the grand festival of power 1939–1945 with sixty-eight million dead, had modest civilian spinoffs yet occasioned massive diversion of resources from fruitful use. In justifying in the month of Pearl Harbor the supposition that power led to plenty, the Japanese prime minster Hideki Tojo was articulating a social Darwinist theory then widespread, and still to be heard in some quarters in the form of “competitiveness.” “Our nation . . . stands at a crossroads,” he declared, “one road leading to glory and the other to decline.”You can read similar power-or-decline rhetoric in most issues of Foreign Affairs, or in the works of historians drinking too deeply at the spring of Power and too little at that of Plenty, such as Landes, Kennedy, and recently Ferguson. The classical archaeologist Ian Morris, for example, following on his book of 2010, wrote an op-ed piece in 2014 entitled “In the Long Run, Wars Make Us Safer and Richer.” No, they don’t. In 1923 Luigi Einaudi, the Italian liberal economist and the theorist of democratic Italy after fascism, noted that

“before the [First World] war it was a favorite doctrine with nationalists that new, rising nations [for example, Italy itself, and Japan, Germany, and the United States] . . . were called to high destinies, to conquer territories, to become world Powers. . . . The war of new and rising nations against old and stationary . . . was erroneous both historically and economically.”

The Declaration of the Intellectuals, signed by 352 German professors in 1915, said that it was reasonable to suppose that the German Empire required Belgium, Flanders, Ukraine, and overseas colonies to prosper.22 The doctrine, unlike its victims, was hard to kill, reviving with Mussolini’s imperial projects, Hitler’s Lebensraum, and the theoretical agreement in the 1930s between the Japanese and the Americans that the only way for Japan to get oil was to conquer Indonesia. One hears it still, in exciting talk of power making for plenty. It is nonsense. Germany and Japan have prospered with trade, not aircraft carriers. 

Quite another matter, though, is the strange curiosity of Europeans about the rest of the world, not matched by the rest of the world’s curiosity about Europe. It yielded from the time of the Crusades through the Age of Exploration some notable augmentations in crops and machines and sciences. No one would deny that Europe’s curiosity arrived often in a violent and imperial package. Yet it arrived often, too, by way of peaceful trade, such as the Silk Road. To have their Great Enrichment the Europeans did not have to follow a doctrine that one gets ideas and tea and oil only by conquest. 

The point is that the empires near or far seldom yielded much loot, and what loot they did yield was temporary. Even when the empires paid off in coin the payoff was after all merely money, merely onetime claims to ownership dwarfed by annual domestic production, not permanent augmentations of the European ability to produce. The economic historian and dependency theorist André Gunder Frank, for example, spoke of Spanish silver “buying a ticket on the Asian train.” The phrase has a nice ring to it but is mistaken as economics. Giving silver and gold to the East in order to get imports of Asian cloth and porcelain did nothing to encourage betterment in the West. Money is a claim to capital, not capital itself. And in any case betterment, not capital, was the ticket that mattered. 

The silver flowing to early modern Spain was a case of a political- economy-and-sloth version of the (ill-named) Dutch Disease, that is, oil riches that make the elite hostile to betterment: No thanks, we have all we want. And in any case, the silver extracted from the mountain of Potosí by a corvée imposed on natives was wasted by Spain in European wars. Imperial adventures did not yield plenty, merely more fighting. A clear gain from the Spanish ventures to ordinary Europeans, I noted, was the cheap and nourishing potatoes and tomatoes (and expensive and noxious tobacco, too). But they were brought also to China and India, by trade and the spread of ideas in seeds, not by conquest. If stout Cortez had failed, and if the Spaniards had been satisfied to trade with the Aztecs and Mayans and Incas instead of putting them to the sword, and to the corvée, the main, agricultural effects of the Columbian Exchange would nonetheless have taken place. 

The European conquest of other parts of the world came in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries from unusual daring (think again of Cortez, or Pizarro, or Clive of India) and from guns, germs, and steel. The greater triumph of imperialism awaited the nineteenth century, giving even little European countries like Belgium extensive empires thanks to gunboats, high-muzzle-velocity carbines, and well-ordered armies, backed by the intercontinental shipping by steam to deploy them quickly. Britain won the (Second) Boer War because it could after a while concentrate great masses of soldiers gathered from Home and Empire to defeat the Afrikaners, who at first had the upper hand in mobility and intelligence. Yet the late nineteenth-century empires were no more profitable than the Spanish and Portuguese empires of the sixteenth century. The British got nothing from “winning” the Boer War—not even a slowing down of Afrikaner abuse of blacks and coloreds. In the long run, that is, it was plenty that bred power, not the other way around. 

It Was Not Caused by Imperialism by Manuel Fraga is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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