An Obvious Fact: Imperialism Is Bad, Research Time, 01/11/2013

If there’s any problem I’m encountering so far in my first journey through Hannah Arendt’s historical work, it’s that so many of her conclusions have turned out to be correct. Seriously, it’s as if I’m just reading common sense in her first chapter on the analysis of imperialism.

Arendt’s first idea is a basic definition of imperialism, which makes more sense than pretty much any other definition I’ve come across. Imperialism is running a state (and particularly its military) on the principles of a commercial business concern, particularly when it comes to expansion.

She analyses imperialism as the product of an economic situation that I’m not sure has ever been equalled in quite the same way, until perhaps 21st century China. The countries of Europe, having been far ahead of the game on industrialization, produced so much domestic wealth that investment opportunities within their own countries couldn’t expand at a fast enough rate to deal with all that sweet, sweet cash. So the commercial concerns of Western Europe spread all over the world to invest all that money in investments in natural resource extraction and the securing of markets for their own manufactured goods. To forcibly open these territories, they enlisted the militaries of their own countries. This is the heart of the old expression about the “absent-minded” manner of the British Empire’s construction. Commercial investments needed physical security against the locals who were pressed into slavery (if not in name, then in practical existence), so co-opted state militaries to protect them. The European militaries were so powerful that in making space for these commercial concerns, they conquered the foreign territories.

This was how far British imperialism, the greatest of the imperialist projects,
could reach. Britain didn't hold all these territories at once, but this is how
far they could manage. More trouble than it's worth, if you ask me.
The kicker is that imperialism is completely incompatible with democracy. You might, on reading that, think I’m an idiot because the two largest colonial empires of the height of the imperialist era were democracies, France and Britain.* But the democratic characters of their political cultures prevented their empires from becoming permanent. The final shock to colonialist infrastructure was the Second World War, but the reason the empires would inevitably fall could be seen in the test case that Arendt casually mentions: the British could never fully control Ireland. 

* You might also wonder about the modern day United States, but I consider the USA to have been the centrepiece of an empire, rather than an imperialist power. For more information on the difference between imperialism and empire, wait until I start researching Antonio Negri for the utopias project, which will probably be fairly soon.

She contrasts the imperialism of 1884-1914 with the Roman Empire. The Romans never considered themselves a nation whose state expressed a unified culture. So they had no problem incorporating foreign cultures and perspectives into their empire. The principle of the Roman Empire's unity, she says, was its legal infrastructure. The laws of Rome could be adopted without any cultural obligations of the conquered people. The imperialist powers were democracies who conceived of themselves as nation-states. The concept of the nation-state, the unity of culture and government, meant that those who fell under the rule of their governments could only become full citizens if there were some kind of cultural unity of all the governed. The leaders of colonial expansion, the entrepreneurial class, which Arendt represents with men like Cecil Rhodes, had no problem treating the natives of colonial possessions as possessions themselves. Second class citizens at best, and slaves at worst. 

But back in the home countries, most people still thought of themselves as democrats, holding values of self-determination for people. Only the grossest of widespread culturally and infrastructurally institutionalized racism, the attitude by which the colonized peoples were held to be less than human, could maintain an imperialist system of colonies. Even then, there were social pressures against this dehumanizing racism. Arendt mentions how the French habit of building parliamentary seats and educational infrastructure for its colonized peoples crippled its imperialism from the start, and eventually created the class of colonized peoples who overcame empire. Being a democracy, the French instilled democratic culture in their colonized peoples to make them more culturally French. The experience of this new educated class was closest to the hypocrisy of carrying out imperialist political practices while holding democratic morals. 

There are two ways to handle this hypocrisy once it becomes apparent to enough people: the colonized population, the general populace of the colonizers, the business and corporate leaders, and the political classes. Imperialism can only survive when the imperialist state makes itself a tyranny at home as well as abroad. If the people want to hold onto their democratic values, they have to let the colonies go.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that unequal or exploitive relationships of former colonizers and colonized peoples and states no longer exists. It just takes a different form. But that’s for when I dive back into Negri, and his concept of empire, the global network of exploitation without self-conscious exploiters.

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