THIS BLOG HAS MOVED TO lilarajiva.com (mindbodypolitic.com) as of August 2007
As always, it was only libertarians on the right who saw through the pretensions of what neoconservatives today avow was the one and only “good” empire — on which America ought to model itself.. In fact, IS modeling itself.
So, let’s take a look at what that empire actually did (caveat: this piece is from the socialist press, so it makes no distinction between the mercantilist policies of today’s capitalism and a real free market; it also tends to simplify the actual interaction of race and religion with state policies — it’s downright wrong on that in some places but the facts are not in dispute):
“Tax collections rose even as millions died of man-made famines. Like Bengal of 1770-72. The East India Company’s own report put it simply. The famine in that province “exceeds all description.” Close to ten million people had died, as Rajni Palme-Dutt pointed out in his remarkable book, India Today. The Company noted that more than a third of the populace had perished in the province of Purnea. “And in other parts the misery is equal.”Yet, Warren Hastings wrote to the directors of the East India Company in 1772: “Notwithstanding the loss of at least one-third of the inhabitants of this province, and the consequent decrease in cultivation, the net collections of the year 1771 exceeded even those of [pre-famine] 1768.” Hastings was clear on why and how this was achieved. It was “owing to [tax collection] being violently kept up to its former standard.”
The Company itself, as Palme Dutt observed, was smug about this. It noted that despite “the severity of the late famine and the great reduction of people thereby, some increase has been made” in the collections.
Between 24 million and 29 million Indians, maybe more, died in famines in the era of British good governance. Many of these famines were policy-driven. Millions died of callous and wilful neglect. The victims of Malthusian rulers. Over 6 million humans perished in just 1876 — when Madras was a hell. Many others had their lives shortened by ruthless exploitation and plunder. Well before the Great Bengal Famine, the report of that province’s Director for Health for 1927-28 made grisly reading. It noted that “the present peasantry of Bengal are in a very large proportion taking to a dietary on which even rats could not live for more than five weeks.” By 1931, life expectancy in India was sharply down. It was now 23.2 and 22.8 years for men and women. Less than half that of those living in England and Wales. (Palme-Dutt.)
Mike Davis’ stunning book, Late Victorian Holocausts, also ought to be required reading in every Indian school. Davis gives us a scathing account, for instance, of the Viceroy Lord Lytton. Lytton was the most ardent free-marketeer of his time — and Queen Victoria’s favourite poet. He “vehemently opposed efforts … to stockpile grain or otherwise interfere with market forces. All through the autumn of 1876, while the kharif crop was withering in the fields of southern India, Lytton had been absorbed in organising the immense Imperial Assemblage in Delhi to proclaim Victoria Empress of India.” The weeklong feast for 68,000 guests, points out Davis, was an orgy of excess. It proved to be “the most colossal and expensive meal in world history.” Through the same week as this spectacular durbar, “100,000 of the Queen Empress’ subjects starved to death in Madras and Mysore” alone.
In fact, barring the scale, it all sounds depressingly like the present. In terms of ideology and principle at least. The Raj nostalgia of today’s neo-liberals is quite heart-felt. .
Yes, there’s that, too. British good governance killed more than those tens of millions in famines. Countless numbers of Indians died in wars waged for, by, and against the British. Over 8,000 died in the single battle around Kut in Iraq in 1916. London used them as canon fodder in its desperate search for a success against the Turks after the rout at Gallipoli. When there were no Indians around, the British sacrificed other captive peoples. “Waste the Irish” was the term used by an English officer when sending out troops on a suicidal mission.
In his book Global Capitalism and India, C.T. Kurien gives us a stark example of British-led globalisation from the 1860s. The civil war in America had hurt the flow of cheap, slave-labour cotton to Britain. So the Raj forced the growing of that crop here on a much larger scale than before. “From then on, commercialisation of agriculture continued to gain momentum. Between the last decade of the 19th century and the middle of the twentieth, when food production in India declined by 7 per cent, that of commercial crops increased by 85 per cent. Widespread and regular famines became a recurring feature during this period…….
Again, while the scale is wholly different, the parallels are odd. In June this year, we could see Montek Singh Ahluwalia speaking solemnly of problems, even a crisis in agriculture. (Gee! I wonder who told him.) These headaches, he feels, go to back to the mid-1990s. No mention of who was shaping the ghoulish policies of that — and the present — period. And no questions asked about it in the media. There’s good governance for you. Welcome back, Lytton. All is forgiven, come home.”
That’s a powerful piece from the Indian press reviewing Mike Davis’ important book, “Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World” Verso (July 2002)
I am not fond of the reiteration of the terms “White” and “Christian” in this piece — though color and religion probably exacerbated attitudes toward the peasantry and even to some of the Indian elites. It’s a fact, however, that racial attitudes were strengthened only AFTER the establishment of imperial “good governance” and not in the early history of the British East India company, the entity that began this whole remarkable mercantilist conquest. And obviously I don’t sympathize with the idea that more government interference is the needed prescription.
But still, the Davis’ book is a welcome antidote to the neoconservative glorification of the British empire (as in Niall Ferguson’s poorly-sourced coffee table primer – “Empire.”
Not as dreadful as Hitler or Stalin or Mao is not good, and as you can see, the death toll from the famines was certainly up there as far as sheer numbers go.
You can’t equate intentionally killing vast numbers of people with deaths from famines that were set off at first by climate conditions (hmmm….does Davis have an axe to grind?) and dreadfully worsened by pitiless and incompetent policies. And I’m not really sure what the use of the word ‘holocaust’ was intended to do here, either. An intentionally murderous policy is not the same as horrible mismanagement and callousness. Still, at a certain level, if you go ahead knowing what’s going to happen, you can’t hide behind “intention” after that. Driving a truck through a classroom without “intending” to kill children is something of a self-contradiction, I would think. Collateral damage you calculate before hand and discount counts as intended.
That aside, Davis has shone some light on a history that many people simply don’t know.
When Americans take up the imperial purple from the British empire, they should read about its darker side. However admirable English culture, laws, and civil society may be, they were not made so by empire, but undermined by it.
In fact, as I pointed out, racial feelings only seriously developed after the imperial state had administrative charge of the whole of the country – after very decent, well-meaning British civil servants had been sent out to man the apparatus of government. Many of them were of a much higher caliber than the corrupt merchant adventurers of the earlier centures — true. But the record seems to show that in spite of that, racism really came into the mix only later in imperial history, not earlier. It was a theoretical justification for the overwhelming inequality between rulers and ruled by the nineteenth century.
In any case, whenever it developed (most probably in the 19th century), it seems to me to have been exacerbated by the expansion of the empire.
You can admire British culture, literature and science but still see this. British culture and society are not the same thing as the British empire and they never needed to have been.
No matter what Dinesh D’Souza says.
Mark Twain had it right.
“Now considered the quintessential American novelist, yet he too was called a traitor for opposing the annexation of the Philippines. Twain was thought un-American. ‘Shall we?’ he asked, attacking McKinley’s foreign policy. ‘Shall we go on conferring our Civilization upon the peoples that sit in darkness, or shall we give those poor things a rest? Shall we bang right ahead in our old-time, loud, pious way, and commit the new century to the game; or shall we sober up and sit down and think it over first?’
Update: What about the benefits of British rule, you might ask? There were some. The railroads, for one example. But at what expense did the Indians get railroads? And couldn’t they have got them from, industrialization, free trade (and free trade is NOT mercantilism) and competition just as well? They could have got all the cultural benefits without the murderous sideshow.
Do I deny that culture plays a big role in things? Not at all. What I do deny is that you need an aggressive state to foster the kinds of civic associations and laws needed for culture to grow.
As for Social Darwinism and statism being opposed — you only have to look at policies where the state actively intervenes to prop up the financial classes, while it lets the rest sink or swim — you can have both going on at the same time. The powerful get bail-outs, handouts, while the rest get the law of the jungle. Note – the powerful doesn’t always mean the rich. I mean those who have the state to mop up their mistakes and shove their costs on to other people.
Look – the free market always assumes you already have laws and morality. Where statists are mistaken is to think you need a modern bureaucracy and a standing army for laws and morality to exist…
THIS BLOG HAS MOVED TO lilarajiva.com (mindbodypolitic.com) as of August 2007