In these days of religious terrorism which seeks only to commit ungodly murders and which confers absolutely no benefits on anyone, western imperialism can seem like a blessing. At least it can claim not to be an unmitigated evil. But this has nothing to do with our responsibility to confront our own peculiar mixture of good and evil.
The defenders of western imperialism take one of two approaches: Either they refuse to discuss its deep faults (such as excessive greed, violence, arrogance) and refuse to consider whether and how much this contributed to the success of the west, à la Nicholas Wade in A Troublesome Inheritance, or they acknowledge but understate the harm inflicted and claim that whatever the injuries, the benefits outweighed them, à la Niall Ferguson in Civilization: The West and the Rest. Both approaches play up the benefits, hoping to blind us to anything that might detract from a story of unparalleled good.
Given that western imperialism did some good things, the question that is just begging to be asked is: At what cost to the indigenous peoples were these benefits accomplished? No one knows better than Ferguson that “At what cost?” is always the supreme question. He has no hesitation asking this question for other political societies or systems.
Ferguson is clearly no admirer of the French Revolution and I cannot blame him for that. Whatever value came out of the French Revolution, it has to be weighed against its costliness in blood and repression. Ferguson is glad to bring up this point for France’s radical turn towards liberty and equality. He calls it “the first demonstration in the modern age of the grim truth that revolutions devour their own children.” He is proud of Edmund Burke for having seen so early what was happening in France. Ferguson nails Stalin’s regime in a single sentence: For the years of increased industrial production from 1929 to 1932, “few asked how many people died for every ton of steel produced under Stalin (the answer was nineteen).”
Ferguson knows that “At what cost?” is the real bottom line in history. Yet he makes sure to stay very far from asking this question about European imperialism. He adopts a double standard in the study of history. (The only time he asks about the costs of imperialism, he means the cost to the imperial country.) The victims of the French Revolution and Stalin matter enough to Ferguson to cast doubt on the overall value of those political events, but the victims of European imperialism do not matter enough to shake his conviction in the supreme worth of western empires.
Ferguson will acknowledge that some bad things happened as the west pursued its imperialism. “Western civilization is far from flawless. It has perpetrated its share of historical misdeeds, from the brutalities of imperialism to the banality of the consumer society.” One of his techniques is to occasionally acknowledge some brutality here and there, so that he can claim to have been historically honest, but he never gives it his full attention as he does the positive aspects of western culture. Page after page extols the west, with only an occasional interruption to lament a rare mistake. Ferguson is almost always brief about western misdeeds and never sees them as part of the reason for material success. They are aberrations that do not deserve to be incorporated in his central story.
In his preface, Ferguson claims that he is writing not merely “a history of the West but a history of the world” and that the peoples subjugated by the west “are equally important members of the drama’s cast.” But if you removed these lines from the preface, you would never glean these thoughts from the rest of the book. The full story of these peoples is absent. They matter to Ferguson only in so far as they prove the west’s ability to westernize everyone.
Ferguson gives us only the most positive factors in western civilization to explain its material success (Wade does this too)—things like an open society, a spirit of innovation and the freedom to innovate, healthy competition, consumerism, advances in medicine, the rule of law, the work ethic, and more. Words like justice and injustice do not appear in his analysis. Nor does he consider whether extreme greed may have been a factor. The west may have gained more because it wanted more and was willing to be ruthless about it. Ruthlessness was not an element in this success as he sees it. I don’t mind celebration when it honestly presents itself for what it is—there is a lot to be genuinely celebrated—but why call that objective examination of the evidence, which is what both Ferguson and Wade claim to be doing?
Everything is slanted in favor of appreciating the west’s greatness. Ferguson never clarifies for his readers that the rule of law applied to the invaders and their relationships to each other as they competed for wealth. It never applied to the natives. Europeans had mixed motives, he tells us. “Some came to invest, others to rob.” But how does one invest, in the legitimate sense of the word, in land and resources that were stolen to begin with?
The presumed bottom line which Ferguson uses for his arguments is that the benefits of imperialism have far outweighed any harm inflicted. He has little patience with criticism that would see it any other way. “Empire has become a dirty word, despite the benefits conferred on the rest of the world by the European imperialists.” Even contemporary criticism of imperialism was wrong: “perhaps contemporaries should have praised the English ‘savings glut’ rather than grumbled about imperialism.” Ferguson’s position is easy to sustain as long as you understate the harm that what was done.
If we reject Ferguson’s double standard, the question has to be asked—just as we ask it about the French Revolution or Soviet Communism or unrestrained capitalism or monopolies or protest movements or anything—what was the cost? What was the cost of colonialism to indigenous peoples? Forsake the glib answer that, oh yes, well, of course, there were some bad things, but the benefits were greater than the injuries. How could anyone know this without a full investigation? It might be more difficult to come up with numerical answers in some colonies. How many Aborigines in Australia died for every ton of wool produced? In Tasmania, an island, the population was more or less fixed and could not deteriorate below zero, so the ratio of people killed to tons of wool produced might not be as dramatic as in Stalin’s Russia. But there will be ways of totaling up the good and the bad and finding a reasonable measure of the real costs and benefits.
The trouble with the celebration of western imperialism is not just that it is dishonest about the full truth of the subject, but that it is dishonest about what it really wants, about its own greed to have it all. Granted that there are some benefits to imperialism that we can hold onto, the celebrants of it seem to be saying that it is not enough that we have invaded, we conquered, we stole, and we killed—we were the outright victors—we must also win in history. We must take over your history too, or else our victory is incomplete. We must be vindicated. We must be seen and remembered as good and beneficent. We gave more than we took. We need total control of history to hammer home that point and ensure the final victory. We must show either that we did nothing wrong or that the benefits we brought far exceeded the harm, and that these benefits were unquestionably the result of the good things and not the bad stuff like rapacity and bloodthirsty violence.
The need to make such an argument may be very great, but this is not objective history. This is loaded history. This is greed raised to the nth degree. This is history made to serve a complete takeover by the powerful.
The defenders of western colonialism are making large claims, but in another way, there is a smallness to their vision. It is like saying we have a right to defend our way of life but you don’t have a right to defend yours. The hypocrisy of this is heightened by the fact that the western way of life contains a lot of aggression, whereas the indigenous way is relatively passive—certainly less grasping and more content to enjoy the given—and yet we think they have less right to form their homeland security and defend their quieter lives. We have shrunk our sense of right and wrong.
Ferguson wants to believe that what’s done is done. All we can do is look back and say we regret the excesses that took place, the violence and denigration, and hope it is all truly behind us. Is that all we can do? Could we not also look back and give a full accounting? Do we owe that much? What does it mean to regret the violence and the stealing? How do we regret without telling the full truth? Do we also regret our arrogance and self-righteous attitude that God or nature or history ordained us to be the winners? Most societies and systems will create a mixture of victims and beneficiaries. The question Ferguson knows is right but is unwilling to face is: The imperial success of the west was achieved at what cost to the indigenous populations?
The ultimate question for western civilization is whether humanitarianism can become as strong a force as our hunger for continual material improvements. Can it make an equal claim on our desires? Or will we forever let it slide into second place?
© 2015 Leon Zitzer