Thursday, July 27, 2006

Empire will eat itself

Historian Hermann Lebovics published (what is presumably) an extract from his current book, Imperialism and the Corruption of Democracies. His previous book, Bringing Empire Back Home, looked at how France's loss of empire did not stop at its borders, but instead continued into domestic politics, where various social and regional groups questioned the domination of the state in daily life. His new book is more timely, applying the same sensibility of the effects of empire on domestic politics to question how imperial endeavors undermine democracy in Britain, France, and United States.
Today, a bit more than a half century since the postwar tsunami of decolonization, we are seeing systematic efforts in former imperialist nations to rehabilitate their colonialist pasts. Just two examples of many more: Niall Ferguson has devoted the energy that his Scottish ancestors used to build the overseas empire to retrospectively defending it. And acknowledging that Britain is no longer in a position to carry the white man’s burden, he has newly endorsed Kipling’s call for the United States to do so. His imperial revisionism is not unique ...

At stake in all this imperial nostalgia in Britain, France, and the US is the contemporary renewal of a hoary anti-democratic domestic project imported from the colonies. So quite aside from sympathy or indignation that we might feel in behalf of the colonized when Westerners tell them that their domination was good for them, we might consider the corruption of our own democratic institutions that we have suffered and may continue to suffer.

Forget Lenin; the antidemocratic offensive began long before democracy had been institutionalized. The founder of the Anglo-American theory of representative government was of course John Locke. Remember, he argued that participation in government was the right of all those who had a stake in the commonwealth, i.e. who owned property. So, rather than fighting civil wars as the English had just done in his day, the disenfranchised should acquire a “fixed interest” in the land and become full citizens. But in an era when Dutch engineers were being brought in to add a just little more cultivatable soil to the British Isles, where was this land that Locke offered as his solution to the question of political rights? Why, in America, where there was plenty of land ready to be worked and so possessed. Locke, who lived from colonial investments, avidly followed the “discoveries,” and served as the equivalent in his day as Britain’s minister for colonies, meant “America” as a synecdoche for the colonial empire then taking shape. But—as he knew better than most Englishmen of his generation—these were not empty lands ...

Oh, yes, it was legitimate to remove the Indians for they didn’t use money, Locke’s benchmark for a commonweal united by a social contract. Nor did American Indians maximize production, which sinfully wasted what God had provided human kind. The point is not Locke’s quaint coin trick and Calvinist apologia for Indian-removal—that would have happened without his imprimatur—but rather the more historically interesting point that he ballasted parliamentary liberalism by assuming imperial control of exploitable resources of conquered overseas societies. Since Locke, Western societies have promised their discontented non-owning classes more and have looked covetously at their imperial holdings and spheres of influence in search of fulfillment of the promise. That the strategy didn’t, doesn’t, always work—history can be chancy —is evidenced by the rising price of gasoline in the US as a result of our Iraq debacle. The temptation of empire is the permanently structured economic danger to democracy. Let’s move forward some centuries, for a clear view of the related social risk ...

As part of a project to repair French cultural unity after years of pre-WW II social division, German occupation, and near-civil war over Algeria, Charles de Gaulle appointed the writer André Malraux to establish a new cultural ministry. Who would staff it and how would it work? In the late 1950s and early 1960s the colonial empire was dissolving, putting several thousand colonial administrators out of work. Malraux asked one of them, Emile Biasini, to recruit colleagues to work in the new French culture administration: “What you did in Africa, can you come back and do it in France?” “Sure,” said Biasini, “it’s just a matter of adapting.” And the colonial administrators did their best to shape French culture ...

Lebovics article provides more examples rather than principles, giving the readers the opportunity to ponder democracy's legacy on their own. Nonetheless, there are three ways that empire seems to pull out its foundation:
  • compromise: creating exceptions to democratic principles and practices for application
  • importation: establishing institutions and administrative practices that can be applied domestically
  • involution: decolonization does not erase the illiberal, anti-democratic institutions and practices meant for empire; rather it repatriates them, brings them home, so that they co-exist alongside domestic institutions, but no longer have an external object
The last point will be familiar to fans of Ortega y Gasset, whose Spain devolved from glory to fascism as the intruments of repression found their way back to Madrid (see Invertebrate Spain.) (And as I pointed out recently), Earl Shorris sees the preservation of Spain's feudalism in Mexico's difficulties achieving full democracy. Lebovics poses the problem of imperialism more succinctly by depicting it not as a paternal relationship in which the imperial power provides its experience to the world, but a discourse between the domestic and the imperial project. Ultimately, there is no perfect transfer of democracy to empire, and the empire itself comes back to degrade whatever perfect democracy once existed.

1 Comments:

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