Free Life Commentary,
A Personal View from the Director of the Libertarian Alliance
Issue Number 196
3rd August 2010
In Defence of the British Empire
by Sean Gabb
Note: In this article, I make a number of sharp comments about Abhilash Nambiar. Since writing it, however, Abhilaish and I have struck up a long and friendly correspondence, and we find outselves in agreement on a wide range of issues. I therefore wish to apologise for the sharpness of my comments. They were made in the heat of debate – as, indeed, were his.
On Friday the 29th July 2010, I saw a BBC report of David Cameron’s tour of India. Several Indians, it seems, had demanded the return of the Koh-i-Noor Diamond. This has been property of the British Crown for the past century and a half, and now forms part of the Crown Jewels. To say that the inconvenience and humiliation of breaking up the Crown Jewels had not crossed the minds of those making the demand is to credit them with too little intelligence. The Diamond itself, we can have no doubt, was worth far less to these people than the joy of having humiliated their former masters. This was confirmed within the report by some relative of the famous Gandhi, who urged return of the Diamond as an act of “atonement” for our imperial past.
Mr Cameron, I am glad to say, refused the demand. His refusal, however, was less firm than it should have been. He merely observed that return of the Diamond would set an unwelcome precedent. And so, having nothing more enjoyable to do with the five minutes of my time it took, I made my own response on the Libertarian Alliance Blog. It went thus:
Gross Indian Ingratitude
by Sean Gabb
So the Indian ruling class is asking for the Koh-i-Noor Diamond to be shipped off to them.
Some flatulent grandson of Gandhi is demanding the diamond as some kind of “atonement“.
Atonement for what? I ask.
I think the world would be a much better place if the wretched Gandhi had drunk a bad pint of his own urine c1910. But since he didn’t, the Indians might at least have the grace to thank us for having saved them from the barbarism in which we found them. But for us, they’d still be burning widows, and the country districts would still be swarming with Thugees. Thanks to us, they now have a space programme.
Yes, rather than asking for one diamond back, they should be grubbing about to see if they can find another one to send over. And, while doing that, they could put all those statues back up of Queen Victoria, and set up a few new ones of T.B. Macaulay.
Sadly, this posting has unaccountably vanished from the LA Blog, taking with it all the comments. But it provoked a firestorm of debate that has continued to burn on one of the supplemental postings that did survive. I drove several Indians into a frenzy, and got a stern ticking off from various self-appointed “libertarian purists”. In a private message to some of my friends, one of the Indians accused me of cowardice and dishonesty. Another of them, one Sudha Amit, has decided for the moment to call me an “imperialist racist pig” in the comment section of every other posting I make to the LA Blog. Since I presently have limited access to the Internet, I shall not see until tomorrow what the effect has been of calling her a “silly little woman”. If she has responded with better sense than I expect, I will confine myself to sneering at her bad English until she goes away.
I suppose I could have made my comment a little less bluntly. But I stand wholly by its substance. I feel no shame whatever about my country’s imperial past. I am even rather proud of it. Indeed, I really do think that the inhabitants of those places lucky enough to have been conquered by England should display a little more gratitude than is currently the fashion. If they cannot do this, they should at least stop whining about it.
But, dear me – here I go again! Never mind my poor Indian readers, I can almost hear the muscles tighten in the faces of my “libertarian purist” critics. And so, rather than go into the details of why I feel so pleased to have been born an Englishman, I will explain how, as a libertarian, I can possibly think well of an institution so essentially statist as the British Empire.
There are two points of view from which the Empire should be regarded – that of the English and that of everyone else. I will begin with the English. For us – I am not, by the way, discussing the colonies of white settlement – the Empire was a mistake that ultimately destroyed us. This is particularly the case with India. There were Englishmen who gained from the conquest of India. But these were a small minority. They were shareholders in the East India Company, and politicians who took bribes from the Company, and various members of the ruling elite who found wider opportunities for employment as soldiers and administrators than would otherwise have existed in a liberal state. For the rest of us, India was a waste of our national effort. It was not a place to settle. It was less important as a trading and investment partner than the United States. Together with Burma and the East Indies, that control of India enabled us to conquer, the Raj brought us into disputes with Russia and Japan that led directly or indirectly to both great wars of the twentieth century.
I might add to this the corrupting effect that governing India had on the British ruling class. This was not so extreme as the effect that empire had on the Roman aristocracy. Even so, I think much of the paternalism one sees in British government after about 1870 was inspired by the example of despotic control over several hundred million Indians. Or I might add further unanticipated effects on England of our association with India and the other non-white colonies – Iam pridem Syrus in Tiberim defluxit Orontes, etc. But this takes us away from the present argument.
Therefore, as a libertarian who looks at it from the English point of view, I can see nothing good in our conquest of India. It raised our taxes above what they would otherwise have been. It raised up wealthy special interest groups that were not particularly liberal. It involved us in otherwise unnecessary – even unimaginable – overseas entanglements. Had I been alive and writing in the nineteenth century, I would have been on the extreme radical wing of the Liberal Party, arguing for an immediate departure from India.
But this is the case only when I look at things from the English point of view. When I look at them from the Indian point of view, they appear wholly different. By liberal English standards, India was barbarous or, at best, semi-barbarous. It was a jolly enough place to live for those with money and power – and I can understand why many of its early English rulers went native. But for everyone else – that is, about ninety nine point nine something of the people of India – it was a hellish place. It was a place of rigid caste boundaries, of destructively rapacious landlords and tax collectors, of extreme and arbitrary injustice, of suttee and thuggee, of forced castration and forced prostitution, of outright slavery.
Until the death of Aurangzebe in 1707, India was at least reasonably united and reasonably at peace. After 1707, however, it fell into a growing chaos – a chaos that impacted most on those at the bottom – that was only terminated by the rise of the East India Company.
India never knew the really lunatic parasitism shown in Mel Gibson’s film Apocalypto. But it was, before the English conquest, similar in many respects to our own ancient world. These similarities, though, extended only to the evils of antiquity. India had no equivalent of those arts and sciences that redeem the ancients and that have made the study of their civilisation so enduringly profitable. When, in the 1830s, he looked at what sort of popular education the East India Company should encourage, Macaulay saw no alternative to an entirely English curriculum. He was advised that the vernacular languages were, as they then stood, deficient as vehicles of instruction. He was willing to accept that the classical languages of Arabic and Sanscrit might be respectable in themselves, but had nothing but contempt for the “wisdom” their literatures offered to the Indian mind. This “wisdom” was made up of
medical doctrines which would disgrace an English farrier, astronomy which would move laughter in girls at an English boarding school, history abounding with kings thirty feet high and reigns thirty thousand years long, and geography made of seas of treacle and seas of butter.
It would be far better, he said, to let the Indians learn English and become as English in their thinking and outlook as their circumstances allowed. And, so far as circumstances allowed, it was English and English ways that, during the century that followed, were given to the Indians. They were given English science and administration. They were given a rational and humane penal code based on English principles. They got due process of law and trial by jury and freedom of religion and the press. Slavery and sacrificial murder were put down.
That all this was given at gunpoint is no valid objection. Let us, for the sake of argument, accept that all states are evil. It does not follow that all states are equally evil. It may not be to the benefit of one nation to conquer another. But it will be to the benefit of one nation to be conquered by another when the state directing that conquest is more liberal. The English State was more liberal than any Indian alternative, and so the result of conquest was beneficial to all those classes of Indians outside the ruling elites. The main use of English power in India was to stop the Indians from being quite so beastly to each other as they would have been left to their own ways. The whining of some modern Indians about “colonialism” and “oppression” tries but cannot obscure this fact.
Nor is it valid to cry up the examples of real brutality by the English in India – for example, the blowing apart of Sepoys after suppression of the Mutiny. Though it is never right, it is the nature of the strong to tyrannise over the weak. There is nothing unusual about English brutality. It is regrettable, but common to all powerful nations. What is notable about English rule of India is its settled benevolence. And I suspect this is what so outrages the modern Hindu nationalist. If we had behaved in India as the Belgians had in the Congo, he might actually think better of us today. Atrocities are more easily forgiven than benevolence from a position of overwhelming physical and moral superiority.
There is one point in my original blog posting that I might withdraw. This is my suggestion that the Indians should put back up all their statues of Queen Victoria. On the one hand, she was their lawfully-proclaimed and accepted Empress. On the other, she was a foreigner. And, while they might have learned a few more English ways than they did, the Indians have had all the English lessons they really needed to become a fairly respectable people. They are no more obliged to set up statues of Queen Victoria than they are not to change the names of cities like Calcutta and Bombay and Madras to whatever they please in their own languages – so long, that is, as they do not come scowling to me or mine to change our own usages.
As for Macaulay, he needs no statues in England or in India. His writings are the only memorial he requires.
Let me pass now to some of the specific objections to my case that I feel are in need of separate answers. The first is the emphasis that one of my Indian critics placed on the Bengal famine of 1943 – as if this was somehow an indictment of English rule. It might be an indictment if there had never before been Indian famines. But to claim this would be manifest nonsense. Famine has haunted India since time out of mind. The reason we know so little of it before English rule is that the native chroniclers of India were always more interested in reporting court intrigues than the condition of the people. But take this by Fernand Braudel:
The cataclysms were often irremediable, such as the terrible and almost general famine in India in 1630-1. A Dutch merchant left an appalling description of it: ‘People wandered hither and thither,’ he wrote, ‘helpless, having abandoned their towns or villages. Their condition could be recognised immediately: sunken eyes, wan faces, lips flecked with foam, lower jaw projecting, bones protruding through skin, stomach hanging like an empty sack, some of them howling with hunger, begging alms.’ The customary drama ensued: wives and children abandoned, children sold by parents, who either abandoned them or sold themselves in order to survive, collective suicides…. Then came the stage when the starving split open the stomachs of the dead or dying to ‘eat their entrails’. ‘Hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people died,’ the merchant continued, ‘to the point where the country was entirely covered with corpses which stayed unburied, and such a stink arose that the air was filled with it and pestilential.’ [Capitalism and Material Life, 1400-1800, Harper & Row, New York, 1975, p.41]
The problem with India under English rule was that every improvement in circumstances was attended by an increase in numbers among the lowest classes. Because these Indians would consider no limits to their own fecundity, they faced the same Malthusian checks in 1943 as in 1630. Those Indians who blame England for this are as pitiable as the Irish who blame England for the blight that killed so many of their potatoes in 1845.
Second, there is the claim by Kevin Carson – made on the Libertarian Alliance discussion forum – that European colonial rule damaged native civil society, and made it inevitable that these countries, once independent, should fall under kleptocratic rule. He says:
I’m afraid I agree with Burke rather than the “liberal” imperialists. One might have said similar things of England ca. 1214 or so. But the constitutional framework of liberal democratic Britain was gradually built, over centuries, from that crooked timber. I think Third World countries are overrun with kleptocracies is, in part, because their civil societies were so nearly liquidated by “progressive” foreign powers, leaving a vacuum when those powers withdrew. Gandhi’s movement was as much a reformist movement against the most barbarous aspects of authoritarian Hinduism, including the caste system and the burning of widows, as it was against British rule. The contest for power in post-independence Indian national politics, conducted by people like Nehru, detracted from what was most valuable in Gandhi’s thought: the promotion of a decentralized, federal, village-based anarchism.
Now, I do have the greatest respect for Mr Carson. Nevertheless, I am not at all persuaded by this claim. Outside Europe, and those parts of the world settled from Europe, there has never been anything worth calling civil society. This is true of those places that were only lightly colonised – Ethiopia, for example – or that early threw out their colonial masters – that is, Haiti. India may not be so stark an instance as China – where no room for stable association has ever existed between the family and the State. But I do not see, when I survey what little we know of Indian history before the English conquest, any of those associations that, in Europe, repeatedly checked, and even partly humanised, the rule of the parasitic classes. The only difference between pre-colonial and post-colonial governments, in India and in the much less fortunate Africa, is that the latter have modern technology to assist their oppressions – but also the often fading impression of English ways to limit their oppressions.
To say that, but for western conquest, most of Asia and Africa today would have strong and vibrant civil societies, in which individuals were protected by mutual guarantees from misgovernment and the misfortunes of life, is a romantic fiction. More realistically, the only time in their histories that most parts of Asia and Africa were not governed tyrannically was when they were governed despotically from Europe.
I come now to the repeated accusation of all my Indian critics that I am not a “real” libertarian. Since libertarianism – unlike Roman Catholicism or Islam or Orthodox Marxist-Leninism – has no core texts and fixed catechisms, I could ignore these accusations. However, those making them have annoyed me by their bitterness and often by their private correspondence with third parties, and therefore deserve some attention. So let us look at the specific claims.
They all claim that nations do not really exist, and that to speak of them is to engage in “group-think”. There are only individuals, they say, and no true libertarian ever talks of other than individual interests. According to one Abhilash Nambiar, “What does such terms mean anyway? “Interests of England”, “interests of those subjected to British rule” etc., Nations do not have interests, people do. What is called national interests are merely meaning that people attach to interests as expressed by certain persons who where at certain position during certain times.” He adds: “Sean you need to shake off your collectivist mentality and apply methodological individualism when performing your analysis”. He further adds: “You cannot have your two feet in two boats. Sooner or later you will have to choose. Libertarianism and nationalism is as compatible as oil and water.” Again, he says: “The environment [in America] is more receptive to libertarianism. Here I see conservatives wearing different clothes. I do not expect things to change in England any time soon tough. The English won’t imitate the Americans even if their life depended on it.”
According to one Jayant Bhandari, “Dr Gabb has now himself taken the path of bigotry and irrationality.”
Of course, only individuals exist in the tangible sense. And there is no doubt that much social science is improved so far as it studies individuals as opposed to reifications. However, the idea that nations do not in any sense exist strikes me as ludicrous. It might as easily be said that my family does not exist – but that we should instead speak only of individuals with names like Sean, Andrea and Philippa. And I do not think that von Mises, or any of the other most eminent economists of the Austrian School, has ever denied the existence – and even the importance – of national groupings as reasonably conceived. Nations are communities based on perceived commonality of blood, or on language or religion, or on some other unifying cause or combination of causes. Certainly, so far as individuals believe in them, and so far as individuals are willing to act on their belief, nations must be taken into account.
My Indian critics are united in denouncing me for my supposed lapses from methodological individualism. But I really wonder how committed they themselves are to methodological individualism. Some years ago, I wrote an essay on the Elgin Marbles, in which I sprayed vicious abuse all over the Greeks. Every few months, I take it into my head to say very hateful things about the Americans. Yet my Indian critics only thought to turn up and start preaching at me when I was less than flattering about the Indians.
Notice, moreover, how Mr Nambiar, as quoted above, passes pretty fast from telling me to shake off my “collective mentality” to showing one of his own: “The English won’t imitate the Americans,“ he says, ascribing one characteristic to about fifty million people, “even if their life depended on it.”
I would never dream of denouncing my Indian critics for arguing in bad faith. That would – on the basis, at least, of what information I have on them – be a most wicked accusation to make. Even so, is it not possible that, even as they try to lecture me on my own alleged shortcomings, they are unconsciously motivated by a Hindu nationalism as ardent as my English nationalism? As said, I make no allegations of bad faith. I only ask what I feel to be a reasonable question.
In closing, I will pass to the accusation of inconsistency that Sudha Amit made against me when she noticed that I was opposed to the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. She says:
Lol, Why are you so inconsistent?
Don’t you believe that the Tony/Brown Junta is doing great things to Afghanistan the same way EIC did to India for which you want every Indian to e grateful to you?
You need to be consistent, otherwise change the blog’s name to Musings of an imperialist racist pig with some fits of Libertarianism
I have little respect for Miss Amit’s reasoning faculties. But I will answer her question.
I was against invading Iraq and Afghanistan because these wars involved killing large numbers of civilians without what I saw as good reason. Though I do not regard wars and their incidental atrocities as absolutely illegitimate, I do require the projectors of a war to show reasonable grounds that it is defensive and that some regard will be paid to the lives and properties of civilians. Alternatively, as argued above, I am willing to accept the outcome of a war when it can be shown that there has been some compensating advantage to the people of the losing side. I would never insist that the English conquest of India was achieved without bloodshed. But the restoration of India to internal peace following the conquest led to an overall economy of bloodshed. And English rule was to the advantage of the great majority of Indians.
There has been no economy of bloodshed in either Iraq or Afghanistan, nor is there likely to be. And no one with a straight face can possibly claim that the conquests were in any sense to the long term advantage of the conquered. These were looting expeditions, bought by a coalition of corporate and other interest groups, in which the interests of both conquerors and conquered were of zero importance.
Now, if this is not all that I can say on the relationship between England and India, it is certainly all that I will say. I have no doubt that my various critics will let up one great wail of horror at what I have just said. But that is their concern – and they must let up their wail without any hope of further comment from me.
© 2010 – 2017, seangabb.
Thanks for reading this. If you liked it, please consider doing one or some or all of the following:
1. Share it on social media – see buttons below;
2. Like my Facebook page;
3. Subscribe to my YouTube channel;
4. Sign up for my newsletter;
5. Click on a few of the discreet and tastefully-chosen advertisements that adorn this article;
6. Check out my books – they are hard to avoid.
Oh, and for those who may feel inclined to leave some small token of regard, here is the usual begging button: