News & opinion on Greater China and the even Greater Beyond: by Biff Cappuccino.

Sunday, September 12, 2004

Essay: On Empire Building & Colonialism

If colonialism was such an evil, why did it work so well? And how is it that something that once faithfully delivered the goods is now considered wrong? If something works, as colonialism obviously did - for otherwise it would not have come into and remained in existence for several hundred years - why is it now considered morally reprehensible?
My amateur probing into the nature of morality suggests that, rather than morality being above wordly considerations of efficiency or efficacy, on the contrary, whatever is efficient or effective is, or is destined to soon become, moral.

No country prescribing a morality which diminishes its own economic or military strength will last. Such a country will be defeated by its competitors economically, militarily, culturally. In the end, it will be digested or colonized or assimilated with the younger generation eagerly downing the values of the stronger country and a collective rubbing of tummies with satisfaction. These new values will replace the old moral values and constitute a fresh prism by which history is to be judged by the next generation of society's elite: the neighborhood concerned citizen with eyes glued to the tube waiting patiently for his opinions, recognizing them when they arrive embellished in a memorable jargon that congeals into a sort of weighty instant cliche; the diligent reporter overstuffed with current events, working up a sweat in order to work up something, anything, different to say to distinguish himself from cherished colleagues and competitors, all primarily occupied not with dispensing the truth, but with differentiating themselves from their fellow blanks to stand apart and maximize promotion potential; and the overspecialized university historian, professionally expert in one thing but lacking a well-rounded understanding of anything. These caricatures are, for better or for worse, our opinion makers, talking heads, and expert witnesses in the court of public opinion. Buyer Beware.

It helps to recall previously popular moralities: the cannibalism of Mesoamerica, the ritual murder of Indian travelers by the Thuggees, headhunting in the Pacific Islands, universal slavery, the keeping of women in the kitchen, men as respectable cannon fodder, etc. These days, it's considered within moral bounds to eat meat. No doubt, when meat is replaced with a more efficient technological manufacturing of protein foodstuffs, it will then become immoral to eat meat for a grab bag of obvious reasons and we will be deemed savages and criminals. We should have known better. We did know better. We do know better. We're moral lepers. But perhaps I exaggerate. Who really sees us this way? Only a few cranks. Yet soon enough, technology will multiply those cranks into the many. Just as it has always done in the past. Just as much of the spectrum of today's widely-accepted enlightened values - the cult of compassion, multiculturalism, and post-modernism come to mind - are values pioneered by the soulful cranks of yesteryear (Gandhi, Rousseau, Sartre, Foucault, etc).

Within the continental United States, slavery went out, according to most opinion-makers, because of the Civil War. In other words, the Civil War was a war to end slavery. But the Civil War was, inter alia, also a battle between two different economic systems. The slavery-based system was doomed to lose when pitted against the free labor system because the former was economically inefficient and wasteful. There were intelligent men and women amongst those slaves, individuals who were prevented from further empowering the economy, and not just maintaining it, via developing new business techniques and technical concepts, via entrepreneurialism and establishing new business models, via the exchange and critique of ideas in the marketplace of ideas. The biggest drawback was that a large portion of the best and brightest were kept down and out. Slavery was doomed because the southern economy could only evolve at a much diminished pace compared to the north. The slave-based economy suffered from many of the same stagnating ills as feudalism with the workers hampered by monopoly market wages, lack of upward mobility, no free speech (limited purely to the aristocracy of the freeborn), enforced illiteracy and ignorance, lack of legal protections for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, etc.

Travelers in the antebellum South remarked upon the laziness of practically everyone: not just the white folk, but also the slaves. The north was hustled-bustle; the north was keenly competitive; the north was more efficient; the north was far wealthier, creative, and productive. In the end, it was just a matter of time. With or without war, slavery was doomed: it was a weakness, a fetter, and eventually an albatross by the mid-19th century due to technological progress and an increasingly global marketplace which pitted the proletariate of Birmingham against the yeomanry of Alabama.
Even if the South had won the Civil War, technology would have continued to improve nonetheless and eventually mechanized harvesting equipment would have rendered most slaves redundant, just as it has ended up rendering most farm owners redundant. Without the need for professional harvesters, chore-handlers, and wet-nurses, slaves would have become a financial liability and would have been emancipated en masse. Slavery would've disappeared on its own, sooner or later, just as sharecroppers disappeared on their own without the requirement of the war or legislation.

And with the end to slavery came a newly-found popular revulsion for it, in large part because the victors, who hated slavery almost as much as they hated blacks, write history. In slavery's halcyon days, it had been sanctioned by the lay free folk, holy church, the leaders of the land.
Had slavery been economically cost-effective, it goes without saying that the South would not have lost the Civil War. The North outmanufactured the South, pouring more widgets and soldiers onto the battlefield and grinding the South, which fought more sensibly, ably, and courageously, into the ground through sheer production. What the North failed to achieve via sound planning and leadership, it achieved via the factory and scales of economy (just as it did again in WWI & WWII). As things were, the South almost did win. And had it won, slavery would have spread all across the United States and instead of being a moral wrong today it would be morally acceptable. Owning slaves would be correct and proper like dog ownership. Similar rules and regulations would apply with regard to abuse (as was the case in parts of the ante-bellum south) and food requirements (only pet food, not human food, is required by law to meet nutrition standards in the US these days). Owning a dog is not morally wrong today. And letting a dog run loose is tantamount to issuing it with a death sentence: if a dog chases game, it gets shot; if it ends up in the pound, it gets a shot. With a little imagination, you can see how the very same attitudes could easily be re-applied to a class of fugitive slaves, whatever their race, color, or creed. In the end, whatever is good for the economy is upright, upstanding and moral. What's bad for the economy is effete, disgusting and immoral.

And thus, we come back to colonialism. Early era colonialism was based upon the extraction of resources from distant territories. As long as technology was backward and disease took a heavy toll on workers, slavery was the only way to get the job done. But soon enough, the easily accessed resources were more or less fully extracted. The only way to make money on an investment was to develop the country: to provide it with a working economy, introduce manufacturing, develop hydropower resources and so forth. All of this requires free-market economics for monopoly products can not compete with free-market products. They're far and away too expensive. Thus, market liberalization is a commonplace in colony after colony: Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, Manchuria, the United States and Australia. And market liberalization goes hand-in-hand with freedom of speech. Not full freedom of speech of course, but sufficient to facilitate the marketplace: i.e. access to global stock market prices, international currency exchange and patent rights, books by biz gurus, cable messages, telephones, faxes, the Internet, etc, etc. But this, eventually, provides space for the politically active to get their message out too. This in turn leads to the formation of large independence movements.

As long as the native economy and industry is insufficiently developed to provide independence movements with home-country financial backing and the munitions necessary to push out the colonizing power, the colony remains a colony. However, its just a matter of time. In the end, the indigenous forces push out the colonizing power.

I'm oversimplifying for effect, of course, but this is an essay and not a book.

In other words, to remain economically viable, colonies (i.e. colonial interests, be they local companies or international companies setting up manufacturing bases in these colonies) had to be allowed to import the strengths of the colonizing country. In the process, the colonies were introduced to modern legal systems, educational systems, accounting practices, on-the-job training, business models, stock offerings, etc. In the process, colonies went from the rule of man to the rule of law, from barter to wage and banking-based economies, from taboos and superstitution to schools and empirically based knowledge. In other words, the colonies went from being economically backward to being on par with the mother country. In many cases, they went on to outperform the mother country economically: the United States and Hong Kong come to mind.

Thus, colonialism produced modern countries when it remained in the saddle sufficiently long. Had Hong Kong been returned to China in 1949, it would be poor and backward; rather than becoming more prosperous than it's colonizing power, England, as indeed occured prior to the handover to China, which then immediately resulted in collapse of the real estate market, capital flight, and a lasting economic depression. Had Taiwan remained under Japanese rule it would be more modern and richer than it is today. Had Taiwan become independent in 1945, it might be richer still. Who knows?
The problem with sub-Saharan Africa is that the region was not colonized long enough. The problem is not that colonization destroyed the internal fabric, but that it failed to do so and so, with the departure of the sahibs and swagger sticks, the populations returned to the bush. Ergo, the revival of the tribal mentality, it's power structure of chieftain & shaman class/prince and mullahs, its taboos, its family owned and operated monopolies, its superstitions, its fetishes; a united turning of backs upon an enlightment that Europe itself had nearly juggled away on occasions too numerous to count. Africa and it's tyrants today is a return to the barbarous ways and means that all of our crude ancestors were idiotically committed to for tens of thousands of years.

And so today, one of the ironies of colonialism is that many residents of former colonial powers wish for a return of the empire - England and Russia, to name but two - but not for a return of colonialism. Colonialism is dismissed with disgust primarily because the history of the colonized countries prior to colonialism is not well recorded and even lesser known, although, in my view, that history seems to be revived and on tap in much of sub-Saharan Africa as we speak. The recorded history of colonialism is itself repulsive because the economic and martial realities of the day are not understood by dilletantes impatient with details and who instead see fit to interpret this flawed era of human progress, and all eras progressive or otherwise are flawed, through a moral scheme fully in step with the New Testament: i.e. a moral scheme developed and adapted for a rural, when not outright pastoral, setting; a bumpkin evangelical moral scheme idiotically opposed to concentrated wealth and money lending in its day and which, when applied to the present, would be just as fanatically opposed to 7-11's and credit cards.

But an additional impetus for the dislike of colonialism is the continuation of feudal era thinking in the contemporary Western intellectual mind; by which I mean the profoundly ignorant humanities graduated literatus, a sort of wordsmith, rhetorician and poet bundled into one envious pettifogger with a natural human desire to outperform his business-college brethern but lacking the tools and wherewithal to do so. Lacking the requisite set of abilities, he refuses to grasp for sour grapes and in turn develops the sour disposition I come to increasingly associate with the confused angry humanities graduate, perplexed with the inhumanity of man, especially economic man. Instead enter the moral economic combat, i.e. the Marx/Chomsky conspiracy theories explaining the prosaic business world in astounding rhetoric. Ergo, the donkeyish stubborness of most liberal arts grads, beheld to a taboo shaming them into forgoing any attempt to acquire an understanding of modern economics; and what could be easier to understand than buy, sell, market demand? Enter the revived primeval sentimental distaste for money: a sort of multicultural edition of the Middle Ages hatred of Jews (ergo, minus the ad hominem attacks). Shake off the dust and refurbish the pre-capitalist, nay hunter & gatherer, notion that fairness is the best of all possible worlds.
The revulsion for colonialism is a moral opposition to the economics of greed: a tilting at windmills if ever there was one because greed clearly works. Left liberals have a thing for arguing against success, an attitude which many seem to apply to their own careers. Instead of declaiming business, when business clearly works, why not go into business? But, to ideologues, words regularly speak louder than actions.

To be continued when I get up in the morning...

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