The Joys and Sorrows of Empire Revisited

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On
the far-flung frontier of a benevolent and great-souled empire there
arises a near-despotic ruler — or, at least, he is said to be such.
A crusty old bastard with fanatical religious beliefs, this ruler
refuses to negotiate in good faith with the empire’s representatives,
no matter how many times they move the goal posts. They get very
tired from changing the rules and shifting the goal posts, and consequently
become very cross.

This ancient
fanatic and his people have already defeated the good purposes of
the empire a decade earlier. But even that was not the beginning
of their wrongdoing. For almost two generations they have sought
to put themselves beyond the authority, power, and well-meant measures
of their imperial betters, with some success. They are rather proud
of this achievement. They clearly stand in need of stern but (ultimately)
kind correction.

Worse,
the cunning old despot has begun negotiating with the empire’s civilized
rivals, and is acquiring Weapons of Modest Destruction. Clearly,
he seeks to undermine the authority of the empire in an entire region,
with no concern for the Larger Good of civilization.. He also represses
(but does not gas) “his own people,” who turn out, on examination,
to be not so much his own people but a mob of foreign riffraff belonging
to the empire. They went there of their own free will, to be sure,
but nevertheless they are being inconvenienced from time to time.
Can the empire shirk its duty of humanitarian intervention?

Back
in the imperial metropolis, the Press Gang – by which I mean the
high-minded gentry of the newspapers, and not the fellows who used
to scrape prospective soldiers up off the pub floor in Ireland —
start baying at the top of their lungs. The old despot presides
over a society that is inherently evil, they cry. It is utterly
backward, a terrible embarrassment at the beginning of a glorious
new century, they say. Further, the old despot's supporters abuse
the help, they complain, something that would never happen under
imperial management.

It
is of course only the most innocent of accidents that the old despotic
patriarch and his backward, ramshackle “state” are sitting athwart
certain very valuable mineral resources. It is mere chance that
this dictatorial old rustic and his government are blocking the
inevitable transfer of these resources into hands better able to
develop and produce them for the benefit of All Mankind. It is certainly
wrong of these atavists to resist Progress and Development, but
that does not mean that the empire's leaders are driven by something
as common as the desire for material gain. That would be bourgeois.

Oh
no. The empire always has higher ends in view. Just ask its
employees, friends, and beneficiaries.

Look,
mate, these resources just need to be in the hands of chaps the
chaps can trust (stealing a phrase from Yes,
Minister
).

And
now a final crisis looms. Even now, the old reprobate still seeks
to thwart the empire's wholesome attempts at cutting off his country's
trade with the outside world, an effort aimed only at bringing about
better behavior. It seems more and more plain that nothing short
of a “regime change” will do, even if that cliché is not
on hand.

During
the final round of “negotiations,” the old fellow — obviously putting
on an act — complains that “it is my country that you want.”

Any
day now, the old despot with his Weapons of Modest Destruction might
manage to build a railroad connection to the sea, wickedly by-passing
the imperial stranglehold on his republic's foreign trade. Time
is growing short. The repressive old patriarch may soon break through – to Delagoa Bay.

And
now you see, the old fundamentalist despot is none other than Oom
(“Uncle”) Paul Kruger (1825-1904), President of the South African
Republic (Transvaal), and the time is the late 1890s. Once again
that romantic historical figure, “die Boer met sy roer” (“the
farmer with his gun”), goes “on commando,” rides and shoots, putting
up a valiant resistance, but nevertheless goes down to defeat in
a great Moral Victory for All Mankind.

Once
the Brits began conducting themselves like the Duke of Cumberland
in the Highlands, or Sherman and Sheridan in the Confederacy, the
stakes underwent a considerable raising along the ever-popular lines
of Total War. 27,000 Afrikaner women and children perished in concentration
camps because of this brilliant counterinsurgency campaign. The
Boers gave in because, as one of them put it, “you live to fight
but we fight to live.” They did not, however, actually change their
minds about the merits of British hegemony.

A
great many dire consequences stemmed directly from this struggle,
the Second Anglo-Boer War, 1899–1903. The empire of that day
– the British one – naturally denied, and still denies,
even now, all causal connection with any unfortunate outcomes. And
why not? In the same neighborhood, having given Cecil Rhodes a mercantilist
charter in the late 19th century to conquer the
northern frontier, it was nothing at all for the Brits to scuttle
their creation, Rhodesia, in the 1970s. It's just business:
political business.

In
all the current wailing about President Mugabe's campaign against
the last few white farmers, no one has paused to read the
memoirs of Ian Smith
. Smith of course is not unbiased, if that
matters, but his recently published book tells you all you need
to know about how empires create, abandon, or even actively destroy
the people whom they entice into their short-run projects. If you
need any further convincing, watch Breaker
Morant
.

Of
late, the British imperial analogy is all the rage. A recent number
of the oh-so-Establishment Wilson Quarterly goes on at length
about the joys of prospective U.S. empire (they say “American,”
but I try to reserve that word for actual Americans). The British
Empire is their role model of choice. And now that “we” are in the
“Great Game” in Afghanistan, there is a certain fit. A few brave
souls go for comparisons with the Roman empire, but most folks find
it harder to put a happy spin on that particular “social formation.”

So
be it. Every man his own analogizer. Let a thousand imperialist
comparisons bloom.

But
try to remember that there were certain, er, drawbacks to the British
Empire, just as there are drawbacks to any empire. If the well-wishers
of empire want to claim the tarnished prestige of Queen Victoria's
ministers' enterprise, that only puts the historical critique of
the British Empire on the front burner. Americans used to understand
these things. For fairly trivial reasons, as measured globally,
our ancestors fought that empire. Only a few of them wished to supplant
it with an empire of our own.

Unluckily
for Americans, that small number of pith-helmet-wearing Americans
now runs the foreign policy of the U.S. state apparatus.

I
do not claim of course that historical analogies are exact. There
are many differences. In 1899, gold and diamonds were at stake and
it was worth a lot of bloodshed, to some people, to have the profits
from these commodities in the hands of the proper chaps. Now, some
say, oil plays a role.

Oom
Paul was deeply Calvinist in the Dutch Reformed tradition. The proposed
enemy of the moment, Saddam Hussein, seems to be a rather secular,
political fellow. It does him no good, however. Under the present
rules, having a secular state only wins points for those very useful
Turks.

Thus
there are many differences between the situation today and that
in 1899, but the thread that ties them together, and ties up the
robber's bundle (as Tom Paine would say), is empire.

For
my part, I'm tired of the empire and its endless causes. I'm tired
of its holidays. This year I think I'll celebrate Paul Kruger's
birthday, October 10th. I grant that his critics were
not entirely wrong. He was crusty, difficult, Calvinist,
etc. On the other hand, he stood against the empire.

Kruger
once said, “Geboren onder de Engelsche vlag, wens ik niet daaronder
te sterven”: “born under the English flag, I do not wish to
die under it.” He got that wish; he died in exile in Clarens, Switzerland,
on July 14, 1904. The British, too, got what they wanted — his country.

September
12, 2002

Joseph
R. Stromberg [send him mail]
is holder of the JoAnn B. Rothbard Chair in History at the Ludwig
von Mises Institute
and a columnist for LewRockwell.com
and Antiwar.com.

Joseph
Stromberg Archives

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