Wednesday 4 July 2012

Was British colonialism a good thing?


In terms of preventing endemic starvation, high prevalence of disease and widespread extreme violence - very obviously yes.

But, overall, not. 


When it began there were two distinct reasons for colonialization (I mean distinct in terms of logic - although they were and are often conflated): Christian mission and economic exploitation.

When it began, colonialism was either Christian, or economic exploitation, or both.


What confused Christianity and economic expolitation was humanitarianism: people thought that humanitarian goals were the same thing as Christian goals - for example they imagined that the abolition of slavery was both and equally Christian and humanitarian; and abolition generally required invasion and imposition of British rule. 

Yet by the time it ended, colonialism was clearly working mostly for the material benefit of the colonized; as is obvious from what happened afterwards.  And when combined with the catastrophic decline of Christianity in Britain, this made colonialism unsustainable - there was nothing in it for the Brits.

Because the only valid justification for 'colonialism' was Christian mission; and for mission 'humanitarianism' is a stalking-horse for secular Leftism.


Also, the resentment of local elites in colonized countries at their second class status meant that no matter what the material benefits of British colonialism for the mass of people (benefits like having enough to eat, and not being mutilated, raped and murdered) these were trumped by 'Nationalism': the glorious freedom of being starved and violated by people of your own kind.


If you are unconvinced that Leftism is evil in its essence, the primary strategic activity of purposive evil in the world, then consider their unconditional approval of third world 'nationalism' and their absolute hatred of colonialism.

Leftism (being atheist, and denying spiritual realities and aims) purports to be driven by a simple, basic imperative to alleviate human suffering, yet the reality is that Leftism works to blind itself to the most blatant suffering and its obvious causes.

From the purportedly-Leftist perspective of alleviating suffering, colonialism is so obviously superior to the results of ethnic nationalism, that even to question which is better would be obscene. Yet from the actual Leftist perspective the opposite is true: it is colonialism that is the obscenity.


But the fact that this is not how people see things is solid data - I take it as indirect evidence that the material world is subordinated to the unseen spiritual warfare of of Good and evil.

If the material were primary, then then ex-colonies would have been begging for colonialism to continue, while the British firmly moved to extricate themselves from their obligations.

What we actually observe is almost the opposite - and the British continue to inject resources into ex-colonies but this time with the outcome of supporting and amplifying Nationalist elites who are agents for inflicting extreme material suffering on their populations.

This has had results which have at times approached being the worst of all possible worlds.


Humanitarian colonialism is an oxymoron: there is no such thing.

Indeed, colonialism is a bad thing.

If the colonialism is bad by intention (exploitative) then it is a bad thing; but if  colonialism is good by intention (humanitarian), then it is also a bad thing.


Yet Christian Empire has often been a Good Thing - sometimes overall a very good thing... Christian Rome, Byzantium, perhaps the Holy Roman Empire.

I conclude that only if the goals are spiritual can colonialism be justified: the British Empire was tainted from its origin.

Because the example of the British Empire teaches us that no amount of material benefit, and no matter how obvious is that material benefit, can ever justify colonialism in the eyes of human beings as human beings are presently constituted.


Empires may be good when they are primarily Christian; but no material empire is ever good.

Because even when successful (as was the British Empire) it ends-up in the paradoxical state of coercively-imposing peace, comfort and prosperity on people who idealistically agitate for an autonomous state of continuous civil war, degradation and poverty.



Gyan said...

As an Indian from India, I am interested in this argument.

"preventing ...widespread extreme violence-very obviously yes."

Nothing obvious here and likely untrue in case of India. Pre-British ad endemic but not extreme violence. Minorities were living along with majorities for centuries. But the nationalism and socialism injected by British led to purist notions and thence to outbreak of extreme violence and widespread and still ongoing cleansing of minorities.

"unconditional approval of third world 'nationalism'"

Requires qualification. The Left supports only Leftist nationalism but hates Rightist nationalism (e.g Hindu nationalism).

"colonialism was either Christian, or economic exploitation, "
Very doubtful for British, possibly true for Portuguese or Spanish. Compare colonial churches in Goa to those in New Delhi.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Gyan - The international Left are not really interested in India nowadays - indeed not much since the mid 1960s.

Chris said...

When the British were Christian, their empire was good.

No question.

Locally, the Anglican Missionaries converted the Maori and stopped genocidal wars before the land became British: and the Maori chose Britain (wisely) because they would make a treaty, while the expanding French and Americans would merely take the country.

What we tend to forget is that the UK government generally did not want to expand. It did so -- taking over the East Indian Company, for instance -- out of a sense of duty. The glorification of the empire only happened in its decline

dearieme said...

"colonialism was either Christian, or economic exploitation, or both": not so. Some started off simply as trade, and then got into the cycle of "Let's use military means to protect trade from local or French pillaging" and so the motive changed, or at least was added to.

Other examples must abound. The taking of South Africa, for instance, was to protect the trade route round the cape from the French.

In fact, the variety of motives when cases are examined in detail is probably what was meant by the vague (and presumably self-serving) remark about assembling an empire in a fit of absence of mind.

It's not even clear that the British, in sum, gained from colonialism, though obviously many individuals expected to, or it would never have been pursued.

James James said...

Bruce, I don't see where you demonstrated that humanitarian colonialism is a bad thing.

I would say that a condition for colonialism being good is that it makes a profit. The key insight is that legal systems/institutions of government have value, some more than others, and so replacing a government+legal system by force can add value. The cost of invading and running the state is recouped through taxes, but the natives also benefit: their incomes go up (eventually enabling them to pay higher taxes) because of the better institutions.

It's a win-win situation; indeed, it has to be. As soon as colonialism became charitable it was doomed, because without profit it was unsustainable.

This is, of course, pure Moldbug.

Bruce Charlton said...

@dearieme- I think these examples can be brought under my simplification - because trade is profit, and protecting trade is either profit or humanitarian.

Of course there are military reasons too - using conquered states as buffer zones to protect the core zones. But extended and disconnected empires become very difficult/ impossible to defend.

@JJ - what you suggest is not impossible, but benefit is *very* hard to measure (given the necessity for infrastructure, externalities and so on); plus I regard mutual benefit as an unstable transitional situation.

Whichever side is more powerful has a short term interest in pushing the equilibrium in their own (short term) favour, so that one side or the other benefits more.

And without a traditional and strong religion, the short term (chiefly *feelings*) is the only thing that counts at all - as we see all around us.

The interesting thing about the British Empire, when it became charitable, was that it was demonized for being exploitative - the worst of both worlds.

The key is that what benefits the elite (whether in Britain or the colonies) usually harms the masses - at least over the short term.

The Empire benefited some of the British ruling elite although draining the nation of treasure and men (especially with the abolition project), while the colonial elites craved power at any price.

dearieme said...

"I think these examples can be brought under my simplification": not remotely, unless you really believe that trade and profit are identical to economic exploitation. In that case you are beyond saving.

Bruce Charlton said...

@dearieme - not identical, obviously, but having the same effect of enriching.

In the sense that piracy, looting, legalized extraction and trade may all have the consequence of material enrichment.

And the situation between these may be unstable - for example, Western governments are very rapidly moving from providing a framework for economic growth into (mostly covertly - e.g. by deliberate but concealed inflation) looting their productive citizens.

Likewise piracy may evolve into trade; and vice versa.

As contrasted with genuine missionary work.

dearieme said...

But the "effect of enriching" is not what you said: you said "economic exploitation".

Francis Drake's great voyage was "economic exploitation" all right - plain piracy. On the other hand, it had nothing to do with colonisation.

Gyan said...

There are three proper forms of Rule, depending upon the character of ruler and the ruled.
1) Political
2) Monarchic
3) Despotic

For example, in 19C, English ruled India in a monarchic fashion but England itself was ruled politically. However, some parts of India, inhabited by backwards or unruly tribes were ruled despotically. Even in civilized provinces, some tribes were branded ‘criminal’ and were ruled in special despotic fashion with police given special powers over them.

The difference is in India proper, municipal govts were allowed, in fact encouraged but the Imperial Govt was not responsible to the Indian people in the same way English Govt was to English people.

Now England would have been guilty of remissness if it ruled uncivilized provinces in the proper way it ruled the civilized provinces and it would have been guilty of despotism if it ruled England the proper way it ruled over uncivilized provinces/tribes.

To continue, servility is an improper relation: if we kowtow to a elected President of a republic the same way it is proper to kowtow to a king, then we are being servile.

But if we behave with a legitimate king the way we behave with a President (i.e. trying to oust him), then we are being rebels.

So there are four improprieties that can exist between a ruler and a ruled person.
1) Remissness
2) Despotism or tyranny
3) Servility
4) Rebellion

Bruce Charlton said...

@Gyan - food for thought. Thanks.

JP said...

"When it began there were two distinct reasons for colonialization (I mean distinct in terms of logic - although they were and are often conflated): Christian mission and economic exploitation."

But there were two other reasons: firstly, occupation of a strategic point that had little economic importance (for example, Gibraltar or Aden), and secondly, occupation of largely empty lands. The rationale for the initial colonization of North America and Australia wasn't really economic or Christian, in my view.

I presume that by "economic exploitation" you meant conquest of an existing economy (e.g. India) or creation of a colony like the Caribbean sugar islands designed to make money. I also agree with dearieme than profit and trade are not the same thing as economic exploitation.

"the only valid justification for 'colonialism' was Christian mission"

I don't agree. Firstly, the creation of European societies in North America and Australia/New Zealand was a valid justification for colonizing those continents -- much more valid than Christianizing their few indigenes. Unless you want to argue that Canada, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand are bad things? Secondly, from the standpoint of national defense and national strategy, the creation of colonies for economic exploitation enriched the mother country and enabled it to defend itself more effectively against European rivals. If the British had stood aside and let the French and others conquer North America, India, Australia, etc., then Britain would have been significantly weaker during her struggles with France. Enriching Britain through colonial conquest, and denying colonial riches to the French, was a valid mission for the British -- strategically, economically, and morally justified.

"If the colonialism is bad by intention (exploitative) then it is a bad thing; but if colonialism is good by intention (humanitarian), then it is also a bad thing."

This is true only if one assumes that the post-1945 moral standards of good and bad are inevitable and retroactively applicable. Before 1914, neither conquest, economic exploitation (even in its crudest form), nor Christianizing were regarded as bad things. They were regarded as natural and just, and the European powers saw no reason they should not continue indefinitely.

"But extended and disconnected empires become very difficult/ impossible to defend."

Only if you're not the dominant naval power. If you are, then they're easy to defend.

"The key is that what benefits the elite (whether in Britain or the colonies) usually harms the masses - at least over the short term."

Colonizing North America, Australia and New Zealand benefited the British elite AND the masses.

Bruce Charlton said...

@JP - Remember this blog is written in code (the clues are there), and I was using colonialism in its modern Leftist sense, which does not include North America or Australasia - but I meant to imply the colonies which swiftly descended/ are descending into civil war, gang rule, murder, rape and starvation following the British exit.

I should have added that assuming (as I do) that colonialism is temporary, and if the post-colonial consequences are included in the calculus - most colonies would have been much better off without any contact with modernity. This applies especially to hunter gatherers.

JP said...

Empires may be good when they are primarily Christian; but no material empire is ever good.

In this would you include the Byzantine Empire, for which you have expressed admiration?

Bruce Charlton said...

@JP - I was thinking of the Byzantine Empire as the prime example of a primarily Christian society/ Empire - certainly in aspiration, but substantially also in reality.