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Reflections on 'Normalisation' of Imperialism

A rejoinder to Rohit Chopra's "Resurrection and Normalisation of Empire" (26 March 2011) which sees imperialism in the 21st century as understood in the global North; the people of erstwhile colonies should not resign themselves to accepting this nomenclature. The phrase "normalisation of empire" has been coined in the west for consumption by the west and should be treated as such.

DISCUSSION

Reflections on ‘Normalisation’ of Imperialism

Sneh Mahajan

A rejoinder to Rohit Chopra’s “Resurrection and Normalisation of Empire” (26 March 2011) which sees imperialism in the 21st century as understood in the global North; the people of erstwhile colonies should not resign themselves to accepting this nomenclature. The phrase “normalisation of empire” has been coined in the west for consumption by the west and should be treated as such.

I am grateful to Prem Chowdhry for encouraging me to write this rejoinder.

Sneh Mahajan (snehmahajan41@gmail.com) is with the Indian Council of Historical Research, New Delhi.

T
he special issue “Reflections on Empire” (26 March 2011), is timely because it highlights the very recent transformation in the attitude to empire and imperialism, especially in the global North. I would like to comment mainly on the extremely dense and cogently argued introductory piece by Rohit Chopra – “Resurrection and Normalisation of Empire” – on the factors that govern, and at the same time, reflect the resurrection and normalisation of empire during the last decade.

During the last quarter of the 20th century, it had seemed that empire and imperialism had become things of the past and that these terms had ceased to have currency and legitimacy. But, from the beginning of the 21st century, there has undoubtedly been a “resurrection” of empire. In addition, there has also been a talk of “normalisation” of empire in the same breath which, in reality, amounts to elaboration of the United State’s selfperceptio n as the champion par excellence of democracy and human rights. This term completely ignores what “imperialism” meant to the colonised. It represents the meaning of imperialism mainly for the global North and the contention here is that the people of erstwhile colonies should not resign themselves to accepting this nomenclature.

End of Empires

By the 1970s, with the disintegration of empires of west European countries, some 100 sovereign states had emerged across the world. It seemed that the age of empires of visible sort involving direct territorial control, subordination of population and extraction of surplus to enrich the colonising nations, had come to an end. From the late 1970s, even the term imperialism was no longer considered a polite term and scholars, particularly in the west, began to use surrogate terms such as “hegemony”, “dominance”, “transnational inte rests”, etc. In the 1990s, after the disin tegration of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and the dissolution of the apartheid, empires seemed to have become a thing of the past. During the same period, critical and revisionist work appeared on empire, and under the banner of post-colonialism and postmodernism, colonial policies, attitudes and languages were subjected to critical scrutiny.

Resurrection of Imperialism

During last 10 years, there has been a rehabilitation of the idea and practices of empire and imperialism in the US and the rest of the west. The imperial impulse, which A A An-Na’im describes as “tendency to dominate and exploit others”, seems to have become stronger than ever before (An-Na’im 2011:50-59). The new notion of empire is not based on direct conquest, but stems from an assertion of the right of the hegemony to intervene in sovereign states. Neo-liberals have long been recommending economic, political and social intervention and imperial guidance in what they often describe as “failed states”. Globalisation has strengthened the reasons and will to intervene in the name of immigration, the danger of pandemics, poverty alleviation, etc. Since September 2001, to deal with terrorism, powerful states practice policing and surveillance, use drones and bombs, and exercise the “right” to invade and occupy as happened in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the recent pro-democracy movements in North Africa and west Asian countries, western countries led by the US used force in various ways and degrees to crush people’s movements in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria. There was little discussion in the media in the west about whether the US had god-given right to influence the outcome of events or whether the US intervention would promote democracy and human rights in this region. The aim was clearly to safeguard continued access to petroleum resources and/or to retain control over places that the US deems strategically important (EPW 2011, p 7).

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DISCUSSION

The attempts to assert power over the “less developed” world have led inevitably to “empire talk” in the media and academic journals in the west. The attempt at justifying hegemonic policies echo the attitudes and actions of the European rule during the 19th and 20th centuries. These include different versions of “whiteman’s burden”. Policies of western governments are presumed to be selfless, if not benign. On the other hand, there is a disconcerting silence in academic and public consciousness in the west about the violence of imperialism and colonialism. In fact, the will to empire has been placed beyond the reach of any critical examination in public and academic discourses. This has happened despite the intervention of postcolonial and postmodern theories and the formidable body of work on colonialism and empire in all social science disciplines. This legitimation of imperial policies and collective amnesia about empire and imperialism in the public at large is being described as “normalisation” of empire.

It is noteworthy that there is complete absence of any sustained public outrage at the use of torture by states that pride themselves in commitment to democratic values. Imperial indifference rests also on inscription of what has been described as “lessness” of some lives and bodies. To give one example from the age of imperialism, in 1899, after the famous Battle of Omdurman in Sudan, a British politician referred to the bodies of Dervish warriors as “dirty bits of newspapers” (Ferguson 2003: 269). Recently, in the very first speech after the operation that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden, the American president stated, “no Americans were harmed” as if American lives were more valuable than those of others. The fact that 6,00,000 citizens of Iraq had to die in the futile hunt for Osama was of no consequence for the Americans (Jackson 2011: 11).

The logics of normalising empire echo the attitudes and actions of European colonial administrations in the 19th and 20th centuries. A hundred years ago, west European countries controlled, outside their homelands, about a third of the area and population of the world. Of these maritime empires, Britons controlled, as they said with great pride, one-quarter of world’s population. But, as editors of the 1993 issue of History Workshop commented in the editorial, even in the 1990s, the British historians could produce the social, political and cultural histories of the last 300 years which more or less ignored the fact that Britain governed the largest empire the world had ever seen.

In this empire, India covered 97% of the Asiatic empire in terms of area, and in terms of population, in 1911, of every 100 persons in Britain and its empire (dependent and self-governing together), 10 lived in the UK, five lived in self-governing dominions, 12 in all other colonies put together, and 73 lived in the Indian empire alone (Davies and Huttonback 1986). Yet, it is interesting that politicians, officials, scribes and historians in Britain eschewed reference to India or the Indian empire, and instead, used phrases like “Asiatic empire”, “British interests”, “vital interests”, “imperial interests”, “Mediterranean interests”, etc, when they actually wanted to say “for the defence of India” or “for the defence of routes to the Indian empire”. To give one example, John Stuart Mill left India out of his autobiography though his life was intimately connected with India. He served at the India Office in London for 35 long years and even his father was the chief examiner of India Dispatches for decades and had written extremely influential History of British India. So this omission could not have been a result of an oversight or amnesia on his part. Even in the 20th century, the issue of defending the frontiers of India and the routes thereto has received little more than formal acknow ledgement at the hands of historians in the studies of British foreign policy.1

What could be the reasons for shunning references to the Indian empire? One reason seems to have been the earnest belief of the British that their control over the far-flung regions of the world promoted peace, justice and prosperity. But control over India did not fit into the world order they professed to establish. Since the time of Robert Clive and Warren Hastings in the second half of the 18th century, the India n empire was seen as an empire acquired by pursuit of self-interest, plunder and exercise of arbitrary power. As a result, British writers tended to leave out references to the Indian connection. J S Mill seems to have left India out because control over India did not fit into the picture he wished to project of a great mind being formed by the interaction with other great minds.

No Regrets

In the US and the rest of the west, there has been no feeling of regret or remorse for people subjected to violence at once physical, cultural, epistemic and economic.2 Margret Thatcher, the British Prime Minister in the 1980s, is reputed to have asked her fellow commonwealth prime ministers to reflect on how lucky they were to have been ruled by the British (Marshall 1996: 13). As Chopra argues, during the last decade, there has been an attempt at legitimation and normalisation of imperialism. The dictionary (Random House) meaning of “normalise” is, “to establish or resume (relations) in a normal manner, as between countries”. The concept of normalisation of empire and imperialism is consistent with the imperial mindset in the west that does not acknowledge the equal humanity of other peoples of the world. The logic of normalisation of empire in the present, to a significant extent, reflects the peculiarity of the current political situation and power equation. There is complete indifference in the imperial countries to the death of unaccounted billions and destruction that

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DISCUSSION

brutal conquests involved. Will this concept be acceptable to those who have e ndured colonisation? The colonised people cannot forget the horrendous loss of lives for those who were not ready to accept that whatever the empire wanted to impose on them was superior to whatever they could manage on their own. In the west, in fact, there is an attempt to relativise the violence, for example, by insisting that violence of the British e mpire was not of the same order as that of Stalinism.3

German effort is worth mentioning here. During the second world war for which Germany was held responsible, over 50 million persons died and some six million Jews were murdered. After the war, the Germans found it difficult to live with Nazi past. During the two decades following the death of Hitler, this war was described as “Hitler’s war” and historians tended to place responsibility for the horrendous events on Hitler’s shoulders. This line of argument suited the Germans because , the description of the war as a unique phenomenon, absolved them from responsibility for behaviour that was at once brutal and irrational. But from the late 1960s, Germany was held responsible for the sins of unleashing the two world wars and supporting the Nazis.4 In the 1980s, some conservative German historians tried to neutralise and sanitise the Nazi period by emphasising two aspects. First, they tended to emphasise aspects such as “normality” of everyday life. Second, they tended to relativise the crimes by alleging that others, such as Stalin’s regime in Russia and the Turks who massacred Armenians during the first world war, were even more barbaric. But this was followed by a very open and acrimonious debate in German newspapers and academic journals, which became known as Historikerstreit (historians’ fight) regarding the relationship of the Nazi past with the future of Germany.5 Ultimately, a sort of consensus emerged in Germany that Nazi past should be historicised, that apologetic tendencies in the writing of 20th century German history should be given up and that if the Germans wanted to fight for democratic values, then they must defend them against authoritarianism. Subsequently, the German government outlawed the display of Nazi symbols, including the Swastika, as also the denial of Holocaust.

Concluding Remarks

If humankind has ever to visualise a world where democracy is respected and human rights are honoured, then efforts should be directed not at legitimating atrocious attitudes and policies, but at making honest efforts to understand the rationale, or rather lack of it, of empire and imperialism in ways that make empire unimaginable and imperial ideology unsustainable. The phrase “normalisation of empire” has been coined in the west for consumption by the west and should be treated as such. It should not become universally palatable . Tales of hunting have glorified the hunter too long. Time has come to make imperialis t impulse unjustifiable in theory and untenable in practice. For a handshake, willing consent of the other person is essential.

Notes

1 For a discussion of this issue see Mahajan (2002), pp viii-xi.

2 For a recent study of economic impact of imperialis m on the colonised and the colonisers, see Mukherjee (2010), pp 73-81.

3 Chopra (2011) takes up this issue, p 45.

4 In 1961, Fritz Fischer, a German professor p ublished a book in German with the provocative

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title Grasping World Power in which he argued that Kaiser’s government not only took a conscious decision in favour of war in 1914, but that German socio-political structure was such that the German government at that time was likely to opt for war. This book created a furore in Germany. Its English translation was published six years later with a much diluted title. Fischer (1967).

5 Ian Kershaw is one of the leading experts on Hitler and Nazism in the English-speaking world. For debate on Hitler and Nazi period see Kershaw (1985).

References

A A An-Na’im (2011): “Taming the Imperial Impulse: Realising a Pragmatic Moral Vision”, Economic & Political Weekly, 26 March, XLVI/13.

Chopra, Rohit (2011); “Resurrection and Normalisation of Empire”, Economic & Political Weekly, 26 March, XLVI/13.

Davies, L E and R A Huttonback (1986): Mammon and the Pursuit of Empire: The Political Economy of British Imperialism, 1860-1912 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

EPW (2011): “The Imperial West Strikes”, Editorial, Economic & Political Weekly, 26 March.

Ferguson, Naill (2003): Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (London: Allen Lane).

Fischer, Fritz (1967): Germany’s Aims in the First World War (London: Chatto and Windus).

Jackson, Richard (2011): “The Death of Osama bin Laden”, The Hindu, Delhi, 6 May.

Kershaw, Ian (1985): The Nazi Dictatorship: Problems and Perspectives of Interpretation (The US: Bloomsbury).

Mahajan, Sneh (2002): British Foreign Policy: The Role of India, 1874-1914 (London and New York: Routledge).

Marshall, P J, ed. (1996): The Cambridge Illustrated History of the British Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Mill, John Stuart (1981): “Autobiography” in J M Robson and J Stillinger (ed.), Collected Works, Vol 1 (Toronto: Routledge and Kegan Paul).

Mukherjee, Aditya (2010): “Empire: How Colonial India Made Modern Britain”, Economic & Political Weekly, 11 December, 73.

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