The Early Days of a Better Nation

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

38 years of unintended consequences

In 1973 an Afghan politician called Daoud overthrew his cousin, the king, and proclaimed a republic. In this he had the help of the moderate faction of Afghanistan's communist party, the PDPA, led by Babrak Karmal. The PDPA's base was the large part of Afghanistan's small technical intelligentsia that had been to university in the Soviet Union and seen the future in the bright lights of Tashkent. Under the republic the party reunited and grew somewhat stronger. President Daoud decided in late April 1978 to crush it. Unfortunately for him, the PDPA had enough cadres in the army's officer corps to improvise a coup, and it was Daoud who got crushed. The coup was welcomed by joyous crowds in Kabul, making it the Saur (Spring) Revolution. The revolutionaries set out to reform Afghanistan's feudal countryside, but managed to alienate the peasants, to say nothing of the landlords and mullahs. Faced with increasingly violent opposition, the revolutionaries split along old factional lines between moderates and radicals. The president, Taraki, gave the moderate leader, Karmal, the job of ambassador to Czecheslovakia. Taraki then flew to Moscow, consulted with Brezhnev, and returned with the intention of dealing with the radical leader, Amin. Amin shot Taraki first, and pressed on in the teeth of an escalating insurgency, appealing all the while for Soviet military aid. The US, seeing opportunity, began arming the Afghan counter-revolutionaries. In December 1979 the Soviet Union answered Amin's appeals for aid by moving in troops to stabilise the situation, killing Amin, and installing Karmal.

The US, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia then massively stepped up their aid to the counter-revolutionaries, and organised the flow of thousands of Muslim militants to Afghanistan. One of these militants was a young civil engineer called Osama Bin Laden. One of his former colleagues said Osama was popular with the mujahadin because of his money and his construction skills, adding almost as an afterthought: 'And of course his pleasant personality!'

The cascade of unintended consequences just keeps rolling along. There seems no reason to think it will now stop.

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For all James Michener is so popular in the US, no-one ever mentions his novel Caravans. Written in the early 60s, set in post-WW2 Afghanistan, it's remarkable prescient, and links the Flashman / Raj view to the mess of the 70s. Every American should have been made to read it at least 20 years ago.

I'll check that out (i.e. I'll buy it if I see it in a charity shop).

What strikes me looking back at the fate of the Afghan revolution is that it none of the 'laws of social revolution' detailed in the manuals of historical materialism seem to include the useful tips about revolutions you can find in Hume, Macaulay, and Machiavelli.

Reading these might at least have stopped Taraki giving his rival a job in Prague, which had a certain reputation as a place where the KGB did business.

Just like a lot of other things wrong in the world today, this has it's roots in the ill-advised dismantling of the British Empire.

The British empire which never actually managed to conquer Afghanistan in the first place? (and which, by the way, was a criminal enterprise that left behind huge stockpiles of toxic political waste every where it went, from Ireland to Africa, to the Indian subcontinent, and even as far afield as Aotearoa).

this has it's roots in the ill-advised dismantling of the British Empire

I definitely blame the ill-advised dismantling of the British Empire for the prevalence of the grocer's apostrophe.

To be generous to Anon, he may mean that the Empire wasn't dismantled very competently, not that its dismantling was a bad idea in the first place. And he'd be right (Partition, for one).

And I suppose you could even make the case that Partition was at the root of Pakistani support for the Taliban, because they wanted strategic depth if the Indians invaded, and wanted to undermine the (slightly) pro-Indian Kabul government.

I get something of what Anon means, as well. The British Empire was a very transitional phenomenon, at any rate, and would still have been even without the world wars to hurry along its dissolution. Remember that socialism and the welfare state in all its forms (kibbutzim, Fabian socialism, British and Australian Labour, Tommy Douglas and the CCF in Canada) was popular in all it's fragments and successor states. Even Marx saw the British Raj playing the main role in breaking down 'oriental despotism' in India and encouraging modernization (all driven by the desire for profit of British capitalists, not philanthropy). Without the Partition, with the death and hatred it engendered, a powerful "Fabian" India linked to other states in a "left" Commonwealth could have been a powerful force for progress in Asia. (Orwell speculates on this in "the Lion and the Unicorn") The Russian Empire was a "criminal enterprise" as well, a prison house of nations yoked together to serve the Czarist ruling class and foreign capitalists. And yet, one proletarian revolution later, it lead to the Soviet Union. On some level every empire (and many nations) grew out of "criminal enterprises". You've got to work with what you have
Besides, ever read CLR James on cricket? How can you say there was no redeeming feature in the British Empire?

Dammne, there's that grocer's apostrophe again. Apologies and contrition to all, especially Ken

I was listening to a National Public Radio report yesterday about OBL's roots in Saudi, in Afghanistan, and in the Sudan, and I immediately thought, 'ah, the British Empire and its awesome impacts!'
But APART from the first world war, Appeasement, the Black and Tans, the Palestinian Problem, the divisions in Iraq and Osama Bin Laden, what has the British Empire ever done for us?

Well, Saudi and Afghanistan were never part of the British Empire, but one out of three ain't bad.

But APART from the first world war, Appeasement, the Black and Tans, the Palestinian Problem, the divisions in Iraq and Osama Bin Laden, what has the British Empire ever done for us?

Saved the world?

Without the Partition, with the death and hatred it engendered, a powerful "Fabian" India linked to other states in a "left" Commonwealth could have been a powerful force for progress in Asia. (Orwell speculates on this in "the Lion and the Unicorn")

I have a very interesting Left Book Club book about this issue, called "Empire in Africa" and published in about 1944. Even though the spectre of the awful Tanganyika Groundnut Scheme hovers around its every page, it's still thought-provoking to see the left-wing blueprint for slow and orderly decolonisation.

While I'd never go so far as Bernard Shaw with the idea that empire is always good as long as it's socialist, I agree that the work of deconstruction could have been handled much better, which would have resulted in better outcomes all round.
I understood that the Sudan actually was ruled by Britain under a facade of a joint "Anglo-Egyptian Condominium". The main legacy of that seems to have been the University of Khartoum. A dastardly plot by effete, monocoled imperialist lackeys, no doubt!
Thanks for reminding me about the Tanganyka Groundnuts Scheme. I thought that the whole thing was a Monty Pythonesque parody when I first read about it

In addition to the University of Khartoum, the Brits left other gifts behind them in Sudan.

One of these related to the policy of deliberately blocking access to education by Southern Sudanese.

This meant that after Sudanese independence in 1956 there would be a dearth of educated southerners who could represent their region in the new state (see D.H. Johnson's The Root Causes of Sudan's Civil Wars). This was a major factor in producing the decades of conflict that follow.

Another great victory for the Empire.

Ok, I'm a dumb yank from the midwest, but I don't get the reference to the "grocer's apostrophe."


The grocers' apostrophe, also known as the greengrocers' apostrophe, is defined by WordSpy as "An apostrophe erroneously inserted before the final 's' in the plural form of a word. Also: greengrocer's apostrophe."

genes out of the bottle.

Ajay - I absolutely take your point that Saudi and Afghanistan were not in the British Empire but I think British imperial activities in 19th century Afghanistan included at least three disruptive wars and their resultant bitterness and splitting up the tribal areas that now include so many of the places that supplied the footsoldiers of AQ. The British role in the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the time of WW1 certainly facilitated the creation of the modern state of Saudi Arabia. It was a flippant remark, granted, but I'd still stand by its general spirit.

"Another great victory for the Empire"

Oh, don't misunderstand me, I could think of any number of misdeeds of the Empire off the top: from the Irish famine to the multiple famines in Bengal under the Raj. Treaty manipulation and residential school atrocities against the First Nations in Canada. Extermination of the Tasmanians. Opium Wars in China...the list goes on and on.
Marx's point in his article on India still stands, to my mind. Britain, in the name of the greed of its capitalists, unwittingly broke down the feudal village system that perpetuated despotism and tyranny and opened a road for India's future development. Here's a link to Marx's article (don't worry; no Das Kapital type density here. He's writing a feature article and think piece)

Human beings will always suffer being caught in the workings of the machine. Doesn't make the Empire's various brutalities better; neither does it excuse the imperialists.
The workings of the dialectic in history are brutal, however, and more complex than many of us would like to think. There were atrocities in the Boer War as well, the British devoloped the concept of the concentration camp and applied it to Afrikaaner women and children. Many Liberals in Britain and Europe protested against these atrocities, the bullying by a brutal empire of a small, backward people to gain control over oil...sorry, gold and diamonds. There were demonstrations and clashes with imperialists and jingos in the streets of London.
These same Afrikaaners took control of the Union of South Africa a generation later, and instituted apartheid.

If memory serves, the National Party instituted apartheid on the foundations of patterns of racial segregation and exploitation already established when the English ran Sath Efrica.

Apartheid didn't emerge ex nihilo in 1948, you know.

...and the British/Westminster derived parliamentary system of South Africa helped ensure a smooth transition to Mandela's presidency and ANC rule. Or did I miss the bloody uprising and revolution that resulted in the Peoples' Democratic Socialist Workers' Republic of Azania?

Feck's sake. You people still want to believe that you were the good guys don't you? Which means you have to ignore all the many ways in which your empire provided the 'proof of concept' for racism, exploitation and yes, even genocide.

Take up the White Man's burden--
Send forth the best ye breed--
Go, bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives' need;
To wait, in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild--
Your new-caught sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child.

Take up the White Man's burden--
In patience to abide,
To veil the threat of terror
And check the show of pride;
By open speech and simple,
An hundred times made plain,
To seek another's profit
And work another's gain.

Take up the White Man's burden--
The savage wars of peace--
Fill full the mouth of Famine,
And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
(The end for others sought)
Watch sloth and heathen folly
Bring all your hope to nought.

Take up the White Man's burden--
No iron rule of kings,
But toil of serf and sweeper--
The tale of common things.
The ports ye shall not enter,
The roads ye shall not tread,
Go, make them with your living
And mark them with your dead.

Take up the White Man's burden,
And reap his old reward--
The blame of those ye better
The hate of those ye guard--
The cry of hosts ye humour
(Ah, slowly!) toward the light:--
"Why brought ye us from bondage,
Our loved Egyptian night?"

Take up the White Man's burden--
Ye dare not stoop to less--
Nor call too loud on Freedom
To cloak your weariness.
By all ye will or whisper,
By all ye leave or do,
The silent sullen peoples
Shall weigh your God and you.

Take up the White Man's burden!
Have done with childish days--
The lightly-proffered laurel,
The easy ungrudged praise:
Comes now, to search your manhood
Through all the thankless years,
Cold, edged with dear-bought wisdom,
The judgment of your peers.

Thank the Lord that we have got,
The Gatling gun,
And they have not.

Or, perhaps to put it another way, Amin was the leader of the most progressive or revolutionary wing of the PDPA - albeit a revolutionism that, quite mistakenly of course, looked to the Soviet Union for its model or inspiration:

If memory serves, the National Party instituted apartheid on the foundations of patterns of racial segregation and exploitation already established when the English ran Sath Efrica.

Memory doesn't serve. Sorry.

And the Kipling one reminds me of the response, The Brown Man's Burden, which needs to be better known:

Pile on the brown man's burden,
compel him to be free;
Let all your manifestoes
Reek with philanthropy.
And if with heathen folly
He dares your will dispute,
Then, in the name of freedom,
Don't hesitate to shoot.

DJP O'Kane, who do you claim as your people? If it is the Irish then think how many have benefited from the gift of the English Language to the Irish Writer. If the English had not invaded then Irish writers would be as famous as Icelandic ones.

Can you tell me which empires you admire for their perfect record of decency and good behaviour? Or even any empire that had a better record than the British?

I could take a thousand examples of the little kindnesses of our Great British Empire but where would Marx have studied and written if the British Library Reading Room had not existed?

We outlawed suttee in 1829 and it is now almost never done.

To the merry band of jingoists who have been commenting here. I am disgusted when fellow Americans pretend to be the aw shucks benefactors of World Democracy, but these days even we don't generally go around saying Native Americans have roads and schools now because of the white man; so really they should be thankful we happened by.

To give an historical comparison, Pat and Ajay, the Roman Empire was pretty damn brutal in its foundation, but it eventually gave full universal CITIZENSHIP to almost all its surviving victims, not to mention the blue print for a civilization that arguably still exists today in places the Roman never heard of, much less administered. The Empire swallowed the conquerors and created an entire reshaped world in their place. In comparison, the British Empire was a summer holiday in the tropics. Are you taking credit for civilizing China? India? Egypt? We gave the Japanese baseball and they seem to like it, but I would not say we brought them into the twentieth century or turned them into a democracy. They did that themselves. If the British are responsible for all the wonderful fruits of their Empire, then you should take credit for the mess in Africa and the daily horrors women are subjected to on the Subcontinent. Personally, I give you credit for neither the good nor the bad. You exploited people to the extent it served your base interests, even your charity was fit to your vanity and self importance, when it was not just another tool of governance. They adapted any good ideas you had lying around (the way any sensible people would) and eventually they kicked you out with the sweat of their own labor. And now they have moved on with their lives, good, bad and downright ugly as they may be, changed by their brief association with you, but not nearly as much as you seem to think.

I do admire 19th century Britain's sustained effort to end the slave trade, but every empire, including ours, has had a few good projects. (A malicious person might say here that we saved the people who saved the world.) It does not mean that self interest is not the main spring of any imperial enterprise.

PrivateIron: a little thought might have let you to conclude that someone who posts an excerpt from "The Brown Man's Burden" is unlikely to be an unabashed and ignorant jingoist. But then someone who compares the British Empire unfavourably to ancient Rome probably isn't going to go to that sort of trouble.

I was reading Michener's (note proper use of apostrophe) 35 years ago, during my lunch break. I was a labourer in an engineering factory at the time. I put the book down briefly, and came back to find it gone. At the time, I suspect an Irishman of the theft (well they were blowing things up left-right-and-centre. Anyroad up,there was a better novel hatching, about the noble Afghan:

I should have added (above) that the author of Kara Kush, Idries Shah,was born to an Scotswoman from an Afghan father.

"You people still like to believe that you're the good guys, don't you?"
D. J. P. O'Kane, who is this "you people" you refer to? Sorry to disappoint you, boyo, but I do not lounge about in a white tropical suit, being fanned with a punka by my bearers, drinking gin and tonics and looking forward to an afternoon of buggery with my doe-eyed native lover, Abdul. Alas, I lift heavy objects for a living and lack Anglo-Saxon ancestry.

Maybe there's a lack of reading comprehension somewhere, but I seem to remember going out of my way to point up the misdeeds, atrocities, injustices and evil of the British Empire on multiple occasions in this thread. using your own smear technique, I could say that any criticism of the British rule in Ireland would be romanticizing a backward feudal past, and using Marxism as a cover for bigoted tribalism. Erin go Bragh, Comrade!
I understood a Marxist needed to be objective, to be able to observe and understand the working of the dialectic in history. One would be able to see how Eric Blair's experience as an Imperial enforcer inadvertently lead to his democratic socialism, or how Anglican colleges founded in India and Ceylon by patrician churchmen unforeseeably lead to generations of Marxist graduates (the history of the Tamil cadre is instructive). ajay above mentioned Marx in the British Museum reading room. Marx thought highly of Ricardo and Adam Smith. What about Darwin? Were they all Norwegian? Where did the industrial revolution first happen? Bulgaria?
For better or worse, Britain and its extensions were the matrix of the First Singularity, the industrial revolution. The road everyone has to take in order to escape the idiocy of rural life, reach a proletarian and communism. Whether it offends your pure and noble sensibilities or not.

Sorry, that would be "the idiocy of rural life, reach a proletarian revolution, and Communism"


Please understand that I mean the following criticism in the best spirit, as someone fascinated by the Roman Empire for as long as I can remember, and who has read anything I could get my hands on about it.
Dude, seriously?
The Roman Empire was the great monolithic structure that crushed any possibility of progress or industrial takeoff in the ancient world. It represented the "ruin of the contending classes" that Marx and Engels spoke of in the Manifesto, a servile state, the closest thing to Jack London's Iron Heel that ever existed in western history, and ultimately to collapse and the Dark Ages.
The mass market in slavery it codified and protected killed of any impulse towered technological development. Heron of Alexandria invented a steam turbine as a toy, so the ancients were aware of at least the possibility of steam being able to do work. No steam engine because, after all, why waste time and money on developing machinery when slaves were cheap? A story about the Emperor Tiberias says that someone came to him with a drinking vessel made from "flexible glass" that would never shatter. After making sure no one else knew the secret of making it, the emperor had the glassmaker executed so as to not disrupt the economy!
During the crisis of the third century the Emperor Diocletian felt that price controls and large scale interventions in the economy were necessary to control inflation. He ended up creating a truly comprehensive proto-fascist state. For example, everyone had to follow the profession of his father, by law. This lead to later serfdom, glebae adscriptii, peasants tied to the land on the great estates. Also lead to the branding of formerly freeborn government employees at the mint to keep them from running away.
Citizenship was kept a jealously guarded privilege, limited to the upper classes in order to tie them closely to Rome, as long as it held any value at all. It was extended to the whole free population of the empire only at the time of Septimus Severus, when it meant only an obligation to pay onerous taxes.
Not quite true to imply the lack of racism in the Romans. They tended to be quite bigoted against the northern barbarian, big blond types (for obvious reasons, I suppose) To this day there's a superstition among Greeks that the evil eye can be turned away by carrying blue glass beads shaped like a blue eye. The belief is that blue-eyed people are especially prone to giving someone "the evil eye" (Roman historian Michael Grant states that this reflects the servile status of Germanic slaves in Rome and Constantinople, and the contempt and fear directed at them.)

To clarify, when I said we saved the people who saved the world, I was of course referring to our glorious refueling of the Red Army, not to mention the numerous incentives we gave the Chinese to seek the Marxist alternative. Reverse psychology, see.

And the British Empire? Seriously. The Enlightenment happened all over the place. A world overrun with the Dutch and Portugese wouldn't be any better or worse than an Anglo/French one.

"And the British Empire? Seriously. The Enlightenment happened all over the place. A world overrun with the Dutch and Portugese wouldn't be any better or worse than an Anglo/French one."

I beg to differ.

"Marxism grew up out of Western philosophy, building on the achievements of Classical German Philosophy, French Socialism and British Political Economy, just as the socialist movement has grown up out of capitalist social relations – the worldwide division of labour, powerful productive forces, science and the modern proletariat."

I was reading Michener's (note proper use of apostrophe)
Probably better to say "I was reading Michener" and forget the apostrophe entirely.

Hi Ken - enjoyed the Fall Revolution series!
I think unintended consequences are an important thing for radicals to get their heads around. They can be counterposed to functionalism (the system operates behind the back of actors to maintain itself) or conspiracy in a broad sense, which seems to impute motives to the ruling class or whoever, for which one might not really have enough evidence; this might be analogous to a tendency in evolutionary theory to say "this adaptation is for ..." (see Fodor and Gould?)
Unintended Consequences, cock-up theory, and real-time decisions within complex control systems - these considerations are important to modelling what goes wrong.
Which is not to say that fuctionalism is totally wrong, or that there are no conspiracies;)
Once again, thanks for your novels.

And Anonymous - credit a poem unless you wrote it. Kipling, I believe.

"The White Man's Burden" is Kipling, of course.
"The Brown Man's Burden" is Henry Labouchère.
The following lines were misquoted above:

Whatever happens we have got
The Maxim Gun, and they have not.

That's from "The Modern Traveller" by Hillaire Belloc.

Hi Ken- O/T have you seen Dawkins' latest?:

Very disturbing for those of us who've always admired his work.

Jimmy Levendia: "Britain, in the name of the greed of its capitalists, unwittingly broke down the feudal village system that perpetuated despotism and tyranny and opened a road for India's future development."

"For better or worse, Britain and its extensions were the matrix of the First Singularity, the industrial revolution. The road everyone has to take in order to escape the idiocy of rural life, reach a proletarian and communism. Whether it offends your pure and noble sensibilities or not."

Right, because India has just been galloping down the road to development and eventual communism ever since! Why, it's almost exactly like the legacy of British imperialism has been progress and increasing social mobilization of the working class all across the globe. It's why India, after fifty plus years of independence, has such a well-developed productive sector and high levels of education--practically no rural agrarians there! Poor China, bereft of Britain's direct influence and stuck in a backwater of "oriental despotism". And Japan! Never colonized at all! No wonder they're so underdeveloped--still an isolated rice-growing agrarian island after all these years.

Imperialism was a way for capitalists to exploit and reinforce existing institutions of feudal despotism for surplus value--imperialists regularly and eagerly reinscribed the most despotic and retrogressive social practices to stratify and immobilize colonial societies, and invented new means of doing so at every opportunity. See the anti-urban policies of colonial holdings in Africa, the exacerbation of ethnic conflict and segregation all over, the deliberate avoidance of manufacture in the colonies, the production of serf-based plantations all over India and Sri Lanka: imperialism left a legacy of despotism the Moguls could only have dreamed of.

So, according to Dylan Brady, unless there's a magic method that instantaneously kicks a society directly from feudalism and oriental despotism to interplanetary travel, flying cars, gene therapy, and the classless society of pure communism, it's better that the society not progress at all? Nicely done! I'm sure you'd be the first to be preaching to the peasants that they should have faith, there'll be pie in the sky, bye and bye. They and their great, great, great grandchildren will be a long time waiting for anything else.
Maybe it's a good thing that the Japanese didn't share your righteous radical purity. They certainly didn't disdain to learn industrial techniques and methods from Britain and the West.
I must concede your point about China. After all, it was the Empire of China, under the benevolent rule of the Manchu Emperor and the Confucian bureaucracy that industrialized the country...oh wait, that's not right. There might have been a teeny tiny western influence in there somewhere. I'll figure out where, it'll come to me in time.
Why is the concept of unintended consequences such a goddamn hard one for some radicals to grasp? I mean, they seem to get it in the concept of "blowback" in the present "War on Terra": US covertly funds Islamic terrorists against Soviet bloc regimes. After Soviet collapse, now trained, connected, well-financed and heavily armed Islamic terrorists turn on their erstwhile patrons.
Point out to them that the same colleges the imperialists founded in the Subcontinent to turn out native graduate cadre to shore up their empire ended up graduating Marxists and Nationalists that ended up tearing it down. (!!!!!Unintended Consequences!!!!!) Then all of a sudden you're an imperialist! Danger! Crimethink!
The European empires shared their exploitative character, repression and violence with every other bloody empire in human history. But I'm absolutely sure that every non European kingdom and empire was a utopian paradise on earth before the Blue Meanies...sorry, the British/Europeans came.
You know what Dylan Brady? If your simple Manichean worldview helps you feel righteous, if this is the particular opium you require to get through the day then you don that Che (tm) shirt and that cute red-starred beret, do the Commie fist-pump and Fight The Power, Maaaaan! That matters more than understanding how some of those who were exploited by the British and other empires ended up making use of the tools, techniques and infrastructure of the conquerors, and turned them against the exploiters.

Jimmy Levendia: Hmm, I'm not sure that even counts as straw. A cloud-man argument, perhaps? All that is solid does melt into air, I suppose.

At any rate, if we're going to be throwing around terms like “Manichean,” let's discuss the simplistic view of Progress-with-a-great-large-capital-P you're throwing about, as if there's only the one kind and it's all got the same effect. If one were to employ a more nuanced, a more, oh, what's the word? Ah yes: dialectical analysis of the concept one would almost certainly conclude that it's a great tangle of contradictory impulses, both revolutionary and counter-revolutionary. Then one might think to wonder: which bits of “Progress” was it that imperialism was busy spreading across the globe? Having thought to ask, the answer is then I would hope crushingly obvious: it was the counter-revolutionary bits that were exported wholesale, while the revolutionary bits snuck out in bits and pieces. You're very proud of the “native cadre” British imperialism produced, but you fail to mention that for every marxist that emerged from the colonial education system a couple dozen well-trained colonial elites emerged as well, fully versed in all the latest counter-revolutionary techniques of discipline and control. Ever heard of the Berkeley Mafia? Whether in the name of the Empire or of their own pocketbook doesn't matter: colonialism was never more than a mask capital wore.

If imperialism were really the tough love you're arguing it is, the hard boot to jumpstart the oriental behind, then wouldn't the most heavily colonized areas be the most rapidly modernizing? And yet almost the opposite relationship holds. The reason why Japan modernized so quickly is precisely because they weren't doing it under a colonial relation: they were actually able to import the technologies, mechanical and social, that lead to something like the version of progress you treasure so.* (And then, of course, they turned around and started colonizing everything they could get their hands on. So it goes.) Imperialism did promise its colonies progress and flying cars, and look, their great, great grandchildren are still waiting around. That's because imperialism didn't export capitalism or progress, it exported the shit-end of the capitalist stick. A partial modernity. It no more set the colonies on the road to development than the export of tractors and combine harvesters set the Midwest on the road to becoming a manufacturing powerhouse. It just better equipped them to serve their subaltern role.

(And my Requisite Communist T-shirt ™ is Maoist, but good guess!)

* And industrialization in Japan was incredibly brutal: there's no easy road between agrarianism and industrialism. But at the end of that brutality, they had some infrastructure—under the colonial relation it's just brutality followed by more brutality.

A comments thread about the British Empire was certainly an unintended consequence of this post.

My darker thoughts on the topic of empire, revolution and progress here.

I happened to run into a copy of Mitchner's Caravans just a few months ago, and heartily second the recommendations.

I remember hearing the first news report that the Russians had invaded Afghanistan and saying, "How nice taht the Russians have their own Viet Nam, but oh God, those poor people!"

Dylan Brady, it is sand-poundingly surreal when a Maoist, of all people, lectures me on my "simplistic view of Progress-with-a-great-big-capital-P". Wasn't it the Great Helmsman himself, he of the Great Leap Forward, that demanded a blast furnace in every household's back yard? Wasn't it Mao who hoped to harness China’s enormous man-power to “surpass England and catch up to the United States” in economic development and living standards within 15 years by the end if the Second Five Year Plan? Sweet Zombie Jesus, Mao's optimism made the most optimistically Whiggish of Victorians look like angsty mascaraed Goth teens! Whatever Mao's failings, the man wasn't nuanced when it came to the belief that industrializing China was an absolute necessity. To make a Fall Revolution reference, he wasn't a Green Slime.
Even though I'm apparently a deviationist and a capitalist roader, In the spirit of comradely reconciliation (and the truth, because you made a good point) I'll gladly concede that Japan's (and the PRC's) way of handling industrialization is much preferable to being the anvil of any empire's hammer. I remember reading a short story by Olaf Stapledon, East is West, which is an alternate history where the industrial revolution happened in East Asia, where Japan and various parts of China that ended up as nation-states carved out empires worldwide to capture captive markets. It being written in the thirties, Britain is the Japan analogue, adopting elements of Asian modernization in order to prevent itself being colonized. A result is the Britan-analog's Shinto-like aggressive nationalism and state/king worship, as well as it's intention to defy the East Asian empires (and a North American federation of former Japanese colonies on the verge of superpower status) by carving out an empire for itself in a decaying Europe spanning Holy Roman Empire. (China analog)
The dark thought that I have a hard time dismissing is an idea I've read before, that Empire is the default position in human political arrangements. City-states, nation-states and the rest are just temporary transitional forms on the continuum between the two states of tribalism and empire. If this was true, then you'd either have an empire of your own, or be part of someone else's. Not I thought I like, and I'm always open to data disproving that idea :)
Ken, at the risk of sounding like a fan boy (love all your books, all your work) it's entries like the one you linked to that keeps me riveted to your blog! There's a monumental example of unintended consequences right there, monotheistic religion unwittingly creating conditions for Liberalism and Socialism...a dark thought indeed. You even throw in the Roman Empire! (slow clap) Well played, sir!

Oh, and by the way Dylan Brady, thanks: "subaltern intellectuals" was the phrase I was looking for when casting about unsuccessfully to describe the local colonial accomplice sub-elites. My memory was uncooperative.
What a drag it is getting old.

Jimmy Levendia - It's the shirt that's Maoist, not my brain. (What can I say, I have a weakness for CCP propaganda prints.) Mao's views of progress were simplistic to the extreme; among other things, he apparently believed that one could industrialize through sheer strength of will, knowledge be damned.

I'm not making the point that self-led industrialization is preferable to colonization; I'm making the point that industrialization is actually related in some real way to progress, whereas (agressively anti-industrial) colonization is pretty much the opposite of progress, the retrenching of a more efficient despotism. But I'll take what I can get.

That Stapledon story parallels a though experiment I've often played with--I'll have to see if I can find it. You don't recall the title, do you?

I don't have dark thoughts so much about resurgent empire as I do about the reemergence of aristocracy, by which I mean a class able to concentrate all surplus value into a luxury consumption fund. Spending all of society's spare labor natting increasingly elaborate lace ruffs, but with Prada bags and personal trainers: it's a future that seems more likely every day.

The Stapledon story actually IS called "East is West"., as well as an HTML version or two floating around the net. A fun story; I like the "Asian" version of modernity he imagines. Stapledon wasn't exactly an orthodox Marxist, but Marxist he was: I suppose others may have seen it earlier, but I didn't realize it until encountering some of his nonfiction.
I've got a sneaking admiration for the Great Helmsman as well. I have a weakness for High Modernism, the whole idea of big time progress: lots of hydroelectric dams, nuclear reactors, industrial cities, etc. leading to "The Radiant Future. I saw an old time Soviet propaganda cut-away diagram of an intended project: a gigantic, atomic powered airship. Before my sane mind kicked in with "ohmygod this thing coulda happened is the human race insane?!?!?!" I briefly thought how this was the coolest thing I'd ever seen:
Scroll down to the airship. The rest of the post is cool yet insane as well: nuclear everything, indeed.
Dylan Brady, you'd probably appreciate this. I just read an article by Amartya Sen about how India unfavorably compares to China by almost every metric:
The problem with a somewhat open mind: too prone to reeducation:)

Dylan: It's the shirt that's Maoist, not my brain.

I think we can tell. Your brain seems to be working fine.

It's not that there aren't intelligent Maoists, but Mao-think does mangle their minds something terrible.

Jimmy: I suppose you could get away with that title for that sort of story in the 1930s. Thanks for the link.

And thanks for the vote of confidence, Ken.

Dylan Brady: Yes, I see what you mean. I suppose even a writer like Stapledon, who truly took the cosmic view of human societies and civilizations, would unconsciously have a small blind spot or two as a product of his place and time.
I wonder if titled it like that because he thought of the story as more of a satire than anything else. I'm sure people in 1930's Britain and America were quite comfortable in condemning Japanese imperialism while considering their own empires humanitarian enterprises. A story like this would shock British and American readers by putting the conditions that lead to Japanese imperialism, the "inferiority complex" (is that the right term? Damn memory) of the Japanese ruling class, and the nationalist, emperor worshipping Shinto state in an "English speaking", culturally recognizable context.
Now that I think of it, didn't an attitude like this actually exist at one time in Elizabethan England? At that time England saw itself as a plucky underdog, a small isolated power, holding out against a Europe-spanning (and Indies-spanning) military-religious complex comprising the Spanish-Hapsburg Empire and the Roman Catholic Church.
This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,--
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.

This justified the drive to establish plantations and colonies, as a similar attitude justified the establishment of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. There's even a parallel to the emperor worship in the adoration and worship of Elizabeth "The Virgin Queen", in Spenser's poetry and elsewhere (Michael Moorcock's "Gloriana" is a kind of surreal pastice of this attitude).

Hello All,

I am sort of late to the party as I've not been keeping tabs on blogs lately.


Yes... unintended consequences. People forget that the only person to adequately conquer Afghanistan was Alexander the Great (though the Mongols did a fair old job on their way to India). The same could be said for Vietnam where the medieval Chinese decided it was more trouble than it was worth to conquer...

People who don't read history are doomed to repeat it (so they say).

The actual reason I decided to leave a comment is because I believe you might be interested in a series of essays that Adam Curtis left on his blog. I am big fan of his and I enjoying his current series on BBC2 (even if I don't think it's as good as his other work).

Have a look at these:

And then there's Kinshasa

Now you may not agree with his conclusions but I find him interesting, informative and thought provoking.

As a lefty I hope you're already familiar with his series "The Power of Nightmares"!

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