Bringing Back the Old Days of Empire

The idea that the United States should cast itself in the image of the old colonial empires is sprouting like weeds from right-wing journals and think tanks.

One of its most avid exponents is, fittingly, a citizen of a former empire who has some advice on how the U.S. should run its empire. Scottish historian Niall Ferguson, who has written a new coffee-table book entitled Empire, approvingly quotes right-wing author Max Boot, who calls for “the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets.”

Just what did Britain’s “enlightened” colonialism entail? We can start with slavery.

In the 18th century, British merchants were the principle shippers of slaves in the world. British colonies in the West Indies brutally exploited slaves on sugar plantations on Jamaica, Trinidad and other islands. It is roughly estimated that 12 million Africans were brought to the “new world” as slaves. The reason the demand of slaves was insatiable is because the slaves were often simply worked to death.

The British slave colonies absorbed 1.6 million slaves in the 18th century. Conditions on the plantations were so horrible that by the time slavery was abolished there were only 600,000 slaves left. This “undisguised looting, enslavement and murder” (in Marx’s words) provided much of the “primitive accumulation” that fueled the industrial revolution.

In India, British conquest and plunder actually set society back–just as the slave trade set Africa back.

The colonizers deliberately destroyed India’s thriving (and superior) textile industry by imposing high tariffs on Indian manufactures. They imposed monopoly prices on goods, which drained India of its riches. “The monopolies of salt, opium, betel and other commodities,” writes Marx, “were inexhaustible mines of wealth.” The British overlords imposed taxes on the peasantry that netted millions of pounds. Farmers in Bengal and Bihar alone paid out 2 million pounds a year in taxes.

Nor was Britain averse to causing famines for profit. Between 1769 and 1770, writes Marx, “the English manufactured a famine by buying up all the rice and refusing to sell it again, except at fabulous prices.”

Marx called the robbery of India’s wealth “a bleeding process with a vengeance.” He wrote that “the bones of the cotton-weavers are bleaching the plains of India.” As the industrial revolution spread in Britain, India was de-urbanized and turned into a less-developed, poorer and more rural society. Whereas in 1810, 40 percent of Indians lived in towns, by 1900 only 10 percent did.

There was of course nothing enlightened about colonial rule. It was founded upon the notion that the colonizers were racially superior beings destined to rule over, and in some cases, simply wipe out, the “inferior” races.

This justified using the utmost brutality to gain control of profitable raw materials and cheap labor. In Africa, British forces armed with machine guns massacred 10,000 Sudanese in the inappropriately named Battle of Omdurman in 1898–at a cost of only 48 British.

It is true that the British introduced capitalist social relations into India and other parts of its empire. But this would have taken place without conquest as a result of the spread of the capitalist world market, and perhaps had a far less distorting effect. As Vijay Prashad points out in a recent ZNet article, the British built the railroad system in India “to remove raw materials to the coast, ship troops to troubled areas and return finished products to the markets.”

In the end, the greatest “benefit” British imperialism brought to its colonies was the creation of mass movements destined to toss them out. “The Indians will not reap the fruits of the new elements of society scattered among them by the British bourgeoisie,” wrote Marx, “till in Great Britain itself the now ruling classes shall have been supplanted by the industrial proletariat, or till the Hindus themselves shall have grown strong enough to throw off the English yoke altogether.”

PAUL D’AMATO writes for the Socialist Worker.


More articles by:

December 17, 2018
Susan Abulhawa
Marc Lamont Hill’s Detractors are the True Anti-Semites
Jake Palmer
Viktor Orban, Trump and the Populist Battle Over Public Space
Martha Rosenberg
Big Pharma Fights Proposal to Keep It From Looting Medicare
David Rosen
December 17th: International Day to End Violence against Sex Workers
Binoy Kampmark
The Case that Dare Not Speak Its Name: the Conviction of Cardinal Pell
Dave Lindorff
Making Trump and Other Climate Criminals Pay
Bill Martin
Seeing Yellow
Julian Vigo
The World Google Controls and Surveillance Capitalism
What is Neoliberalism?
James Haught
Evangelicals Vote, “Nones” Falter
Martin Billheimer
Late Year’s Hits for the Hanging Sock
Weekend Edition
December 14, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
A Tale of Two Cities
Peter Linebaugh
The Significance of The Common Wind
Bruce E. Levine
The Ketamine Chorus: NYT Trumpets New Anti-Suicide Drug
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Fathers and Sons, Bushes and Bin Ladens
Kathy Deacon
Coffee, Social Stratification and the Retail Sector in a Small Maritime Village
Nick Pemberton
Praise For America’s Second Leading Intellectual
Robert Hunziker
The Yellow Vest Insurgency – What’s Next?
Patrick Cockburn
The Yemeni Dead: Six Times Higher Than Previously Reported
Nick Alexandrov
George H. W. Bush: Another Eulogy
Brian Cloughley
Principles and Morality Versus Cash and Profit? No Contest
Michael F. Duggan
Climate Change and the Limits of Reason
Victor Grossman
Sighs of Relief in Germany
Ron Jacobs
A Propagandist of Privatization
Robert Fantina
What Does Beto Have Against the Palestinians?
Richard Falk – Daniel Falcone
Sartre, Said, Chomsky and the Meaning of the Public Intellectual
Andrew Glikson
Crimes Against the Earth
Robert Fisk
The Parasitic Relationship Between Power and the American Media
Stephen Cooper
When Will Journalism Grapple With the Ethics of Interviewing Mentally Ill Arrestees?
Jill Richardson
A War on Science, Morals and Law
Ron Jacobs
A Propagandist of Privatization
Evaggelos Vallianatos
It’s Not Easy Being Greek
Nomi Prins 
The Inequality Gap on a Planet Growing More Extreme
John W. Whitehead
Know Your Rights or You Will Lose Them
David Swanson
The Abolition of War Requires New Thoughts, Words, and Actions
J.P. Linstroth
Primates Are Us
Bill Willers
The War Against Cash
Jonah Raskin
Doris Lessing: What’s There to Celebrate?
Ralph Nader
Are the New Congressional Progressives Real? Use These Yardsticks to Find Out
Binoy Kampmark
William Blum: Anti-Imperial Advocate
Medea Benjamin – Alice Slater
Green New Deal Advocates Should Address Militarism
John Feffer
Review: Season 2 of Trump Presidency
Rich Whitney
General Motors’ Factories Should Not Be Closed. They Should Be Turned Over to the Workers
Christopher Brauchli
Deported for Christmas
Kerri Kennedy
This Holiday Season, I’m Standing With Migrants