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The Civilizing Mission

“There was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could for them, as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died.”

William McKinley (1899)

There exists no general history–at least one that is available in the English language–explaining the origins, sources, language, uses, and variations on the theme of the Civilizing Mission, the central myth that Europe has employed to misrepresent its depredations around the globe, starting with the Spanish conquests in the Americas.

However, even in the absence of such a general history, some general propositions regarding Europe’s Civilizing Mission can be advanced safely. By its nature, the Civilizing Mission demands a protagonist who is superior to his subject, beyond the advantage of brute force. This superiority has been variously located in divine choice, genes, climate, institutions, and attributes of the mind. In the past, most European thinkers have preferred to locate the basis of Europe’s cultural advantage in race, biologically construed, and certainly, by the nineteenth century, this form of racism had became the dominant mode of constructing European superiority.

The construction of European superiority proceeded along two tracks. Along the first track, European thought seeks to endow Europeans with special attributes or they are shown to possess these attributes in greater abundance. The characteristic European attributes are individualism and rationality. The first produces the striving for freedom, courage, heroism, sainthood, ambition, industry, diligence, enterprise and great works of art; the second produces values that support a higher social order, superior governance, bureaucracies, economic growth, cathedrals, harmonies, and rational thought, including philosophy, sciences and mathematics.

On an equal scale, along a second track, European thought has engaged in the task of denigrating, dehumanizing, and even bestializing the Other. The extra-European world is inhabited by humans lacking in individuality and the powers of reasoning. Lacking individuality, the extra-European man is deficient in all those positive virtues that underpin Europe’s social and political order. Generally, this means that the extra-European man must be defined by negatives: he is a shirker, his wants are limited, he is not driven to excel, his work is sloppy, he is not inventive, he cannot be trusted, he has no self-worth, he does not value freedom, he is cowardly, he lacks generosity, and he will not risk his life for his freedom.

Similarly, the weak reasoning faculty of extra-Europeans produces a second set of negatives. A variety of European thinkers have described him as pedantic in his thought processes and unable to produce metaphysical works; his religion rarely rises above the merely superstitious; he works with simple tools, which he never seeks to improve; he lacks forethought and, therefore, cannot undertake great projects or create complex institutions; he lives under despotisms, which fail to protect property rights, and, therefore, trap his economy at primitive levels of productivity; and although he has not developed technology, he is incapable of formulating abstract, mathematical theories. In short, extra-European societies after their initial achievements, have remained dormant, superstitious, primitive and despotic.

Once these opposites types–the European and extra-European man–have been fully delineated, there are three possible relations that can develop between them. The extra-Europeans could be left alone; they could be ethnically cleansed, hunted down and exterminated; or they could be improved by opening them to unrestricted commercial contacts with superior Europeans, and if necessary these contacts could be established by force.

The choice among these options was clear. Clearly, the extra-European societies could not be left alone to vegetate; that would be an unconscionable waste of labor and resources. It would be preferable to push the natives off their land or kill them off; at least, this would free their resources for improvement. The third option was the best. It allowed Europe to improve the labor and resources in the extra-European societies. However, if the natives were to resist improvement, as they did in the Americas, they could be decimated and their lands appropriated for improvement.

By the nineteenth century, nearly all of Europe’s great thinkers had bought into the paradigm of the Civilizing Mission. Even Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were not exempt from its baleful influence; and they were among the most radical and compassionate of European thinkers in their times. They located the Orient outside the historical process which they had constructed to explain the transition of Europe from one historical stage to another. In the Orient, a despotic state owned all the land because it was forced–by the arid or semi-arid conditions prevailing there–to erect and maintain large-scale hydraulic works upon which all agriculture depended. In the absence of private property, the Asiatic societies lacked the dialectical tension–between opposing classes–which produce social change. The Orient, therefore, had no real history other than the history of successive despotisms imposed upon an unchanging social base. In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels refer to the Asiatics as “barbarians,” “semi-barbarians” or “nations of peasants.” On the other hand, the bourgeois societies of Europe are “civilized.”

The theory of Asiatic Despotism provided the grandest justification yet for the Civilizing Mission. By destroying the despotic Asiatic states, by reconstituting Asian societies on the basis of private property, and by integrating their archaic economies into world markets, the colonial powers were effecting–as Karl Marx put it, when talking of the destruction of India’s self-sufficient villages–“the only social revolution ever heard of in Asia.” Indeed, Karl Marx believed that by constructing a network of railways in India, the British were also laying the foundations of modern industry. It would be impossible to create an extensive network of railways without calling into existence an industrial sector supplying its need for coal, iron ore, steel and heavy machinery.

The orthodox economist’s justification for colonialism is not as grand because his requirements for growth are minimal. Since Adam Smith first formulated them in 1755, economic growth occurs naturally once three conditions are present: “peace,” “easy taxes,” and “a tolerable administration of justice.” Alternatively, governments establish law and order: markets do the rest. Since the despotic governments in the backward societies of Asia and Africa are incapable of protecting persons and property rights, this can only be provided by the intervention of Europeans. In other words, the colonization of extra-European societies is indispensable if they are to join the civilized world.

Few projects for the improvement of the ‘inferior races’ were taken up as eagerly, or implemented with the same degree of enthusiasm, as Europe’s Civilizing Mission. Over the course of the nineteenth century–starting earlier in some places–the Europeans colonized much of Asia and Africa, integrating them into global markets under governments run by the most capable men drawn from the best European stock. Although the Ottoman Empire, China, Iran and Thailand were allowed to retain indigenous rulers, they lost their ability to control their external economic relations. Under ‘Open Door’ treaties, they were forced to set very low tariffs, disband state monopolies, eliminate restrictions on foreign investments, and exempt Europeans–and their local protégés in the Ottoman Empire–from local courts and local taxes. In other words, directly and indirectly, Europe had subjected nearly all the extra-European societies of the world to its Civilizing Mission.

While the classical economists had little luck–outside of Britain, and that too, only after the 1840s–in persuading the sovereign governments in Europe, the Americas and Oceania to unshackle the invisible hand, their vision of free markets was implemented in nearly its entirety by the colonial governments in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. The colonies practiced free trade, with some preferences granted to the metropolitan country; they opened up the colonies to foreign capital; they established the strongest safeguards for private property; they ran small, ‘efficient’ governments that were always dedicated to balancing the budget; and they strictly kept the government out of productive activities. Barring Japan after 1910, the Asian countries that escaped colonization were forced into signing Open Door Treaties, which integrated their economies into global markets. I will refer to them as quasi-colonies (QCs). Indeed, the World Bank and IMF would have been out of work in the QCs and colonies (together, QCCs); their agenda had been fully implemented by the colonial governments in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean.

The sovereign lagging countries in the period under review–the century preceding 1950–paid scant regard to the canons of economic orthodoxy; most were heartily mercantilist in their pursuit of economic development. They freely imposed tariffs, operated state-owned development banks, set up industries in the public sector, ran budget deficits, placed restrictions on the entry of foreign capital, regulated their exchange markets during the Great Depression, and when in trouble they repudiated foreign debts. Now that’s sovereignty at work!

There can be little ambiguity about the prognosis–based on the Civilizing Mission and orthodox economics–about the relative economic performance of the QCCs and the sovereign lagging countries during the colonial epoch. The QCCs were devoted acolytes of orthodox economic policies; the sovereign lagging countries stood at the other end of the policy spectrum, invoking all the tools of economic intervention to promote indigenous industry, capital and technology. The colonies could boast of a second advantage. Unlike the sovereign lagging countries in Latin America and Eastern Europe, never reputed for their good governance, the British, French, Dutch and American colonies had the advantage of being governed by the very cream of Europe’s brew of superior races. On the strength of these advantages, we can safely conclude that the QCCs must have outperformed the sovereign lagging countries in the heydays of the Civilizing Mission–the century before 1950.

Average Annual Weighted Growth Ratesof Per Capita Income: 1900-1992

Growth Rates

More articles by:

M. SHAHID ALAM is professor of economics at Northeastern University. This is an excerpt from his forthcoming book, Israeli Exceptionalism: The Destabilizing Logic of Zionism (Macmillan, November 2009). Contact me at alqalam02760@yahoo.com.

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