Unfortunately Niall Ferguson has managed to distract Pankaj Mishra from the main theatre of empire-building today which is more than just western superiority or domination. Both reify ‘western domination’, crediting it with an unmerited force and power.
Apropos Pankaj Mishra’s attack on Niall Ferguson, ‘Watch this man’ (London Review of Books, Nov 3, 2011), what if the latter had responded by simply quoting the Indian Prime Minister about the benevolence of empire:
“Our notions of the rule of law, of a constitutional government, of a free press, of a professional civil service, of modern universities and research laboratories have all been fashioned in the crucible where an age old civilization of India met the dominant empire of the day. These are all elements which we still value and cherish. Our judiciary, our legal system, our bureaucracy and our police are all great institutions, derived from British-Indian administration and they have served our country exceedingly well.”
Colonialism, thus understood, was a ‘meeting’ and exchange, not a repressive imposition of structural violence. This is the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh speaking at Oxford University in 2005. Singh is leader of the Congress party, the same party which spearheaded the ‘freedom movement’ with leaders like Gandhi and Nehru.
When the ‘victims’ are so consenting and willing to embrace empire, why make things difficult for them (they need a face saver don’t they?) by making aggressive declarations of western superiority – but this is precisely what Ferguson does, even putting off some ‘liberal imperialists’. He laments, for example, that “the United States dare not call itself empire” – it does not occur to him that this bluster might just not be needed. Not speaking of itself formally as empire might be a better strategy and modality of functioning – not necessarily a weakness as Ferguson suggests. The old direct racism too is no longer the most crucial component of imperialism today. Mishra concurs: “hardly anyone is a racist in the Stoddardiansense today”.
So if the prime modality of imperialism today is to function without calling itself empire or without ‘Stoddardian racism’, what sense does it make to take Ferguson so seriously? It just shows the failure or refusal to oppose empire in its new modality which is less about the schematic picture of ‘West versus the Rest’ and more about the west and the rest, as the Indian PM makes clear. Empire has become reflexive and the victim’s complicity is now assumed. The victim is the new victor – a vindication of empire. You might still have someone like Ferguson waxing eloquent about western superiority, but with the ‘colonized’ themselves taking up the task, Ferguson’s looks like one-upmanship.
China and Gandhi might not have been given adequate space in Ferguson’s account, as Mishra argues, but they are not excluded in the actual functioning of empire. One can go through an entire imperialist trope here about the ‘great contributions’ of the ‘great civilizations’ of China and India. In any case, the ‘rising powers of the East’ are not interested in getting equal with ‘western civilization’ as such. Their rising power is more about a very bland, competitive approach – ‘it is good to be rich’, as they say in China. Or you have the popular ‘techlit’ Indian writer Chetan Bhagat prodding Gen Y to ‘forget history’ and leave that to corrupt politicians who needed something to fight over – instead focus on high growth and a strong India. Bhagat is hot among the new urban middle classes along with Thomas Friedman of ‘The World is Flat’ fame. Friedman is of course not very different from Ferguson in making big claims about the decline of the west and the United States not striking hard enough. Ferguson might think of the ‘work ethic’ as western but this is not the nineteenth century – Amy Chua for one counts this as what defines the Chinese today. The Indians too fervently claim this mantle.
Ferguson’s narrative of western superiority and his language of empire are not welcomed by ‘liberal imperialists’ – who know that this will place US power on a very insecure and narrow footing, making those like the Indian PM difficult to include in the project. Even US military folks find it difficult to swallow Ferguson’s hawkishness, making light, for example of the report of tortures at Abu Ghraib.
Unfortunately Ferguson has managed to distract those like Mishra from the main theatre of empire-building today which is more than just western superiority or domination. Ferguson as much as Mishra reify ‘western domination’ and give it a force and power which is not really false but is highly ideological. Ferguson seems to have successfully provoked a misdirected anti-imperialism – thus Mishra conflates Ferguson’s narrative with empire’s dominant idiom of functioning. And then it turns out, even this narrative cannot, as Mishra clarifies in his reply, be surely placed alongside Stoddardian racism: Ferguson “lacks the steady convictions of racialist ideologues like Stoddard”.
This is not to say that opposing racism need not be part of challenging empire: it can and must be part of a good anti-imperialist politics – as any attempt to figure out why few blacks participate in the Occupy movement will make clear. However, focusing on older direct racism can also be part of another deeper attachment, which can undermine anti-imperialism. This is the unstated attachment to reflexive capitalism, reflexive empire which is all multicultural and accommodative – and feels discursively violated, wronged when someone expresses ‘extreme’ views. Mishra, focusing primarily on the ‘racism’ part rather than on the ‘empire-building’ part makes it appear as though the primary charge against Ferguson is about his being less-than-multicultural in focusing on western superiority, rather than the far more serious charge of being on the side of the 1%.
Mishra did a good job cutting Ferguson down to size. But he ends up taking too much advantage of the dominant approach of political correctness, aiming mainly at shaming Ferguson. He claims the high ground within a supposed ‘right-thinking’ public sphere, oblivious of its complicity with liberal multicultural imperialism. The appeal to this public sphere gets fervent when he asks in his letter how, “Ferguson has got away with this disgraced worldview for as long as he has”. Well what does it mean to say he has got away with it? He has not: many others have been highly critical of Ferguson’s views and many ‘liberal’ right wing commentators too have dismissed him as a ‘hack commentator’.
So, nowadays, it seems that Stoddardian racism must be eliminated down to its last remnants only so that empire in a new modality can function perfectly well – empire without Ferguson and his ilk. Does this new modality derive its crucial legitimizing force from interventions like Mishra’s bolstering up the perception of a tolerant multicultural west where extreme views are readily castigated?
It seems as if we want to have an empire without racism and without extreme imperialist views – one steeped in the dominant idiom of capitalism today where, as Slavoj Zizek points out:
“we find a whole series of products deprived of their malignant property: coffee without caffeine, cream without fat, beer without alcohol, Colin Powell’s doctrine of warfare with no casualties (on our side, of course) as warfare without warfare.”
What however unites all – the Indian PM, liberal imperialists and Ferguson, is clearly the question of class: they would all oppose the 99 per cent. And being politically correct all would, as Clinton did with the Occupy protestors, welcome the right of the protestors to be heard and so on – empire is democratic and tolerant and it does not really believe in the innate superiority of western civilization, does it?
Saroj Giri is Lecturer, Department of Political Science, University of Delhi.