Liberalism: Legacy and Menace
Colonialism kills. It it humiliates; it devastates; it tortures. The damage it inflicts on societies and individuals is immeasurable. The violence of the colonizer, which stretches greedily into the past and future even as it devours the possibilities of the present, is really too vast to comprehend. Colonization is vast and moreover it is permanent -- its trauma cannot be undone, its violence and degradation are irreversible. Its scars and its shadows will never cease to echo in the screams of the future. Societies may begin to heal their present, but they cannot escape their past. Because colonization does not only conquer, it rapes; it does not only penetrate, it impregnates. It is borne and reborn. And so colonization is an infinite crime, the infinite crime.
All this has been said. And the truth doesn’t lessen with repetition. But let the academy hear once and for all: no amount of saying will reverse or atone for atrocity. No amount of analysis can expiate the undying complicity of colonization. History does not excuse us because history isn’t over. Of course, many would like to be excused. Who wouldn’t? So so many denounce and renounce, endlessly. Condemnation is one of the chief exports of the ivory towers. It offers grants and organizes conferences to produce scholarly condemnation. (And this, at best!) In moments of clarity, it even apologizes. And then, as if history were suddenly renewed, the “postcolonial” era is proclaimed. A “postcolonial” discourse is institutionalized and proliferated by thousands of universities. Well, it is a lie. A corpse in the mouths of those whose ancestors imposed the white man’s burden, and a gag in the mouths of those whose ancestors carried it. If you’ve fallen for it you do not understand the infinity of colonization.
The tower lies, but the ivory doesn’t. It knows where it comes from. It knows where it still is. The ivory knows what is not said enough, and this is what I write to say: Colonialism changes. It reacts, adapts and redeploys. It has before and it will again.
The first major deployment of colonialism was in the Americas. The Spanish conquistadors, the first colonizers, were the most unabashed in their plunder and indiscriminate killing. Others quickly followed; British, French and Portuguese colonizers established settlements and began the difficult but lucrative work of pillage and genocide. The second wave of colonialism was to Africa. Almost all of Europe took part and a continent many times the size of Europe was carved up irreparably. Ideologies of racism, developed in the Americas, ran rampant. Slavery was systematized, institutionalized and globalized. The colonizers were principally guided by profit, but soon in both places they claimed to offer something in return: Civilization. Christianity.
Coercion, of course continued. Domination was still essential and torture was indispensable to the enterprise. But colonialism was undoubtedly becoming more sophisticated, more complex.
Some individuals and groups collaborated with the colonizers. To be sure, not a few sold their mothers out of fear or greed or confusion. But let there be no misunderstanding. Everywhere, there was resistance. Nowhere, did a people surrender outright. Everywhere, dignity fought against disgrace. Nowhere, did a people welcome rape. Nor will they ever. Organized struggles for decolonization grew and spread. By the mid 1700s, the British and French had to send their armies to the Americas to crush the growing resistance. Increasingly, they were unsuccessful.
But while colonial armies retreated in the Americas, they advanced on the other side of the world. “The aristocracy wanted to conquer it, the moneyocracy to plunder it, and the millocracy to undersell it,” wrote Karl Marx. In the third major deployment, the British began the most strategically and ideologically sophisticated colonization to date.
The colonizers christened their new kingdom the Raj, and claimed to bring the many peoples of South Asia something new. Not Christian Civilization, but Secular Modernity. The difference is significant. This time, the British held back the Church and substituted the Corporation.
In the Americas, missionaries were often more powerful than merchants. This was less so in Africa, and least of all in South Asia. Of course the British were with few exceptions religious, but they didn’t make as much of a point of it as they had before. However, churches were an integral part of the infrastructure of control in the first major deployments of colonizers. (Liberation theology in Latin America is a notable exception to a dogmatic rule.) For the conquering and controlling of South Asia, religious infrastructure was replaced with corporate infrastructure. The British Raj began with the East India Company.
The East India Company brought capitalism, and capitalism promised modernity. Modernity replaced civilization in the colonizer vernacular and became the signifier for the ideal of social progress. Modernity was civilization 2.0. Colonizers still used the old program, but they increasingly experimented with the new model. There are some key differences, but like civilization before it, modernity meant many different and differing things. All of them were dramatic and most of them were utterly mysterious to the many peoples who were to be modernized.
The ideology of secular modernity was liberalism. Liberalism was quite distinct from previous colonial ideologies like racism and religious dogmatism. “At its heart,” writes the scholar Thomas Metcalf, “...liberalism can be seen as informed by a radical universalism.” (Ideologies of the Raj, p34) Unlike earlier colonial ideologies which reveled in exclusivity, liberalism called upon ideas of equality. “Above all,” continues Metcalf, “liberals conceived that human nature was intrinsically the same everywhere, and that it could be totally and completely transformed, if not by sudden revelation as the evangelicals envisaged, then by the workings of law, education and free trade.” (p29)
Liberals had specific ideas about this universal human nature, and in short order liberal colonizers would implement their ideas in South Asia. It is important to note that Britain was not liberal -- it was ruled by a conservative monarchy with a violent faith in traditional hierarchies. Liberals had a faith as violent, but in something different, something new, something they called modernity. Outside the shadow of the crown, the technicians of the Raj were the first to put liberalism into practice on a massive scale. Metcalf writes: “India could become something of a laboratory for the creation of the liberal administrative state... Away from the contentious political environment of England, liberalism, as a programme for reform, developed a coherence it rarely possessed at home.” (p29)
Two of the founding fathers of liberalism were the father and son James and John Stuart Mill. Both worked for the East India Company. Both were prolific writers and their ideas informed not only the colonial enterprise in South Asia, but have to this day been influential in the development of the liberal modernity of globalization. James Mill was famous for a widely published book called the History of British India, which he appropriately wrote without ever leaving Britain. The Mills gave liberalism a lot of its philosophical and scholarly foundations.
Against the ideological grain of the monarchy, they wanted to change society. They believed that society should be constructed around two basic columns: the maximum liberty of the individual, and the maximum utilization of private property. With these two fundamental conditions in place, liberals were certain that a utopian modernity would inevitably blossom. As long as society was organized around the rights of individuals and private property was protected, not much else mattered. “[H]appiness and not liberty was the end of government,” writes Metcalf of Mill’s philosophy, “and happiness was promoted solely through the protection of the individual in his person.” (p31) Individualism and private property were both the conditions for progress and the standards for measuring progress, and evaluation was strict.
“Exactly in proportion as Utility is the object of every pursuit,” wrote James Mill, “may we regard a nation as civilized.”(Metcalf, p30) This undeniably extremist ideology was introduced into South Asia not by recommendation or appeal, but with a double punch of coercion and imposed law. The British pedagogy of liberalism in South Asia had two faces, both of them white: The soldier, who could kill, and the lawyer, who could control. Colonial liberalism brooked no transgression. “Our law is in fact the sum and substance of what we have to teach them,” wrote James Fitzjames Stephen, a legal member of the viceroy’s council. “It is, so to speak, a compulsory gospel which admits of no dissent and no disobedience.” (Metcalf, p39)
On the printed page, liberalism appeared to value equality and to oppose tyranny. On the printed page, liberalism was a seemingly benign intellectual enterprise. But in the reality of the Raj, if liberalism was the theory, violence was the practice. “In the colonies,” wrote Frantz Fanon, “...there is something of the cowboy and the pioneer even in the intellectual. In a period of crisis the cowboy pulls out his revolver and his instruments of torture.” In crisis, the rules of colonial engagement become clear: first empire, then ideology. Secure land revenue at all costs; modernization will follow.
Major crisis struck the Raj in May of 1857 when over a century of oppression culminated in a widespread mutiny in the East India Company’s native army. The corporate army which had conquered the subcontinent was composed of 240,000 native South Asian soldiers (“sepoys”) and only 4,000 British troops. Previous insurrections had failed to spread, but in 1857 over half of the sepoy army mutinied, marched on the capital in Delhi, and briefly defeated the combined forces of the royal and corporate army. Self determination however, was to be short lived. By 1858, organized resistance was crushed, and British rule was reestablished. Liberalism demanded it: the laws of the universal human condition provided no space for difference or disagreement. Individualism and private property were non-negotiable, or modernity was impossible. In the crisis of a massive mutiny, the justice of colonial liberalism mandated murder. The intellectual reached for his revolver and liberalism’s skeletons came out of the closet. “As the victorious British armies moved on the rebel strongholds,” writes Metcalf, “the 1857 revolt was ruthlessly suppressed. Sepoys, even if only suspected of mutiny, were blown from cannon; villagers were, on occasion, indiscriminately shot...” (p43-44)
Did liberal pretensions of equality come into conflict with the bloody realities of colonization? On the contrary, liberalism’s novelty fueled the exploitation; if anything it revitalized the colonial project. Old avarice found new courage in the lofty language of liberalism. The ideal of a universal human project justified conquest, the apotheosis of property legalized pillage and the supremacy of the individual validated the defiance of ancient traditions. “Nobody is at liberty to attack... property, and to say at the same time that he values civilisation,” wrote a liberal British scholar named Henry Maine. (Metcalf, p68) The defense of liberal civilization (modernity) called for the annihilation of deviants who would attack its foundations. Liberal equality did not include any conception of the other. The modernity that the British promised was thus an apartheid; always violently exclusive of difference. Liberal Modernity was the Manifest Destiny of the Raj.
Liberal colonizers in South Asia made a serious and systematic attempt to disguise their greed as altruism. In this, liberalism was the most successful of all colonial ideologies to date. It succeeded in fooling not a few of us. “Imperialist nostalgia,” writes Renato Rosaldo, “uses a pose of ‘innocent yearning’ both to capture people’s imaginations and to conceal its complicity with often brutal domination.” (quoted by Metcalf, p79) The mutiny of the sepoy army in 1857 and the civil uprising that it provoked forced liberalism’s deep seated violence out of the shadows. But this incident only frames a concentrated example of the oppression and exploitation that was the everyday common sense of the Raj. “The only interest of the Company was the realization of maximum revenue with minimum effort,” writes Bipan Chandra: “Naturally, the revenue could not be collected without coercion and torture: in Rohilkhand there were as many as 237,388 coercive collections during 1848-56.” (p36) And aside from old fashioned torture and conquest, the company also dealt extensively in drugs and prostitution. Under the banner of liberalism, in a grand forced march to modernity, the Honorable Company held a fifth of the world’s population in subordination for 100 years.
The world has not recovered. The infinity of colonization bifurcates and converges, corrupting with equal veracity the colonizer and the colonized. Western and South Asian liberals today make apologies for exploitation and congratulate each other on the hard-won blessings of modernity. None less than the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in a speech at Oxford in 2005, described British imperialism as “benign” and characterized by “fair play”. “As we look back and also look ahead,” he continued, “it is clear that the Indo-British relationship is one of ‘give and take’.” A more repulsive apology for over two centuries of catastrophic exploitation is difficult to imagine. But let us examine it. What does South Asia owe to the Raj?
“I hear the storm,” wrote Aime Cesaire: “ They talk to me about progress, about ‘achievements’, diseases cured, improved standards of living. I am talking about societies drained of their essence, cultures trampled underfoot, institutions undermined, lands confiscated, religions smashed, magnificent artistic creations destroyed, extraordinary possibilities wiped out.” (p43) Railroads? They were payed for and built by the South Asians and “[a]s late as 1921,” writes Bipan Chandra, “only 10% of the superior posts in the railways were manned by Indians”. (p38) Commercial agriculture and mines? Financial institutions? Trade on the world market? “[T]he tendency,” continues Chandra, “was at best towards creating capitalist enclaves under foreign control which really inhibited the development of the rest of the economy.” (p38) Industrialization? On the contrary. Singh himself cites: “India’s share of world income collapsed from 22.6% in 1700, almost equal to Europe’s share of 23.3% at that time, to as low as 3.8% in 1952.” Having received so much from the British, what price did South Asia pay for the benign give and take of the Raj? What does the Raj owe South Asia? The scholar Nick Dirks demonstrates convincingly that both caste and religious communalism (two of the most violent elements of South Asian society today) were in large part colonial constructions. South Asians were given telegraph lines; in return they suffered famines that killed millions, diseases that killed as many, and structural violence. “Has the bourgeoisie ever done more?” asked Marx, “Has it ever affected a progress without dragging individuals and peoples through blood and dirt, through misery and degradation?”
The idea of progress advanced by colonial liberalism is perverse. “[B]etween colonization and civilization there is an infinite distance,” writes Cesaire. (p34) This distance and its disguise are the infinite crime. In his explicit collaboration, Prime Minister Singh is a lap dog in the wrong century; a loyal sepoy with a nose so buried in British ass that he missed the mutiny. The modernity his kind adores is poisoned. “For the great majority of people,” writes Samir Amin, “the modernity in question is simply odious, hypocritical, and based on the cynical practice of a double standard. Their rejection is thus violent and this violence is completely legitimate. Really-existing capitalism and the modernity that comes with it have nothing to offer them.” (p56) India owes nothing to the Raj, and Britain could never atone to the people of South Asia for its irreversible rapacity. “Europe is responsible before the human community for the highest heap of corpses in history,” Cesaire wrote: “Europe is morally, spiritually indefensible.” (p45, 32)
Liberalism is the most perfect disguise for the infinite crime. As the Paris Surrealists wrote in 1932: “The white man preaches, doses, vaccinates, assassinates and (from himself) receives absolution. With his psalms, his speeches, his guarantees of liberty, equality and fraternity, he seeks to drown the noise of his machine-guns.” Liberalism is the veil behind which currently deployed colonialism meekly hides its pathology. It is the only colonial ideology that hasn’t gone into hiding. Racists and even missionaries are widely condemned, but liberals seem to have escaped with impunity. Liberalism survived the wars of national liberation, and thrives as never before in the financial infrastructure of present day imperialism.
Liberalism is a menace. We need look no further than its colonial legacy. It should no longer fool us with its vaguely appealing rhetoric of equality. “The opinions of the bourgeoisie,” Bertold Brecht reminds us, “...vouchsafe no insights concerning the bourgeoisie itself. A large part of the bourgeoisie, for example, considers the making of money to be a dirty business, and yet that is its sole occupation.” Somehow, the liberal vision manages to survive on the hollow weight of its empty rhetoric. This seems to be no problem for liberalism ideologically or economically; both systems grow on the emptiness of unpayable debt.
The modernity that liberalism promised is also hollow. It too is built on an infinite debt to everything that it perpetually excludes and terminates. Its economic development has undeveloped its builders and enriched its parasites. Its political development has dedeveloped its potential for democracy and overdeveloped its capacity for corruption. “The modernity in question is born with capitalism,” writes Amin,” “and the democracy that it produces remains as limited as capitalism is.” (p43) From the beginning, liberalism was a hoax, and that people have believed in it makes not a whit of difference.
The equality proposed by liberalism is not only a lie, it is also quite impossible. Equality is only possible when there is difference, or it is an empty tautology. Equality without difference is meaningless. Liberal equality denies difference. The imagined universality of the liberal British colonizers was nothing but a glorification of a false white homogeneity.
The individualism proposed by liberalism is also a lie. By making liberty the exclusive domain of the individual, it simultaneously undermines the very social fabric that protects individuals.“[T]his discourse of the self satisfied,” writes Amin, “acknowledges only a single human value: individual liberty. Such an acknowledgment comes at the price of being unaware that, in the context of capitalism, this liberty allows the strongest to impose their laws on others, that this liberty is completely illusory for the great majority... that it strikes directly against the aspiration for equality that forms the foundation of democracy.” (p55-56) If we value equality, and if we respect the rights of individuals, then liberalism is the ideological enemy. If the possibility of democracy is to be resurrected, liberalism must be actively attacked wherever it is found.
Liberalism disguises itself as what it destroys. This makes it extraordinarily resilient. Its infiltration and its supremacy are subtle. To challenge it is a complicated process. “[T]his liberal virus” writes Amin, “which pollutes contemporary social thought and eliminates the capacity to understand the world, let alone to transform it, has profoundly penetrated the whole of the ‘historical left’ formed in the aftermath of the Second World War. The movements engaged at the present time in social struggles for ‘another world’ (a better one) and an alternative globalization will only be able to produce significant social advances if they get rid of this virus in order to begin an authentic theoretical debate again.” (p41-42) This warning must not be taken lightly. Let us admit it once and for all: Liberalism’s legacy is colonial, and its neocolonial menace is the globalized extermination of difference and the end of a livable world.
The struggle against liberalism is and must be recognized as a crucial part of an unfinished struggle for decolonization. This struggle will never be over; that is the infinite tragedy of infinite crime. Healing ourselves and our societies is possible! But healing can only begin if we can overcome this pernicious ideology that camouflages itself as salvation.
Ideologies of the Raj by Thomas Metcalf, 1995
Castes of Mind by Nick Dirks, 2001
A Dying Colonialism by Frantz Fanon, 1959
Discourse on Colonialism by Aime Cesaire, 1955
The Liberal Virus by Samir Amin, 2004
Art and Politics by Bertold Brecht (edited by Thomas Kuhn and Steve Giles, 2005)
The Future Results of British Rule in India, by Karl Marx 1853
The Revolt of 1857, and Bipan Chandra (chapter)
The Colonial Economy by Sumit Sarkar [?](chapter)
Murderous Humanitarianism, by the Surrealist Group in Paris (Andre Breton, Roger Caillois, Rene Char, et. al.) 1932