Rowan Williams on good and bad imperialism
America seems so intrinsically involved in everything. The Archbishop recognises that: “We have only one global hegemonic power at the moment.” But, he propounds, “It is not accumulating territory; it is trying to accumulate influence and control. That’s not working.” Far from seeing this positively, he describes it as “the worst of all worlds,” saying, “it is one thing to take over a territory and then pour energy and resources into administering it and normalising it. Rightly or wrongly that’s what the British Empire did – in India for example. It is another thing to go in on the assumption that a quick burst of violent action will somehow clear the decks and that you can move on and other people will put things back together –Iraq for example.”His whole interview (in the glossy Muslim "lifestyle" magazine Emel) is worth reading in full (here it is, found via Ekklesia), because the comment on American power and British imperlism is only one small part in an actually fairly far-ranging and thoughtful discussion.
Not suprisingly, though, I am going to focus on the controversial bit.
In particular, the positive depiction of British imperialism is outrageous. The balance sheet of the British empire is incredibly poor. Starting with the plantations in Ireland and mass appropriations of land from Irish farmers, condemning them to generations of poverty, moving on to the role of the Empire in the slave trade (3.5 million African slaves to the Americas, a third of all slaves transported across the Atlantic).
And in India, Williams' model, there was the privatised and unaccountable system of plundering India's wealth under the East India Company, which makes Halliburton and Blackwater and the private contractors in Iraq look like charities. The East India Company habitually used torture against Indian people and forced farmers to convert from subsistence crops to cash crops for export, resulting in horrific starvation. They destroted Indian industry by flooding the market with cheap goods, the market being rigged by a system of duties and subsidies. And this was nothing compared to the thirty or forty million peasants who died in the British-induced famines that Mike Davis describes in his grim highly recommmended Late Victorian Holocausts.
As for the British Empire and Iraq...Well, it was off course the British who, rather than diligently and thoughtfully "pouring energy and resources into administering it and normalising it", Britain invented it out of thin air, combining three Ottoman provinces that had little in common with each other culturally or linguistically. Britain proceded to pump oil and wealth out of the country, through the Turkish Petroleum Company. More seriously, Britain bombed Kurdish and Arab uprisings. (Churchill famously advocated using chemical weapons against the "uncivilised" Kurdish tribes.) [More here.]
So what allows someone of Williams' intellectual stature to be so stupid? I don't have enough knowledge of or interest in the Archbishop to comment (Martin's very good post here gives some explanations). The fact is, Williams is not alone. An insanity has gripped Western elite opinion, rendering it unable to see with any proportion, unable to make moral judgements. America, Israel and Blair are magnified into the worst possible monsters; all other crimes are relatavised away; all good things America does are literally invisible and unthinkable for these people. As Martin points out,
Needless to say, the archbishop had little to say about America's role in liberating Kuwait from Saddam, protecting the Muslims of Bosnia and Kosovo, or rescuing Afghanistan from the repressive grip of the Taliban.Williams is blind to the inter-imperialist rivalries that mean that America as a "global hegemon" is in active competition with other powers, not least China, Russia and Europe, who severely curtail America's ability to act on the global stage.
This worldview speaks a radical language ("global hegemon"). It is endemic amongst people who like to think of themselves as liberal or even radical. But it is essentially conservative. The Archbishop's idiotic nostalgia for the terrorist regime that was the British Empire is intimately related to his anti-Americanism. As with the likes of Chirac, this is the politics of reaction, not the politics of emancipation. Hence its easy alliances with Islamic theocrats and other reactionary forces.
P.S. Was I wrong to use the word terrorist in the last paragraph? Possibly. See comments at Snoopy's blog.