Watching the new Fantastic Beasts series, set in the Harry Potter world but outside of Hogwarts school, has made me aware of the horrible inequalities and vicious politics of the Harry Potter world. I have reported on how the first movie very starkly illustrated the lack of interest wizards have in the welfare of muggles, and the extreme inequality between wizard and muggle world that wizards actively work to maintain. In the second movie their disregard for the muggles bleeds into full exterminationism, and the central plot of the movie is revealed to be the battle between an evil guy who wants to exterminate all muggles and a plucky wizard who wants to preserve the status quo (although perhaps his main motivation is getting laid). In the second movie we also see how the politics of the wizard world is close to fascist, and definitely dystopian, and the wizards are subjected to a strict system of control and enforcement that seems to be largely built around ensuring they don’t reveal themselves to or do anything to help muggles.

In comments to the post in which I discuss this dystopian wizard world I attempted to discuss which kind of political dystopia the wizard world is, and after rejecting fascism and communism I settled on a colonialist model for the world. In this post I want to explain in detail how the politics of the Harry Potter world is explicitly colonialist, discuss the world’s repeated turns to exterminationism in light of this politics, and ask a few questions about how it is that a book in which we cheer for a bunch of colonialist bell-ends became an international sensation.

This post is going to be long, and will be structured something like this:

  • An introduction to colonial practice: Exploitative versus acquisitive colonialism
  • The proto-fascist structure of colonial states
  • The Muggle Protection Act and the politics of muggle exclusion
  • Why muggles are treated the same way as indigenous people in the Harry Potter world
  • The inevitability of extermination and the threat of muggle technology
  • Cheering on racists: How did we come to this?

In constructing this argument I will draw on background material from the Harry Potter books, some supporting material which I think JK Rowling published, and the events of the two Fantastic Beasts movies. I’m not a Harry Potter expert, so there may be mistakes. Anyway, here goes…

Two kinds of colonialism

When people think of colonialism they often think of the conquest and exploitation of India, which is seen as the canonical model of how a rich European state takes over and exploits a thriving non-European community. However, this is only one of two types of colonialism. For simplicity in this post I will define these two kinds as exploitative colonialism and acquisitive colonialism. In exploitative colonialism an aggressive and expansionist state invades and subjugates a weaker but technologically advanced state, destroys or co-opts its existing political structures, and runs its economy to its own exploitative benefit. Typically the state that the colonialist power invades is established, strong, with its own heirarchies, a thriving market, international trade and its own technological developments and progress. The model of such a state is India, but any of the South East Asian nations and also much of North Africa qualifies for this situation. In exploitative colonialism the cost of exterminating the locals, and the huge benefits of exploiting their existing markets and social structures, mean that exploitation is the best or possibly the only way for the colonial power to extract benefit from a people it considers its inferior. In contrast, acquisitive colonialism seeks no benefit from the people it overruns. In acquisitive colonialism the expansionist state finds a people who are technologically far inferior to itself, have a very small and dispersed population, limited or no international trade, and few markets it can intrude into. The only thing they have that is of value to the expansionist state is land and the resources locked in and under that land. Often their political systems are so alien to the conquering state that it cannot conceive of how to exploit them, and in any case the local economy is so small in comparison to the colonial state’s that there is no point in wasting energy trying to extract anything from them. Often these highly isolated societies are also vulnerable to diseases that the colonist brings, so exploitation will be highly destructive in any case. In acquisitive colonialism the costs of extermination are so low, and the benefits of exploitation so minimal, that the best outcome is to destroy the local community, drive it off of all profitable or beneficial lands, isolate it from the invaders and exclude it from all contact with or benefit from the invading society. This form of colonialism was practised in Australia, New Zealand and the Americas. The final goal of this form of colonialism may not have been the complete destruction of an entire race and culture, but it was most certainly the complete expulsion of these people from all profitable lands and their exclusion – generally on racist and eugenicist grounds – from all political and cultural interaction with the colonial state. This final stage is characterized in the USA by the reservation system, and in Australia by the mission system and the child abduction program. These acquisitive colonial states reached their nadir in the mid- to late 19th century and early 20th century, when they mixed their colonial ideology with scientific racism, but had a tail that trailed into the late 20th century, with the end of the explicitly exterminationist strategies probably marked by Wounded Knee in the USA and the end of the child abduction program in Australia in the early 1970s.

Of course neither of these kinds of colonialism perfectly enacted the goals they set out for themselves, partly due to conflicting political visions, partly due to changing circumstances, and partly because the goals cannot be pursued to their pure conclusion through the flawed and human agents of colonial repression. But that they did not, for example, completely exterminate the native American peoples should not be taken as a sign that American colonialism was not explicitly acquisitive and exterminationist.

The proto-fascist structure of colonial states

Colonialism extracts a heavy toll from its subject peoples, but it does not do so without also implementing an architecture of oppression and authoritarianism at home. Colonialist states explicitly structure their world view around heirarchies of human worth, defined in terms of race, class and gender, and the state and its supporters construct a network of social, political, economic and cultural forces to support and maintain these heirarchies. Within the home country of the colonialist state there is usually an extensive apparatus to control the poor, with institutions such as the workhouse and the prison, poor laws, debtor’s prison, and press gangs. Much of the British state’s early actions against sex workers were based on fear of the weakening influence of sexually transmitted infections on the colonial project, and the mistreatment of poor women and their children – including deceptively stealing their children and shipping them to the colonies to be used as cheap labour in the mission system and the homes of wealthy colonial families – is well documented, finally.

In the acquired colonial territories the state enacts vicious repression on its own lower classes, in the form of anti-union violence and the employment of terror organizations such as the Pinkertons to enforce its will. Where extractive industries in the acquired territories come into conflict with colonial labourers or encounter activism to preserve the environment or other public goods they react violently and with government support. Movement of non-indigenous people into indigenous areas is heavily restricted, and organizations that might represent the interests of indigenous people are suppressed. In the USA there was lynching of free Mexican workers throughout the south west, and in Australia in the 1960s the Freedom Riders were met with violence in their journey around Australia publicizing Aboriginal disadvantage. In the UK it was not uncommon to see “No dogs and Irishmen” signs on public accommodations, and at times in history it was not acceptable for white and indigenous people to marry or live together. In later years through programs like Cointelpro and the undercover police operations of the UK the state’s secret police worked assiduously against not only indigenous rights but also environmental and labour activism, animal rights progress, and any form of restrictions of the rights of the colonial state to extract full value from its stolen lands. In the USA this led to state and extra-judicial violence against indigenous people protecting their water rights, open suppression of land rights activism, and the use of prison and state power to restrict services to reservations to force acquiescence from indigenous activists and their non-indigenous supporters. The British state introduced transportation in the 19th century, dumping petty criminals and labour organizers from the UK into the badlands of its colonial properties and then pitting them against the indigenous residents, and punishing those who spoke out against these practices.

It is not possible to exterminate whole peoples, push them off their hereditary lands, and steal their resources without maintaining a violent state that represses all attempts at clemency or understanding. You cannot keep humans out of your polity without forcefully policing the boundaries of your polity, and requiring that your citizens stay strictly within it. Colonialist states are repressive, and build up structures of political and state control intended to ensure that their heirarchical and violent systems are maintained. There is a wide literature on the damaging political consequences of the exercise of state power in support of colonialism: George Orwell writes eloquently about its damaging effects in Burmese Days, and Katharine Susannah Pritchard describes the oppressive atmosphere of the frontier very well in Brumby Innes and Coonardoo. Henry Reynolds describes the violence of the frontier in The Forgotten War, and of course the Bringing them Home report details the racist underpinnings of the political order supporting colonialism in Australia. The Waitangi Treaty Grounds in New Zealand offer an unrelenting description of the colonial project in New Zealand, against an incredibly beautiful and peaceful backdrop. There is no reason for anyone in colonial societies not to know these things, but many of us do not.

Having established these outlines of what colonialist policy is and how colonial states enforce it on both their colonized victims and their citizens, let us move to the world of Harry Potter, and examine how the wizard world treats muggles.

The Muggle Protection Act and the politics of muggle exclusion

The Muggle Protection Act is a law passed in 1992 to protect muggles from magical accidents. It was part of a broader body of legislative and scholarly work on maintaining the veil of secrecy between the muggle and wizard worlds. It may be just a coincidence, but most colonial states have a law akin to this. For example in 1869 the Aboriginal Protection Act was passed in Victoria, which amongst other things restricted “where people could live and work, what they could do and who they could meet or marry”. Similar restrictions and guidelines were published in the wizarding world, for example the three volume Laws of Conduct When Dealing with Muggles, or the cultural (but not legal) stigma attached to marrying muggles. It appears, from Queenie’s behaviour in The Crimes of Grindelwald, that it is not possible for her to marry Jacob Kowalski or even to have a relationship with him, which is why she has abducted him and charmed him to come with her to France. That suggests that in 1920s America at least there was some kind of restriction on muggle-wizard relationships, or at least they were only considered acceptable in extreme circumstances. It is also apparently the case that the ministry of magic attempted to remove certain books from school libraries if they depicted relationships with muggles or were overly sensitive in their reporting on muggles.

The politics of muggle exclusion becomes much clearer when we investigate Dumbledore’s history of activism on this subject. In a letter to Grindelwald on the topic, this scion of liberal wizard politics writes

Your point about Wizard dominance being FOR THE MUGGLE’S OWN GOOD — this, I think, is the crucial point. Yes, we have been given power and yes, that power gives us the right to rule, but it also gives us responsibilities over the ruled. We must stress this point, it will be the foundation stone upon which we build. Where we are opposed, as we surely will be, this must be the basis of all our counterarguments. We seize control FOR THE GREATER GOOD. And from this it follows that where we meet resistance, we must use only the force that is necessary and no more.

This is a classic model of white man’s burden. Consider, for example, this minute from the colonial secretary of New South Wales to the Legislative Assembly, 1883:

HAVING carefully read the two reports by the Protector, the various letters and articles which have appeared in the newspapers on the La Perouse blacks, and the report of Messrs. King and Fosbery on the Warangesda and Maloga Mission Stations, the opinion which I formerly held is confirmed, viz., that much more must be done than has yet been done for the Aborigines before there can be any national feeling of satisfaction that the Colony has done its duty by the remnant of the aboriginal race.

Later in this note (which can be found as a reference here), we can find in the report of the NSW Aborigines Protection Association the following charming indication of how many people in 1881 felt about Aboriginal people:

As usual in inaugurating an effort of this nature, the Association had some obstacles to surmount through misrepresentation and apathy. It was said that any attempt to better the condition of the blacks was labour in vain; that they were such irreclaimable savages, and so devoid of ordinary human sympathies that no hold could be got over them ; and that they were dying out so fast that no good end could be served by trying to civilize and educate them.

This is very close to the way Grindelwald or Voldemort think about Muggles; indeed, without having access to it, one could assume that Dumbledore’s reply to Grindelwald is a reply to a sentiment such as this. Certainly there is a movement in the wizard world – epitomized by Grindelwald and Voldemort, but also expressed through pure-blood fascists like Malfoy – that the wizards have the right to rule over muggles, that no consideration should be given at all to muggles and that purity of blood is essential. Indeed, the entire language of blood status in the wizard world exactly mirrors the language of racial heirarchies in colonial societies, and policies championed by pure-blood fascists are very similar to those proposed by people like A.O. Neville in early 20th century Australia. The similarity of language and intent is striking. Effectively what we see here is one side of an ongoing debate between wizards about whether to completely ignore or even exterminate muggles, or to keep them excluded from wizard society but act where possible for the good of the muggles when doing so. In the Harry Potter books we see this debate manifest as a violent conflict between Voldemort on one side, and Dumbledore and the children on the other, in which we side with Dumbledore and his white man’s burden, rather than the exterminationist Voldemort.

The Muggle-Indigenous parallel

Of course, one might argue that this colonial vision cannot be shared between wizards and European colonialists, because wizards are not stealing anyone’s lands. They don’t need to interact with muggles at all and they’re simply maintaining a peaceful distance. But this is not the case at all. Muggles are a constant burden to wizards; muggles are in the way. Whenever wizards show themselves around muggles – whenever they attempt to be on muggle land or in muggle spaces as wizards – they risk violence, and the entire architecture of wizard secrecy was developed in 1683 in response to violent encounters between muggles and wizards. In the colonial project Indigenous people are also in the way, because they occupy land that the colonialists want, and attempts to use that land incur Indigenous anger and violence, so the simple solution is to push them off. Perhaps they could have come to some arrangement to share the land, but why would they bother with people so far beneath them? And why negotiate when essentially you do not believe that Indigenous people are using the land at all? This logic of terra nullius makes it an injustice to the colonialists to have to negotiate with their inferiors for access to land they don’t believe the indigenous people are using or need. A very similar situation applies to the wizard world: wizards cannot openly use muggle land or public space without incurring violence, and so the muggles to them are just a nuisance. They have nothing to gain from interacting with muggles, and consider themselves so far above muggles that negotiating with them is a waste of time, and so they try to separate their societies. To this end they establish a complex system of laws that they enforce with extreme violence (towards wizards who violate them) and obliteration (of memories) for muggles who stumble across their existence. It is also clear from the books that even liberal wizards don’t think twice about interfering in the wellbeing and livelihoods of muggles if the muggles’ presence causes them even a moment’s inconvenience. Consider this story from Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince[1]:

There was no doubt that Mrs Cole was an inconveniently sharp woman. Apparently Dumbledore thought so too, for Harry now saw him slip his wand out of the pocket of his velvet suit, at the same time picking up a piece of perfectly blank paper from Mrs Cole’s desktop.

‘Here,’ said Dumbledore, waving his wand once as he passed her the piece of paper, ‘I think this will make everything clear.’

Mrs Cole’s eyes slid out of focus and back again as she gazed intently at the blank paper for a moment.

‘That seems perfectly in order,’ she said placidly, handing it back.

Here Dumbledore, ostensibly a champion of muggle rights, simply screws with a woman’s mind and creates a future disciplinary issue for her, just because she is “inconveniently sharp.” Her situation or needs are of no importance to her at all – he simply dismisses her intentions and free will, and tricks her into not doing her job, with all the consequences that entails.

It is inevitable that at some point in this history an impatient or particularly arrogant wizard is going to advocate for the next step from this inconvenient co-existence: exterminate them and take their land. This is what Grindelwald wants to do, keeping alive perhaps a small number for some as-yet-unclear purpose. It is also part of Voldemort’s goal, although he also appears to want to reshape wizard society as well. Perhaps he realized that rebellion against the system of muggle protection boards and secrecy statutes was not enough, and to properly settle “the muggle question” one needs to also change wizard society so it is less squeamish about what needs to be done. This would make him no different to the people arguing against the Aborigines Protection Association in Australia in 1881.

The parallels are obvious: an inferior race interferes in the goals of wizards by being in their way on land they could be using for their own benefit. So the debate becomes: do we tolerate them and do our best to rule with good intentions, avoiding harming them as much as possible; or do we exterminate them for our own convenience? All of the Harry Potter plot – and especially the plot of the new Fantastic Beasts series – concerns the resolution of this debate. It’s the classic debate of the colonial era, with magic.

Extermination and the threat of muggle technology

The slide towards extermination is inevitable, and the imperative to do so becomes obvious in The Crimes of Grindelwald, where we begin to realize that there are too many muggles, wizards can’t control them forever, and because they haven’t already completely destroyed their society, the muggles are developing their own technology. Grindelwald shows a vision of the future in which muggles have nuclear weapons and it becomes painfully apparent to the gathered wizards that the game is up: if the muggles get that technology, they are the equals of wizards. That one vision by itself is enough to convince at least half of the wizards to switch sides. Queenie switches sides, with the promise of no moral constraints on how she will be able to deal with muggles. The implication for Queenie is that she can have Jacob – but what does that mean for the other wizards in the room? Murder? Slavery? It’s not clear but the implication is not good. The moral implication of this in the context of this colonialist model of wizard-muggle interactions is obvious: because they didn’t exterminate them and disrupt their culture sooner, the wizards have allowed the muggles to flourish and become independent, and now they are a threat. The wizards should have learnt from the human playbook, and done the job properly from the start. Grindelwald – and, perhaps, later Voldemort – will do the job properly!

The moral implications

What should we as readers take away from this collection of stories? I tried googling to find out what others have written about this topic, and although I found some interesting questions and debates on colonialism in the stories, I could not find anyone tackling the obvious racism of the wizard/muggle divide and the horrifying language of colonial racial hierarchies in Rowling’s lexicon of blood purity. I found an article from an academic, Magical Creatures and How to Exploit them, about the colonial politics of wizard’s attitudes towards non-human magical beings. I found a question on Metafilter (wtf!) about whether the wizards bothered to stop colonialism when muggles did it to each other, with the obvious implication (since it happened) that wizards from all the countries on earth sat back quietly while muggles of one country enslaved and exterminated muggles of other countries. This is an interesting question that makes the central interventionist debate in Black Panther look kind of pissy, but it doesn’t address the issue of how wizards view and treat muggles. The entire issue seems to have just slid under everyone’s notice.

I think this is a strong indictment of how western societies view our colonial past, and also a really depressing example of how much indigenous peoples’ voices and cultural history have been excluded from western culture. We didn’t even notice as a series of books in an obviously, openly racist and colonialist setting swept the world by storm. A huge amount of ink has been spilled on her description of native American wizards, but nothing has been said about the colonized nature of muggle life, and the fascist society that rules over them and is planning to exterminate them.

There is nowhere in the original series of novels or in the movies where the author makes a judgment on this, or leads us to believe that she even sees this issue (indeed, in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them it is unclear whether we’re even meant to think the summary execution of Tina is bad). It is possible to make stories of this kind with a little more moral nuance than we see in Harry Potter. For example, in his Culture series, Iain M. Banks makes it very clear that there is something slightly wrong about the Culture, and especially about the behavior of the Contact section. In Consider Phlebas we are obviously meant to sympathize with the Culture’s enemies as they race to find the Mind, and in The Player of Games the planet that Gurgeh intervenes in is set up as almost comically evil with the specific intent of posing a moral question about interference. The decisions that the main characters make leave them scarred and cynical, and sometimes set them against their own society. In the movie Avatar the colonial conflict has a clear moral framework and we end up switching sides midway through. There is no point in any of the multitude of books, movies and associated stuff where any wizard character of any kind rebels in any meaningful way against the colonial system, or even questions it. The obvious implication of this is that we’re complicit with it, as readers – we are asked to go along with it, and we do!

This leads me to ask a few questions about the series, its conception and its reception, which I have not been able to answer:

  • Did J.K. Rowling intend this series to be a discourse on colonialism, or did she invent this entire apparatus out of whole cloth?
  • Has anyone noticed the racism of wizard society and its colonialist parallels, and has Rowling responded to that?
  • Is there any young adult literature where the good guys are embedded in and supporting a society as openly fascist as the one that Rowling writes about?

It is disturbing to me that this series is about a group of children defending an overtly authoritarian society from a fascist takeover, in which two separate storylines describe bad guys intending to exterminate most of the human race on racial grounds, and we are supposed to cheer on the “good” colonialists who are protecting a “good” society which controls the minds, bodies and souls of 6 billion people because of their infinite inferiority, and maintains a deeply violent and illiberal social order in order to protect that colonialist project. I cannot remember any book I have ever read in my entire life (except perhaps Starship Troopers, but for obvious reasons my memory of that is dim) in which the society the good guys come from is so deeply evil, and yet we are so blithely expected to cheer along the main characters as they defend and support that society. Looking back on it now, I feel as if I have been indoctrinated into a vicious and disturbed cultural order, raised in it just like the children in the books, and only when I was presented with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them did I finally realize that the society I had been cheering for needs to be torn down root and branch.

Conclusion

The society of the Harry Potter world is best modeled as a colonialist society in which an elite of extremely powerful people lord segregate themselves from a mass of muggles who they exclude from the riches and benefits of their own society, on explicitly racist grounds. This society has developed an intensely authoritarian and illiberal system of government to control the wizards and ensure that the colonial order is reproduced, and is happy to use violence and imprisonment in a soul-destroying prison to maintain that order. Exterminationist ideology bubbles up repeatedly in this world because it is inevitable that a society which views 6 billion people as worthless interferences in its daily activities will eventually decide that the convenient thing to do is murder all of them, and the need to do so becomes pressing when people realize these supposedly useless muggles will get nukes. We the readers are supposed to cheer on the agents of this authoritarian society as they defend it against a fascist, exterminationist incursion, without ever questioning the underlying principles of this social order, the author never shows any sign that she intends for us to question the moral framework of her series, and no character ever seems to question the fundamental evil of it all.

Of course this doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the series, and it’s certainly an interesting political project. But it says a lot about the state of our society that this became popular and that the political underpinnings of the work have never been questioned, or indeed that the explicitly racist framework of the stories has not been repeatedly attacked. Obviously it’s good that millions of children enjoyed a hugely popular book that is enjoyable to read and introduced a whole new generation to the joys of reading and the creative brilliance of literature, but I really hope that in future we as a society can do better than this.


fn1: Itself a deeply disturbing name, when you think about the history of phrases like “Half-blood” when applied to indigenous peoples.


Art note: This is a ledger drawing, art drawn on a school exercise book or some other workaday paper, which is a part of the historical record left behind by indigenous Americans after the end of their independent communities. This one is a drawing by an unknown Kiowa artist, which I took from the Wikipedia entry on ledger art.

I have just finished season 3 of The Expanse, the near-future science fiction series based on the books by James S.A. Corey, and although some aspects of the ending of season 3 were disappointing I have been really enjoying this show. There’s a lot to like about it – the setting itself, the aesthetic, the fundamentals of the inter-system conflict, the main characters, the ideologies at the centre of the conflicts, and the plot are all excellent aspects of this show – but for me the thing that really stands out, the thing that has kept me really strongly engaged with this show is the Belters and their culture. I think it is the best example of how to build a synthetic culture that I have seen in science fiction or fantasy for a long, long time, and the Belters present a rich and detailed culture that serves to reflect ideas and ideologies from our real world, while also standing alone as a fascinating, rich and deep vision of a culture all of its own. The Belters feel simultaneously very alien, like a society raised in space 500 years in our future and yet also viscerally close to us, as if they had sprung straight from the present to taunt us with visions of our own failings. Even their invented language is simultaneously alien and yet so close you feel that you can understand it without subtitles.

The Belters are a culture defined by both the harsh environment of their upbringing, and their political struggle for rights and freedom. The broad parameters of their political struggle are very much like something we would have seen in the colonial era on earth: a people born and raised on a land they don’t own, who yearn to liberate that land from its distant owners but who have to work for those owners in harsh and unrelenting conditions. They are dependent on those distant overlords for much of their technology and supplies, just as surely as the Indians or Irish were forced into dependency on their colonial masters by a deliberate program of economic and industrial destruction. Their liberation struggle aims to free them from this yoke, but cannot act decisively out of fear of losing that essential lifeline, which in space is a much more punitive and restrictive relationship of dependency than we ever saw in the colonial era. This a really well defined model of how a colonial relationship would look in a capitalist and highly militaristic near-earth future, a brilliant depiction of the property relations that would arise in space 500 years after the Cyberpunk era.

This deeply exploitative pseudo-colonial relationship is perfectly tied to the general character traits of the Belters we meet in the series. They are fatalistic, cynical and prone to despair, but they are also full of energy, indomitable and apparently immune to fear. They are resourceful, capable of making something out of almost nothing, independent and smart, but also cramped by their physical space, the constant imposing emptiness beyond the walls of their tiny communities, and the poverty they are forced to grow up and live within. Belter society is obviously rife with crime and people trying to get one over on one another – and who could blame them? – but their society is also rich from solidarity and a shared sense of struggle, and many of the characters we meet are ferociously committed to the long-term goal of national liberation.

This Belter personality, and the political complexity of Belter life, is perfectly summarized in the character Anderson Dawes, the OPA leader on Ceres Station. Anderson Dawes is simultaneously a union leader, a gangster and a revolutionary, making sure that he is personally enriched and empowered by his central role as a union organizer on the station, while also being intensely (and often violently) committed to his people’s struggle. His public persona alternates between lazy, corrupt gangster and committed unionist, but occasionally we also see his ruthless devotion to the cause of freeing the Belters and making a Belter nation. We also see this later in season 3 in the form of Ashford, captain of the Behemoth and former pirate, but Anderson Dawes is the quintessential Belter revolutionary, simultaneously venal and ideological, selfish and selfless. These people are a really good science fiction depiction of the kind of colourful characters who arose from the national liberation movements of the 20th century, activists who were ferociously and single-mindedly committed to the liberation of their people but who were also often personally very corrupt. Anderson Dawes and the OPA are also excellent representations of the way in which national liberation movements of the 20th century overlapped with worker’s movements, and show the ease with which Marxism was able to infiltrate nationalism in developing (but not developed) nations. It makes perfect sense to viewers of the Expanse that Anderson Dawes should be simultaneously a criminal, a union leader and a revolutionary nationalist – wouldn’t you be? – and this perfect logic is exactly why so many national liberation movements in the 20th century adopted Marxism. Europe’s colonial subjects were also largely exploited workers, and their political activists saw very quickly where those two oppressions overlapped. In The Expanse we see a very believable model for how such oppression would be exported into space, and how its victims would respond in a similar vein to the Arafats and Sukarnos of the 20th Century.

Belter culture differs from 20th century colonial cultures by its existence as a colonized diaspora, rather than a simple single landmass under the control of a foreign power, and the Expanse handles this especially well in showing their relationship with the Martians. The Martians in the Expanse serve as a kind of model of New Zealand, white South Africa or Australia, the colonies that made good by dint of being built on “empty” land (which, of course, was stolen in the real world but was genuinely empty on Mars). Farmers, land owners and rich workers, they view the “skinnies” of the belt with disdain, just as Americans sneered at the Irish diaspora, and Australians looked down on the Chinese workers who provided them with essential services during the gold rush. The Martians think they’re better because they have their own land, although of course really they’re just lucky. The relationship between dusters and skinnies is thus driven by a dynamic of scorn and envy, with both depending on each other and unable to separate, and both looked down on by Earth natives, but unwilling to admit their shared interests. We see in season 3 what it takes to make them put those interests aside and fight for a shared humanity, but I think we will also see in future seasons that the new threats they face will wash away the dynamic of their struggle, and with it the most interesting parts of this excellent television series.

With all of these details, The Expanse offers a masterclass in how to make a new culture: drawing on existing social history for its key ingredients, it adds in new threats and environmental constraints, and builds the character, society and motivations of the new culture carefully on this basis. The result is a rich, believable and highly appealing society that quickly draws you into its struggle, and keeps you deeply engaged in it until the bittersweet ending. This is world building at its finest!

This month’s Scientific American has an interesting article about the colonialist routes of the modern conservation movement, focusing on the role of John Muir in the foundation of Yosemite National Park. John Muir was the charismatic founder of the Sierra Club, a big organization in the conservation movement internationally and especially in the USA. John Muir was also an enthusiastic genocider:

his position was that of champion for a mean, brutal policy. It was in regard to Indian extermination[1]

Muir thought of the native Americans of Yosemite as “hideous” and “strange creatures,” and had no respect for them. He wrote that

they seemed to have no right place in the landscape, and I was glad to see them fading out of sight down the pass.

Which is an interesting example of how counter-productive such racism can be. The article presents compelling evidence that those people who had “no right place in the landscape” had actually carefully shaped the entire conservation area through generations of traditional slash-and-burn farming practices, which Muir ignored or actively reviled, with the consequence that the park lost much of its original beauty and character within Muir’s lifetime.

It is of course no surprise that an enthusiastic proponent of genocide should refuse to listen to or respect the ideas of those whose land he stole, and a bitter dreg of schadenfreude that his ignorance and racism led to the corruption of his dream stolen property. That will no doubt have been of little consolation to the men, women and children murdered in pursuit of his conservationist dream.

I wonder if the desire for pristine wilderness amongst those early conservationists was driven at least partly by a desire to reach an itch in the conscience that couldn’t be scratched. No humans on the land means being able to look away from what you’ve done, and to maintain a pretense of terra nullius, that the land was never occupied anyway, that those people who “have no right place in the landscape” were just drifting through anyway – only white men can touch the land in a way that leaves indelible marks, and to the romanticist those marks can only be the cruel marks of industry. So the only solution to protect the land from the evil touch of men is to set it aside – and carefully look away from the fact that the land was being nurtured by red men before you came and took it.

From this guilty itch and wilful blindness was formed the impulse to set aside land for conservation – the essence of the modern conservation movement. There is no doubt that this movement has done a lot of good for the environment, but it’s worth remembering the bloody crucible in which that impulse was born, and wondering how different the modern conservation movement would be if Muir had listened to those people he wand to see “fading out of sight,” instead of hastening their journey down the pass …

fn1: these are the words of his future wife’s friend. They should serve as a reminder that at the time of genocide in America and Australia, opinion was not settled on the rightness of the matter, and those who commissioned the deed were well aware that there was debate as to whether it was right.

There is a fascinating passage in Antony Beevor’s Berlin where he describes the bemusement experienced by Soviet soldiers when they entered Germany proper, and discovered how rich the Germans were. Beevor describes this bemusement turning rapidly to anger, as the Soviets began to ask themselves why a nation that was so much richer than them would want to invade them at all. Why didn’t they just stay home and enjoy their riches? Beevor even ascribes some of the Soviet soldiers’ furious treatment of German civilians (especially women) to their response to this discovery.

I am travelling at the moment, and my travels start with Swiss and Germany. Obviously the Swiss are fantastically wealthy, but when I enter Germany I am always struck by how staggeringly rich Germans are. I don’t mean in the sense that there are a lot of obviously fantastically wealthy people with a million ferraris; rather, the average German is just stupidly wealthy. Furthermore, their infrastructure is stupidly modern: trains are gleaming and new, cars are silent modern things, hotels are well-appointed and modern, farms are always well built and have the latest stuff. Everyone has solar panels. This is a nation not only of private wealth but of public investment. This is particularly interesting because Germany is cheaper than Switzerland or the UK – the price of living is really low – but it’s really obvious that the country is not doing badly despite this.

My next stage in my travels will be London. London is so remarkably different from either Berlin or rural southern Germany, where I am currently staying. It is filthy, rundown and seething with discontent. Nothing works properly, the infrastructure is crumbling, and very few people take any pride in either the service they provide or in the way their nation treats strangers. The contrast from Germany is remarkable – even though the price of living in the UK is much, much higher. How can it be that a nation of such historical greatness can be so decrepit in comparison to Germany?

Many leftists wish to blame all of this on Margaret Thatcher, but this isn’t really a tenable argument. For starters, the UK had serious economic problems before Thatcher (see e.g. the three-day week), and it had a long period of Labour rule after Thatcher, during which it could have fixed some of Thatcher’s worst excesses. Not to mention that Germany has had its share of economic troubles, backward-looking leaders, and of course the need to absorb all of East Germany. Furthermore, Britain has highly valuable resources – oil and gas – that Germany lacks. It’s also unusual for a country’s entire economic troubles to be linked to just one leader – they tend to be more systemic than that – and other nations like Japan and Australia have also had serious economic problems, but still seem wealthier than the UK. So what is it?

Looking around Europe, I note that among the five big ex-colonial powers, only two are still doing well. The five big powers are the UK, France, Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands. If we add in Italy for its African possessions, we have a pretty low rate of economic success for the ex-colonialists. Meanwhile the nations of northern Europe that weren’t colonists are doing very well, as is Japan. (Note that here, by “the colonial powers” I don’t include those nations such as Japan and Germany that tried it for a few years and failed – I mean only those nations who held colonies long enough to benefit from them). I guess some would argue that France is doing okay, but I’m not convinced. But the UK, Spain and Italy are obviously in huge economic trouble. I don’t think that this can be sleeted home to the welfare state – Germany, Japan and the Scandinavians all have excellent welfare states, but they’re much better off than the UK. It also isn’t due to that old British canard, “diversity” – Australia and Germany are actually just as diverse as (or more diverse than) the UK.

I think it might be that colonialism creates a kind of resource curse – nations with large colonies they can exploit don’t bother building up the cultural, economic and political attitudes necessary to be economically successful in the modern world. They stagnate under the influence of colonialism’s apparently beneficial balm. I remember in reading A.N. Lee’s the Victorians that he tries to understand how it is that the UK never experienced the revolutions and civil wars of Europe, and he mentioned one possible reason was the ability to loot Ireland and India. In this version of history, the Irish famine was partly brought about by the need of the British ruling class to subsidize British food supplies, to ensure the poor didn’t revolt. I think Beevor points out that India suffered huge famines in world war 2 as the British exported as much food as possible to the UK. George Orwell notes this phenomenon as well, and in Burmese Days his lead character gives an anti-colonial diatribe in which he points out that the UK basically set India up as a captive market, preventing any industrial competition on the sub-continent in order to ensure that British industrialists had somewhere to sell their products[1].

By way of comparison, Germany and Japan have had a couple of revolutions and, in the absence of either colonies or resources, have had to develop a strong industrial base and a society built around competing with the rest of the world. They have the advantage of having populations large enough to support internal markets and a solid industrial policy – but so does the UK. The difference is that they have never been in a position to decide it’s all too hard and resort to stealing from foreign territories. The economic model the UK worked on until the 1950s was a pretty successful one – you have a small group of people willing to do dirty work, who ensure a regular supply of money to the government by ripping off people who have no power to resist. Such a system is a very tempting way of avoiding facing deep structural problems in your economy, and an excellent way of buying off your poorest class but when the system collapses you find yourself in very difficult economic circumstances[2]. And I think that might partly explain the problems that the UK, Portugal, Spain and France are facing – for too long they were able to belay their economic challenges onto others, and loot weaker nations to plug economic gaps of their own. Since the 1950s the UK’s colonial empire has rapidly unwound, with the jewel in the crown (India) lost in the 1940s. The result is that all those structural problems that were previously being prevented by colonial money have come to the fore, and increasingly desperate attempts to solve them have all come to naught. My favourite example of this zeitgeist is the museum of the crown jewels in the Tower of London: it houses a fantabulous display of colonial bling, showcasing the rapacious powers of the British Empire, but when you get to the end you are confronted with a request to donate to maintain the thing – because the British government no longer has the cash to properly fund its public sector.

Japan and Germany learnt through hard and bitter experience that the colonial powers weren’t going to welcome any new colonial projects in the 20th century, but Japan’s horrible acts and horrible end led directly to the unraveling of the colonies. And when those colonies unwound, I think that Germany, Japan and the other rich non-colonial nations (like Australia and Canada) were in a much better position to face the new world order that resulted. The UK will continue to be unable to adapt to the new world while its politicians, public intellectuals and even its general public are unable to face the true history and legacy of colonialism. Of course, facing this legacy isn’t going to be enough in and of itself – the UK needs to find a way to dig itself out of its economic troubles. I don’t think they will, and instead they’ll be left reflecting on past colonial glories as they slowly slide into the ranks of the low-income countries. Eventually their old colonial possessions will surpass them, and the cycle of colonial history will be complete.

fn1: the lead character of that book is a racist, sexist puppy murderer, so make your own judgments about whether you think they have much worthwhile to say about politics.

fn2: any similarity to Tony Blair’s plan to finance welfare through the finance industry is purely coincidental, I’m sure

My dearest daughter,

Once again, I must begin a letter to you with apologies. First I must apologize for the time since my last letter – it took a long time to get here and, though by the grace of Allah we did not suffer any trouble on the journey, nobody had prepared for our arrival and the first six months have been chaos as we establish our place here. Secondly, I must apologize as always for my Italian. Though I have always respected the wisdom of our great Padisha Mehmet II (did I not serve in his wars for 40 years with no greater word set against him than complaint about my blisters?!), and I have no doubt that his westernization program was of great benefit to all of our Empire, this old soldier’s brain cannot come to grips with Italian, and I fear I will never be as proficient with it as my children. So my apologies for the clumsiness of my expression.

But no matter! Why am I wasting your precious time with my shortcomings, when I have so much to ask you about your studies? How is the university in Firenze? Are you enjoying Italian life? Your grandfather spent a year in Firenze, but mostly digging latrines for a tent city as the siege engines pounded the walls. Do you remember that small glass perfume bottle your dear mother used to use on special occasions? That was his sole and single memento from a year in Firenze, which he bought during the two days he had free before his forced march to Siena. When he looked at that bottle he would become strangely still, and I think something happened in that one night in Firenze … Anyway, because all I know of the city is my father’s romantic memories and the smell of your mother’s perfume, it has always seemed especially romantic and faraway to me. Ha! But it could not be further away than it is now, could it?

It is unseemly for a man of my age to speak of his own deeds before affairs of family and state, but I know your restless and quicksilver mind, and I think that you are eager to hear reports of life in the colonies. So let me tell you a little about this place that I have come to, which is so strange and alien and yet in so many ways such a paradise. In truth it is a pleasure for me to tell you this (please do not tell others how this old man has begun to brag so), for although I cannot confess to understanding our purpose here, I have fallen in love with this place and I am beyond proud that our new Padisha has chosen me of all people to lead our troops in protecting it. It is unseemly to speak of regaining the garden of eden, but it feels as if I have been put in charge of protecting a new world that is within our Padisha’s care. Such a responsibilty! God willing, I will not fail our glorious empire.

But enough false humility (oh how this old man has fallen that he would try and cover his prideful boasting in such a tawdry cloak). To the story! We arrived (thanks be to Allah the Merciful) without incident on a mighty fleet of 40 ships, though truth be told my men and I only occupied four of them. The ships sailed into a sheltered bay that I am told is called “Cayenne” after the French word for a spice that they grow here, and I beheld the most verdant and unforgettable scenery that one can imagine. Our colonists have carved out a quaint little town on the flat land at the beach, but beyond that stretches a line of hills cloaked in the strangest and most ridiculous trees you have ever seen. Beyond that is a forest so thick that were one to fire a cannon into it, the ball might sink to a stop as if one had flicked a pea into a sponge. Truly amazing! And the heat! I must tell you now, it is as if every day one wakes up in a Turkish bath, and spends one’s day working and drilling and exercising and eating all in that bath. Oh, how I missed the breeze off the Aegean when I first came here! For at night, the weather does not change – it is just that the punishing sun disappears, but the heat does not relent. And I am told there is no winter, nor spring – just a time of rains, and a time of less rains. Truly, Allah the Creator has an imagination beyond that of his loyal subjects, that he could think of a whole land devoted to torture.

I am lucky though, for I have a huge house of two levels, set on a hill looking over the town. It is built in the Spanish style, for the Spanish have been colonizing this land longer than us, and have learnt of how to make a home habitable in a sauna – and being a resourceful and open-minded people, did we Turks ever see any idea we liked that we would not steal? So it is that I have a home fit for a family I do not have, and the ballroom now is devoted to maps and exploration plans, and my captains trek mud over the polished floors, and drink wine slouched on the expensive ironwood chairs as we discuss which place to explore next… but my study! Oh, it is a match for anything I had in our old home, a corner room with a view of the bay and this great mountain in the distance, which is so thickly forested that it turns a kind of bluish colour in the afternoon sun, and is darker than the pit of hell at night. The wind blows through here, and I can look out over the pretty little bay and keep a weather eye on the shipping as I pore over maps and supply plans and try to make myself busy … for in truth there is nothing to do here now that we have our barracks and our order.

I think you have probably heard wild stories of the natives, but I beg you not to credit them. They are a shy and reclusive people, who speak a quiet and dignified tongue and comport themselves with dignity when they are not hiding from us. I must say, they dress in a way that would bring shame to you were you to see them, and though tiny in comparison to my Maurician soldiers, they are tough beyond measure. As I write I can look out of my study window and see a group of them gathered by the quay, waiting for a fishing boat to come in that they might unload it. They work for small trifles but especially for weapons of steel, or guns; they return to the hills at night and have some fiendish magic by which they can work their way through the impenetrable forest of the inland, and though I do not speak their language my Italian linguist tells me they have enemies inland, who have never seen a Turk, and who cower and flee at the mere sound of a rifle. Our Austrian biologist warns me we should not give them guns – he claims that these people are like animals, and asks what would happen if we gave the wolf a rifle? – but I do not credit his strange imaginings. Whatever next, will he claim Turks are like unto the apes that the romans kept in their circuses? No, these people are but humans, humans who have strayed from the sight of god. We give them guns, and they will use them to kill other humans. Is it not like Europe?

In many ways though the colonists are more fascinating than the natives. Walking through our little town is like being in a souk in Smyrna, or the armies I told you about in the height of the conquest era! There are a thousand races, and a thousand languages being spoken, and everyone trying to make their little piece of home here on this strange wet land. And the army even more so! When I was a lad, our army was all Turkish, and it had no form or substance – just a gang of young men really, our lances glinting in the sun, intoxicated on bravery and conquest but with no sense of order or discipline. I remember none of us wore the same clothes, or even used the same weapons, and for a year somewhere in Hungary I wore a Hussar’s blue jacket with a Tatar hat I had taken somewhere in Sarai, and I never gave a thought to what anyone in my group was doing – I just went to war for the joy of it. But my men now, they all wear the same clothes, they march in line and they are scared of fighting. There is not a lance in sight – just muskets – and I think many of my men have never met a horse. But they would fight a dragon if they needed to! These tall dour Austrians, and my short but feisty Hungarians, and my laconic Italians – they have no courage, any of them, when they are by themselves, they would rather write poems and lie in bed than fight, but when they fight – my god! Had I met them when I was young, I would never have survived long enough to feel the pride of being your father. As our Mehmet westernized, so he dragged his army forward, and old men like me have to take up the habit of command, or we are forgotten – because our old habits are no good in a soldier.

But I must confess to you, I do not really understand why I am in command here. This land is verdant, but we do not know what to grow or do with it. To the east are the Castillians; to the west, the British. We have come to this colonial game far too late, and most of this land is already taken by the three great European powers. My Padisha tells me that we are not here to take land from the natives, but to take land for the natives – because if we do not, someone else will. But I think it is a pitiful effort – we cannot take but a scrap of land that has been left for us by the Spanish and the British, and meanwhile huge tracts of Asia lie smothered under the suffocating rule of barbaric empires like the Horde or the Nogai. If we must rescue someone, should we not rescue our Muslim brothers from barbary, rather than bringing western enlightenment to a people who will eventually meet the Spanish? And I am told that in the British quarters the natives die in their thousands from British disease. Is this what Allah the Merciful intended for the future of Islam, that most of its people would labour under barbary while its chosen people strived to bring the teachings of our holy book to a handful of benighted souls on the edge of the world? I think we should be looking to Asia if we wish to extend the munificence of our empire!

However, please do not mistake my cynicism for a lack of will – of course I serve our Padisha’s will. And I must confess, being here changes one! I know before you went to Italy I told you I would never accept that a daughter of mine would study, let alone work, but every night now when I take my evening walk I stumble on some marvel – a plant no one in our kingdom has ever seen, or a pretty spotted cat slinking away in the gloom, or some new flower – and I think that your impatient mind would find satiation here. Are you still planning to continue studying biology? Because if I comport myself well in the next few years of defending our colonists, I could perhaps ask our Padisha to send you here, and have you document some of these new flowers. Is that not the purpose you saw for yourself when you fought with me to study? And is not the central focus of Turkish life the collection of new knowledge? I bid you come here if you wish, to further your studies and collect knowledge of this strange new world for the glory of our Empire and Allah the Creator.

Please tell me more of your life in Italy, and reassure this aging soldier that your studies are going well. I will be here, sweating and cursing and making a new world for Islam. I hope that I can share it with you someday.

Yours in piety,

Your Father

ps I enclose some of this spice “cayenne”, taste it warily for it is deadly. Also a local drug called “coffee” that is rather good for when one needs to stay awake; and some sketches of the plants and animals I have seen. None of them have facility like yours, so I beg of you to consider coming here to further your studies. But, bring a fan!!!

 

In today’s Guardian is an article by Naomi Wolf that attempts to link the growth in anti-abortion laws in the US to its imperialist foreign policy. A lot of feminists poo-poo Naomi Wolf as “feminism lite” or politically suspect (I think this having something to do with a prior excursion into the US’s overly-fraught abortion debate), but although I don’t often agree with her I think she’s worth reading, and has some interesting ideas. She also, as in this article, occasionally manages to look beyond the interests of middle class Americans when discussing feminism and politics, and I think that’s rare, so it’s worth reading. In this article she attempts to suggest that the US’s enactment of draconian and oppressive policies overseas is coming back to bite women domestically, as the state begins to enact domestically the same kind of surveillance and control laws that it has been using overseas. In support of her argument she gives this historical example from Imperial Britain:

I had an “Aha” moment recently in Oxford. I was speaking about the British Contagious Diseases Acts – legislation passed in the 1860s that caused thousands of women be arrested and locked up for up to eight months at a time for looking as if they might have had sex. A graduate student asked me, perceptively, if I had looked at this issue in relation to issues of empire at that time, and another student noted in response that imperial British forces had, at around the same time, set up a complex and expansive equivalent of “lock hospitals” to incarcerate and manage prostitutes in colonised regions.

This is an example of policy trialed overseas (“lock hospitals”) and then implemented locally. But I don’t think that her example is a correct interpretation of the Contagious Diseases Act or its purpose, and I think her overall thesis is wrong in its broad strokes and its precise details. Specifically: Imperialism is not a kind of sympathetic magic that corrupts its originating body; and (more relevantly) the US does not have an empire. Let’s tackle each of these points in turn.

Was the Contagious Diseases Act an imperial import?

I would dispute Wolf’s interpretation of the Contagious Diseases Act (CDA), which did not aim to arrest women who “looked like they had sex.” It was aimed at sex workers, and the targets of the law were women who looked like they were soliciting or had been soliciting sex: poor women out alone at unsavoury hours. This law’s victims were Thomas Hardy’s women, not Jane Austen’s. We shouldn’t confuse the act’s main female opponents (high-born women) with its main female victims (sex workers and poorhouse girls). I wrote a post some time back about the CDA and its subsequent reincarnations, and it should be clear that its intended target was poor women and sex workers, and its purpose, though fundamentally nationalist, was not directly related to the imperial project: it was aimed at protecting the moral health of the nation. If we look at other nations of the same era, they were equally obssessed with this nebulous concept, without having any imperial projects under way: Japan at that time was pursuing a policy of isolation for “the health of the nation,” which is precisely as far removed from imperialism as it’s possible to get. We also don’t need to go looking for secret imperialist influences on the CDA: its motivating moral force, and the concerns underlying it, were clearly stated in the public utterances of its supporters, and though they had a lot to do with national power they weren’t necessarily directly linked to imperial projects. It may be that the authors worked out how to run it from the experience of colonial officers, but that’s not proof of anything more than bureaucratic experience. Which brings us to the second problem with Wolf’s thesis: the idea of imperialism as exerting a corrupting influence on the culture of the core.

Imperialism is not sympathetic magic

Although it’s tempting to present a moral argument against institutions like slavery, mass incarceration and imperialism by arguing that they corrupt the body politic through the evil deeds that they demand of society, I don’t think the argument is actually realistic. In the case of imperialism, it’s perfectly easy to see historical examples of empires where the periphery was largely left to itself or managed quite independently of the politics of the centre (Rome springs to mind), or where the periphery could have a lot of political and economic freedom provided it didn’t rebel – I think British India is an example of this. The soviet empire could probably safely be said to have done nothing so bad in the periphery as it had already done to its own people in the centre, so it can’t really be said that the actions at the periphery changed the politics of the core for the worse. Aside from a couple of weeks in 2007, it can’t be said that Britain ever experienced the kinds of harsh policing measures developed so effectively in Northern Ireland between 1967 and the early 1990s; nor would it be fair to say that the only cultural imports from the colonies to Britain were negative racial and political segregation or oppression – much of the cultural flow was positive. Furthermore, British actions towards the Indigenous peoples of Australia and New Zealand, which occurred in roughly the same historical period, were completely different in both policy justification, implementation and outcome. Why, if the repressive policies of the colonies affect the political framework of the colonizer, did Britain not implement the same policies in two neighbouring countries at the same time? Britain’s colonial policies were never so centralized or monolithic – they were determined on the basis of local conditions, available manpower, political support, practical value and the personalities and political conditions of the local administrators. This is why New Zealand never received the punitive treatment meted out to Ireland, or the patchwork genocide planned for Australia. Finally, and most relevantly, if we concede that the USA maintained some kind of empire in the 19th century (in the Phillipines and Central America), it’s hard to see how the people there were treated worse than people in the USA. There was no widespread institution of slavery, and the only genocide I’m aware of the US ever practicing was in the USA itself. It’s not like they got the idea of exterminating the natives from their projects in the Philipines. I would go further and say, imperialism doesn’t corrupt the imperialist: the imperialist must have been already corrupted to think of such a thing, and anyone who thinks that stomping another nation into the dust for your own gain is likely to be willing to overlook a little collateral damage in his own backyard too.

The experience of many colonial powers is that the politics practiced on the periphery never comes back to the core in any meaningful way, and in more recent times it has been essential, in fact, to hide the worst excesses of the colonial branch of government, lest people begin to feel squeamish about the program. From about the mid-19th century onward, people wanted to believe they could have the material benefits of empire without suffering the political and cultural costs that Naomi Wolf wants us to think were inherent in the project, and governments went to great lengths to ensure that this happened. Why should modern America’s “empire” be any different? But then, does modern America have an empire at all?

Does America have an empire?

If you listen to the right people, you’ll soon discover that almost all of America’s foreign policy actions can be explained by its imperialism. But does America have an empire, and is “it’s the imperialism, innit?” a good approach to understanding America’s (generally terrible) foreign policies? I differ from a lot of my bleeding-heart, do-gooding, pro-gay-abortion islamofascist leftist brothers on this issue: I don’t think the USA has an empire and I don’t think “imperialism” explains its actions. Imperialism is a bad habit of old nations, not the new world: we have our own problems, and we’re certainly not immune to the temptations of territorial acquisition (see e.g. Indonesia), wars of choice (America) or wars for political convenience (Australia) – but we don’t generally engage in imperialism. Sometimes America’s foreign policy delivers outcomes (such as in Iraq) that look like imperialism, but that’s just a coincidence. And sure, there are probably some far, far right loons in the USA who don’t see anything morally wrong with establishing an American empire, but they almost certainly would think it’s too much trouble and in any case they don’t represent America or American politicians. If we could characterize America’s motives more realistically, it would be as a nation that wants to establish the right to do whatever it wants whenever and however it wants. So, sometimes this means being able to act like an imperialist (Iraq), an arsehole (Grenada) or an interfering little shit (most of Central America) but this is not the same as imperialism. One could probably talk about American cultural and trade empires, but that’s a different use of the E-word. Basically, America has established a pre-eminent place in the world through good deeds (WW2) and bad (Vietnam, etc.) and through a remarkable 100 years of dynamism and wise decisions (let’s not overlook this!), and in order to protect its position will sometimes do terrible things. But it doesn’t currently have an empire, nor does it have anything even remotely resembling imperial policies in its periphery that could be imported to the core or even influence it much. A few seedy and unpleasant policies enacted in areas beyond the rule of law (Afghanistan and Yemen) do not constitute an institution, either. We’ll

So what is it with all this loony anti-choice stuff?

What this means is that America’s domestic political problems are the result of its domestic political culture[1]. I am no expert on US politics or culture, but my guess would be that the upswing in anti-abortion laws in the US simply reflects a combination of growing religious feeling, the fruits of 20 years of right-wing dominance of political forums in the states, and – probably most importantly – the coalescing of grassroots right-wing activism around a large amount of elite money. In order to get their free market and anti-AGW politics widespread, certain political interests have funded a strong right-wing movement and been more than happy to overlook its religious and racist fringe. This is naturally going to have some consequences in social policy.

An alternative explanation – and the one that I suspect Naomi Wolf is building up an intellectual edifice to protect herself against – is that a lot (or a majority) of Americans are genuinely, deeply committed to an anti-abortion politics, that this is their real heartfelt belief, and they take the issue seriously enough to be willing to pay a political price (in supervision of women’s behavior) to get their way on the issue. Although to me the contrast between the pro-life movement’s stance on abortion and war is hypocritical and sickening, I don’t think there’s any cognitive dissonance or intellectual challenge to holding these beliefs, and I don’t see a need to come up with a complex story of sympathetic cultural magic to explain the apparent contradictions within the right-wing anti-choice movement[2]. In fact, I find the left-wing anti-choice movement much harder to comprehend. So Naomi, rather than looking to your country’s nebulously-defined foreign policy imperialism as an explanation, look somewhere simpler: you need to find a way to change your compatriots’ minds on abortion. You probably won’t, but that’s not the fault of imperialism or George Bush: it’s because a lot of Americans deeply believe something you don’t.

A final note on imperialism and role-playing

Obviously this blog has branched out a little from talking about only RPGs in the last two years. This is partly because I like having a forum to talk about whatever I like, and it’s my blog so I’ll do what I want; it’s partly because I’m not doing so much role-playing now I’m so busy. It’s also partly because my framework for analyzing cultural stuff (both within the fantasy/rpg world and outside of it) is heavily influenced by post-colonialism, which is I think quite a natural perspective for a modern Australian (though I don’t claim it’s the only one). But bear with me: I think imperialism and colonialism are relevant topics in the gaming world, in the sense that a lot of fantasy RPGs and fantasy literature are set in a world where colonialism and imperialism are either good things or accepted, and quite often colonies are a core part of the story. In fact recently I saw an advert for a new computer game with the slogan “Explore, Exploit, Exterminate.” So whether peripherally (through the culture that influences the games) or directly (through game settings) I think imperialism and colonialism are still relevant cultural concepts in the fantasy world. In building our worlds and understanding other people’s game settings and worlds, these concepts can be relevant and interesting.

fn1: Here at the faustusnotes academy of political science, we love to state the obvious in 1000 words or more.

fn2: I would also go back to my previous comment about my disagreement with my islamofascist brothers, and suggest that if “imperialism” is your explanation for a political problem in a new world country, you haven’t thought about the problem enough. It’s probably something else.

Not the picnic Gordon thought it was ...

Against all expectation, the Guardian today reports that the British government destroyed records of its colonial atrocities.The government destroyed many documents detailing its worst excesses, and hid those documents it didn’t destroy. These latter documents were kept in a secret location and should have been released in the 1980s, but were kept secret in breach of the government’s own disclosure laws. The atrocities they detail aren’t very pretty, either:

The papers at Hanslope Park include monthly intelligence reports on the “elimination” of the colonial authority’s enemies in 1950s Malaya; records showing ministers in London were aware of the torture and murder of Mau Mau insurgents in Kenya, including a case of aman said to have been “roasted alive”; and papers detailing the lengths to which the UK went to forcibly remove islanders from Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.

Among the documents that appear to have been destroyed were: records of the abuse of Mau Mau insurgents detained by British colonial authorities, who were tortured and sometimes murdered; reports that may have detailed the alleged massacre of 24 unarmed villagers in Malaya by soldiers of the Scots Guards in 1948; most of the sensitive documents kept by colonial authorities in Aden, where the army’s Intelligence Corps operated a secret torture centre for several years in the 1960s; and every sensitive document kept by the authorities in British Guiana, a colony whose policies were heavily influenced by successive US governments and whose post-independence leader was toppled in a coup orchestrated by the CIA.

These are not the kind of low-level violence we see depicted in your average Passage to India type story, they are serious, systematic and government sanctioned human rights abuses that under the laws of war would see their perpetrators imprisoned for a very long time – and many of them happened after the establishment of the Geneva conventions and the modern settlement of the laws of war. It’s also clear that the destruction of the documents was directed from the very top, with an attention to detail that would make Orwell proud:

Painstaking measures were taken to prevent post-independence governments from learning that the watch files had ever existed. One instruction states: “The legacy files must leave no reference to watch material. Indeed, the very existence of the watch series, though it may be guessed at, should never be revealed.”

When a single watch file was to be removed from a group of legacy files, a “twin file” – or dummy – was to be created to insert in its place. If this was not practicable, the documents were to be removed en masse.

This is not news because of a sudden revelation that the UK did bad things in its colonies – this has long been known – but it is important because it shows that the historical narrative (and particularly the public debate) about British colonialism has been biased in the UK’s favour. There is a strong belief in the UK that British colonialism was “benign,” both objectively and when compared to the French or the Dutch, and that the British presence in these countries civilized and advanced them – this belief is tackled directly by Orwell in Burmese Days, and is still present in the public understanding of colonialism in the UK. For example, many British still believe that India is where it is today because of, and not despite, the British presence there, and much of British debate about “the state of Africa” ignores the possibility that colonialism might have played a role in influencing the political and economic character of the post-independence states.

Now we can see part of the reason for this blithe ignorance of the systematic and cruel nature of British oppression in the colonies: the government carefully hid it, both from the post-independence governments and from its own people. It destroyed the worst evidence and hid the rest, well past the time when it should have been revealed, thus ensuring that the true character of the colonial era was never publicly documented or allowed to be sourced authoritatively. This makes it much easier to pass off post-colonial states’ claims of abuse as sour grapes or political posturing, since there is no “credible” evidence that anything happened. It also enabled the government to present the violence of the anti-colonial political movements as unjustified, and this in turn played into its depiction of the remaining post-colonial movements, like the Irish Republican Army (IRA) as using violence that was excessive for their cause – after all, if British rule had been relatively benign in Asia, why would it be worth killing people to achieve independence in Ireland? Had these documents been released in the 1980s when they were supposed to be, the IRA’s claims that a peaceful settlement was impossible would look somewhat more credible, and their behavior after Bloody Sunday (1967) would look more like a rational response to systematic state violence than the commonly-characterised “over-reaction to an isolated incident.”

And this is the key role that the systematic destruction of evidence plays in fabricating the history of British colonialism: in the public narrative, British violence in the colonies was just isolated incidents by a few colonial soldiers or the odd governor, not a coherent system of repression coordinated and directed from the centre. Nationalist violence was an over-reaction and everyone should have just done what Gandhi did. Britain left with its head held high, having civilized these far-flung realms and then handed them back with only the occasional moment of unfortunate retributive violence. The real narrative, it appears, is very different, and the release of these documents enables us to look back on the events of the time and especially the political and military decisions of the anti-colonialists with a very different perspective. They weren’t fighting for an unrealistic ideal of third world sovereignty, but were trying to overthrow a repressive invader that protected its power through the systematic use of state-sanctioned torture and murder.

This also colours our understanding of previous eras. If the UK government of the 50s and 60s was willing to engage in this system of deception, what were previous governments doing and how does our understanding of previous colonial events change? For example, A.N Wilson’s The Victorians dwells extensively on the behaviour of Britain in India and the British public’s attitude towards India, and describes in detail the Indian uprisings in the 19th century and the British military response. But did Wilson have access to all the facts, or was he working from a highly biased and selective British account of those events? Wilson depicts the British response as largely restrained, excessive only in some instances and not given any strong centralized repressive impetus. Is this true, and can any scholarship on the colonial era before 1950 claim to be able to make claims to truth about British behaviour?

I believe Britain hasn’t come to terms with its colonial past, and part of the reason for this is its biased public narrative. Now we can see what role the government played in constructing that bias, and begin to question the common conception of British colonialism as misguided but largely benevolent. In fact, it was cruel and evil, and the government is finally beginning to admit it. In 2005 the Prime Minister declared that Britain did not need to apologize for its colonial past, and asked ex-colonies to focus instead on British ideals of “liberty and tolerance.” Perhaps they can enlighten themselves as to exactly how those ideals operated through a review of the documents at Hanslope Park? And perhapsthe British should be asking whether they really do need to apologize for colonialism, just as Australia has for child abduction, and the USA for slavery?