Saturday, October 1, 2016

The Long Shadow of Decolonialisation

As part of my ongoing attempts to join the illustrious brotherhood of the Froude Society, I’ve been reading ‘The Bow of Ulysses’, by James Anthony Froude.

There’s a lot of fascinating points about the overall state of the West Indies in the late 19th century. But one point that stood out for me, at least up to Chapter 10 where I am now, is the realization that the process of decolonialization started much earlier than I’d thought.

In some sense, this is a specific application of one of Moldbug’s most insightful points – that the world has been getting more left wing for much longer than most people realize. And as a result, many of the social trends that we think of as 20th century phenomena actually have roots that start much earlier. This is the kind of insight that one is likely to get mostly by reading actual historical sources. Without actually going to the original sources, the temptation will always be to just substitute the modern understanding of historical issues.

The typical narrative of decolonialism starts with the only history that most people know – World Wars 1 and 2. Britain successfully defeated the Germans in both cases, but it was so exhausted, bankrupt and out of resources that it lacked the ability and will to maintain its colonies. Hence, it granted them all independence in fairly quick succession. The start of it all seems to have been Home Rule for Northern Ireland in 1922, after which things snowballed.

This is not a silly explanation, and probably has elements of truth to it. It is indeed true, as Wikipedia will confirm, that the height of the British Empire in terms of territory was achieved in 1921

If this is the main explanation, what should we expect to be the mood in 1887, when ‘The Bow of Ulysses’ was written? We arrive on the scene when Britain had an enormous empire, having been militarily dominant in Europe for at least 80 years. Victorian England was apparently jingoistic and patriotic about its Empire, as the story goes. Presumably the Empire was a source of considerable pride and fervor.

But Froude in 1887 paints a very different picture. The West Indies are depicted as being in a state of general decay. Froude contrasts the scene in Granada with the one described by Pere Labat, a Frenchman who had visited a century earlier, and had been optimistic about what the English would make of the colony after taking it from the French:
“The English had obtained Grenada, and this is what they had made of it. The forts which had been erected by his countrymen had been deserted and dismantled; the castle on which we had seen our flag flying was a ruin; the walls were crumbling and in many places had fallen down. One solitary gun was left, but that was honeycombed and could be fired only with half a charge to salute with. It was true that the forts had ceased to be of use, but that was because there was nothing left to defend. ... Nature had been simply allowed by us to resume possession of the island.”
Froude is primarily a historian, rather than a political theorist or an economist. He has a keen eye for the nuance and differences across the various islands he visits. But even in those that have fared better, such as Barbados, there is a strong sense that decay has been building for a long time, due to an interplay of causes:
“The position is painfully simple. The great prosperity of the island [Barbados] ended with emancipation. Barbadoes suffered less than Jamaica or the Antilles because the population was large and the land limited, and the blacks were obliged to work to keep themselves alive. The abolition of the sugar duties was the next blow. The price of sugar fell, and the estates yielded little more than the expense of cultivation.”
Countries have survived economic decline, of course. But in the West Indian colonies, the economic decline has a complex relationship with the declining English population, as Froude tells it, where cause and effect run in both directions. As the islands decay, the English have less economic incentive to remain there, tending to become absentee landlords. This in turn causes their estates to decay further, which reduces the incentives of the remaining English population to stay on the island. At some point, the exodus becomes self-fulfilling – English people leave just because they expect other English people to leave.

Froude’s description of St Vincent captures this mood of slow and inevitable decline very well:
“The prosperity has for the last forty years waned and waned. There are now two thousand white people there, and forty thousand coloured people, and the proportion alters annually to our disadvantage. The usual remedies have been tried. The constitution has been altered a dozen times. Just now I believe the Crown is trying to do without one, having found the results of the elective principle not encouraging, but we shall perhaps revert to it before long; any way, the tables show that each year the trade of the island decreases, and will continue to decrease while the expenditure increases and will increase.”
How many people do you think understand that white flight began not in the 20th century American mid-west, but in the 19th century British Caribbean?

Interestingly, the paragraph above is eerily prescient in that if you alter the frankness of the language and racial attitudes, its descriptions could apply very closely to both Rhodesia and South Africa in the mid-to-late 20th century.

Declining white population relative to the black population? Check.

Slow but inexorable economic decline? Check.

Meddling with governing arrangements to try to maintain the current power structure? Check.

Ultimate futility of such changes? Check.

The St Vincent Ghost of Christmas Future does not look encouraging. It’s not for nothing that my bet about South Africa six years ago is still looking pretty good.

What is remarkable, however, is that both Apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia were crushed under the weight of progressive western opinion, even in the teeth of strong efforts from the local white population to maintain the status quo. In the 19th century, there was no hegemon to push around the British Empire, and no major outside country demanding devolution of power (other than London elites). And yet the result was the same anyway. The same red/blue tribal and ideological conflict was playing out internally within London, rather than between Washington and Salisbury.

What is most striking in Froude’s descriptions, even more than the economic aspect of the decline, is the decline of will. Even by 1887, there is the general sense that people have lost the sense of quite what the empire is meant to be for. The West Indian colonies were fought over strongly when sugar was such a lucrative crop that they were valuable as a merely economic proposition. There remains a sense of noblesse oblige in remaining to secure good government for the subjects of these islands. But as the economy declines and the cost of the proposition increases, there arises a general question – what exactly are we doing all this for?
"Languidly charming as it all was, I could not help asking myself of what use such a possession could be either to England or to the English nation. We could not colonise it, could not cultivate it, could not draw a revenue from it. If it prospered commercially the prosperity would be of French and Spaniards, mulattoes and blacks, but scarcely, if at all, of my own countrymen. For here too, as elsewhere, they were growing fewer daily, and those who remained were looking forward to the day when they could be released. If it were not for the honour of the thing, as the Irishman said after being carried in a sedan chair which had no bottom, we might have spared ourselves so unnecessary a conquest.”
And remember, this is coming from someone who was for the most part a defender of Empire.

Without an obvious answer to this question, there arises a push towards general devolution of powers towards self-government. From the white populations of the islands, the primary causes seem to be quite frivolous: fashion, boredom, a desire not to be left behind, and the possibility of securing lucrative government appointments for themselves:
“Trinidad is a purely Crown colony, and has escaped hitherto the introduction of the election virus. The newspapers and certain busy gentlemen in ' Port of Spain ' had discovered that they were living under ' a degrading tyranny,' and they demanded a ' constitution.' They did not complain that their affairs had been ill managed. On the contrary, they insisted that they were the most prosperous of the West Indian colonies, and alone had a surplus in their treasury."
"They were a mixed and motley assemblage of all races and colours, busy each with their own affairs, and never hitherto troubling themselves about politics. But it had pleased the Home Government to set up the beginning of a constitution again in Jamaica, no one knew why, but so it was, and Trinidad did not choose to be behindhand. The official appointments were valuable, and had been hitherto given away by the Crown. The local popularities very naturally wished to have them for themselves.
This passage illustrates a number of points not widely appreciated in the common narrative. Firstly, the main instigators for political self-rule in these British colonies were not organized opposition from an unhappy local black population (such as was the case in the violent overthrow of the French in Haiti), but rather local English elites, who felt they personally stood to gain from the new arrangements.

But more importantly, these domestic forces on the side of political change are notable in Froude’s description for just how feeble and absurd they are. The only reason they can succeed is that a large portion of the elite in Britain have simply lost the desire to maintain the existing arrangements. As a result, the full independence obtained for these colonies in the 20th century was merely the last step in a gradual devolution of powers that began at around a century earlier. And the devolution of powers was actually quite acceptable to London elites, because they simply couldn’t be bothered with the whole thing any more. Froude describes the upshot of the meeting he talked about in the previous quote:
"The result, I believe, was some petition or other which would go home and pass as evidence, to minds eager to believe, that Trinidad was rapidly ripening for responsible government, promising relief to an overburdened Secretary for the Colonies, who has more to do than he can attend to, and is pleased with opportunities of gratifying popular sentiment, or of showing off in Parliament the development of colonial institutions. He knows nothing, can know nothing, of the special conditions of our hundred dependencies. He accepts what his representatives in the several colonies choose to tell him; and his representatives, being birds of passage responsible only to their employers at home, and depending for their promotion on making themselves agreeable, are under irresistible temptations to report what it will please the Secretary of State to hear. For the Secretary of State, too, is a bird of passage as they are, passing through the Colonial Office on his way to other departments."
World War 1 is not even a puff of smoke on the horizon, and yet the whole scene is already laid out for us. The most interesting part of reading Froude is to compare his descriptions to how events subsequently unfolded. Devolution ended up proceeding in largely the way he anticipated, but the process has a very different origin from the standard narrative today.

The larger point that emerges is that it is a mistake to judge the power of an empire, a people or a country by its territory or strength on paper. Societal decline is a slow process of erosion over decades, as institutions and the popular will get worn down. Abandonment of territory or government is in fact better understood as the last step of the process. Inertia alone will keep governing arrangements limping along long after the will to maintain them has actually disappeared. And the will to govern, once gone, is apparently a rather difficult thing to rekindle.

If all of this sounds somewhat like the latter stages of the American empire that we find ourselves living in, there is a reason. I can see why Moldbug recommended this book so highly.


  1. Why are you talking about "will" and being "bothered" to govern? It makes no sense.

    1. You should read the book to find out, as if I quoted the whole thing it would get very long. Froude makes a fairly compelling case that even with the decline of sugar prices, the islands could have been run profitably if governed by competent Englishmen. But the London elite preferred to devolve power, partly out of a belief in the unlimited power of democratic self government to fix problems everywhere, and partly out of a weariness with the whole colonial project.

      For instance, here's Froude later on Jamaica. Also, these changes occurred after the first attempt at democratic devolution resulted in the Gordon riots:

      In 1884 Mr. Gladstone's Government, for reasons which I have not been able to ascertain, revived suddenly the representative system ; constructed a council composed equally of nominated and of elected members, and placed the franchise so low as to include practically every negro peasant who possessed a hut and a garden. So long as the Crown retains and exercises its power of nomination, no worse results can ensue than the inevitable discontent when the votes of the elected members are disregarded or overborne. But to have ventured so important an alteration with the intention of leaving it without further extension would have been an act of gratuitous folly, of which it would be impossible to imagine an English cabinet to have been capable. It is therefore assumed and understood to have been no more than an initial step towards passing on the management of Jamaica to the black constituencies. It has been so construed in the other islands, and was the occasion of the agitation in Trinidad which I observed when I was there.
      My own opinion as to the wisdom of such an experiment matters little : but I have a right to say that neither blacks nor whites have asked for it ; that no one who knows anything of the West Indies and wishes them to remain English sincerely asked for it ; that no one agitated for it save a few newspaper writers and mulattoes whom it would raise into consequence. If tried at all, it will be tried either with a deliberate intention of cutting Jamaica free from us altogether, or else in deference to English political superstitions, which attribute supernatural virtues to the exercise of the franchise, and assume that a form of self-government which suits us tolerably at home will be equally beneficial in all countries and under all conditions.

      A decline in the will to govern seems like a reasonable description to me.

    2. I have read the book. This is where Hestia linked guys drive me crazy. You have taken this, and then just applied a hazy, hand wavey interpretation. I don't recall Moldbug claiming everything that happened was due to an "attitude" problem. The point he made was that structures and institutions, and the resultant behaviour they encourage, and the conflicts they encode, explain what is going on.

      This has nothing to do with "will" to govern.

    3. You know, your critique is actually pretty fair.

      I think parts of the second last paragraph were a bit sloppy and vague, in that they somewhat implied that changes in a will to govern and rule other people were some external, cultural phenomenon driving everything, shifting for mysterious reasons. The other part that should have been explained better was that the will to govern was specifically relating to the will to govern the West Indies, not that the London elites were interested in abandoning power overall. What I had in mind was more a shorthand for characterizing the overall attitude of the London elite – a sort of average opinion, split across the various parts of the spectrum of attitudes and power players. Of course, this change is really about shifting power structures within different groups with different incentives, which happen for the reasons you suggest.

      Now, you might reasonably say that describing the change in average opinion, rather than characterizing the incentives and beliefs of the smaller groups that make up the average, obscures more than it illuminates, and you’d have a fair point.

      But on the other hand, that's what Froude is doing. At least up to halfway, where I’m at, doesn’t go into the detail of the inner struggles within British attitudes that drive the changes in the West Indies. And I think there’s a point here. First, this isn’t meant to be a book about political changes in Britain, but about the West Indies. Some of the changes Froude discusses, usually in brief, but he at times he seems to find the shifts themselves somewhat arbitrary and odd (such as in the quote about Gladstone that I just gave you). But more to the point, to a resident of the West Indies, which is somewhat the perspective the book takes, these changes were experienced as an overall attitude coming from Britain, and one which was both external and somewhat arbitrary. They apply for a trade treaty with the US and get turned down, they suddenly get given a constitution in Jamaica and have it taken away again, etc. To an Englishman living in one of the smaller islands, the belief that England is more interested in devolving power to simply be done with it all, rather than fixing the manifest problems on the ground, is one that Froude discusses in a number of places. It’s in this context that a ‘lack of will to govern’ was the shorthand I used for the overall attitude shift.

      In other words, if you take away the implication that this change is a cause, rather than a description of an attitude that itself had a variety of underlying causes, I still think it’s a reasonable characterisation.

    4. "This is where Hestia linked guys drive me crazy. You have taken this, and then just applied a hazy, hand wavey interpretation. I don't recall Moldbug claiming everything that happened was due to an "attitude" problem. The point he made was that structures and institutions, and the resultant behaviour they encourage, and the conflicts they encode, explain what is going on.

      This has nothing to do with "will" to govern."

      What drives me crazy are people who appear to have a real contribution to make to a discussion, attack what is written, and then completely fail to elucidate their position. Your response (despite my agreeing with you), is even more 'hand wavey' than the article.

      Why don't you actually tell us WHICH structures and institutions led to this decolonisation of the Indes and WHAT behaviour and conflict arose accordingly? And you definitely need to explain how this had nothing to do with the will to govern or lack thereof, as Shylock's last paragraph in his reply seems quite sound.

    5. Why don't you actually tell us WHICH structures and institutions led to this decolonisation of the Indes and WHAT behaviour and conflict arose accordingly?

      Indeed. Personally, I think that this is a non-trivially difficult task, even if you've read Moldbug from start to finish. One can get the big picture brush strokes of puritan holiness spirals, and the tribal conflict between different castes within Britain and America. But getting from there to specifics of the decolonialisation process is not nearly so simple, at least to me. Maybe it is to other people.

  2. He actually makes the point himself. Media, academia, civil service, private philanthropy- all the institutions involved in governance in a system that can be designated imperium in imperio.

    Until you guys get to grips with the mechanism of imperium in imperio, we are going to go in circles.

  3. You do realise that this response again says absolutely nothing of substance. It's how people talk who have an idea of how things work, but cannot articulate it.

    Again, to avoid us 'going in circles' (going nowhere is more like it), why don't you stop being obtuse and be specific: what and who were the deep state during this decolonisation period; how did they exert influence; what were the consequences... etc?

    (Please dont come back with a general comment about how the 'Cathedral' did it)