Sunday, February 6, 2011

Empires and Governance

Like all good Americans, I have a venerable Superbowl tradition. In my case, it involves staying as far away as possible from a television showing that most insufferable of spectator sports. But today I wandered into the Great Hall at I-House and caught the first, unmemorable five minutes of the match, along with a demo for international students of the rules of football.

What stuck with me most, from those five minutes, was a particular face in the crowd as the cameras panned excited fans. Possessed of its characteristic simian look, it also wore its accustomed smirk, only marginally less out-of-place in the football stands than when proclaiming “Mission Accomplished!” from the deck of an aircraft carrier. I suspect that the mere sight of W will forever prompt a gag-reflex.

But it also prompted—since for a living I think about the British Empire and colonial governance—some musing on how, the immorality of the event aside, the United States managed to so badly botch its invasion and ‘democratisation’ of Iraq. A friend commented that he’d read that Rumsfeld, in his new memoir, wrote that the administration hadn’t wanted to do too much planning for the post-invasion period...because that would give people the [entirely accurate] impression that the invasion had been planned in advance!

But as I made my escape from the game showing, it occurred to me that there might be another reason why the Bush Administration and its flunkeys proved so spectacularly inept at managing Iraq in the immediate aftermath of the invasion; why post-war planning was so absurd.

The Neoconservatives who ran Bush’s foreign policy share with neoliberals an utter contempt for the institutions of governance. It is an extraordinary irony—which can’t have been lost on the neoconservative thugs in the White House—that a group of people whose outlook is premised on a contempt for representative democracy, the fetishisation of secrecy, the dismantling of checks and balances, and the utter disregard for the responsibility of government towards its people should find themselves nation-building.

Is it any wonder that a people accustomed to governing their own country with the utmost dismissiveness would evince a similar scorn for civil institutions in Iraq? How could we expect a group of people who think that collective responsibility and equality are symptoms of a weak and decadent people would treat Iraqis’ civil society with anything other than derision?

In this flagrant disdain for governance, neoconservative Republicans differ greatly from nineteenth and early twentieth century British practitioners of imperial rule. If an earlier generation of British imperialists expressed varying levels of unease with the idea of formal imperialism (they were much less squeamish about enforcing ‘free trade’ with gunboats and armed landing parties) as with government intervention in Britain, the later nineteenth century witnessed changes.

Rabid imperialist Joseph Chamberlain was a proponent of what is characterised as “municipal socialism”, a theory which influenced imperial reformers like Sidney and Beatrice Webb. The Liberals who presided over the expansion of the British Empire during the Great War were the same men who—under pressure from an impatient working class, the parliamentary Labour Party and visible material conditions—laid the foundations for one of the world’s first modern welfare states. Their number included that most intransigent of imperialists, Winston Churchill.

I wouldn’t make the claim that the British were somehow ‘better’ at governing their conquered territories—theirs was, after all, an often-brutal, frequently-bloody, and inherently exploitative rule. But a serious effort was made by a group of politicians and administrators who were committed to the idea of governance.

Neither the neoconservatives of the Bush White House (committed as they were to discrediting good governance in the United States) nor the current Republican defenders of Bush and Obama’s wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan (and equally committed to neglect as the most effective mode of governance) have the philosophical coherence to make the case for U.S. nation-building. Nor does Obama himself. For although he is clearly less hostile towards the idea of government as something that can and must be made to work for people, his has been singularly unsuccessful at making the case for the importance of public institutions in all our lives.

The deep cultural aversion to thinking about governance as it relates to democracy in positive terms must surely be a severe handicap to U.S. policymakers of most political stripes as they grapple with problems of their own making in the Middle East and South Asia.

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