Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Review: Empires and the Right (though not together)

I just finished reading two very different books this evening, each of which deserves a little blurb.  I realise, given their disparity, that what I’m supposed to do is find some very clever basis for a comparison, and make that the foundation for some witty observation about how the world works, but instead I’ll just review them separately.

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John Darwin (no, not the one in the canoe) appears to be at that career-stage where writing the “Big Book” is a must.  His last one, After Tamerlane: the Global History of Empire, certainly has a large target.  It would be hard to find a bigger one, but he has a try in The Empire Project: The Rise and Fall of the British World System, 1830-1970

This is clearly Darwin’s bid for a place in the sun, or more accurately a place in the pantheon of historians of the British Empire.  But oops, that’s Darwin’s point...this thing is too complex, too variegated, too much of an administrative mess for the term ‘empire’ to do it proper justice (then why put ‘Empire’ in the title?, asks the smart-aleck  Because it sells).  It’s the novelty of a British ‘world system’ that Darwin is banking on catapulting him up to rest amongst the likes of Robinson and Gallagher, Cain and Hopkins.

But like Christopher Bayly’s (that’s Sir Christopher, to us mere mortals) recent The Birth of the Modern World: Global Connections and Comparisons, 1780-1914, Darwin’s weighty tome doesn’t quite take him to the stars (though if he stood on it, he’d get pretty close).  Impressive in its detail, sweep, archive and grasp of the finer points of the economics of British imperialism, the book feels a little vague, a little fuzzy, and a little holey in other respects.

For one thing, I’m still not quite sure why 1830 is the best moment to begin the story of this world system.  Because assuming that many of the ideas, economies, geographies and players exist and interact prior to the early nineteenth century, and that (as Darwin acknowledges) they were talking about this British system, an account of origins might have been helpful.  But it also might have disrupted Darwin’s almost-too-neat schema.

His basic argument is that there were four parts to this system (which neatly encompasses formal and informal empires, the mass of protectorates, crown colonies, mandates and assorted territories): Britain proper, the Indian subcontinent, a ‘commercial republic’ (including the City of London, the merchant marine and other commercial enterprise), and the Dominions (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Newfoundland and Ireland).  So long as each of these—through ties of sentiment, commerce and various forms of persuasion—remained in place, the British World System held.  But as India ground inexorably towards Independence, as the Dominions gravitated towards the United States or apartheid, and as Britain’s economic supremacy was eroded by war efforts, sterling crises and indebtedness, the system came crashing down—or slipped apart at least.

And that’s fine, though not terribly novel.  The bird’s-eye-view focussed a little much on high-politics and diplomatic machinations (making it seem too intently focussed on Britain itself at times, though at others I wondered where the suffragettes, trades unions and veterans had got to—there’s precious little on cultural history here), and not enough on ideologies (like liberalism) or local developments (though a book that did all of that could be turned over to NASA as a cheap route to the moon. 

My biggest beef is that the book is reasonably (if uncontroversially) good on the “why”, but not so good on the “how”.  Maybe it’s just an expectation raised by the use of the word “system”, but I thought that there was too little said about the character of the system, its politics, how it functioned at a bureaucratic level.  And if there’s something systematic about how this British World worked, that calls for closer attention to how it played out on the ground in the Empire—a closer study of British governance in Uganda (networking with missionaries, the Kabaka, traders, local agriculturalists), or on trading practises in the Shanghai concession (the manoeuvrings between companies, home government, the Chinese government in Beijing, European rivals), for example, would yield more insight into the ‘system’ than a book which up reading like a fairly conventional (and also comprehensive) history of Empire book-ended by some interesting thoughts.

John Darwin.  The Empire Project: The Rise and Fall of the British World-System, 1830-1970.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

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Laura Kalman’s Right Star Rising: A New Politics, 1974-1980 is less comforting, given that it’s about the emergence rather than the demise of one of history’s Bad Things.  It is an account of U.S. politics which, though it occasionally reads like a Bob Woodward book, positions the second half of the 1970s as a critical period in its own right. 

This book makes for fascinating reading for any number of reasons.  Occasionally, it reads like a “Nothing New Under the Sun” tract, and having finished it, it boggles my mind that anyone who lived through this period could complain that partisanship, paralysis and political gridlock are a twenty-first century novelty (unless the Reagan Years were as amnesia-inducing to the public as they were to him).  All the hyperbolic language of the conservative wing of the Republican Party was honed if not developed during that decade—one part Nixonian ruthlessness, one part social-conservative hatred for those who they considered degenerate leftists.

Those leftists are, curiously, somewhat absent.  Kalman says at the outset that her focus is on Washington, D.C., but she does much more justice to the various right-wing lobbies than to any of those on the political left—in part, perhaps, because her theme is the rise of that Right.  Nevertheless, it leads her into some generalisations, suggesting, for instance, that Nixon inspired the environmentalism of the 1970s, ignoring the enormous grassroots development and the coherence of the environmental lobby from the ‘60s onwards. 

But if there are strong continuities, and if many of the characters or at least their types look familiar, Kalman’s central contention is that this half-decade marks the making of our contemporary politics—the New Politics of the title.  These years saw the drifting and manoeuvring of blocks, ideologies and interests into the groupings that we know today. 

For someone with a fairly feeble grasp of U.S. history and politics, other aspects of the book are revealing.  Jimmy Carter comes off as being every bit as cynical and manipulative as the rest of them, a far cry from the holy-man-of-the-left status that he carries with him today.  I come away from this read seeing his major contribution as the recognition of the problem posed by our energy consumption, and the attempt (however mangled, poll-driven and ultimately unsuccessful) to address the sustainability of our way of life—an ‘era of limits’ theme Kalman says he stole from one Jerry Brown after the 38-year-old Governor of California gave him a brief run for his money in western primaries.

One of the saddest legacies of these years, therefore, must be the conscious, deliberate decision on the part of the Republican Party to take the socially irresponsible course—when people had been told that their consumption habits were growing untenable, were damaging the collective good, and would have serious consequences for the environment and for society—of undercutting that message and promising people that they could have it all, encouraging greed, and taking the anti-science route still bemoaned today by some (Jon Huntsman, for example).

She also suggests, mischievously, that voters’ initial assessment of Ronald Reagan in the ‘70s—as a somewhat stupid man in an empty suit—might have been a rare instance of intuition on their part.

He was little more, Kalman intimates while puzzling over today’s Republican Party’s obsession with the man who disappointed them so badly, than a political scarecrow, stuffed with all the debris the crazies in the New Republican Party dragged down from their attic; an empty vessel filled up with the hopes of the neo-conservatives, the dreams of the anti-gay, anti-working woman, anti-abortion, anti-environment social conservatives, and the aspirations of those who thought they heard the smack of a firm fist in his ripostes at the hapless Carter.

This feeds into Kalman’s final point (and, one feels, a presentist one): the period of 1974-1980 was marked by a serious void in leadership into which stepped an un-principled right-winger.  Possessing zero substance, no novel ideas of his own, he nonetheless taught the Republican Party a lesson that they’ve learned well and taken very much to heart: “In politics, appearances matter more than reality.  Moreover, legends can be useful” (366).  1980 marked the official launch of the New Republican Party, and their permanent divergence from reality, empiricism and the logic of governance.

And the Right had its revenge on the Great Leader who disappointed it, by turning him into one of the world’s more ill-used corpses, dragged, grinning that vacant grin, up from the dead every four years to rally the Real Americans to The Cause.

Laura Kalman.  Right Star Rising: A New Politics, 1974-1980.  New York: W W Norton & Company, 2010.

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