Monday, September 25, 2006

Capitalism's herrenvolk and untermenschen.

I was astonished to find that the Marxist theoretician Bill Warren had preempted Niall Ferguson in his adulation of imperialism as the pioneer of capitalism outside Europe, and therefore as "progressive" in a spurious marxian sense. Warren's posthumous book Imperialism: Pioneer of Capitalism was hailed at the time as an important demolition of the Leninist theory of imperialism and of dependency theorists. Its method appears to consist in taking one bowdlerisation of marxism (in which capitalism is seen as progressive) and adding a corrollary (that imperialism was really a kind of muscular, vigorous capitalism, and that by bringing 'social revolution' to backward countries it advanced the cause of socialism). Warren simply takes pleasure in the "destruction of pre-modern cultures" and the implanting of "elements of modern civilisation, both culturally and economically", citing claims of improved health and population growth as "the most significant and conclusive proof of the advantages of Western colonization". This is a curious kind of marxism in which people need to be remade by brute force in order to be fit for socialism. Their culture has no value, is to be despoiled as such, because it is "pre-modern". So a few million people are killed - doesn't capitalism magically raise populations out of the ground? It's all there in the Communist Manifesto!

Warren used this term "pre-modern" with a hidden clause: that "pre-modern" culture as such belonged to the "feudal" ruling class, as if peasant resistance and traditions of struggle were not also part of "pre-modern" culture. At any rate, to discourse about modernity is one of the most obfuscatory ways of talking about a topic. Modernity is an ideal-type, not a reality. Capitalism is a reality that happily integrates and destroys "pre-modern" cultures according to its needs. Warren's choice of words is interesting in itself, since in colonial discourse, "pre-moderns" have no legitimate culture at all, nothing of value that is not derivative of what the moderns have done. Indeed, when it comes to imperialist violence, Warren has used a very typical modernist trope: our violence is always comprehensible in terms of progress; theirs is senseless, supererogatory, masochistic and self-defeating. Ours has meaning, theirs is nihilistic.

Those, like Ferguson, who wish to acknowledge and at the same time absolve imperialism of its grotesque criminal record are fond of counterfactuals - would you have rather it had been the Russians running south Asia? You surely can't imagine the Germans would have been more humane rulers than the British? This kind of nonsensical pleading misses the rather important relationship between imperialism and the barbarisms that supposedly exist in a state of antagonism with it.

Fascism developed in the laboratory of imperialist conquest. The German destruction of the Herero people of south-west Africa was the first recorded genocide of the 20th Century, and in the course of that genocide, the German geneticist Eugen Fischer stalked the concentration camps carrying out his first medical experiments, studying the effects of "race-mixing" between Germans and Hereros. He contended that the children of such couples were genetically inferior to the German parent. His 1921 book Human Hereditary Teaching and Racial Hygiene was read by Hitler while in prison, and Fischer was later made rector of the University of Berlin by the Fuhrer. Fischer's next most famous student was a man named Mengele.

It was with this "racial" hierarchy in mind that Hitler would observe the laws of war when dealing with the British or Americans, whom he respected, but not with the Russians. The Nazi gassing of Russians preceded the gassings at Auschwitz. Of all Russian prisoners of war held by the Nazis, 57% died - some 3.3 million. The intention was to kill ten million and keep the rest as slave labour. Yet the only thing that was unique about what the Nazis did in Europe was that it was in Europe: policies of annihilation had already met the aboriginal population of Tasmania and the Maoris of New Zealand. The last original inhabitant of Tasmania died in 1869.

Take a look at the preferred technique of aerial bombardment among our current imperial rulers.. As Mahmood Mamdani wrote in 2003, citing Sven Lindquist, this developed as a technique strictly for use against uncivilised peoples: the method specifically transfers the bulk of death and injury onto the civilian population. In 1991, US bombing in Iraq caused hundreds of thousands of deaths. The US army, by contrast, lost 79 troops. In every recent war in which this method has been used, the proportions are much the same, and the victims are mainly women and children. The civilians of the societies under attack were simply deemed more worthy of death than the combatants of advanced capitalist societies doing the attacking. Indeed, the attitude behind it is perfectly supremacist: why should Our Boys be risked for the sake of what Hitler termed "chaff"?

There is a related mythology about the British government having to overcome a temporary desire to 'appease' Nazism by replacing Chamberlain with Churchill, but you can only appease those whom you disagree with in principle. The British foreign policy establishment was deeply sympathetic to Hitler, and perceived the real threat as communism. The British legation to the Holy See, Francis Osborne, described communism as a result of the "brilliant imaginativeness, mental agility and distintegrative predilections of the Jew" combined with the "semi-asiatic fanaticism" of the Russian. It was perfectly logical that the British capitalist class and state elite should have seen it in this way: for them, communism was the aggressor, everywhere, while fascists tried to conserve the status quo. The use of internment, or concentration camps as the British called its efforts, would not have perturbed the class that was had used the same repressive method and would later use the manner of detention in Northern Ireland and against Muslims in Britain. Even the genocide didn't seem to bother anyone, since as we now know the allies had every opportunity to destroy Auschwitz or the railway lines leading to it but simply couldn't be bothered. They too had carried out the odd genocide, and would go on to happily atomise millions with precision weaponry from 20,000 feet above the earth. They understood too well the will to dominate.