Empire as if it didn’t exist

June 20, 2009

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I recently read The Vertigo Years: Europe 1900-1914, a cultural history somewhat in the tradition of Tony Judt’s Postwar. Rather than focusing on the economic data from the first age of globalization, or the Byzantine aspects of diplomatic history which presaged the Great War, The Vertigo Years surveys the terrain of intellect and art, from Cubism to Freudianism. Even obscure social phenomena such the renewed enthusiasm for dueling get significant treatment. Of course the Scramble for Africa and the flexing of military muscle in the interests of colonial expansion does loom large in the background.

But did the quest for empire matter at the end of the day? Britain and France were imperial nations par excellence, had been, and would continue to be for several decades. Other nations such as the Netherlands and Portugal had relatively modest possessions. Germany and Italy famously attempted to cobble together colonies out of the leavings of what other powers had neglected. And finally Switzerland, Sweden and other assorted nations remained out of the game. But did it matter? Does the current prosperity of the French state (or lack of) as opposed to the German state have any roots in the fact that Germany’s colonial experience was truncated and marginal at best? My friend John Derbyshire has observed that with the fall of the British Empire Britain itself went into decline. From this some might suggest that the rise of Britain, and in particular England, tracked the rise of its Empire. But in Farewell to Alms Greg Clark suggests that the roots of the economic take-off of the 19th century can be discerned in the 17th and perhaps even earlier. The Netherlands had a long and relatively sucessful history of empire in the Indies, and the VOC was in many ways the model for the modern corporation. Belgium, a creation of the 19th century, had a short and rather ill-starred experience with empire. And yet there is little difference between the two today economically.

I suspect that colonial empires loom large because they feed the vanity of great men. How many people remember today the supposed economic benefits which would accrue from the British acquisition of Burma? Pragmatic men, such as Otto von Bismarck were suspicious of the colonial project. The “resource curse” is well known in economics today, windfall wealth that is unearned tends to eat at the heart of a society. If Greg Clark is right the origins of the Industrial Revolution in Britain lay not in the raw materials and luxury goods which were secured via colonialism, but through the gains of productivity generated by the human capital of the British people themselves. Perhaps greatness did not come to Britain because of empire, but the empire was an effect of its greatness.

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