Imperialism, the highest stage of agrarianism

Hobbes’ state of nature was an unsafe place because everyone had about equal power – no-one was so secure as to be invulnerable to attack, and anyone might kill anyone else at any moment – whether for resources, for glory, for revenge, or simply as a precautionairy measure. The neolithic was a bit like that, because everyone had access to sticks and stones, and everyone knew how to use them. Petty tribal war was a fact of life, hard to avoid except by hiding as far away from other tribes as possible.

The Bronze Age changed things. Those who mastered the art of making bronze tools soon found they had overwhelming superiority in weapons and armour over those who didn’t.

Imperialism began in the Bronze Age. The first empire is usually said to be the Akkadian, though other candidates for the title exist. Sargon of Akkad (and other warrior kings like him) found that the combination of horses, wheeled carts and bronze weapons and armour enabled them to rule large populations spread over wide domains. The advantage of doing so was that the rulers and their deputies could become fabulously wealthy by demanding rents or taxes from farmers, or by owning the land directly and employing lots of serf or slaves by the thousand.

Empire-building soon caught on, and its exponents soon found that once they had consolidated their new territories, they were even better equipped to expand further, so their empires grew quickly, not stopping until they encountered an insurmountable barrier such as a desert, ocean, or high mountain range — or rival empire capable of fighting back.

In that day and age, the absence of powered machines meant that everything was labour intensive, and nearly all raw materials came from the land, so there was a nearly linear relationship between the amount of land and labor a ruler controlled and the size of the ruler’s wealth. The bigger your empire, in other words, the richer you could be.

Capitalism began some time before Marx and Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto. People have various opinions about precisely when it began, but since it was Marx and Engels who pioneered the sport of theorizing about “capitalism” as a distinct stage of civilization, we may as well accept their suggestion that it began in the late 17th century. Marx and Engels, writing in the 1840s, were certain that capitalism was about to reach its peak and final crisis very soon.

Sixty years later, in 1916, Vladimir Lenin wrote a book entitled “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism”, in which he argued (among other things) that to reach their pinnacle of wealth, advanced capitalist countries must acquire empires to exploit all the available natural resources and labour, immiserating the people in the colonized territories. After this would come, of course, the revolution. In his defence, Lenin was writing in the middle of World War One — a war that involved, in part, territorial battles between four giant empires (Britain, Russia, Germany and France).

Germany lost its imperial domains right after WWI ended, and Britain and France gave up their empires during the twenty-five years or so after WWII. France fought wars to retain and reclaim some colonies, but lost those wars.

The empires, then, are long gone, yet nearly everyone agrees that most of the world today is still capitalist (contrary to Lenin’s prediction). Moreover, the colonies were not immiserated, and in fact, most were considerably more populous, prosperous and developed after the period of imperialism than before. Indeed, bringing education, health and development was a guiding principle for most of the imperial powers.

Lenin had got it wrong. Further evidence that confounds Lenin’s prediction comes in the form of capitalist countries, such as Switzerland and South Korea, which never acquired an empire, yet have achieved a very high level of prosperity.

The truth is, empire is quite superfluous to capitalism, and capitalist countries do not need empires in order to thrive. More than that, as Adam Smith argued some 240 years ago, running an empire is a distraction from the business of getting rich, and defending an empire is particularly burdensome, so imperialism and capitalism don’t really sit very well together at all.

Imperialism belonged to the agrarian age, when a country’s wealth was almost directly a function of how much land and labour it could command. The industrial revolution changed all that, and what makes for prosperity today is neither vast land nor a vast labour force, but ingenuity in the developing and marketing of new products and services, or in the making of established products better and more efficiently.

The great empires of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were the last great monuments of agrarianism, obsolescent even as Lenin was writing his book.

Unfortunately, Lenin’s erroneous thesis has left an indelible mark: “imperialist” remains, one hundred years later, one of the Left’s favourite accusations with which to demonize the West. Never mind that the Soviet Union was particularly aggresssive in its imperialism. The Left are also convinced that what we now call the Third World is poor precisely because of imperialism, which is the opposite of the truth. Those territories found themselves absorbed into empires because they were poor and undeveloped, and Europe was already rich, relative to the rest of the world, before its imperialist phase began (and before the transatlantic slave trade, too, before someone brings that one up).

The reality of the matter is that Europe conquered most of the world, not because it needed to, but simply because all that undeveloped territory, for the most part sparsely populated and weakly or not at all defended, looked like easy pickings.

Sounds about right

“We landed on the moon in July 1969 and Woodstock started three weeks later. With the benefit of hindsight, that’s when the hippies won and somehow progress sort of died, the idea of progress came to an end.” — Peter Thiel, quoted in the FT.

Related evidence: science fiction was generally optimistic — one could say overwhelmingly so — until the 1960s, about the possibility of technical progress making life better for humankind, but during that decade, advocates of a “new SF” who were connected to the counterculture of the time and preferred to speak of “SF” (Speculative Fiction) took over the editing roles, and the stories quickly became overwhelmingly pessimistic, with favourite themes being overpopulation, environmental disasters, dystopian societies, nuclear holocaust and civilizational collapse. Drugs and sex became big features, too, of course.

What is PC?

Pusillanimous Careerism.

If you have a career in which you have to deal with political activists or special interest groups, you will be constantly aware that they might turn against you at any time if you do or say something they disagree with, and they will attack you with a loudness and viciousness quite out of proportion to the cause. You will be aware of which activists are most prone to behave this way, and which are the most powerful and virulent.

Given that such activists very often destroy careers and lives when provoked, and love to do so, your natural tendency is probably to avoid provoking them. However, these activists are constantly primed and looking for opportunities to attack someone. They are full-time umbragists, ever at the ready to exploit any excuse to take umbrage, because each time they take umbrage and intimidate someone into making a humiliating apology or other gesture of submission, they enhance their power by instilling fear in other potential victims.

Umbragists start by being a minor annoyance, exploiting the well-meaning chivalry of the powerful to get small favours and privileges, but each time they succeed in winning favours by behaving obnoxiously, they are emboldened, and demand more. Their power grows and grows until it becomes great enough to disrupt the work of large organizations and destroy the careers of prominent individuals. Once this happens, appeasement of the umbragists becomes automatic, and even a matter of policy, so the mere concern that someone might take offence at a particular word or phrase or deed is enough to cause the word, phrase or deed to be banned by senior management as a pre-emptive measure. Chivalry has turned into pusillanimity, and noble generosity into cowardice.

Officials then compete to prove their conformity to the rule by enforcing it strongly, and nosily, publicly condemning anyone who disobeys it. Cowardice now begins to have the effect of law, and the umbragists have won. They have got everything they wanted, and more. But, of course, the umbragists do not stop. Why would they stop, when they are so obviously on a roll? They will keep on demanding more and more until either they gain supremacy, or someone plucks up the courage (of which a great amount is required, since it is not only the umbragists, but the established convention, which must now be defied) to hit back with the necessary force.

The umbragists, especially in this later stage, typically know perfectly well that their demands are unjust. They are nothing but cynical opportunists, but everyone is so keen not to offend them, that this cannot be said. As the whole of society is bending over backwards to give the umbragists what they want, clinging to the fiction that umbragists are victims. Umbragism becomes a lucrative career, and few, if any, of those and those enforcing and obeying the doctrines by which the umbragists are empowered sincerely believe that the doctrines are true. They, too, are thinking of their careers. Everyone involved is either a bully or a coward, and all are, one way or another, careerists.

Now, we reach the final stage of political correctness: everyone, not just the umbragists themselves, knows that the umbragists are making unjust demands, and are even inventing fictional grounds upon which to take umbrage, but everyone is unwilling to say so. Blatant fraud is committed, and the criminals are rewarded, because no-one dare challenge the myth that the umbragists are victims. The whole of society has been cowed into submission. The umbragists reign supreme, but they reign over a degraded society.

The crazy thing is, all it takes to defeat this nonsense is a change of attitude. From the start, the powerful should have treated the umbragists with dismissive contempt, and the metastasis would never have occurred in the first place. The cure is the same as the prevention: treat the umbragists with absolute contempt. Ignore their demands. Ignore them. If they demand attention, sneer at them. State with unchallengeable confidence that they have no right to be offended, and if they still complain, move from dismissive contempt to aggressive contempt. Never speak to them as equals. Never let them doubt that, at least as far as you are concerned, they are inferior and wrong, and you are superior and right. If they complain about it, take offence. Get angry. Be absolutely clear about what the rules are, and who is boss. Threaten them with dire punishments. Implement those punishments if immediate compliance does not follow. Be publicly ruthless. Make sure everyone knows how harsh you are willing to be. It will not take long before peace reigns again.

Human beings are pack animals. They need society, and they need society to be hierarchical. They need to know who is in charge, and they need clear rules. If it feels to them as if there is no-one in charge, they will try to take charge themselves. In the animal kingdom generally, taking charge means achieving dominance by enacting or threatening physical violence. With human beings, verbal bullying serves equally well most of the time. Umbragism are a bid, by verbal bullying, to seize power in an apparent power vacuum. The policy of “politicial correctness” that umbragism produces amounts to a capitulation to petty tyranny. This disaster is a direct, though unintended, consequence of naïvely idealistic egalitarianism.

The recent embarrassing episode at Yale illustrates how treating inferiors (in this case students) as equals, and encouraging them to think of themselves as such, does not result in a stable equality, but in the students asserting supremacy over the staff. Video (here and here) reveals unmistakably, through the body language and manner of speaking employed by students and staff, who is the real boss. It should not surprise anyone to learn that the professor shown in those videos went on sabbatical soon afterwards, and the other professor involved in the episode has vowed no longer to teach at Yale.

Egalitarianism in all its forms is a dangerous mistake. Any human group involved in any complex, collective task needs a leader. The larger the group is and the more complex the task, the more important it is to have clear leadership, but even dyads are generally better off if there is an acknowledged leader for the duration of the task. Wherever possible, leaders must have discernible merit (e.g., relevant expertise), but if merit cannot be identified, an arbitrarily chosen leader is nearly always better than none. Once selected, leaders should lead, and should not pretend to be mere equals. This is for the good of all.