Hannah Arendt: Imperialism, Day One

As I read more of The Origins of Totalitarianism, there are a few things I’m coming to appreciate.

  1. I know nothing about politics.
  2. My enjoyment of Arendt is entirely amateur.
  3. The left wing politics that you learn about in an English department are entirely partisan.

There’s just lots of little things that I’m picking up on – and I’m sure Arendt has her own biases, but the fact is she’s a professional in her field, so she’s worth listening to. Regarding the left wing stuff – there was one example where she talked about how the French socialists didn’t care about sticking up for Dreyfus (or the larger human rights abuses underpinning his imprisonment) on the grounds that he was a ‘class enemy’. Retrospectively, that seems short-sighted and stupid – it’s more focused on leftist rhetoric than on political realities. One of the other interesting bits is her appraisal of imperialism – and that’s what we’re going to talk about today.

As my intellectual roots are so firmly planted in the English department, you might appreciate the extent to which my politics are associated with major literary trends – the postcolonial trend, or the radical left-wing politics of the French avant garde film-makers in the 20th century. It’s all well and good hearing about what the film-makers thought, but when we don’t have a firm focus on the political background, the stories of the left wing rapidly become the only stories that exist. Arendt is refreshing in that regard because she’s a political theorist – so she’s a lot more balanced and holistic in how she approaches these things.

That’s not to say Arendt goes around supporting imperialism, of course, but it does mean that she’s interested in establishing its causes in a much less partisan light. It’s not just about an intellectual arrogance that presumes moral superiority over foreign peoples – it’s actually deeply rooted in economic concerns. Arendt starts off by pointing out that many politicians were suspicious of imperialism, because it went against the idea of a nation-state. The nation-state was understood as “a homogenous population’s active consent to its government”, which conquest and territorial expansion were entirely unsuited for. You can’t conquer somebody and then expect them to like you or your government. In fact, as Arendt points out, every instance of conquest seems to result in the awakening of the national consciousness of the conquered peoples (which in turn, eventually, results in the eviction of the occupying forces).

So the politicians were suspicious of imperialism, but the bourgeoisie, with their growing economic power, were all up for it. According to Arendt, “Imperialism was born when the ruling class in capitalist production came up against national limits to economic expansion.” When you can’t make more money in your own country, you go hunting outside – and thus, imperialism as primarily a wealth-based enterprise that was not motivated by the concerns of the state. Before any Heart of Darkness fans mention the Congo, Arendt notes that the atrocities committed there were “unequalled”, and not really representative of what was happening everywhere else.

Of course, the government did eventually follow the money that was being invested in all of these dangerous external ventures. The options were either to follow the money and reign it back into the national economic structure, or to lose a pretty serious chunk of it to failed speculations and the like. Confronted with a choice between unsustainable financial loss and massive financial gains, Arendt argues, the various European governments chose the latter, all with varying degrees of suspicion.

And, of course, this is where things start going wrong. The governments export the state through violence and military power, start grabbing up land, and yeah, by the 1880s, Britain was openly imperialist about the whole thing. Again, the point here is not to absolve the imperialists of anything, it’s more to understand that actually things aren’t as cut-and-dried as they might initially seem. It’s not as simple as Europe being nasty and arrogant and deciding to enlighten the world with their so-called brilliance. It’s actually much more pedestrian than that, and in many ways more complicated.

For example, there was a great deal of conflict between colonial administrators and politicians back home. The colonial administrators were being exploitative, and the politicians wanted them to operate under the laws of the state – after all, what’s the point of exporting the state if the colonials aren’t going to play by the rules? Arendt mentions incidents in German Southeast Africa, where tribal leaders addressed their complaints to the Reichstag, and then the Reichstag intervened when the colonial administrators threw those tribal leaders in jail. There’s clearly all sorts of complicated power negotiations going on between groups, and that’s something that indigenous populations were able to be involved in.

I think the point here is not to diminish any of the horrors of imperialism, but rather to appreciate some of the complexities of the situation. Rather than being a politically-led decision, the imperial era was motivated by economic concerns. Imperialism was diametrically opposed to the contemporary political structure of the nation-state. The ascendency of imperialism was paralleled by the introduction of the bourgeoisie into politics, and the association of capitalist concerns with the interests of the government. That’s something I’d be keen to look more into. And finally, there was no united conquering front, in the sense that Britain (for example) wasn’t unified in its desire to take over any given place. There were internal power struggles as different parties within imperial Britain vied for dominance in these colonised places. Without absolving the British of any of their crimes, Arendt notes that “they obviously hoped that the nation as a whole could act as a kind of trustee for its conquered peoples, and it is true that it invariably tried its best to prevent the worst.”

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