This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

Dundee Antarctic Whaling Expedition (1892–1893) by William Gordon Burn-Murdochphoto [credit: Dundee Art Galleries and Museums Collection (Dundee City Council)]

Marc-William Palen
Follow on Twitter @MWPalen

From the imperial roots of hunger to whaling stations at the end of the earth, here are this week’s top reads in imperial and global history.

The Imperial Roots of Hunger

Madhusree Mukerjee
Himal Southasian

 In September 1900, while India suffered through one of the most severe famines in its history, a British official charged with identifying suitable recipients for free food shared his travails with the British Times. “The main difficulty in these inquiries is the unlimited mendacity of the Hindu farmer,” he complained. In his experience, many supplicants for aid had “starved themselves into a state of emaciation in the hope that they would receive gratuitous doles, rather than go to work for their living” in a food-for-labour programme. The civil servant went on to describe his interrogation of a typical “starved-looking wretch”:

Why is he not working? He says he has not the strength. But why did he not go to work before his strength failed? He pretends he does not understand; he only repeats that he cannot; and he falls on his knees and places his head in the dust and calls you his ‘father and mother’ and ‘protector of the poor.’ It is very pitiable – the mental and moral state more than the physical.

The civil servant did not mention that the taxes wrung from these very farmers paid his salary, and would pay his pension when he retired home to Britain. For that would come close to conceding that an imperial system of extortion had maintained India in an almost continuous state of starvation throughout the latter half of the 19th century, as Mike Davis detailed in Late Victorian Holocausts (2001). In that period India suffered a famine every few years, resulting in 25 million deaths even by a conservative count. The proximate cause of the famines was usually drought, although colonial administrators also blamed them on the tendency of natives to breed excessively. (Apart from the mendacity, masochism, indolence and obsequiousness cited by the above official, the alleged attributes of the Indian also included lechery.) But throughout the 19th century India was on average producing enough food to feed its people – which indicates that the roots of starvation lay elsewhere. [Continue Reading]

The Duplicity of the Ideologues

Andrew J. Bacevich

“Almost 70 years ago, a new world order was born from the rubble of World War II, built by and around the power of the United States.” Yet today, Robert Kagan laments, “that world order shows signs of cracking, and perhaps even collapsing.” Wherever he looks, Kagan sees evidence that “something is changing, and perhaps more quickly than we may imagine,” he writes in theNew Republic (“Superpowers Don’t Get to Retire”). Indeed, “the signs of the global order breaking down are all around us.”

These changes “signal a transition into a different world order,” one bearing troubling similarities to the 1930s. The origins of this prospective calamity are plain to see. Don’t bother to look for material explanations. “If a breakdown in the world order that America made is occurring,” Kagan writes, “it is not because America’s power is declining.” The United States has power to spare, asserts the author of The World America Made. No, what we have here is “an intellectual problem, a question of identity and purpose.” Feckless, silly Americans, with weak-willed Barack Obama their enabler, are abdicating their obligation to lead the planet. The abyss beckons.

Writing in the New York Times, columnist David Brooks hails Kagan’s New Republic essay as “brilliant.” A more accurate appraisal would be slickly mendacious. Still, Kagan’s essay also qualifies as instructive: Here in some 12,700 carefully polished words the impoverished state of foreign-policy discourse is laid bare. If the problem hobbling U. S. policy is an intellectual one, then Kagan himself, purveyor of a fictive past, exhibits that problem in spades. [Continue Reading]

The Great Backlash

Nouriel Roubini
Project Syndicate

NEW YORK – In the immediate aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis, policymakers’ success in preventing the Great Recession from turning into Great Depression II held in check demands for protectionist and inward-looking measures. But now the backlash against globalization – and the freer movement of goods, services, capital, labor, and technology that came with it – has arrived.

This new nationalism takes different economic forms: trade barriers, asset protection, reaction against foreign direct investment, policies favoring domestic workers and firms, anti-immigration measures, state capitalism, and resource nationalism. In the political realm, populist, anti-globalization, anti-immigration, and in some cases outright racist and anti-Semitic parties are on the rise.

These forces loathe the alphabet soup of supra-national governance institutions – the EU, the UN, the WTO, and the IMF, among others – that globalization requires. Even the Internet, the epitome of globalization for the past two decades, is at risk of being balkanized as more authoritarian countries – including China, Iran, Turkey, and Russia – seek to restrict access to social media and crack down on free expression. [Continue Reading]

The Lost Whaling Station at the End of the World

Adam Nicholson
BBC News

Once British sailors were a big part of the whaling industry in the southern hemisphere. Now only rusting buildings and ship skeletons remain, where once thriving whaling stations were, writes Adam Nicholson. The abandoned whaling station at Leith Harbour on South Georgia in the south Atlantic looks as if it has been bombed. Rusty steel chimneys lie collapsed across the roadways.

Power plants and dormitory blocks lie half-smashed, their innards spilling out through the walls – cast-iron beds and baths, piping and wiring, cushions and mattresses all now leaking into the freezing air. Some of the huge steel cylinders of the whale oil tanks, 30ft high and 30ft across, have had their sides folded in, as if by a giant hand. But these are just the effects of time and the brutal winds of the Southern Ocean. [Continue Reading]

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