George Walford: After the Empires

Each empire had its enemies, but serious resistance to the principle of imperialism did not arise until late in the Eighteenth Century, when the sans-culottes erupted against the aristos – both groups defined by political attachment rather than rank or income, the aristos often plebeians and the sans-culottes wearers of revolutionary trousers instead of reactionary knee-breeches. [1] Revolutionary France proclaimed a new age of freedom, equality and brotherhood, nations as well as people to be liberated, but the impulse was not followed through; Napoleon re-established French imperialism and only in the Twentieth Century did the age of the empires come to an end. After 1789 they had still a century and more to go, but well before their end a new form of political life had begun to move within them.

Each major ideology to join those already exercising public influence comes largely as a corrective for the failures of its predecessor; these being limited to particular areas (had failure been general the society would not have survived) the incomer exhibits uneven development. One group sets to work on this difficulty and (perhaps later) another on that, and the ideology makes its appearance in localised spasms, apparently disconnected. Not until well into the l9th Century did the ideology following that of Principle achieve coherent formulation and political expression in the liberal movement, although its appearance in particular fields can he traced back to the 16th at least. Protestantism, with its elevation of private judgment against dogma and obedience, was beginning to call the domination of established principles in question, and although Anglicanism was to settle down as an established national church the new impulse was not lost. It survived, largely underground, to burst out again in the multiple sects of the Civil War period and to spread beyond religious activities. In the following centuries opponents falling in the political struggle ceased to be executed or even impeached, hours of labour were restricted, the penalties for crime rendered less severe, and police with limited weaponry, or sometimes unarmed, replaced the military as a peace-keeping force. Minorities came to be tolerated. The tendency is sometimes called democracy (though that term also has other meanings) and it consists generally in the establishment, among the conventions of the society, of one to the effect that those who wield its power shall do so with restraint. John Stuart Mill made the classic statement:

The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right… the only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign. [2]

That could not have been said in the stateless Expedient communities and if permitted to appear in the societies of Domination, before tendencies towards self-limitation had begun to gain acceptance, it would have fallen dead from the press. In Britain in 1859 it aroused a resonance that echoes through the civilised world and still grows stronger. Between 1972 and 1987 17 countries – more than one each year – moved from authoritarian rule to some version of democratic government, [3] and although political democracy does not amount to the condition envisaged by Mill, yet establishment of equal political rights for all is a sizeable step towards it.

The assumption underlying Mill’s statement, namely that the political universe consists, or ought to consist, of multiple units of equal value, sharply defined and related to each other only by external contact, finds expression also in physical science. There it took the shape of the ‘billiard ball’ conception of the nature of the material universe (which still plays a significant part in scientific thought). In politics and physics alike, a great point about these (assumed) particles, sharply distinct from each other, is that they can be accurately counted. What we have here is, in fact, one of the principal assumptions of the ideology of Precision.

We noted appearances of Domination in the Expedient communities and even among animals, but only with the establishment of the ideology of principle did it become a social force. Similarly with the pursuit of Precision. Instances of this can be traced in some of the earliest writings, the Babylonians recording stellar movements and the ancient Egyptians accurately surveying their fields, while Euclid (‘that precise man,’ as Stephen Leacock termed him) has never been surpassed on his own ground. In Renaissance Italy and Ancient Greece science accompanied the city state but it remained, as Galileo found, subject to domination.

In 17th Century Europe, as the first efforts began to he made to establish the self-limiting conception of the state in internal affairs, such scattered attempts to rationalise the apparent chaos of the physical world began to come together. Bacon’s classification of the sciences provided a foundation for later work (it was adopted by Diderot and d’Alembert for use in the Encyclopedie) and the Royal Society (to be rapidly emulated in other advanced countries), was founded in 1660. More precise handling of materials had permitted the production of microscopes and telescopes, with all their consequences for the advancement of knowledge. In religion the old rough-and-ready method, believe or burn, came under attack from Friends, Shakers, Mortalists, Fifth Monarchy Men, Muggletonians and many other sects, each of them seeking to repress the domination of the Church by law established, claiming the same right of free enquiry in religion that the scientists demanded (and to some extent enjoyed) in their sphere. Priestley belonged to the Unitarians and Newton (who seems to have spent more time on religion than on any other subject) came, in private if not in public, to reject the Trinity and demote Christianity from its privileged position. [4]

The ideology of principle had produced slavery in Britain as elsewhere; during the third quarter of the Eighteenth Century this home of freedom harboured some 14,000 human beings who were the legal property of others, and even so Britain led the world by abolishing the condition at home in 1772 and in the dominions in 1834 (though a form of serfdom continued to 1838). [5] This was due largely to the evangelical movement, an appearance of precision in the religious field which used law as well as persuasion to induce a people with the power to own slaves to refrain from doing so, bringing the practice of Christianity into more exact agreement with its principles.

Adherents of the ideology of Precision have been appearing in Britain at least since the 16th Century. In the latter half of the l9th, and the early part of the 20th, their numbers grew to a point where the new influence began to exercise continuing restraint over Domination. Extension of the franchise to virtually all adults, the obligation upon rulers to pay serious attention to their economists and other scientific experts and the retraction of the empires, these were some of the more obvious signs indicating the rise of the ideology of precision. Acceptance of this ideology among the major social influences is marked by the appearance of the society of self-limitation.

Each of the two previous forms of society had its distinctive way of obtaining its material requirements and so has the new one, its method being industry which uses the results of science. With isolated appearances in earlier times, and starting to produce significant effects in the early 19th Century, this began to attain maturity with mass-production, automation and computerisation. The industrial unit is not the free range of the Expedient peoples or the traditional spreading farm, limited only by other farms, of the societies of Principle, but the enclosed factory, its limiting walls functional parts of its structure. Machines require, and increasingly so as they develop, neither the speed and endurance of the hunter nor the muscle-power of the labourer, but the careful self-control of the machinist, driver or pilot, and later of the keyboard-operator. By the use of science and industry the modern advanced state acquires greater power over its environment than the communities of Expediency or the societies of Principle ever wielded, and the new abilities, won by the practice of self-restraint, bring a need for still greater limitation.

Empires and Expedient communities did not need to limit themselves, for they found more than enough limitation being imposed upon them from without by the natural environment and, upon empires, also by other empires. These external restraints are no longer so effective. Industrial civilisation has the capacity to destroy the environment on which it depends, and each great power can destroy any opponent at the risk of incurring destruction itself. (Some second-rank states are also approaching this condition, nuclear armament tending to act as an equaliser between nations as the Colt revolver was said to do between men). The most acute dangers now come not from without but from within the other, but the new politics adopted it as a principle to be universalised and applied even to themselves, proclaiming the new slogan: national self-determination. In establishing its borders each state of the new type took the claims of adjoining states into account and, while resisting any intrusion, also refrained from encroaching on its neighbours. The expansive empire was succeeded by the self-limiting state, a structure displaying firm limits in both dimensions, each of its layers being vertically limited by the one above or below and the whole self-limited in its horizontal extension.

The old city states provided hardly more than a premonition of what was to come. In Ancient Greece the small were subject to the great, the system functioned on the dominatory principle, [6] and much the same is true of Renaissance Italy, the ‘liberta’ celebrated by the Florentine citizen looking very like imperialism to inhabitants of Pisa, Livorno and other cities subjugated by Florence. [7]

There were probably no perfect empires, none in which all members of the subject peoples were fully reconciled to their position, and it is unlikely that there ever was a perfect hunter-gatherer community, one doing nothing at all to husband or increase its resources. Equally, there is no such thing as the perfect self-limiting state, but to the extent that this condition is achieved the political world comes to consist of units which accord their neighbours the independence they demand for themselves.

The societies of Domination with their expansionist tendencies produced war, and the great empires the great wars. A primary cause of the Second World War was the attempt of Germany and Japan, and later Italy, to establish themselves alongside the greater empires, and the main military conflicts since then have been of three types, all of them after-effects of expanding domination. First, the struggle (conducted largely by proxy), in Vietnam and elsewhere between the USSR and the USA, motivated by the fear of each that the other was seeking to extend its dominion, tending to behave not as a self-limiting state but as an empire. Second, attempts to hold on to some remnant of empire, examples being the French struggles in Algeria and Indo-China, the British adventures in Suez and the Falklands and their continued presence in Northern Ireland. Third, attempts by imperial or formerly imperial powers to prevent new states establishing themselves, the Arab-Israeli conflict being one prominent example and the resistance to oppression of the blacks in South Africa (a movement not limited to blacks) perhaps the beginnings of another new creation. The association of the great wars with the great empires, and of war generally with the societies of Domination, is strong enough and close enough to suggest that the spreading repression of this ideology by that of self-limitation will tend towards repression also of the factors making for war.

The new type of state comes complete with its own problems. Trying to maintain conditions in which a variety of ethnic and linguistic groups can live without one imposing itself upon the others, it finds them struggling, some for domination and others for independence, while the socialist, communist and anarchist movements, ideologically barred from quietly accepting either divisions between nations or domination of one group by another, press for a more united and more egalitarian society. Other groups strive in other directions, and not all of them are reasonable, democratic or pacifistic; the self- limiting state is unlikely to lead a peaceful life. But internal struggle, terrorism, and even civil war should it come to that, differ from a continuation of the imperial wars in being less likely to threaten the survival of the race.

The ideology of Precision, inclining its adherents towards close examination of conditions and restraining expansive tendencies, endows societies developing it with a greatly increased ability to perceive limits before crashing into them, often making it possible to avoid or soften the encounter. The empires benefited from this development in their last days, they did not all continue blindly on in every colony until they came into head-on collision with the movements seeking independence, and the nuclear super-powers behave with great caution towards each other. When a natural species meets conditions that allow it to expand, it tends to increase in numbers until its very success brings disaster, but the nations are already beginning to limit their populations. The increasing powers wielded by modern technology threaten irreparable damage to the environment on which we depend, but a growing movement urges restraint. Self-limitation appears in other fields beside the directly political structure of the new type of state.

Empires changed the states they took over, driving them forward so that changes which in the first instance had taken millennia occupied only centuries, or even decades. The Romans had this effect upon the more northern European peoples and Europe in turn spurred Africa and America into acceleration. As Herbert Luethy has expressed it, ‘That which today stands up against colonial domination is itself the work of colonizers.’ [8] Even with assistance from those who have traveled the route before, the transition from one form of society to another never comes easily, and the changes entailed never come as unqualified benefits. It is not at all clear yet that the independence achieved by the former colonies has in all cases improved the condition of their people, although it has certainly demonstrated some limitations of the Marxist thesis that advanced capitalist powers need empire over backward countries for their own future development. The empires have virtually gone, but advanced technology roars ahead while the newly independent states drop farther behind. [9]

These developments have of course been recognised and studied (though not, to my knowledge, in the context given them here) and attempts have been made, as they have been made with the society of Domination, to explain them as a consequence of technological progress. Examination of this alleged cause reveals its supposed effects already present within it; the industry and weaponry accompanying the emergence of the self-limiting state could not have arisen without the theorising of the scientists and although this, like all thinking leading to substantial novelty, embraces spontaneity, ‘wild cards’ and intuitive leaps, yet the part of it more directly responsible for the new products is marked by a rigorous precision requiring intense self-control, which is to say self-limitation. As the production of food and the political features of the society that emerged together with it are best understood as expressions of the one major ideology, that of principle, so the military and industrial developments that have come with the self-limiting state, and the distinctive political features of that state, are best understood as expressing the ideology of Precision.

Continue reading Beyond Politics by George Walford (1990):
Preface | Introduction | Politics as Ideology | The British Political Series | The World Political Series | From Politics to Ideology | Ideology Beyond Politics | The Beginnings | From Village to Empire | After The Empires | The Eidodynamic | The Origins of Ideologies | The Evolution of Ideology | Conclusion | Appendices | Notes & References | Select Bibliography | Index | Synopsis