Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Another Take on the Decline of Empire

Most readers consume a blog from the top (most recent) downward, which rather discourages traditional continuity of thought.  A week ago, I posted several paragraphs on the decline of the Roman Empire, written in 1963 by L. Sprague Decamp – a writer of exceptional imagination who, in 1963, saw no parallel between Rome and the United States.  I found that failure of imagination a telling reflection upon how rapid has been the intellectual decline of the West.

Today, I post a rather long paragraph, written in 1930 by W. Somerset Maugham in a travel book entitled “The Gentleman in the Parlour,” upon the decline of the British Empire.

It is true that should the historian of the Decline and fall of the British Empire come across this book on the shelves of some public library he will have hard things to say of me.  “How can one explain,” he will ask, “that this writer, who in other places showed that he was not devoid of observation, could have gone through so many parts of this Empire and not noticed (for by never a word is it apparent that a suspicion of anything of the sort crossed his mind) with what a nerveless hand the British held the power that their fathers had conquered?  A satirist in his day, was there no matter for his derision in the spectacle of a horde of officials who held their positions only by the force of the guns behind them trying to persuade the races they ruled that they were there only on sufferance?  They offered efficiency to people to whom a hundred others things were of more consequence and sought to justify themselves by the benefits they conferred on people who did not want them.  As if a man in whose house you have forcibly quartered yourself will welcome you any more because you tell him you can run it better than he can!  Did he go through Burma and not see how the British power was tottering because the masters were afraid to rule, did he not meet judges, soldiers, commissioners who had no confidence in themselves and therefore inspired no respect in those they were placed over?  What had happened to the race that had produced Clive, Warren Hastings, and Stamford Raffles, that it must send out to govern its colonies men who were afraid of the authority entrusted to them, men who thought to rule the Oriental by cajolery and submissiveness, by being unobtrusive by pocketing affronts and giving the natives powers they were unfit to use and must inevitably turn against their masters?  But what is a master whose conscience is troubles because he is master?  They prated of efficiency and they did not rule efficiently, for they were filled with an uneasy feeling that they were unfit to rule.  They were sentimentalists.  They wanted the profits of Empire, but would not assume the greatest of its responsibilities, which is power.  But all this, which was staring him in the face, seems to have escaped this writer, and he contented himself with jotting down little incidents of travel, describing his emotions and inventing little stories about the persons he met; he produced a book that can be of no value to the historian, the political economist or the philosopher: it is deservedly forgotten.”

What I take from this is that the British Empire, too, collapsed from losing conviction and confidence.  In a great many instances, colonization was replaced by some variation of totalitarianism and kleptocracy. Former colonial powers or multi-national corporations continue to profit from these former colonies.  Multi-national institutions (United Nations, International Monetary Fund, World Bank) continue to subsidize, enable and attempt to guide the development and governance of these regions. 

I would say that not much has changed, except what category of individual is capable of holding power.  Most of the improvements since Maugham’s time have come from efforts of the former colonial powers (in public health and education), multi-national corporate activities and the imperatives of technological development.  Very little credit can be given to the governments of most of the former colonies for doing more than accepting aid and lining their own pockets.

I would say that the major change from Maugham’s time to our own has been: 1)the re-primitivization of the major powers by decline in civics and education, 2)the  colonization of the major powers by multi-national corporations and domestic vested interests, 3)demographic changes (falling birthrates, longer life spans and immigration), 4)encroachment of government into what was once considered private life (taking the nearly inevitable corruption of government into every aspect of daily life) and 5)the loss of conviction (much as cited by Maugham, above) in the intellectual foundations of the West.

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