Amitav Ghosh on imperialism




Amitav Ghosh has written so much on imperial relations and imperial transactions in his fictions that he seems to have concentrated almost entirely on this aspect of our historical experience. Therefore it is always interesting to read him on the subject. Readers who have read In an Antique Land will remember his comments on imperialism over there. Another book that frequently examines issues of empire is Imam and the Indian. He has written several journalistic pieces on current affairs which also take up the question of imperial tendencies. Below I quote from an article that  appeared in The Newyorker on 7.4.2003 and is available at his homepage here.

Empire cannot be the object of universal human aspirations. In a world run by empires, some people are rulers and some are the ruled: It is impossible to think of a situation where all peoples possess an empire. On the other hand, the idea of the nation-state, for all its failings, holds the great advantage that it can indeed be generalized to all peoples everywhere. The proposition that every human being should belong to a nation and that all nations should be equal is not a contradiction in terms, although it may well be utterly unfounded as a description of the real world.

It is precisely the exclusivism of empire that makes it a program for ever-increasing conflict. If the mark of success for a nation consists of the possession of an empire, then it follows that every nation that wants to achieve success must aspire to an empire. That is why the twentieth century was a period of such cataclysmic conflict: emergent powers like Germany and Japan wanted empires as proof of their success. Those who embrace the idea of empire frequently cite the advantages of an imperial peace over the disorder of the current world situation. This disregards the fact that the peace of the British, French and Austro-Hungarian empires was purchased at the cost of a destabiliza-tion so radical as to generate the two greatest conflicts in human history: the world wars. Because of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, there can be no doubt that a twenty-first-century empire would have consequences graver still.

An imperium also generates an unstoppable push toward overreach, which is one of the reasons it is a charter for destabilization. This is not only because of an empire’s inherent tendency to expand; there is another reason, so simple as often to go unnoticed. The knowledge that an imperial center can be induced to intervene in local disputes, at a certain price, is itself an incentive for lesser players to provoke intervention. I remember an occasion a few years ago when one of the leaders of a minor and utterly hopeless insurgency asked me: What kind of death toll do you think we need to get the United States to intervene here?



There can be no doubt that political catastrophes can often be prevented by multilateral intervention, and clearly such actions are sometimes necessary. But it is also true that in certain circumstances the very prospect of intervention can, as it were, become an incentive for the escalation of violence. The reason the idea of empire appeals to many liberals is that it appears to offer a means of bettering the world’s predicament. History shows us, unfortunately, that the road to empire is all too often paved with good intentions.

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