Thursday, March 27, 2003

And now, "Angloglobalization"

Following up on my post a few days ago on the terminology of the Anglosphere, here are Niall Ferguson's reflections on the British empire, its costs and accomplishments, and what the United States ought--and must--learn from it. It's a wonderful piece, if only because it attempts to advance the debate over globalization in light of the increasingly evident importance of national--that is, "imperial"--force in the spread of not just "commodities, capital, and labor," but also "knowledge, culture, and institutions." It is one thing, of course, to talk about (as I did, drawing on Benjamin Barber's critique of globalization) how America is transforming the globe through the power of a "neo-liberal capitalist compromise [which is shaping]...the world into a state of mutual, homogeneous inter-dependency"; it is another thing to consider the role which a national agent--composed of not just economic but also military might--might play in the disciplining and orienting of that process: preferably, an orientation towards the creation of liberal communities. This is an intriguing philosophical question: does globalization have a "content"--is it, perhaps, the very fruit of liberal modernity, or is it, perhaps, an entirely different sort of process, within which liberal civilization must struggle (or ought to struggle) in order to preserve and strengthen itself just as much as any other civil order? This brings up the idea of "riding the whirlwind" which I mentioned in an earlier post. To those suspicious of all manifestations of national power and identity, to turn global history in one's own direction is, by definition, an appallingly oppressive and illiberal act. But perhaps it needn't be. As Ferguson writes, reflecting on the process of "Angloglobalization" which took place in the 19th century under the aegis of Victorian Britain:

"[T]he fact remains that no organization in history has done more to promote the free movement of goods, capital, and labor than the British empire in the 19th and early 20th centuries. And no organization has done more to impose Western norms of law, order, and governance around the world. To characterize all this as "gentlemanly capitalism" risks underselling the scale -- and modernity -- of the achievement in the sphere of economics; just as criticism of the 'ornamental' (meaning hierarchical) character of British rule overseas tends to overlook the signal virtues of what were remarkably nonvenal administrations....It is of course tempting to argue that it would all have happened anyway, albeit with different names. Perhaps the railways would have been invented and exported by another European power; perhaps the telegraph cables would have been laid across the sea by someone else, too. Maybe the same volumes of trade would have gone on without bellicose empires meddling in peaceful commerce. Maybe too the great movements of population that transformed the cultures and complexions of whole continents would have happened anyway. Yet there is reason to doubt that the world would have been the same or even similar in the absence of the empire. Even if we allow for the possibility that trade, capital flows, and migration could have been 'naturally occurring' in the past 300 years, there remain the flows of culture and institutions. And here the fingerprints of empire seem more readily discernible and less easy to wipe away....I do not mean to claim that all British imperialists were liberals -- far from it. But what is very striking about the history of the empire is that whenever the British were behaving despotically, there was almost always a liberal critique of that behavior from within British society. Indeed, so powerful and consistent was this tendency to judge Britain's imperial conduct by the yardstick of liberty that it gave the British empire something of a self-liquidating character. Once a colonized society had sufficiently adopted the other institutions the British brought with them, it became very hard for the British to prohibit that political liberty to which they attached so much significance for themselves."

Ferguson concludes by suggesting, as I did in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek way, that since "America's strengths may not be the strengths of a natural imperial hegemon," perhaps we need additional--"Anglospheric"--help if the United States is going to play the role it may, and arguably ought to take, in directing already-occuring globalization towards liberal ends. Of course, all this Whig history may seem like a little much; as a friend of mine, a former student of Tony Judt's, has recently been reminding me, we need a sense of "the tragic" as well as a sense of "history" to properly guide us; and the tragic requires a more comprehensive sense of the world than Britain's imperial history may provide. All the more reason for comparative, pluralistic, Herderian humility, I say. But whether a tragic sensibility would require us to abandon present historical opportunities is by no means clear, at least not to me. Even less clear is whether we actually have this choice, or whether we are now, like it or not, already committed, and thus obliged to act.