As a sometime aficionado of the Steampunk genre, I was somewhat depressed by the following article. Somewhat very depressed, since it suggests that at least one, if not more, of the main lights in the Steampunk scene doesn’t have a clue about the history she is drawing on. I’m going to go into some detail criticising this, since it is a good illustration of what happens when think political dogma is a substitute for facts.
The key is the following paragraph.
Colonialism is antithetical to everything that steampunk is. In its way, I would argue that colonialism is the quintessential anti-steampunk. Colonialism is a process that seeks to force homogeneity upon the world (to speak nothing of its racist assumptions).
The author – the aptly named Margaret Killjoy, current editor of Steampunk magazine – prides herself on her historical acuity and still manages to produce a paragraph like that.
To begin with, I’m going to define my terms: “colonialism” is “the control or governing influence of a nation over a dependent country, territory, or people. “Imperialism”, sometimes used interchangeably, is the policy of seeking an Empire, “the policy of extending the rule or authority of an empire or nation over foreign countries, or of acquiring and holding colonies and dependencies”.
The claim that colonialism “seeks to force homogeneity upon the world” is simply bunk. Take the most famous example of colonialism, the British Empire. It began as “globalisation with gunboats” in Niall Ferguson’s trenchant phrase: in places where British law wasn’t recognised, contracts were enforced with, as it were, contracts. What began as a way of keeping trade routes flowing, ended as an institutional practice. Now, in what way or form would it have been of interest to this system to “force homogeneity” on anyone? In point of fact, it was in the best interests of the British Empire to keep local arrangements in place, since they offered the most cost-effective way of establishing control. The way that India, say, was seized was through canny manipulation of various local interests, all of whom wanted to use the British as a way to smash their local enemies.
This is quite important, as a similar situation is currently going on with China’s drive for Africa: Chinese corporations are typically backed by the state, and the Chinese autocracy has a vested interested in keeping the local bosses as paid enforcers as they exploit Africa’s vast wealth of resources.
Returning to the British Empire, it is true that later on they proclaimed Kipling’s famous “White Man’s Burden”, that the holy task of the Empire was to lift the backward parts of the world up to the standard of civilisation This is presumably what Killjoy means when she speaks of its “racist assumptions”. However, the trouble for her is that this is, again, nothing like as simple as she thinks.
Ibn Warraq, in Defending the West cites a modern Indian historians who argue that Kipling in particular was no racist, and his famous poem expresses the hope of being able to eventually meet the colonised as equals. The period of the “white man’s burden” saw the eradication of Suttee in India and the Royal Navy destroy the practice of slavery. In an ironic twist of fate, when my own Fatherland was sunk in the swamp of pagan barbarism, it was millions of young men from all over Africa and India who chose to shoulder that same burden and help liberate Germany.
I wish Killjoy could be a little less po-faced and read Flashman. As the Hitch writes, those books show it all:
the British-owned slave ships, and the British vessels that put down the slave trade; the destruction of the dens of tyranny in India and Abyssinia, and the hideous vandalizing of the Summer Palace in Peking; the serf armies and pirate navies that needed crushing, and the magnificent peoples – Zulus, Sikhs, Afghans – who the British had finally to admit were unconquerable. The Empire on which the sun never set was also the empire on which the gore never dried.
The legacy of the British Empire is a subject of endless discussion – no less a person than Gandhi said that, the British having left, it was India’s duty to remember only the good things they brought. Marx wrote penetratingly about the cruelties of British rule, but that it was worthwhile, as it would lay the beginnings of a modern state (n.b. Killjoy fancies herself someone with “radical” politics, but doesn’t seem to know the first thing about that tradition, a point to which I will return later).
And this is just one of the many different forms of colonialism and imperialism. The German scramble for Africa was out armour propre, a desire to prove that they could have an empire too. The Belgian horrors of the Congo were due to Leopold not caring anything about its inhabitants other than as so much human fuel. And so on. The point isn’t to defend any of these, the point is to show that a desire to enforce “homogeneity” was nowhere to be found in colonialism and imperialism. Such an analysis of colonialism would be completely new to Lenin (again, Killjoy doesn’t seem to know much about her own tradition) who describes it as simply a stopgap way of fending capitalism’s internal contradictions.
I’ve specifically avoided dealing with the realities of those who were on the receiving end of European colonialism because my point is this: How on earth is someone supposed to follow provide any sort of meaningful critique of colonialism when she doesn’t even know what it was, where it came from, or what its goals were?
She can’t. And she can’t in a spectacular way. There have, however, been some forms of imperialism that have devoted themselves to the creation of homogeneity, but once more the irony is at this writer’s expense. The three examples that spring to mind are Islamic imperialism’s drive to great a homogeneity of faith, Communist imperialism’s drive to create a civilizational homogeneity, and the Nazi drive for racial homogeneity.
Now mark that last one. Killjoy grandly praises Steampunk’s long, radical tradition, and heaps praise on H.G. Wells. Yet here is Wells in his own words:
“And how will the new republic treat the inferior races? How will it deal with the black? how will it deal with the yellow man? how will it tackle that alleged termite in the civilized woodwork, the Jew? Certainly not as races at all. It will aim to establish, and it will at last, though probably only after a second century has passed, establish a world state with a common language and a common rule. All over the world its roads, its standards, its laws, and its apparatus of control will run. It will, I have said, make the multiplication of those who fall behind a certain standard of social efficiency unpleasant and difficult… The Jew will probably lose much of his particularism, intermarry with Gentiles, and cease to be a physically distinct element in human affairs in a century or so. But much of his moral tradition will, I hope, never die. … And for the rest, those swarms of black, and brown, and dirty-white, and yellow people, who do not come into the new needs of efficiency?
Well, the world is a world, not a charitable institution, and I take it they will have to go.The whole tenor and meaning of the world, as I see it, is that they have to go. So far as they fail to develop sane, vigorous, and distinctive personalities for the great world of the future, it is their portion to die out and disappear.”
Let it never be said that Wells exempted his own race from such treatment. People with:
‘transmittable diseases, with mental disorders, with bodily deformations, the criminally insane, even the incurable alcoholic! All are to be put to death humanely—by first giving them opiates to spare them needless suffering!’
In other words, while complaining about colonialism’s supposed drive for homogeneity, this writer praises a man who believed in establishing ruthless homogeneity in the cause of efficiency.
This is what happens when you start hammering out political agitprop without knowing the facts. You end up being a blasted fool and supporting that which you purport to attack.
And not just through silly citations. As I’ve written before, the evil of racism isn’t ‘hate’ but dehumanisation, the systematic cancellation of another person’s reality to be substituted with what you wish to believe. That is pretty much this whole article in a nutshell: the cancelling out of the astonishing richness and diversity of the past to bring it into conformity with modern political cant. Very well done.
There’s a semi-sequel to this coming that discusses how reason can be used to avoid this.