CommonSpace columnist Jonathon Shafi says Scotland can play a role in shaping modern history by ensuring politics and society moves forward, not backwards to darker times
THERE was a time when a government minister referencing a trade plan with Africa as ‘Empire 2.0’ would have been a sacking offence.
Just a short number of years ago, the mantra from mainstream political parties was based on the rhetoric of ‘progress’. ‘Forward not back,’ they would say from their party conferences. The jostle to manage neoliberal capitalism was camouflaged by spending millions on the public relations industry which crafted the message that would make the system feel like it was moving into a new phase of human development.
The world was changing fast, but as it changed it was becoming more integrated, more enlightened, learning the mistakes of history and open minded about its future. Like the political parties that represented their interests, transnational corporations were about changing the world as much as they were about making money.
This, of course, was never the real story. The attempt to balance a global system based on the exploitation of workers and the environment with the rhetoric of progress was never going to last. While Western economies turned themselves into consumer driven societies, the manufacturing of cheap commodities represented the new colonialism.
The cheap goods enjoyed by the service sector economies in Europe and America were based on the super-exploitation of workers in China, Africa, India and Singapore. In the West, cheap credit replaced long term, well payed jobs. Meanwhile, corporations utilising technological advancements studied the science of exploitation. How many seconds did it take to produce a pair of jeans? How could this number be reduced. What could be done to squeeze out every last drop of labour from the exhausted workforce? Who could afford to buy the products they slaved over making?
But this reality did not breach those embracing the ‘Third Way’. They had already made their reckoning with the financial sector, big business and the transitional elites. But to listen to them would be to hear only about progress, only about a political and economic order that had moved on from colonialism and into a world of prosperity beyond boom and bust capitalism.
Words are cheap. Imperialism continued in direct military terms with the Iraq war. In economic terms the WTO, the IMF and the World Bank ensured that the global system was based on the demands of the West and the major powers, while free trade zones and mass privatisation took away public control from any aspect of the economy. Cheap labour and attacks on the ability of workers to organise led to the setting up of huge live-in factories that pumped out cheap goods.
This, the high watermark of globalisation was meant to be invincible. Who could have thought that institutions like the IMF would now be writing about the impending doom of neoliberalism? Who would have thought that the EU would have been under the strain it is now, or indeed that the President of the US would be advocating protectionism, tariffs and to overturn the nature of the economy by reducing the availability of cheap consumer goods in favour of having more manufacturing jobs?
This is the worldview of Nigel Farage, Liam Fox and co. That is the ideological underpinning of ‘Empire 2.0’.
Well, some people did – on the radical left and the radical right. For the left this process of globalisation was understood in terms of exploitation and imperialism. The anti-G8 and anti-WTO street mobilisations in the late 1990s and early 2000s were platforms for resistance to privatisation, corporate rule and the transnational elite who prospered while millions lived in poverty and the environment burned.
The solution? To redress the balance. To build a global economy based on human need rather than driven by the need to accumulate more and more profit regardless of the consequences.
But the radical right – beyond the George Osborne’s of the world – also had their own critique. They were at that time on the fringes of the ruling class politically. They argued that national sovereignty was being undermined. They hated the gloss of ‘progress’ and the idea of the ‘global village’, preferring a more classic colonial approach to global affairs.
They always lamented the formal collapse of the British Empire, and they hold the fundamental belief that the world was a better place in those days than it is now. They see their role as re-establishing an order that died decades ago – and they believe this is the best opportunity they have to realise this goal. In other words, they want to ‘make the world great again’.
That is the worldview of Nigel Farage, Liam Fox and co. That is the ideological underpinning of ‘Empire 2.0’. Indeed, this orientation has come to dominate the Tory approach to the crisis of British capitalism, believing that they need to relaunch project Britannia to build ideological unity behind the state while living standards continue to decline.
Indeed, this orientation has come to dominate the Tory approach to the crisis of British capitalism, believing that they need to relaunch project Britannia to build ideological unity behind the state while living standards continue to decline.
They believe they can re-order the world around the same framework as the age of empire. This is what they really mean by the term ‘global Britain’.
They are the old school, and they are presently in charge of the British state. But history matters, and any repetition of ‘rule Britannia’ is not going to happen in the way they might like to think. But we are at a crossroads – and in Scotland we have a big role to play.
The memory of plunder, injustice and death it’s not something that fades without notice. Liam Fox says that Britain, unlike many countries, has a history to be proud of.
This is not some attempt to cover up the crimes of the British State. No, for Fox this history, bloody as it may be, was and remains central to progress in the world. It is a consciously supremacist outlook – but given the decline of Britain, this hubris is not only unfounded, it cannot be rebuilt in the way he imagines.
As Indian MP and author Shashi Taroor correctly point out, ‘Empire 2.0’ will go down like a lead balloon. He reminds Britain of its collective amnesia when it comes to colonialism. He dismantles the radical right’s idea that Brittania will rule the waves without being haunted by the past.
But history matters, and any repetition of ‘rule Britannia’ is not going to happen in the way they might like to think. But we are at a crossroads – and in Scotland we have a big role to play.
It’s not just the obvious crimes like famines that killed four million people in what geographer Mike Davis calls the late Victorian holocausts, it’s that they looted India’s economy and turned it from a major world player to a backwater under the dominion of the Empire.
As is the case in Africa – where despite being a continent rich in natural resources, culture and labour power – the population is scarred with the most dehumanising poverty after the having its potential constantly checked and undermined by imperialism.
The list of crimes is too long to list here, but the point is clear: the British state can only go in one direction, and that’s backwards.
Corporate globalisation has failed, and the project to resurrect the old school colonial enterprise in its place is a throwback that will not wash. Scotland played its role in the building of Empire 1.0. Now we have a chance to make sure that we derail Empire 2.0.
Corporate globalisation has failed, and the project to resurrect the old school colonial enterprise in its place is a throwback that will not wash.
In these very stark terms, the Tories have made the coming independence referendum about a choice between giving life to an ex-Empire, or to repudiate this wholesale by playing our role in breaking the British state.
It won’t make up for the role Scotland played in the Empire, but it will mean that it will be a matter of historical record that we chose to disrupt – conclusively – the ability of the British elite to project their colonial re-enactment onto the world ever again.
Picture courtesy of Jonathon Shafi
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