Tuesday, April 19, 2005

The Empire Strikes Back

Borrowed Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World by Niall Ferguson from a friend this weekend. Have not yet started it, but desultory flipping through has happened. There is a long review available, possibly more.

The thrust of the book is that on balance, the existence of the British Empire did more good than harm. According to him, it is responsible for the spread of liberal values and parliamentary democracy around the world, the English language, the industrial age, globalization and free trade (in its modern forms). He does not deny that horrible things happened, but constantly reminds us that things would've been a lot worse if say, the Japanese or the Germans, had been the great colonial power of the 19th and 20th centuries.

So far, the problem is that he constantly presents the Japanese (and German, French, or Dutch) empire as the only alternative to the British empire. As in, "If India had not been part of the British empire, it would've been under the Japanese. That the Japanese were butchers, we've seen during the Second World War. Therefore, India was better off under the British." Not much consideration is given to the idea of, "Hey, what if India wasn't part of any empire? What if parliamentary democracy and liberal values and other such things had taken root on their own here? What if there had been agricultural and industrial development independently here?"

Should be an interesting read. The book seems to have divided the world into three camps. Those who support the thesis, those who oppose it, and of course those who have not read it.

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