Passive Imperialism

The following is the draft of an article I’m submitting to a student newspaper, and which I thought would interest readers. Although this isn’t discussed explicitly in the article, it’s an attempt to flesh out the way that imperialism destroys lives even when it’s not doing anything obviously destructive – just be its continued existence as a system.

So without further ado:

There is a tendency, when discussing the overall state of the world economy, to say that while most areas of the world are growing, Africa is an exception, where ‘normal’ economic growth is being held back by political instability and conflict. For much of the recent few decades sub-Saharan Africa’s economies have actually shrunk, and certainly much of the reason for this is the civil wars, coups, and insurgencies that have plagued the continent. Yet I disagree with the tendency to separate this from the rest of the global economy as an anomaly, an extraneous factor interfering with normal economics. Rather, I wish to argue, this recurrent violence is an integral part of and consequence of those economics.


In speaking of ‘the global economy’ I wish to focus on two operative features of this economy: first, its global or globalised nature, so that dealings are possible between virtually any pair of locations, and secondly, its unequal nature, in which a vastly disproportionate amount of the world’s wealth exists as the property of a small fraction of the world’s population. I wish to argue that the mere fact of these two features has a destabilising effect on the poorest countries, and predisposes them to political violence.

First of all, it encourages violent ways of responding to conflicts of interests, as opposed to peaceful ones. In the absence of unequal globalisation, two rivals for political power, considering violence, would have to evaluate stable variables: their respective strengths, probability of victory, costs and benefits to each side. In many cases they might both come to judge that they were sufficiently evenly-matched that the costs outweighed the potential benefits, and reluctantly reach a compromise.

Unequal globalisation, however, introduces a third party sufficiently powerful that if one side has their support, the strength of the other side becomes relatively inconsequential. This firstly makes the option of compromise less attractive, because by leaving the other side intact, it risks the other side gaining the support of the outside power, and then swiftly defeating its opponent. And secondly it makes the option of conflict more attractive, because both sides reason that if they can just get the outside support, they will be able to win without suffering much. In sum, it makes both parties more ambitious and more suspicious. In such a situation there is a much higher likelihood of the rivalry turning violent, with substantial costs to the rest of that country’s population.

Secondly, unequal globalisation reduces the incentive to do things that promote community. By ‘community’ I mean: the network of predictable relationships that allow people to reciprocally benefit each other in various ways. One can promote ‘community’ both actively, by organising a community group or improving the rule of law, and also passively, by refraining from actions which will encourage people to fear and mistrust each other. The extreme of not building community would be to indiscriminately kill others, for in doing so community is atomised, traumatised, and made responsive only to brute force.

Under normal circumstances there is quite a strong incentive to avoid at least actions that will severely reduce community. Community is the source of a wide variety of very important things, and so destroying it is rarely in people’s interests. But unequal globalisation makes available benefits from people and organisations based in other countries, which do not depend on local community. These benefits may potentially be much larger than those available from one’s own community. As a result, actions which destroy the social fabric (like massacres) can become much more rewarding, insofar as they bring control of things valuable to foreigners (like diamond mines). By opening up new options, people are ‘freed’ from the dependence on others that made complete social devastation undesirable.

Thirdly, unequal globalisation encourages outside powers to exacerbate local divisions between communities. Now, powerful foreign entities have interests to promote in regions where they have no natural support base. As a result, they often need to create such a support base rapidly and artificially, and one of the most effective ways to do this is to become the ‘enemy of the enemy’ of a local group, so as to take advantage of an existing division. But this will tend, whichever side is favoured, to make that division more prominent and deeper, especially in its potential to make one side appear to be a ‘puppet’ of outside domination.

Obviously none of this is to suggest that without unequal globalisation there wouldn’t be power struggles, social devastation, or communal violence, nor to deny the responsibility of the people who actually pull the triggers. I want to describe how the international economic context makes a small difference to the options and incentives open to each agent, a difference which when summed over hundreds or thousands of agents can produce substantial changes in outcome.

These patterns can be seen in the bloodiest conflict since WWII – the ongoing instability of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Immediately after independence in 1960 the richest provinces, such as Katanga, sought independence, and were backed up by support from the departed Belgians. The government, in response, relied on UN peacekeepers to take back those provinces. This crisis developed into a leadership battle between (USSR-backed) president Lumumba, and his (USA-backed) rivals. At each stage, different factions could strike for power because of outside support; their opponents responded by getting their own outside support. Without this, it is possible that they could have accurately judged their respective strengths, and been forced to compromise.

A UN report in April 2001 found a “link between the exploitation of natural resources and the continuation of the conflict.” The different sides in Congo, principally motivated not by ideology but by the rewards of capturing a mine and selling its products, have repeatedly splintered or switched allegiance. In the absence of globalisation, these rewards would not be available. We can’t know how many or which agents (Rwanda, Uganda, Angola, Zimbabwe, their respective rebel-clients, the offshoots therefrom) would have decided that investment in peace and stability was more profitable than ongoing war. This trend, rich resources going with bad politics, is sometimes called “The Resource Curse”. Yet generally these resources cannot be processed by the people pulling the triggers. They depend upon unequal globalisation, where mobile phones for Americans are more lucrative than life itself for Congolese civilians.

The issue of race is also visible in this conflict, and the connected conflicts in Rwanda and Burundi. The enmity between Hutus and Tutsis countries was exacerbated by the Belgians – I.D. cards with ethnic identifications, segregated schooling, and racist theories that the ruling Tutsis were ‘more European’. Why? Because by dividing the natives, they could secure Tutsi collaboration. Then, when the Tutsis agitated for independence, the Belgians switched to promising democracy to the Hutu majority. The eventual outcome was decades of conflict and the famous Rwandan genocide.

This tragic pattern was then continued by Rwanda’s current government in its invasion of Congo. The Rwandans want to exert power in Eastern Congo? They appeal to Congolese Tutsis and their fear of Congolese Hutus. The Congolese government wants to exert power? It appeals to the Congolese Hutus and their fear of the Congolese Tutsis. Thus the division is repeatedly inflamed, with catastrophic consequences.

Contrast Somaliland, a ‘country’ in northern Somalia. Being diplomatically unrecognised, it has received very little aid, trade, or influence from outside: and while the rest of Somalia dissolved into warlordism, Islamism, Ethiopian invasion, and humanitarian disaster, Somaliland has remained stable. Its still-evolving political system mixes ‘democratic republic’ and ‘tribal elder council’. By building on pre-existing communal structures, not relying on money, elites, or military backing from outside, it has avoided the mayhem to its south.

We need to recognise that any proposed ‘intervention’, especially a political or military one, into African affairs carries a cost. Even setting aside the issue of dubious motives and goals, it is prone to destabilise. The most popular current candidate for military intervention is Darfur: I think this would be a bad idea. The logic of such a force would exacerbate tribal divisions and indirectly facilitate more extreme actions by local forces. This would be in addition to the people directly killed by guns and bombs.

We need to get away from an assumption that Western governments have the power to resolve violence: as Iraq and Afghanistan show, the most powerful government is often incapable of this because of its nature and position. Moreover, the assumption of such power is often itself a contributor to increasing violence.

We also need to get away from treating political turmoil as external to the global economy. It is an integral part, with a worrying effect: it impoverishes the poorest, and thereby perpetuates global inequality. Changing that may require far-reaching changes in the whole system.

4 Responses to “Passive Imperialism”

  1. The World’s Biggest War Seems to be Ending « Directionless Bones Says:

    […] The conflict was, in my opinion, largely a free-for-fall loot-party. There was so little order in the large eastern parts of the country, and so much mineral wealth, that anyone with a bunch of thugs with guns could get a lot richer by fighting for land than by contributing to civil society. It’s a prime example of the destabilising effects of the world economy. […]

  2. Murder, Drugs, and Genital Mutilation: Struggles in Guinea-Bissau « Directionless Bones Says:

    […] I’ve argued in the past that the global economy is prone to producing political instability in its poorest countries, and I think this can be seen as an instance of that. The Colombian drugs trade is a purely finite resource – no wise governance and co-operation in Guinea-Bissau can increase the productivity of Colombian farms. Unlike with Guinea-Bissau’s own domestic economy, there’s no incentive or pressure towards things that will build up society and organisation – just things that will increase conflict and struggle. […]

  3. Q Says:

    It’s a valid point, but I want to ask two things:
    What, if anything, other than the scale, makes this facet of human nature worse for Africans wanting US help than for African tribes wanting another tribe’s help, or even a couple of families wanting another’s support?
    Do you suggest, as a consequence of this observation, that nations from other continents should stay out of African affairs entirely?

  4. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “What, if anything, other than the scale, makes this facet of human nature worse for Africans wanting US help than for African tribes wanting another tribe’s help, or even a couple of families wanting another’s support?”
    Nothing. It’s just scale. Imperialism is a dynamic that happens on lots of levels.

    “Do you suggest, as a consequence of this observation, that nations from other continents should stay out of African affairs entirely?”
    I suggest that everybody should try to avoid exerting power over remote people wherever possible. That’s not the same as no interaction at all. ‘Remote’ is a matter of degree, so this is just one part of a broader view that individuals are the best judges of their own welfare on day-to-day matters, that societies should be built voluntarily from the bottom up, etc.

    I’m not saying that non-interference is always possible or ideal. But by analogy: trying to manipulate someone else in their own affairs is by and large a bad thing because whether you succeed or not it will have certain negative consequences on the way you interact. Sometimes it’s unavoidable (e.g. that deaf person is about to walk over that unsafe bridge, how do you stop them?) – but this doesn’t prevent us from pointing out when people are being callously manipulative with highly destructive consequences.

    Also, I’m not really giving advice to ‘nations from other continents’, any more than I’m giving advice to the genocidaires in Khartoum – and putting myself in that imaginary position just reinforces an assumption of ‘noble intentions’.


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