Liberalism: Imperial Grease

In the midst of massive battles on the Western Front, an armed insurrection broke out in Ireland. A famous ballad, penned by a parish priest, describes the Easter Rising as a heroic feat, destined to fail.

Right proudly high over Dublin Town they hung out the flag of war
For ‘twas better to die ‘neath an Irish sky, than at Suvla or Sud el Bar
And from the plains of Royal Meth strong men came hurrying through
While the Britannia’s huns with their long range guns sailed in through the foggy dew

The Irish were no match against the British Empire, the greatest military might of its time. The colonial forces crushed the rebellion within a week, and shortly after many of its leaders were led to the gallows. A local disturbance had been handily dealt with. That wasn’t quite the end of the story, though. The heroic defeat, and especially its brutal aftermath, sowed the seeds of Irish independence. Now, as Ireland gears up to celebrate the centennial of the insurrection, the memory of the 1916 Easter Rising is still stirring up strong emotions.

In the slogans of the British war recruiters, the Empire was selflessly fighting to ensure the freedom of small nations, such as Belgium and Serbia.

‘Twas England bade our Wild Geese, go, so that “small nations may be free”
But their lonely graves are by Suvla’s waves, or the shore of the Great North sea

The self-contradictions in the imperial war propaganda must have been obvious to many of the “Wild Geese”, i.e., the hundreds of thousands of enlisted young Irishmen. Theirs was a small nation, too, but apparently unworthy of self-determination.

A generation earlier, during the Great Famine, the lawmakers in London had magnanimously granted the colony a great measure of economical, although not political, freedom. The ruling Whig party considered laissez-faire market liberalism as a panacea for all ailments, including the potato blight ravishing Ireland. All the government had to do was to take a step back and allow the markets to balance out the unfortunate situation. In any case, it would have been counterproductive to allow the Paddy to become too dependent on government assistance. After all, the Celtic race was by disposition lazy and unruly.


Elsewhere in Europe the threat of mass starvation was staved off by restricting grain exports from critically hit areas. In Ireland, too, during the previous famine of 1782, the ports had been temporarily closed. In 1845, however, such common sense measures would have been abhorrent violations of market freedom for any self-respecting liberal parliamentarian. It was business as usual. Huge quantities of grain, dairy products, and meat were shipped to England. To ensure the safe passage of the exports, red-coated soldiers were dispatched to guard the loading of the cargo. The issue wasn’t the availability of food, but rather its price. The invisible hand of the markets worked its wonders: around one million people starved, while another 1.5 million emigrated.

British gulags

“Why does the left insist on belittling true British heroes?” lamented the Tory Education Secretary Michael Gove in his column in the Daily Mail, in 2014. Gove had sought to introduce a “more celebratory attitude towards the Empire” into the school history curriculum. With a call to challenge the “existing Left-wing versions of the past”, especially concerning World War I, Gove concluded: “It’s always worth remembering that the freedom to draw our own conclusions about this conflict is a direct consequence of the bravery of men and women who fought for, and believed in, Britain’s special tradition of liberty.”

In George Orwell’s first novel, The Burmese Days, a case is made that, compared to her predecessors, the British Empire was a good deal more decent and benevolent. Yet, at the end of the day, the touted benevolence didn’t change the facts on the ground. The whole globe-encompassing project was still based on a lie. “The lie that we’re here to uplift our poor black brothers instead of to rob them. I suppose it’s a natural enough a lie. But it corrupts us.”

Later, in his essays, Orwell described his work as an imperial policeman. Among his duties were the kicking, flogging, torturing, and killing of other men.

V. S. Naipaul, by no means a writer prone to spouting “left-wing versions of the past”, describes the same kind of liberal-minded schizophrenia in his brilliant novel A Bend in the River: “The Europeans wanted gold and slaves, like everybody else; but at the same time they wanted statues put up to themselves as people who had done good things for the slaves.”

Old habits die hard. As late as in the mid ‘50s, long after ceding the position of global dominance to the US, its former colony, the declining kingdom kept holding on, tooth and nail, to its profitable outpost in Kenya.

With its oppressed and exploited rural class of tenant farmers and day laborers, and a land-owning elite in cahoots with the Brits, the British protectorate of Kenya had striking similarities with colonial Ireland. The Mau Mau Rebellion was both a civil war between the haves and the have-nots and an uprising of the natives against the foreign invaders. The British forces crushed the rebellion, while the officials and administrators back home made sure the scale and level of the brutality was hushed up.

Concentration camps are a British invention, employed for the first time in the Boer War. The jolly old Brits were also the only European nation, after the Nuremberg trials, to engage in a genocide by means of mass detention, starvation, and torture. Multitudes of people were penned up with barbed wire into enclosed villages, which the British officials called “reservations”. Those suspected of ties to the Mau Mau rebels would end up either in labor camps or in the notorious interrogation centers, where torture was a daily occurrence that was officially sanctioned by the higher-ups.

“Electric shock was widely used, as well as cigarettes and fire. Bottles (often broken), gun barrels, knives, vermin, and hot eggs were thrust up men’s rectums and women’s vaginas. The screening teams whipped, shot, burned and mutilated Mau Mau suspects, ostensibly to gather intelligence for military operations and as court evidence.” (Caroline ElkinsBritain’s Gulag — The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya.)

One of the many victims was in his sixties when the Brits took him in. At some point in his life, this man had been employed by a British officer as a personal cook. According to his third wife, the white interrogators had tortured her husband sadistically, flogging him, sticking needles under his fingers, and pressing his testicles between two iron bars.

The severely abused man was Hussein Onyago Obama, grandfather of the current President of the United States.

Looking forward!

During his presidential campaign, senator Obama strongly condemned the misuse of power committed by the Bush administration, particularly the use of torture. Not long after beating Hillary Clinton in the primaries, and well before his inauguration, Obama had already changed his tune, now opposing even any investigation into the abuses. “We need to look forward,” the president declared, “as opposed to looking backwards.” During his second term, Obama addressed the issue with a macabrely casual-sounding choice of words: “We tortured some folks.” There was no reason, however, to “get too sanctimonious about it.”

There was an obvious dichotomy between the liberal American values and the War on Terror. An easy fix was outsourcing torture, a strategy first championed by President Bill Clinton. In 2009, the White House announced it would continue its extraordinary renditions programs, flying terror suspects to the detention centers of its client states.

Obama’s 2013 address to the UN General Assembly eerily brings to mind the self-contradicting rhetoric of the British Empire. John Stuart Mill, a Victorian liberal theorist, philosopher, and parliamentarian, famous for defending the individual’s rights against state power, was also in favor of the Empire’s “enlightened despotism”:

“To suppose that the same international customs, and the same rules of international morality, can obtain between one civilised nation and another, and between civilised nations and barbarians, is a grave error.”

Thus wrote Mill in his essay A Few Words on Non-Intervention in 1859. Obama’s UN speech echoes Mill’s sentiments. After mandatory lip-service to peaceful coexistence and mutual understanding, Obama unhesitatingly lists America’s geopolitical objectives in the Middle East and North Africa:

“The United States of America is prepared to use all elements of our power, including military force, to secure our core interests in the region.”

Greasy J S Mill
John Stuart Mill, 19th-century British liberal political philosopher and civil servant.

Nearing the end of his address, Obama briefly touches on the age-old imperialistic dilemma: How to reconcile two contradictory aspirations, cynical realpolitik and the noble and universally beneficial liberal ideals? Here again, Obama is echoing Mill. He simply equates the two: what benefits the Empire benefits everybody.

“Some may disagree, but I believe America is exceptional — in part because we have shown a willingness through the sacrifice of blood and treasure to stand up not only for our narrow self-interests, but the interests of all.”

A fitting summary of liberal ideology and its ability to elevate national self-interest into a virtue.

Ironically, that was the original meaning of the word: for the aristocrats of Imperial Rome, there was no higher manifestation of virtue, virtus, than waging victorious and financially lucrative war on the barbarian nations. For the “non-interventionist” Mill, the Roman conquests were a net positive even for the subjugated tribute-payers, the barbarians themselves:

“The Romans were not the most clean-handed of conquerors, yet would it have been better for Gaul and Spain, Numidia and Dacia, never to have formed a part of the Roman Empire?”

A small fraction of the spoils of war would eventually trickle down, benefiting even the lowest strata of Roman society. In 58 BC, the policy of distributing free grain to the poor was introduced. Fast-forward two millennia, and you’ll find the same mechanisms at play in the current ruling empire. Leaked emails authored by Neera Tanden, president of the powerful liberal think tank Center for American Progress (CAP), make a good case study. On the disastrous war in Libya — very much the project of Hillary Clinton, whose campaign Tanden works for — she wrote:

“We have a giant deficit. They have a lot of oil. Most Americans would choose not to engage in the world because of that deficit. If we want to continue to engage in the world, gestures like having oil rich countries partially pay us back doesn’t seem crazy to me. Do we prefer cuts to Head Start? Or WIC? Or Medicaid?”

As ideologies go, the lasting appeal of liberalism is in its remarkable flexibility. It’s the slimy, all-pervading lubricant necessary to keep the brutal machinery well-oiled and running. It can mean anything and nothing. It can serve as camouflage or window dressing. Like the dark, restrained business attire, it offends nobody and suits everybody.

“Liberalism” is a word derived from “freedom”. Feel free to use it however you please.

—– UPDATE (March 24, 2016): —–

Another message from Neera Tanden, this one in Hillary Clinton’s recently released emails, oozes with the same attitudes. In an invitation asking Clinton to be the keynote speaker at a CAP event, some three months after the US started bombing Libya, Tanden writes:

We’re going to do a day and half conference on American Exceptionalism in its many different iterations. Subtly the conference will highlight the connections between core American ideals and progressive values; frankly, our aim is to capture American Exceptionalism for progressives, not cede the territory as so many progressives tend to do. […]
We’ll have a session on American Exceptionalism and Democracy – and how democratic principles in our foreign policy is a core American value. Given all the changes in the world, we think this focus will be very timely. We’ll have another session on how a strong and robust middle class is a core principle of American Exceptionalism as well.
– IK

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