Built-in Imperialism: an era of farcical return

By Lorenzo

Alexis de Tocqueville and Friedrich Nietzsche both scored well in prognostication. De Tocqueville famously wrote in the 1830s:

There are now two great nations in the world which, starting from different points, seem to be advancing toward the same goal: the Russians and the Anglo-Americans. … The American fights against natural obstacles; the Russian is at grips with men. The former combats the wilderness and barbarism; the latter, civilization with all its arms. America’s conquests are made with the plowshare, Russia’s with the sword. To attain their aims, the former relies on personal interest and gives free scope to the unguided strength and common sense of individuals. The latter in a sense concentrates the whole power of society in one man. One has freedom as the principal means of action; the other has servitude. Their point of departure is different and their paths diverse; nevertheless, each seems called by some secret desire of Providence one day to hold in its hands the destinies of half the world.

Which may seem a little rough on the Amerindians, but the reality is that they were massively outbred and they could be, and were, suppressed by, at most, battalion-sized actions. It was just another version of the story of the last 10,000 years–hunter-gatherers being overwhelmed by farmers and pastoralists. Merely better recorded, with the innovation of retrospective guilt.

Here is Nietzsche in Untimely Meditations (II 9) in the 1870s:

If the doctrines of the sovereign Becoming, of the fluidity of all … species, of the lack of any cardinal distinction between man and animal … are hurled into the people for another generation … then nobody should be surprised when … brotherhoods with the aim of the robbery and exploitation of the non-brothers … will appear on the arena of the future.

Fascism, Nazism and Leninism would qualify. Especially given what each took from Darwinism.

Marx, on the other hand, was a famously dreadful prognosticator. His immiseration thesis spectacularly failed, the problem being that the more capital per worker, the scarcer workers are relative to capital, so the higher wages are. Since capital is inherently wedded to exploitation in Marx’s conception, the implication is that the more prosperous workers are, the more “exploited” they are: at which point we have to agree with Inigo Montoya–that word, it does not mean what you think it means. That Marx talked about capital “accumulating” leads to such errors, since capital is created (or not) by human action, not mechanical processes. By separating the origin of capital from creative human action (and the embedded complexity of social relations), he impoverished his own analysis, along with that of anyone who took this “capital accumulates” notion from him.

But Marx did have that great line, in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, that:

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.

Second time as farce

Which brings us to Vladimir Putin. Boris Johnson brilliantly captured Putin as low-rent Stalin, which I cannot hope to match and will not try. Though it does make Marx’s quote all the more apt. Putin’s immediate strategy is bulls-eyed by Michael J Totten:

Keeping his former Ukrainian vassal out of NATO will be easy now even if a militant anti-Russian firebrand comes to power in Kiev. The Crimean referendum—whether it was free and fair or rigged is no matter—creates a disputed territory conflict that will never be resolved in Ukraine’s favor. It will freeze and fester indefinitely. There isn’t a chance that NATO would accept a member that has a disputed territory conflict with Russia. No chance at all. Ukraine is as isolated as it could possibly be from the West without getting re-absorbed into Russia entirely.

It also perfectly in keeping with the principle of Russian foreign policy enunciated by George Kennan and quoted by Totten:

The jealous and intolerant eye of the Kremlin can distinguish, in the end, only vassals and enemies, and the neighbors of Russia, if they do not wish to be one, must reconcile themselves to being the other.

Though triumphantly “getting back” the Crimea, which was originally incorporated into the Russian empire in 1783, has the farcical element Boris Johnson so beautifully picked up on.

That the Crimean Khanate had been a major slave-trading power, shipping maybe 2 million Slav slaves into Islam from 1500-1700–the last great slave raid being in 1769 with the capture of 20,000 slaves–points to the long Russian experience of open frontier as threat. The lesson of Russian history that the weak are victims is one it keeps inflicting on its neighbours; rather like an abused child becoming an abusive adult.

Nationalism as imperialism

Which leads to the second principle of Russian history–nationalism and imperialism are deeply interwoven. As they are in English and American history, but redeemed and limited by other principles. The English diaspora does not create a problem of irredentism (tending, as they do, to reside in states they founded), and there is no American diaspora: they are the place diasporas go to and lose any territoriality except a shared American one. Hence the joke that if all the Germanic generals and admirals had been fighting on the same side in Hitler’s war, (or, for that matter, the Kaiser’s) the Germans would have won.  (Pershing, Eisenhower, Nimitz, Spaatz, Eichelberger …)

The Conquest of Siberia by Vasily Sunikov: the original is enormous.

The Conquest of Siberia by Vasily Sunikov: the original is enormous.

The surging Russian imperial-nation-state pushed forward Russian settlers in all directions. With the Soviet collapse, Russian minorities were left in neighbouring successor-states, potential objects for intervention in the name of a nationalism which is also an imperialism. This was precisely the situation regarding Germans that Hitler exploited in the lead up to his war, an analogy Hillary Clinton recently pointed out. For, without the protection of the Russian state, such minorities are weak and therefore victims; and if they are victims, that is both an insult to the Russian state and a sign of its weakness, and so impending victimhood. For if Russia is not strong, it has nothing.

A fearful grandiosity

Which is the third principle of Russian history. A search for, and clinging to, some grand mission and destiny that elevates it beyond being a backward reflection of higher achieving societies. Hence Moscow as Third Rome, or bastion of Orthodoxy, or Revolutionary state, or, in Putin’s conception, champion of traditional values. (Thus is queer-bashing as substitute for Jew-bashing; a principle that the Catholic Church also follows–Islam is more traditional, and does both.) The national ego is puffed up in order to hide the desperate fear that Russia profoundly lacks what others have. A sort of malignant national narcissism.

Which makes Putin the narcissist-in-chief, seeking to embody the principle that strength=power=authority and strutting the world stage as the strongman embodying Russia’s glorious destiny. Which apparently involves regaining Crimea, originally conquered 230 years ago, and dealing with a Ukraine, whose autonomy Catherine the Great abolished in 1764. This is glorious destiny as re-run farce.

Made all the more farcical by collapsing fertility (1.34) and bride-exporting. The economic vigour of China contrasts sadly with Russia’s hydrocarbon fragility. De Tocqueville’s moment of polarisation between Russia and the US has passed. China is the waking giant, Russia a shrunken one likely to shrink further (at least demographically).

Religion as imperialism

Russia is not the only inbuilt imperialism that is engaging in a farcical re-run. Imperialism is also built into the origins and history of Islam. Islam started as an imperial religion, just as Sharia started as an imperial legal system. Sharia is not a legal system just for believers, it is the law of God, the sovereign of the universe. For a sincere believer, it is not only superior to every other legal system, it should dominate them.

Up until the Battle of Vienna (1683: though the 1529 siege of Vienna was probably the Ottoman high point) and the death of Aurangzeb (1707), the last great Mughal emperor, Islam aggressed against every culture and civilisation it came up against, with the Reconquista being the only permanent retreat until that time. (And is one of al-Qaeda’s grievances against the West: no, really.)

Battle of Vienna by Pauwel Casteels.

Battle of Vienna by Pauwel Casteels.

Such aggression including the aforementioned slave trade based on raiding the infidel; a process entirely in accord with Sharia. One of the issues for Charles I and spending money on the Royal Navy, was to stop the Barbary pirates slave raiding into the British Isles. Even the Atlantic slave trade “piggybacked” on long-running Islamic slave trade with West Africa: the Saharan passage was every bit as horrid as the Atlantic passage, with the skeletons of slaves who had died walking across the Sahara marking the routes of the slave caravans. (That slave women were incorporated as concubines and enslaved males were frequently castrated greatly reduced any tendency to create former-slave minorities in Islam.)

Retreat and re-run

After the Battle of Vienna and the death of Aurangzeb began the long retreat of Islam as ruling religion, as European states either liberated themselves from Muslim rule or conquered Muslim territories or established various levels of domination over them. (In the case of Russia, the process was a combination of all three.) With the postwar retreat from territorial empires (extending eventually even to the Soviet Empire), Muslim states gained or regained their independence.

Sharia certified

Sharia certified

Hence the jihadi push to return to “business as proper”–that is, imperialism against the infidel. But flying the planes of the infidel into buildings built by the infidel, or blowing up the odd bus or train, may be spectacular, but is not remotely in the same league as past great waves of Islamic conquest. This is imperialism as farce; which only has any scope for danger beyond spectacular, but localised, massacre by the threat potentials of modern technology.

Muslim migration into the West does invoke the spread of Muslim via trade routes into the Malay world, but there Sharia was an advantage, since it provided superior commercial law to what was available locally. Moreover, converting to Islam created an identity to resist the Christian European colonisers.

Without creating wildly implausible demographic scenarios, Muslim migration in the West is not likely to have any similar transformative effect. Rather, the effect is more likely to be the other way; with the migrants absorbing Western habits and mores. There is a problem in Europe particularly with second generation males, but it is still a minority effect within a minority.

Solvents exist

The inbuilt imperialisms of Russia and of Islam have been, and will continue to, create problems and alarums. But their re-run imperialisms-as-farce can be dealt with much more easily than the original versions, provided a certain level of clear-headed good sense prevails.

So, no pretence that we are not dealing with inbuilt imperialisms. But also no pretence that every Russian or Muslim has signed on for the re-runs. Or that the modern world lacks solvents for such patterns.


  1. Waistless
    Posted March 20, 2014 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    There isn’t a chance that NATO would accept a member that has a disputed territory conflict with Russia. No chance at all. Ukraine is as isolated as it could possibly be from the West without getting re-absorbed into Russia entirely.

    Maybe I’m missing something, but what stops Ukraine from simply ceding Crimea and joining NATO anyway? Most of the natives were pro-Russian anyway, and without those votes it all but guarantees an EU-centric Ukraine after Moscow’s behavior.

    Just feel like this can be a huge win for the west with only a bit of smart maneuvering. Gaining Ukraine and further spreading influence to other CIS countries for a small reclaimed territory for Russia is a trade I’d take any day of the week.

  2. Waistless
    Posted March 20, 2014 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    *correction by natives I mean current population (obviously has its own correlated history i.e Tatars.)

  3. Posted March 20, 2014 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] Well yes. Whether Ukrainian politics would permit that sort of calculated rationality is another question.

    The counter-argument is that Putin might then bite off a bit of Eastern Ukraine, hoping to seize enough to create a festering dispute, but not enough to lead to major Western reaction.

  4. Posted March 20, 2014 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

    Putin has said he will not take annex any more Ukraine territory.

    Both sides of the dispute are too vile for me to care all that much.

  5. Posted March 23, 2014 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    [email protected]

    Putin has said he will not take annex any more Ukraine territory.

    I believe the sentence you are looking for is “this will be my last territorial demand in Europe”.

    Those Ukrainians who want to get closer to Europe want a freer, more democratic and more prosperous country that doesn’t get looted by oligarchs. Lord Acton’s principle applies:

    At all times sincere friends of freedom have been rare, and its triumphs have been due to minorities, that have prevailed by associating themselves with auxiliaries whose objects often differed from their own; and this association, which is always dangerous, has been sometimes disastrous, by giving to opponents just grounds of opposition, and by kindling dispute over the spoils in the hour of success.

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