Category Archives: History

Learning from the past

An anthropologist explains the disruptive politics of immigration

Summary: Immigration is one of the central political issues of our time, challenging the current ideologies and parties. It meets several needs of western elites, and so has bipartisan support. But its destabilizing effects have become obvious as the list of losers from immigration grows. Opposition to it brought Trump the nomination (before he abandoned it for sideshow comedy), and that opposition will survive his defeat. To understand why, read this brilliant essay by Professor Maximilian Forte. It’s essential reading to understand social, political, and economic developments shaping western nations.

Immigration

Immigration and Capital

By Maximilian C. Forte.
From Zero Anthropology. Reposted with his generous permission.

Immigration, rightly or wrongly, has been marched to the frontline of current political struggles in Europe and North America. Whether exaggerated or accurate, the role of immigration is situated as a central factor in the Brexit referendum in the UK, and the rise of the “America First” Trump movement in the US. It seems impossible that one can have a calm discussion about immigration today, without all sorts of agendas, assumptions, insinuations and recriminations coming into play.

Staking a claim in immigration debates are a wide range of actors and interests, with everything from national identity and national security to multiculturalism, human rights, and cosmopolitan globalism. However, what is relatively neglected in the public debates is discussion of the political economy of immigration, and especially a critique of the role of immigration in sustaining capitalism.

Before going forward, we have to first dismiss certain diversionary tactics commonly used in public debate, that unfortunately misdirect too many people. First, being “anti-immigration” does not make one a “racist”. One does not follow from the other. Being a racist means adopting a racial view of humanity as being ordered according to what are imagined to be superior and inferior, biologically-rooted differences. Preferring “one’s own kind” (whatever that means) might be the basis for ethnocentrism, but not necessarily racism as such.

It’s important not to always lunge hysterically for the most inflammatory-sounding terms, just because your rhetorical polemics demand an instant “win” (because you don’t win anything; you just sound like someone who doesn’t know what he or she is talking about). Also, xenophobia neither implies racism nor ethnocentrism, because it can exceed both by being a fear or dislike of anyone who is “foreign” or “strange”.

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An anthropologist looks at Social Imperialism and New Victorian Identity Politics

Summary: Campaign 2016 has degenerated into a circus of sound bites, ignoring the great issues facing America. To have any chance of reforming America we need a wider perspective , like that of Maximilian Forte (a professor of anthropology). This is chapter 3 in his series about Americans as the New Victorians. It’s brilliant, and getting better with each installment. Here he links together many problems — such as our imperialism, political correctness, fearfulness and tribalism.

New Victorianism

Graphic created by the author.

Social Imperialism and New Victorian Identity Politics.

New Victorianism’s Domestic Moral Code and the Political Economy of Identity Politics.
Part 3 of 4 in a series.
By Maximilian C. Forte.
From Zero Anthropology. Cites at the end. Red emphasis added.
Reposted with his generous permission.

“The nation-state in its imperialist guise was the inescapable context within which all political action necessarily took place: it determined the range of possibilities against which the left as much as the right were compelled to define their positions”. (Eley, 1976, p. 269.)

“Social imperialism,” applied to German historiography, involves some interesting coincidences with Victorianism and the New Imperialism. One of the key political figures was Kaiser Wilhelm II, German Emperor, and the eldest grandchild of Britain’s Queen Victoria. Wilhelm also presided over the expansion of the German navy in the wake of the Scramble for Africa, with some of the key ideas of the German Navy League being inspired by the US’ New Imperialism and by Alfred Thayer Mahan’s Alfred Thayer Mahan, author of the classic The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783.

“Social imperialism” is a contested concept, with Eley (1976) showing the divisions around using it to refer to socialists’ accommodation with capitalism and adhesion to imperialist practice abroad (a contemporary phenomenon that also manifested in the early 1900s) plus making concessions to reformism, versus the work of policy-makers in distracting increasingly impoverished workers from exploitation at home by diverting their energies toward external enemies, in order to negate reform and preserve the status quo. (For those who are curious, Eley largely disproves the value of the second formulation.)

There is actually more to this debate than this short sketch allows, but what I want to introduce is a third view of social imperialism, mindful of what both of the preceding conceptualizations essentially share in common: “Both are concerned with the impact of the imperialist world economy on the domestic life of the metropolis” (Eley, 1976, p. 268). “The entry of the imperialist idea into domestic politics” (Eley, 1976, p. 268) — and it is from domestic social and political conflict where the imperialist idea first emerges — should probably be rephrased as the “re-entry” of the imperialist idea into domestic politics, because what was deployed abroad produced effects and practices that later (always) come back home in new and improved form.

This is a broader concept of “blowback” which I argued for in the Force Multipliers volume (also, see “The Dismal ‘Physics’ of Blowback and Overstretch”). The third variation I propose is not better, more valid than either of the earlier two approaches — it tries to supplement them without displacing them. The third approach focuses on how imperialist principles and practices shape and take form through domestic politics. Social imperialism in this third sense is about the politics within an imperialist society, that reflect its constitution as an imperialist society.

Essentially then, what we are talking about in the current phase is liberal imperialism at home. This is a marriage of the New Victorianism and the New Imperialism in domestic matters, where politics are increasingly moralized, attention is directed towards identity issues in order to preserve basic class inequalities, reformism is limited and inexpensive (small rewards for small groups), democracy is reduced to procedures and is led by oligarchic elites, and the society is administered by a technocratic managerial class with a noteworthy penchant for ignoring criticisms, deflecting questions, and operating in secrecy.

What results, at least in the North American context, is a call for asserting certain codes of behaviour, to impose standards of proper conduct as seen through the eyes of the liberal middle class, defended with an astringent sanctimony that turns every transgression into a catastrophe. What does this have to do with imperialism? Quite a lot.

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An anthropologist looks at our New Victorianism: Imperialism, and Identity Politics

Summary: For a clear view of the rapid and bewildering changes sweeping over America, we turn to an anthropologist. In part two of this series about America’s New Victorianism, he looks at our imperialism and identify politics. And the social significance of beards. I’ll bet this is the most interesting article you read this week.

Queen Clinton billboard

The New Victorianism, Imperialism, and Identity Politics (part 2 of 4)

Victorian Parallels in the New Imperialism
By Maximilian C. Forte.
From Zero Anthropology. Cites at the end.
Reposted with his generous permission.

“The New Imperialism” is not a very efficient conceptual phrase since it requires a lot of labour to clarify what one means each time one invokes it. For me, one of the noteworthy features of this particular phrase is that it came into currency at two notable points in history: first at the end of the 1800s in Britain, and again just over a century later in the US. In other words, the phrase is both Victorian in origin and possibly “New Victorian” in its revival.

While much has been written and spoken about “Manifest Destiny” and “American Exceptionalism” at the core of an ethos of US expansion, something similar could be said about Victorian Britain. Britain had its own exceptionalism and manifest destiny: many of its political and intellectual elites saw the UK as morally bound to spread liberty and enlightenment around the world. Victorian imperial self-opinion was exceptionalist: “the Victorian public ‘believe[d] that Britain held a unique position in the world’ and ‘liked to believe both in British benevolence and British power’” (Chamberlain quoted in Goodlad, 2009, p. 441).

As I outlined a few years ago in “The ‘New’ Imperialism of Militarization, Humanitarianism, and Occupation,” there are several contending and overlapping meanings of “the New Imperialism” (from The New Imperialism, Volume 1 (2010), or see the free e-book). Its meanings have ranged from:

  1. a renewed expansion of empire, but without founding colonies of settlement;
  2. indirect, neocolonial rule;
  3. imperial expansion in the midst of growing international competition from rival empires;
  4. the rise of “humanitarian” justifications for intervention abroad — and the “duty” to spread Western civilization; to,
  5. the emergence of the “new empire” which referred strictly to the US, especially after the Spanish-American War of 1898 (see Walter Lafeber’s The New Empire: An Interpretation of American Expansion 1860-1898 (1963); also, US Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, author of the classic The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783, presented arguments for US overseas expansion to develop new markets to absorb industrial overproduction in the US, surely beating Lenin to the theoretical punch).

The latter point, (5), can cause understandable confusion, because it would mean that either that there were two US “new” imperialisms, or that the US new imperialism never stopped being new, even after developing through two centuries.

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