Niall Ferguson’s Empire

Niall Ferguson’s Empire came out in 2003, so I’m a little behind the times in getting to it now. But to be honest, I’ve only made it through part of the introduction, and I won’t be getting any further.

The only other thing I’d read by Ferguson was The House of Rothschild, where I enjoyed the chance to learn a little more about something I don’t know much about, but find interesting – nineteenth century finance markets. But this:

There is no need here to recapitulate in any detail the arguments against imperialism. They can be summarized, I think, under two headings; those that stress the negative consequences for the colonized; and those that stress the negative consequences for the colonizers.

I think there’s a problem in giving those two equal weight, given that they’re two very different sides of the situation.

In the former category belong both the nationalists and the Marxists, from the Mughal historian Gholam Hossein Khan, author of the Seir Mutaqherin (1789) to the Palestinian academic Edward Said, author of Orientalism (1978), by way of Lenin and a thousand others in between … the central national/Marxist assumption is, of course, that imperialism was economically exploitative; every facet of colonial rule, including even the apparently sincere efforts of Europeans to study and understand indigenous cultures, was at root designed to maximize the ‘surplus value’ that could be extracted from the subject peoples.

I’m left scratching my head here. Surely Niall Ferguson is aware, at some level, that one of the central parts of colonialism is that you are invading another country. Never mind slavery (apparently he does mention this later in the book), and systematic extermination of opposition. If he is aware at some level, has he really glossed over it that quickly? And if not, has he just forgotten about it, or not thought what it means? There’s a lot that I don’t know and have yet to learn about race, gender, cultural imperialism, and a lot of other things – but this is an enormous, gaping hole – the kind of thing you have to at least give a nod to, and say ‘here’s why I won’t be talking about that particular elephant standing in the corner’.

There are, of course, much better, more insightful critiques of both this book, and the author’s work more generally. Now that I turn to trusty google, I’ve found a few pieces that put this all in context – a fact check of the time Ferguson trolled everyone with a Newsweek cover story. Also, there’s a nice critique of several of his books.

Still, I am struck by the lack of something so blindingly obvious. How did Empire make it to the publisher without somebody asking where the emperor’s clothes were?


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