The Guardian 8 June, 2005

Culture and Life

by Rob Gowland

New-look imperialism

In that extremely imperialist film, North West Frontier, with Kenneth More and Lauren Bacall, the wife of the British governor in north-west India tells a Muslim journalist, with some asperity, that "half the world is only civilised because we have made it so".

This was how the carving up of the world's resources and markets was presented to a credulous public in the 18th and 19th centuries, not as ruthless greedy conquest but as a "civilising" mission that conferred great if somewhat vague benefits on the luckless "natives" on the receiving end.

Attempts at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries to rearrange that carve-up resulted in the First World War. And a further effort to rearrange it only two decades later produced the Second World War.

This saw the defeat of fascism and set in train the overthrow of the colonial empires. For decades, as imperialism sought to re-establish itself in the developing world through indirect, economic control or the rule of proxies, colonialism was rightly held to be a dirty word.

But now, as John Pilger noted in a recent New Statesman article, imperialism is being fitted out with a new image.

What British politician said, "We should be proud ... of the empire", and said it only last September? No, not some dyed-in-the-wool Tory, but Gordon Brown, widely tipped to be the next leader of the British Labour Party.

That's right, Labour Party. In the same interview he also defended colonialism: "The days of Britain having to apologise for its colonial history are over."

By "Britain" here he means the British Left; the Right never apologised. They never saw anything wrong in colonialism.

A recent pamphlet written by Tony Blair's foreign policy adviser Robert Cooper calls for "a new kind of imperialism, one acceptable to a world of human rights and cosmopolitan views".

Imperialism with a human face, you might say. (Presumably no more tying people to the front of a cannon and blowing them apart.)

Cooper, incidentally, does not mean by "acceptable" using the resources of the world's developed capitalist economies to end Third World poverty, of course. He is merely interested in quelching opposition to neo-colonial occupation of poor countries and especially opposition to the plundering of their resources.

Pilger describes Gordon Brown's take on this question as "19th-century speeches about ending African poverty on condition that business can exploit and arm Africa's poorest".

British imperialism has been fomenting wars in poverty-stricken African countries, especially in the resource-rich Western part of the continent, for decades.

There are concessions for gold and diamonds and now oil at stake, as well as highly lucrative contracts for the supply of weapons of all sorts, everything from Harrier jets to the finest quality electric prods for torturing prisoners.

It is not only British imperialism stirring this pot, of course. Their counterparts in France and the US have been doing the same.

The result is death, destruction, mutilation on the one hand and hunger, homelessness, innumerable refugees and vast amounts of suffering on the other.

But, it is decked out in terms lifted straight from the hey-day of the Raj, as somehow part of the Western world's great civilising "mission".

Blair, Bush and our own Johnny Howard are adept at cloaking their piratical, aggressive schemes in this kind of blather Bush is constantly talking about his "crusade" on behalf of "civilisation and democracy".

The overthrow of governments, and especially the reorganising of their economies to favour US corporations and investments, is part of the process of democratisation and civilisation. One assumes.

When US and Australian corporate interests saw that they had much more chance of getting a stranglehold on the oil and gas of the Timor Gap from a tiny, impoverished country like East Timor than from Indonesia, the Howard government suddenly became very gung ho about facing off the Indonesian military and "defending" East Timor's independence.

Colonial exploitation had nothing to do with it. Much.

Similarly, the recent extension of Australian colonial rule into the islands of the Pacific has been presented to the Australian people as nothing less than a humanitarian mission, bringing the joys of civilisation once again to the islanders' otherwise unruly and savage ways.

That the unrest and disruption in the Solomons and elsewhere is the result of deliberate meddling by imperialism is not only played down, it is virtually made invisible.

This is hardly a coincidence the publishers of the bourgeois media know whose side they are on, and the journalists and commentators who work for them know only too well who butters their bread.

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