Tuesday, October 7, 2008

On the Psyche of Nations- Part III

On the Psyche of Nations: A Study of Carroll Quigley's Evolutionary Model in the Context of the Modern Indian Mindset, Part III

Let’s return once more to Quigley’s recounting of the development of Asian national cultures.

We’ve heard him tell us that Asian societies were marked by a large ruling class which had organized itself to best exploit a large peasant class that produced all the food. He has gone on to say that the peasant class did not produce food as efficiently as their European counterparts, and lagged far behind the agricultural techniques which European farming evolved through the second millenium CE.

According to Quigley, those agricultural revolutions in Europe were all-important in terms of empowering the great mass of the peasantry. Much more food was capable of being produced per acre of land, and a much smaller proportion of the population needed to work the land in order to feed an entire nation. People became liberated to some extent, capable of taking up intellectual pursuits or learning other skills. Economies grew more diverse, and as a result Europe went through a rennaissance. Or at least, so goes the Western narrative of their own civilizational development.

Asian cultures, in contrast, suffered a double-blow. Not only did they not have an agricultural revolution, but at this critical stage they came into contact with expansionist Western cultures. The first transformational consequence of that contact, for Asia, was a revolution in weapons.

Even though the Chinese invented gunpowder, it was the Europeans who first incorporated it into reliable, effective techniques of war by introducing the practice of corning in the late 14th century. It was through this roundabout route, by way of Turko-Mongolian and Persianate warcraft, that gunpowder artillery found their way to India with the invasion of Babur. Portuguese, Dutch, British and French weaponry was more impressive still. By the 16th century, many Indian rulers were hiring European artillery officers for their field forces. The Chinese, ironically, were overwhelmed by superior British weaponry during the Opium wars of the 1840s, as were the Japanese fifty years later, by the guns on Perry’s black ships.

Needless to say, European powers leveraged their ability to supply superior weapons for commercial, and then political gain. It is important to note that the Asian experience of a weapons revolution was almost exactly the opposite of the Western experience.

In the West, the wide availability of revolvers, rifles and such “amateur” weapons had a democratizing influence. In Asia, the Europeans supplied these weapons to the ruling classes, increasing the power differential between the rulers and the masses. Asia’s peasantry could not afford to possess such weapons, or train themselves in the use or manufacture of such weapons. Being shackled to the land because of their backward agricultural practices, they did not even have the all-important leisure time to explore ideas of political equality, such as motivated the French commoner to take up his rifle and overthrow the aristocracy. They were too low on the misery index for intellectual pursuit.

It is only today, in such places as Dera Adam Khel, where we see the Asian peasant building weapons in his cottage to challenge the authority of the state; recapitulating a stage that his European counterparts went through three hundred years ago. The ideology motivating the gun-forging Pashtun is also quite different from that espoused by Voltaire and Rousseau… but that is fodder for another discussion.

Because of the infusion of Western weapons, the authoritarian character of Asian societies was intensified, and the ruling group could take from the peasant ever larger fractions of what he was producing. Moneylenders offered credit to the peasant at crushing interest, while government bureaucrats taxed him at punitive rates to finance the army’s purchase of Western weapons.

According to Quigley, by the end of the 19th Century, the Chinese ruling classes took so much from the peasant of what he produced that he did not have enough left for his own subsistence. Even so, the peasantry managed to survive by selling leather, wood and straw handicrafts to the ruling classes in the cities, thereby getting just enough credit to survive. Peasants found time to manufacture and sell handicrafts, thanks to agrarian underemployment. This is a phenomenon still seen in the developing East today, whereby the farming population remains idle for about five months out of the year outside of the planting and harvesting seasons. It is, today, directly responsible for the mass movement of rural Indians to the cities; individuals and families travel to the cities at first to seek temporary employment in the idle season when there is no agricultural work to do, and then decide to stay when they encounter an entirely new spectrum of economic opportunities.

After weapons, the next transformational change brought about by European influence in Asia was what Quigley calls the Commercial Crisis. It resulted from the industrial revolution in Europe, and was represented by the influx of European manufactured goods into Asian markets, which Asian peasant handicrafts simply could not compete with. Now the Asian ruling classes, having ceased to buy the craft products of their own peasantry in favor of the industrial products of European cities, continued on the other hand to demand the same and even more in taxes from the peasant. This squashed the peasantry to below subsistence level, says Dr. Quigley.

It was, of course, this particular flavour of colonial exploitation that M.K. Gandhi sought to counter with his emphasis on swadeshi goods. A peasantry depressed beyond all hope was entirely beyond the reach of inspiration, and without inspiration on a mass scale there could be no independence movement.

I repeat all of this here, not because I think it is necessarily a true or complete account of the development of Asiatic national cultures. I recount it because Quigley’s is as objective a Western view as we are ever likely to see, of the nature of Asiatic national cultures.

Westerners found what they saw as rigidly hierarchical societies in Asia. It was not for them to distinguish between the subtleties of Jati and Varna, or to understand the entirely different ethos of social contracts that operated in Asia… but only to exploit whatever power differentials they encountered in every way possible. What they brought to Asia in the colonial age was damaging. The introduction of weapons that dramatically reinforced power structures, and later the forcing of manufactured goods onto the captive consumer markets of their colonies, had extremely harmful consequences. They intensified the stratification of our soceities, and rendered them more functionally oppressive than if European influence had never been felt in our lands. This is important to realize.

It is also important to realize that almost all Western exponents of comparative world history will refer to Asia as being characterized by inegalitarian, oppressive social structures in the first place… structures that could only have been improved by change, even the disastrous types of change that the Europeans brought. This is the mythic narrative that the West has developed about Asia, to justify the relative “morality” of their own depradations to themselves. This is the foundation of all the nonsense you read about the caste system in the few paragraphs’ worth of treatment that Hinduism receives in an American primary school textbook; it is the basis of college courses referring to the fictitious religion of “Brahminism”, of the unholy nexus between Indian Marxist academicians and Christian-fundamentalist organizations, of the phony platforms on which missionary groups claiming to serve “Dalits” mount their drives for funding and political influence. The West will continue to pretend that Asian societies were always stratified and oppressive, and hence inferior to their own. This is the message being conveyed when you hear a Westerner say, “life is cheap in India”. And it is a view of ourselves that we, as Indians, must stop internalizing right now.

Quigley goes on to reveal the extent of the European colonialists’ role in exacerbating the commercial crisis brought about by their dumping of industrial goods. Having established their political supremacy in Asia through subsidiary alliances and military superiority, the Europeans forced native governments to sign agreements not to raise tarriffs on imported goods above 5 percent, or in one case 8 percent of their value. These agreements were enforced well into the twentieth century, even in nations that weren’t directly colonized by the Europeans, like China, Japan and the Ottoman empire. In effect, these extortionist agreements made it impossible for the Asian ruling classes to keep Western manufactured goods out of their markets, or to preserve the handicrafts of their own peasantry, even if they had wanted to do so.

The European colonialists sought to create a subservient Asian ruling class in their own image. This was the template upon which Sun Yat Sen and Professor Gokhale were fashioned. They were educated under the systems of their conquerors, trained to imbibe the cultural attitudes and political perspective of their colonial masters, and encouraged to reject their native heritage as inegalitarian and undemocratic. At the same time, this manufactured ruling class were unable to safeguard the welfare of their peasantry from the effects of European colonialism, such as the destruction of the market for their handicrafts. They continued to subject the peasantry to crushing taxation, now on behalf of their colonial masters. This is what ultimately prevented many Asian ruling classes … including the nationalists of the Chinese Republic, and the pre-Gandhi Indian National Congress… from ever earning the confidence of the vast majority of their people. What authority did they have to sign a social contract with those they couldn’t protect or provide for?

Instead, the Asiatic rulers fashioned in the image of their colonial masters became willing clients for more Western influence, and eager consumers of more Western capital… how else were they to finance the introduction of yet more Western technology, such as railroads and infrastructure? The transport and communications revolution in the West was financed by capital generated by the industrial revolution; in Asia, it was imported with money and skills borrowed from the West. This left Asiatic governments in debt, increasing the relative power of the West in terms of fiscal surplus as well as technological dependence.

At about this time, and on into the post-colonial era, the Western revolution in sanitation and medicine began to impress itself upon Asian populations. In Quigley’s view, the effect of this was to thrust Asian countries into the demographic revolution before they’d had a true agricultural revolution. Birth rates spiralled and populations dramatically increased beyond the capacity of food production or underdeveloped local economies to sustain them. This led to the emergence of vast, poverty-stricken populations, an emblem feeding further into the Western myth that life is cheap in the East (and that it’s somehow the East’s fault for being inegalitarian and oppressive).

However, the inevitable empowerment of these vast and burgeoning populations caused dramatic upheavals and changed the developmental course of several Asian national cultures. This occurred most dramatically in China, where to resist the Japanese invasion, a great mass of peasants was finally given direct access to weapons—those same rifles that had once contributed to the Western world’s democratization. The consequence, of course, was that an armed peasantry took matters into its own hands, refused to take any more orders from the Chinese Republican ruling class, and had itself a Communist revolution. The essentially socialist path undertaken by India’s leaders after independence, is a subtler consequence of a premature demographic revolution that left the nascent republic with a huge population of poor people.

Quigley ends by discussing ways in which Asiatic nations attempted to industrialize in the twentieth century; in order to keep up with some of their own neighbours like Japan who had industrialized successfully, or to resist the economic pressures of an industrialized West. Some Asian countries achieved this by squeezing their peasant population even in the absence of an agricultural revolution… like Stalin’s Soviet Union or Mao’s China. Others did it by borrowing heavily from the West. It was only much later that Asia’s “Tigers”, through tremendous discipline and sacrifice, managed at last to erase and even reverse their debts and turn their erstwhile Western creditors into markets.

As we part ways with Dr. Quigley, he is rounding off his lecture with thoughts about how Asian agriculture might benefit more from the introduction of low-tech farming practices that actually take advantage of the continent’s labor surplus, and which would fill in the many missing stages between antiquated local techniques and modern Western farming.

For my own part, Quigley’s repeated emphasis on the enormous importance of agriculture gave me a new appreciation of the mammoth accomplishment that Mrs. Gandhi’s stewardship of India’s green revolution represented. Without falling into crippling debt or driving our peasantry like Stalin, we managed to become self-sufficient in food production. Which, by any standards, amounts to quite a miracle.

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