Review: Empire, by Niall Ferguson

If you are reasonably woke and you manage to read the last chapter, you cannot possibly give this book more than one star. On the other hand, even if you are fully woke, you can easily give this book 4 stars as long as you are able to ignore Niall Ferguson’s pro-imperial coda. The reason is straightforward; this is actually a pretty decent (and except for the end, quite balanced) history of the British empire. It is not a very long book, so it cannot cover all episodes, but most of the highlights (good AND bad) are here. No attempt is made to gloss over the genocides and cruelties, though a little bit of spin here and there is to be expected (and can be excused). I have read many books about the empire and this period of history, but this short book is as good a summary as any (at least up to the 20th century, the 20th century part is not necessarily wrong in outline, but we know so much about events in India that it is hard to ignore the lack of detail, or the airy dismissal or dissing of some of our favorite details).

It is also NOT a great book about how Britain made the modern world. It is better as a quick and entertaining history of the empire, not as deep analysis of how the modern world came to be. THAT book would have to cover far more ground (and sometimes, very different ground) from what is covered here.
As in his other books, he is always fun to read; e.g. taking what can only be described as “Niallian delight” in puncturing some of the founding myths of the US war of independence. And he is almost certainly correct in thinking that the alternative to the BRITISH empire would not have been an unsullied world, it would have been other empires, some much worse than the British. He is also very likely correct in his claim that it was bankruptcy and exhaustion from fighting wars with other imperial (or would-be imperial) powers, not anti-colonial struggles, that were the immediate and main causes of the end of the empire. And one can also grant him the right to complain that when the US wanted Britain to wrap up its empire after world war two, it made no such demand of Russia or China (whose empires were landward extensions of the homeland); this “salt water” rule giving land empires a pass makes no logical sense. If the British empire was bad and had to go, why not the Russian and Chinese ones?

One lacuna in the “decline” section is the fact that he thinks it happened entirely due to (fatal) conflict with Germany (and to a lesser extent, Japan) and does not dwell on the possibility that the British themselves were just not up to being an imperialist power any more due to internal changes. He does mention how the interwar generation was beset by doubts about the entire imperial undertaking, but then does not really get into why their imperial elan had been exhausted (since his examples, e.g. Orwell, do not seem to indicate that this was entirely or even mainly due to the horror of the first world war). That would have been an interesting area to get into and may shed light on why late capitalist USA is not exactly rearing to take up “the White man’s burden”. The wars may have bankrupted and exhausted Great Britain, but even without the wars, how long could an imperial project continue if it no longer enjoyed the enthusiastic backing of the empire’s own elite?

And the last chapter really IS a bit too much. Even if his case for imperialism is correct, it needs much more elaboration and argument than is presented here. Perhaps the world really HAS changed, and occupation and direct imperial rule is simply no longer the best option, even for aspiring empires? One also wonders what Niall Ferguson would write now, with hindsight? (this book was written in 2003). Does he still think the US should have conducted a straightforward occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq (and other countries)? Is it even remotely possible that it would have been cheaper and more effective than the “neither fish nor fowl” experiment they did conduct? Whatever your answer to this question, it is hard to be as blithely optimistic about it as Ferguson was in 2003.

Still, well worth a read.

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Omar Ali

I am a physician interested in obesity and insulin resistance, and in particular in the genetics and epigenetics of obesity As a blogger, I am more interested in history, Islam, India, the ideology of Pakistan, and whatever catches my fancy. My opinions can change.

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6 years ago

It is hard to intelligently comment on this book without reading it in full. The point of view of the author matters a lot less than the information and insights they share. From this perspective at least, it appears to be worth the read.

My own thoughts on this have been expressed:

My view being that the main way to assess English imperialism is the “colonialism of the mind” and the secondary way being the institutions they built and left behind after their departure.

Niall Ferguson would be hard pressed to deny the incredible damage done by European exports of semiology, structuralism, marxism, fabian socialism, post modernism, inferiority complex (including in many ways unrelated to post modernism) to the colonies. In fact, he might even agree with most of this critique. Especially given the way post modernism has devastated England and the UK. (I would make the case that post modernism has significantly increased poverty and reduced the standard of living of the lower middle class versus would have been the case in the absence of post modernism.)

I would be curious about Niall’s analysis regarding the institutions of the Raj. I am especially critical of the way the English Raj did not allow fully meritocratic promotion in Indian (and Burmese, Malay, Singapore) institutions until the 1930s. I don’t understand the rationale for this. This policy hampered the growth of Indian capacity and self confidence; which in turn necessitated the English to stay longer in India.

Omar, maybe you can directly e-mail Niall Ferguson about your article and some of these questions. I would be reluctant to do so without carefully reading his book in full.

Some of Niall’s views might have shifted over time. Here is a very interesting interview of Niall by Sam Harris that I recommend everyone listen to:

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