Review by Jochen Arndt
Consume with Caution:
Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power

By Niall Ferguson. New York: Basic Books, [2002] 2004. Maps. Photographs. Illustrations. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xxvi, 351.

Niall Ferguson, currently Harvard University’s Tisch professor of history and Ziegler professor of business administration, wishes to give the United States, the only remaining superpower after the conclusion of the Cold War, some history lessons about the costs and benefits associated with global power. His advice comes in the shape of a book, entitled Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power, that aims at explaining how a small island nation created the biggest empire the world has ever seen; how it rose and fell; what the British empire did for the world; and what the British example means for the United States as its uncrowned heir. Ferguson comes to a controversial conclusion. He contends that, in spite of the violence that accompanied the British imperial project, it was above all a positive force in the history of the world. He urges readers to focus on what he sees as the empire’s enduring accomplishments—the spread of free market capitalism, Anglican cultural values, the English language, Protestant work ethic, and parliamentary democracy—in order to convince them that the British Empire provided the best way to global modernity and serves as an example of global power that the United States should emulate in the twenty-first century.

The book is structured in six chapters in which Ferguson deals with what he calls “Angloglobalization – the history of globalization as it was promoted by Great Britain and her colonies.” This new terminology for British imperialism aside, the author offers no new historical details about the British Empire. Instead, Ferguson provides an engaging narrative history that would be relatively uncontroversial, if he had not added a polemical introduction and conclusion in which he advances a decidedly liberal interpretation of Britain’s imperial legacy.

Ferguson is too smart to deny that violence occurred in the name of British imperialism. He addresses the political, social, and cultural violence that British imperial expansion meant to a wide variety of peoples from Ireland to North America, from Australia to North America, and from South Africa to Afghanistan. For instance, he admits that the British achieved globalization through piracy and gunboat diplomacy. Ferguson also acknowledges “the notorious ‘drain’ of capital from India to Britain” and that the empire was financed by excise taxes that “ate up a substantial proportion of an ordinary family’s income.” Likewise, he writes about British overtaxation which contributed to widespread famines, killing millions of subjects in India. Finally, Ferguson never denies that ethnic and racial stereotyping facilitated ethnic cleansing in Ireland, the Americas, Australia, Africa, and India, and allowed for the forced migration and exploitation of slaves, convicts, and indentured servants on an unprecedented scale.

The problem is thus not one of omission. Rather, Ferguson’s book lacks a sustained critical engagement with the “dark side” of British imperialism. There is no empathy for the victims in Ferguson’s book. Most of these concerns are drowned out by the author’s confident and self-congratulatory writing style which invites readers to ignore the human tragedies that were part and parcel of Britain’s imperial project. Indeed, the reader is consistently led to believe that the ends justified the means: Ferguson claims that British violence helped to end despotism, topple tyrannies, and bring the benefits of free trade, democracy, rule of law and British culture to the people of the world.

Ferguson’s “ends-justify-the-means analysis” betrays a liberal conception of history. It is informed by modernization theory according to which British imperial rule and capitalism helped bring progress and civilization to the world. Ferguson’s interpretation of history is thus in many aspects similar to the ideologies—notably the civilizing mission—that justified imperial conquest, material exploitation, and political oppression between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Using this approach to imperial history is dangerous if an author fails, as Ferguson does, to adequately engage the scholarship that embraces alternative interpretations. Writing in a popular mode, Ferguson largely ignores the research results of Subaltern, Cultural Studies, and Radical/Marxist interpretations of history that contradict his conclusions.

This is especially apparent when he describes the economic benefits that British rule brought to the peoples of the empire. He emphasizes the macroeconomic benefits of global trade that accrued to Britain’s imperial subjects. However, in doing so, he never distinguishes between the winners and losers of this trade and the wage labor regimes, tax practices, and land distribution schemes that sustained it. For instance, in the context of British rule in India, Ferguson never asks if the common people in Bengal were really better off when the East India Company took over the diwani—the right to collect taxes in Bengal—or if the average small farmer in the Punjab became more prosperous when British rule integrated him into the world market.

Ferguson’s argument would have been more balanced if he had taken alternative interpretations more seriously. They suggest that macroeconomic statistics tend to reveal little about the life and prosperity of the common people or about the social and cultural upheavals that are introduced by imperial expansion and integration into a capitalist world market. In the event, British control of the diwani led to overtaxation and directly contributed to deaths of millions of Indians.(I) At the same time, integration into the world market resulted in widespread economic dependency on cash crops and exposed farmers to the fluctuations and manipulation of prices and costs by forces which they could not control. More often than Ferguson is willing to admit, British rule and its introduction of free trade, deregulation, and laissez-faire economics produced “benefits” only for an elitist minority, leaving the majority of people in debt, dispossessed, landless, and subjected to exploitative wage labor regimes.

The same single-mindedness is visible in Ferguson’s interpretation of the benefits of British governance. He implies that Africans and Asians were unable to govern themselves effectively unless prepared to do so by the Britain’s colonial officials. “There is good evidence,” he states, “that the imposition of British-style institutions has tended to enhance a country’s economic prospects, particularly in those settings where indigenous cultures were relatively weak because of thin (or thinned) population, allowing British institutions to dominate with little dilution.” He adds that Britain rightfully delayed the transfer to independence and self-rule because the “colonies were not yet ready for it”—British rule had not yet exerted its “benign effect” on indigenous culture.

With this assessment, Ferguson buys into one of the most enduring ideological myths of imperialism: the idea that other forms of social organization and culture were and are inherently primitive and inferior to their Western counterparts and that other peoples require Western tutorship to evolve and progress. He embraces with disturbingly little qualms for a Cambridge-educated scholar a blatantly Eurocentrist vision of the non-Western world that contradicts most of the recent scholarship. As a wide variety of historians, anthropologists, and social scientist have made clear over the last two decades, British imperial rule had seldom a purely “benign effect” but contributed to political, social, and cultural instability in its colonies. For example, as Brian Ferguson and Neil Whitehead have demonstrated in their introduction to War in the Tribal Zone, the presence of a colonial power often led to increased interethnic violence among neighboring polities even without direct involvement in their internal affairs. In a similar fashion, David Anderson’s Histories of the Hanged dispels the myth that the British were benevolent imperialists. Quite emphatically, Anderson states that “There was nothing benevolent” about Britain’s rule in East Africa nor about its “ruthless prosecution of the war” against those who did not share the white enthusiasm for British overlordship. British rule also helped to create many of the social and ethnic divisions that affect modern African and Asian nation-states. Leroy Vail in his The Creation of Tribalism in Southern Africa, Nicholas Dirks’ Castes of Mind, and Mahmood Mamdani’s Citizen and Subject have shown how colonial rule invented, manipulated, and exploited these divisions through (pseudo-scientific) discourse and legal structures for its own ends.(II)

Finally, Ferguson’s assessment of British civilization is a striking example of cultural chauvinism. His argument that British/Western power reflects a superior British/Western culture ignores what scholars in the field of World and New Imperial history have made abundantly clear for the last two decades: most of Europe’s economic, social, scientific, and cultural accomplishments did not occur in isolation but emerged out of the contact and interaction with other peoples. For example, Kenneth Pomeranz in his book The Great Divergence illustrates how British industrial and economic power depended on the captive markets and raw materials provided by its colonies. The same idea is emphasized by Ann Laura Stoler in a co-edited collection entitled Tensions of Empire. In it, she reminds us that “Europe was made by its imperial projects…"(III)

Ferguson’s book is thus highly controversial. Readers should be aware that his analysis is guided by a liberal conception of world history according to which Britain, the USA, and the West in general did bring progress and modernity to the world and can continue to do so in the future. While he admits that this sort of active engagement with the world will sometimes necessitate the use of violence, Ferguson implies that the ends do justify the means and this should give the US comfort for its current activities in Iraq and Afghanistan and future demonstrations of global power elsewhere. However, given Ferguson’s selective use of sources and evidence, his conclusions are one-sided and may be of little real worth to the United States. In this sense, Ferguson’s book should be consumed with great caution.

Jochen S. Arndt, University of Illinois in Chicago

(I)Mike Davies, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Modern World (New York: Verso, 2001).

(II)See for example, R. Brian Ferguson and Neil L. Whitehead, eds., War in the Tribal zone: Expanding States and Indigenous Warfare (Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, 1992); David Anderson, Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire (New York: Norton, 2005); Leroy Vail, ed., The Creation of Tribalism in Southern Africa (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991); Nicholas B. Dirks, Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001); Mahmood Mamdani, Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996).

(III)See for instance Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern Economy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000); Frederick Cooper and Ann Laura Stoler, eds., Tensions of Empire: Colonial Cultures in a Bourgeois World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).