Hannah Arendt’s “Imperialism”

This is a short, very dense, sometimes erratic, but mostly very insightful book on a topic that has a lot of heavy hitters in the field.

Briefly, the negatives:

1. I agree that imperialism had mostly negative effects for all concerned, but I don’t agree that it was 100% negative in every way. Arendt mentions nothing positive. To be fair, she did not set out to write the definitive treatment of the subject.

2. She strongly links the rise of imperialism with the political rise of the middle and upper-middle class early in the book. Both happened at the same time, but it seemed to me to assume the cause and effect link rather than prove it. I am definitely intrigued by the argument, but must have missed something.

Her strengths far outweigh the negatives. Among her arguments:

1. Imperialism (which does not involve consent) by governments based on consent of the governed is bound to result in disaster. The contradictions and hypocrisy will force governments into a quandary. To maintain control, they must employ people who have no real respect for the political process. Power, and ‘the Game’ become the only justifying forces. Thus, abuses of power would be very likely, which make control over the areas all the more difficult.

2. If you don’t want to go this route, than you have to go the route of the non-sensical double standard. So, the French called the Algerians “Brothers and Subjects.” So. . . which is it?

Imagine never knowing about a great party going on somewhere.  You don’t miss it because you didn’t even know about it, and even if you did, you never have any inkling of attending.  But now imagine being invited to this party.  How exciting!  Except when you get there you discover that various rooms, foods, and activities are all off limits to you, while available for others.

Which is worse?  To my mind, the answer is the latter, and this was and is the problem of imperialism.

Her basic theme through the book is that imperialism quickly became a ‘this is going to hurt me more than you’ venture for Europe in the late 19th century. Not only did it create a kind of split personality for involved nations, it led to ideologies of expansion, with power at its root. So it is no coincidence that the all-encompassing theories of Social-Darwinism, Communism, Neitzche, Anarchism make their mark during this time. Arendt argues that imperialism did benefit Europe economically. But even this, she argues, is dangerous. Economic power, like tyranny, has no real limitations. So — it is fools gold. Some recent scholarship argues it was worse than that — imperialism did not profit even the dominant countries, however much certain individuals (like Cecil Rhodes) benefitted.

3. This focus on power and expansion would naturally lead to a clash and mutual destruction, i.e. the two World Wars.

4. Imperialism heightened focus on race, and a focus on race would inevitably destroy the concept of nations and human rights. There is no ‘humanity’ in racial ideology. With race such a vague concept, groups dominated by racial thinking will inevitably be rootless and continually need more ‘living space.’

I think her overall theme is that imperialism separated Europe (and America to a lesser extent) from the confines of reality. The natural limitations of creation prevent us from allowing our bad tendencies to have too much free reign.

On page 89 she has great quote, one that I don’t fully grasp but would like to one day:

“Legends [rooted in facts, which give us a sense of responsibility] attract the very best of our times, just as ideologies attract the average, and the whispered tales of gruesome secret powers behind the scenes attract the very worst.”

Does anyone have any thoughts on this?

Great stuff, but as I said, dense and tiring.

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One comment on “Hannah Arendt’s “Imperialism”

  1. […]  Perhaps in hurrying so much to “keep up with the Joneses” they did not see how ultimately self-destructive colonial acquisitions could be.  They even tried to acquire the Baja Peninsula.   Next time you are in a hurry look around and […]

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