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Porter's 'British and American 'Imperialisms' Compared'

Brian Porter has an essay 'British and American 'Imperialisms' Compared' up at the History News Network. Its argument is that American 'imperialism' is of a different nature to British imperialism, and that the USA won't succeed in fulfilling its goals in Iraq or Afghanistan. Talk of American imperialism need not be pejorative; Robert Kaplan, for instance, uses it approvingly. It is just a reflection of America's current role in the world. The major assertions of Porter's article aside, some points he makes seem disputable:

America can’t rule people like Britain could, because she doesn’t have a significant ruling class. Nineteenth-century Britain did. Though she had developed a profoundly capitalist economy (before America), and the middle class to go with it, she also retained a powerful pre-capitalist upper class alongside this, antipathetic to capitalism (‘trade’) to a large degree, and with some very un-capitalist values attached to it, like ‘paternalism’; which turned out to be well suited to governing Britain’s new possessions when they needed to be ruled. ... The USA doesn’t have this class. She largely jettisoned it when she let go of Britain in 1789. (The Southern slaveocracy probably comes closest; followed by the old north-eastern intellectual elite. But they are now shadows of their former selves.) Much of the mess she has clearly made of administering Afghanistan and Iraq stems from this. Bereft of a governing or ‘prefect’ class, she has had to get diplomats, businessmen, soldiers and (for pity’s sake!) academics to do it.

Porter seems to say that an aristocracy is necessary to run an empire effectively. He gives no justification for this extravagant claim. It's unlikely he agrees with Plato that the ability to lead is hereditary and that there's some caste that's 'born to rule'. So probably he means that a society will not have a sufficient number of 'leaders' to hold an empire together, unless there is some caste brought up in the belief that they're destined to be the leaders. This assertion is difficult to square with the fact there are countries without a hereditary ruling class that are at least as difficult to run as many British possessions were, and yet somehow hold together.

Porter is even wrong about the only example he cites. It wasn't the aristocracy that built the Raj, but the middle classes, the sons of lawyers, doctors, merchants, army officers and clergymen. Entrance to the Indian Civil Service was by examination. John Nicholson (who at 27 was worshipped as a God by the sect of Nikkulseynites) was the son of a doctor. William Hodson was the son of an archdeacon. Cecil Rhodes, the most successful of all imperialists, was a grammar school boy, the son of a country vicar. The outstanding soldier-administrators known as the 'desert English' were mainly Scots and Irish, not English and not aristocrats.

Also odd is Porter's suggestion that American imperialism is doomed to fail because, unlike British Imperialism, it relies on 'diplomats, businessmen, [and] soldiers'. What did the men who ruled India do? They did business for the East India Company, they acted as diplomats in their dealing with native rulers, as soldiers they fought for the company and later the Crown. I can't see how Porter is to defend his suggestion short of claiming that a nineteen year old shipped out from Britain already had a mysterious faculty for ruling the natives, like a hero of Plutarch or Livy.

If Porter softens his position to say that an empire requires a class of men steeped in patriotism, the martial virtues and a sense of divine mission, then America already has such a class - the white, evangelical Southerners who are disproportionately represented in the U.S. Army. This class is in fact very much like the 'desert English' - men like Nicholson, the Lawrence brothers or Shere who saw it as their mission to uplift India, who thought as Bush speaks. America, a country with far greater population and resources than Britain ever had, has more than enough Southern Baptists to run an empire.

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