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Culture War Roundup for the week of December 5, 2022

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Last night I watched the absurdly stupid and awful-looking surprise hit movie of 2022, the Tollywood epic RRR. While slogging through this 3-hour parade of xenophobic melodrama, incoherent action, and kindergarten-level sentiment was a struggle, it did make me wonder about two ideas that I’ve always thought should be in direct conflict with each other but aren’t treated as such: “Anti-Colonialism” and “Open Borders.”

As I understand it, the principle behind “Anti-Colonialism” is that Group A is never entitled to move into Group B’s space and take it over, replacing Group B’s preferred culture and/or method of governance with Group A’s preferred culture and/or method of governance, thereby subjugating Group B as second class in their own space. However, this school of thought seems to be most popular among the same political/intellectual cohort that also champions very loose immigration controls, commonly referred to as “Open Borders” (even though that phrase suggests no control whatsoever, whereas the reality is probably something closer liberal immigration controls). With an “Open Borders” mindset, there is no stopping Groups B-Z from moving into Group A’s space and altering its culture or assuming control of its institutions if any of those Groups does so with enough numbers or organization. “Open Borders,” on principle, refutes the very notion of any group’s ownership of any space, which more or less dismantles the paradigm of “Anti-Colonialism.” How do these two ideas co-exist in the same mind without producing uncomfortable cognitive dissonance?

It seems uncharitable to suggest that the salve for this cognitive dissonance is simply racism; or, to put it how I suppose the “Open Borders Anti Colonialist” would think of it, “intersectionality.” That is, the principle behind “Anti-Colonialism” is not really the wrongness of generic groups subjugating each other but rather the wrongness of one static “Bad Group” (that happens to be largely defined by skin color/geographical origin) subjugating other Groups (of other skin colors), who by the nature of their subjugation and opposition to “Bad Group” are thereby “Good Groups.” “Open Borders,” too, is a policy only sought after when the same “Good Groups” are immigrating into the space of the same “Bad Group,” rather than vice versa. These are intended as strictly one-way ideological roads, and not as equal-use roadmaps for Groups A-Z.

I don’t get the impression that this intersectional solution to the “Open Borders Anti Colonialism” knot is oft-contemplated by the typical “Open Borders Anti Colonialist,” who rather thinks of both notions as having sprung from the same well of humanist good intentions. Is the racial/intersectional question actually essential to this paradigm, or is there some other less invidious key that unlocks the conflict between “Open Borders” and “Anti Colonialism?” in the progressive mindset?

I’ll hand this to RRR: It aptly confounds Western culture-warring by presenting its own set of ideas that may be difficult for some Western progressives to reconcile: It pits noble indigenous revolutionaries against the cartooniest of all racist villains and does so with a strident rallying cry against gun control. One of the protagonists has the stated goal of “putting a rifle in the hand” of every colonial subject, and suggests that a bullet only attains its true value when it kills an immigrant (or, in this exact case, any white person).

As I understand it, the principle behind “Anti-Colonialism” is that Group A is never entitled to move into Group B’s space and take it over, replacing Group B’s preferred culture and/or method of governance with Group A’s preferred culture and/or method of governance, thereby subjugating Group B as second class in their own space.

What would you define as 'taking it over?' Immigrants today do bring with them their original cultural values and practices and thereby spread them to their new country, and they do wield some power over it, but they do so while willingly becoming subjects of the native authorities and exercise their political power by voting, campaigning and being elected, just as the natives do. This strikes me as quite different from the way settlers went about colonising places in the past. As far as I'm aware, rather than become subjects of the native authorities they instead set up their own and in some cases subjugated the native authorities by force of arms, which modern day immigrants generally don't. I'm not too familiar with what modern people who call themselves anti-colonial think, but I suspect this would be the key difference they would point to between immigration and colonialism. Of course they would also probably dispute the notion that immigrants have or are in the process of subjugating natives and making them second-class citizens.

All that said I would not be surprised if many of these people would object if white people were to move to say, Benin, in large enough numbers they began to significantly change the culture and threatened to outnumber native Beninese within a couple of generations. Perhaps they would even describe such a venture as colonial. So maybe there is some hypocrisy there, but it's not possible to really prove right now as there is no mass immigration of first-worlders to the third-world as far as I know, and for the time being they can point to some fairly solid differences between old-school colonialism and modern mass immigration enabled by open borders.

As far as I'm aware, rather than become subjects of the native authorities they instead set up their own and in some cases subjugated the native authorities by force of arms, which modern day immigrants generally don't.

This is, generally speaking, not a particularly accurate description of colonialism as it actually occurred. It postulates some kind of actual "native" authorities, a condition which the world often did not satisfy.

For example, the British displaced the Mughal empire. The Mughal empire was not native, it was founded by an Uzbek warlord who was in tern descended from Gengis Khan. Insofar as this Uzbek warlord became native, he then expanded his empire into other quite distinct regions.

Whether you attribute Mughal rule to Uzbekistan or Agra, it was still foreign to Bengalis by the time it reached Calcutta.

Mughals were displaced by the Maratha empire in some places, and the British in others. Eventually the British replaced the Maratha everywhere.

From the perspective of someone from Delhi or Calcutta, "native rule" is so far in the past that it's silly to consider the British as removing it. (In contrast someone from Poona can claim to have been ruled by natives - the Maratha - until the British displaced them.)

And in some cases - e.g. the princely states - the British never did what is considered "colonization". For example, the British had a longstanding alliance with the Nizams of Hyderabad. But in 1948 the British were forced to exit and allowed the Princely states to decide what they wanted to do. The Nizam of Hyderabad chose independence, and shortly after that it was invaded by India.

Was Hyderabad colonized by the British?

Isn't much of Indian Hindu-nationalist historiography based on hating the shit out of Mughals, though?

Probably deservedly so, but then also projecting some of that hatred onto contemporary Muslims who don't really deserve any of it.

Mughals - warlords who steal lots of stuff to buy luxury items.

Contemporary Indian Muslims - owner-operators of bakeries and non-veg restaurants.

The Mughal emperors assimilated to Indian culture reasonably quickly—Akbar perhaps being the most recognizable example of this—whereas the British Raj was always ruled from overseas. The Mughals also had much more egalitarian policies, where natives Hindus could actually assume powerful positions with no more effort than Muslims; many Mughal nobles actually married into Hindu nobility, including Akbar. And of course, as Mughals ruled from within India, their policies weren't nearly as egregious as the British Raj since their ultimate goal was to improve the condition of India rather than England; the British implemented all sorts of policies to benefit their own country.

This seems to be a new definition of colonialism: colonialism is not determined by any actions or properties of the colonizers, but instead by the actions of their descendants?

In any case, the idea of "Indian culture" is meaningless in the 1526-1760 period. The Marathas and the Mughals today fall under the "Indian" umbrella, but at the time most of their empires were foreign subjugation by a distant ruler - it's just that prior to 1948, "foreign" might include Aurangabad or Poona.

It is far from clear to me that the Mughals were better than the British (or worse). Nearly all the research is too politicized to be trustworthy; leftist academics tend to support the pro-Mughal/anti-Britain position and western sources tend to defer to them. By "leftist" I of course mean what English language Indian newspapers describe as "left", i.e. generally aligned with Congress party and opposed to "right wing" Hindu nationalism.

I've seen some esoteric and well disguised academic work suggesting they were dramatically more extractive than others (most notably "Taxation under the Mughals") and the visual artifacts that remain are consistent with this - just compare the opulence of Mughal tombs to those of Maratha or Bengali palaces. The beauty of Taj Mahal and Bibi Ka Maqbara are the product of taxes paid by lacs of poor peasants.

In contrast, think about British artifacts that persist. The biggest of these are Bombay (about 20% of India's GDP) and EIR/some other companies (today known as Indian Railways). In terms of specific structures they are quite visible today - e.g. an iconic train station which tourists refer to as "Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus", various universities, bridges and museums.

At least based on what I can see, the British certainly seemed to have invested more into building India up than the Mughals did. I visited the Taj once in my life. I've taken trains built by the British more times than I can count.

This seems to be a new definition of colonialism: colonialism is not determined by any actions or properties of the colonizers, but instead by the actions of their descendants?

The descendants of the colonizers still ruled India, didn't they? If we're comparing the tyranny of the two empires, I don't really see why one being of them being colonizers would matter.

In contrast, think about British artifacts that persist. The biggest of these are Bombay (about 20% of India's GDP) and EIR/some other companies (today known as Indian Railways). In terms of specific structures they are quite visible today - e.g. an iconic train station which tourists refer to as "Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus", various universities, bridges and museums.

To be fair, positive effects of the British Empire are probably more noticeable now due to the fact that it was much more recent. I'm not sure if I've benefited from anything built by the Pala Empire either, for instance.

If we're comparing the tyranny of the two empires,

We aren't, we're disputing the definition of "colonialism".

To be fair, positive effects of the British Empire are probably more noticeable now due to the fact that it was much more recent.

Not that much more recent. The British arrived in India about 80 years after the Mughals, 1610 or so. They built factories.

By 1781 they were building schools cause literacy was profitable. In 1837 the postal service was founded. By 1855 India had a telegraph system. The Mughal empire ended in 1857. All throughout this time they were creating new lines of business, for both domestic and foreign consumption - e.g. widespread chai cultivation.

What did the Mughals do during the time period of overlap? Keep in mind that they were far richer and more numerous than the British, particularly early on.

their policies weren't nearly as egregious as the British Raj since their ultimate goal was to improve the condition of India rather than England; the British implemented all sorts of policies to benefit their own country.

If I plot the graphs of "median wealth of native Indians" under the Mughals vs. under the British, which one do you think will have a higher annual growth?

Also: how do you tell the difference between "this policy was for the benefit of Britain" and "this policy was for the benefit of Indian trade, the fact that Britain profited too just proves that trade is non-zero-sum"?

Spain adopting border and trade laws that were drafted in Strasbourg and enrich France, doesn't mean Spain is a colonial possession of France, it means Spain wants the benefits of smooth movement of goods and people from the EU. If it's not egregious when France does it to Spain, why is it egregious when Britain does it to India?

If I plot the graphs of "median wealth of native Indians" under the Mughals vs. under the British, which one do you think will have a higher annual growth?

Almost every country saw immense economic growth in the early twentieth century. If anything, India's progress during this time was delayed by the British Raj—India's per-capita income remained mostly stagnant during the Raj, with most of its GDP growth coming from an expanding population. India also represented a much smaller portion of the world GDP by the time it gained independence from the British Empire than it represented during the Mughal empire.

Also: how do you tell the difference between "this policy was for the benefit of Britain" and "this policy was for the benefit of Indian trade, the fact that Britain profited too just proves that trade is non-zero-sum"?

Because the Raj's policies were often beneficial to Britian and detrimental to India. For example, the British implemented extremely heavy duties on the exports of Indian merchants, forced Indians to cultivate certain crops and sell them at an outrageously low price to the British, purloined valuable natural resources to run industries in England at cheaper rates and then released the finished products in Indian markets, and I needn't even mention their poor policies and governance which lead to multiple catastrophic famines occurring. The Raj also implemented tyrannical laws such as Seditious Meeting Act, The Arms Act, Vernacular Press Act, and Rowlatt Act; the Jallianwala Bagh massacre is probably the most infamous example of how some of these acts were executed.

I'm not saying that India's current state is due to the British—it's almost entirely the fault of bad policies implemented after independence—but to say that the British empire was anything but detrimental to India's growth is laughably untrue. Hardly anything about the empire was mutually beneficial; liberal reforms such as the abolition of sati would have happened even if the empire did not exist.

India was ultimately a net drain on the British Empire, though. Britain would have been better off if the government never replaced the East India company and largely withdrew from India after 1868. Only settler colonies and a handful of resource colonies actually enriched London. The rest were wastes, while America slowly eclipsed Britain.

India was ultimately a net drain on the British Empire, though.

There's a popular position that Europe benefitted greatly from colonisation and therefore owes the world. There's a less popular take that colonialism was in many cases a lose-lose proposition just like any other bad economic system, but despite this Europe still thrived due to other factors.

In Ireland's case I think it was a matter of Britain securing a military weak point at great cost (Ireland gained its independence only after it stopped being considered a valid staging ground for an invasion of Britain), and the counterfactual where they both remain Catholic or both convert to Protestantism or achieve good relations some other way is one where both are much wealthier today.

That would make Indian colonialism a double evil: a burden on the English and a scourge on the Indians.

Do you have a source on India being a net loss for the empire after 1868? It being a net loss in the early twentieth century would make sense (many boycott and non-cooperation movements started arising during and after that time), but late nineteenth century India being unprofitable is surprising.

In any case, I don't think the amount of profit derived from India really matters. The actions I listed were still taken to benefit Britain, even if the resulting profit wasn't huge.

In any case, I don't think the amount of profit derived from India really matters. The actions I listed were still taken to benefit Britain, even if the resulting profit wasn't huge.

Even if there was no profit I think you could just say it was misguided economic policy intended to benefit Britain, like mercentalism was.